We had been on the road for a month. Our final descent out of Switzerland was breathtaking and, as we raced down the mountain, it felt like we were leaving winter behind us. Road markings flashed beneath us. We were fast; the weight of loaded panniers adding momentum. Thawing snow lined our route, glistening as it melted on either side of the tarmac. We shared the road with drivers who passed leaving plenty of room to spare, some acknowledging us with a polite nod or raised palm.
Italy was now visible. Our fifth country in as many weeks. As we freewheeled, we chatted about how cycling across borders reduces culture shock: you travel so slowly that countries simply dissolve into one another. That theory was instantly shattered as we crossed into Italy. Everything transformed within metres. The energy of the traffic around us changed: horns blared as drivers sped out of Como in the early evening light, some offering a cheery shout of “bravo” or “buon viaggio”. But, after an initial jolt at the border, it only took a day or two to adjust to local driving styles, something that was repeated in all the countries that we would later pass through.
We are not the first to write that our main memories of Italy revolve around food. The blood oranges given to us by a cheery Milanese traffic warden who stopped to chat in the sunshine; cheese and honey breads in the open-fronted delis of Pavia; pizza and Aperol spritz in more places than we could name; and, of course, wonderful home-cooked food with the people who hosted us.
After passing south through Lombardy, we headed east along the Po river, eventually reaching Luzzara, a small town just over the Emilia-Romagna border. Our one night there was a Willy Wonka-esque dream come true for hungry cyclists. We were guests of Luca, a keen cyclist and sculptor who owns the gelateria in the centre of town, and Andrea, a dancer. They were two of many people we met through Warmshowers, a hosting app that’s like Couchsurfing for cyclists (see below).
We were shown straight to the table, already laid with a basket of fresh bread. Having clocked up close to 100km, we were ravenous and craving carbohydrates. A veteran of several cycle tours himself, Luca knew what to expect. He presented plate after plate of homemade pumpkin ravioli with a knowing smile. We didn’t finish eating until close to midnight. And then, after a digestivo of limoncello, Andrea asked: “Do you want to see the ice-cream?”
The streets were empty, lit by sodium-orange street lamps. We walked as a gang of four, beaming like excited children on every step to the shop. Luca had his keys ready. He drew up the shutter, flicked on the lights and laughed as a neon list of flavours lit up on the wall behind him.
Soon we were behind the counter watching Luca demonstrate how to whip up ice-cream from scratch. He was in his element, a true craftsman. He handed us a box of tiny coloured spoons. “Try whatever you like. Try everything!’’ We didn’t attempt to hide our excitement. We were kids breaking into a sweetshop for a midnight feast with our new friends. Our working lives back in London couldn’t have felt further away.
Italy in spring turned out to be a perfect match for us. After battling snowstorms in Germany and climbing the Swiss Alps, the flat lands lining the River Po were a welcome break – a fortnight of fair- weather cycling to reward us for a month of drama. The river snaked east, twisting and widening gradually alongside us. For the first time since leaving the UK, we could cover more than 100km a day and still have enough energy to go exploring in the evenings.
And while the lack of gradients could get monotonous, the accompanying wildlife more than made up for it. Flamingos made stick-figure silhouettes above the silver waters of the Venice lagoon, and families of curious beaver-ish animals grazed the banks. We later learnt that these furry bystanders are called nutria (coypu in English) and considered a huge pest in Italy, but for us they’ll always be the “beaver-rats”, unofficial mascots cheering us on as we rolled past.
We were also fuelled by pizza, espressos and the kindness of locals. Our appetites had developed to monstrous extremes but, luckily, everyone we met seemed to want to feed us. Perhaps none more so than Alberto and Sabrina near Piove di Sacco, east of Padua. We arrived at Easter and were invited to join their family for the Sunday feast.
We felt distinctly British as 17 family members from three generations piled around the dinner table, talking loudly over each other with exaggerated hand gestures and huge amounts of love. We devoured plates of homemade lasagne, black rice salad, bread and olives, more pasta and, last but not least, Nonna Maria’s delicious almond cake. The mothers and grandmothers kept entreating us to “mangia, mangia!”, while the grandfathers continued topping up our glasses with grappa. By the end of it, we were well and truly part of the family and completely stuffed. At least half of the party fell asleep in the sun after dinner, only to be roused by the smell of yet another espresso.
We moved more slowly as we headed off north, heavier from the feast and a weekend off our bikes. As with many families we met along the way, Alberto and Sabrina had urged us to stay longer than planned, and it was hard to get moving again. We could have happily remained with them for a week, playing volleyball with their eight-year-old daughter and planting seeds in their huge greenhouse.
But we knew we had to pedal on. We wanted to reach Turkey during Ramadan, and the Pamir Highway in central Asia by mid to late summer, when the weather would be temperate. We reminded ourselves of that as we packed and repacked our panniers and trundled into the early morning light.
As happened with most of the 22 countries we cycled across, the main thing we remember about Italy is the people. The Italian tendency towards openness and unquestioning hospitality seems to be in their bones and, hopefully, we’ve picked up a pinch of this on our travels. Now that we are back in the UK, we’re looking forward to hosting people ourselves. We can’t offer midnight tours of ice-cream parlours, but we can lay on a feast and share stories well into the night. And, unsurprisingly, Nonna Maria didn’t let us leave without the recipe for her famous almond cake, for when hungry cyclists happen to stop by.
• Eurostar crossings to Lille from £44 one-way, plus £30 per bike
‘Couchsurfing for cyclists’
“Join Warmshowers” was the best piece of advice given to us before we set off on our 11-month tour. In short, Warmshowers is a global “hospitality network for cycle tourers”. Like Couchsurfing, it relies on the goodwill of people offering a bed for the night to passing strangers, with the expectation that they will repay the gesture to other cyclists in future.
Warmshowers offered so much more than somewhere to crash; it became an integral part of our trip. It was a window into the communities we cycled through and the start of many friendships.
To join Warmshowers, cyclists register and create a profile, stating whether they’re on the road or offering to host. Each profile tells you everything you need to know as a passing cyclist, from the languages spoken to the distance to the nearest bike mechanic. After each stay, hosts and tourers post feedback, which allows the network to self-monitor.
There are 132,000 Warmshowers members in 161 countries, and we stayed with over 70 of the 79,000 hosts on the course of our trip. In Europe alone, our journey was made so much richer by the people we met through the network: Karin and Martin in Holland, who borrowed a van to rescue us from a brutal February headwind; Roberto in Italy, who entered us into an all-night table-football tournament against local carabinieri; and Rory in Croatia, who gave us a personalised tour of his island.
At the end of our European leg, we stayed with Kathi and Isky in Istanbul for five days before crossing the Bosphorus and continuing east into Asia. We couldn’t have bought these experiences if we tried – they are some of our fondest memories of the trip. Now, when people ask us for advice on cycle touring, Warmshowers is the first word we say.