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Easter Tour: Marche & Umbria

A journey between sea and mountains, through the hills and cities that with their history, their well-preserved buildings never cease to surprise. The places where Church and Landowners invested and built, where the earthquake destroyed, where nature amazes.

Recently whenever I decide to travel I always arrive late, not at a train station or for the departure, but on planning my journey. The Easter tour was Simone‘s idea, but the planning was something we wanted to share, however, I should admit that he did most of the work.

Day 1: 55 km – 747 m (Fano – Urbino)

First destination? Urbino, an easy stage, our train to Fano arrived on time, we didn’t know much about the town of Fano, it has been chosen only because it was perfect to reach Urbino in not more than 4-5 hours since we were starting riding a bit late in the morning, it seemed a good choice. Fano instead surprised us, not only because it allowed us to see the sea again, but because we could get lost in its centre and follow the ancient walls that still standing proud of the Augustinian Roman empire. Shortstop and there we were on our way, the sun was hot and the feeling of spring finally coming spread in our mood, the first unmissable stop “le marmitte dei giganti” (the Giants’ pools), an amazing rocky formation of the Metauro river. Seeing the pictures is enough to understand the astonishing landscape, so I won’t elaborate further. It’s normal to get excited when we are on a long journey, but instead, this was only 20 km from our departure and it was worth the entire trip. Then we continued cycling up to the hill of Urbino where we turned into a smaller road that climbed endlessly like many smaller roads of Marche!

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Day 2: 90,5 km – 1586 m (Urbino – Gubbio)

Leaving Urbino without sunscreen was my biggest problem. I thought I had to bring a lot of winter clothes with me and I mistakenly forgot the sunscreen (even though that thought reveal itself as a mistake too .. you will read later why!). So we left for the hills, nothing is flat after the sea in the region of Marche. As the day before, the road exceeded our expectations and soon we were on an unpaved road that traced our path ahead like a ribbon. The thing I like most about this part of Italy is the variety of landscapes, from the sea to the hills, and then to the valleys just before the mountains! The border between Marche and Umbria is blurred by the colour of nature. Our journey through Umbria began at Monte Catria, and from there we travelled to Gubbio via the Valico di Scheggia.

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Day 3: 70,5 km – 1040 m (Gubbio – Perugia)

The third day was about to change, since we checked the weather forecast the day before, the lovely springy sun was gone, instead, we had a grey and very windy day ahead. Our first idea was to cross the hills toward the Lake of Trasimeno and return up to Spoleto for the evening, but that seemed too much with the fear of the rain and the strong wind that was forecasted for 50km/h. As you might have already experienced in your own tour, not always the new road is worse than the one you thought to take. So was ours. A few kilometres after Gubbio, following a sign of a local touristic cycleway we arrived in the middle of the Apennines where the clay forms the rocky design giving the impression of a strong mountain while it is sandy and crumbly. On that day had the chance to follow many cycleways, in fact, after that, we could follow the cycleway of Tevere. We were surprised to discover the existence of a cycleway, even though we went in and out because Italian cycleways never run the entire length. It was also nice to ride along the river, far from the traffic, where trees shielded us from the wind. Arriving in Spoleto has been a magnificent experience. While in the distance, we spotted the creamy bricks of the medieval building of Spoleto. The old town clinging on top of a hill has a complex urbanistic plan and hidden squares. Since our accommodation was a bit outside the city, we left our bicycle and with the idea of going back to the centre we had this amazing experience on the mini-metro, so they call the funny egg-shaped carriages that connect every 5 minutes the downtown with the old town. What also was very surprising was that inside the carriages there was a dedicated place for bicycles, the service is more cutting-edge than the metro of Milan or the tube of London.

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Day 4: 83,7 km – 985 m (Perugia – Spoleto)

Good days start with a good plan, an easy stage for our tour, the first stop in Assisi, unnecessary to tell you about it right? Assisi is famous among Christians because of San Francesco, the monk that gave everything up to the poor. Most of Umbria’s towns are well refurbished, even though some suffered the damages of the last earthquake in 2016. Luckily when we arrived in the square we asked next to one of the guardians if he could check on our bicycles whilst we were visiting inside and he allowed us to park our bicycle inside the gate he was supervising, so we could spend a bit more time visiting the church. Inside the lower church is where Giotto and its assistances have painted most of the frescoes, something we all studied as students, but seeing the grandiosity, in reality, is really another thing. After our cultural visit, we decided to walk a bit around and then we saw the sign for the “Eremo dei Carcerieri”, why not climb it we said to ourselves when the first sign was saying 1km, after maybe 5km we reached the hermitage, happy to have faced a longer climb than we thought. From there we followed the cycleway Assisi – Spoleto, to reach our destination of the day. An easy ride that brought us to discover another little village, Bevagna, a very well-preserved tiny village, a lively place with a lot of tourists around many appetizing restaurants. However, our time in Spoleto started with a nice encounter with a couple Roberto & Roberta who was also cycling for a couple of days and had a lot of cycling travel stories to tell. Since we arrived in town more or less at the same time we decided to stop for a bear before going to our respective accommodation. As a perfect conclusion to our day, we enjoyed the beauty of Spoleto and the delicious pasta we cooked in our apartment using homemade pasta and salsa.

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Day 5: 76 km – 1315 m (Spoleto – Norcia)

Big day and big expectation the unexplored cycle lane Spoleto – Norcia that was built in the former railway of the blue train that used to connect the two towns. We wanted to ride this trail because the pictures we looked up online were very fascinating, bridges and tunnels, an amazing ride that sometimes became also a bit scary, like when we rode for two kilometres inside a very long tunnel that at the entrance presented a red alerting forbidden sign, but luckily it was open at the very far end. This dreamy path accompanied us for almost 30km, unfortunately, some of the railways have disappeared, or maybe we lost it and we had to ride on the state road instead, but still, a very nice trail into the deep history of the green Umbria.

Since we still had time before the dark, we decided to take a detour and ride up to Cascia, another religious well-known town thanks to the story of Santa Rita. Her story is very unusual in Christianity, in fact, she was a widower before becoming a sister of the Augustinian community and save a lot of people through her prayers and mortification in the flash. From Cascia to Norcia, another amazing small road surprised us with its reasonable climb and open views over the territory in every gaze. Arriving a Norcia was as we have been told, an emotional moment, the town was at the epicentre of the 2016 earthquake. Most of the shops have been moved outside town into containers and many of its inhabitants still live in little temporary houses. Inside the centre there are working sites in every corner, buildings that have been kept together with metal belts, nets and various reinforcements, some have already been refurbished, but still, it is vivid the fragility and temporality of life in a seismic zone. To complete another beautiful day, we had a fabulous dinner in a local tavern where we enjoyed traditional food and good conversation with the host lady.

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Day 6: 84,5 km – 1509 m (Norcia – Ascoli)

Big day big plans, this was the day of Castelluccio di Norcia, known for its unique colourful flowering between May and June, we knew that end of April was a bit early for that but we didn’t expect to see the snow instead! The temperature dropped below the grey sky, 17km of the gentle climb up to the plateau of Castellucio. There is no exhaustion, no cars, and you can still have the fantasy of being on top of a high mountain. Reaching the plateau was a wonderful sensation, there is nothing I can describe better than a picture would do. Castelluccio is in the heart of Sibylline National Park, which isn’t like the Dolomites but has many recommended tracks for MBT and hikers. High peaks surround Castelluccio that like many other villages here have been heavily damaged by the 2016 earthquake. This is one of the places I will keep in my heart for its beauty and gentleness. Unfortunately, it was a bit cold and we have to reach Ascoli Piceno which was at the end of an eternal descent. A long freezing ride downhill made the last few hours of the day a bit painful, I could only think about the hot shower for most of the ride and finally, we reached Ascoli which shouldn’t be popular only for the “Olive all’Ascolana”, but also for its historical centre with shops and squares and narrow old streets where time has stopped. We had a hot shower, a very nice pizza in a good place recommended by locals and the day was over.

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Day 7: 85,2 km – 202 m (Ascoli – Civitanova)

As expected it rained, we wanted to follow our first idea and go back up to Sarnano, again ride inside the Sibylline National Park, but that wasn’t the case, on top of the rain the cold day deters us from climbing again, instead, we decided to proceed toward the sea and have a mild day along the coast. So, we did, fully dressed for the rain, we cycled to San Benedetto del Tronto and from there along the coast, while the Adriatic cycle lane most of the time gave us the feeling of safety and we could listen to the waves breaking on the coast. We crossed the 43rd Parallel and without any difficulty, we reached Civitanova Marche where we had some time to wander around, check on the pear and make some shopping to cook our “winter” sea-food pasta.

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Day 8: 83,4 km – 1166 m (Civitanova – Sarnano)

Luckily when we woke up the rain was gone, so we could proceed and follow our route back to Sibylline Mountains. Not a long ride for the day because still weather forecasts were promising intense storms in the late afternoon, but it is easy to enjoy Marche even in a short ride. Abbeys cycleway 15km with 2 nice churches to visit and then in only 30km from the sea the Chiaravalle Abbey of Fiastra, one of the best-preserved Cistercian abbeys surrounded by a large reserve. I really wish we could have had more time to visit it, however, we had to proceed and start our climb towards Sarnano our final destination of the tour. Sarnano is a good choice for those who want to stay close to the mountains, in fact from there and also from the window of “Terre di Magia”, the farmhouse where we booked our stay, we could see the peak of Terminillo, the higher peak of Sibylline’s mountains. There, we were going to meet up with Fabio, another friend from Bologna who wanted to spend the weekend away and who was joining us with his bicycle to ride around. The day as usual passed by very quickly, after a glass of wine we were ready for our vegetarian meal cooked by our hosts and debility one of the best vegetarian meals I have ever had, all dishes were tasty and also creative. Another glass of wine or two and we were already ready for bed.

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Day 9: 74,1 km – 1730m (Mountains Tour)

This was our day to ride up to the Queen climb, a climb that became popular thanks to Michele Scarponi a professional cyclist born in Jesi who won Tirreno-Adriatica in 2009 climbing that mountain with great strength and overtaking all its opponents. But let me go back to the beginning of the day before telling you more about it. Whilst we were having our breakfast the owner of the farmhouse told us that along the 2 km unpaved road that connects the state road with the house there are sheep that come every day near the road with shepherds and dogs for the daily pasture. But I’m terrified about all dogs and shepherd’s dogs are even worst because they think they have to save sheep from cyclists. So, my day started with the realisation that I would have to face this fear for 4 times more, going out and in again from our lovely accommodation lost in the middle of the wood. We waited a bit, hoping that sheep were already far to the field busy browsing grass. Indeed, no sing of sheep and dogs allowed me to reach the state road without too many troubles. I love climbing long climbs, so that was really my day, slowly but steady I reached the top after 16km and had infinite beautiful views of the Sibylline. The wind was strong there and even though we wanted to stay longer to admire the view, after a few pictures of Scarponi’s monument, we soon had to go. We split, and I followed the road downhill, whilst Simone and Fabio when for on the many MBT descents. The plan worked, we both enjoyed it (even though they admitted it was a technical and tiring descent) and managed to meet by Fiastra Lake, our second marvel of the day. Fiastra is a turquoise lake, the largest hydroelectric reserve of the valley at the foothills of Sibylline’s Mountain. Around the lake, there is a path that goes along its shores. I stopped every 2 minutes for a picture, it is an emotional landscape and it deserves to be memorised. From there, our day brought us back to Sarnano along a pleasant descent.

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Day 10: 46 km – 1112 m (Hills Tour)

On a sunny and windy morning, the local weather forecast was predicting a storm by the end of the day and anyway, we had to go home. Do you know when you still feel like you are on vacation even though the vacation is about to end? As we packed up our belongings and had a quick breakfast, we took a short ride around the hills, ups and downs with views from the sea to the mountains, a short stop in Penna San Giovanni to find a delicious bakery, and then back to Sarnano just to say goodbye to the region for the time being. We still have much more to discover, taste, and experience. Goodbye Marche, for now. 

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For more check on Youtube Gravel sul Serio, you will find all footage of the tour!

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