Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to... Umbria

A Vancouver FM and his wife discover the joys of pedalling past medieval hill towns, olive groves and vineyards

When I planned a self-guided cycling vacation among the picturesque hilltop towns of Umbria, I imagined that cycling the hills of Vancouver would help prepare me for this journey. I was wrong. Each day of approximately 50 kilometres was a challenging ride through the Italian countryside with its small mountains. Thankfully, the surrounding scenery of olive groves and vineyards along the country roads was spectacular enough to motivate my sore muscles and saddle soreness along the way.

In May of last year, my wife Michelle and I went on a six-day self-guided cycling journey in the province of Umbria, Italy. We organized the trip through Randonnee Tours (randonneetours.com), a Vancouver tour operator that planned our hotels, organized luggage transfers between towns and provided bicycles on arrival, with a local area manager for any needed technical support.

We flew to Rome and travelled via train to Torgiano, where we met our friendly area manger and received our Cannondale hybrid bikes. We both cycle recreationally, however we had never travelled on a cycling vacation before. Our decision to not bring our own clipless pedals was regrettable since this definitely would have made riding far easier.

Ceramics and cycling

We had picked May for our trip since the temperature is warm but not as scorching hot as the Italian summer can be. Much to our surprise, the first day we ventured out, we had on at least three layers and the blustery cloudy day felt more like winter than summer. Thankfully, that first day was only a short 15-kilometre round-trip ride to get over the jet leg and become familiar with the bicycle and the start of saddle soreness.

We cycled to Deruta which is a 13th-century town known for its colourful ceramics. It was devoid of tourists and Massimo, the owner of Ceramiche El Frate, was eager and proud to show my wife his family’s ceramic creations. Fortunately for me, our bikes only contained a small carrying case and my wife was only able to purchase one small ceramic rooster water pitcher. He tried to convince her, with sign language, that he could tape something larger to her back, but she declined.

That night we dined in a lovely restaurant overlooking a valley and enjoyed a delicious antipasti of sliced fresh pears with pecorino cheese and honey. It was easy for us to eat vegetarian meals on our vacation as there was always a choice of pasta and local seasonal vegetables. The success of every meal in Umbria was fresh, local produce with only a few delicious ingredients.

By the seat of our pants

The trip definitely challenged our navigation skills and teamwork. Our self-guided tour consisted of a numbered list of directions to follow with no detailed roadmap. Most of the roads we followed were small side roads away from the highways not shown on a standard map. A typical day would consist of 60 steps to reach the destination such as “ride 1.3 kilometres and pass the fork in the road and turn right.”

Needless to say, there were a few times where we did get lost and had to retrace our steps which added extra distance and exercise to the journey. However, we tried to stay in good humour and the expended calories allowed us the added bonus of gelato consumption at the end of the day.

On day two, we arrived in Bevagna which is a tiny hilltop town surrounded by medieval walls in an agriculture valley. The next morning, we had an excellent guided tour that took us to an incredible Roman bath house with the most beautifully decorated and well-preserved mosaic floor that I have ever seen. Like all Italian towns, this one has several notable churches to visit. The central piazza was charming, with a lovely fountain that cooled us off as we sat reading in the late afternoon while relaxing in the hot sun.

Each morning, we enjoyed a huge continental buffet breakfast to fuel us up for the day. We would venture into town and usually purchase pizza, fruit and vegetables to eat along the way. Most of the time there were no restaurants in the countryside so whenever we were hungry, we pulled over to the side road and stopped for a picnic in an olive tree orchard. Our lodgings were in wonderful small hotels with friendly staff. As we progressed each day, the hotels seemed to get fancier or maybe it's just that fatigue was clouding our judgment and we simply appreciated the restful sleep.

The hardest for last

Our fourth day was spent in a town called Todi. It is perched up on a hill with lovely views and a steep climb up a busy road to get there. After a lovely stay in Todi we ventured to our final destination of Orvieto. This is a magnificent town situated high up on a mountain. We arrived sweaty and tired and were happy to take the funicular up to the top. I could not imagine cycling up the long and steep road.

The stunning Duomo at the top can be seen from many kilometres away. The colours and reflections of light on this architectural masterpiece are amazing. The town has an abundance of shops, restaurants and sights to see to keep a tourist busy for days. One could easily get lost among the narrow streets and alleys. Our nicest hotel of the journey was here at Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini (tel: 011-39-763-341-743; hotelpiccolomini.it). The room was spacious and even included a loft and purple slippers!

And on our final day, we cycled to Civita di Bagnoregio. As we descended into a valley on our bikes we saw in the distance this amazing town of 25 inhabitants set on a pillar of rock. The tufu rock holding the town continues to erode, and some homes are located right along the edge. This was also the site of an Etruscan settlement over 3000 years ago. The narrow winding cobblestone streets and lovely flowering gardens made it well worth the trip. Unfortunately for us, there were road repairs occurring on the country road back to Orvieto, so we ended up riding along a busy highway. We couldn't find the wonderful funicular, so we had to cycle up the very challenging steep road to Orvieto. Throughout my journey, the people of Umbria were warm and inviting. By cycling the region's hillside towns, I was able to experience the simple pleasures of the Italian countryside. The stunning scenery combined with delicious food and good company made this a truly memorable vacation.

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Comments

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  1. On April 24, 2011, Edwin Lucas said:
    This sounds amazing and a trip for the young and fit as opposed to the middleaged and not quite as fit. Well done on coming toEurope and seeing pleasures of teh non tiouristy areas. That is juyst great and what a memory. I will not follow your example but instead look forward to cycling in Stanley Park and visiting the aquarium and seeing the PPacific with all its wonders and remember a lovely trip to Uclulet which has my favourite aquarium.

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