The Journey - Switzerland and Italy
Basle to St Gallen
I was flat for the next couple of days, listening to coverage of the aftermath of the attacks and riding my bike because there was nothing else to do. There were memorial services in buzzing Basle and flags at half-mast in Baden. Designated bike routes sped me along the banks of the Rhine, and I suffered my only youth hostel experience of the journey - awakened by drunken Swiss guys singing Britney Spears in the middle of the night, and told by the manager not to ride over the Alps under any circumstances.
After a pimp-chic hotel room in stylish Zurich, I acquitted myself pretty well on the first big climbs of the trip. There was more rain as I headed up to 3000ft on the way to St Gallen, founded by one of Columbanus' followers. The library there displays ancient manuscripts written by Irish monks, but I lost any cultural kudos by eating in a Hollywood theme restaurant where the menu was printed on old cans of film.
Austria, Liechtenstein and the high mountains
I crossed four borders in two days heading to the lovely Lake Constance resort of Bregenz, where Columbanus founded a monastery. Liechtenstein is a strange amalgam of 'Heidi' and strip malls, and in Triesen the next day, I find myself high up in the Alps, looking at a very bad weather forecast. I decided to combine two days' riding into one, and made it over the Splugen Pass to Italy before the rains come (see the Chapter 1 sample for an account of this day).
Out of stern Switzerland and back into a country where I can speak the language, I didn't mind that it's still raining on Lake Como. I pushed the boat out on a lakeside hotel room in Bellagio, and sit on my balcony watching the boats coming in. Como offered great architecture and food, as I ate my way towards my friends' house near Milan. The wayward traffic made the riding dangerous, and the closer I got to my final destination at Bobbio, the more nervous I get.
After a day as a civilian in hectic Milan, I was back on the bike on the road south. I passed through San Colombano al Lambro, named for our saint, and arrived in Piacenza - possibly the only Italian city in which it's hard to find a restaurant. Then it was up the Trebbia valley to Bobbio, where Columbanus died in 615.
I spent four days in Bobbio, a beautiful terracotta town in a wooded valley in the Apennines. Columbanus is entombed in the crypt of the basilica that bears his name, and I paid him my respects before exploring a cave he was supposed to have used as a retreat.
I meandered back to Milan through Piacenza (still can't find a restaurant), Cremona (so pretty it breaks your heart), and Pavia, where I made my last Columbanus connection: a tiny alley is named for him, containing the ruins of a church which held his remains for a few decades in the tenth century.
One last thing
I was in Milan Linate airport on my way home when an SAS jet crashed into a smaller aircraft on a foggy runway. Over a hundred people were killed. Not the end to the trip I would have wanted.