In the last few years, we’ve tried to put off the inevitable onslaught of autumn by going away to somewhere still warm and relatively tourist-free. Val has pointed out that we are tourists too, but I do think the fact that we are moving entirely under our own steam puts us, along with (nearly) all other cyclists, in a superior category.
Two years ago, we did a tour of Puglia and thoroughly enjoyed it. On the last day, we were due to finish in Foggia, but the schedule left us a bit short on miles so I devised a circular route that took in a couple of hill towns: Lucera and Troia. The second was quite spectacular as it rose out of the flat countryside surrounding it, but also a bit daunting because it required us to go up one of those zig-zag roads devised to try to deceive you that you’re not actually travelling uphill at all. It fools nobody.
Nevertheless this sparked the idea for a tour of a region of Italy renowned for its hill towns: Tuscany and Umbria.
Before we get to this, I will devote a bit of time to logistics, i.e. the task of getting two people and two bikes from Derbyshire to Central Italy. For some years now, we’ve been undertaking cycling trips to the rest of Europe by train. This started out with holidays in the Auvergne, easily attainable within a day from Belper using Eurostar, but once you’ve completed one of these trips successfully, you start to realise how close most of western Europe is to the East Midlands. We managed Milan inside one day two years ago and I achieved Hamburg four years ago.
This time we decided to be a bit less ambitious and aimed for an overnight stop in Nice on the way to Florence. An arrival in Nice at just after ten at night requires a 04.10 start from Belper – and an 03.30 alarm call – to cycle to Derby station for the 05.19 train to St Pancras. I hadn’t realised how cold it is at 4 o’clock in the morning in mid-September!
Travelling by train with a bike is not for the faint-hearted. We don’t realise how lucky we British cyclists are, being able to travel by rail for nothing with our bikes secured by-and-large in their own compartment (on the way back, our bikes got their own carriage!). The insistence of most European rail companies on bikes being contained in their own bags means having to carry this unwieldy piece of luggage round with you purely for use at beginning and end of the tour but otherwise it’s completely useless.
There was a recent letter in Cycling magazine complaining that Eurostar had lately put up the cost of transporting a bike to £55.00. This is only partly true. Until this year, you could book your bike on to Eurostar for £30.00 – each way. This was an expensive but a just about justifiable cost, even if not much less than the rail-fare itself, but Eurostar would carry the bike in one piece, ready-to-ride. Now a dual tariff operates: £55.00 to carry in one piece and £40.00 if dismantled and fitted in one of Eurostar’s boxes or your own bag. This is still a third increase on last year and of course completely unjustifiable, but Eurostar know that cyclists who want to cycle on their own machines on the continent have little choice but to cough up. Since we were taking bags anyway, the task of dismantling the bike at the EuroDispatch office at St P was not onerous, but the fun and games really start at the other end, Paris, because Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord and the Nice train departs from Gare de Lyon. The ‘easiest’ way of joining the dots between the two is unfortunately to transfer the contents of one pannier into the other and then hoick the bike bag (containing empty pannier) on one shoulder with the full pannier on the other, a combined weight in the region of 30kg, and use the RER, the underground rapid transit express. This journey involves struggling out of the Gare du Nord dispatch office, across the end of all 19 platforms, negotiating escalators and turnstiles and trying to fit everything into an already packed carriage when the express arrives, only to repeat the whole process in reverse on arrival. Like I said, this is not for the faint of heart or weak of body. Val and I have to undergo a course of steroids for weeks beforehand just to contemplate the procedure.
The necessity to pack all our belongings into one pannier for this journey does concentrate the mind and is no bad thing. It forces you to make difficult decisions as to what to take and consider such existential questions as: do I really need that third pair of underpants? Every year involves a further slimming down and even on the next trip we will travel lighter. One of the places we stayed at boasted a swimming pool so I took a pair of trunks, eagerly anticipating the plunge into cool waters at the end of a sweaty day’s cycling; as it happened the swimming pool was closed so I carted my bathers halfway across Europe for no good reason. Every gramme counts when you’re having to carry it around for two weeks.
The need to carry bikes in bags continued right up to our arrival in Florence so bike bags and pannier had to be conveyed in this undignified manner from Nice station to hotel, thankfully only a few hundred yards away, and back again in the morning, with a platform transfer at Milan. An unexplained detention in Marseilles station for 90 minutes meant we didn’t arrive in Nice till 11.30 so our departure from Nice the next day at 8 0’clock meant we had less than 6 hours’ sleep. If I’d known, we could’ve kipped in the station; it would have saved a lot of hassle.
The following day’s journey was also delayed, this time by ‘unknown persons on the line’, meaning we missed our Milan connection. The fact that there were three kiosks dealing with unscheduled train changes led me to believe that this sort of thing was not an unusual occurrence. Now we’ve finally arrived at the starting point, Florence, I’ll tell you a bit about the planning of the trip. We’ve been lucky enough to go to both Florence and other parts of Tourist Tuscany before (also by train, another story) so we wanted to concentrate on those bits not likely to be clogged with thousands of sightseers, as Florence was even in mid-September. I Googled ‘Hill Towns of Tuscany’ and the same for Umbria and came up with quite a few websites listing these, not all of them agreeing. I bought two maps of the area and plotted the suggestions so I was then left with the job of joining up the dots and working out which could realistically be included in a two-week schedule. I would dearly have loved to go to Urbino, for example, but it was too far to the north-east and would have required a four day round trip; it had to go.
I found an obvious drawback to planning a tour of the hill-towns of central Italy – there tend to be a lot of hills involved. I wanted to keep the distances down to allow time to explore what we found along the way but even modest routes of around 70 km resulted in climbs of 1,500 metres or more. Day after day of this sort of ascent wasn’t really on for a two week trip so I was sent back to the drawing board and eventually came up with a schedule where no day (in theory) exceeded the magic 1000m mark, which started out from Florence, proceeded south through Chiantishire before making a clockwise circuit of hill-towns ending in Siena. In fact, I realised almost too late that I had plotted thirteen days but booked return trains allowing for only twelve! Fortunately I was able to find an intervening railway station to avoid us being stranded.
For the UK and France, both Google Maps and Ride With GPS – I suspect the latter uses the database of the former – provide specific cyclists’ routes, but not for Italy where all cyclists are equated with motorists. This probably says a lot about the Italian obsession with cars even though Italy has as much claim to be the Spiritual Home of Cycling as, say, France.
I don’t intend to take you on a blow-by-blow account of the places we visited – I can sense the sigh of relief even as I write this – but will relate some of the experiences we encountered and some of the highlights.
I would dearly like to write that the reputation of Italian drivers is entirely unwarranted, that they are in fact the paradigm of civility, calmness and politeness. Unfortunately there is often a reason that national stereotypes emerge and that is that there’s an element of truth to them. Nothing, certainly not a cyclist, will stop an Italian driver getting to his destination, preferably accompanied by a firm hand on the horn, and if he (inevitably it is a ‘he’) can achieve this whilst lighting a cigarette or conversing on his mobile phone, so much the better. There was such an astonishingly high rate of mobile phone usage whilst driving that I assumed the Italian law had not yet caught up with the British, but I was wrong. I checked and the law is the same; it’s just ignored wholesale by the Italians to such a shocking degree that I can only assume that no attempt is made to enforce it. This does not, I know, give any comfort to those of a nervous disposition contemplating cycling in Italy but time after time I felt the whoosh of a vehicle, often a van or a lorry, as it forced its way past me with millimetres to spare. With such a degree of recklessness, collisions are inevitably commonplace – 5.6 people per 100,000 died in RTAs in Italy in 2016; the figure for the UK is 3.1, but for Liberia it’s 35! I’m not planning an African tour any time soon. In one Italian town, I pointed out to Val three consecutive parked cars with collision damage to their bodywork, and, as I spoke, a fourth car with corresponding dents and scrapes overtook us.
It didn’t take long for us to experience at first-hand Italian driving skills. We’d not yet made it out of Florence when we were waiting at a (pedestrian) light to cross a busy intersection. The lights to our right changed and a white SEAT (driven as it turned out by a young Englishman) moved forward to turn left (the equivalent of a right-hand turn in the UK of course). As he did so, a motorcyclist coming from behind him, overtaking on entirely the wrong side of the road, collided with his turning vehicle, veered towards us and keeled over, pinned to the floor by the weight of his machine. He’d suffered a nasty, deep gash to his arm but despite having to have the bike lifted off him, appeared to have sustained no serious injury. We waited till the ambulance arrived and, leaving our details with the badly-shaken English driver, moved on.
As an aside, on our return in Nice, I witnessed a near-miss when a pedestrian stepped on the road and narrowly survived being mowed down by a passing car. He was wearing a T-shirt with the legend: Today has Been a Great Day.
Notwithstanding the fact that we were visiting some of the most beautiful villages in Italy, there was not a corner of them that was not susceptible to motorised invasion. Cars found their way into the most obscure corners, anywhere where the width of the street was marginally greater than the width of the car. Just as we thought we’d found a bit of peace and quiet to explore at will, we were forced to flatten ourselves into some shallow doorway to avoid becoming another statistic. As we were about to ascend one village I found a discarded No Entry sign and took the decision to plant it in the middle of the road. It worked, and I hope it is still there to this day.
We were in Tuscany in September so inevitably it did not take long for us to pass through a succession of vineyards, a progression that was repeated throughout the following fortnight. These were by and large heavy with black, sometimes white, grapes ripe and ready for picking, all hanging at the same level at the base of the curtain of leaves above. I had no idea that mature grapes were so conveniently hung, whether by human design or nature, I know not. These vineyards varied enormously in size from extensive estates to smallholdings at the side of local cottages.
We saw a dozen or so workers in one field and so I stopped and made a nuisance of myself by asking some questions of an English speaker who told me that everyone was busy cutting the leaves from around the bunches so as to leave the way clear for the most efficient removal of grapes – all done by hand – starting the following day. He and his fellow workers – who were, so far as I could tell, Italians rather than the migrants that you’d expect to do this type of work in England – would spend the next two weeks clearing the whole of this hillside, the other side as well and the hillside on the other side of the road.
I should mention that our knowledge of Italian is sparse. I do have a set of Teach Yourself CDs but never actually got round to listening to them apart from a two hour journey in the car a week beforehand. This was never going to be enough, but whilst I’ve found most countries in Europe speak English often better than I do, this is not the case in Italy and many were the times that we had to make ourselves understood by reference to hand-signals; it’s surprising how far you can get this way. Later in the tour, we were in Pitigliano in the evening and we stood and watched as lorry-load after lorry-load full of grapes climbed up the narrow roads into town, negotiated the hair-pin bend and disappeared to presumably the same co-operative unloading point ready to be turned into ambrosia. This convoy continued for hours beyond darkness. It was a truly astonishing and wondrous sight.
Tuscany and Umbria are both synonymous with wine, but equally evident were groves of olive trees. These too were heavy with their green fruit but unlike the vines, the olives would not be picked until November and so they had not yet ripened. It was frequently the case that the backdrop to our ride was provided by both these two crops. “Grapes to the left of us, olives to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”, we sang to nobody in particular.
Near Spello, we came across an olive plant open to the visitor so we took advantage of the opportunity to see the olive oil process at first hand. This was a relatively small operation (300,000 bottles was mentioned) but although the gathering of olives is done according to the age-old tradition of collection in nets by hand, the process beyond here is entirely automated.
Our obliging guide explained that the olives are crushed and the oil processed in November and December before being stored in a vast underground tank from which it is syphoned into bottles throughout the year. We could see bottles being filled, the last of this year’s supply. I expressed surprise at so much olive oil being produced in this part of Italy – usually, I think, we get Puglian olive oil in our shops. I was told that Tuscan olive oil is kept almost exclusively for the home market –too good for the likes of us! Our guide gave of his time quite freely, literally so, and we felt a bit guilty about detaining him so I bought a bottle of Tuscan olive oil to take back. It was only as we returned to our cycles that I realised that I would have to carry the damn thing in one of my panniers for the next ten days!
Wherever we went, we cursed the state of the roads. These are quite appalling and no-one should complain about pot-holes in England because, by comparison, British roads are exemplary. By far the most common road sign in Umbria/Tuscany was the Bumpy Road sign, usually accompanied by ‘3 kilometres’ because it’s so much cheaper to put up a sign than actually do something about the problem. When a pot-hole appears in an Italian road, the technique seems to be to send out someone with a pot of tar and a stick and ask him to fill it in. This has been repeated over several decades so the end-result was a patchwork of ad-hoc layers of tarmac, almost always positioned at the side of the road. It gave a new meaning to Fifty Shades of Grey and was altogether an unerotic experience, just like the book (so I’m led to believe).
This problem was compounded when contouring up hills because the tarmac, probably influenced by the summer heat, showed a tendency to slide down the hill-side it was traversing, leaving cracks in the middle of the road similar to an earthquake, all of which had to be negotiated while still trying to keep upright, bouncing over dips and bumps.
Other irritations of the trip included the Italian’s literal addiction to the dreaded weed. Over 25% of Italians still smoke with no sign of any government initiative to try to wean them off. This is coupled with a less strict law on where you can smoke; as a train pulls in at a station, there is a rush to the doors so a quick few drags on a fag can be taken on the platform. The narrowness and height of the streets in the hill villages tend to create an airlessness that means the smell of ciggies is suspended indefinitely. It’s amazing how intolerant I’ve become (not just generally) of any contact with smoke in the twenty-odd years since I used to spend whole evenings inhaling second-hand carcinogenic emissions. Smoking is one of the few areas where we in the UK can hold our heads high – at the last count, our national compulsion to contract lung cancer was down to around 14%; in 2018, only Slovakia had a better lung cancer rate than us in a table of 25 developed countries which curiously didn’t include Italy. On the other hand, the Italians are a lot greener than you’d imagine. Whereas in the UK, we discourage the use of supermarket plastic bags, Italy has gone in completely the opposite direction and continued to provide bags unfettered and free – but all entirely compostable and biodegradable. This includes even the bags for loose veg. The latest incarnation of Italy’s government intends to tax plastic, sugar and flights, whilst making schools dedicate an hour a week to humankind’s effect on the planet. Puts us to shame.
Our schedule allowed for visits to two or three hill towns a day, but in addition we came across another label applied these towns and villages ‘borghi piu belli d’Italia’, the most beautiful villages in Italy, which was an unexpected bonus and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say nearly every one of these had reason to tarry. The whole place is like a theme park but entirely genuine.
The best town that we visited was Anghiari. The schedule dictated that we finished at a hill town every night and whilst the overall climb stayed below four figures, it was in the nature of Tuscany that it tended to be concentrated into one or two parts of the day. We’d spent over an hour grinding out of Arezzo up to Anghiari which appeared to be built on a ridge rather than a hill as such. I was disappointed by somewhat ordinary initial impressions, but suddenly we turned off the main road and were confronted by a breath-taking escarpment dropping steeply in front of us. The main road east out of Anghiari resembled a 10 kilometre ski-slope so steep that we could neither cycle up nor down it as we found to our cost the next day when we set off in the wrong direction.
Up to the right of this slope was the old town, a jumbled and random warren of narrow streets crammed with stone buildings, one on top of the other. We were staying that night in an apartment in the middle of the old town and it wasn’t until the next morning that I realised that there were people living above us access to whose quarters were gained from the street above. Thomas A’ Becket lived here for a time during one of his many tiffs with Henry II.
Also memorable was Spoleto. The hill around which this city was built was set into a mountain-side. What made this place extraordinary was that for ease of exploration it boasted an underground. Three subterranean ‘lines’ had been built inside the rock of the mountain itself, lines which possibly uniquely went not horizontally but vertically. At the various stations, a lift took you upwards before arriving at vast and lengthy airport-style travellators which moved at angles to the various tourist spots. This was of enormous benefit to us as, arriving late in the afternoon and being limited to an evening’s visit, we were able to make a whirlwind tour of the principal sights which ended up at the very top of the town where a circular path around a massive fortress led to a 300 foot high, 775 foot long 14th century bridge built on top of a Roman aqueduct and spanning the whole valley.
There were some towns that were evidently on some sort of Approved Tourist list. Every now and again we would toil up a hill to a piazza where we would be greeted by the sight of busloads of tourists, usually American or Japanese, spilling out of coaches parked specifically for that purpose. One such town was Orvieto, the home of five 13th Century popes, which we thought was unremarkable by admittedly high Umbrian standards apart from the sumptuously ornate facade to its Cathedral, taking 100 years to build from 1300. Seven storeys in height, it boasts at its centre a beautifully intricate rose window with statues of the 12 apostles on top and 12 OT prophets at the side surrounded by mosaics glittering in the sun. Four marble pillars on the lower level depict scenes from the Genesis, and support bronze statues of the Angel of Matthew, the Winged Lion of Mark, the Eagle of John and the Winged Bull of Luke.
We saw no other cyclists carrying panniers on our trip, but did occasionally bump into other cyclists on organised trips. Whenever we did, we played a game of finding the tour company’s website and seeing how much they were charging – before smugly reflecting on the money we were saving by doing it ourselves. One company we came across was Ciclismo Classico whose customers were notable by the identical pastel green Bianchi cycles they were all riding and the route of whose 9-day coast-to-coast tour coincided with ours for a couple pf days. It was all highly ordered and regimented. On the second day, one of their number broke free and started a conversation with us until sharply called back into the fold by his leader. He was paying over $5000 for the trip, and no doubt stayed in more luxurious surroundings than us, but we reckoned the tour company didn’t want him to find out how much he could have saved. Doing it yourself is very time-consuming especially when everything is pre-planned on a day-to-day basis but, money apart, the freedom to go where you want when you want makes it worthwhile.
At one point in the trip, we reached the bottom of a very long hill and came across a lone female tourer – on a scooter! It was no ordinary scooter having fat tyres and fully-loaded panniers, being four times the size of the one I used to get about on as a kid. I was wondering how on earth she was going to get up the hill we’d just descended when Val pointed out that the scooter was electric too! Whatever next?
Our accommodation was the most basic available within certain minimum requirements – a bed and a shower! We still managed to find a wide variety of places to stay and looked forward every night to see what the internet had thrown our way. All accommodation, by its nature, tended to be out of the way and at the bottom of a hill, which was a bit galling when you’d spent the best part of the afternoon climbing it. One guest-house was at the bottom of a kilometre-long stony path so steep and rough that we had to push bikes laden with panniers up it the next day. Val was nevertheless delighted to find that at the end of that day, Strava had declared her Queen of the Mountains on that particular track – mainly because she is the only woman who’s ever gone this way by cycle (sadly I can only claim to be the eleventh fastest man over this section).
One thing we did learn is not to trust the Italian interpretation of Bed & Breakfast, which numerous stops were advertised as. You can certainly expect a Bed but whether you’ll get the Breakfast is a matter entirely of chance. Breakfast is also an elastic concept, judging by the croissant we were left in Florence encased in a wrapper with a Sell-By Date of December. I took one bite – it was like eating a pair of curtains.
Two of the places were ‘Agriculturismo’, essentially farmers who are looking to supplement their income by letting out rooms. Both offered unforgettable experiences. The first was at the bottom of the usual narrow stone path and comprised a timbered room in an ancient homestead on an olive farm. It was miles from anywhere and, it being Sunday, all we had with us were half a packet of biscuits. We need not have worried; the farmer’s wife prepared us a meal with starter, two types of pasta and a dessert accompanied by both wine and home-made liqueur, all for 20 euros. Yum.
The next day was also Agriculturismo, this time an isolated settlement in the middle of the countryside which seemed to be what may one day become, or maybe already was, a holiday complex closed down for the year. There was no-one in sight so I called the number and a couple of minutes later, a single figure emerged from the gloom to show us to our room, a bedroom in a hotel comprising at least eight others. I don’t know whether you’ve ever stayed as the only occupants in a building of empty rooms but it is, I can tell you, an unsettling and eerie experience, very similar to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining but without the rivers of blood and the weird twins. Nevertheless, once again, the hotelier and his daughter offered us the menu for the restaurant that normally operated every day in season and cooked whatever we chose. We ate this at the end of a long table, the only customers in the place.
The final night was in Montepulciano, one of the jewels in the Tuscan crown, and it proved an appropriately spectacular end to the holiday. A long limestone-paved avenue wound its way slowly upwards past Renaissance churches and clock towers, staircases and alleyways, until we reached the Piazza Grande where we were attracted to a courtyard by the sound of an unseen opera singer, not something that often happens in Belper. This yard in turn gave way to a terrace and a balcony offering a panoramic view over the rooftops below and beyond, the Tuscan countryside glowing in the evening sun. It was an unforgettable end to the holiday and the memory of it will see me though the winter.