Italy

Day 1

We arrived into Civitavecchia on the west coast of Italy early in the morning fretting about getting James’ front crank fixed. But after two breakfasts and only a moderate amount of fannying around he had himself a perfectly fixed bike and we were on our merry way.

A couple of hours ride took us as far as the pretty hilly town of Tarquinia and our first Italian meal. After feeling slightly let down by the food in Sardinia our hopes were sky-high, so we were setting ourselves up for a major let down. It was almost inevitable that nothing would live up to our expectations and a perfectly decent lunch would be a major disappointment. Except this was Italy. Lunch was fucking amazing, far better than we’d dared hope. Of course it was.

Elated, stuffed to the gills and sedated by many many wine we dozed in the shade of an abandoned farmhouse before heading onto Lago di Bolsena, a volcanic lake with cool black sand beaches. It pissed with rain on the way but as we arrived the sun broke through and I sat on the beach on my little folding chair with a glass of red wine, gazed at the view and smiled. Then an old colleague of mine texted me to say that Anthony Bourdain had died and I stopped smiling and raised my glass to the man. A hero and a gent. RIP.

Tourist season hadn’t started and that evening we ended up in a deserted, ugly restaurant with low expectations. But no matter, we’d already had one blindingly good meal so we ordered an expensive bottle of wine and prepared to enjoy ourselves despite the food. Idiots. It’s Italy. It was fabulous – if anything even better than lunch.

We were heading east, from the Mediterranean coast over the Apennines to Ancona on the Adriatic coast and we weren’t in any particular hurry, so lie-in, very lazy breakfast and thoroughly agreeable 25 kilometer ride round the lake to the quaint little burg of Bolsena in time for lunch. Which, tediously, was spectacular. Fior di latte and aubergine pasta: the photo doesn’t even begin to tell you how delicious it was.

An ice cream and a quick snooze later and we set off up a hill that lasted pretty much all the way to Ancona. Someone had told us that Todi was worth a visit so we went and it was extremely pretty but also extremely touristy so all the good restaurants were full and we ended up in a very average one. I mention this because it was the only remotely substandard meal we ate the whole time we were there. Also if you’re going to Todi (you should) and want to eat well (you should), book ahead.

Meh

Day 2

The next day was a good’un. For a start it was hot and sunny, and a gentle rolling ride through spectacular vineyards took us to the brilliantly named town of Bastardo where we became the 81,865,988th and 81,865,989th people to pose next to the sign.

It was properly hot so we stopped for a mid-morning refresher in a bar on the outskirts of Bastardo. I asked the guy for an iced coffee and was met with a blank stare. In a country that is basically fuelled by coffee and where it’s hot a lot of the time apparently iced coffee isn’t a thing. So I showed him how to make one: ice in a glass, pour an espresso over, top up with milk. Yum. He tasted it and it was like he’d just discovered orgasms for the first time. So if the next time you go it Italy they’re serving iced coffees everywhere, you can thank me.

We got a little carried away and bought most of the food in the supermarket in Bastardo, found a perfect spot just outside town, had a ourselves a fine picnic lunch then snoozed in the shade.

A delightful afternoon’s ride, punctuated by a spot in a picturesque village to eat mindbogglingly great ice cream and drink fizzy sugary crap and ruminate smugly on just how perfect life is when you’re riding a bicycle through Italy on a summer’s day and everyone thinks you’re doing this challenging, athletic thing but in fact it’s just one colossal indulgence, eventually brought us to this:

Basically the only option to go where we wanted was a highway with no hard shoulder and sensibly bicycles weren’t allowed on it. So we took the train and managed to get off at the wrong stop by not paying attention.

But no matter, there was plenty of afternoon left so we rode on chuckling at our own stupidity. Well, I say “our” but really it was James’ stupidity and I think he secretly knows he should have done better. Anyway, James fancied a proper bed so we found a good looking restaurant with a nice terrace and rooms for rent, ordered a glass of wine and just sat there in the lengthening shadows, letting the sweet nectar of the vines restore our tired souls. Man it was great.

Using wavy arms and pitiful Italian I asked the manager if I could put my tent up in a field next to the restaurant but he shook his head emphatically and went away to get someone who spoke English and who spelled out why it was a bad idea to camp in the field, or for that matter, anywhere. In a word: wolves.

I chuckled and said something like no, seriously, whereupon he whipped out his phone and showed me a photo of a wolf walking down the road right next to the hotel. “It was hungry” he explained. Turns out this was about a year ago and the wolf hadn’t been since, so I shrugged and said something like fuck wolves except less macho, but they were insistent and eventually *hangs head in everlasting shame* managed to get inside my brain and spook me enough to take a room.

Day 3

Day 2 had been amazing, day 3 was even better. By now we were well into the Apennines (hence wolves) and whilst this meant hills it also meant scenic eye-candy. And closed roads.

This greeted us within 2 minutes of setting off. But one of the beauties of being on a bicycle is that you can choose to ignore signs like this and go one your merry way knowing that although the decision might backfire on you spectacularly it probably won’t thus livening things up, adding an edge, and generally making life more interesting.

In this case a tunnel was closed so we had to cycle up and over a big hill on an old and completely traffic-free road which was a treat. Cranked up on caffeine and endorphins we meandered happily along roads less travelled until we reached Pianello, a strange place in the middle of nowhere which was one part lost little village in the hills and one part industrial park for makers of white goods. Huge articulated trucks trundled slowly by. There was only one open restaurant. It looked pretty shit.

But of course, you already guessed, it wasn’t shit at all. In fact it was a contender for the best meal of the entire trip. The one I’d go back and eat again if I could. The one where angels sang with every mouthful. And that’s because it turns out that June in the Apennines is nothing less than truffle season. Who fucking knew?

It was simple, delectable, cheap and they just happened to make the best tiramisu I’ve ever had.

We emerged blinking into the glaring, baking afternoon sun stuffed and sleepy and not really feeling the whole exertion thing. So we peddled (slowly) the short distance to a little fresh-water river and spent some time marvelling at the absolute brilliance of being free to do whatever the fuck you want on planet Earth. And laughing at the huge articulated trucks driving slowly along the little road just above us.

We tarried long, and when we eventually got our shit together a short ride through a deep and spectacular gorge took us to a perfect camp spot (flat, by a river, surrounded by mountains, fireflies to gaze drunkenly at whilst falling asleep) next to a posh restaurant. It wasn’t as good as lunch, but then it never really stood a chance.

What a great, great day.

Day 4

More mountains, more extravagance natural beauty, then breakfast at a cafe opposite a truck stop where an old, loud, profane, eccentric hooker publicly and fruitlessly tried drumming up business from every passing truck driver and became angrier with every rebuff. She then yelled at the cafe patrons, including us, for watching this performance, like we had a fucking choice.

Then another closed road through a beautiful deserted valley, this one with scary rocks strewn all over it, and finally out of the mountains into the valley and onto a long straight busy ugly road.

That got exasperating very quickly so we stopped, found a swimming pool, bathed, showered, watched the mother of all hail storms then jumped on the train into Ancona to catch the ferry to Croatia.

Next: Croatia