Friday, 29 January 2016

Guest Post: Cycling and Abruzzo

This is a guest post from my husband who started cycling as a hobby back in 2003.  I remember friends taking the mick out of Will for wearing lycra and shaving his legs, but they've all since joined the cycling craze!  Cycling has always been popular everywhere else in Europe, but has only become popular in the UK since 2012 when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour.  This post is about Will's experience of cycling in Abruzzo.  I'm not a cyclist myself, although I used to enjoy mountain biking before I had our boys and I really enjoyed reading Will's perspective on the sport.  I hope you enjoy it too!

My love of cycling started in a bizarre way.  I'd raced motocross for several years, from my early 30's and it had taught me about the reality of being a 'cocky guy that thought I could do anything' then entering an aggressive sport and realising that I was actually not as good as I had thought!

The ongoing injuries and the ravages of age meant that motocross had to be stopped at some point and the plans I had with Louisa all led to me becoming a respectable retired rider.

Unfortunately, that meant that, at 35, I'd put on a kilogram a month if I stopped doing any active sport.  So, I went out and bought an entry level £400 racer bicycle.  Back then, Mark Cavendish was a track racer and had a skinhead and chubby, boyish cheeks.  Lance Armstrong had entered World Hall of Real Life Heroes and cycling was very much a niche, minor sport with a couple of household names.

I'd ridden my entry level Muddy Fox Road Glide a few times and enjoyed it.  At that point, we had bought our derelict house in Italy and the rebuild was soon to start.  Our dreams and aspirations would be very different at that time, we thought we'd be childless (due to a health reason) and a comfortable life together in Abruzzo was on the cards and a stress-free 40 years to death would follow as we dreamed of 'la dolce vita'.

Some documents needed signing, in order to start our rebuild, and I'd found an English couple running a bed and breakfast that offered free collection from Pescara airport.  Suddenly, the cost of a rental car could be offset against the cost of taking a bike in a bag.  It would be a new adventure and all I needed to do was ride up some mountains, into Pescara.  It would be easy for a hero like me!

The days leading up to the trip passed and I had watched some stages of the Giro d'Italia, which was the Italian version of the Tour d'France and the second biggest of the grand tours.

Then came the day of my trip.  I packed my bike, arrived in Pescara and was met by Ian, from the b&b, who told me that a race called the Giro d'Italia was passing through the mountain that day.  We got to the b&b, I assembled my bike and decided to go for a test ride on these little mountains that could be no more than the shallow inclined hills of East Anglia.

How wrong could I be!  The 'hills' were steep and went on for more than a mile, like 5 or 6, maybe even 10 miles, all uphill!  This was a shock, although at a certain point I came across painted names on the road.  By now it was late afternoon, more painted on names appeared.  Then, a brightly coloured team Skoda car came down, leaving the end of the race that had finished that afternoon.  I waved and they beeped, then another, I waved and they beeped.  More cyclists appeared and a wave of enthusiasm engulfed me as I carried on, uphill, as the multi-coloured cavalcade came downhill, beeping enthusiastically.  A professional sport un-encountered by Brits was unfolding in-front of me.  As I waved at more and more team cars, I was aware that I was becoming enchanted by the Giro and this new, weird, exclusive sport.

The green 'hills' of Abruzzo

Beautiful landscape of Abruzzo

During that visit, I rode from Serramonacesca to Pescara, then Pescara to Pretoro.  All of it was an incredible struggle, but all journeys I'd thought impossible without a car not a few months earlier.

I got back to Britain and the rain and joined a cycling club (VC Barrachi).  We'd ride 60 miles every Sunday.  Heroes we were, weirdos in lycra in the corner of the cafe.  Coolness in our own eyes.  Exclusive, rarities, skinny tyres and self acknowledged notoriety.  Life was good and I was fit.

More and more cycling trips followed in Abruzzo and the Majelletta became 'my' mountain, a challenging 'bitch' of a climb, graced by pros and determined amateurs alike.  Always tough, incredibly testing.  The challenge that makes you dig deep inside yourself to make it to 'that next switchback' and then the next.

The first time I cycled all the way to Passo Lanciano was two days after Louisa and I married, in 2006.  The relief of finally getting married and the house being completed was worthy of doing something.  I met a nice Italian cyclist on the way, who encouraged me to carry on uphill, suffering like a cyclist enjoys when a mountain confronts them.  The air was thin, the sun came close and the scenery became ever more expansive.  There are a great many glorious mountain ascents in the cycling world, many are revered in books.  The eastern side of the Passo Lanciano is one of the most unexplored, secret, unspoilt that there are.  Alpe D'Huez, the Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, all grab the limelight, but Passo Lanciano is a match for them all.

The Giro was a regular holiday excursion for us and we met many people and visited strange mountain top villages we would never had seen, had it not been for the race.  I had sold the Muddy Fox and bought  a Specialized Tarmac, which I used to disassemble and put in the boot of the car on our driving trips, then fit our luggage around it!  

My Specialized Tarmac

The Giro trips always included me bringing my bike and I'd soon racked up many thousands of metres of climbing during my visits.  On mountainous cycling trips, climbing metres is more important than miles covered.  Many of my cyclist friends came over to stay and enjoyed the mountains with me.  All was good. Abruzzo fitted in my life even more now as a cyclist.

Giro d'Italia, 2007 - L'Aquila Province
Louisa (on the right), with her friend Rachel - Giro 2007
On my Specialized, a few hours before the Giro 2008 would pass through

Soon, I realised that transporting bikes over on Ryanair was getting silly and had cost more than a decent bike would have. So I decided to take a bike over to leave there.  I already had my Specialized, but wanted that in the UK and as money has been tight since having children, I refurbished an old 80's Raleigh.  I fitted a modern chainset, some leftover wheels and then it was ready.  My friend Nick was interested in coming over, so I decided to take another of my 80's steel-frame refurbed bikes over. 

 Soon we were on a plane, with the the two bikes in cardboard boxes in the hold.  We assembled the bikes at Pescara airport (to the amusement of watching Italians), disposed of the cardboard and then set about riding up the mountain to the house. 

Nick with our bikes at Stansted airport
Assembling bikes at Pescara Airport

 It was surreal to ride two British-made bikes around in the Italian sunshine and many bystanders admired them at various cafes.  We spent four days cycling around and up and down the peaks of the Majella.  By now, I was a seasoned cyclist and firmly believed in one of the few statements Lance Armstrong made that was true, "it's not about the bike".  An old steel relic can go up (and down) a massive mountain, just a bit slower than a modern lightweight.  

Passo Lanciano. One of many switchbacks!

At the wolf sanctuary on the Passo Lanciano
Nick descending on the Passo Lanciano

On Pescara's cycle and pedestrian bridge

It wasn't long after that I bought one of these bikes back and sold it.  I rationalised my growing collection down to three bikes; one in Italy, two in England.  My old Raleigh is fine for the mountains, forgiving and stable on the descents, with modern brakes whilst having a 34 x 28 gear ratio for the steepest bits like the North side into Bucchianico where the gradient is 18-20% for a while!

One one of my more recent trips (June 2015) my friend Pete came along, bringing his very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix.  Pete is a new(ish) cyclist and has progressed to a good level very quickly.  He has a penchant for carbon fibre, but is also a fan of the many gels and recovery drinks, all the things I had dismissed before.  During the five days of riding we did together, I learned about the benefits of this expensive and sickly nutrition.  The trip was brilliant, although marred a bit when somebody stole Pete's Garmin during a lunch in Pescara.  

Then, last Summer, we took our main family holiday in August.  Nick and his family came also and followed us in their car, with Nick's bike in the trunk.  They stayed at Kokopelli Camping, near us and the dynamic worked well as Nick and I could cycle, whilst the girls drove with the children in the car and met us at various points, usually cafes.  It was 38 degrees most days so I made sure I took a recovery drink when cycling up the Passo Lanciano for the last time on this holiday and it made all the difference.  Nick, did not want to drink the recovery drink and ended up ill for two days because he had flushed all the minerals out of his body from drinking too much water.  I had learned a valuable lesson from Pete during our trip in June.

I hope to spend many more years cycling in Abruzzo.  We are planning on returning to mountain biking when our youngest son (now three) is old enough, as there are some superb trails in Abruzzo.  Our eldest son went to his first Giro d'Italia when he was 9 months old.  

Our eldest son at the Giro 2010

I hope my sons join me cycling to Blockhaus one day. It's in their blood.

Our boys - in Caramanico Terme

Saturday, 16 January 2016

An Aladdin's Cave

In Roccamontepiano there is a delightful ceramic shop, just above the piazza where the church is.  If you don't know the village/area, you could easily miss this little gem, tucked away.  

We hadn't visited for a few years so we thought it high time we returned on our Summer holiday last year.  I needed to buy my friend Jayne a gift as a thank you for watching our house in England whilst we were away.

When we entered the shop, the young girl remembered us and, as seems to be normal in Abruzzo, was delighted we had returned.

Ceramic Shop in Roccamontepiano

Everything in the shop is handmade and traditional.  Each piece is made in the workshop at the back.  We were allowed to go through and see the furnace and then we spoke to the charming and talented lady in the workshop who was busy painting a large dish.  After a quick chat, we went back through to the shop as we didn't want to disturb her work.

Entrance to the Workshop

I could have bought so many things here.  For such pretty and unique items for gifts, they were reasonably priced.  I settled on a terracotta cinghalle (wild boar) for my friend and we also bought one for our garden back home in England.

Thankfully they also gift-wrap everything, which helped keep our purchases intact for our journey home.

Afterwards we went for a little drive and decided to take a route we hadn't used before.  You never know what you are going to find in Abruzzo.  The scenery changes all the time and we discovered a lovely agriturismo in this quiet little valley.  I would love to visit this place properly one day and investigate for friends and family.  In the meantime, I have found the website,

The Agriturismo

When we got back to the house, one of our neighbours popped round with some fresh grapes and pears from their garden.  We put them in our ceramic bowl, which had been a wedding present....from the ceramic shop in Roccamontepiano.  

It had been a quiet family day, mooching about locally and I love days like these.

Monday, 4 January 2016

A Forest Hike

Our Summer holiday was bang in the middle of a heatwave again.  This does make holidays more of a challenge when you want to get out and see places, especially when you have younger children.  You know it's hot when the Italians are complaining!

We decided to go for a hike one afternoon.  I think the weather had dropped from 42 degrees to 35 degrees, so we thought as it was a little less hot we should be able to cope with it.  Our friends were on holiday with us and they were up for a hike too.

We thought there was a hike we could do that would lead to a waterfall in Bocca di Valle.  Kev at Kokopelli Camping confirmed there was indeed, although one route was more suitable for small children than the other.  We decided we would find the appropriate one on arrival.

Having arrived at Bocca di Valle, we parked the cars and walked to what looked like the start of the trail.  We couldn't really see more than one trail entrance so we assumed that the trail would split at some point and from there we would see which looked safest for the kids.  We filled our water bottles up at the spring and set off.

The trail was part dirt, part rock in places, or all rock in others.  You could manage this trail in sturdy trainers, but I would say hiking boots are preferable.  I was grateful I had mine on that day.

Parts of the trail were in a welcoming, dappled shade  and other parts were open and a little unforgiving in the sun.  We reached a stream and the children thought it was amazing and cool because we had to cross over on stones.  Half an hour in and we realised the trail wasn't 'straight' any more and we started on a gradual ascent.  

We ascended for another 30 minutes and reached the waterfall, although, being Summer it was more of a trickle than a full on waterfall.  Since the holiday, we have seen photos of how it looks when it is flowing and it is stunning. The children had done so well, particularly our youngest, who had only just turned three a week before.  The children certainly weren't disappointed in any way.  It was so pretty and peaceful.  Time away from the madding crowds is so good for the soul.

Kev at Kokopelli had told us there was a bigger waterfall than this and not to make the mistake of stopping at the first one we found, but there was no trail from this waterfall that would have been physically possibly with children as young as ours.  We wondered if we had taken the wrong trail to begin with.  No matter, we all thought it was a lovely place to visit.

After a rest and the children splashing each other, we began our descent.  The descent was harder than the ascent because of the loose rocks on the trail path.  This is where it was more difficult for our three year old and my husband carried him in the more dangerous parts.

At the end, when our friends' daughter Molly pointed out a butterfly, our eldest son said 'Yeh, but I've seen like at least ten snakes'.  He 'saw' a lot of snakes on this holiday.  He is pretty desperate to be the next Bear Grylls, whom he thinks is as cool as James Bond.....  Throughout the walk, the children were pretending they were on some sort of quest and storytelling.  Abruzzo feeds children's imaginations and thirst for adventure and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Prettiest Town in Abruzzo

.....and indeed, one of the prettiest towns in Italy.  Pacentro does not disappoint.

I had only visited Pacentro once, so was looking forward to returning.

In the heart of the Majella National Park, Pacentro rises majestically amid the mountains as you approach it.

We parked just off the side of the road, at the top of the town and decided we would walk down into its centre.

This town is like a bigger version of Pretoro with lots of labyrinthine alleys and steps, each holding some wonderful view or detail to make you stop and stare.

We were visiting with our friends and we had our children with us.  It was nearly 2pm.  The children were starving.  We had forgotten how long driving on the Passo San Leonardo takes. 

The last time I visited, with my friend, Laura, we went to lunch at a lovely little pizzeria.  We walked as quickly as we could to try and make it before they closed.  My husband went in and enquired about lunch, but we were told that we were too late.  We hadn't walked far down the road when the manager came running after us and told us that they would stay open for our benefit.  We thanked her profusely.  This is so typical of the kind, Abruzzese people we have met over the years.  

Ristorante Pizzeria Majella is cosy, pretty and traditional, in the best possible sense.  I love these styles of restaurants in Abruzzo.  The couple that ran the restaurant were friendly and charming.  Our food was delicious and the fresh bread was out of this world.

We all enjoyed our food and agreed we would definitely eat here again.  This lovely couple who kept open for odd British strangers who asked for lunch, after lunch definitely deserve to do well.

Afterwards, we meandered back to the top of Pacentro, stopping at one of the pretty piazzas on the way.  The town was mostly asleep as it was mid-afternoon.  It wasn't too hot because the streets were shady, so it was a perfect time for a stroll.  The children loved the fountain, especially my three year old who soaked himself at every fountain, when given the opportunity, on this holiday.

If I was visiting Abruzzo for the first time and I only had time to visit a few places, then Pacentro would be in my top ten.  There is something about this town that is magical, the atmosphere and location contribute to this, along with it's wonderful people.  This is Italy at it's best.