Cycle touring is my preferred way to holiday.
It’s an enjoyable and social hobby that is a unique way to explore: you can have a fairly intimate relationship with the places you’re passing through, while still being able to cover a reasonable distance.
It’s also a fabulous way to stay physically and mentally fit and healthy, especially for someone like me with knee problems.
I’m building up the courage to tackle an independent cycling tour, and in the meantime I’ve been on a few training camps or supported tours. In May 2022, I booked a cycling holiday in southern Sardinia with Mellow Jersey. In the recent past I had cycled in several countries that have meant long haul flights, for example Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam, because cycling wasn’t about zero carbon then, but just a wonderful way to see exciting new places. Now I am living a lifestyle that is a lot more mindful and sustainable, so it makes sense to travel with minimal carbon emissions.
It makes sense to travel with minimal carbon emissions.
As a new-ish continental train traveller, it was slightly tricky to organise my journey, as there are several options for travelling to Sardinia, either through France with ferries from Marseille or Toulon, or through Italy with ferries from Genoa and Civitavecchia among others.
The Man in Seat Sixty-One’s website seat61.com was a great help with putting together an itinerary, and I chose to travel via Genoa as the train times suited me best. The plan was to hire a bike in Sardinia so I didn't have to worry about the logistics of bringing mine on the trains across Europe.
The first bonus of train travel is exploring the places along the way, and for me, this was an overnight stop in Turin. I spent a morning exploring Turin’s historic sights, including a number of art nouveau buildings, elegant covered pavements and gallerias, and lovely city squares. There were some fabulous contemporary public art instillations dotted around the city, including a canine Romeo and Juliet in a large former army barracks.
The bonus of train travel is exploring the places along the way.
It was a two-hour train from Turin to Genoa, and after a smooth check-in at the port I boarded the ferry ready for the overnight crossing. I stood on deck for a while after we left Genoa to see the shoreline slip away and the sea-scape enfold us as night fell. I have sailed a lot in the past, and have always found leaving port thrilling, moving into the powerful sea and the unknown.
My cabin was reasonably comfortable and though it could have slept four, I had it to myself. My recommendation would be to bring a picnic for the ferry crossing (there’s a good supermarket at the port), as the catering was not very good! I hadn’t brought my own food so I had to make do with cold chips and something that poorly resembled fish.
We arrived into Porto Torres in the north-west of the island at around 6.30am. Arriving by sea into somewhere new is always exciting and full of promise. A bus transfers you to a nearby rail station, but given that I had so much time I decided to wander through the town to the main station.
Arriving by sea into somewhere new is always exciting and full of promise.
It didn’t look too promising – it was completely deserted and looked as if it hadn’t been used for years – but a train arrived on time. The three hour journey in this rickety two-carriage train was fabulous, though there were no refreshments on board, so again I’d advise bringing your own. The train travelled through the mountains in the north then through the rocky interior to Cagliari on the south coast.
There were few signs of human life in the landscape, except for a few derelict farm buildings. It was wild, rugged and very beautiful, and gave me a glimpse of the abundance of wild flowers that I would see more of on the tour.
For the majority of the journey there didn’t seem to be anyone on the train apart from me and a guard who asked for my passport then disappeared with it for an hour, which worried me a little! The wildness of the landscape and the fact that I was alone in the carriage added a great feeling of otherness and timelessness, which felt magical. So different from travelling in the UK when you are rarely away from some sign of human life.
Cycling in Sardinia is among the best I have ever done. The roads were fabulous, with very little traffic. The only hold ups were to let herds of goats cross the roads. There were twelve of us on the tour, and we did a six day loop from the south following the east coast, before cutting through the centre and returning down the west coast, covering approximately 1000km in total, with 6500 metres of climbing.
Cycling in Sardinia is among the best I have ever done. The scenery was spectacular…
The scenery was spectacular, with rugged coastlines, cliffs dropping down to an azure sea, and deserted sandy beaches. The countryside varied between green hills covered in trees with little pockets of land cultivation and vast swathes of wildflowers, to more rugged, barren plateaus that were bathed in silver light and morning cloud inversions.
The food was some of the best I have eaten anywhere, with lots of amazing seafood, fish, fresh pasta, tomatoes, salads and delicious ice creams. Thank goodness we were burning so many calories during the day!
Of all the people I was cycling with, I was the only one who hadn’t flown. There was some interest among the group that I had taken the train, but it seemed like a long and expensive journey compared to an easyJet flight. I hope that my tales of the joy of overland travel might make some consider it in the future.
On the return journey I once again travelled on the overnight ferry, but this time had booked a train with a slightly tight transfer time from Genoa to Milan. The staff on the boat weren’t particularly reassuring, suggesting that the published timetable was more guidance than fact, which was a bit nerve wracking: I could have had less than an hour to disembark and get to the railway station, without knowing if there would be a taxi for the journey, or even knowing my way out of the port itself. In the end, I had plenty of time.
From Milan I took the seven-hour train straight to Paris, which passed through Turin, which had just hosted the Eurovision Song Contest the night before. The train was packed! But everyone must have partied long and hard into the night, as the train was very subdued and most people fell asleep.
I absolutely loved the train travel. It was mesmerising to watch the scenery unfold, with the changing landscapes and architecture.
In all it was a fabulous trip, not only the cycling, but also the train travel which I absolutely loved. It was mesmerising to watch the scenery unfold, with the changing landscapes and architecture. All told, the journey cost around £650 – more expensive and time-consuming than flying. However, for me, the trip was an integral part of the whole experience. Rather than just a means of getting from A to B, the journey is to be savoured and enjoyed.
The lessons I took from this train adventure were:
- seat61.com is very helpful when putting together an itinerary
- allow a decent time to transfer between trains or ferries. It’s a lot less stressful and sitting watching the world go by in a European train station is a joy
- take plenty of breaks. Overnight stops are a chance to explore somewhere else
- take your own refreshments especially once you are off the beaten track. Have some emergency snacks and use every opportunity to fill up water bottles
- Turin (stay overnight)
- Overnight ferry
- Porto Torres
- Porto Torres
- Overnight ferry