On two wheels to Perugia
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