Renée Le Verrier Andy Meyer
While one can't ride through Venice, it is still possible to start a bike trip there. The first day of riding began early on a crisp clear morning.
While Ravenna, a medieval city with cobble-lined streets and a bustle of small shops was a relief, to get there, we found ourselves riding along 30 miles of seaside strip akin to Hampton Beach. Happily, our route turned west into the mountains of Umbria. Instantly, the scenery changed to what would expect and hope for in Italy. Steeply rolling farmland of grapes and sunflowers expanded from either side of ridge roads en route to the Umbrian towns of Urbino and Gubbio. The only other bikes we saw in this region were upright three-speeds ridden by older women in black dresses and men of all ages in various styles of suits. The morning's mopeds and truck fumes along the beachway faded as soon as we turned into the mountains. The were replaced with a wonderful mix of sights, sounds, and smells. Church bells, village conversations, herbs and sauces all greeted us as we rode through the small mountain villages.
Most towns consisted of a fortified castle with several churches at the top of the highest peak in sight. Brightly clad Italian racers drafted, then passed us on the way up to these hilltop villages. Cycling has a language of its own. Most riders waved or called out ?ciao?.
These old towns with stone walls, Roman buildings, and cobble stoned streets, looked ancient and foreboding from the outside. Inside, they were alive with the bustle of students, locals, shopkeepers, music, outdoor cafes, and small hotels. We never had any trouble finding a reasonable hotel in any of these towns. Only in Rome, Venice and Florence had we bothered with reservations. Since we were traveling in September, we had no trouble with hotels. While we were occasionally given directions to the local campground, our fragmented Italian was sufficient to convince people that we in fact wanted a hotel room.
Leaving Urbino, the route we had chosen led us down a wild, rough descent, that led to a hairpin turn, and went straight back up. Glancing at the map, we decided to explore an unmarked path to the left. Gravel and stone, it rose steeply, but we discovered at the top that it followed the ridge for miles. Probably an old Roman road, we found ourselves pedaling through an impressionistic countryside of olive groves, fig trees, and grape vines. While only days earlier, we were bemoaning that no tour group would have gone along those ugly flat roads, we were thrilled with this discovery. What goes up must come down. We enjoyed a glorious 5-mile descent into the outskirts of Gubbio before a quick swoop up into the city. Gubbio, a medieval artisan's village is worth an extra day.
Unlike the last two towns, the approach to Assisi was different. Instead of catching glimpses of steeples and castle towers in the distance, we were in the thick of the trees when we were only a few miles from the town. We checked the map. We checked the compass. It must be there. Then, turning a corner, it appeared. A majestic silhouette of the ancient fortress appeared on the top of a hill. By now, we should have expected this, since every town is at the top of a hill. That's where the castles were built, and church steeples erected. Assisi is worth an extra day, although scaffolding still lined the streets from the earthquake.
Regardless of whether we were in a big city or small village, we never went wrong with food. One of our goals was to try an antipasto in every place we stopped. They varied enormously, and were always mouth watering. Pizza, which we discovered is quite different from in the States, also varied from region to region. In September everything was ripe, and our meals reflected that. Fresh olives, tomatoes, eggplants, fruits, figs and peaches were everywhere. It was an ideal time for biking.
On route to Florence, we stopped in Arrezo, an unremarkable industrial town in a valley between very remarkable mountains. The switchbacks provided glorious scenery on the way up, and miles of fun on the way down.
Next stop: Florence. Three days was not enough. If you can swing it (and even if you can't) stay at Torre di Bellosguardo, a fourteenth century castle on a hill overlooking the city reminiscent of "Room with a View". When we pulled into the city, we were staring at maps, looking for our castle, when an Australian tour guide strolled up, and helped us navigate the city. It was another example of just how friendly people were throughout the trip.
Though leaving Florence was difficult, we did want to get back on our bikes. We were not sure which route we wanted to take to Rome; coastal or inland. Given our earlier coastal experience, we decided to stay in the mountains through Chianti, despite some recommendations that the coastal area was beautiful. We don't know what we missed on the coast, but what we did discover was the pleasant lakeside village of Bolsena.
Riding out Florence, the terrain was quintessential cycling. Rolling and scenic small roads twisted their way through olive groves and vineyards, past small mansions. This was riding through a post-card of Italy.
The approach to Bolsena was lovely, until we actually arrived at the town. Along the lake, was a pleasant, though unremarkable new town. Only after we climbed to the old city on the hill did we discover Bolsena's true charm.
Our last riding day took us to Rome. The terrain was flatter, the temperature was hotter, and the mopeds mightier. Once we were actually in Rome, riding a bicycle was not uncomfortable, as long as we could flow with the moped traffic. To navigate, we would use a map to determine which direction to go in. We then relied on the compass and odometer to get us closer to our goal.
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