To the title music from a spaghetti western we headed off into the sunset on the road to Piano Grande. Well at least that’s how I had pictured it when I first read a guide book description of the Piano Grande area. I first noticed it as part of a ride from the cycling Italy guide book we used for some route planning and with a little further investigation discovered we could link our ride east to Ancona with some of the guided route. The route was called “Mystic Mountains and Sacred Hills” and wove its way through the Umbrian and Le Marche countryside.
To get to the point we would join the route we headed East on minor roads in as direct a route as possible with our two weeks in Italian villas fast fading from our minds. Reaching Acqualagna the route quickly took us into more mountainous territory with a climb to the Eremo di Fonte Avellana monastery where we camped in an eerily quiet forest with only distant bell chiming for company. We continued through quiet roads and tiny villages where almost every person stared open mouthed at our bikes as we smiled back. En route to Gubbio my rear gear shifter suddenly broke with the ring that holds you in a specific gear snapping in half. As we reached Gubbio we raced between bike shops before they shut for the afternoon following locals in cars, hand drawn maps and GPS routes before finding a motorcycle mechanic who had a replacement shifter. Suddenly within an hour or so of what had seemed a major mechanical problem we were back on the road again.
From Gubbio we headed towards Assisi deciding (in true hill-aholic style) to tackle a road described as “extremely steep” in the guide book. This saw both Emma and I pushing our bikes for large sections but rewarded us with an amazing descent into Assisi. After a quick visit to the St. Francis cathedral (involving more pushing bikes up hills) we headed out of town to an area described as “remote and lacking services” by the guide book. As the skies darkened I put my new weather knowledge (I got a book about weather for my birthday a month or so back) to work and predicted thunderstorms ahead. Sheltering in a motorway subway with hailstones falling and wind almost blowing trees over I concluded I was correct. Although the storm passed quickly the rest of the day continued with further heavy showers as we cycled through small towns with only a handful of buildings. The day ended with a monumental downpour that saw us sheltering under our trusty groundsheet trying to protect the tent and shouting at each other to be heard over the pounding rain.
With wet socks, shoes and cycling shorts the next day we aimed for Norcia, an ancient walled Roman town surrounded by mountains – so yep more hill climbing ensued, but again the descent was breathtaking with the valley and old town laid out like a tablecloth far below. Norcia is a popular Italian tourist town with porcini, truffle and wild boar on offer from every doorway so after a quick gelato we began the final 20km climb to the Piano Grande plateau. After climbing for around 10km we found a small rocky trail with just enough room for our tent and watched the sunset over Norcia.
Being on the road before 7am is a little unusual for us but with a further 10km of climbing we were keen to avoid the heat of the day and by 8:30am we had gasped repeatedly at the view below us, stopped for a quick espresso, marvelled at wild horses on hilltops and were eating breakfast looking out over the spectacular Piano Grande. Its difficult to describe the view but it is one of the most unusual and stunning landscapes I have ever seen. The valley is surrounded by stony majestic mountains who stand guard over the bright yellow maize fields and carpets of wild flowers across the valley floor. As the day progresses clouds slowly accumulate around the higher peaks passing their shadows across the valley as if in contrast to the vivid light that fills the air. In testament to the colours and light the valley is filled with photographers using equipment that made my compact camera green with envy. Riding into the valley and up into Castellucio we gained another perspective of the valley and had a tasty sausage roll for morning tea. We could easily have spent weeks in the valley exploring every possible viewpoint but as we cycled onwards I was happy to have visited it even if only for a brief half day.
Reaching Montegallo and an unexpected campsite we decided to make it a short day and enjoyed a welcome shower after the last few days of free camping. Staring up at the cloud covered Mt Vettore over dinner I could see why the local people refer to it as a “cloud factory” and was amazed at how the valley beyond could hold so many wonders.