With my passion well and truly returned for travelling with my bike after journeying across France I was full of hope that Italy would hold similar pleasures. Crossing the border into the land of campagnolo, pasta and colnagos after coming through the bizarre entity that is Monte Carlo was a slightly uninspiring one! As most of the borders I’ve crossed so far have just been signs I was hoping for something a bit flashier after such an apparently ‘glam’ place. I couldn’t see it myself, the towering mirrored skyscrapers, acres of sparkling black-top roads, and fake palm tree gardens topped off with middle aged men revving their ferrari’s just didn’t do it for me! The sign for Italy could even do with another coat of paint!
From travelling along the Cote D’Azur I kind of knew in my heart that the landscape would be similar but I spent a lot of energy willing it to be a little bit easier to get through. Unfortunately my summoning of a higher being didn’t stop the coast being as spectacularly rocky and steep as anything, with my route along the Northwest of the country basically being cut into and following the cliffside! As the road wound it’s way up and down the mountains that drop into the ocean, at the top the most spectacular views of the inaccessible coastline below and the low parts completely packed with resort after resort, their coloured unbrellas positioned like armed forces standing their ground on parade, not allowing anyone who doesn’t want to pay over the odds for a coffee onto the beaches. The miles wound on and on, as I followed the over populated coast with no way of making my way into the mountains and round without doubling my journey I was stuck playing cat and mouse with gravity and trying to dodge the holiday makers wobbling out into the road, loaded down with lilos and beach umbrellas. The roads were crazy enough as it was without these added obstacles, it seemed that the locals drove as though they were the only ones on the road, passing on blind bends and cutting corners without much care for the scared cyclist sweating his way up the hairpins! Adding to my troubles for the first part of my Italian job the weather decided to change and dumped rain onto me every day, adding to my weight and making it more uncomfortable cycling in waterproofs that stick to your skin and make you sweat so you’re just as wet as you would be if you weren’t wearing them due to it still being pretty warm. You can’t win sometimes!
The landscape being as tough as it was there were few chances of finding places to wild camp. Being so developed and industrialised, almost all the land was used, and the little that was left over was so steep that sleeping on it would be practically impossible. Just after San Remo I was more than lucky to find a cycle path that by-passed the hilly road and also seemed relatively quiet. As night was falling I came across the first area of wild land, on it a newly built pavillion type building, probably to be turned into some kind of cafe with a decked area to the rear.
Almost hidden from view I ducked behind and decided I’d hang out here to avoid the rain and wait for dark to see if it’d be possible to sleep there. As the hours passed I watched the sunset and the lights of San Remo start to turn on. Turned out I wasn’t the only one who thought the view might be good, as people started to come around to take their photo with the gorgeous backdrop, I smiled meekly and tried to pass off that I was just doing the same. As darkness fell more deeply and the people became fewer my tiredness overcame me and I though bugger it, if I look like a hobo tonight, well it’s not much of a change to how I appear most days! So there I was, my first night in Italy sleeping out in the open on the decking of a building that might be over-run with builders in the morning. Wasn’t the best night’s sleep but certainly wasn’t the worst either. At least I had a good view in the morning!
So my initial idea of Italy wasn’t the greatest. After a couple of nights having to stay in campsites that were high priced due to the season and built into steep terraces meaning unloading and carrying all my gear up the cliff-like hills to a mosquito ridden pitch at night and doing the opposite in the morning. I was knackered before I even set off to tackle my day of hill climbing!
Things became more interesting as the weather decided to change back to glorious sun and the city of Genova gave me an insight into how incredible Italy really is. The grandeur of the buildings, beautifully fading with the dirt of generations of industrialisation muddying the colonades and vaulted archways.
As I wandered the narrow passageways of the city’s old docklands, eating beautiful foccacia while sat on the steps of one of the run down shops awaiting renewal and watching the people pass, shouting greetings behind them to all and sundry. The intensity and engrossing confidence of Italian personalities spewed out of all the open doorways.
Joining the locals taking coffee at the bars in the mornings, stood at the counter sipping the most beautiful thick and strong espressos and helping yourself to the crossiants or other pastrys, to pay on your way out to the eagle eyed lady at the doorway cashdesk. A great way to start the day. Made even better one day by watching a ferrari driver trying to explain to the constabulary why he thought himself above the law by putting his hazards on and parking on a roundabout while he enjoyed his morning brew!
As I rounded the bay of Genova and went inland along my route to Pisa I was joined halfway up the Passo del Braco by two great British guys who were cycling from Newcastle to Naples in 28 days. No mean feat and two of the nicest guys I’ve met yet. We did a few kilometres together until I turned off to go and take a look at the Cinque Terra.
Five beautiful little villages nest to each other on the coast, joined by a walkable pathway. As the climb up and over the mountain was a lot harder than I initially thought my legs didn’t really like the idea of descending the 600 metres only to climb back up once again so I made do with a great view from the high up road that wound it’s way around the hillside.
Entering into Tuscany I was hoping that my travels might get a bit easier, passing the marble harvesting areas, digging monstrous holes in the beautiful mountains I made my way to Pisa to join the hordes in taking in the beautiful tower.
Surely the most fantastic accident to ever happen to a town. When the foundations collapsed in the initial stages of the building all those years ago I doubt anyone realised quite how many people would flock from all over the world to see how the tower leans so dramatically defying the forces of physics. It really is a stunning sight, but the crowds got too much and I deserted the tourist area and fled to the other side of the river to wander the backstreets around the lovely town that surely gets a little left out by that bloody pinnacle!
Luckily for me though, travelling through Tuscany became much more enjoyable, and as I rode over the rolling countryside, covered in olive groves, those spiked coniferous trees and beautiful Tuscan villas I began to appreciate how lovely central Italy actually is. Passing briefly through Florence, I always knew it would be the wrong time of year to properly take in such a city. Just wandering the streets taking in the architecture and external artworks gave me more than enough reasons to come back. Even the thought of queuing for the Uffizi gallery let alone figuring out what to do with the bike made me reluctantly leave the city and cycle out and into the countryside.
Eating my lunch under the shaded arches of a tiny chapel, watching the clouds pass across the bright blue sky and the trees sway in the breeze. I then realised that even if I hadn’t seen the artwork in the galleries I was living amongst the landscape that inspired them.
I stayed for a few days in Siena, the quieter sister town of Florence and just as beautiful in the architecture with a much calmer atmosphere I ate some good Tuscan food and drank vino rosso in a local bar wishing I could be one of the guys who frequent it. Everyone knowing each other, chatting and joking that it felt like someone’s living room rather than a bar.
As the hills rolled by and the villas past in their golden stoned glory, the wild camping became much easier, fields by the side of the road, under fruit trees, down a little lane and into a forest all became my home for the night as I made my way into Umbria and through the mountains.
Taking in the hilltop towns of Montepulciano where I sampled the local vino, Perugia where I ate pizza on the steepest street I’ve ever seen.
And Assisi, the stunning medieval ‘town of peace’ where I wandered unknowing into the birthplace chapel of St Francis, and sat watching the congregation at his tomb. From here I crossed the thickly forested Umbrian mountains, to follow a glacial valley and the clear waters of the stream and into the Marche region.
An area in which I travelled between many small beautiful towns and villages. So far the place that has most resembled the beautiful countryside of my childhood. As I passed through the forests and fields I could have been cycling through the Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria. It really was lovely to travel through a landscape that seemed so familiar. Eating the most beautiful Italian meal at the town of San Severino.
A gloriously simple starter of Mixed Bruchetta, the toasts covered with a single slice of tomato drizzled with the strong local olive oil, a pungent truffle pate and a slice of the finest Prucietto ham I’ve ever eaten. Followed by freshly made tagliatelle with Porcini mushrooms and truffles. So simple the sauce that the hint of parsley and olive oil joined the mushrooms in perfect simple harmony. Even after a rough start my love of all things Italian is now well and truly confirmed!
And so ends the first half of my journey. In distance I think I’ve already reached the halfway stage at over 3000 miles, but from here I turn on my heels and head North and West towards the shores of Britain. Although I’m sure there’ll be more adventures still to come before I reach them!