The Italian Riviera

As the deep-bass blast of the horn signaled our departure from Barcelona, an overwhelming sense of relief resonated through every fibre of my body. I was on my way at last. The overnight Grand Navi ferry that was to spirit us to Genova just shy of twenty hours was a rusting hull of a ship that had probably enjoyed its last lick of paint sometime back in the 1970s. The fact that it was proudly called the ‘Excellent’ seemed to add to its general aura of faded glory, now overtaken by air travel and the perpetual pursuit for speed. Still, the Excellent was no slouch and resolutely ploughed (and occasionally groaned) its way through the Mediterranean waves at a steady 40 knots per hour.

Waiting to be given the green light to roll off the ferry the following afternoon alongside the truckers seemed to be a fitting metaphor for the style of riding that cycle touring with a heavily loaded bike demands; it’s still cycling in the sense that you are creating forward motion with each turn of the pedals but there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re in control of a heavy goods vehicle. Momentum is all.

This of course does have its many advantages (especially downhill) but negotiating a safe passage out of Genova did pose its challenges. The first was not to get swept up by the fast-moving traffic onto the seemingly suicidal four-lane Autostrada where near death experiences surely awaited; performing U-turns on a two-wheeled HGV can be a tricky business on busy roads. A few pit stops to make the necessary adjustments to the gear, don the waterproofs, get the right bearings on the map and we left the grey concrete and drizzle of the city behind to enter the verdant coastline of the La Riviera Ligure di Levante.

There is no denying that some of hills have been pretty brutal on the uninitiated legs muscles so far but it is easy to forget the pain and become lost in the pleasure of passing through the lush scenery of the Cinque Terre (Five Villages) national park. Cycling along the undulating road that hugs the coastline and meanders through old rustic villages, sleepy harbour towns and pine forests has been nothing short of blissful. Terraced hills that plunge to the sea below offer the perfect climatic conditions for wine production in the region. Each balconied terrace on the hillside is supported by centuries-old dry walls that reflect the April sun’s gentle rays; accelerating the growth of the  grapes. The cool air breezing up from the shoreline also provides the optimum weather for cycling and we soon got into the rhythm of grinding up the hills at a snail’s pace only to stop momentarily at the top to enjoy the sweeping views before charging down the other side at swift pace. The ringing of church bells became a tranquil metronome to the melody of birdsong as swallows dived and swooped through the olive orchards beside the road.

The icing on the cake were the free camp opportunities as the wooded hillside offered total seclusion – and peace of mind from the chance of being rumbled by passing walkers or farmers – and we managed to get three in the bag without too much effort. The reward at the end of a hard days cycle was a steaming mug of hot chocolate under the wooded canopy as stars twinkled through the trees on calm, moonless nights.

The succession of free camps did however take its toll and I was distinctly beginning to hum by the time we reached Pisa.  So it was a good moment to book into a youth hostel and enter the domestic world again of warm showers, fresh bed linen and a kitchen to cook up some fresh slap-up pasta and pesto washed down with the ubiquitous vino rosso. In country where wine can be cheaper than water, even a one euro carton of the stuff tastes pretty good. Pisa is a quintessentially picturesque Italian, Roman-walled town. Forgive me for stating the obvious here but the freestanding Torre pendente di Pisa sure does lean. Precariously so. It’s like the whole structure has been rotated on a 30 degree angle and somehow seems to defy the law of gravity. Grandiose architecture aside, half of the fun is watching the hordes of tourists spending literally hours trying to line up their hands and bodies to achieve the classic illusion of ‘holding’ up the gleaming cylindrical arched structure from crashing to the ground. It’s an amusing scene as the prevailing vista is a field of people performing human statues, each striking a very similar angular pose.

The charm of Italy is already having its effect on me and for some reason the words of Johnny Nash keep coming into mind as the days begin to unfold in this stunningly beautiful country:

“I can see clearly now the rain has gone
I can can see all the obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day

I think I can make it now the pain has gone
And all the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been waiting for
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”


  • Robert

    Following on from the last comment – Read a review this weekend of an interesting-sounding book, ‘Chocolate Nations‘ by Orla Ryan. In it Ryan examines the Fairtrade model of a ‘fair price’ and also finds it wanting. Looking at the experience of West African cocoa producers she reckons that greater gains have come through the embedding of democracy: ‘Fairtrade did not bring about change in the Ghanaian cocoa villages; Fairtrade has piggybacked on the real democratic gains made by Ghana. The real change comes not from the split-second decision to pick up a bar of Divine, but from […] the realisation that farmers are not just producers. They are also voters.’

    BTW, I’ve got nothing against Fairtrade: I think it’s done fantastic work in making us in the North think about what we ought to be paying for coffee, chocolate, etc. Sadly global poverty is bigger than any single solution.

    • beanonabike

      Thanks for the lead Robert, interesting stuff. Of course, Fairtrade have done a huge amount to raise levels of awareness and to promote fairly traded products in the North whilst helping to give farmers a fair deal for their work in the south. It’s an interesting debate and I suppose that equitable trade and democracy do go hand in hand, if it is to be truly sustainable. The big question is the rise/volatility in the cost of coffee as a commodity on the global markets (plus the seizmic political changes we are seeing Africa for example) and how it will impact on the Fairtrade model into the future. I suppose it highlights that be it voters, consumers and/or growers, all have an impact far beyond the confines of the ballot box, checkout or plantation.

  • catherine

    Glad to know your on your way again. This weeks Radio4 Food Programme is about coffee. It will be on iPlayer soon.

    “With coffee prices at a 30 year high Sheila Dillon traces the money we pay for a cup along the supply chain and also hears how it raises big questions for Fairtrade.

    Recently the price for coffee on the world market broke through the important $3.00 barrier. Just a few years ago prices were as low as 60 cents.

    Speculation from investors is one reason, but other factors like growing demand for coffee in Brazil and China look like creating a long term spike in prices. So what does this mean for growers and what will this mean for us? Will we start to taste the difference as roasters in the UK are forced to source different and cheaper beans?

    This price spike also raises big questions for the Fairtrade model. Current prices are way above Fairtrade’s minimum price, so do coffee growers still need Fairtrade?”

    • beanonabike

      I’ve not had chance to listen to the podcast yet but the issue certainly raises some interesting questions – thanks for sending the link. Will try to catch it soon. My hunch is that we’ll see a change in blends over the long-term as roasters look increasingly to the cheaper Robusta variety in preference to the Arabica (and more expensive) bean. This spike in prices does look set to continue as the global thirst for coffee increases year-on-year, particularly from China. And then of course, there is the issue of climate change… Are we heading into a potential ‘perfect storm’ I blogged about earlier?

  • Pat & Ken Brown (saw you last at Celia& Harry's 50th.)

    Hi,Antony, Good to hear that you’re enjoying life, your ankle must have healed well in the end. Distance cycling in our family has moved on a generation – David & partner, Ruth, are coming to the end of a month tandem camping tour in N.Spain. Their previous overseas tour included riding along Italian coast S. from Genoa, helping out on an agric. holding near Florence, etc. , then ferry across to Slovenia ,&,with some use of trains,back along the Rhine & Holland to U.K. Shall follow your travels with interest, but not bore you with any more e-mails! All the best, Ken & Pat Brown.

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