So you are considering an active touring holiday but which is best, two wheels or two feet? It was a close call on my latest filming trip with Headwater Holidays in Piedmont, Italy. Happily I got to try out both.
These are self-guided, independent, point-to-point touring holidays. In other words, you make your own way, in your own time, either on foot or by bike, between hotels whilst your luggage is transported for you.
First, let me recommend Piedmont as the ideal region for this type of holiday, and especially so if you are new to the whole concept point-to-point touring. Less well known than some of the other Italian big hitters, the region lies in the northwest of Italy bordering France and Switzerland. As you fly in over the snow-capped Alps to the gateway of Turin you have a dramatic illustration of the origin of its name, ‘at the foot of the mountain’. There are plenty of different areas to explore from the Alps to the lakes but the Headwater itinerary we chose focused on the lush, rolling hills of the Langhe Valley, an area famous for its production of wine, cheese, hazelnuts and truffles. It provided a perfect holiday blend – activity and gastronomy. Our week included beautiful serene landscapes, quiet roads, vine covered (only occasionally physically challenging) hills, uncrowded and intriguing little villages and towns, hundreds of small wineries and delightful restaurants taking enormous pride in showcasing the very best of the region’s produce.
Now I can ride a bike but do so very rarely and would definitely not describe myself as a confident cyclist. I am fine on the flat but would try and avoid hills as I’m easily perplexed by multiple gear changes. So, as we took the 90-minute transfer from Turin airport to our first hotel, I was anxiously assessing the gradients of the hills and feeling just a tiny bit daunted. We had taken Headwater’s advice and opted for e-bikes but, even so, I had never ridden one before and was unsure as to how much difference it would actually make. I needn’t have worried – as Headwater rep Luke explained during the bike handover, the joy of an e-bike is that, even on the lowest setting, that extra boost of powered assistance also gives you the all-important boost of confidence and, when it comes to the hills, you simply move up through the settings according to how much of a ‘push’ you feel you may, or may not, need.
My other concern was how long the battery would last. The bikes are powered by a fairly hefty battery which slots under the pannier. Fully charged, we were told, it lasts up to 70kms on the low setting (which is what we used 85% of the time) so, providing you remember to plug them in to charge overnight in your room, there shouldn’t be any need to recharge during the day. I was happy to discover also that the e-bikes we used only had 8 gears. After a short practise ride up and down the drive of the hotel, we felt ready to hit the road.
Our first morning cycling was a genuine revelation – not only did the e-bikes with their solid frame and wide leather seat provide a comfortable ride but, they were remarkably intuitive to use. As we reached the first steep hill, I found myself grinning from ear to ear as, literally at the push of the button, moving from Low through Medium to High power mode, I rode straight to the top without even thinking about stopping and even overtook my husband (who’s macho pride left him stubbornly set on ‘Low’). You are still putting in some effort but nowhere near the thigh burning, heart pounding, sweaty effort that same hill would have demanded from me on a normal bike. And so there we were, scooting along quiet country roads and tracks, tackling the occasional steep climb with ease and revelling in the downhills. I soon forgot all my cycling fears and was able to relax and enjoy the glorious scenery all around us. As we were filming our experience, we were stopping and starting a lot more than you normally would but, even so, we comfortably managed the 40-50km routes that we needed to cover between hotels.
Finding our way was also easy using the ‘Ride with GPS’ app. Headwater send you all the instructions before you leave and, so long as you are familiar with apps, it’s a simple process to download it and have all routes easily accessible on or off line. Out on the road you get clear audible instructions and an alert which sounds the second you miss a turn or go off route. They do also provide ‘old school’ maps and written route notes if you prefer but the Ride with GPS really is so much easier to use.
The only downside of an e-bike I can possibly see is the disdain you occasionally come up against from ‘proper’ cyclists. It’s understandable – no serious lycra-clad cyclist powering their way up a hill with 100% pure physical strength likes being overtaken by a 50-something Brit on an e-bike cheerily calling ‘Buon Giorno’ as they sail by – it put a smile on my face though!
For the second part of our week, we (somewhat reluctantly) gave up our pedal power in favour of pounding the hills on foot. Now were following written route instructions and covering between 10-16kms a day. We walk quite regularly at home so relaxed into the slower pace with ease.
The joy of walking of course is the slow pace, drinking in the detail and having the chance just stop whenever and wherever you want. And there is plenty to stop for in Piedmont. The linear patterns of the vineyards and the picturesque hilltop villages provide endless photo opportunities as do the gorgeous flower-filled meadows. Then there are boutique wineries and cantinas where you can pop in to sample the glorious Barolo and Barbera wines produced here. Our evening meals were included on this trip but at lunchtimes we either found ourselves a little wine bar serving light meals or bought a simple picnic to take with us.
On most days we would easily be back at the hotel by mid-afternoon, allowing a good few hours to relax and enjoy their consistently delightful settings, sometimes with the added bonus of a swimming pool. We particularly loved the Villa D’Amelia in Benevello and Villa Beccaris in Monforte D’Alba, both exceptional boutique properties, oozing Italian class.
Most of the walks were on quiet roads and tracks often walking alongside or even through the vineyards, sometimes taking the farm workers by surprise. Italians are way keener on cycling than walking. We literally did not come across any other walkers in three days. Off-road the terrain was pretty even but, even so, walking boots did prove essential – in dry weather the vineyards are dusty and occasionally rocky and, after a night of rain, as we experienced on the day we walked to Barolo the dust quickly turns to thick claggy mud. Even in high summer you do need the proper kit – decent boots, wiki layers, a waterproof and, certainly on the steep downhills and in the mud, poles could be handy.
So as to which is best – walking or cycling – I have to say I am torn. If you love walking and want a relatively gentle itinerary, Piedmont is ideal territory and you really can’t go wrong. On the other hand, the cycling was great fun, it felt more adventurous and we could obviously cover more ground. The e-bikes are terrific for less confident cyclists. If your motivation is pleasure rather than physical pain – I can’t recommend them enough.