By Graham Hutson
You don't need to look far to find a piece of Italy that beats Tuscany for cycling perfection. it's called Umbria, and it's next door.
Your first glimpse of the Piano Grande, high up in the Sibillini mountain range is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. Pick the right time of year to cycle the 20km up to the vast plain, and it will take your breath away.
Here at more than 4,000ft above sea level, for two weeks in July, you will be greeted by a multicoloured patchwork sea of tiny flowers. Depending upon the precise moment you visit during that fortnight you will find wild crocuses, grape hyacinth, wild tulips, poppies, even orchids and fritillaries. The flowers are a curiosity of nature, a vision that lures visitors by the car and coach-load, selfie sticks at the ready. The plain can become a busy place in peak season.
The 16km sq Piano Grande is so enormous that the peaks forming its extremities can be obscured behind a haze. This is a world of its own, far cooler and more comfortable than the sweltering heat below and possessing a sizeable hill of its own, upon which sits the village of Castellucio di Norcia.
The August 2016 earthquake that destroyed villages in the vicinity did damage here. It’s a cruel twist that the very features that define the most beautiful parts of Umbria can also be so destructive.
Such is the nature of the Apennines. This ridge of mountains to the east of the region that contains the Piano Grande and the Sibillini range also happens to form part of the earthquake fault line that runs the length of the country. If the fault line wasn’t there, the mountains wouldn’t be either.
Umbria, the only region in Italy without a coast or a border with another country, lives under constant threat of earthquakes. In August, Amatrice in Lazio and Pescara del Tronto in Marche were devastated. Castelluccio di Norcia suffered damage but like the flowers surrounding it, the village will recover its beauty.
Norcia also suffered damage. This is where we stopped for coffee ahead of our climb up the Sibillini mountains, at a tiny cafe butted against the towering medieval town wall. When we heard of the earthquake our first thoughts were of the region we had visited and the people we met. You only meet nice people here.
It is almost 20 years since an earthquake hit Assisi. On September 26 1997 the burial place of St Francis was shaken to the ground, the vaults of the upper Basilica of St Francis collapsed. Frescoes by Giotto and Cimabu were reduced to dust, and four men were killed, many tens more rescued from the rubble.
Assisi is one of the most beloved towns in Italy. The presence of the tomb of St Francis draws pilgrims from around the globe and in its time of need the people rallied around and donated around €25 each to rebuild Assisi. So many made these donations that the tiles bearing their names form a terracotta path, La Mattonata, which stretches from the Basilica di Santa Maria in the new town up the preposterously steep kilometre-or-so Via Beato Padre Ludovico da Casoria before joining a road into the old town. From here you can cycle up again, past the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, and through the medieval town gates. Then onwards and ever up, along narrow and ancient streets with their souvenir and coffee shops, past the Roman temple of Minerva, built in 1539 and on to the Basilica di Santa Chiara which contains the remains of St Clare of Assisi, follower of St Francis. Here you will join busloads of tourists and pilgrims to shuffle around inside.
Cyclists are something of a rarity around Assisi old town, which could be down to the sharp inclines of the streets or the fact that shoals of tourists decant from coaches on a regular basis. Between coaches, the riding through the streets is pleasant, if hilly. When a coach party arrives, cycling becomes tricky. Far better to get off and walk. If you attempt to cycle into the Basilica of St Francis you might be persuaded to walk anyway, by armed guards.
There’s plenty of cycling to be done down the hill from the old town. This lowland area of Umbria is criss-crossed with cyclepaths that take you just about everywhere. When you do encounter a road, cars are seldom seen. These cycle paths carry you past olive groves and vineyards, which make up the bulk of Umbria’s industry these days.
It is while cycling around these sun-beaten lanes that you need to remember to have filled your water bottles. The odd copse and tree can be found to provide you with shade but for the most part you are cycling among flatlands. At times you long for a place to rest and feast.
One such place we discovered down a rural lane, thanks to our guide Carlos. The Nunzi family have produced olive oil here for generations. The presses are dormant in July, but come autumn they will be running around the clock as farmers deliver their harvests. The hospitality of the local Umbrian population cannot be overstated - we were welcomed as family, led to a cool, shady dining room and presented with a traditional Italian spread of breads, oil, hams, melon and wine. It was all we could do to tear ourselves away for the cycle back to our hotel.
Umbria’s largest lake sits to the west of Perugia, nudging the border with Tuscany. It is 49 square miles in size and on its north shore in April 217 BC, the Roman army was defeated by Hannibal in the Second Punic War. He had invaded the country across the Alps and taken Italy by surprise and at Lake Trasimeno drove the defenders into the water. The lake has three islands, only one inhabited. The village on Isola Maggiore dates from the 14th century, as does the ruined Franciscan Monastery.
The views of the lake from the surrounding hills are uninterrupted save a tree or two and are not particularly challenging to reach by bike. It is no wonder that these hills with their secluded sideroads and torres peeking out through the trees have become a treasured retreat for those who shun the limelight. George Lucas is said to have a hillside castle here. Our route took us up through the tiny town of Tuoro Sul Trasimeno, and then wound into hills north of the lake, through hamlets and fields before dipping back down to the lake in a sensational sweeping descent.
Umbria has only 800,000 inhabitants. This is a region five and a half times the size of London, which has 8.6 million. Umbria is rural, it is sleepy. Even the relatively lively Perugia, the capital with its 25,000 students, maintains an underlying serenity around its ancient city walls and centuries-old architecture. The dial is turned up for the jazz festival in early July but even then, when the evening temperatures can nudge the mid twenties, the mood is relaxed. The living is of course al fresco. In Perugia we drank at bars that perch atop the walls of the historic town like nests and ate pasta and steak in the bustling courtyard of La Rosetta restaurant.
Umbria will seduce you regardless of the transport you choose but to visit the region on a bicycle offers a particularly personal experience. By bike you can soak up the smells of the olive groves, the sound of the cicadas and feel the sun on your neck. This could all become a little intense in the midday sun but you’re usually not far from a cafe or taverna or even a water fountain in the town square.
The best thing about Umbria is the variety of terrain. From the rolling topography around Lake Trasimeno in the west to the flatlands with their punchy little inclines to the hilltop towns such as Assisi and Spello and the long mountain climbs of the Appenines, there is an adventure for every mood and ability. And because you’re in Italy, the best bit is the feast you can tuck into afterwards. You will most certainly have earned it.
The rambling hotel Borgo Brufa was our base, with its panoramic vistas across the valley to Perugia in the distance.
Getting there: We flew with Ryanair from Stansted to Perugia.