Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
Bookmark and Share

A spin through Italy

An MD and his wife pack up their bikes for a trip through Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast

When you're travelling, it can be fun to imagine you're on a quest. On a three-week tour of Italy with my wife Leslie, my quest was to scour the countryside, trying to connect with my inner Latin spirit -- sort of Roberto Benigni meets Al Pacino, lovable yet tough. My Italian odyssey also included finding a pair of fine Italian shoes that would suit feet more accustomed to Nikes.

Warm sun and azure skies, tempered by the bouquet of wine and olive oil-drizzled meals, would hopefully be part of the journey. All that was at stake were three precious weeks of holiday with my wife, Leslie. Italy certainly appealed to her although her smile tightened when she realized that training was required for cycling the country's hilly regions.

We chose to travel in mid September to minimize the chance of encountering crowds of tourists or very hot days. Our trip was divided into three stages; the first, cycling through the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany, would start in Orvieto where we would arrive by train from Rome's airport. We would then pedal our way up to Tuscany via Todi, Spoleto, Assisi and, finally, Cortona for a trip of about 250 kilometres, give or take a few wrong turns. The second stage was to travel north by train to explore Venice. The final stage would be left to our whims.

A desire to cycle in Italy without being restricted by a tour company route, or the designated pick-up and drop-off sites for rentals, led us to purchase folding bicycles. We chose Bike Fridays (tel: 800-777-0258; www.bikefriday.com), manufactured in Portland, Oregon. They offer a multitude of models and components to suit all types of riders. My wife chose the New World Tourist model, a hybrid with wider tires and smaller gears. My choice, the Pocket Rocket, is lighter and more sporty, but it is still appropriate for touring.

We chose to order our bikes with hard travel cases (adapted Samsonite suitcases). The advantage of the hard case over the soft ones (also available), is that when the bike is assembled, the case becomes a trailer. Our small backpacks, which contained the rest of our worldly possessions, could then be stored and towed behind us. We could travel completely self reliantly, the way we like it. When stowed in their cases, the Bike Fridays required a strong arm to be lifted or maneuvered on Italy's particularly narrow train aisles.

My urge to cycle "à la Tour de France" was tempered by Leslie's demand that we not tear through the countryside in an adrenalin-fuelled rush. On some of the off days we had scheduled, I would go down the hillside for a ride while Leslie explored the town on foot.


The Subtleties of "Italengleesian"
Our starting point, Orvieto, would be the only hill town that we didn't cycle up to. We were transported from the train station by funicular -- an elevator on rails up the 45° slope to the ancient town. Leaving the funicular with backpacks on, we pulled the bike cases behind us, bouncing over the steep cobbled streets towards the Hotel Valentino (tel/fax: 011-39-763-342-464; www.valentinohotel.com).

Our hearts sank as we saw the town's crowded streets; Orvieto appeared to be overrun by tourists. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that this was just the passeggiata, the evening stroll through town. Several generations were represented, from the elderly to trendy teens, all united by the tradition of this walk. This ritual was one of the endearing qualities we would come to appreciate during our time in Italy.

We also like to eat as well as keep reasonably fit -- especially when motivated by a strong sense of guilt if we do more of the former than the latter. The food on this trip would, of course, be accompanied by frequent samplings of Italian wine, the quality of which can vary according to your ability to communicate with the waiter. I spoke fluent "Italengleesian," a curious hybrid language expressed while clutching an Italian phrasebook. Locals appreciate it if you give Italian a try, and a few words can be essential in areas such as Umbria where English speakers are uncommon. My butchered version of the language resulted in a few surprises; however, it was fairly reliable.

Flexibility of spirit is the key to keeping a smile on your face (the inner Benigni) during the challenges that present themselves. Pre-booking hotels is wise in peak season. However, you may have to leave that special hill town that piqued your interest to make your next booking on time. The downside to not reserving a hotel is that you might have to scramble to find a room when you're tired and hungry. By booking some accommodations and leaving some nights open, we achieved an imperfect balance of the best of both worlds.


Legs like Cooked Spaghetti
An open schedule also allows for serendipitous events. For example, after a long day of wrong turns en route from Assisi, we were starving and night was fast approaching. We decided to stop 15 kilometres short of our goal of Cortona in the nondescript town of Tuoro. With legs wilted like overcooked spaghetti and low expectations, we lucked into a large off-season suite in the Villa I Lecci (tel: 011-39-360-489-110; www.villailecci.it) for €50.

Secure in the knowledge of having a lovely place to sleep, the next item on a cyclist's mind is fuel. After a halting conversation in Italengleesian with two local, elderly women pointing and repeating "Merion, Merion" in their lovely musical accent, we found heaven at the very classy restaurant and inn Capricci di Merion (tel: 011-39-75-825-002; fax: 011-39-75-825-8217; www.capriccidimerion.it). Tucked away just outside of town, it was filled with Italians on a weekend retreat. The proprietors informed us that only an early seating of 7pm was available -- the later times were all booked due to the Italian tradition of dining late. After the long day of cycling, even seven o'clock was a challenge for us!

With a rising fear of how much this was going to cost us, we clutched our complimentary glasses of champagne. We looked at each other and decided to be swept along by the occasion. Once seated and given our menus, my wife whispered with a desperate look that there were no prices on the menu!

Feeling very much like the Alpha male that only I know I am (my inner Pacino), I informed my little lady that this was a nod to Italian machismo -- only the man gets the menu with the prices.

We were treated to a wonderful gourmet meal by an English-speaking waiter with a delightful sense of humour. We were eager to try a local wine, and he surprised us by recommending one of the cheapest on the list. It complemented a delicious meal of handmade gnocchi and ravioli, followed by lamb with pistachios. An evening of sublime surprise was made better by the fact that, with no plans in place, things could really have gone awry.

Another memorable meal on this trip was far simpler: moist, salted pork on a fresh bun. We were on the outskirts of a small town facing the prospect of snacking on yet another energy bar when we spotted a motorized vendor. Rubbing his stomach, the owner shouted, "You need gas?" A complete pig was laid out on his counter top and again we wondered what we were getting ourselves into as he carved off the slices. Sitting a few minutes later on a stone bench in the town's square with the warm sun on our sweat-stained faces and a pile of crumbs at our feet, the vendor drove by, waving and honking his horn. He was delighted as we gave him the thumbs up.

We didn't travel all the way to Italy to eat energy bars, but they are essential to bring along when cycling. The Italian tradition of closing for siesta in the afternoon may leave you with no place to eat before tackling the next hill climb. It's quite easy to make a wrong turn which will leave you with farther to go on an empty stomach.


Rooming with Nuns
Hill towns are called that for a reason: they are strategically placed on the highest point so that any invading cyclist, tired after a day's ride, will have to struggle up. They were particularly tough with the trailers in tow.

We stayed at a beautiful monastery in Spoleto, the Casa d'Accoglienzo di San Ponziano (tel: 011-39-743-225-288; fax: 011-39-743-208-057; www.sanponziano.it/accoglienza_frame.htm), which was a very modern addition to its 11th-century church. The nuns did not try to convert us and, to our disappointment, we did not see much of them. The live-in caretaker, Dominic, treated us to a tour of the church when we arrived early and could not check in due to a siesta closing. Convents and monasteries frequently offer moderately priced accommodation and are usually situated close to the centre of town.

In Assisi, we stayed at the Hotel Ideale (tel: 011-39-75-813-970; fax: 011-39-75-813-020; www.hotelideale.it), where the gruff bulldog of an owner was not the ideal host. He insisted we leave our bikes outside; luckily, we had good locks -- a must if you're travelling with your own bike.

On our second day there, we saw a huge storm front approaching and rushed outside to cover the bikes. The owner came out to reassure us that it was not going to rain just as the deluge started. Drenched, he relented and locked our bikes away for the remainder of our stay.

Although we didn't encounter many Ferraris, the Italians have a flare for the road and are generally much faster drivers than Canadians. On first impression, it may seem chaotic, but I felt safer on my bicycle there than in Canada. If a driver had to cut close to our bikes, this was preceded by a friendly toot of the horn. With the Italians' history of cycling, motorists respectfully share the roads.


Fine Italian Heels
For the second phase of our trip, we took the train from Cortona to explore Venice. We left the bikes safely stored in the train station so we were free to explore the tremendous historical city. After living out of the bike trailers for over a week, it was nice to have a home base with no cycling planned.

We had two options for the last phase of the trip. One was to explore Puglia, Italy's heel, by bike. From previous adventures, we had learned that we preferred to finish our holidays with some pampering. We decided instead to fly from Venice to Naples and drive a rental car to the Amalfi coast. We stayed in the busy town of Sorrento before moving down the coast to the incredible town of Positano, terraced on a spectacular cliffside spilling down to the warm Mediterranean.

We treated ourselves to an expensive seaside hotel with great food, the Hotel Saraceni (tel: 011-39-89-875-400; fax: 011-39-89-875-878; www.covodeisaraceni.it). My wife indulged in poolside reading in the hot sun of late September while I went on daily bike rides.

The road twists in either direction from Positano, clinging to the sides of cliffs. At times, drops of several hundred metres were just on the other side of the barrier. It is great riding, with lots of climbs and descents -- but not for the faint of heart. The best time to ride is early afternoon as most of the tourist traffic disappears although it is very hot.

The Bike Friday's unique frame drew strange looks from fellow cyclists. There was often a silent nod between us acknowledging our common interest. I saw more than one sun-baked, sinewy senior rider who obviously had been in the saddle for years. I hope to ride as long and to return to explore Puglia's quiet roads and unique cuisine.

To complete my quest, I needed a finely crafted pair of Italian shoes with classic, simple styling. After seeing several beautiful pairs in the small hill towns of Umbria, I thought I would wait until Venice, as I anticipated more choice. Alas, I was very disappointed with the Venetian styles -- ultra-modern versions of bowling shoes. I left Italy with my head hanging, disappointed that my quest was not complete.

Little did I know that London's Heathrow Airport boasted a huge international shopping concourse. Please don't tell anyone that I bought my coveted Italian leather shoes at the Salvatore Ferragamo shop at Heathrow.

 

Dr David Warnock is a GP in a solo practice and at a walk-in clinic in Victoria, BC. This was the first time he and his wife Leslie travelled to Italy, as well as their first bike trip in Europe. They have since used their Bike Fridays on a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico and are planning a return trip to Europe this year with their bikes, possibly to Sicily.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments