The Gira: 9 days discovering Italy
But not in the most conventional way, on a rickshaw!
by Julie Hill
Most of you will have heard of the famous Vespa (Wasp in English), the famous moped and symbol of Italy, however, I don’t know if you will have heard of its less famous brother, the Ape (Pronounced AH-PAY which means Bee in English) otherwise known as a rickshaw. It is a cross between a moped and a car, typically used by farmers to travel from their homes to their fields, not for travelling 2000km cross country.
I recently took on the challenge of travelling in a rickshaw from Catania to Milan in 9 days, not a mean feat I hear you say, well in fact when you are travelling at a maximum downhill speed of 60kph (with the wind in your favour) and uphill around 25/30kph it is not an easy task but little did I know it would have become one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. This initiative was presented to me by The GIRA a company based in Milan that rents out these rickshaws for tours around Europe, namely Italy, France and Spain. It is designed for the adventurer who is looking for an alternative to the typical ‘tourist holiday’.
We were a group of 9 adventurers (Alessia, Francesca, Carla, Marco, Francesco, Tatiana and Nicoletta and my partner in crime, and in life, the famous instagrammer Cinzia Gabriele @mental_shot) in 4 rickshaws that set off from Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, each in search of their own experience choosing different routes through one of the most beautiful and culturally rich counties in the world to arrive 9 days later in Milan.
The paradox of an experience like this is that there are many constraints: Time (9 days), Average speed (45kph) as a result you can only travel on the back roads so NO MOTORWAYS, Space for luggage (a small hand luggage size suitcase), but in spite of these constraints an experience like this fills you with a sense of immense freedom. You are able to connect with the space around you in a way that is impossible with any other means of travel, you feel the wind in your face, you can see the landscape change as you venture through different regions, you smell the odours (both good and bad) of the territory you are passing through, things that are impossible to do when you travel in the traditional way.
We are so used to travelling from A to B in an air conditioned bubble on the motorway. Instead with a rickshaw you are forced to take the back roads, to get lost in the countryside, to travel through little villages and towns that you would otherwise not have known existed and most of all it gives you the possibility to meet and communicate with the locals. The rickshaw attracts the attention of passersby, people will stop in their tracks, wave and smile, inquire about where you came from and where you’re going and more often than not will offer you a coffee or ask you if the rickshaw can do a wheelie! This is the real Italy. Due to the time restraints and the significant amount of time you have to spend ‘on the road’ you are limited in the amount of time you can spend at each pit-stop, so the experience becomes more about the journey and less about the destination which is similar to my philosophy on life. Each region has left an impression on me, here are a few of the stand out memories of this life changing adventure
Catania. The baroque architecture, rich culture and street food: Arancini (traditional Sicilian rice balls stuffed with ragù, coated in breadcrumbs and fried), the famous ricotta stuffed Cannoli, and the classic breakfast of granita and brioche. The thing that struck me the most about this university city is how the tranquil streets with their many coffee shops, restaurants and wonderful architecture transform at night and the city becomes a centre of vivacious night life.
Taormina. The greco-roman theatre that looks over captivating coastlines and crystalline sea and the beautiful historical centre.
The Calabria Mountains. The amazing coastlines and some of the most arduous night time driving through the steep roads, our GPS decided to take us off course but we did happen across a town party and had a well deserved sandwich with Calabrian sausage and peppers.
Tropea. The spectacular view of the Tyrrhenian Sea from our hotel and the chilli peppers that accompanied us on our journey.
Pizzo. A charming town where we had a photo shoot at the marina and gelato tartufo with the other adventurers before we parted ways.
Praia a mare. The breathtaking sunset over Dino’s island.
Sapri. A town near the border between Basilicata and Campania on the Cilentan coast(which has some of the best panoramas I have ever seen. We were lucky to arrive during the town party and we ate homemade pasta and seaweed fritters.
Caserta. We were lucky enough to be welcomed as guests of honour at the Royal Palace of Caserta which was built for the Bourbon Kings of Naples. It is one of the largest Royal palaces in Europe and I was surprised to learn that the palace has been used as a filming location for many famous films due to the fact that the baroque style is very similar to that used in the Vatican. Where we were able to break the record for most people (22) in a rickshaw!
Naples. The a big port city but in contrast has the welcoming feel of a small town. In the short time we were here I was able to try the famous Neapolitan delicacies sfogliatella, rum babà and of course Pizza!
Gaeta. The port where we watched the sunset after a long day on the road and where we got lost on foot trying to navigate the old narrow streets
Sperlonga. An enchanting beach town with narrow bleach white alleyways contrasted with bright colours and deep blue sea. Around every corner there is a picture postcard view.
Narni. A town that could have come straight out of a fairytale, and where everyone was interested to know if the rickshaw could do a wheelie!
Spoleto. A strikingly beautiful town that you may recognise as the home of our favourite Italian TV priest/detective, Don Matteo. Just as beautiful in real life as it is on the screen.
Perugia. The lively, picturesque university city, that on the day we arrived were having a street Pyjama party where everyone, young and old were dressed in Pyjamas and the streets were decorated in Christmas decorations!
Montepulciano. The delicious Pici (A type of hand rolled spaghetti) that we ate before we attempted the steep, winding streets of this hill town.
Pienza. simple renaissance beauty
Siena. Our very own local guide and a stay in the Oliviera Agriturismo/Winery with a tour of the vinyards and a tasting of the famous Chianti Classico.
Emilia Romagna & Lombardy
Bologna. The warm welcome we received when coming home to the ever beautiful. Its two towers and the sanctuary of San Luca.
Milan. The emotion of driving the tiny rickshaw through one of the biggest cities in the world and the realisation that my Italian rickshaw adventure is over, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last.
This is an experience I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to discover the real Italy at a slower pace… and yes, it can do a wheelie!