Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.
Everyone who visits Cinque Terre always mentions the walks high up along the cliffs and the beautiful villages and the train but no one ever raves about the cycling. I’m happy to change the perception of Cinque Terre not being suitable for cycling. Or maybe I will just confirm this prejudice. It may depend on your fondness of steep hills. Judge for yourself!
After a quick chat with a friendly German bus driver at one of the lookouts high above Riomaggiore, the first of the five villages that together are known as the UNESCO world heritage protected Cinque Terre, we followed his advice and went down towards Manarola. The villages are car-free and even locals have to leave their cars outside the village on specially reserved car parks. Under no circumstances should you park there without the special permit. Nosy as we are, we checked the ticket on a french car – 119 Euro! Not known to many, there are a few parking spaces for motorhomes – not more than eight to ten – just before the gate that stops public traffic from driving into the village. It’s ok to disregard the Do not enter! sign for motorhomes and trucks at the roundabout on the road at the top.
On Day Two at Cinque Terre we went for a ride.
Alberto had actually checked out the cycling on Day One already after we had done the tourist thing; taking the train to Monterosso, later walking down the Via Del’Amore from Riomaggiore back to Manarola and having a drink at the Bar Del’Amore up on the cliffs in the setting sun. He had helped broken down fellow campers at our secret camp spot to get back on the road. In return they offered much valued advise on good camp spots in Rome and Napoli, road maps and… their unused train tickets. I don’t think we would have otherwise taken the train but it was well worth it.
The first kilometre of our ride, straight up and out of the valley, packed a whopping 100m of vertical climbing. Being a rest week, my hopes for an easy ride were squashed before I had warmed up properly.
Way up on the road that would normally take you all the way to Levante, the northern gateway to the Cinque Terre, we enjoyed panoramic views down to Manarola. The views over vineyards, olive groves, farm terraces with trees bearing yellow, sweet lemons and the deep blue Mediterranean Sea made up for every centimetre of climbing. Limoncello was on my mind…
Once up on the ridge, the riding was spectacular. We followed the road until we hit the landslide closure. The landslide in October last year must have been a big one because it still seemed very fresh in the conscience of the locals. I had heard it mentioned several times the previous day but the severity of the damage we would only see and understand later in Vernazza, one of the five villages of Cinque Terre.
Corniglio looked inviting from up the top and it was lunch time, so we dove, switch back after switch back, down to sea level (almost). It should have dawned on me that what goes down must come up again.
The village was just as pretty and picturesque as Manarola; the same colourful houses, narrow lanes and bars and restaurants. The only thing I missed were the boats that are parked in front of the houses in Manarola’s streets like cars are parked at people’s door steps in other towns and villages.
Undecided, or spoilt for choice of touristy eateries, we pressed on to Vernazza without stopping for lunch. It said 4.5 km on the sign – easy enough! But hopping over to the next village involved some two or three kilometres of climbing back up to the fork in the road before once again flying down narrow switchbacks, this time shadowed by forrest. It was even prettier than the open road with wide ocean views that lead to Corniglia.
Then the asphalt turned to gravel. I hit the brakes hard because the road dipped even steeper into the narrow crevice. It felt like we were entering the village through the back door, a way not normally open to tourist’s preying eyes. There were road works and ruins and it took me a while to realise that we were looking at the devastation and damage that the landslide had left behind a few months earlier.
The village was an ant’s nest of hard working people trying to clean up and rebuild and get back to normality. It reminded me of Brisbane after the flood, except that the devastation was still palpable. There were tourists, lost in front and behind fenced off buildings and lanes and black holes where once must have been colourful shop fronts. We felt like intruders, voyeurs.
But lunch time was long past and I needed food for the long climb back out of the village. Surprised that people had mentioned the closed road to us but not the damage to Vernazza, I realised that locals would want tourists to come to this part of the Cinque Terre. Tourist Euros would help this battered community to get back on it’s feet, so we found a little Taverna and enjoyed much needed carbohydrates.
The climb out of Vernazza was harder than I had realised during the descend. The ramps hit 19-20% and after a few switch backs, 13% became a perfectly acceptable gradient. But the forest was still as pretty and the yellow helicopter still flew tirelessly up and down the valley with bundles of rubble so the road high up on the ridge could open again sometime in the future to bring more tourists back to Vernazza.
This ride, though only a touch over 30km, will be one of the most memorable rides of my time in Italy.
A couple of days later, watching Cavendish fight up the climb to Montecatini Alto during the last few kilometres of Stage 11 (?) of the Giro d’Italia, we reached Tuscany. It had been hard to say Good bye to Cinque Terre.
Now, while Cinque Terre is not on the map of Must Do cycling destinations, Tuscany certainly is. Gentle, sun drenched hills; fortresses and villages; Chianti growing on both sides of the road… the pictures spring to mind and people’s eyes glaze over in romantic longing. Tuscany is exactly how you imagine it to be from paintings and photos and TV programs, just prettier. And the cycling is spectacular.
Who doesn’t know about L’Eroica? Who hasn’t heard of Strade Bianche?
Greve in Chianti, about 30km south of Florence (Firenze), has a great free motorhome park, similar to the ones in France. It has all service facilities to dump and refill, and the motorhomes are nicely parked in a circle. The bus was an easy and enjoyable way of getting to Florence and we were glad we took this option instead of riding. Firstly, it gave us the chance to admire a few Botticellis, Tizianos and Michelangelos without having to worry about the bikes getting stolen outside the Palazzos in the meantime, and secondly, we avoided getting lost in Italian traffic of big cities.
Instead, the next day we cycled on quiet Tuscan country roads from Greve to Radda and Gaiole, along a short section of L’Eroica, on Strade Bianche, up and down the hills. During that ride I made peace with cycling on Italian roads. Have you ever experienced days where you could have just kept pedalling forever?
It was a day like that!
And the Chianti for lunch had absolutely nothing to do with it…