Wheee! Do you remember freewheeling fearlessly downhill on your bike as a child? And the sweaty slog back to the top so you could do it all again?
E-biking in northern Italy’s Trebbia Valley is just like that but without the lung-squeezing climb, thanks to the electric motor kicking in.
Higher and higher we pedal through clear, sweet air scented with acacia and silent apart from screaming swifts.
Dramatic: Josa Keyes tries e-biking up and down the hills of northern Italy’s Trebbia Valley on an active break with the tour company No Boundaries. Above is Bobbio, a classic hillside town in the region
Then, suddenly, disaster strikes. Distracted by the view, my handlebars collide with another bike and I skid across the road, narrowly missing a Vespa. I pull myself together and on we go.
It isn’t the only heart-stopping moment of the weekend — the next day I find myself 15 metres up a cliff, rock climbing for the first time in my life. I’m on a multi-activity weekend with No Boundaries, an innovative company that aims to get everyone exploring in the open air.
Set up in the UK by Italian lawyer Francesco Carta in 2017, the firm survived Covid and now gets people of all ages, shapes and sizes to challenge themselves by canyoning, caving, bouldering, hiking, cycling, kayaking, ice climbing and more, in spectacular scenery in Italy, Sardinia and the UK — with Norway coming soon.
It’s perfect for lone travellers. My group ranges in age from thirtysomethings to those in their 60s. Group sizes depend on the activity but are usually no larger than eight people.
We leave the e-bikes to picnic, then climb a 700-metre outcrop called Pietra Perduca, to visit what must be the world’s most elevated crested newts living in a prehistoric oblong tank carved out of dark rock.
How the newts got up there no one could explain, but they seem cheerful.
Josa climbs the 700-metre outcrop called Pietra Perduca (pictured), to visit ‘what must be the world’s most elevated crested newts living in a prehistoric oblong tank carved out of dark rock’
The River Trebbia runs through the province of Piacenza which, although only an hour from Milan, feels like an untouched secret. It’s all agriturismo here — lodgings and restaurants on working farms — and key to the experience is full immersion in the local food and wine. To reach the Corte Del Gallo farm restaurant, we pass beehives that produce the honey the venue serves with its own cheese. The fresh tortelli — delicate pasta pockets filled with exquisite ricotta and herbs or Gorgonzola — is ambrosial.
We drink petillant naturel (natural sparkling) white wine, which is almost cider-like, out of white china bowls.
Our base is a refurbished convent B&B — Croara Vecchia Azienda Agricola — on a family farm, which belongs to the delightful Alessandra. The frescoed chapel, which was once a tractor shed, has been beautifully restored. It’s perched high above the River Trebbia.
‘The River Trebbia (pictured) runs through the province of Piacenza which, although only an hour from Milan, feels like an untouched secret,’ says Josa
I dread the next day’s rock climbing but, true to my mission to scare myself silly, I try to switch off. The No Boundaries team of reassuringly expert, qualified climbers takes us to Falesia di Pillori, a vertical slab of grey rock thrust into the sky millions of years ago. I watch seasoned climber Giorgio casually nip up what looks like a flat surface, threading ropes through the pitons that are permanently embedded.
Each climbing route has a name too rude for a family newspaper. In spite of our diversity, our group bonds closely and we confide in each other about everything from breastfeeding to relationships.
Then all that’s between me and a ghastly fall is a single knot called a figure eight and one of the guides on the end of the belaying rope.
I squeeze my bare feet into tight climbing shoes with rubbery toes and, with the group cheering me on, throw myself at the sheer cliff face, pushing my toes and fingers into almost invisible cracks. I’m glad that I’d had my Shellac-painted nails cut short.
I make the mistake of glancing over my shoulder — I’m shocked by how high I’ve climbed. I let out an expletive but then I abseil down, dancing with pleasure.
A mild case of the shakes doesn’t stop me going up twice more and loving every minute.
There’s a lot to be said for embracing a second childhood.