Rome - There are, I believe, two types of recreational cyclist.
First, there are the ones with whippet-like bodies clad in Lycra, who take on near-vertical mountain roads without breaking a sweat. And then there are cyclists like me, who pick their bike according to colour, and whether the basket has enough room for focaccia and fresh cherry tomatoes.
I am on the Amalfi Coast intending to cycle between the medieval town of Ravello, which perches up in the clouds at almost 1,200 feet above sea level, and the stunning seaside town of Amalfi. When I told this plan to my taxi driver last night he snorted, “Don't get killed, it's bad for tourism!”. I was offended: did he think I was completely clueless? Because, of course, I have no intention of cycling up insanely steep roads.
I am only going to cycle down, from Ravello's fairytale cobbled streets and narrow alleys, to the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea, where I will leave my bike to be picked up by the hire company, while I take the bus back to Ravello. A mere 6.6km in real distance terms. A 17-minute drive as the crow flies. Surely I can manage that? I wheel my bicycle to the tip of the road that winds down through what locals call the ‘Valley of the Devil’.
The sheer cliffs rising from the sea and ancient terraced ravines are so beautiful that I can't help but gape.
Villas cling to ravine edges, terraces of wisteria are in full flower. Various medieval churches ring out attractive peals. Every scrap of land, from roadside verges to the narrowest ledges, are used for growing vegetables in attractive plots. There is an astonishing sense of fertility, and amid the pea-canes and spring onions are wild flowers, sweet peas running riot and nodding red poppies. As if this weren't enough, across the valley I can see an ancient monastery and several ruined water mills.
And then there is the road. I can only see the beginning of it before a sharp bend twists it out of view. I take a deep breath, try not to think about the sarcastic taxi driver, or the waiter this morning in the Hotel Palazzo Avino who took my hand and shook his head, sorrowfully, when I said I was going to cycle. Not quite ready to mount the bike, I wheel it to the sharp corner and there is the rest of the road: narrow, twisting, winding along the edge of the ravine with nothing alongside it but a sheer drop into infinity. I set off, slowly, at first. There is no other traffic. Then the road drops, dramatically, and now I've no choice but to just go with it.
Despite my nervousness, my journey begins well. Italian drivers overtake me in a courteous fashion. And my buoyant mood is helped no end by the fact that I have never cycled through such beauty. On the opposite bank of the ravine a waterfall cascades through thick green foliage. Above me is the Terrace of Infinity, named for the incredible spectacle it overlooks - namely, endless sea and mountains. The terrace belongs to Villa Cimbrone, into which Virginia Woolf and various modernists wafted in the Twenties. I can see the entire breath-taking coastline and the light from the sea shimmers.
Then I turn a blind corner, and am arrested by a tremendous honking. A bus is ploughing towards me, and shows no sign of slowing down. I jump off my bike and flatten myself against the rock. The bus driver shouts what I don't think is a string of compliments and through the window a row of white, shocked faces stare at me. Then it is gone. It is clear that to stay alive I need to be a little more vigilant.
It's after this that I realise my fantasies of downhill freewheeling were just that - fantasy. Mountain roads are twisty, following the contours of the land. They go down, they go up. The bends are often completely blind. The road is so narrow that if two buses decide to meet (as they regularly do) there is no room for a person, nor a bicycle. All of this I discover quickly, my heart hammering. I pause, looking at the stacked peach and pink coloured houses cascading down the hillside, wondering if I should give up. A couple of pro cyclists whizz past; they show no fear. Inspired, I pull myself together and remember what I know about cycling: if you let go, into the landscape, rather than move full of fear, you're supposed to get ' The Flow'. I pluck up my courage and carry on.
Bus drivers, helpfully, do always honk before turning a blind corner. As long as I pay attention, stick close to the edge, and don't take up too much space, I descend safely and the ride transforms from terror to a magical, dreamlike sense of flying. Before I know it I'm swooping down into the charming village of Atrani, not quite as self-regarding as fancy Ravello. I rest next to the fountain of the Piazza Umberto, eat a sfogliatella (a delicious shell-shaped flaky pastry) while looking up at the 16th-century bell tower and smile.
I've let go and it feels as though the imposing, ancient landscape has accepted me.
The descent to the town of Amalfi is much busier than the rest of the road. The sheer drop to the sea and the narrowness means there's a lot of hopping off my bike and pulling out of the way to allow the traffic to flow past. But reaching Amalfi is pure exhilaration. True, I may not have the cycling chops to consider pedalling back up, but it is with an immense feeling of satisfaction that I leave my bike to be picked up and celebrate with a delicious spaghetti alle vongole and limoncello.
A few hours later I take the € 1.50 bus back, happy to have felt the contours of the land beneath my wheels.
When I return to the luxury of the Palazzo Avino the concierge looks at me as if I am a ghost returned from the dead. He mayaswell say, “Mamma mia, you are still alive!”He asks me if I will be exploring more roads by bike tomorrow. “No,”I say, “I intend to dream and sleep and eat and simply look at the monumentally beautiful view, thank you. And that's what I do.
If You Go...
Suzanne Joinson stayed at the Palazzo Avino (palazzoavino.com), where rooms start from €280 (about R4 000) per night, and suites from €630 per night, including breakfast.