Italy (20 Sep – 09 Oct)

My friend Nicholas has a house in Tuscany that he rarely gets chance to work on. I suggested we could do some work in exchange for the keys … and so we found ourselves high in a village called Trebbio in the hills of the Apuan Alps north east of Pisa. The house is amazing – mostly rented to a lovely couple (Marco and Serena) but we stayed in a one-bedroom self-contained annex.

It’s pretty quiet up in those hills … that’s our place!

Marco spoke great English and works hard to keep the extensive gardens under control – so there were embarrassingly few jobs to actually do … but we went about what we could; clearing vines from fruit trees, hacking bracken, reinstating grape vines, exposing an overgrown out-building, making steps etc.. The view along the valley seemed to change daily and was always remarkable. We had ferocious storms that kept us in all day, glorious sunshine that kept us out all day and only the sound of owls at night.

Welcome evening shade

The local Pizza Restaurant had an ‘all you can eat and drink for 15 Euros’ night – so it was rude not to … only drawback was the Europop Karaoke. But after a few beers and 3 pizzas it didn’t sound so bad …

We also went on numerous walks to local villages (loved Convalle) and also on a longer all day hike that led us up Mount Prano where the views to the coast and Lucca were sensational.

Practising selfies at the top of Mount Prano

We took a few days to visit Florence – still an amazing place although even more crowded than before. We stayed at a campsite in a kind of modular bungalow that was perfect – we could cook, eat, sleep and shower and the whole place was right on a cycle track down the Arno river … 20 minutes on the bikes and we were in the centre of Florence.

You have to book to go into the Cathedral and up to the Dome. I’d re-read the Brunelleschi book about how he built the dome and was very excited to look … but sadly there were no places available. But there were still lots of treats. We spent time in the Uffizi, at Piazza Michaelangelo and just generally wandering around Florence on our bikes. An astonishing place.

Easily the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen
Baptistry doors – amazing
My elusive dome

We also took a day to cycle to Lucca – a town north east of Pisa. It’s a walled city … and you can cycle/walk around the top of the walls (they’re very wide!). Amazing town with a fabulous amphitheatre full of fantastic bars and restaurants. There’s also a tower to climb and streets to wander. We loved it.

View from the top of Guinigi Tower

After leaving Trebbio we headed for the Cinque Terra (5 lands) – a collection of fishing villages set dramatically on the coast that is dominated by centuries-old vineyard terraces. We stayed in La Spezia – a busy naval port that runs ferries to the Cinque Terra. Our first mission was to catch a ferry to the furthest village (Monterosso) and then walk to the next (Vernazza). The walk was pretty strenuous and very steep in places … a lot of people looked like it was a bit beyond them. The views were ridiculously stunning though. Well worth the effort.

Leaving Vernazza on our way to Corniglia with Monterosso in the background

Vernazza was beautiful but crowded so we decided to continue the coast path on to the next village (Corniglia). This village has no general access to the sea but again was stunning. We decided not to walk further but to get a train (yes, miraculously a train connects all the villages!). We dodged the fare and from the next village (Manarola) we tried to catch the ferry. The man on the slipway shouted “La Spezia” as the ferry approached so we thought we were onto a good thing. We waited and watched the ferry turn and carry on without stopping. It turns out he was asking if anybody wanted to go to La Spezia. Stupid system! Anyway, we eventually got the next ferry and sailed back to La Spezia with a view to cycling to the final village Riomaggiore.

Cycling to Riomaggiore – the other villages and the fabulous vineyards in the background.

The bike ride to Riomaggiore from La Spezia was, well, one hell of a climb out of La Spezia! Very steep, on and on up the old road through the trees and then a massive, exhilarating downhill into the village. We spent time in the village and read all the info at the castle about how the vineyards were created – fascinating stuff (honest!). We took the new road home … my god! A HUGE descent …. miles and miles and miles of descent with beautiful views of La Spezia towards the end. Amazing bike ride.

Later that evening we also cycled to Porto Venere. Had a wander around the town and a pizza with a bottle of Cinque Terra wine. Not strictly one the Cinque Terra but Porto Venere was a just as stunning.

Round the corner from Porto Venere (in Byron’s Grotto)

From La Spezia we cycled to Pisa. We dropped over the hills (past the Carrara and Mass ports … Carrara quarries was where Michaelangelo went shopping marble) and onto the plain we could see from the top of Mount Prano .. it was the flattest road we’ve ever cycled. Miles and miles along the Italian Riviera (i.e. the beach is mostly fenced off and privately accessed!) – flat as a pancake. Flatter, in fact.

We reached the end of Viareggio and met a cyclist who insisted on taking us off the main road and onto a dirt track. It led past a river full of turtles and he pointed us towards the coast … nice fella – it was amazing. We stumbled on a bit of paradise.

Unexpected paradise where the Serchio river meets the sea

It was surreal cycling towards Pisa and seeing the tower and cathedral dominate the landscape. I’d seen that thing on cigarette cards when I was a kid now here it was in the flesh. We navigated to our room for the night – nice place 5 minute cycle to the airport – and then headed into town. We’d pre-booked a trip up the tower (after the Florence experience). As you can imagine the place was pretty busy with everyone taking the same photos (pushing it over, propping it up) and selfie-central (as was everywhere we’d been in Italy). But when our time came to climb the tower we had it to ourselves for a while. It’s amazing, as is the work they’ve done to stabilise it. We were lucky to get to the top as the sun was getting low and the views were very rich indeed.

View from the top

I finished off with my own stupid picture ….

The tower safely balanced on my bike rack ….

And that was that … we ate at Osteria Il Capodaglio (nice but kind of expensive for us) and made our way back to our room. Kept awake by a couple in another room at 2am (she was pretty vocal!). Just when you thought it was all over it started again. La Dolce Vita!