How we got to the start.
Our tandem has S&S couplings. We dismantled it and placed it in the back of our car, protected by bubble wrap, and then drove (over 2 1/2 days), through France to an apartment we own in Cervinia. Obviously you could use an hotel instead! We rented a garage for 3 months using a local immobiliare (estate agent) – this is not difficult to negotiate. Once we’d rebuilt the tandem we put the car in the garage and set off.
How we got home!
Once at our end point in Marsala we rented a Jeep from the nearest airport (Trapani). This was pretty expensive as it’s a one way hire, back to the nearest airport to Cervinia (Aosta airport). We visited a local branch of Mailboxes Etc to acquire 4 metres of bubble wrap (“Pluriball” in Italian), so that we could wrap the tandem before placing it in the car. We then set off back up Italy, travelling slowly so that we could enjoy the trip. Once in Cervinia we picked up our own vehicle and returned the hire car before setting off home.
How we planned the route
When we set off we had only booked the first night’s stay. We had a long list of places we wanted to visit, and plenty of time available, so for the first time ever we didn’t plan any routes in advance. Central to our thinking was that we didn’t want to travel so far each day that we wouldn’t have the time or energy to explore our destination when we arrived. Most days we travelled between 40 and 50 kilometres, with a few longer days in the south where there were fewer places we planned to see. This usually meant that we arrived in time to freshen up and explore the town before dinner.
When planning your daily mileage it’s wise to take the temperature into account. We cycled between the end of May and mid-August, where the temperatures regularly strayed into the low to mid thirties. Planning long days is unwise in these temperatures – the heat can be debilitating, especially in hilly areas. Some people prefer to get up early and finish their cycling before midday. We didn’t do that, as we hate getting up early! The hills were non-existent in the Po Valley, steep in Chianti (but, oh, the views), and elsewhere generally steady inclines.
We have two Garmin GPS devices – the Stoker has the main one (a Garmin Edge 1000) and the Captain a much simpler Garmin Edge 25. Each night we would plot the following day’s route using the Garmin Connect Web app (yes, we each carried an IPad too!) and then upload it to the Garmin using Bluetooth and the Garmin Connect app. A word of warning – when using the Web App, if you use “Terrain” view you will not see any tunnels. The ordinary “Map” view does show tunnels. It is also advisable to check in Google Maps with “Traffic” switched on, to see if any of your chosen roads are closed.
There are several categories of Italian roads:
- Autostrade (motorways) – bicycles are forbidden.
- Strada Statale (SS) – In the north of Italy these are best avoided where possible, though you will have to use them occasionally. They tend to be very busy, especially in the Po Valley. In the south, particularly after passing south of Naples, they are less busy and thus more usable.
- Strade Regionale (SR) – the next step down from SS roads, usually somewhat quieter.
- Strade Provinciale (SP) – usually pretty good for cycling purposes. Busier in the north, often tiny and quiet in the south. Occasional rough surfaces (strada dissestata or strada deformata).
- Uncategorised – these are usually quiet and excellent for cycling purposes. Sometimes, though, they may be unmetalled. Using Google Streetview or Satellite view sometimes helps to determine if you have incorporated a rough gravel track into your route. Of course, you may enjoy those roads…!
All of our tracks are shown at the bottom of each day’s blog. If you would like a zip file containing then all, please ask, bearing in mind that these tracks include wrong turns, mistakes and the occasional long detour to circumvent a closed road.
It took us a while to get used to Italian driving habits, but once we had done so we were able to cycle with confidence. You are expected to cycle close to or on the white line at the side of the road, not in the primary position as you would in the UK. Drivers will overtake you quite closely even if there is a car coming in the opposite direction. At first this can be unnerving. However, they tend to do so by hanging out into the opposing lane, putting themselves at risk rather than you. Despite their habit of passing quite closely, we had very few occasions when we felt it was a risky pass – they tend to be skilful drivers. On bigger (SS) roads there is sometimes a bicycle-sized hard shoulder in which you can cycle out of the way of all traffic. Lorry and coach drivers were almost without exception (just one Moldovan lorry) incredibly patient and professional, waiting until they could pass us very wide.
Sometimes the road surface seems to be particularly worn in the “primary position” area. In this case you have two choices – cycle close to the white line where the surface is usually much better, or cycle in the middle of the lane. Sometimes we did this if we felt the surface was too rough, but we had to get used to passing drivers waving at us to get to the side of the road. They can safely be ignored.
When an Italian driver sounds the horn with a short ‘pip’ it is intended as a friendly warning that they are about to overtake. Or an indication that they want to smile and wave at you as they go past!
One way systems can be tortuously difficult to navigate in Italian towns and cities. All Italian cyclists seem to ignore them, and cycle in whichever direction they desire. We ended up doing the same! There is an exception – don’t do this in Florence, where it is expressly forbidden and punishable by a hefty fine.
Where we stayed
We tried to book two nights ahead, on a cancellable basis if possible. For about two thirds of our nights we stayed in AirBnB apartments. On other nights we used hotels, usually booked via Booking.com. We tried to stay in an AirBnB with a washing machine at least every other night, so we could wash our cycling kit. This worked very well. Most of the AirBnB apartments were very good, we only had a couple that were substandard. When searching we used the criteria “Entire House”, “Washing Machine” and “Wireless Internet” to find suitable apartments. In the south we had eventually to add “Air Conditioning” to that list, as it was so hot that sleep was difficult otherwise.
When we stayed in hotels we always ate out. In AirBnB apartments we usually cooked, sourcing the food from a local small supermarket or alimentari. The supermarkets are tiny but have amazing deli counters and vegetables. Don’t be afraid of Spar or Lidl, they are well stocked, and will often even have a butcher on-site. On a couple of occasions our lodgings had a barbecue, which we enjoyed using.
Speaking the language
It helped that we both speak Italian to a reasonable standard. While most Italians will at least try to speak English if they can, they are intensely grateful if you can communicate at least to some extent in Italian, particularly outside tourist areas.
If you speak no Italian, maybe consider using Duolingo for a while before travelling – this will reap rewards. Unlike some other countries, the Italians love to hear visitors trying to speak their language. A little spoken Italian can go a long way.
We carried two large rear panniers, two smaller front panniers, a back bag and a tool container. In addition we had three 750ml water bottles on the bike, plus a supply of electrolytes (absolutely essential in the hot climate). In the south we drank about six bottles a day while cycling, plus at least 2 litres most lunchtimes, and plenty more in the evening.
In terms of clothing we each had two complete cycling outfits. The Captain also had one pair of shorts and two t-shirts, two pairs of “going out” trousers and two shirts. The Stoker had two “going out” frocks and one casual “day frock”, plus one pair of shorts and one T-shirt. We wore Shimano SPD sandals throughout – these were great in the hot weather.
We carried a strong but light Tigr titanium bike lock. Usually we were able to store our tandem securely in a garage or courtyard, but we usually used the lock as well. We had no issues.
A supply of Avon “Skin so Soft” helps to deal with mosquitoes. We didn’t find them too problematic. Apartments and hotels in mosquito areas tend to have nets over the windows.
A full packing list is available on request!
Other random thoughts
We visited quite a view wine regions on this trip. In Barolo and Chianti we bought some fine wines and had them shipped home. On our way back in the Jeep we intend to buy some Marsala, Nero d’Avola and Aglianico, plus extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan. Oh, and some Grappa!
Some highlights for us (abridged!)
Descent from the Alps, towns in the Alpine foothills (Saluzzo, Mondovì), wine tasting in Barolo, truffles in Alba, Stradivarius museum in Cremona, relaxing near Catullus’ villa in Sirmione, riding along the Sinistra Po and Destra Po cycleways, historic and culinary delights of Modena, a great agriturismo in Popolano, views from Fiesole, lovely Lucca, a certain leaning tower, steep climbs and gorgeous towns in Chianti, the squares of Arezzo, hill-top finishes in Assisi, Todi, Orvieto, entering Rome along the Tiber, more hill-top finishes in Frascati and Pofi, reminders of wartime sacrifice in Cassino, arriving at the Tyrrhenian sea at Salerno, Greek temples of Paestum, the glorious Palinuro peninsula, a return visit to Tropea, crossing to Sicily, rest day in Taormina, stunning Ortigia, a family welcome in Marzamemi, reaching Sicily’s southernmost point, more stunning Greek temples at Agrigento, elegant Marsala.
…not forgetting fabulous food and wine and a warm welcome everywhere!