Around Umbria on an Iron Donkey

A trusty steed

Despite the grey clouds all around, as we rounded the corner Assisi was bathed in rays of golden light on the hillside before us. We’d have never had these vistas had we approached on a train. The gelataria in the notes we’d missed was pushed from our minds, and we stopped for a photo opportunity, not realising there’d be more, better opportunities around each corner as we approached the base of the hill.

‘Thank goodness they only built it halfway up the hill,’ we joked. After Montone the day before, this would be a breeze, surely? As tourist buses rushed past us as we ground away in granny gear, none of us focussed too hard on the fact we would have to climb this hill again tomorrow, on the final day of our tour.

It was day four of a five day custom cycling tour booked through Iron Donkey. My two friends and I chose a route with two loop tours from bases in Sansepolcro and Assisi so we’d have time for some sightseeing and relaxation. Only one of us has any real experience as a cyclist – my ‘training’ was a 20 minute London commute where the steepest incline is the approach to Vauxhall Bridge. But the routes provided by Iron Donkey catered for every skill and fitness level – save for the unavoidable fact all those medieval towns were built on top of a hill. But then every hill offered its own rewards.

We flew into in Perugia from Stansted and made our own way to Sansepolcro to meet our guide. The journey was fraught with the sort of comic misadventure only Italian rail services can provide, but we met a couple from North Carolina who were able to guide us directly to our accommodation, Locanda del Giglio, inside the old walled village. ‘Picture a typical Italian restaurant owner,’ said Mary Susan of our host Alessio Uccellini, and she was spot on. His family have run the bed and breakfast – and the much-celebrated Restaurante Fiorentino – on the site for more than 50 years and is in the process of handing the reigns to his daughter Alessia, who had just made him a Grandad.

Our unflappable guide Giovanni fitted us to our bikes, then took us for a coffee in the main piazza while he talked us through the route maps, which offered us with a number of options each day of varying lengths and difficulty, each marked in careful detail.  He patiently answered many questions, the last of which was ‘Where’s the best place to buy gelati?’ It was to be the first of many times Iron Donkey exceeded our expectations: we jumped on the bikes and he took us to Gelateria Ghigoni, where we sampled the work of master ice-cream maker Palmiro Bruschi. The walls of the gelataria are lined with his many awards and pictures of him with celebrities including Sharon Stone and model Megan Gale. Exactly the sort of local treasure you always dream of stumbling across on holiday.

Our first day was an easy-moderate loop ride from Sansepolcro to Anghiari and back around the edges of a dam. Fuelled by the astonishing spread of home-made cakes and pastries and a couple of excellent coffees, despite our careful questions about what time everything closed for lunch we managed to time our arrival in Anghiari at exactly that time.  Wandering the medieval streets (some buildings date back to the tenth century) was novel enough for us, though, and we refuelled with pizza and salad on the main piazza. We arrived back in Sansepolcro around 4pm, feeling quite chuffed with our first efforts as cycle tourists.

That night after limoncelli sipped at the Enotecca del Giglio, we ate Alessio’s cuccina tipici. Duck with wild fennel, rabbit with pears and an astonishing black rice risotto with porcini mushrooms and truffles, washed down with a carafe of local wines. Knowing the cakes on the dessert trolley would be available for breakfast, we retired blissfully happy.

A room with a view at Villa Valentina

The next day we had to get ourselves to Villa Valentina, a spa hotel outside Umbertide. The day started beautifully with easy riding through fields of sunflowers and past farmhouses growing their own grapes and olives. Just outside the village of Pitigliano the chain on my bike broke and we were forced to call Giovanni. Our knight in a yellow Renault van soon had us back on the road again, still laughing heartily at his suggestion we take the broken chain with us to practice cycle repairs on. We were so busy laughing it was only later, about half way along the three kilometre climb to Montone his parting words: ‘Montone’s worth the effort’, sunk in. That is a long, steep hill, but happily, he was right, and it made it all the more special that we were the only tourists in the village.  Less happily, we had another big climb to our accommodation ahead. We arrived on legs of jelly…and were led straight to the spa, where Turkish steam baths, a sauna and thermal pools soon washed away our aches and pains.

Almost everything they serve at Villa Valentina is grown on the property, including the olive oil and balsamic vinegar served with the homemade bread. It’s the most delicious olive oil I’ve tasted, light and green in flavour. We all chose pasta, my vegetarian friend selecting a dish that paid tribute to the fields of sunflowers we’d cycled through; delicate pillows of spinach pasta in light cheese sauce with fresh vegetables. Everything was presented and prepared with care and love: a truly memorable meal. We retired to a spacious room with views across the valley, and slept soundly, body and soul contented.

The next day our luggage was transferred to Assisi and we followed it there. I was totally unprepared for the astonishing beauty of the city. We arrived on a Saturday and saw a number of wedding parties posing for photos. It was the most tourist-y part of the trip: for the most part we were on country roads well-off the beaten track. We revelled in the people watching, all three of us taken aback at a Jesus busker being paid for photos by the devout. The accommodation, right inside the city walls near the main piazza, was the least impressive of the three supplied but that’s no real criticism and the staff at Hotel Alexander more than compensated.

For our last day we did a loop ride via country roads to Torgiano, where we toured the surprising Museo del Vino, which traces the history of wine production in the region back to 3000 BC. It seemed our luck with the weather ended over lunch but by the time we got back on the bikes the clouds had parted. Our last trip took us past Santa Maria degli Angeli, the church in which St Francis died, Colasanti’s golden statue of the Madonna glowing against the threatening sky.

That night we found a restaurant not mentioned in the tourist guides, where the locals were unwinding in rowdy good humour; a group of women on a hen’s night on one side, a couple having dinner with a nun on the other. None of us had ever tried this sort of holiday before, and we’re all completely sold. The service provided, and the standard of accommodation and inclusions, belied the price we paid. We covered between 50 and 60k a day without any real stress, exploring at a pace that gave us ample opportunities to chat with friendly locals along the way. The directions were so detailed we were completely confident of them despite very little cycling experience and we all felt we’d seen a slice of Italian life we could not have experienced any other way.

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