I’m late posting this week because we’ve just got back from a cycling trip abroad. We chose the route on the basis of where our local airport, Leeds/Bradford, flies to, settling for Nice to Pisa along the Riviera.
Neither of us had ever been to that part of the Mediterranean before, and we didn’t do much homework in advance, just packing the bikes and a couple of panniers apiece and setting off. If we had researched the route properly first we’d have discovered that the coastal road is both hilly and heavily trafficked, while roads a short way inland (where they exist) are so steep as to be uncyclable unless you are twenty-something, on a lightweight road bike, luggage free and with a propensity for lycra – none of which applies to my dear husband and myself.
We slogged up and down hills, through dark tunnels and around rocky headlands, almost always with a constant stream of traffic passing by. In an attempt to get beyond Nice and Monaco before the road became busy we set off at 7am on the first morning, but it was already non-stop traffic. One of the long distance Eurovelo routes is planned for this coast and will supposedly be in place by 2020, but somehow I doubt it. There was little bike-specific provision and in many places it’s hard to see how a cycle path could possibly be fitted into the small gap between the sea and the high ground, fighting for space with the roads, rail links and harbours.
Even if a route could be found, this is a region of luxury villas and expensive hotels where land prices are sky high. Along the Cote d’Azur, and especially in Monaco, the cars were Ferraris, Bentleys and (curiously) Renault Twizys, while the boats in the harbour were of the ‘gin palace’ variety.
Once we crossed into Italy, both vehicles and vessels became more workaday.
Riding into Genoa was one of the scariest experiences of my cycling life – and I’ve ridden round the Damascus ring road in the rush hour. The roads were mainly dual carriageways with very fast moving traffic, including heavy lorries headed for the docks, and nowhere to go in an emergency. To make things worse, we had to cycle up some elevated sections – always an issue when you are going so much slower than the traffic, especially when you need to be in an outside lane to make a turn. We chickened out every now and again and pushed our bikes, but that didn’t feel much safer as there weren’t always footpaths running alongside the roads, nor pedestrian crossings to enable us to get where we needed to be.
It took us two hours to get from the outskirts of the city to our hotel in the old quarter, and by the time we arrived we were determined that we’d take the train or a ferry in order to get out of Genoa a couple of days later. In fact, we soon realised we’d have to anyway, to get past the famously hilly Cinque Terre area.
But we hadn’t banked on the fact that there weren’t any suitable ferries on the day we wanted to leave, and the stopping trains don’t take bikes during the summer months because they are brim full of tourists wanting to visit the Cinque Terre honeypots. The faster trains aren’t so full, but they don’t take bikes anyway. A kind man in the ticket office took pity on us and sold us tickets for ourselves and our bikes on a 7am train, but he warned us that it would be up to the train guard whether or not we’d be allowed to stay on beyond the stop before the Cinque Terre. That would have meant a 40km ride up and down steep hills in temperatures of 30°C, so we were very relieved the next morning to find there was plenty of room in the bike compartment of our train and also plenty of spare seats. A bunch of Italian cyclists who were headed up into the hills assured us that bikes were rarely thrown off this early train, and so it proved.
It was something of a shock to leave Pisa in bright sunshine at 30°C and land at Leeds-Bradford less than 3 hours later to find it overcast and 15°C. That’s a Yorkshire summer for you. Actually, it seems that we have missed some good weather at home, but bits of me (backs of hands, knees, insteps) are tanned to prove I’ve seen some sun too, so I don’t mind.
So what was good and what wasn’t?
- Following a school of dolphins (or possibly porpoises) along the Ligurian coast one afternoon.
- Three low-key but interesting Roman sites: Ventimiglia, Luni and Massaciuccoli, plus the town of Albenga which retains its Roman street plan and mediaeval walls.
- Discovering farinata (gram flour pancakes) and wines made from the Pigato grape.
- Stumbling across Carrara (where the marble for Michelangelo’s David was quarried) and learning all about marble in the museum there.
- Staying at some charming small hotels and B&Bs.
- The heat – a cloudless sky and 30°C (86°F) day after day is not ideal for long distance cycling.
- Busy roads and poor (or no) provision for cyclists.
- Italian tourist information offices that are never where they were when the town map was printed, and only open at obscure, unpredictable times.
- Glorious scenery spoiled by overdevelopment along the coast, each resort merging into the next with no gaps between them. It was a relief to climb into the Tuscan hills to reach Pisa.
- The proliferation of expensive, private beaches along both the French and Italian Riverias, meaning that anyone who just wants a quick dip or a stroll along the beach without paying through the nose for it must put up with limited access to the sea and crowded public beaches. And don’t get me started on the prices charged by Italian thermal spas …