OK Italy is never going to be as easy to get to as northern France, but it’s still pretty accessible, and by air its every bit as accessible as the south of France. If you’re looking for somewhere different in Europe. Italy is well worth considering.
So what’s Italy got to offer?
If it’s mountains you’re after, the Alps stretch in a broad sweeping arc from Liguria and Piedmont in the north-west, to the Dolomites in the north-west on the border with Austria. Although the Alps have all the famous mountains like Mont Blanc (‘Monte Bianco’), the Apennines run down the length of the peninsula from Liguria down to Sicily. If you’re after great climbs and panoramic views then you’re spoilt for choice.
Lakes: Italy’s lake district on the border with Switzerland have rightly attracted tourists, and writers and painters for hundreds of years, but there are many other beautiful lakes in the hills and mountains.
The coast: the Amalfi coast, and the coast of the Liguria and the Cinque Terre are well-known and tourist magnets. The coastline of the Gargano national park in Puglia is less well-known but still one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline you’ll find anywhere. The coastline of Puglia with a chain of beautiful historic coastal cities is also definitely worth the effort.
The rivers: if you want to view the diversity of landscapes that Italy has to offer you could do a lot worse than follow the river paths along the Adige and the Brenta as they head towards the coast south of Venice. The path along the Po joins two of Italy’s greatest cities Milan and Venice (well almost) taking in other lesser-known but equally beautiful towns along the route.
The history and culture
Italy has a long and (very) complicated history. Many peoples have come here to settle - not just the Greeks, Byzantines, Jews, Phoenicians, Arabs and other Mediterranean peoples - but peoples from northern and central Europe including the Normans. This has left a cultural and artistic heritage that’s as rich and diverse as you’ll find anywhere.
The country we now know as Italy has only existed for 150 years - and some parts of the north only became part of the country in 1918. In contrast the Venetian Republic lasted for over a thousand years and southern Italy and Sicily was as separate state for almost as long. Add to that the formidable barrier of the Apennines - until the railways and roads it was quicker and easier to travel by ship between Ancona on the east coast and Rome. So little wonder that Italy is such a diverse country, although whether the differences between the Italians of different parts of the country is any greater than the differences between English, Scots, Welsh and Irish is a little bit open to doubt.
It’s also been a troubled history of invasion and warfare and rivalry between different city-states (Italy as we know it has only existed for 150 years - or so). But that rivalry also had a positive aspect as competing cities, and competing dynasties sought to outshine one another, and impress the outside world and produced an extraordinary architectural and artistic legacy.
If you’re a cycle tourist you’re probably not going to be wanting to spend a lot of time visiting museums and cathedrals - after all you want to be out in the fresh air and sunshine, but there’s still a lot to enjoy on your way.
One of the best aspects of cycling in Italy is arriving in a town or city in the morning when people are out to do their shopping, or have a coffee, or take the children out to play, or in the evening when they are out for a passeggiata and possibly an aperitivo (two important institutions of Italian life).
But put aside the cultural myths and you won’t be disappointed. Don’t expect every Italian to welcome you with open arms. Like everywhere else you’ll find people who are friendly and people who aren’t, because that’s how they are, or they're busy or preoccupied, or they just don’t like tourists. Italians can be very laid-back and informal but formality and courtesy can often be very important - and one of the worst things you can say about someone is to say they are ‘maleducato’.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of travelling through Italy are its towns and cities, especially on weekend mornings when people come out to shop, or have coffee with friends, or take the children to play in the park, or go for a bike ride, or summer evenings when they are out for an aperitivo with friends.
The great joy of many towns and cities is the centro storico the historic heart of the city - usually a zona al traffico limitato leaving streets for people to walk and ride.
One of the most striking features of Italian life is the importance of food - and talking about food.
Again like many other aspects of Italian life the most striking aspects of Italian cooking is it’s sheer diversity and variety. Yes of course you’ll find pizza pretty much everywhere you go, but there are very few other dishes that you’ll find everywhere. Every region, and sometimes it seems like every town, has its own specialities that you’ll find there and often nowhere else.
I don’t know why it is that Italian wine is so much in the shadow of French wine. Undeservedly Italian wine seems to be seen as a cheap and poorer-quality substitute. Wine and winemaking is a fundamental part of italian life and culture - and its landscape. It’s hard to go anywhere without passing through vineyards and passing wineries - whether you’re in the Chianti area of Tuscany, or the Valdobbiadene in the Veneto where the best Prosecco comes from, of the Salento in the far south where they make beefy reds, or Sicily with its Zebbibo dessert wine. If you’re interested in wine, or even if you just like to drink it, there’s lots to see and enjoy.
There’s nowhere where they make coffee as well as they do in Italy.