Ferrari cars, Vespa, the Fiat 500 can all be said to reflect Italian life. Stylish, yet most definitely fun. Stroll into any of the country’s major cities, Milan, Rome, Florence, Bologna, during morning rush hour, as the office workers pile in from the outskirts to their desks, and you’ll hardly be able to cross the road for the hoards of scooters whizzing by. If there’s a football match on, a two wheeled, motorised vehicle seems to be the only option for the local fans to get to the stadio. You know when Juventus are playing, not for the chants emanating from the stadium, but for the buzz of thousands of tiny engines.
Yet although scooters may be synonymous with getting around town in Italy, what about their little cousin, le bici. When you pause to look more closely, biciclette are everywhere. From nonne doing their morning shopping, bicycles complete with a wicker basket on the front, to lycra clad enthusiasts, piling up and down the winding trails in the Dolomites, bicycles are all over Italian culture.
There’s the Giro d’Italia, where professional cyclists from around the world gather together to race along the country’s narrow, winding roads. Or there’s Italian cinema, with films such as Ladri di Biciclette and Roberto Benigni’s La Vita e Bella, full of iconic scenes, such as when protagonist Guido meets his future wife Dora, involving the humble bike.
In the student cities of the north, Ferarra, Bologna, Modena, bicycles are everywhere, ridden by everyone and used for everything. Unlike the common perception in my home country that a bicycle should be used for exercise and should only be ridden when wearing special clothes and a helmet, the Italians have different things in mind. Yes, there are still serious bicyclists who don lycra and cycle extreme distances in extreme heat, but there are also a host of ordinary people, simply using them to get from a to b.
I was one of those, wheeling down the cobbled streets and through the narrow archways of a tiny Italian town, basket filled with groceries, clad in sandals, a skirt or a dress and (somewhat worryingly) without a helmet. My bicycle was basic at best and struggled to change between the different gears, prompting either the chain or the rider to come off at the slightest incline. It was third hand and very temperamental, presumably passed on to a new, unsuspecting, owner when I sold it back to the shop I had purchased it from. Yet in spite of all this, it gave me one of the most memorable senses of freedom I have known. This, coupled with the ability to blend in to the community (before I had opened my mouth and my accent revealed that I was in fact not from the area), has made it one of my favourite modes of transport, one that takes me back to sunnier times.
Everything we did felt more adventurous and exciting on a bicycle. Maybe this was for the fact that there was more chance of whatever it was not quite coming off, should someone’s tyre go flat or a gear chain decide to give up.
After months of bicycle rides to the local parks to buy afternoon gelato from the gelaterie, we decided to venture further afield and one Saturday morning in April attempted an out of town expedition on our bicycles. The weather was hot, the sort of heat you expect in summer and then are pleasantly surprised by when it appears for a few days in the spring. We set off early-morning, whizzing along cycle paths next to fields of early germinating wheat, interspersed by flecks of crimson red from the occasional poppy. Through sleepy villages where front doors were trustingly left ajar, chickens roamed in the lane in front of the houses, and everything seemed still. The scorching heat of the midday sun, and several bicycles very unsuited to hill riding, forced a pause in proceedings. A picnic in a tranquil, shaded public garden, on the edge of a hilltop town soon turned into an afternoon nap. We awoke to the clanging of the bell from the church tower. Time to return home. Sunburnt and sore we crept back into Modena. The route into the city was mostly uphill and by now we were parched and hungry, yet content. A day out on the bicycle, seeing the countryside on two wheels under our own steam, was perfect.
Travelling on my bike along the biscuit-brown alleyways of Modena, up and down a host of rolling hills and beside Italy’s picturesque vineyards and cherry ladened orchards, allowed me to reflect on life in the country. It made me appreciate the slower, more relaxed pace of life and gave me a different sense of freedom and adventure, one that I have associated with Italy ever since.