With some of the world’s best food, stunning scenery and a rich cycling heritage, Italy is perfect destination for a pedal-powered holiday.
Why go cycling in Italy?
Italy and cycling go together like pasta and parmigiano, and some of cycling’s legendary riders have hailed from Italy’s shores. Sportsmen such as Ottavio Bottecchia, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi have cemented their places in cycling lore. Even Maurice Garin, the first winner of the Tour de France, was born in Italy – even if he did later take French nationality.
There is much to explore on two wheels in this country. From the sharp and severe peaks of the Dolomites in the north-east, to the sun-drenched island of Sicily to the south, Italy has something for everyone.
Whether you want to test your stamina on challengingly precipitous climbs, or merely potter around some of Europe’s best vineyards, Italy will have something that is suited to you.
Road cycling in Italy
Puglia, in the southwest of the country is a haven for cycling. This is forgotten Italy. While the masses head to Tuscany and the cities and lakes of the north, Puglia is left to bask in splendid serenity. Silent roads, tempting vineyards, breath-taking towns and a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites await if you choose to explore this wonderful region.
A good plan is to start on the coast, at Trani, and cycle to Matera, a small city 80km to the south. But don’t go straight there – first head east towards Venosa, taking in the Castel del Monte, a 13th century castle at Andria that was awarded world heritage status in 1996 by UNESCO, which deemed it a “unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture”.
Venosa itself (90km to the east of Trani), is a good place for a couple of days in the same spot. Founded by Diomedes (according to legend) and the birthplace of the Roman lyric poet Horace in 65BC, the town has an abundance of castles, churches and catacombs to wander around while resting your cycling legs.
When you’re ready to hit the road again, skirt the Parco Nazionale Alto Murgia and head to Matera, one of the most memorable destinations in Italy. The city is famous for its cave-houses, known as the sassi. These dwellings were hewn out of the rock the city is perched on centuries ago, and housed families as recently as the 1950s. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and makes for a striking façade to the city.
Over to the east, explore the Amalfi coast by cycling along one of Italy’s most iconic stretches of road. Start in cosmopolitan Salerno and head along the SS163 to the well-known resort of Sorrento, taking the opportunity to stop off at Minori, Amalfi and Positano along the way.
For fitter riders, the 70km ride is easily doable in a day, but spread the trip out over two or more and you can take time to head inland from the coast road to see a different side to this spectacular part of Italy. One option is to take the twisting SS366 inland, a kilometre or so outside Amalfi, to Castellammare di Stabia, 32km to the north. From there, head southwest to Sorrento on the SS145 before rejoining the SS163 to travel east back to Salerno.
Mountain biking in Italy
The Italian Riviera may seem like an unlikely destination for mountain biking, but it has variety of terrain and scenery that’s unlike anywhere else.
Molini, in the Argentina Valley, just to the north of San Remo in Liguria, north-west Italy, is home to more than 40 mountain biking trails, with a total distance of nearly 400km. There’s something here for both downhill thrill-seekers and those wanting a more sedate, cross-country experience. As well as adrenaline-pumping drops that can involve more than 2,000m of descending, you can ride open tracks down to the coast.
Alternatively, head to south-western Sardinia and bike through forests of cork. Construct a five-day itinerary from Monteveccio to Pula that takes you over old supply roads and singletrack, incorporating some challenging climbs and demanding descents. Throw in a few visits to some of the island’s most glorious beaches for a refreshing dip, and you have all the ingredients for a spectacular Sardinian biking experience.
What non-cycling activities are there?
Wine-tasting is a must when holidaying in Italy. Hillsides all over the country teem with vines, from the dark-skinned Primitivo grape of Puglia, to the white Pigato of Liguria. So make sure you allow some time off the bike to sample them direct from the source.
In Sardinia, explore Cagliari’s old town. DH Lawrence called it “a white Jerusalem” and sights include two limestone towers dating from the 14th century.
When’s best to go?
Try to avoid high summer when the Italian sun is at its fiercest. April through to the end of June and September to October are the best times for cycling in Italy.
Festivals to look out for along the way include La Notte Bianca in Puglia (September), when the town of Lecce hosts an all-night culture fest – museums and galleries remain open night-long, while concerts run right through until morning.
Alternatively, if you’re cycling along the Amalfi Coast in October, stop off at the town of Scala for the Sagra della Castagna (Chestnut Festival) to sample all manner of treats made from the famous local chestnuts, from cakes to fritters and even chestnut marmalade.
How’s best to get there?
Fly to Bari for the Puglia region, Naples for the Amalfi Coast, Genoa or Nice for Liguria and Cagliari for south-west Sardinia.
Where to stay
On the Amalfi Coast, the Hotel Amalfi charges €50 pppn in high season. You can also camp virtually on the beach at Villaggio Nettuno – 16km from Sorrento, it offers pitches for a tent and two adults for €17.50 in low season and mobile homes from €30.
Options are limited in tiny Molini di Triora, but you could try the Santo Spirito, which has doubles from €90. Another option is to book with a company that provides accommodation along with guides and uplift support – Riviera Bike and Molini Freeride are two such options.
In Pula, Sardinia, try the colourful Marin Hotel. This comfortable three-star hotel has doubles from €80. Alternatively, camp in a pine forest near the beach at Pini e Mare. Prices for a pitch start at €7 per adult, with bungalows available from €45.