Travel: The cycle of daily life

Italians enjoy a special relationship with the bicycle, as Christian Wolmar discovered on a family holiday exchange

THE ITALIANS with whom we exchanged houses casually said that they would be "leaving five or six bikes" for us to use. It wasn't until we got to Marina di Grosseto, a beach resort on the Mediterranean coast 100 miles from Rome, that we realised that not having bikes would have been akin to not having running water.

The clutter of bikes outside the supermarket was the first indication that there is something special about Marina de Grosseto's relationship with the bicycle. No one seemed to drive to the shops and there was no designated car park - so everyone cycled to the supermarket, leaving their bikes higgledy-piggledy outside, propped up against the wall or leaning precariously on their stands. Nobody bothered to lock them.

Marina de Grosseto, around 15 kilometres from Grosseto, is in the Maremma, the marshlands that were drained in the 19th century to rescue the locals from malaria. The winter population these days is barely 5,000 but in the summer numbers increase tenfold, with the visitors being almost exclusively Italian.

Holidaymakers do not, of course, arrive by bike, but virtually everyone cycles during their holiday, leaving their cars to gather dust in campsite car parks. There are two very good reasons why. The camp sites in which the vast majority of holidaymakers stay are not designed to allow people to drive in and out regularly, so getting access to the car would mean a good morning of negotiation with other motorists.

It is also a bit of a hassle to actually get anywhere by car. The town is too small to readily accommodate many cars and most of its streets are one-way - a fact that doesn't seem to stop cyclists from travelling along the roads in any direction they feel like. There is something liberating about riding the wrong way down a street, knowing that motorists have to follow a long detour round half the town; even when the local policeman was on patrol in his Fiat, he showed no interest in my, or anyone else's, law-breaking habits. He did, though, keep an eye on the cars.

However, the universality of bike use could not be explained just by these difficulties. Bikes are simply the best way to get around. The land is flat, the distances short, and the climate is that dry Mediterranean heat. So everyone cycles.

I was fascinated most by the children. Usually, the Italians would never allow their precious progeny to take risks; yet parents here allowed their babies to sit on precarious seats, their eight-year-olds to ride around town unaccompanied and their teenagers to show off by loading their bikes with friends or grabbing a ride from a pal's moped. But in Marina de Grosseto bikes are so much part of everyday life that to ban children from them would be like never allowing them ice cream.

Although bike culture is so integral to the town's functioning, nobody has put much effort into either creating it or preserving it. The town roads have no signs for cyclists and no segregated paths.

Similarly, nobody pays much attention to what they ride. Bikes are seen as extensions of people's legs, not as some kind of fashion accessory. Alan Bennett once wrote that the world would be a better place if everyone rode bikes rather than drove cars. Our holiday was certainly much better for it.

Fact File

Getting there:

New low-cost flights to Italy mean the country is much cheaper to reach this summer than before - so long as you are prepared to fly from Stansted or Luton. Go (0845 60 54321) flies from Stansted to Bologna, Rome, Venice and Milan; Ryanair (0541 569 569) operates from the same airport to Genoa, Rimini, Ancona and Treviso (near Venice). From Luton, Debonair (0541 500 300) flies to Rome and, from next month, to the Umbrian capital Perugia.

Getting information

Italian State Tourist Board, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254; brochure request line 0891 600280).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent