The challenge of my life Cycling through Umbria

The words ‘bike’ and ‘holiday’ are not two that I would ever put together, but here I am with my ‘go as fast as I dare’ face on as I whizz pass butterflies, birds and bees.

This is what cycling in Umbria is all about. I thought I’d chuck in the towel before I’d even get started, but I'm enjoying the moment. The only thing puzzling me was is it the bike that I like or the landscape…

"That's my villa. Down there - on the left with the red roses trailing over the windows," I said. Someone else picked one with a vineyard and another wanted any that was perched on top of a hill.

I love this spot. No one's around. It seems we to have the place to ourselves.

They say that cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than anybody else. It's true, everything seems to slow down. Bikes can take you places that cars can't reach and much further than your feet can carry you.

I'd focused too much on the tub-thumping lyrca wearing cyclists. I imagined the likes of Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish zipping past me and a sad image of me humping up a hill by myself, out of breath and falling so far behind that I’d roll backwards.  But I was wrong. I get it now. I’d joined a group trip so I’d never be alone.

It’s late morning and we’ve reached the top of a hill looking out on the medieval villages and the dark green forests. Who needs a beach when you can have all this?  The temperature’s 30C, there's the smell of fresh herbs on the breeze, old stone houses below and church bells ringing in the distance.

Located in the centre of the Italy, Umbria is known as the beating “green heart” for its bottle-green valleys, vineyards and olive groves. Life here, like many other places in Italy, is meant to be lived outdoors.

Starting in Perugia then heading south to Assisi and ending in Spoleto, it all starts very well. I’m relieved that my first experience is on an electric e-bike for a tour around Perugia. It takes a while to get used to the motor kicking in but when it does, it feels like I’m floating up the hills. This is hardly the Alps but the steep narrow roads could easily turn this quiet sightseeing outing into a thigh-burning stage of the Tour de France.

Being the region's capital, Perugia is filled with piazzas, fountains, alleyways and some 40 churches - many with original frescoes.

We pack a thousand years’ worth of history into three-hours. And that's just the way I like it. The whole thing put a big grin on my face. Once I realised how easy it was, I couldn’t get back on the saddle fast enough.

We saw the Rocca Paolina fortress, San Pietro’s church with its hexagonal bell tower, Piazza Grimana with the Etruscan arch and Università per Stranieri and end at Fontana Maggiore and San Lorenzo’s Cathedral in the centre.

It’s one of those cities where life seems to be all figured out. There’s a gelato parlour on almost every street and lunches are long and alfresco with plates filled with prosciutto, cheese, chunks of bread and that’s just the starter. Then comes the pasta and truffles and a glass of red followed by an espresso.

My first night’s stay was in the stone-built Hotel Fortuna - also a time capsule from 1200AD - again with original frescoes on the wall.  Given its upper crust beginnings as a palazzo, I was lucky to have a large room with two beds - one double and a single and a cross-trainer machine in the corner. I didn’t try that. I played with the idea of throwing open the balcony doors and working out before breakfast, but elegant guests from 800-years-ago wouldn’t have done that. So neither did I. I just wanted to stare at and take photos of the sprawling red-tiled rooftops that Perugia is famous for.

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So far, so good and not yet saddle-sore, the next morning brings a real bike ride. It’s 20km (12.5miles) along the gravelly disused railway called Spoleto-Norcia to Castle San Felice. Voted the most beautiful bike path in Italy in 2015, there are pitch black tunnels en-route - the longest at over a mile where the inside temperature drops by ten degrees. It's spooky inside with our torches casting ghostly shadows and drops of ice cold water falling from the ceiling.

It's the views from the bridges which are the main draw. Another giddy rainbow of green - unspoilt forest, farmland and a full panorama of the region. Ancient monasteries and hamlets pop out among the long grass and tall trees.

Is there anybody down there?

"That's it. That one's mine too," I smile, pointing at a romantic looking farm with clipped hedges with a vintage Fiat in the drive.

"I could make this one my summer house."

As we pedalled on under the hot summer sun, it was like the first day at school. Like me, some hadn't been on a bike for years. We were all fish out of water but we easily settled into our saddles.

Rolling along side-by-side quickly became one of the highlights of the ride. We’d took pit stops for lunch together and another at a farm stay to taste four desserts made with homemade sheep ricotta cheese in the Monti Sibillini National Park - where we also came across a map of Italy planted in the hillside. It’s extraordinary.

The Garden Resort and Spa San Crispino grabbed my attention before even entering, surrounded by meadows of sunflowers, corn fields, rose gardens, olive trees and vines.

Given this setting, it came as no surprise to me that hundreds of years ago a miracle occurred nearby. A young soldier on his way to war had a vision to serve God and returned to his city to live and pray. He later became known as St Francis of Assisi. Now a UNESCO site, it heaves with daily coach groups. We didn't go for a look at the chapel or even into the stone walled village. Italy's patron saint would have wanted to drink wine outside instead and that’s precisely what I did.

On the last day we followed a trail called the Assisi-Spoleto that would take us up into wine country.

With so many little roads, we didn't see much traffic, so I put on my ‘go as fast as I dare’ face as I whizzed past butterflies, birds and bees.

We went off road for two hours so I relaxed my pace as we chatted along a canal about the key to a good Italian bike ride. Gelato was the answer - preferably pistachio, tiramisu and lemon.

With that in mind, it was full throttle for a crawl up a final climb to the Le Cimate vineyard. You won’t find the wines here in UK supermarkets but you might pay £50 for a bottle of their Montefalco Sagrantino in a fancy restaurant. There was red wine on arrival followed by a white at lunch. Then came a dessert wine with locally made Pecorino cheese.

After lunch we were feeling drowsy and driven on to Spoleto for a long lie down.

After a doze in the sunshine at Le Colombare Hotel and Resort, we walked around Spoleto in the evening. This ancient city ticks all the classic Umbrian boxes - courtyards, the Cathedral, big squares, statues, arches, steep cobbled streets and families dining in the open air.

Standing in the middle of Tower's Bridge looking across to the popular San Francisco way, I had another strange moment. I'd done it. I'd cycled across Umbria. I still had the grease on my legs to prove it. Now that's what I call an authentic souvenir.

By Natalie Chalk

To book a holiday package visit www.umbriabike.eu/en/ or email info@umbriabike.eu.

For more information about bike routes in Umbria visit www.bikeinumbria.it and for general information go to www.umbriatourism.it