The last leg from Forli to Rimbocchi was a 90km ride and the shortest distance to George’s place. If I’d gone via Florence the distance and climbs would have been greater – screw that. I thought 90km with a 7am start easy! Having had about three hours of freezing sleep the previous night I stopped like the hare mid-run shutting my eyes during a coffee break which turned into a two hour catnap so by midday I had only made it to The Hanger bike cafe in Santa Sofia, about half the distance I needed to travel.
I was a pretty amusing site for the young Italian men, who travel these roads with their insanely powerful superbikes, as I pulled in on the my steel tanker. I tried to look as cool as cucumber when dismounting attempting not to fall over. Some old men asked me where I was from and what my final destination was. When I told them they first did what every Italian did and told me, that I was mad for doing it alone, however they then proceeded to take the piss out of the young guys prancing around in full leathers telling them they didn’t have the balls for what I was doing… which was nice!
After a lazy two hour lunch I had 41km left, thirty of which were on the hills on the Carnaio and the Mondriale passes. What I didn’t know was that I was crossing them the long way. It was like a repeat of the Hahntenjoch pass but twice in the same day. I think my voice box should be fitted with a bleep machine because the amount of swearing that got me over those hills was more than the entire series of series of Spartacus Blood and Sand or perhaps the sum of all the expletives in all of Irvine Welsh’s novels combined.
There was a point during the ride that I realised I had been on this road the year before in a car going in the opposite direction. My friend and I were dropping someone off at the airport near Perugia and had returned the same way. It occurred to me in that moment that I had made an observation that year that I hoped I would not have to cycle this route to Rimbocchi because it would be gruelling. Oh the irony – the shortest route isn’t necessarily the least painful.
The worst part was my GoPro had no battery left to film the descents and when I finally got to the top of the last pass it was 9pm, just past sunset. So not only could the EM10 camera not film the descent but I could barely see the damn road. I had to pull out the Petzl torch to get a good view (thanks Laura and Aaron for that gift).
After descending 800 meters in twenty minutes over two miles at a breakneck pace in the dark I arrived in Rimbocchi and actually passed George in the Land Rover although neither of us knew we were passing each other! He actually told me later that he thought who is that mad cyclist careening round the hills at this ungodly hour. I arrived at the bottom of his drive and after attempting five seconds of riding on that rough ground I hopped off the bike and realised the only way I was gonna get up that hill was to push the bike. I could have left it at the bottom and pushed it up the next morning but I had a bee in my bonnet – I wasn’t gonna let the last hill defeat me. So I pushed, heaved and panted that bastard bike, all 50KGs, up that damn road over wet rocks, potholes and into roadside verges stopping every ten minutes to catch my breath on that three kilometer stretch. It was 11pm when I finally crested the hill, exactly an hour after arriving at its foot, and saw Casalino’s silhouette in front of me. I parked my bike surprised to find no one from the capoeira camp up at this time and raided the chocolate store while brewing myself a cup of tea.
Ten minutes later George, Ashley and Rod careened up the hill in the Land Rover and I made my entrance surprising them with my late night arrival two days ahead of schedule. George’s only remark was:
“Who is that, oh fuck its Jamie. Shit man you’re early I’ve barely had a chance to prepare myself for your presence.” Yes it appears my reputation precedes me, and thats just what my friends say.
George is not an Italian. He’s an Englishman from Norwich. He’s been living in the hills of Tuscany for the last ten years like some mountain goat. Before that he came as teenager to spend his summers in the valley of Rimbocchi near La Verna. For the Catholics among you that name will be familiar because it’s home to the monastery where St Francis of Assisi received his stigmata. For the atheists and heretics among you, I doubt you give a shit but that means he cut his hands, conveniently forgot how he did it and everyone thought he was displaying signs of divinity. To be fair though St Francis is one of the more likeable chaps in medieval Catholicism.
There is a pilgrimage trail that takes you to the monastery similar to Santiago de Compostela in the Pyrenees. George’s house happens to lie on the last 5Km or so of the trek. This fact means that when we’re practicing the weird and slightly cultish rituals of capoeira or simply lounging around we become visitor attractions for the wandering pilgrims. For George this means he sometimes has to put up with people who think his house is some sort of free for all guest stop on the way to the monastery, he’s even caught people in his kitchen nonchalantly making themselves tea in the morning!
Casalino is a 400 year old ruin that George has lovingly, but I wouldn’t say historically accurately, restored but that doesn’t matter in the least. Firstly I don’t think they list random ruined buildings in the same way as National Heritage to do in the UK and what he has created, with the help of many friends and Workaway volunteers over the years, is nothing short of a miracle itself. Nestled into the Apennine mountains it is an idyll of disconnected bliss.
As you approach on the drive up you know you’re not likely to be going too far from the house because the road is unpaved and only passable by the Landrover that George consistently batters apart every year on his constant missions to ferry people, food and supplies up and down the hill. The first capoeira camp started ten years ago and was due in large part to effort and enthusiasm of Medusa otherwise known as Rod Penn, an old friend from Norwich and of course George’s own incomparable hospitality. In that first year the house was barely a house and the barn’s roof and floor were a wreck. Over the years George, on a meagre budget, plumbed in water from the local mountain spring, setup solar power with car batteries, installed an outdoor shower area, renovated the rooms and added two bathrooms, built a covered eating area, hammered together a platform at the end of the garden for the activities and camps that happen there as well as constructed a traditional wood fired pizza oven.
He has been a major inspiration for the trip I’m doing now. He quit music college at 18 (he’s now 29 I think) and decided to move to Tuscany when his father decided he no longer want to remain caretaker of the property. It wasn’t a whim, he knew the place having been a regular visitor there during his teenage years. His life and life in general out there is punctuated by the rhythms of the days and the changes in the seasons. It’s by no means easy but he makes it look like it is. His whole raison d’etre is to create a ‘good vibe’ and nothing disturbs him more than when someone comes who isn’t ‘in the vibe’. I’ve never seen George angry, in fact I’ve barely see him without a smile on his face although all too often I have seen him without clothes wandering around stark bollock naked. All it takes to bring out a guttural laugh is too look him in the eye with a knowing grin.
He is in short one of the most annoyingly talented, ridiculously good looking, self-reliant and resourceful individuals you’ll ever meet and being in his company during one of the many camps he facilitates is a highlight of my year. I’m not sure he feels the same way about me, I can be a tremendously annoying bastard but either way he plays the role of host so well you wouldn’t notice if you annoyed him. As long as your were ‘in the vibe’ it wouldn’t matter! If this sounds a bit bromantic I can’t help it. Everyone who meets George falls in love with him – men, women, animals… well all animals except the dormice in the barn.
These critters which bear a passing resemblance to Ewoks from Star Wars know to watch out for him especially when he’s carrying the airgun, then all his hippie airs drop away during a kill frenzy. One particularly funny incident with these local vermin happened during a meditation session happening in the barn. A trap he’d set for the dormice was sprung and one of the buggers fell from the ceiling. Those participating in the meditation were unaware but George quietly sprang up and threw the offending animal into the garden where it landed writhing in the trap next to that summers vegan chef who happened to be sunning himself. George swiftly followed airgun in hand and shot the thing five times before it finally gave up the ghost. All while the chef watched on in horror. He threw the offending carcass on to the rubbish heap only to find it had managed to crawl away somewhere by the next morning. You may think him cruel but they make nests in the roof of house and leave their droppings everywhere so for George it’s a constant battle to keep them out. This year the local visiting pest was a cute but brazen little fox that would try her luck to come in and steal food at every opportunity. We did not try to shoot her though she would have deserved it because she managed to kill a few of George’s new chickens.
The area surrounding the house is all woodland some of which George manages as part of his caretaking duties. A short walk down the hill and you come to the river which has a couple of small waterfalls where we enjoy taking a refreshing dip, a spot of lunch and attempt some amateur acrobatics. Dotted around the grounds in the wood are some hammocks, a tipi, and a viewing platform where you can experience the supreme majesty of the vista above the house over the whole valley.
I spent four weeks allowing my legs to recover from the first part of my journey. I rabbited on incessantly talking about the Singularity due to just having read Ray Kurzweil’s book on the subject, having the piss taken out of me for my trouble, which is also a recurring theme at the camp. In return for my stay this year I helped to cut a lot of firewood and general duties around the house including cooking for the people on the camp, dumping out the shit from the compost toilets, always a pleasure that one, and strimming the garden. I made some extra money by doing massage by donation for the Capoeira campers which was about enough to fund my way out of Italy.
I met George’s girlfriend Sophie, a new and welcome addition to the Casalino family who seems to fit perfectly into the lifestyle. She is not only an excellent chef but also a talented artist and creative thinker. She has brought a feminine touch to the house that was sorely lacking before (and hopefully a bit of business acumen that George always resists lest it destroy his idea of ‘the vibe’). I had some interesting debates with her and was soundly put in my place for being a bit of an argumentative wanker. She is a former resident of London with a degree in art. I found out she has a really good knowledge of the London graffiti scene which she had a passion for and a part in while at college.
I also got to meet George’s mother, her partner and his brother and family who came out during my final week there. This was the week after Brexit and I hadn’t yet come to terms with what was happening in the UK. It turned out that George’s mum and her partner had voted to leave, to which George’s response was “What the fuck, I live in Italy that’s ridiculous” – this coming from George who prior to this hadn’t really thought about the issue either way was in itself quite ironic. The vote hung in the air while we were there and it was in fact me who had broken news of the result over breakfast to my friends. Suffice it to say we were all dumbfounded by the outcome but speaking to leave voters allowed me to temper my response in a post on the topic so I’ll leave it at that.
One of the highlights of each camp is the talent show, the talent part is optional. Its an opportunity to entertain the other guests with a show of your own making. You can do something solo or collaborate with others to draw some laughs and have a good time. It’s always interesting to see what you can come up with and some of the shows are really funny but it might be a ‘you had to be there’ sort of thing to get some jokes.
Show night usually ends in a bit of a dance party and if Medusa’s in charge that usually means a soul train dance off. Next year, if I can make it, we’re planning a talent show extravaganza, something Sophie, George, Wilfe (another volunteer), and I talked about which would be so epic we’re hoping it would blow people away with its sheer scale… or we’ll do what we do every year and come up with something at the last minute.
I think to be honest I stayed longer than I should have for George’s sanity and my own momentum. When I eventually did leave it was raining so hard that I didn’t get going till about 2pm and it was with a heavy heart that I pushed my bike down that hill the same way I came up… slowly and painfully. My next destination was to Venice for an unplanned stop in a city I never thought I would see on this trip.
If you’re into yoga and want to retreat from the world plus you like the idea of back to basics living you can book into one of George’s very affordable yoga retreats at Wild Tuscany. Alternatively if you are a capoeirista and want to enjoy being taught by world class teachers, Contre Mestre Piolho and Mestre Papa Leguas of group Cordao de Ouro, I highly recommend it. You won’t experience teaching this personal like it anywhere else even in Papa’s own academy. Next year Mestre Papa Leguas will teach exclusively at George’s place instead of doing an extended tour through Europe. The valley itself plays host to a multitude of agritourism retreats including a Senegalese drumming festival and a circus camp among others with some swankier places to stay for the flashpackers among you.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to doing a retreat you can do what I did this year and apply to George through Workaway.info to come and volunteer for a few weeks. He’ll make you work but it is rewarding and you’ll still be able to chill in this little paradise that George has created. I recommend it highly – you’ll leave feeling your soul has been recharged and you’ll go back home dreaming of the day you can return because one visit is never enough…