Antonio greets me heartily as he looks up from watering his plants, smiling. Our host and chef at the agriturismo "A ca Vegia" doesn't speak a word of English — the norm for most people of the older generations in Italy — but I can tell by his gestures towards the green valley bathed in sun that he is admiring another perfect-weather day in Liguria.
Our hilltop retreat at A ca Vegia overlooks the township of Finale de Ligure, one of the many towns along the Italian Riviera. Finale is the first stop on Big Mountain Bike Adventures' Bella Rivera DH, a week-long downhill mountain bike tour of the Ligurian coast shuttling some of the country's finest trails, and gorging on arguably the best home cooking in the world.
Mountain biking has existed here since the early '90s with many of Italy's cross-country racers using the hills surrounding Finale as a training ground. But after Canadian freeride pioneers Brett Tippie, Wade Simmons and Richie Schley (namesake for Whistler Mountain Bike Park's "Schleyer" trail) visited Finale to film for the Kranked film series in 1999, the local mountain bikers began to put shovels in the dirt to build their own downhill-centric descents.
"(The Kranked crew) rode XC trails jumping from one side of the trail to the other, playing around and having so much fun with their bikes," said Allesandro Molini, a born and raised Finale local and guide for Big Mountain Adventures.
"It was an explosion. After that (the locals) started to build trails just for fun."
Finale de Ligure has since become a popular destination for British and European mountain bikers looking for easily accessed trails and reliable, sunny weather. Trails range from berm-filled downhill descents, jumps and stunts to the 2013 Super Enduro course, all with views stretching along the beaches of the Ligurian Sea.
With as many shuttles as our group can handle, for two days we sample trails that finish either in the town or on the beach, the locals barely noticing trains of riders donning full face helmets and body armour. Bikers are welcome here, providing much needed tourism after years of declining mainstream tourist visits to Italy.
A new destination is on the cards tomorrow, requiring a send off from the hospitable folks at A ca Vegia. Glasses of Prosecco clink as another gargantuan four course meal emerges from Antonio's kitchen.
Good thing we don't have to pedal uphill tomorrow.
The Witching Hour
Driving west along the coast and turning up the steep Valle Argentina, we soon arrive at the tiny crow's nest village of Triora. A dark history permeates the alleys and cobblestone streets, testament to the brutal witch trials held by the Holy Inquisition in the late 16th Century. Today the locals celebrate the morbid legacy of putting the witches on trial and burning witches by selling wart-nosed witch dolls and Halloween decorations year round, as well as celebrating several witch-themed festivals throughout the year.
The steep walls of the valley meant most paths were originally built to traverse the hillsides, used by hunters stalking game and peasants harvesting the numerous chestnut plantations. But the trails are not without their challenging sections; rocks and roots protrude out of the soil and the exposure off to the side requires disciplined braking and line choice. Ancient medieval bridges and simple stone shrines honouring the Virgin Mary are just a few of the historic treasures we pass by as we descend towards the valley floor.
We break for lunch in Triora's town square, the iron sculpture of a hooded witch – complete with cauldron and broomstick – overseeing our four courses of bruschetta, meats and cheeses, pasta and tiramisu. I order a double espresso to shake off the afternoon fatigue, but our first ride after lunch turns out to be a spectacular wake up call.
We descend directly from the restaurant in Triora to the satellite village of Molini, bikes buzzing down the vacant stone walkways. Riding through the town's deserted cobble-stoned alleys with cats scattering into the shadows, you can't help but feel that the souls of those "witches" haunt the place several centuries later.
The hills have their share of history as well. During World War II the area was a staging ground for the guerrilla attacks against Italy's fascist rule, the roads that provide such convenience for shuttling mountain bikers were refined by Nazi Germany to move troops and armour faster inland from the Mediterranean. Now the majority of traffic is relatively peaceful with shuttle vans and motorcycle groups.
The Santo Spirito Hotel is our dinner and bed for the next two nights, and its chefs have been hard at work to give our hungry group of mountain bikers the meals of our lives, which after Antonio's magic will not be easy.
Two more days of riding and eating lay ahead of me. Without a single hill to climb on this mountain bike vacation, I'll be needing an endurance of a different kind.
For more information on the Bella Riviera DH head to the Big Mountain Bike Adventures website at:
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