On 1st September I set off on a wine finding mission on my bicycle, the plan, to pedal from home in Devon to Sicily, exploring the vineyards of France and Italy along the way.
I spent just over two months in the saddle, covered about 2,000 miles, and flew back from Palermo on 9th November, a fair bit lighter than I was when I left, and with oddly brown knees.
Practice run down to the Daymark, Dartmouth.
Before this trip my biking experience was limited to commuting across London and a few practice runs through the Devon lanes. So, cycling down to Plymouth to catch the ferry to Roscoff in northwest France, I was not really sure if a). I was actually going to be a fan of cycle touring at all, and b). (closely linked to a), what my views were about going up hills – something that seems to be a crucial part of the enjoyment for cycling enthusiasts.
Arriving at Roscoff on the ferry (or 'the ship of broken dreams' as my brother calls it).
Luckily, it didn’t take me long to start appreciating the benefits. Arriving at dawn at Roscoff and slowly pedalling off the ferry and into the rolling countryside beyond, I had my first taste of the excitement that each morning brings when you are travelling by bike. There's none of the faff and stress of repeatedly catching trains and buses, instead, you load your panniers, get some good breakfast down and silently roll off down the road, wondering what's in store for the day.
Heading south from Roscoff.
Being out in the open and travelling at such slow speeds also means that you really take in your surroundings, and get a proper sense of where you actually are - not the case, I find, if I arrive anywhere by public transport or Sat Nav.
Amboise on the River Loire.
Add to that the mood buoying effects of exercise and the fact that 6 hours a day on a bike means you can eat as much pizza and gelato as you want, and you have a winning formula for a holiday, ahem, business trip.
Camping by the Loire.
As for the hills, it turns out that they really are a key part of the enjoyment. Long stretches of flat soon become boring, and, knackering though the climbs can be, the views and the exhilaration of the downhills, make them more than worth while. It is best to know what you’re dealing with though: a long, unexpected climb when you feel like you should have had lunch an hour ago can cause a sense of humour failure.
Cilento coast, south of Naples.
The route took me from Roscoff down to Nantes, up the Loire, down the Rhône, onto the Cote d'Azur and then down through the great wine producing regions of the west of Italy.
Cycling through France was a fairly civilised affair, the drivers are well used to hordes of cyclists and tend to give you plenty of space, and there are lots of cycle paths along the way.
Italy on the other hand was a slightly dicier business. Especially on the mountainous coastal roads. The driver attitude seemed to be that if there was a 50/50 chance of getting past without nudging you into oblivion, they should go for it. Even if they were:
Coast road in Liguria, northwest Italy.
Tunnels along the mountainous parts of Italy’s coast could also be quite unnerving – particularly when even a scooter sounds like a juggernaut in a tunnel.
Luckily though, I didn't have any mishaps, although there was a close call on the Calabrian coast involving an oncoming bus and a wasp stuck under my helmet strap.
In terms of the cycling, the Amalfi coast was superb, though you wouldn’t want to do it during high season. The rolling hills of Tuscany are also a winner and I had some great days in the quiet hills just to the northwest of Beaujolais. The key ingredients (for me anyway) are rolling hills, fine views, quiet, good roads and variety - you don't really want to spend a whole week biking alongside a canal with woods on either side for example - better to strike out for some different terrain and away from the tourist trail.
Dos and Don'ts for anyone considering something similar
- Do not put red wine in your plastic water bottle, one of my canteens tasted slightly of Cabernet Franc all the way to Sicily. (For the record, the wine was for drinking at the end of the day, I wasn't chugging it on the road).
- Do get a Brooks saddle - hard leather saddles are the answer, its the squashy ones that will have you walking like John Wayne.
- Do not bother asking anyone in France if there is a Boulangerie in town. There is always a Boulangerie in town.
- Do use those clip-in bike pedals, they're much more efficient. You will probably have to suck up a few dignity-robbing falls while you get used to them though.
- Do resist the urge to drink wine at lunch time if you're planning on tackling any hills in the afternoon.
- Do not expect to understand shop opening hours in France.
One of the first questions people often ask about the trip is 'didn't you get lonely travelling by yourself?' Well, clearly, not having a travelling companion can make things a bit less fun at times. But, I would say that this is balanced out by the advantages:
From a selfish point of view, there's no waiting around or debate about this, that and the other. You can go where you want, when you want.
You put yourself out there a lot more, whereas travelling with a friend can mean you stay in your UK bubble to some extent.
There is also a certain satisfaction in being completely self-reliant, particularly if you have set yourself a bit of a challenge.
In short, both ways of travelling have their advantages but I would definitely recommend heading off by yourself to anyone considering it.
Messina, Sicily. Amazingly still completely untanned apparently.