You are reading this, so clearly we did survive. But at the time it was seriously in doubt. We wild camp. It should be idyllic. It is idyllic, but at 5.00 am it starts to thunder. It is a distant rumbling that could be mistaken for light early traffic back up on the road. In less than half an hour there is no uncertainty. We are lying in our down bags, petrified as our tent is lit to the intensity of day by lightning under 1Km away and getting closer.
We have had two previous close calls with lightning. After the first one, back in the USA, we were shaken enough to look up on the WWW. what to do in a lightning storm. Esther has grabbed the jade pendant that was given to us by Maori back in year one. ” It will protect you on your journey “, and so far it is 100% effective. We are on thick air mats, which is good, and we have curled into an upright ball to reduce the contact with the ground. I can not help dwelling on the fact that the tents basic properties are strikingly similar to that of a golfing umbrella, which I think may be bad. We pitched near trees to protect us from the strong wind that had kicked up as the sun was going down. We are far from being next to the highest point on the horizon, but these trees are now on my mind, and this is bad.
5 seconds between thunder and flash is 1Km, and the bloody thing is less than 2 seconds. Now it is instantaneous and my heart is pounding. In the gaps between the burst you know it is overhead and now your life is down to math and the stuff of chance and possibly even a god of some sort. Shit, this is horrid. Back up to 5 seconds. We know, we are both counting.
Pewter skies of early dawn. In the two hours, the storm has been over us twice and now it and the rain have pulled away enough for me to get the stove going for breakfast. There is just enough time to pack stuff into bags before we have to dive back into the tent as rain returns, heavy this time. Again there is thunder, but far off. It is now light enough that we do not see the flash of lightning at first. By the time the storm is 2Km away the flashes contrast against a dull dawn. Here we go.
It is now well after 8. We have packed up and no longer have the insulation of the mats. It has stopped raining, a quiet that in the tent that amplifies the electric crack of the bolts discharge. It is just a few hundred metres away, and we are again tucked up and waiting for potential oblivion. Will it hurt, what will it feel like? Every twenty seconds there is a burst directly overhead with bolts that must be metres away from the tent. The rain has moved away, so why is this right over us. The sky is getting lighter and now the gap is 5 seconds and more. We could get up, but I have lost my trust in this storm. It is circling around in a gap between the sea and the mountains. Counter clockwise, but going nowhere more than a few kilometres away from us.
We have the tent packed away and are pushing up to the road. We have made a call to our friend Enrico and he has kindly offered to come and pick us up. ” Give us 15 minutes to think about it “. We know we have to climb steeply from this point. Decision made, ” Can you pick us up “. The storm is back and neither of us have anything like enough wit, strength or courage in reserve for the steep climb into a thunderstorm. It could be wimping out, but does not feel like that. We push the bikes to a cafe in the village of Arcille to wait for Enrico.
Back on the campground in Siena a few days ago, we had sat out one of the heaviest thunderstorms of our journey. We were going to leave, but in the early morning it hit us. We sat in our tent, we sat in cafes, we sat in cheap restaurants in the city mal. The storm came and went, but never gave much let up in over 24 hours. Streets filled with water, and not far away rivers burst and hillsides slumped down to bury roads. The tv news the next morning is of locals rescuing treasured possessions from flooded homes.
We are making a second attempt to move on. It does not look promising to anyone but those who has spent the last hour on the WWW. looking for favourable forecasts. In the direction we are travelling, it looks good and we are off. Up we ride to the Old Town of Siena amongst the tail end of the morning rush hour. You have to put blind faith in the gps this morning. Left and right, and left again almost too quick for the screen re-draw to complete.
Within 15Km things are calmer. Open country, with green hills of feminine form. The road rolls over each hill, never steep or too challenging to spoil the fun even on heavy touring bikes. This is not the familiar landscape of Tuscany any longer. It is sinuous and green, often thickly wooded with broadleaf and today every stream is in full voice. It is more Scottish borders than anything you have seen on the wine labels of the classy reds of the area. We love it. It does not photograph well, being ‘ nice ‘ but unphotogenic, not anything like majestic or sublime enough. The roads dry, the arm warmers are rolled down and within a kilometre are back in the panniers for the day.
20’c, a climb and then we turn right towards Palazzetto. Again we are riding on roads margined with vineyards. It looks well managed, tidy and far from cheap by the bottle. That was a great morning to be on a touring bike. Even the road surfaces, horrid beyond words so far in Italy, were not too bad. In the few days we have been in Siena, the countryside has raced towards autumn colours. It certainly smells of autumn now after the rain. Mushrooms are here, you can catch a whiff of them as you ride. If there is a day when mushroom season begins, few this year will stake a better claim than this. Every possible pull-off, be it on a blind bend or not, has an ageing Fiat in it.
A climb to just shy of 600m and a view of woodland, an expanse of forest to the sea ahead and a descent of pure joy mixed with gravity’s pull. I have no idea what makes a good descent, but when it comes together you recognise it, and this is it. One of the best downs of our trip. But then we have to end the day with a tough climb up to Massa Maritima. I hate towns with Massa and Monte at the start of their names. This is a brute of a climb, but there is nothing else around and we need to buy food for a wild camp. If you had built the town here to defend against an army riding touring bikes, you got it spot on. By the top we are ruined.
We have left it a bit late and did not factor in the climb, and now we need of a pitch for the tent. Once again, an Olive grove is the answer, and we have not needed to lose too much height. We have a great view from our tent but there is little flat land. Wild mint is thick enough that the smell overpowers the senses and makes it difficult to think straight. There are gun shots, always three. A strange number for hunting I think. I always sneeze in threes.
A dry night with a dry tent for the first time in an age. We push along a track towards an old monastery that was signed from the main road. 300m we were promised and so in 1Km it is there. Not impressive and not worth even a trip of 2Km. What is impressive is an old guy digging a ditch by hand. A lost art, a craft even. There is silence and his work of hand, eye and muscle. It is a huge task that will feel infinite, and he will be here days, possibly weeks. We try to show our admiration for his craft but may look like idiots, he smiles a beatific smile and waves as we pull away.
Down we drop to pick up the road that leads to the coast of the Mediterranean, which we reach at Portiglione. We turn south, following the SR158. We are now cutting across the grain of the land and have steep, short climbs. To add to the fun, we are 100% perfectly heading into the teeth of a gale. We are going to pull inland and have to find a route into the mountains that we know are ahead. We need some time on the WWW. to check road profiles. Our internet provider of choice is McDonald’s, and there in the gps file under the restaurant function, is McDonald’s 2.3Km. Hurrah indeed.
We transfer the route file from Google map to the visualizer app that shows the profile, but immediately wish we had not. We had vowed not to do this again, but here we are. Starting from sea level we need to climb to 764m, then drop to 350m, before going back up to 650m and all in well under 50Km. It is a horrible route and no alternative. Just looking at the screen is vertigouse and more than a little soul destroying. Why on earth does Enrico have to own property at the top of a mountain?
We never get to do that climb. You know that already. Ahead are day rides on light bikes in perfect weather hot enough to call late summer. We have wonderful visits to the towns of Sovana, Sorano and Pitigliano ( look these up and book a place to stay here – you will love it, and so close to Rome! ,) and days to catch up on well needed rest with our new Italian patron, Enrico. On one of these rides we will pass through 40,000Km since we started our journey. We have all this, but it feels like a defeat as we sit in the cafe waiting for him.
One camouflaged guy after another comes in, drinks a strong coffee and leaves. This has been repeated in almost every cafe we have stopped in during our time in Italy. You could drop the population here into a forest on any day of the year and at any time and you would never find 15% of them. There can be few countries that are not actively at war that wear more camouflaged clothing than Italy. Who would have thought that in such a fashionable place?