The Vacation Within the Vacation – The Pope Says Ride

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it was kind of odd when my phone buzzed to signal an incoming text message as I dragged my bike suitcase behind me through the streets of Rome.  Having taken a high speed train south from Florence it had been a bit of a hassle to switch onto the city’s metro system while lugging my bike behind me like a mobster dragging a dead body, but that’s the way things work when you’re deadset on having a “vacation within a vacation”.  You also learn to ignore the stares of other riders as they alternate between giving you and your slightly oversize baggage the stinkeye on the crowded metro.

It was only a short walk from the metro station to our home for the next few days, but during that brief time I noticed that riding my bike on the streets of Rome might not be such a good idea.  The traffic (of which I had heard horror stories) was absolutely crazy.  Scooters, motorcycles, cars, buses and pedestrians circulated through the streets in an endless stream at time-lapse photography pace while I remained rooted in my own, much slower time-scale like a tree eyeing traffic flowing beneath its branches on a busy boulevard.  Entering the room, I stuffed the corpse of my dismembered bike into the corner of the room and briefly collapsed on the bed.  As my head hit the pillow I remembered my buzzing phone and fished it out of my pocket to see who had texted.

The odd thing was, my phone had not been turned on.  Turning it back on I stared at my bike in the corner while it booted up, thinking back to the traffic I had just seen and the negative impression of people that I had read online when researching places to bike in Rome.  Oh well, maybe when in Rome I should do as the locals do and stay off the streets?  My phone buzzed again to signal the arrival of a text.  Fumbling with it I went and opened up the text.

It was from country code 379.  What country is that and who the heck do I know from there?  That’s a new one.  I read the message aloud: “Make sure and ride your bike – Francis”.

Huh, what an odd message – and who is Francis?  I got up from the bed and looked out the window toward Vatican City.  Not in the mood for solving mysteries and eager to explore the city, I turned my phone off and headed out to experience the city with my wife and our friend.  I quickly forgot about my text spam from “Francis” and spent the next few days marching around Rome seeing the sights.

P1070581Rome is, of course, an ancient city.  I believe at some point in history they even commanded an empire of sorts.  Is it crowded? Heck yeah but the wealth of ruins, architecture, great food and art is mind boggling, and all of it dominated of course by the Vatican and the specter of the Catholic Church.  Maybe someday I’ll branch my blog out a little and discuss a little bit more about traveling and less about biking (assuming I’m fortunate to do more of it!), but until then here’s a little flavor of the city in a few photos.

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P1070423If you’ve been reading along about my little adventures you know I’m the kind of guy that likes to get away from it all.  So after a few days of playing tourist I was jonesing to get away from the tide of humanity that meets you at every step while checking out the world-renowned sights within the city.  While milling about with the rest of the mortals beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling masterpiece, my phone buzzed again.  Not wanting to be accused of taking forbidden photos of the ceiling, I waited until I stepped outside to check the message.

You guessed it, Francis again.  It read “Nice, huh? Find your own beauty”

This message creeped me out a little.  Who is this guy and how does he know my every move?  Very odd.  I resolved to look over my shoulder next time before taking any Euros out of the ATM in case he was following me. After spending the rest of the day at the Vatican bumping into fellow tourists and straining my neck skyward in St Peter’s Cathedral (while holding tightly onto my valuables in case this Francis dude was stalking me), I returned to our room and collapsed onto the bed.  With the walls closing in on me, I glanced over at my bike and decided to ride the next morning.  3o minutes later the Ritchey was assembled and ready to roll.

At 5:30 AM the next morning I rolled out into the quiet streets near the Vatican under the watchful eye of the Pope.

IMAG0305Every Wednesday while the Pope is in town he gives an address at St Peter’s Square that is attended by throngs of faithful.  Luckily it also means that even though there are large lines of people waiting for the best seats to the address, this area is closed off from traffic first thing in the morning.  The sun rose over St Peter’s Cathedral and I took the opportunity to take a once in a lifetime, traffic-free shot from in front of the square.  Doing this on any other day will get you killed – Fiats have no conscience.

IMAG0304_1Heading down toward the Tiber River I planned to pick up a bikepath that runs along its edge then break out onto the city streets to meet the Appian Way and ride as far out of the city as I could in the time I had before breakfast.  All without getting killed in Roman traffic, I might add.  Even though it was early the roads were choked with traffic, as were my lungs with fumes from the scores of scooters whose pilotos revved their engines like it was a Formula 1 start at the turning of every light.  Rome is a race.

The Appian Way was one of the first and most strategic roads of the Republic.  The initial section was begun near Rome in 312 BC, and some sections of the original cobbles still remain.  Remember the saying “all roads lead to Rome”? Well this is what they were talking about.  It also works the other way as with a suddenness that shocked me, the city ended in a field of blood red poppies.  After a few days in the crowded city the openness of the scene was unnerving, as if the land itself were trying to swallow me whole.

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Trying not to think of what I knew lies beneath this pastoral landscape (many levels of catacombs in which early Christians were buried along with a few Popes), I rode onward. The road shot arrow straight across the centuries, its sides lined in ancient crumbling testament with the folly of the long-forgotten who sought to enshrine their earthly existence with stone and mortar.  The road, however, endures.

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I reached my turnaround time and headed back into the city, my road leading back to Rome once again.  Fighting through the scooter traffic and dodging maniacal Fiats (are there any other types?) I neared the pedestrian area of the Vatican.  A party was now in full force as energetic groups of faithful flowed into the city for the papal address.

It wasn’t really much of a ride for me any longer as I slowed to match the pace of old women in wheelchairs and those struggling with walkers.  But even though they might be fighting physical issues they all seemed determined so I went along happily with the flow.  Besides, I appreciate determination at any speed.  At the fringes of the throng, younger groups bounced along the cobbles dressed in their finery with the warmth of the morning sun lighting the broad smiles of their faces.  Hawkers sold papal memorabilia from stands and a festival atmosphere filled the narrow streets. I had heard this new Pope was popular but had no idea to what extent!  Being a lapsed Catholic, I struggled to recall his name…

I ran up the stairs to my room still energized from the ride, the scenery, the frenetic traffic and the excited throng I had ridden with along the way.   Sitting down on the edge of the bed I breathed a sigh of relief (mainly exhaust fumes) as my phone buzzed a few times then went silent.  It was one last text from my friend Francis.  It read: “I told you that you should ride!”

I never did find out who that guy was.

 

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