THE words bike and holiday are not two that I had ever put together.
I thought I’d chuck in the towel before I’d even started but I’m having a moment. I’m not sure though if it’s with the bike or with Umbria.
The scenery looks so tranquil and being on the bike is so calming that this part of Italy should win the Noble Peace Prize.
No one’s around. It seems we to have the place to ourselves.
The words bike and holiday are not two that I had ever put together
“That’s my villa. Down there. On the left with the red roses trailing over the windows,” I said. Someone else picked one with a vineyard and another wanted any that was perched on top of a hill.
They say that cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than anybody else.
It’s true. It slows everything down. Bikes can take you places that cars can’t reach and further than your feet can carry you.
I’d focused too much on the tub-thumping lyrca wearing cyclists. I imagined the likes of Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish zipping past and a sad image of me humping up a hill out of breath and falling so far behind, I’d roll backwards.
But I was wrong. I get it now. Here I am with my go as fast as I dare face whizzing pass the butterflies, birds and bees.
Plus I’d joined a group trip so I’d never be alone in case I did fall behind.
It’s late morning and we’ve reached the top of a hill looking out on the medieval villages and the dark green forests.
Who needs a beach when you have this?
The temperature’s 30C, there’s the smell of fresh herbs on the breeze, stone houses below and the sound of church bells ringing in the distance.
Located in the centre of the Italy, Umbria is known as the beating “green heart” for its bottle-green valleys, vineyards and olive groves.
Life here is made to be lived outdoors.
I’ve come for a long weekend to cycle in the mornings, eat in the afternoons and relax in the evenings.
Starting in Perugia then heading south to Assisi and ending in Spoleto, it all begins very well. My first experience is on an electric e-bike for a tour around Perugia.
It takes a while to get used to the motor kicking in but when it does, it feels like I’m floating up the hills. This is hardly the Alps but the steep narrow roads could easily turn this quiet sightseeing outing into a thigh-burning stage of the Tour de France.
Being the region’s capital, Perugia is filled with piazzas, fountains, alleyways and some 40 churches.
We pack a thousand of years history into just three-hours. And that’s just the way I like it. The whole thing put a big grin on my face. Once I realised how easy it was, I couldn’t get back on the saddle fast enough.
We see the Rocca Paolina fortress, San Pietro’s church with its hexagonal bell town, Piazza Grimana with the etruscan arch and Università per stranieri and end at Fontana Maggiore and San Lorenzo’s Cathedral in the centre.
It’s one of those cities where they have life all figured out. There’s a gelato parlour on almost every street. Lunches are long and alfresco with plates filled with prosciutto, cheese, chunks of bread and that’s before the pasta and truffles come out with a glass of red followed by an espresso.
My first night’s stay is in the stone-built Hotel Fortuna – also a time capsule from 1200 – with original frescoes on the wall.
Given its upper crust beginnings as a palazzo, I am lucky to have a large room with two beds – one double and a single – but then there is also a cross-trainer machine in the corner. I could easily have thrown open the balcony doors and worked out before breakfast.
I don’t think the guests from 800 years ago would have done so though – so neither do I. Plus the view was too good to waste. I just stare and take photos of the sprawling red-tiled roofs.
So far, and not yet saddle-sore, the next morning brings a real bike ride. It’s 20k (12.5miles) along the gravelly disused railway called Spoleto-Norcia to Castle San Felice.
The rail line is a pretty flat stretch and you can pick it up at various points to suit your level.
Voted the most beautiful bike path in Italy in 2015, there are pitch black tunnels en route – the longest at over a mile where the temperature inside drops by 10 degrees. It’s spooky with our torches casting ghostly shadows and drops of ice cold water falling from the ceiling make us jump.
But the views from the bridges are the main draw.
It’s another giddy rainbow of green – unspoilt forest, farmland and a full panorama of the region. Ancient monasteries and hamlets pop out among the long grass and tall trees.
Is there anybody down there? “That’s it. That one’s mine too,” I smile, pointing at a romantic looking farm with clipped hedges and a vintage Fiat in the drive.
“I could make this one my summer house.”
It always seems we to have the place to ourselves. I feel that I’ve totally come off the map.
Rolling along side-by-side quickly becomes one of the highlights of the ride. We take pit stops for lunch together and eat at a farm stay to taste four desserts made with homemade sheep ricotta cheese in the MontiSibillini National Park – where we also came across a map of Italy planted in the hillside. It was extraordinary.
As we pedal on under the hot summer sun, it’s like the first day at school. Like me, others on the ride hadn’t been on a bike for years. We were all fish out of water but we easily settled into our saddles.
Then it was on to Assisi for the night where we made it back for cocktail hour.
The Garden Resort and Spa San Crispino had my attention at the entrance. It’s surrounded by meadows of sunflowers, corn fields, rose gardens, olives trees and vines.
Given this setting, it came as no surprise to me that hundreds of years ago a miracle occurred nearby. A young soldier on his way to war had a vision to serve God and returned to his city to live and pray. He later became known as St Francis of Assisi.
His chapel, now a Unesco site, heaves with daily coach trips.
We don’t go for a look or even into the stone walled village. We don’t need to.
There is something already in the air, we decide, as we sit outside toasting a successful day.
Back on my new BFF on the last day to follow a trail called the Assisi-Spoleto that will take us up into wine country.
With so many little roads, we don’t see much traffic before heading off road for two hours. I relax my pace along a canal as we chat about the best gelato flavours. Pistachio, tiramisu and lemon come out on top.
With that in mind, it is full throttle for a crawl up a final climb to the Le Cimate vineyard. You won’t find the wines here in UK supermarkets but you might pay £50 for a bottle of their Montefalco Sagrantino in a fancy restaurant.
On arrival we are handed Rosso red wine followed by a white at lunch. Then comes a dessert wine with locally made Pecorino cheese.
Feeling drowsy, we are picked up and driven on to nearby Spoleto for a lie down.
We’re dropped at Le Colombare Hotel and Resort. If you’re into water slides, this hits the spot. Inside, the rooms are simple with white decor but outside it’s a colourful party atmosphere. It’s a bit noisy but it comes with Italians draped over the sunbeds in spades. With a man-made beach and crowded swimming pools, this is the hottest ticket in town.
After a doze in the sunshine, we walk around Spoleto in the evening.
This ancient city again ticks all the classic Umbrian boxes – courtyards, the Cathedral, big squares, statues, arches, steep cobbled streets and families dining in the open air.
Standing in the middle of Tower’s Bridge looking across to the popular San Francisco way, I have another strange moment.
I’ve done it. I’d cycled across Umbria. I still had the grease on my legs to prove it. That’s what I call a real souvenir.
Hotel Fortuna – www.hotelfortunaperugia.com
Garden Resort and Spa San Crispino – www.assisibenessere.it/
Le Colombare Hotel and Resort www.lecolombarefoligno.it/
Umbro’ in Perugia www.facebook.com/umbrosocial
Agriturismo Zafferano e Dintorni www.zafferanoedintorni.it/
Le Cimate www.lecimate.it/?lang=en
Ristorante del Sole www.ristorantesole.com/
Hotel dei Duchi http://www.hoteldeiduchi.com/en/restaurants.html