Cycling in Tuscany

It’s not that great – well, actually it is.

Our organised cycling tour in Tuscany began in Lucca, where Margot and I had already spent a couple of days. It’s a beautiful medieval walled town, and a tourist town, so any walk through it means 30% of the people you see will be carrying a map, and probably one third again of those will be speaking a language other than Italian. But I’m one of those people, so they can’t all be bad.


The wall around Lucca is for me what made it stand out. It’s intact and in its current form dates from the fifteenth century. It is well utilised by the locals for promenading, bike riding, jogging, pashing, taking small dogs to poo on and similar Italian activities. Oh, and shooting replica military crossbows of course.


After an introductory loop on the first day, our second day’s ride took us through the towns of Montecari, Pesci, and Massa et Cozzie to the faded spa town of Montecantini Termi.


Perhaps the best way to describe the riding is to say it’s not all great. Parts of it are; the climbs to and through old hilltop villages, and the descents that follow are spectacular.

Of course, time has not stood still in Italy, and there are modern heavily trafficked roads that must form a part of routes from one destination to the next.

From Montecantini Termi we then did a lovely loop that took in a couple of nice cols and Leonardo’s home town of Vinci. On this day we were also treated to an exposure to the cycling culture in Italy. We covered part of the route for the World Road Champs of 2013, and we saw bunches of helemetless young guys zipping past, and small groups of old guys who looked like they’d been riding these roads all their lives.

My challenge was to get a decent pic; it’s hard to just grab a snap that does justice to the beauty of a spot or conveys the sense of space over a vista, and my primary concern was riding, not photographing.


There was one wet day in our trip. On Thursday it chundered down so we were forced to take taxis to the next town. Half of our group was mad enough to still want to ride – unsurprisingly  the “it’s just a bit of water” Brits and a couple of colonials who would not be shown up by the Blighties. We got very wet but had a great time, and thanks to the careful attention of our guides we all made it home safely.


Our last day on the bikes was spectacular. We had our best climbing, ascending to 1000m from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. The 450m 10% climb to our picnic lunch was remarkable, and perhaps the highlight of the tour. Fully satisfied with our efforts we were then able to enjoy swooping down some wonderful smooth fast roads to Gassano.


Our final day was given over to walking. We bussed in to Levanto the previous afternoon and spent one day seeing a bit of Cinque Terra. The peace of bike riding was brutally juxtaposed against the crush of these towns, even out of season, but it was nice to see what the fuss was about, and reinforced the supremacy of the bicycle as a way to see the countryside.


Cycling in the Vercors

Or – how to succeed in the French Alps without really trying.


So, my understanding is that the Vercors is part of the French Alps, but not the nasty pointy part, more the gentle but still spectacular part. We were based in St Jean en Royans, under the expert guidance of Teresa Harte and her husband, former pro cyclist Roger Dunne. They run a place called – wait for it – Velo Vercors. Teresa has written about the region for the website Freewheeling France here.


So yes, we’ve now cycled the French Alps, where Le Tour sometimes goes and all that stuff, but we haven’t been gritting the teeth and telling our legs to shut up; really it seems more like we’ve had a lovely sightseeing tour and done some Cols with lots of oo-la-la French stuff thrown in  along the way.


The nice thing about where we were based is that you can do a flat ride of 10-100km, or a hilly ride of 25-200km, climbing 500m or 3000m as the mood or conditions dictate. The roads are good, the motorists considerate, and the grades pretty gentle. It’s possible to stick to the valley floors if you don’t want to climb at all, or head into the mountains if you want to get serious.


Coming from my home town town of Adelaide in South Australia, what struck me was just how consistent these climbs and descents were. One day we did a climb that was pretty much a nice 5-7% that went on and on for 20km. At home I’m used to pinches and sneaky false flats – this was far more a case of settling in to an easy rhythm and up you go. And a 20km descent – what’s that all about? I’ll take as many of those as I can get.

One bit of the trip was particularly spectacular – the descent of Col de Machine and Le Combe Laval – Europe’s largest gorge. They dig little tunnels into the side of the hills and at any moment you expect to see James Bond fanging through in an Aston Martin.


It’s not just about the cycling of course – so much is to do with the French way of life. These hills have been settled for a long time, and the water long harnessed for agriculture and to power small mills. There are a lot of churches and abbeys.


The food is excellent and cheap (by Australian standards). Maybe there is bad food somewhere in France, but we haven’t found it yet.   There is certainly no shortage of houses with French blue shutters and friendly dogs.




les vélos qui sont Paris

I’ve been fascinated by the all the bikes here, the way people use them and how they interact while riding them. I’ve been peering at old bikes chained to fences and noticing the huge variety of riders as they whizz past; men in stylish suits, girls in floral dresses and sandals, parents with young children.  Last night it all came together – Margot and I were out walking, looking for a place to have dinner when I saw a flash of fluoro orange approaching. I grabbed a shot – it was a girl on an 1980s Colnago – and noticed that the light was now perfect. All the following images were made in the space of 45 minutes, within about 100 metres of each other.

A Visit to the Museum

The Gallery of Palaeontology at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris encapsulates all that I love about nineteenth century French architecture.


First of all there’s the scale. There’s something special about French public buildings from this time. To my eye the scale is slightly exaggerated; they are a bit too big for we mortals. But it’s not an intimidating or belittling size like a skyscraper; it’s more as though by making the buildings a little too big the architects are encouraging us to grow to fit them; to be a bit better than we are.


By the standards of construction of the time this one is quite modest (a certain Tour Eiffel was going up at around the same time). Like the Tower, this building uses a lot of steel and rivets. These materials showcased French mastery of the latest engineering techniques, but more practically they allow for large windows, huge spans and consequently lots of light and space.


Part of what I love about riveted beams is that the mark of the maker is so much on them. Although they were the most advanced technique of the time I can’t see one without thinking of each rivet being hammered in to place by a human. There’s a lovely conversation I think, between the hand sculpting of the stone friezes around the outside of the building, the steel within, and the scientific endeavour the building celebrates.

Vietnam Days 12-15: Hanoi & Ha Long Bay



Ha Long bay was an unexpected delight.  I’d seen photos of the karsts (the little limestone islands) before, but their extent – and the feeling of being within them – caught me by surprise.

We travelled to the bay by bus from Hanoi, and the train trip up to Hanoi from Da Nang in  was a case of once is enough.

It was not too bad – we had the “foreigner soft sleeper”, a small cabin on the overnight train with four bunks. One might say the train was charmingly dilapidated, but that kind of charm wears off when applied to the toilets at the end of an overnight trip.

Hanoi was experiencing record temperatures when we entered it; 43 degrees and very humid, and our train was delayed when we hit a truck.



We visited the Vietnam’s first university and the old French prison, which had been taken over by the Vietnamese and used to feed ice cream to captured GIs in the war.

Southerners had told us that Northerners were less friendly, and apt to scowl rather than smile (that is, once they had finished eating their dogs) but to me they seemed nice enough. We walked at night through the old city, and while it was mayhem, it felt safe and friendly, with lots of families and children on the streets. image

The paper next day said that the streets were deserted because of the heat; perhaps “a little less filled to bursting than usual” might have been more accurate.


We knew it was the end of our trip, most of us felt a bit “Vietnamed-out” by this stage, and rather than hit the hot streets and dodge the scooters again were content to enjoy our air conditioned hotels and Vietnam-priced (cheap) cocktails for our last day.

While all of Vietnam had made an impression, it was the closeness we felt to the life in the small fishing and farming villages while riding through them on our bikes that made the strongest connection.