Italian Adventure Part 1 - Walking & Cycling in Umbria and Tuscany
My much anticipated Italian adventure began as my Ryanair flight thudded down on the runway at Pisa airport (the landing was enough to make me purchase a pack of the smokeless cigarettes which are mercilessly plugged on board!). I was met by the charming Beppe our local agent for Tuscany and Umbria, with a friendly smile and welcoming Ciao. I instantly knew this would be a magical trip! The purpose of my visit (not just to eat mountains of pasta and drink the delicious local wine, honest!) was to meet with and put a face to our local supplier, become familiar with the Italian programme, while walking and cycling the routes on our current programme along with researching prospective new cycling tours in Tuscany, Umbria and the Amalfi Coast....whew!
Beppe and I sped through the countryside in his little yellow van, from Pisa airport, to the little village of Poggio delle Corti and the picture perfect farmhouse ” La Corte del Poggio” situated just south of Perugia in the beautiful Umbrian countryside, and my base for the next two nights. The farmhouse is the home of one of the suppliers we work with in this area and is set among olive groves and surrounded by their extensive vegetable garden in the heart of the Umbrian countryside. I experienced a true Italian welcome while staying here, not to mention the delicious Italian feast the family effortlessly created one evening. Cristina and her family live and run cookery courses from this very special place, so keep your eyes peeled for new Cycling and Cooking & Cycling courses coming soon for 2011, all which have a night or two Poggio Delle Corti.
My cycling tour of Umbria started with a cycle from the stunning medieval hill town of Cortona, a town steeped in history with a great museum and numerous gelataries and restaurants. With Beppe taking the lead we enjoyed a lovely cycle in the Autumn sunshine snaking down from Cortona, passing silvery olive groves and farmland to Lake Trasimeno, stopping to visit the pretty lakeside towns (and of course another fabulous gelato shop!) The lake is beautiful ,you can stop and visit one of the little islands on the lake , Isola Mggiore. You can take a boat over for a few euro’s, to have lunch or just a stroll around. We continuing around the lake until our grumbling stomachs convinced us to stop for lunch we stopped by an inconspicuous place where just a few Italians were having coffee, it took no time at all before the table was crammed with bread salad and steaming plates of fresh pasta and lake fish, all washed down(of course) with a small carafe of local wine! This was definitely cycling fuel and I was off again pedalling through the beautiful Umbrian countryside back to my base in Poggio delle Corti for the night. Most of the route was on minor roads which I found to be really safe and the traffic seem to be very tolerant of cyclists, which was a real revelation in comparison to cycling in Scotland!
I visited all most of the hotels which we use on the current Umbria tour, each different and each with that little special something which I think makes the tour so unique. I stayed for a few night in Perugia, which is a fabulous little town crammed with chic restaurants and boutiques and with a fascinating history dating back to Etruscan times. Another highlight was visiting the town of Assisi and walking through the Umbrian countryside towards the basilica which rises magnificently above the sea of vineyards and olive groves, here you will never tire of gazing at the frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis of Assisi.And not quite as magnificent but equally as picturesque was the Medieval town of Bevanga which is slap bang in the wine region of the indigenous sagratino grape. The surrounding area is full of vineyards as far as the eye can see, allowing you to walk or cycle in this beautiful area and stop at one of the many family owned Cantinas to sample their wine. With having formally worked in the wine trade, I got a bit excited and found myself buying several bottles, leading to a disastrous time at Rome airport on the way home with an extremely overweight bag, but alas the wine stayed and the toiletries and books were ditched!
I really enjoyed the many different layers to Umbria, the hospitable people, the renaissance towns and medieval hamlets, the vast fields of sunflowers, olive groves and of course the wineries. All combined make this part of Italy truly special place, and I had to tear myself away to head to Tuscany.
It was off to Tuscany I went, and stayed for a few days in the town of Montepulciano from where I would explore the area. Montepulciano is a stunning medieval town, built high overlooking a sea of vineyards. It’s a bustling town crammed with wine stores, restaurants and as always in Italy, shop's with fabulously chic leather goods! I was beginning to feel that I was the luckiest girl in the world to be experiencing the beautiful Tuscan countryside and visiting so many interesting towns, meeting the inspirational local people.
I spent my remaining few days in Tuscany walking and cycling in the Val d'orcia accompanied by my highly knowledgeable guide Beppe. We visited the hotels in our programme, all of which I was really impressed with, especially the vista over the Tuscan landscape from the beautiful little Hotel dei Capitano swimming pool in Montalcino. Everywhere I visited I couldn’t help but imagine myself being back there, sitting on the terrace or by the pool or walking along admiring the views. The visit to the Agriturismo Fattoria Pieve a Salti was fantastic, set high and offering a spectacular vista of the Val d'orcia, this farm and country hotel is immaculate, expertly run and offering the most amazing experiences, the staff are ever friendly and there are so many activities on offer you may be tempted to forgo the walk on the second day and utilise the many activities on offer. We had a delicious lunch at the Fattoria Pieve a Salti where the kind owners offered me a gift from the little farm shop, I chose some Spaghetti and biscuits which are all grown organically on the estate. Unfortunately the biscuits which I had planned to bring back to the office as a small token to make up for my absence, ended up smashed to smithereens due to my ever growing bag!
One of the great things with walking in Tuscany is that most of the time from each hill top town you can actually see your next overnight location on another distant hill top, the real treat is the enjoyment of walking or cycling the land in between and experiencing the lovely towns on route, all with a distinctive character or local speciality to enjoy.
During the time I had in Tuscany and Umbria I met with the agent and the staff who are responsible for meeting and greeting our customers, the luggage transporters and the hoteliers themselves. I was blown away with the high level of service provided by these people, all who have a real love of what they do and who really enjoy sharing the local knowledge they have and meeting people from other parts of the world. The enthusiasm they have is infectious and inspiring!
It was time to head South and the ever beautiful Amalfi Coast. My journey to Amalfi involved taking the train to Naples (I sat in a delightfully comfortable compartment and was thinking how great the Italian trains were until a sweet lady conductor advised me I was sitting in first class and it was time to move!) and then a train to Sorrento then finally the bus to Amalfi. My top tip for anyone arriving by train would be to travel as light as possible as the train to from Naples to Sorrento gets packed and the fewer bags you have the easier the journey is ! The train network is great in Italy, it makes travelling through the country a pleasurable experience!
It's off to Amalfi now, woo hoo!