bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a jar of black truffle salsa, two bottles of Montefalco Sagrantino red wine, a hunk of ham and a slab of cheese.... Our bicycle tour of Umbria has accumulated all sorts of heavy goodies, and there's only one way to get them home: a new suitcase. A luggage shop in the old town of Spoleto is closing its doors: will it open again tomorrow? The shopkeeper shrugs at the question and arches his eyebrows: "If it's not raining, I will open the shop." It's the kind of approach to life you need to get used to in Italy's only landlocked province, whose rolling hills march east and west of the Upper Tiber river valley. Shops open on Monday morning? Probably not. A trattoria at which ravenous cyclists might refuel at six in the evening after a hard day's pedalling? You'll be lucky, not that early in the evening. But once you become accustomed to the local ways, it becomes comfortably appropriate to the spontaneity and flexibility of a cycling tour. Our tour begins on the terrace of Ristorante Fiorentino in the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro, where Giovanni of Zephyr Adventures briefs the riders on the route ahead. Giovanni is an affable native of Umbria and we'll be taking him with us for the next seven days. Not literally, though, but in the form of a running route guide and commentary presented in short films that can be viewed on a portable digital media player. In this innovative way, at various locations, Giovanni will demonstrate his endearing mix of local knowledge and anecdotal humour. OFF THE TOURIST TRACK "We want to take people off the beaten track and show them the most interesting places along the way," says Giovanni as he hands over two sleek, brand new lightweight Italian Viner touring bikes, the media player and a survival kit of spare tires, repair kits and pumps. The 58 BLUE WINGS MARCH 2008 A route follows the plain of the Upper Tiber valley and a tributary valley as far as the town of Spoleto. The average daily stretch will measure about 40 kilometres, allowing time for stops and lingering lunches. Luggage is transported from hotel to hotel by car as part of the deal. So far, everything looks a doddle. There's only one catch: nearly all the hotels are in towns built atop hills. As the tour begins beneath a sunny summer sky the next day, the prospect of a daily climb seems an acceptable price to pay. Good progress is made into Umbria and to the town of Città di Castello Giovanni's birthplace for a lunch of bruschetta, tomatoes and sparkling water. The temptation to indulge in a bottle of cool Umbrian white wine is resisted, in view of the afternoon ride ahead. It turns out that this abstinence is a wise precaution. After fields of sprouting maize and blood red poppies, speckled with the yellow of emerging sunflowers, the first ascent appears on the horizon. Four hundred and fifty metres may not sound much of a climb, and it's only a distance of five kilometres, but the winding road to the hilltop village of Montone is a challenge for two lazy urbanites. But the challenge is met, and the reward is a night in one of the most picturesque places in Umbria. From the cobbled streets of Montone, the Umbrian hills spread south and east in a rolling panorama. Red tiled roofs form a rustic mosaic and grey stone farms peep from woodland in the valleys. A tour group of elderly Italians are enjoying gelatos at the café in the square, unperturbed by a dark thunder cloud bruising the horizon. They shrug and chuckle as the thunder rumbles then passes harmlessly. THE BEST OF UMBRIA Accommodation is at La Locanda del Capitano, a 14th century building with superb views across the town and valleys from its upper balconies. "This is the best part of Umbria, and perhaps the least well known," says chef and part-owner Giancarlo Dolita. "The landscapes are most beautiful, the wine is great, and the food is best in this area." Giancarlo's menu lends firm support to this opinion. "Fresh pears poached in Umbrian Passito wine with blue cheese and a fantasy of figs" is every bit as good as it sounds. "A tagliata of Chianine beef with caramel of aged balsamico vinegar and Trapani salt on a bed of beetroot sprouts" isn't bad either. A bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino red completes a candlelit patio meal TOP LEFT: An innovative and colourful route guide is available via portable media player. RIGHT, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: A roadside shrine makes for an attractive pitstop between Assisi and Spello. A bottle of the region's finest red is reward for the ascent to Montefalco. Newlyweds pause for a drink in Assisi. The bicycles used for touring are the latest models.
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