Val­ley whirl

On two wheels to Peru­gia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - DANIELLE SHERI­DAN

I am push­ing my body to its limit, moun­tain-bik­ing slowly up a sin­gle-track path, on ter­rain so rugged my an­kles are be­ing pel­leted by gravel and clay. It’s hard work but with the sun beat­ing down as we wind through the Um­brian val­ley in Italy, the jour­ney is glo­ri­ous.

Reach­ing the top of the val­ley, we stop to ad­mire the hun­dreds of vel­vet-green olive groves that roll out be­fore us, while in the dis­tance we can spy the an­cient towns of Spello and As­sisi, dwarfed by Mount Suba­sio and the Apen­nine moun­tains. We’re less than an hour from Peru­gia on a trip that is the per­fect mix of city and coun­try­side.

Steeped in his­tory, Peru­gia has a labyrinth of crooked streets, in ad­di­tion to the well-pre­served re­mains of a fortress, Rocca Paolina, which we first glimpsed from our ho­tel’s glass-bot­tomed swim­ming pool. The fortress is worth ex­plor­ing to see the dun­geon-like cham­bers and walls built to sub­due the lo­cals af­ter the 1540 up­ris­ing against the pope and a hated new tax on salt (to this day Peru­gians bake their bread with­out salt).

We leave through a huge pas­tel gate em­bed­ded in the fortress, pop­ping in briefly to Stu­dio Moretti Caselli, a dusty work­shop that has been de­sign­ing stained-glass win­dows since 1860, be­fore head­ing to the Gal­le­ria Nazionale dell’Um­bria. The gallery is tucked be­hind the main street lead­ing to the Piazza IV Novem­bre, and en­try is just €8 ($11.25), for which we are treated to works from the Sienese, Floren­tine and Re­nais­sance move­ments, as well as Um­brian paint­ings. We head straight for Pi­etro Perug­ino’s Madonna col Bam­bino, show­ing his del­i­cate brush­strokes. I’m also struck by the vi­vac­ity of colour in Duc­cio di Buonin­segna’s and Perug­ino’s madon­nas.

Out­side we are tempted by a street ven­dor sell­ing buns filled with roast pork and parme­san, but opt for the Pizze­ria Mediter­ranea, which sits just be­hind the Piazza IV Novem­bre. This im­pres­sive main square, home to San Lorenzo cathe­dral and the 13th-cen­tury Fon­tana Mag­giore, is lined with build­ings in peaches and greens. In the pizze­ria we perch at a rick­ety ta­ble at the back and within 10 min­utes we’re tuck­ing into two huge piz­zas made us­ing the soft­est dough and a quar­ter-litre of ex­cep­tion­ally good, and in­ex­pen­sive, house red. It’s at this point, stuffed with food and cul­ture, that we make our trip on two wheels, af­ter catch­ing a train to nearby Foligno.

We pedal out along the St Fran­cis Way, fol­low­ing the yel­low and blue spots that mark the route. It’s not long be­fore we reach the an­cient city of Trevi, where, over a bowl of fresh pasta doused in cream and pecorino, our guide and bike rental com­pany owner, An­tonella Tucci, tells us about Italy’s re­cent earth­quakes.

In Oc­to­ber last year, a 6.6 mag­ni­tude quake struck near Nor­cia, pulling down eight churches. The epi­cen­tre was nearly 100km from Peru­gia, but tourism in the area, in­clud­ing bike rentals, has suf­fered.

As we make our way back to Foligno, cool air blow­ing on my face as we speed down­hill, the streets we cy­cle through are peaceful, the small vil­lages, with their pink and cream bricks, are beau­ti­ful, and the coun­try­side full of wildlife. There’s just time to en­joy one last culi­nary slice of Italy. We stop at Chiesa del Carmine villa, where we meet David Lang, who makes his own olive oil and or­ganic wines. First, though, we need to for­age for our sup­per. As­sisted by the ca­pa­ble paws of Yuma, a shaggy Ro­magna wa­ter dog, we scram­ble about on the moun­tain­side truf­fle hunt­ing. Within half an hour he has sniffed us out a hand­ful of the prized del­i­cacy. Back at the es­tate we de­vour the fresh truf­fles, with their woody, nutty flavour, on br­uschetta. It’s washed down with a glass of Lang’s de­light­fully crisp Treb­biano Spo­letino.

Tired from the bik­ing, we watch the sun set over the hills as the sky turns a fiery orange, and now with a glass of hearty mer­lot in hand, we toast our re­ward­ing break.

Trevi in Um­bria, top; cycling coun­try, above; Chiesa del Carmine church and coun­try house, cen­tre right; Fon­tana Mag­giore on Piazza IV Novem­bre, above right

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