Italy is unquestionably a cyclist’s (and coffee lover’s) paradise. It’s as if the country has been designed for the bike. Then again, for a nation that celebrates the romance of cycling with such style and passion it is hardly surprising. And thanks to Tullio Campagnolo’s ingenious invention – who changed the course of the history of the bicycle with the momentous words ‘Bisogno cambiá qualcossa de drio!‘ (something must change at the rear!) – of the first quick release wheel followed by the derailleur, Italy is one of the few countries that can be credited with revolutionising cycling beyond recognition. In evolutionary terms, it is akin to our own leap from walking on all fours to standing on two feet. Cycling in Italy is therefore surely in the blood as much as food, football and conversation. You only have to glance at the racing groups of lycra-clad riders with sinewy legs of pure muscle as they whizz passed on their feather-light carbon framed Bianchi dream machines to realise that they take their sport very, very seriously.
So, rocking up at a roadside Gelateria on an old-school steel frame Thorn Sherpa that could be described as a tank by comparison for a cool ice cream always attracts attention and some rather bemused looks. It’s also a great conversation starter and I’ve lost count of the number of times that fellow cyclists have come over to inspect the bike and share their touring experiences across Europe and further afield. There is a general respect for cyclists on the road too. Motorists will almost always give you bags of clearance with a friendly honk of the horn as they pass (apart from BMW drivers for some strange reason – surely the ‘ultimate driving machine’ has brakes and a steering wheel?); often shouting words of encouragement out of the window as you determinedly take on the hill covered in beads of sweat and dreaming of the next ice cream and espresso-fueled pit stop.
It’s the singular experience of encountering people on the road that takes on a special significance. One special moment is as follows… My cycling companion Richie and I had just hopped off the bikes to get some provisions when a sprightly elderly chap darted over from the old red clay brick church opposite. With a sparkle in his eyes, he asked where we had come from and were going to, before sharing his forthcoming cycle touring plans. He explained how he had cycled the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain last year and was now planning to cycle the Balkans this summer. In his animated hands was a card with a picture of the Virgin Mary framed by a bike chain.
‘Do you believe in God?’ he quizzed. I replied that I didn’t on the basis that there is no hard scientific evidence to prove the existence of a creator one way or another but do respect other people’s position of faith. ‘So are you against God?’ he shot back with a playful glint in his eye and promptly invited the priest over. It turned out coincidentally that the young priest cycles around the region giving services and he offered to translate the text from inside the card. Of course, it sounds much more beautiful in Italian than English but here is a rough translation:
The Cyclist’s Prayer (Preghiera del Ciclista)
“In cycling, call us to make good
the best physical, moral and spiritual
that you have given us with love.
Help us to build on these thy gifts
because the spirit is synonymous
with honesty, sincerity and respect.
In times of trouble you be the strength and courage.
Always support us in going forward and
Keep us from every form of evil.
Good Father we ask,
through the intercession of Mary,
Mother and beauty of caramel,
that our effort
and comparison with other increases in us
the spirit of charity
to all those we encounter on our journey”.
After the priest had read out the passage to us impressing carefully on the sound of each syllable, the older chap shook my hand reassuringly with the words: ‘Our meeting was not an accident or just a coincidence; things happen for a reason. Remember we are not alone,’ and bid us ‘buona fortuna’ (good luck), before skipping off past the church and down the cobbled road into the distance.
Respect; honesty; sincerity; charity; humility; protection; knowing your limits (I’m still working on this!).
Personally, the question of being a believer or not was almost beside the point; it was our faith in these universal characteristics and common shared humanity that we both could believe in.
Coast to Coast
Our meandering route to avoid busy roads at all costs (even if it meant an extra 200 metre climb) from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic has been a perfect introduction to southern Europe. The rolling hills and vineyards of Toscana unfold like a patchwork quilt of pastel coloured hues, becoming richer and more intense as the searing midday sun mellows to bathe the countryside in a soft afternoon light. Groves of gnarled olive trees stand between the rows of well manicured vines that show the first green shoots of this year’s grape harvest. Wildflower meadows border the cultivated soils and thickets of beech and chestnut trees provide the perfect opportunity to provide cover for ‘stealth’ camps along the way. A free camper’s paradise. Along the roadside, poppies sway in the breeze next to patches of purple Iris’ and pink foxgloves whilst bright green speckled lizards bask on the baking asphalt. As the evening sun slowly sets, the long shadows of poplar trees grow across the fields like nature’s very own brushstrokes, accentuating the contours of the land. It is easy to see why the constantly changing scenery and bountifulness of Toscana has inspired so many artists and painters.
If rural Toscana is the classical musical equivalent of an adagio, then the hilltop towns and villages are an architectural crescendo to the region’s natural beauty. The open courtyards and piazzas in towns like Siena and Pienza were the perfect place to munch on fresh fruit, enjoy a smooth doppia (double) macchiato, stretch the legs and do some people watching; watching them, watching us. Listening (but necessarily understanding) to conversations had to be a favourite pastime too. Italians simply love to talk. The rhythmic syllables and expressive Latin intonations is a joy to hear and watch. The conversation is just as much a visual exchange as it is vocal. Every point being made is accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders or the cutting of the air with a flourish of the hands. It’s as if the conversation is not only being spoken, but conducted. I suppose it is the descriptiveness of the language that adds to the conversational poetry. Author of The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones, who chronicles the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s political ambitions and vast business over the last decade points out that the more eloquent the concept, the more beautiful the word seems to be. For example, a bow-tie is a farfella (butterfly) and cuff-links are gemelli (twins). My favourite has to be the Cappuccino, said to derive from the quintessential sight of Capuchin monks in their brown/black habits whilst sporting a shock of white hair on top.
We left Toscana after stopping off at the UNESCO World City of Peace, Assisi, for a few hours to appreciate the ornate high vaulted Basilica’s and pay our respects at the tomb of St. Francesco. As we slowly climbed out of the town up the valley, the beech and chestnut gave way to the Umbrian pine, spruce, sycamore and oak. The uphills became longer (and more chocolate was required to get up them), whilst the downhills became faster (and scarier). Within a couple of day’s ride we were in the Monti Sibillini national park.
Putting our faith in a rusting old campsite sign (free camping in the national park can fetch a fine of up to 150 Euros) that sent us on a winding thirty minutes’ ride in the pitch dark to an empty lakeside campsite occupied only by a few deserted frame tents, a man and his dog, thankfully paid off the next morning. I love the overwhelming sense of wonder of arriving at a place in the dark and not really quite knowing what is around you, only to wake up to views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Add the sound of the trusty Bialetti giving off a full head of steam to the equation as it brews up a glorious 100% Arabica Nicaraguan espresso and it felt like heaven on earth. At the bottom of the campsite was an emerald coloured lake. Its deep mysterious waters were so still you could see the unbroken reflection of the 2000m plus peak that dominated the horizon above. As we glided a smooth, fast, winding, descent out of the national park, buzzards rode the thermals in the clear pine-scented air. It was time to get the Bialetti out again.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
If it’s not Renaissance art that wows you in Italy then it’s the Roman remains. Or both. The country appears to be one big incredible open air archaeological site. The high arched bridges, wall frescos, floor mosaics, crumbling amphitheatres, baths, aqueducts, hospitals, barracks and looming dry stone walls encompassing the remains of a once thriving market town nearly 2000 years ago make you realise what a truly industrious lot the Romans really were. Visiting the remains of the Urbs Salvia settlement in the Marche region built during the reign of Augustus was like traveling back in time. On the outskirts of the town, there stands the remains of a large amphitheatre peculiarly ringed with a crown of oak trees. The amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial contests and you could almost hear the roar of the crowd echoing across the centuries as you walked down through the main vomitorium opening out into the auditorium below. It makes you wonder how much has popular culture really changed in two millennia? Celebrities of the day had to ‘win the crowd’ by fighting for their freedom; today, it’s celebrity death by text message.
A Fine Italian Blend
Of course it is impossible to talk about Italy without mentioning coffee. Alongside the ubiquitous international brands such as Illy and Zagfredo, it is heartening to see there is usually a traditional coffee shop in each town offering its very own house-roasted Italian blend. My preferred hit had to be the Caffè Macchiato (which literally means ‘stained’ or ‘marked’ with milk) taken with honey. A consistently strong and aromatic coffee. The other is the after dinner Caffè Corretto, usually served with locally produced grappa, brandy or aniseed-flavoured liquor. Yum.
I will be sad to leave Italy. It’s made a big impression on me and the Italian connection with coffee that I have often wondered about now finally makes perfect sense. It is often said that food and drink say a lot about a culture so it stands to reason that the convivial and sociable aspects of coffee drinking go hand-in-hand with the Italian approach to la ‘dolce vita’ (the sweet life), love for food and passion for conversation. It seems such a perfectly natural, happy marriage. And long may it continue.
The last day of cycling in Italy was also auspicious for the very reason that I passed my first milestone 1000 kms on the road so far. Despite this diminutive figure in comparison to the overall distance, I still could not help feel a small sense of achievement and decided to mark the moment with the help of two friendly young local cyclists, Matthew and Erico, who joined us for a short stretch towards the port of Ancona and kindly lent me their front wheels for the obligatory roadside photo-op:
Next stop, Greece.