Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Google translate, what a beautiful thing. It sure saved us more than a few times as we stared aimlessly at both menus and waiters, followed by each other as we tried to decipher what the heck was being said. Luckily Italians love nothing more than to flamboyantly throw their hands around as they speak, so from this we managed to agree on something (or just pretend) and sit and wait in wonder as to what was to appear from their amazing kitchens!
Sorry, I have been rather slack on the blog front as of late, but for once I have the best excuse – four weeks of blissful travel. The first two were spent with my sister Flick (and a very quickly growing plus one), her husband Sam and Gina, my brother’s girlfriend. This was then followed by two amazing weeks cruising through Tuscany on my bici (bike) with Richie Johnston.
When the opportunity arose to do a self-guided bike ride through Italy with Richie, it wasn’t one I was going to turn down. Never mind that I didn’t have a bike, in fact, the only thing I had bought to London with me related to cycling was my bike shorts! I was entirely new for bike-touring, so it was a quick lesson with some interesting words added to the vocab list. After a bit of research (no, a road bike isn’t ideal for bike touring) I purchased Pepe (Italian for pepper), a great little Specialized hybrid bike to take me on my travels. I was expecting a love-hate relationship with my new stead, but I’m happy to report it was very one-sided; she was an absolute dream!
We flew into Bologna from London and were met by Matteo, a friend of Richie’s who picked us up then headed back to his place on the outskirts of the city. Super excited to be starting our trip we unpacked the bikes before being introduced to our first Italian meal; homemade pasta accompanied with red wine. Start as you wish to continue! I remember Matteo’s quote at lunch that day very clearly, ‘water makes you rusty’. After this, I knew we were going to get along just fine.
Later that afternoon we packed the bikes into Matteo’s car and headed into Bologna to cruise through the streets of this beautiful town. It was our first real taste of the architecture and people of this fantastic country and set a very high precedent for the days ahead. After stopping for a few red wines and some delicious antipasto, it was back on the bikes and out of the city walls to the car. Having hardly ever driven a car, let alone a bike, on the right-hand side of the road meant full concentration was needed! I was fine when following the boys, but as soon as they were out of site natural instinct is to go to the left, not ideal around a tight corner! I managed to avoid the oncoming car, laughed out loud at the close call and needless to say that was one of the only ‘wrong sides of the road’ situations during the entire trip (thankfully).
Matteo’s place was amazing (oh so Italian), so we decided to stay put for another night and make a day trip around the countryside of Bologna before setting off on our travels the following day. We set the bikes up with the panniers and additional bags (without anything actually in them!) to make sure everything was tickety-boo. We clocked up 35km over a few hours, buying lunch from the local supermarket along the way and stopping roadside to eat and take in the fantastic views. That night we roughly plotted our course with Matteo, with different options and detours depending on how we were feeling when we arrived at each town along the way. Things were all set and packed up ready for the adventures to begin.
Over the next six days, we covered just less than 500 km, making our way south from Emilia Romagna into Toscana (Tuscany) and finally into Lazio, ending the trip in the madness that is Rome. It really was what I had imagined it to be and more. We were extremely fortunate with the weather, only pulling the jackets out of the panniers a couple of times, one being the first day heading for Florence. Thankfully the jackets were traded for much-needed sunscreen and thus acquired some sweet biking tan lines!
On the first day heading for Florence, we covered 85km, which turned out to be our biggest day of cycling and probably the hardest terrain wise also. I’m glad it was at the start! In saying that, it was still an extremely enjoyable ride. After a never-ending climb, we came to the top of the pass and stopped for a refuel at the little café. The well-earned espresso and prosciutto and cheese sandwich was heavenly; so simple yet so delicious!
We were now officially cycling through Tuscany (dream!) and over the next couple of hours encountered many amazing little towns and beautiful countryside. Skipping the Autostrade and taking the back-roads meant for minimal traffic too which made for amazing riding. After our final climb for the day, we came around the corner with Florence set out below us. It was an amazing site; a sea of orange roofs ahead of us and some sweet downhill is something I won’t be forgetting in a hurry!
Negotiating the cars and bustle of the city we (I say we, it was all Richie, I just followed) found our way to the train station near the heart of the city without too much drama. I was all for cycling on the footpaths a couple of time though, six lanes wide and horns continually going off wasn’t something I was that keen to get amongst! We found our accommodation where we stayed for the next two nights while exploring this beautiful city, sampling as many different flavours of Gelato that the stomach would allow.
I’m a huge art history fan having taken the subject at school, so seeing images and sculptures in the flesh instead of the classroom was incredible. So many highlights and unexpected pieces but nothing beats Michaelangelo’s David in Florence and the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Un-expectantly catching up with the Pope in St Peter’s Basilica wasn’t too bad either. We did think we were extra special until we realised this happens every Wednesday morning.
Taking two wheels instead of four meant we came across so many places that we most likely wouldn’t have ventured into, not to mention enjoying the sun on your face and the fresh smell of the countryside. One such place was a small town called Greve. We had managed to make our way out of Florence and were heading for Siena when we cruised into this very unassuming little town, known for its wine (even more so than the rest of Italy). We were making good time so decided to stop for lunch. Our general rule for the trip was to have picnic style lunches and then head out for dinners. I am so glad we went against this in Greve. I’ve never been a huge fan of gnocchi, but I’m all for trying something new so decided to give it a go. Wow. I didn’t order it again on the entire trip for fear of it not living up to my newfound expectations! This random little stop for lunch in a beautiful square hidden from the road became the meal of the trip and one of our top three places in Italy.
Cycling through Tuscany was amazing; many times we just stopped (mine were mostly heading up hills!!) and admired the views. Church bells were ringing, olives groves and vineyards as far as the eye can see, the smell of cut grass (an upside of going in spring) and just the fact that you are cruising along on two wheels made me pinch myself more than once. I like cycling, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I think this may be starting to change. This was in complete contrast to what we experienced a few days later in Rome however! We needed to change accommodation, so the bikes were all packed ready to go. In very untypical Italy fashion it was pouring with rain which meant the cobblestones were extremely slippery, adding another dimension to the experience. With Richie leading the way (again!) I did my best to keep up with him, but with cars pulling out in all direction and travelling both roads I very quickly lost sight of him. I could only laugh as I thought of the situation I was in! Was this really happening? If I could tackle the streets of Rome in the wet on my bike, I could go anywhere! Luckily I caught Richie’s jacket out of the corner of my eye and chased him up the side street. It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened if I had carried on straight!
After Florence we headed to Siena which we found very touristy so didn’t stay long here, although an amazing city all the same. So much history inside the old walls and it was here we discovered the best Panforte from this delightful little deli. So delicious and initially bought for a snack while riding the next day, but as with most of the food we bought it didn’t quite make it that far!
Amazing colourful fruit stalls along the way; Entering into another walled city; Wonderful colour everywhere.
The rest of the trip south followed the same theme of great little paces, amazing food, amazing people and stunning scenery. We stayed in Pienza one night where we experienced true ‘mama Italia’ cooking with only family running the restaurant. Again this was down a small side street, and we knew we’d hit the jackpot when people were lining up waiting outside for tables to become available.
From Pienza, we travelled out of Tuscany to Bolsena, more of a medieval town set on the edge of a lake. We decided it had a very Taupo feel, with a bit more history (just a smidge). Feeling very much like a scene from Game of Thrones, it was nice to cruise around somewhere with a different vibe. Leaving here we set off for the last day riding of our trip with the compulsory stop at the first town for our crème croissant and espresso for breakfast. Such a great incentive to get up and go in the mornings! We decided trying to navigate the streets into Rome might be a bit hectic, so we picked a small town called Orte, just on the outskirts of Rome, to catch the train for the final leg of our journey. The last five kilometres on our bikes was a sweet downhill to the train station, a very fitting and enjoyable end to what was an absolutely amazing introduction to bike touring. I may have set the bar very high, but the cogs are already turning as I plan the next trip! France maybe… any takers?
I’ll sign off with a few things I learned while cycling through Italy:
Never pass up on an opportunity to go to Italy. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Richie is an extremely tolerant person!
I’m terrible at Italian. Terrible. This was my first real situation of having to use another language (not quite the intrepid traveller just yet!). I’d get all flustered and end up speaking French, or at least trying to (this is the only other language I know, albeit very basic at that). I may as well have been speaking Maori because they never understood me anyway! I did get the due caffè espresso e due cornetti alla crema per favour almost down pat towards the end of the trip though (go on, google it!).
I’m officially in my thirties and have become an accommodation snob! I turned my nose up at staying in a caravan and instead opted for a comfy bed with its own bathroom, even at double the cost (the caravan was seriously overpriced!).
I know some ‘rad’ new lingo after spending two weeks with a snowboarder. Now it’s just a matter of using these terms in the right context!
Travelling on a budget? Check out Air b’n’b (www.airbnb.co.uk), a great way to stay cheaply and experience the local hospitality on offer.
Just because you’re biking, it doesn’t mean you can eat two croissants for breakfast, salami, cheese and bread for lunch, followed by pasta and pizza for dinner. And don’t forget the generous amounts of red wine to go with it too!
It’s never too early to use butt butter.
Don’t wear green while cycling. Springtime meant there were lots of bees around and after wearing my green icebreaker for only one day, I got stung not once but twice!! Do you know how hard it is to take your top off with a helmet still on quickly? I can only imagine what the people driving past thought.
A new-found love affair with Chianti wine, and crème filled croissants, and artichokes, and gnocchi, and espresso… this list goes on, and it all revolves around food. The Italians sure know how to eat well.