I also came to love the strange combination of not-quite-as-well-organised as the French, but friendlier-and-more-willing-to-help. This sometimes leads to moments of frustration, but it also delivers moments of magic.
I didn’t speak Italian – I think both my current Italian teachers would say that’s still true – so I never felt able to run our Italian tours on my own. I used Italian-speaking guides, although I often accompanied our groups because both Tuscany and Umbria are so lovely.
Over a number of years I felt that I lost control of our Umbria and Tuscany tours. My first hint was when I heard a customer ask Steve Foote, at the end of a week in Umbria, how the food on our Italian tours compared with our French tours that Steve had been on. The answer should be very clear, the food in Umbria is better.
But Steve disagreed, and it made me reflect on our week and realise he was right. On another occasion a customer asked me why we hadn’t had the same delicious picnics we enjoy in France, and I realised they were right. We hadn’t had any picnics, and in Italy you can put together a banquet from just about any corner shop.
So, action was required! I began to learn Italian with the ambition of being able to guide our Italian tours myself. To build personal relationships with the hotels and restaurants, the vineyards, and the quirks of the route. The best tricks for lunch.
At the end of our 2013 season I spent a month in Italy (with my brother Gerard for moral support) and finally, last September I took the plunge and guided 4 back-to-back tours of Tuscany and Umbria on my own.My Italian is still shocking, not really Italian at all in any recognised sense, but I thought the tours were fabulous. I feel very proud of both our Tuscany and Umbria tours. They’re both hilly, and Tuscany suffers from their traditional strade bianche, which are no friend of the cyclist. But the scenery is breathtaking.
I love the colour of the olive groves, and they’re everywhere. In many of the towns and cities, renaissance medieval Italy is built on top of Roman Italy, which in turn was built on top of Etruscan Italy, notably in Orvieto, Perugia and Sorano.
The food is gorgeous. It tends to be simpler and fresher than in France, and vegetarians can eat like Kings without me and my guides having to fight with every chef in the region. The wines are fascinating, from the heavy, famous Brunello di Montalcion all the way through to the crisp, light whites of Orvieto Classico and Venacchia di San Gimignano. These wines are not nearly so well known as the famous French wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but they’re beuatiful and well worth exploring (you all know what ‘exploring’ means, right?)
I’ll be guiding all of our Italian tours this year. I’m still a big fan of Tuscany and Umbria, and I’m more confident than ever that our tours offer the best possible show case.
I’ve recently added a new gallery of Umbria (thank you Stephen Middleton) and a new gallery of Tuscany . (thanks to Patrick Hudgell) on our Flickr photostream. I urge you to have a look, they’re beautiful.