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).

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