a three week cycling tour of Italy
As I sit here and try to capture the experience of 3 weeks of travel through Italy, a country of unbelievable richness and variety, onto a flat, white computer screen, the difficult nature of the challenge does not escape me, and I hope that you, dear reader, will be able to appreciate the task as best I can do it.
For around two years, I had been planning a bicycle trip through Italy, allowing me to combine my love of riding, my interest in Slow Food, and with seeing some relatives. Italy is well known for not only beautiful and diverse countryside (il paese) and towns (also il paese), but also for its food (il cibo). Sure, every country claims some form of gastronomic largesse, I mean, every country, but in no other is food so interwoven with the people, the land and the culture, than that of Italy. The whole country seems to drip with a relaxed food culture, and does so with little pretension and arrogance (I’m looking at you, France)
For the 5 years I ran my cheese shop, the Italian cheese we sold were very good. Of course, there were some bad ones (Scimudin) and some average ones (Taleggio, sorry not for me), but as we learnt and honed what we sold, we weeded these out, and ended up with only the really good ones: Pecorino Basilicata, Pecorino di Bitti, Gran Mugello are three which spring to mind. So, part of me wanted to make this trip an exploration of the cheesemakers (caseifici) of the route I’d chosen. But, I’m also a cyclist - and a better one than I am at appreciating good food (I’m a Brit after all, who still correctly insists that baked beans are for breakfast). As I mapped out the long looping route, if I was honest, in order to see what I wanted to see, stopping for leisurely chats with cheese makers about their art, was going to be difficult to squeeze in. This trip it was going to be about the bike, and i paesi, and riding through it and fully breathing in the air of Italy.
How on earth does one create, start or do something like this? The tour itself was to start and end in San Donato Val di Comino, the hometown of my partner, and so that part was set. But to where? And how? Many questions.
There were a couple of places I really wanted to hit: Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, both known for their food but also for their very different countryside. So it was including these two areas that I built the tour. The Apennines are the backbone of Italy, and Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna sit on opposite sides of this mountain range, further north than my starting point, so this helped to give my tour a natural ‘center’ around which the tour could move. A matter of then scanning up to and down from these northerly most regions, picking out some major towns along the way and connecting the dots on interesting or off-road trails and farm roads.
The tour is broken up into 16 stages (a true Giro d’Italia!) which went through the regions of Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and La Marche. At each night there was a target village/town/city in which lodgings would be booked the night before (to eliminate wandering around hopping to find something)..
Lazio: San Donato to Avezzano, to Collegiove
Umbria: Collegiove to Spoleto, to Perugia, to Castiglione del Lago, to Montepulciano
Tuscany: Montepulciano to Siena, to Florence, to Barbarino di Mugello, to Bologna
Emilia-Romagna: Bologna to Ravenna, to San Marino, to Chiaserna
La Marchè: Chiaserna to Camerino, to Norcia, to Celano
Lazio: Celano to San Donato val di Comino.
The Start (l’iniziato)
San Donato is a very picturesque medieval town, which is plopped on a spur of the Apennines, overlooking the flat and dry Val(ley) di Comino (none knows what the Comino is or was). There are other towns on other spurs surrounding the same valley (there are about 5), but San Donato is probably the nicest. It’s the most picturesque; it’s the most dense; it has the most active piazza (very important); it’s at the bottom of the mountain pass (Forca d’Acero); and it’s inhabitants were the only people in the area who resisted the Nazis, rather than collude with them. Small things.
It really is a picturesque town - the streets are steep, narrow, and paved with bumpy cobblestones. At the town’s highest point, you’ll fin the church of Saint Donato and the defensive tower. The roads are closely edged by large, ancient wooden doors, and the intermittent open windows are full of a family’s wet laundry. Old women stand, leaning on their mops in the doorways, as if it was their dance partner, watching and judging - you and everyone else - as you pass by. Old men sit in caffès or on benches together, all in cliques which probably haven’t changed for 50 years. Not a lot happens in hot, arid, peaceful, San Donato.
This is the home of my in-laws, and a perfect point from which to start a loop of the Apennines, and so here it begins. A bicycle, cycling clothes, a T shirt, a pair of shorts, some socks and sandals. 3 weeks living light.
The first day of riding was out the door and up. Forca d’Acero, the mountain pass behind San Donato is at abut 1600m in altitude, a climb of 1000 m (3000 ft) up from San Donato itself. It’s a long but relatively constant climb, with no sharp pitches and few sharp hairpins, so very doable if you don’t get too excited at the beginning.The bird’s eye view of the Val di Comino below helps you comprehend the geography of the place: a large plain surrounded by spurs jutting out from the mountains to break up the monotonous flats, with a town of every one. This was to be a common theme of much of the tour - hill climbs to a view that reinforced the beauty or desolation of the valleys and cities you had just explored.
At the top of Forca d’Acero past the summit’s caffè/bar, was the first of many ‘less-explored’ sections of my route - no road, more track and dirt. Small roads were fine, but the beauty of a bicycle is to be able to wind through all types of terrain and places, and so this is what I had carefully planned. And so, just as the road dipped slightly down into the valley on the other side of Forca d’Acero, I veered off the road, northwest into the Regional Park of Molise/Abruzzo/Lazio. My chunky tyres whipped downhill on a wide, bouncy gravel track, with loose rocks, ruts, stones, branches and horse poop. Everything a mountain biker could dream of.
Riding on dirt and gravel is a way to keep a bike rider honest. Push too hard past the bike’s limits or your own skills, and something will give and you will go down. For most people (including myself) it is their skills which are the limitations, not the bike. The best thing to do is to keep moving at all times at a comfortable but good speed, and let the front wheel ride where it wants to ride, within reason. And it will find a way. And so will you.
The regional park is bear country - l’orso marsicano (brown bear) - and there are volunteers and park rangers who are working hard to keep them safe from humanity. Large information signs told visitors what to do and what not to do, and throughout the trip I always felt that there the population and towns had a good connection to the natural environment around them. Perhaps this was the environmentally conscious people, or maybe it was the fact that most towns and cities folded around the land with little alteration, rather blasting and carving up the land as they see fit.
The Towns (I paesi)
Throughout the tour there would be many many small towns and villages to stop at en route. All the same, but all different.
These are towns which have grown up with, around and because of the population. They are instantly and markedly different from towns in the USA (and other areas in Europe eg the UK) which has (unfortunately) mostly developed around cars. These villages, small towns and even large cities are focussed on a central piazza (or more), with a caffè/bar (or more), a restaurant (or more) and a centerpiece (such as a war memorial, statue or fountain).
People are everywhere. Dogs are everywhere. Bicycles are everywhere. The occasional errant and embarrassed car slowly edges its way past these places and is glared at, disapprovingly. By foot, by bike, by four-paws, everyone feels comfortable, everyone feels safe. As a result, even in the smallest town, these piazzas are busy and the hub of everything.
The first town out of the National Forest was Pescasseroli, and it was definitely one of the best. It had all of the character of a regular piazza, including a bunch of children playing on BMXs in the streets, old men relaxing with coffee and cigarette, but had an overall very chilled vibe. No Amazon Prime Delivery trucks here. And this struck a chord with me which resonated in all the small towns, and even a few of the larger cities which I passed through.
People were content. Happy? Who can tell, but happiness is different from contentment. There was little to no rushing around, even from those who were starting the day with deliveries or walking to work. The pace was people pace.
The first day’s final stop, Avezzano, was still some way away from Pescasseroli, with a long climb and a beautiful fast descent remaining. From the top of the final climb, and all the way through the warm descent, you could see the unique geography of the approaching valley. Centuries ago the Avezzano valley had been a huge round lake, but it had been drained (attempted several times apparently) and the round, flat, fertile bottom, was now covered in agricultural fields of all crop types, including potatoes - criss-crossed by flat, long, unpaved farm roads. It was in the distance all the way across these fields that Avezzano sat, peering over the edge of the ‘lake’ into its man-made richness.
The farm roads off the descent were long, flat and hot. But the miles, like they always do, finally conceded to the city streets and the first hotel, the first dinner and the first well-deserved rest of the trip.
The Rythym (il ritmo)
There’s a rhythm that you will eventually find on a bike tour. Ride, eat, sleep, repeat. But this also starts to match the cadence of the habits of the country you’re passing through [if you’re bingeing like you do back home, you’re not doing it right]. In Italy, this means breakfast at 7.30 or so, which is a cappuccino, a cornetto (think croissant) either pieno (full) with jam or Nutella or vuoto (empty), some yoghurt, biscuits, toast & jam, and blood orange juice. If you have a sweet tooth, then you will love Italian breakfast. Lunch will usually be around noon until 2 pm, and dinner? Don’t think about having dinner before 7.30 unless you want to eat with the families, children and other tourists. Adults eat at 9.30. And when you book a table, you’re not booking for 2 hours, but for the whole evening. You are expected to stay for the duration, say “Buona Notte’ and make your way home.
These sweet Italian breakfasts are perfect for sugar-powering a ride, at least until the first stop for coffee. Meaning espresso. The time for a cappuccino - the breakfast coffee - is over at 10 am. For bike touring, getting up early, catching the morning sun and cooler air, before breaking for lunch when things warm up, is a perfect rhythm.
A little B&B near Lago di Turano, was tonight’s destination. Avezanno was in the region of Abruzzo, but the route was already hooking back through the top of Lazio and working its short way into Umbria. At the beginning of a tour, everything seems relaxed - there’s plenty of time and distance to go, cut things short, take a break. Things will shake themselves out [think COVID for later on]. And so, this second day was a relatively short day of riding, with more climbing than expected. Lunch for example was on the terrace of a family-run restaurant overlooking a 1000m ascent, which had to be climbed to get there. If I had taken a brief moment, the name of the town ‘Collealto Sabine’ or ‘High Sabine Hill’ should have told me that there would be climbing involved. Now, you might not like the climb, but if you sit there and spin at your own speed, thing your own time, you will be rewarded. That reward is a wicked, twisty, turns, vista-fueled smooth road descent. Flying down the High Sabine Hill, made quick work of the remaining distance to the Sylvia, the owner of the B&B in Collegiove (Young Hill), which sat on the side of Lago di Turano.
Lago di Turano would be on my list of places to see again and again. The inverse of Avezanno, where mankind had dammed a long steep sided valley for hydroelectric purposes and created a dramatic, and absolutely beautiful lake. Castel di Tora, sat further up the road from the B&B, where not only did the restaurants serve fresh lake-seafood (perch) for dinner (7.30), but its situation high on the hill, overlooking the crystal blue waters of the lakes made its small piazza’s one of the most naturally impressive of the tour. Stunning. I have never seen waters so blue and clear.
Like many places on this tour, Lago di Turano would normally be bustling with tourists, but due to the complications of traveling with a backdrop of COVID-19, tourists were more or less absent. However, on day three, where the destination was the well-known Umbrian town of Spoleto, the first tourists appeared. Spoleto is famous for an arts/music festival, Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds), but there was competition that evening for the attention of the Spoletese. The European Cup Final was being played between Italy and England. Much more important. The evening was therefore spent standing for 120 minutes, until penalties decided the result. The Italians were colorful in their celebrations, with flags, firecrackers, honking traffic, Vespas, and even tractors that had rolled in from the countryside. Apparently, the front of a tractor can hold a very large number of jumping Italians - that’s not a statistic that you’ll find in the manual. No matter what your job was in the surrounding fields or towns around Spoleto, that night you got on your bike, scooter or tractor and came up to the town on top of the hill. And celebrated. The unifying power of football - the simplest and most beautiful of all sports.
To reach Spoleto, for that evening’s festivities, the riding was spectacular and varied: it started with the tour’s first fields of sunflowers. Fields and fields and fields of yellow headed soldiers, straining their necks upwards to follow the sun all day (the Italian name is Girasole: sun turner). For this day, le girasole were a novelty, but that fields of sunflowers are everywhere in Italy. I would however, never tire of riding alongside them. It’s almost a classic cycling meme to ride with a canvas of yellow in the background.
The city of Rieti, or Umbilico d’Italia was another ‘highlight’ of the day. The geometric ‘centre of Italy’ from north-to-south and east-to-west, was disappointing with a sad and small empty piazza at the centre of the centre. There was little else in that medieval and religious town - the churches were drab, the view nice, but not gorgeous.
Navel gazing seemed appropriate, especially compared to the main stop for that day: the Cascat3 delle Mamore (Marmore Waterfalls). Until the stop at Le Cascate, waterfalls never ranked highly in my list of exciting things to see. Like fireworks, they’re for the very old or very young, and hold little intellectual or fantastical attention for me.
But Le Cascate were phenomenal. The falls were mostly man-made, by blocking and re-routing a river through a chasm. The process was was started by the Romans but finished in the late medieval times, and now also used for hydro-electric power. No matter though, since they looked natural and the sheer magnitude of the place would just sweep you away. At the bottom of the falls, the force of the wind generated by the chaotic falling, crashing and tumbling water was quite astounding, and the contrast with 100 meters above, where water spray painted delicate rainbows just hanging in mid-air. As always, you have to pay to play, and to see the full beauty of the falls, you had to walk up and down steps created along side the falls. There were many huffing and puffing Italians, making their way, and so this also marked the point at which I started to mask-up, even when outside. From then on, once the density of people reached a critical point, the mask went on. There was a COVID test to pass to get back home, after all.
Riding into Spoleto, the first major town in Umbria, the change in the surrounding scenery became obvious. This change continued through to Perugia and Casteligione de Lago over the next two days. Perugia, the capital of Umbria, and Casteligone de Lago, a small hilltop town on the edge of a large, round and warm lake. Bicycle riding connects you with your surroundings in a way riding in a vehicle just cannot do. The change of the scenery impacts you physically and sensorially, and as the mountains moved off into the distance (I was cycling away from the Apennines into Umbria and Tuscany) there were more rolling hills and smaller peaks. The long climbs and wicked twisty descents of the mountains, changed into shorter, rounder, and undulating climbs, as the hills came and went under my wheels. The wide flat fields for agriculture were getting fewer, and the agriculture was now spread over the rolling hills. What was also improving was the specific bike infrastructure, or at least bicycle awareness. The ride from Spoleto through Assisi (not worth a visit) to Perugia and then to Casteligone de Lago included some mountain bike park action, gravel rail trails along a mountainside, a raised paved rail trail for 40 km (from which the unobstructed views were stunning), protected bicycle lanes on a road, as well as sidewalks which had been divided up to provide lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. Yes, people sharing corridors of travel without bursting out in vitriol. It can happen.
Cities are for People (le cità sono per i popli)
Perugia, the capital of Umbria, had the feel of a small town. And it is really. It’s a small hilltop medieval town which hasn’t expanded too much around the edges. There’s one large piazza and only a few busy streets leading out from that. And when I say busy, I mean with people. It was noticeable that if a vehicle went anywhere close to these central areas, or up a narrow winding street, they had no other choice than to wait and drive slowly behind the pedestrians (or bicycles) that led them through. Sometimes they would be allowed to pass, but it was clear that the Italians knew and enforced the unspoken guidance that city centres are for people. The drivers themselves rarely got impatient, but looked guilty as they sat shrunken in the driver’s seat. They got it. They would rather not be driving a car anyway.
Everywhere I went in Italy this was the case. Even in Bologna and Firenze, the largest cities on the tour. As soon as you hit the centre and the streets around, cars were not tolerated. If they had feelings, the cars would have been shamed outside to the ring roads. For a moment, stop and think about this. When US citizens return from an Italian holiday, they will reminisce about Italy and the quaint towns and cities where people walk around, visit a restaurant or bar or shop. Well, duh. Yes. Where else can you, as a pedestrian or cyclist have the space and freedom to move without worry?
We should ask ourselves, do we want this in our own countries permanently, or do we just want this when we go on holiday?
It’s not hard, it just takes a will and then there will be a way.
Perugia was an old city with character, where I felt old and new mixed together well - the young students at the university hung or painted their art in certain old areas of the town, giving a multi-centennial contrast of medieval brick and Banksy-esque graffiti. The next town of Casteligone del Lago had little character in comparison. A castle and small town on the top of a hill, over looking the lovely Lago Trasimeno. The highlights of this town appeared to be the lake, and a panoramic view, where you could see Montepulciano in the distance. And Montepulciano was the next stop.
Classic Tuscany (Toscana classica)
Montepulciano is a city famous for grapes and wine. It’s the city around which the grapes for the Nobile di Montepulciano wine are grown. It’s a big draw for US tourists, because the wine is well known in the USA. The town reflects this and has a very touristy feel, with plastic signs outside restaurants advertising their meal deals. Although there are the occasional, more legit bistros, where you can grab a glass of this Nobile wine and some local cheese. It’s not particularly quaint or charming, and really for me as a cyclist, the attraction is not the town but the classic Tuscan countryside outside of the town. Rollings hills, green and yellow fields, cypress trees, long roads, sweeping panoramas. This was my first taste of Tuscany, and it was everything the postcards said it would be.
The nearby towns of Pienza and Montichiello were charming in themselves - empty of tourists, and more interesting to cruise around - but in this area of Italy, it is the combination of the towns, landscapes and roads which form the main highlight - not one element by itself. In the areas around Montepulciano and up to Siena you will find the ‘White Roads’ or ‘Strade Bianche’, of Tuscany running through the landscape like veins. The Strade Bianche are famous from the eponymous race over their rough and gravelly surfaces - making the race an entirely different challenge to a typical smooth road ride. In the end it is only the toughest riders and best bike handlers who can win the race. When you ride them you can understand why. They are fun and different to ride, with a high-level of skill and confidence required to do so well. You learn to let your back wheel wriggle around the loose curves and you keep your front wheel laser-focussed on where you want to go. Combined with the natural scenery and elevated medieval towns, you can see why this is the centre of so many bike holidays. Tuscany is an easy sell, but Italy is large, and there are many other places to ride….
Pecorino di Pienza is a DOP cheese - and I had a recommendation from a friend to stay in a particular B&B, which doubled as a caseificio (cheesemaker) which made this pecorino. It was quite a magnificent recommendation. The owner, the B&B, the cheese, the view. Staying in this B&B with a grand view of Montepulciano reminded me of an episode of Ricky Gervais’ ‘Idiot Abroad’, where Karl (the Idiot) Pilkington goes to Petra - the temple carved in stone. Given the option he decides to spend the night in a small cave opposite. To paraphrase the Karl the Little Englander, ‘Why would I want to stay in an Ancient wonder of the world, when I can stay here in this hole and look at it all night long?’.
Standing at the caseificio B&B, that is how I felt about Montepulciano. Why should I stay in Montepulciano, in plastic tacky touristy surroundings, when it looks so much better from here, in this peaceful place surrounded by bleating sheep, folding geography and sunsets to die for.
Siena, was north of Montepulciano, through more of this classic Tuscan landscape. Through more little towns like the blissfully chill Chiusure (with the delightful Paradiso caffè). Through the finishing line of the Nuova Eroica bike race (an amateur Strade Bianche ridden with classic bicycles). Through quiet town of Murlo, and the famous stretch of strada bianca from Radi to Monteroni d’Arbia, as well as up the brutal climb of Monte Sante Marie. And finally through some creative navigation, into the heart of Siena and Piazza Del Campo - the main piazza of Siena.
After days of riding through small towns and villages, Siena felt big. It’s not a big city in reality, but on arrival it felt big. Big as in - there is a buzz of people in the piazza, at the markets, in the caffès and in the streets. It felt old, since history is all enveloping with the impressive Cathedral & Duomo (from where you get a remarkable view of the sea of terracotta roofs), il Palazzo di Medici (now a performance space), and the crypts and the towers (fun seeing dead people!). The architecture of the old cathedral and other Medici buildings is truly remarkable. I come from London, which is full of elegant architecture - although rarely with little religious association. In Siena, I hope God or whoever, was truly appreciative of all the elaborate marble and intricately carved statues, buildings, domes, and paintings, made in her honour. Siena also marked the first rest day and it was the only time that rain broke the sweltering heat: it was July in central Italy after all - the time of year for hot scorching sun.
There was enough rain in Siena during the rest day to change the conditions on both the roads and the trails for the next day’s riding towards Firenze. Tracks had turned to mud, roads had got slick, but the air was also thankfully cooler. The distance between Siena and Firenze is not large although the muddy, slippery, rocky farm roads which snaked up the hills in-between, gave the ride some technical fun challenges. All the while, these farm roads were lined with the vineyards and forests of the Chianti region. This was an exception of the Tuscan rule - no rolling hills and fields graced with round hay bales waiting for pick up. Here, you climb, here you work and here you’ll ride tightly through the vineyards. After another creative route (read steep, muddy and rocky) down the hills and through the small towns, and Firenze explodes into view and life along the river Arno.
Firenze strikes you as a real city. A big city. The pedestrian and bike friendly centres of the smaller cities are present, but it’s big enough to have different ‘parts’ of the city flow into other parts and into other parts, rather than being one whole theme with minor changes in between (like Siena). In Firenze, the buildings are serious. They are impressive. They intimidate with their size and detail. Siena now seems like it was a warm up, still impressive, but just not to scale. The Cathedral, Ponte Vecchio, Neptuno, and the City Hall which was lit up in the Italian colours. The expensive coffee and food. With only one evening it’s impossible to explore and appreciate the whole city, but it’s definitely worth the time to back and wander more.
Up and over (Su e giù)
The Apennines again loom in the near future - but there is one more stop in the Barbarino region of Italy, slightly north of Firenze, before tackling the climbing challenge of the Apennines. The Barbarino region sits in a bowl-like valley reached by climbing some small hills, and then zipping down the other side to the Borgo di San Lorenzo - a small town with big town aspirations. The climb was steady, not too difficult, and surrounded by low-clipped fields which had been harvested into large hay bales, which sat in place, waiting to be picked up and driven off to storage for the winter. At the summit of this simple climb, was one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole trip, a wide open field scattered with hay bales. From that field was a breathtaking view looking down at Firenze as it lay there, in the valley. I couldn’t help thinking of the pilgrims, the traders, the peasants, the shepherds, the cyclists, who would all crest this hill (heading towards Firenze), and be greeted with the same view. How awe inspiring it must have been in Medieval times, that Il Duomo could be seen from this far away, and how it must have dominated sight and mind for the journey down the hill.
Benvenuto a Firenze.
But for now, I was in Galliano di Mugello - the antithesis of Firenze.
Small. One piazza. One group of old men staring at me from the caffè. One restaurant. One (nice looking) tower. The view from the B&B/restaurant/bar/caffè that evening was a final hurrah to the tree-lined rolling fields and hills of Tuscany. The next morning the cypress trees stood to attention as they lined the road outside the B&B, and acknowledged the bicycles passing through this living green corridor for the last time. A salutation and gentle release before a rude awakening as the tough climbing began - almost 16 km of it - along a beautifully quiet and winding road.
It was the Apennines again.
The climb up to the Furta Pass had views back into the Mugello valley and views of the undulating crest of the mountain ahead. Once past the Furta Pass, the rolling crest of the mountains never seemed to truly begin or end, and the next 50 km was spent continuously sweeping up and zipping down these high-top rollers. But then, without warning, without a view, and without a gradual increase in building density, Bologna and Emilia-Romagna arrived.
As one of the main towns in Emilia-Romagna, Bologna felt like a big city again. Diverse people, different languages, different architecture (less grand/showy, more functional), and a really well-established network of bicycle lanes. From protected lanes in the middle of boulevards, to protected lanes on the side of roads, or protected contra-flow lanes, or highly visibly painted lanes on shared pedestrian paths. It was truly a great place to ride a bike. Otherwise, (and slightly disappointingly) Bologna didn’t jump out a grab my attention. It was fine. There was a medieval canal, surrounded by restaurants and bars which claimed the title of ‘Piccola Venezia’ (Little Venice). There was Dante’s tomb. There were some very fancy macaron restaurants. A quite spectacular statue of Neptune and some naked Nereids, showing off their lactation skills. It was a cool city, but it didn’t jump out and grab me like Siena or Firenze. Bologna was not in the spectacular countryside of Tuscany, where just being in its midst would be sufficient to impress people. Of course, in Bologna you have one foot in the industrial and bustling north, so you’d better be here for a reason. Chop, chop, we’ve got things to do here folks.
The next stop, Ravenna, seemed much more appealing. The route between Bologna and Ravenna ran along a canal, was completely flat and was essentially all on cycle tracks or cycle paths or gravel roads. It sounded just great. A rest day that wasn’t a rest day. Even better the route would clip the coast before tucking in just a little bit towards Ravenna. Easy.
Oh how foolish one can be.
The Heat (il caldo)
Lying east of the Apennines and of Bologna is the Po River valley. An ancient floodplain of one of the main rivers in Italy - the Po. The floodplain is fertile and flat - similar to the dredged lake near Avezanno. Agriculture dominates the area, with crops, rice, fruit and animals (pigs and cows) farmed there, so would be expecting safe riding away from cars and other traffic. The route to Ravenna made its way out of Bologna on purely cycle paths and tracks, even some old canal towpaths, which were absolute bliss to ride on. In the city, the ride felt safe, and on the tracks and tow paths, the runners, walkers and other cyclists were very convivial. But, from about 18 km outside of Bologna until 100 km (or 6.5 h) into the ride, the riding became much tougher.
It was a hot day, probably around 30-32 C, and the ‘bike paths’ were in actual fact gravel farm roads, used to access orchards and fields of crops. The roads were long, straight, and momentum-sapping, requiring constant pressure on the pedals. These roads were also away from any civilization… towns, villages, tarmac roads. Apart from the occasionally abandoned villa, any ‘place’ was some distance from the farm roads. So, for those 100 km, except a small sandwich shop in San Biagio, it was like riding in an oven, with no help and no shade. I switched to breathing only through my nose, so I could limit the moisture loss from my mouth - an effective, but extreme measure.
I have never stolen anything before, but as the fields and fields of apple orchards passed by, the temptation got larger and larger, until I could resist no more and took - OK stole - a couple of apples from the trees. They were tart, small, and quite dry, but I sucked every drop of moisture from them that I could. As my water bottles ran low, it would be the last moisture for a while.
This tour had continued to throw new landscapes down in front of my wheels, and today was no exception. After the dessicated gravel roads of the Po Valley, the National Park of the Po River Delta came into view, just before the sea. Wide salt lagoons, divided like a chess board by gravel roads and bridges, made for great bicycling. Dotted throughout these lagoons were flocks of flamingoes. Points of pink standing one-legged amongst the shimmering light blue of the water’s surface. It was a completely unexpected, out of this world surprise, and a real sight for sore eyes after a brutal day of being cooked by the Italian sun. But the day was not over - it was one of the tour’s longest day’s riding - and there was still the beach on the ocean, and the final hook around into Ravenna through the marina to finish up.
Casalborsetti is a very typical small Italian beach town. There are a couple of small lidos with a caffè and bar, and each surrounded by densely-packed, and fully booked hotels. Young boys and girls tanned to a dark chestnut color, run around with footballs and inflatable creatures, seemingly changing games mid-step, and yet somehow keeping up with each other. Then they tear through a game of beach volleyball, causing complete chaos complete flying sand, and a typical Italian amount of shouting and handwaving.
The lido’s bar provided a rejuvenating water stop, and a moment’s pause to take in the other side of Italy. Past the heads of the beachgoers, the sea was blue and tranquil. In this town, right next to the Po Delta, the vibe was chilled. This vibe did not continue southwards towards the Marina di Ravenna, and Ravenna itself (which is slightly inland). The marina was an industrial marina - with aspects of roads that I hadn’t seen since, well, Boston. Large roundabouts, a shopping mall with a clogged entrance/exit. Traffic. Honking. Ergh. Pushing through the mess, and towards the real Ravenna, the roads became smaller, and suddenly Ravenna was present.
The past is alive (il passato viva)
Ravenna’s city centre with its 7 UNESCO heritage sites, was all around. Churches, mausoleums, little bars and restaurants. Ravenna is yet another city built when cities were built for people rather than cars and parking. And as people milled around in the roads, mixing with the scooters and bicycles, no-one was worried or frightened. The occasional car slunk past, looking the other way, pretending not to be there.
Ravenna is famous for its mosaics which date from around the first century AD. When the stories of Jesus were still widely believed and a powerful means of controlling the population. Rich families competed to show the most worth to their society, and so built offerings to Jesus and God and the rest of the crew. The mosaics that these families built, and the buildings containing them, still stand today. Amazingly, the mosaics still have all the color and vivacity that they did back then. The paintings, which also decorate walls of some of these churches have faded, and are barely visible.
The mosaics are truly stunning and Ravenna, after showing its industrial and stinky underbelly, are the magnificent highlights of the city. The final rest day is to be spent here, which gives plenty of time to explore this unique city, as well as some of the local Emilia-Romagna cuisine (I particularly fell for the Crescenti fried bread). Ravenna is wonderful. History feels closer because of the bright mosaics and the personalities that are in them. Roman ruins are older, but there is a disconnect in time from then until now, because they feel like what they exactly are - ruins. The churches, towers and mausoleums of Ravenna feel old, but because of these ‘polaroids’ of mosaics, there is a more life-like connection to the people of the time.
After a rest day exploring in Ravenna, it was time to leave Italy for a day and enter the separate country of San Marino, which is located on a massive massive rock outcropping (technically a Klippe of allochthon formation - look it up, I know I had too!). The rock thrusts up through the earth’s crust, about halfway from the coast. But before getting to San Marino, there is still 60 km of riding, which passes through some more touristy beach spots (Cervia), a set of mountain bike trails (Pineta di Classe), Cesenatico (the hometown of Marco Pantani, il Pirata, and the port of which was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.). All of these beach spots are flat as a pancake - the last easy riding before turning towards the centre of Italy, where things would change with the Klippe of San Marino, and the slashes and chasms of La Marche and the central Apennines.
From the distance you can see San Marino on the horizon. This big - and I mean really big - chunk of rock just sits there. With a town on top. It’s shaped like a giant nose, lying on its back. A ‘gentle’ slope up one side followed by a precipitous drop on the other. From the east (the coast) all you can see are a couple of towers popping up on the blurred edge of the rock. “That can’t be it, surely”, was all that ran through my head. “That’s too far, and way too high”. But it was. And there was a bonus climb on the route - the town of Verruchio, which sat on a smaller, slightly less massive chunk of rock. It was not so daunting, and not so high, but thankfully had the reward of a lunch and a beautiful panoramic view, all the way down to the coast. It also had one of the most intricately wrought public drinking fountain.
San Marino as a town, is really not what I look for. If I say “It’s a tax haven” then you know what I’m talking about.
Souvenir shops, yes.
Jewelry, electronics, antique shops, but of course, it’s tax free.
There was little soul in the centre of town - the wonderful medieval architecture had been jam packed with all these expensive knick-knack shops, so that honestly it was quite depressing. However, the saving grace of San Marino was the Tolkein-like towers which had been visible all the way from Cesenatico on the coast. These three towers were right on the edge of town, and right on the edge of the rock. From these there was a stunning vista of the plains below and the sea in the distance. This made the trip to San Marino worthwhile. I don’t need to buy a necklace or a watch or an iPod, I’ll take a free view of the ocean from one of these towers any day.
San Marino was not the last of these ground-breaking rocks pushing themselves up from the ground like gigantic granite zombies. The next day the route wound through one more, near the cute medieval university town of Urbino. This rock was everything that San Marino was not. Quiet, green, and beautiful. The whole of the rock was covered by a regional park. The gentle climb took you through the green canopy, up the gentle slope, before whizzing insanely fast down the steep part of the ‘nose’. This is the land of La Marche. Where in Tuscany you will find gentle hills, like waves rolling in the sea, La Marche is all about angles. Sharp angles, twisting roads, pointy painful corners.
Like a cracker broken on a table.
It would not surprise you therefore, that La Marche is the start of an active earthquake area. They happen here regularly. This is clear not only from the geography, but also in the towns. La Marche looks broken, looks dangerous, it looks rough, it looks active, it looks like it wants to make your life hard, and batter you around a bit. But the landscape is also so, so beautiful, you kind of have to forgive it.
The first night stop in La Marche was in Chiaserna, reached through the Furlo pass and the chasm-like walls of the valleys around the medieval town of Cagli. Chiaserna itself was in a steep-sided valley, with patches of rich green grass spread on the floor, where horses grazed happily, and on the steep sides. One of my favorite stops of the tour, was that night, both for the B&B, ‘Sentiero 54’, which was run by a generous Frenchwoman, and the (only) restaurant in town which served Nutella-pizza. Yes, I know. But, after a hard day of riding (105 km in total) and climbing (1900 m), you can eat what you like, remember?
Earthquakes and rivers help shape a geography - and the chasm that flew away from Chiaserna the day after, looked like it had been formed by both. The thin ribbon of road clung tightly to the cliffside as it zigzagged crazily and exhilaratingly through the valley and down to the bottom on the other side [there’s nothing like waving to the flash of motorcycles as they join you on the downhill!]. From the valley floor, wide gravel roads continued to rip down to Fabriano, until, as by now you realize, the final stretch is always uphill. And so it was to the night’s stop at Camerino. Oh, Camerino - one of the strangest towns I have ever seen.
The Apennines are still an active earthquake zone. Around 2016 a relatively large one hit this area of the Apennines. It tore through the region, completely destroying Amatrice (of the famous pasta dish), and continued its destructive stroll southwards, picking up more towns along the way, including 3 towns on this tour - Norcia, L’Aquila, and Camerino. The hotel in Camerino felt strange. It felt like a mix between a hostel and a hotel (the difference a letter can make), although the owner was completely delightful.
‘You know there was an earthquake, right?’
’There’s one restaurant in town, and an area you can’t go past.’
‘OK, I’d better book a table then’
Talk about an underestimation.
The ho(s)tel was technically in Camerino, but maybe 10 minutes walk from the old town which was up on the hill. The walk started normally, a bar, some narrow roads, and some construction to reinforce a wall on the road. The first notable building was a large church on a piazza at the bottom of the old town. A very bright and colorful wedding was finishing up in front of the church, and in the traditional Italian way: with the bride and groom emerging on to the steps outside to thank and greet all the guests.The air was filled with paper confetti and streamers, and the happy babble of the attendees. Past the noisy church, a small bar sat on its own small piazza, with the other Italian tradition of 5 or so old men, drinking espresso and watching you walk by. And past the small bar was emptiness. Empty streets. Empty shops. Empty houses.
Perhaps the right word to use is deserted. There was a look of a rushed retreat from the entire town. Bags were left standing in the shops. Posters for upcoming events were stuck in 2016. Dust was everywhere. Deeper and deeper into the town, buildings were strapped together with steel cables, or steel reinforcing rods, or surrounded by scaffolding and nets to catch falling debris. The main piazza was quiet and empty. The town hall was wrapped up tightly to prevent collapse.
There were many streets which were blocked from entry by fences, and in one small piazza, lurked a military vehicle with four soldiers inside. Their faces looking curiously out and their eyes following anyone who walked by. “Who the hell would be wandering around here”, they were probably thinking. “Who the hell would want to sit there in that all night”, I was thinking.
But, there was also a faint music in the air. And then there was a weak light, and then there appeared the oasis that was the only restaurant in Camerino.
The next day’s route still headed south, and so the next day continued to trace the lines of earthquake destruction. The landscape was cracked and broken, with steep cliff walls, and deep bottoms, but all the time covered in green of vibrant vegetation. Although this area was haunted by continuous destruction, it was more alive than the brown hills of Tuscany, or the flat oven of Emilia Romagna. The climbs and descents on the bike were more vicious, and if they were on smaller farm roads, then they were often broken roads as well to make up for the lack of distance. Just looking at the elevation profile of the day from Camerino, there are 4 climbs of at least 2 km in length, and all touching on and around 15%. Although this day didn’t have the longest climbs, or the steepest climbs, it was perhaps the most technically difficult day of climbing. The roads of the climbs were all broken up, and the roads of the descents, were all farm roads, with mixtures of cobbles, rocks and grass. With a similar gradient to the climb, and whereas climbing requires strong legs, good lungs, and some technique, descending on uneven terrain down 15% gradient requires a full body effort and weight distribution par excellence. And after a long day of steep, rough climbing and descending, the last descent into Norcia was a classic beat-you-up. Don’t overuse your back brake (you’ll skid and lose control); don’t overuse the front brake (you’ll go over the handle bars); and get you bum well out back over the rear wheel for balance; and feather those brakes.
Norcia is well known for black summer truffles, which are found around the region and used in everything; olive oil, cheese, salami. Norcia even also has its own Norcia Salame, which has a strong distinctive taste to it (to do with smoking the meat, and not truffles, oddly). Norcia is also known as one of the towns which has been hit hard by earthquakes, although the main street of Norcia is full of restaurants, bars, and touristy shops, it is really only this street which has everyday life to it - the main piazza is pretty desolate.Norcia’s main church is there, or at least the main facade of the church is the, and this is being held up by scaffolding, as the rest of the church is rubble behind. The church is currently just a wall with a door and windows. But, the people in Norcia were quite lovely, and used to, and happy to see both bicycle and motorcycle tourists coming through. Of course, it goes without saying, cars were most restricted to the outer areas of Norcia. Inside the fragile centre which was being rebuilt physically and figuratively, it was people and bikes.
The next two days were going to be longer and more difficult than initially planned because of the complications of COVID test scheduling. The route and the hanging landscapes would be the same, and as rewarding, but the daily distance would have to be elongated a bit, and the time to dawdle would be slightly squeezed. The route for the day still followed the line of the earthquake through the Apennines from Norcia through L’Aquila to Celano in Abruzzo, which was the neighboring town to Avezzano - the town of the first night. Still dancing with the Apennines, the route went up two major climbs and 1 minor climb, with 2000 meters (6000 ft) of climbing in 130 km (80 miles), and as I whipped down a descent into Cittareale, it occurred to me that I had spent a good amount of time on the computer, fixing the route so that it would run through ‘the wiggly’ parts. It took me ages to get it routed correctly on the map on the computer, but in the end, as the route went through Cittareale, the wiggly roads to follow were obvious. The route that you take will get you to the places you need, but sometimes its just best to be making decisions on the ground. No major route changes, or skipping of large route sections, just little nips and tucks, here and there, to keep the flow and to keep moving. Which is what riding a bike is all about.
As the little road wound its away around and through little villages and towns, the reminders of earthquake activities were still present. Abandoned and boarded up buildings on the side of the road, or houses with braced walls or roofs, still inhabited. Pretty much every one of these towns bore the scars of trouble, and yet the most infamous earthquake casualty - L’Aquila - was one of the last places I saw these wounds. L’Aquila could have survived the multiple earthquakes in the region, if the construction industry hadn’t become infected by the southern Italian Mafia. Much of the buildings in L’Aquila were built by these Mafia groups - and built poorly (‘with sand’ as I was told several times), and cheaply, so that the Mafia left with a tonne of money, and the City of L’Aquila was left with a city less strong than a Lego castle. The big earthquake came in the early 2000s, and leveled the place. No steel cables and steel reinforced rods could help the buildings here. It was destroyed. Federal money and support came to its aid so that it has been mostly rebuilt (not with Mafia connections), but it still felt like an empty city. There was the typical large city, outer edges traffic madness, but once through that and to the pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly centre, the city was quiet. Almost as if someone had hit the ‘Pause’ button after the earthquake, and had forgotten to hit the ‘Play’ to get it going again.
The return (il ritorno)
L’Aquila sits in a valley within the Apennines. Celano, also sits in a (different) valley (above that drained lake near Azevanno). In between the two towns was about 80 km of riding and a bunch of climbing, including an initial 12 km climb (of around 12%) into the Sirente Velino Regional Park. An expanse of open meadows and fields surrounded on all side by small mountains, with one road (and a neighboring cycle track) passing through. It was also a false flat, so that you never truly felt like you reached the summit of the 12 km climb. Instead you slowly made your way up the slope, alongside the meadows and in-between the mountains. An extra bonus was the view of Grand Sasso (Big Rock) and its glacier off in the distance. Then, and only then, once you have fully paid the price of admission, came the the 12 km switchbacking, flowing, madly-fun descent from Ovindoli (the last town art the tip of the regional park) to the castle city of Celano.
The outbound tour route and now the inbound/southerly tour route were now almost touching - in fact on the final day, the two routes would cross in Avezzano, as the final day’s ‘flat’ stage went around the final large hills and potato fields this time. OK, there was one climb to get out of Avezanno, which also provided another view of the city-by-the-drained-lake, but it was relatively short and very gentle.
Celano is slightly higher up in the hills than Avezanno (which was on the lip of the lake), and so the view from that night’s restaurant was fantastic. It reminded me a bit of Los Angeles: a big bowl valley,with the evening’s settling haze making the lights flicker in the distance. I hate LA. I do not hate Celano.
Early on the 17th morning of the tour, after the usual cappuccino and cornetto con Nutella, and criss-crossing the earlier outbound tour route I ground up the gentle climb - taking time to take in the view of Avezanno. As the descent from this climb on the other side of the hill built momentum, and speed, the end of the tour approached rapidly. It was like being catapulted from the final hill down a steep and then an ever shallowing gradient as the final stretches of road to San Donato, took me through towns I already vaguely knew: Balsorano, Sora, Vicalvi, Alvito and finally to San Donato. The sheep stared at the cyclist riding by, chewing thoughtfully as their brethren further north had chewed throughout the tour. Farmers yelled at each other, as they manipulated the hale bales onto the back of dodgy looking lorries. The occasional scooter zipped by, and the large doorways were filled by old women, leaning on their mops staring, and now doubt judging me, as I went by.
In a tour of incredible diversity of landscape and people, there were still so many common threads tying each together. And like everywhere across the world, we are more similar than we are different — something we all need to remember more often.