Giro d'Italia travel guide - see the race, ride your bike & sample the delights of Italy
Simon MacMichael on how to experience Italy and its greatest bike race
There’s less than a fortnight to go till the Giro d’Italia starts in Turin, and if the drama of the Spring Classics has whetted your appetite to plan a trip out to catch some of the racing live, the good news is that the first week’s route gives you plenty of opportunity to catch the action. Moreover, with the geography of the country meaning that the rail network is less centralised than in say France or Spain, it’s easy and quick to hop around between stage towns, as we’ll show.
Not that we’re proposing a rigid itinerary that you should stick to, rather a suggestion of the possibilities. If you want to travel out with your bike (see our guide to flying here and information about taking it on trains here), then it may make sense to base yourself for a few days somewhere round Rapallo on the coast south of Genoa, or in Orvieto, close to the strade bianche of Tuscany and Umbria; either way, you’ll be able to enjoy some great riding, as well as having lots of chances to watch the racing.
For our part, we’ll be catching the build up in Turin and the first couple of days’ racing before heading back to Milan for our flight home after the start of Stage 3 in Reggio Emilia. But if you can staying longer and chasing the Giro down to Orvieto, which hosts the finish of Stage 5 and start of Stage 6, is a much better bet. Moreover, it will also let you experience some of Italy’s rich geographical, cultural and gastronomic diversity, while enjoying surroundings ranging from Umbrian hilltop towns to Ligurian fishing villages turned elegant resorts.
At the end of this article, you’ll find full information about travelling by train in Italy, plus recommendations about where to look for hotels and which airports it might be best to fly into and out of – but first, let’s look at the how the first few days of the Giro unfolds and how you might plan things if you were following each stage.
Stage 1: Venaria Reale – Turin
In a year in which the Giro celebrates 150 years of Italian unity, fittingly it begins at a former residence of the House of Savoy, which produced the country’s first head of state, with the team time trial route taking the riders into the heart of Turin, the country’s first capital.
The previous afternoon, the teams will have been presented to the public in the city centre, and if you do decide to get here a day or two before the race, there is plenty on offer in what has been described as the most French of Italian cities to keep you occupied.
Turin got a makeover for the 2006 Winter Olympics and is host to a variety of museums, covering everything from Egyptology to cinema, as well as some striking architecture from a variety of eras.
It’s a city with a vibrant and longstanding café culture, with some particularly well-appointed establishments lining Piazza San Carlo; chocolate is also a local speciality. And while it can rain in May, the city’s porticos and arcades allow you to stroll around without getting a soaking.
Many hotels are filling up – the departure of the Giro also coincides with the annual get-together of Italy’s Alpine regiments – but you should still be able to find somewhere reasonably central without breaking the bank.
Stage 2: Alba – Parma
Today, which sees the longest stage of this year’s Giro at 242km, is a Sunday, and as anywhere else, that makes it a little more difficult getting around by train. There’s no chance of catching the stage start in Alba, but what you can do is head to Alessandria from Turin, catch the race as it passes through the Piemontese town, then head to Parma in good time to see the stage finish.
To do that, you can either take the 0825 train, which will give you three hours in Alessandria – admittedly not the most touristy town in northern Italy – or take the 1045, which leaves you with around an hour before the race arrives and more time in Turin. Whichever you choose, don’t stray too far from the station – you’re likely to have between half an hour and 20 minutes once the riders pass to catch the 1310 to Parma, changing at Piacenza.
Unsurprisingly, given the worldwide fame associated with its cheese and ham, Parma is a city where you’re more than likely to find somewhere to eat well. It’s also a pleasant place to stroll round in the evening, with the presence of one of Italy’s oldest universities also meaning it’s well catered for in terms of nightlife.
Parma is also one of Italy's most bike-friendly cities, and with today being the second National Day of the Bicycle, there should be plenty of events going on to coincide with the Giro hitting town.
Reggio Emilia, tomorrow’s stage start town, is perhaps less well known than Parma but similar in size, and it too has an atmospheric city centre, including many medieval or Baroque buildings, making it ideal for an overnight stop. It’s also where what would become the Italian tricolore flag, modelled on that of France, was devised in 1797 after Napoleon proclaimed the Cispadane Republic here.
Stage 3: Reggio Emilia – Rapallo
If you’ve stayed in Reggio, you can either stick around to catch the stage start at 1255, or leave early and make sure you have a good vantage point for what promises to be a cracking finale.
With the Italian state railway website throwing up a variety of convoluted routes between Reggio (or Parma) and Rapallo, our advice is to book a train to Genoa, then a separate ticket from there to wherever you’re spending the night (see our suggestions below). The 0842 from Reggio gets you into Genoa for 1242, then it’s a short hop down the coast to Rapallo.
But we reckon that where you really need to be isn’t at the stage finish in Rapallo itself, but in Chiavari, which means staying on the train from Genoa a few minutes longer. A short walk from the station will take you onto the climb of the Madonna delle Grazie, a 183-metre ascent 13km to the finish that should give a flavour of Milan-Sanremo to today’s stage, especially if a big selection has already been made on the 957-metre Passo del Bocco, crested 30km earlier.
As for an overnight stop, your options are to head for the big city of Genoa with its regenerated port area, maze of medieval alleyways and majestic palaces from its days as an autonomous maritime republic, or to stay in one of the resorts along the coast – Chiavari, Rapallo itself or even the charming small town of Santa Margherita Ligure, all of which are on the main railway line.
Stage 4: Quarto dei Mille – Livorno
Quarto dei Mille, nowadays a residential suburb to the east of Genoa, is where Garibaldi and his 1,000-strong band of supporters set off from in May 1860 for Sicily to begin the campaign that would lead, the following year, to Italy being unified.
Today there’s no problem catching the stage start and finish, with a midday start giving you the best part of an hour to get across town for the 12.52 to arrive in Livorno for 15.14, plenty of time before the riders go by. There, you’ll find a bit of a bonus – the race heads through town to tackle the Castelaccio climb, before heading back to the finish, giving you an opportunity to see the peloton twice in the space of 40 minutes.
Livorno may be a major port, but at its heart it retains a medieval centre that includes a network of canals that have seen it compared to Venice. For an overnight stop though, we’d recommend heading to Florence, an hour and a half’s journey away, since that will make things much easier for you tomorrow.
Stage 5: Piombino – Orvieto
Today promises to be reminiscent of last year’s epic stage to Montalcino as it includes 23km of strade bianche inside the closing 40km, the last section ending some 14km from the stage finish.
Leaving Florence on the 12.20 train from the city’s Rifredi station, perhaps after a morning’s sightseeing, will get you to Orvieto by 2pm, ample time to find a bar and watch the drama unfold, or the big screen near the finish. We’ve tried finding a way to get close to the strade bianche themselves by train, but without any joy.
While Orvieto’s railway station is in the modern suburb at the foot of the hill, the stage finish takes place up on the edge of the medieval hilltop town – happily, there’s a funicular railway to whisk you between the two, although with the Giro in town, it could be busy.
Orvieto itself is home to one of Italy’s most beautiful cathedrals, a not-to-be-missed sight if you’re in town, although the medieval city centre, the refuge of Pope Clement VII after the sack of Rome in 1527, has much else to offer.
We end our journey here – tomorrow’s Stage 6 leaves Orvieto for the hills to the east of Rome, unreachable by train – and hope we’ve inspired you to try and catch at least some of what promises to be a fantastic three weeks’ racing.
Wherever you’re heading home from, be it Florence, Pisa, Milan or even Rome itself, with Orvieto sitting on the main north-south route, your journey there shouldn’t be too difficult. And if you do have your bike with you, there’s always the option of heading out onto the strade bianche…
First, some basic information. The Italian state railway website is available in English, and easy to navigate. Tickets are cheap, certainly by comparison to those in Britain, and are clearly shown when checking train times. On many trips, it costs just a few euro more to travel first class, and it’s certainly worth it. Faster trains do cost more, but even on the quickest trains in Italy, you’re forking out much less than you would for a comparable journey back here.
You do need to pay attention to some issues while planning your journey, however. First, there’s a general strike in Italy on Friday 6 May, the day before the Giro starts. While some trains will be running between Milan and Turin, it may not be the most sensible day to plan your flight. Secondly, most major cities have more than one station, so make sure you know exactly where you’re leaving from or changing trains.
Also, while some of the timings given are within our comfort zone, you may wish to give yourself a bit more leeway. Full timings of all stages are now live on the Giro d'Italia website - hover your cursor over the stage number, click on 'technical info' then the 'itinerary' tab, and you can download a PDF with full route details for the stage concerned. You can also download stage maps, profiles, and details of the last kilometre.
On many trains, you’ll have to validate your ticket before you travel at one of the stamping machines at the station – see the Italy page on the excellent Man In Seat 61 website for details of which trains you need to do this for, plus everything you need to know about travelling by train in the country.
As for hotels, we’ll leave you to make your own choice, but we’ve found that the website Late Rooms has a decent selection of hotels in Italy and is easy to use to check dates and make bookings, or once you’ve found a suitable hotel you can always look to see if they have their own website and any better offers through booking direct.
If you're not going to be arriving at the hotel until the evening following the stage finish, it's worth ringing ahead to let them know your estimated time of arrival. It's probably a good idea if you've booked online to ring the hotel a couple of days before you're due there just to check everything is in order.
Assuming you arrive by plane, your choice of arrival airport is likely to be dictated by the choices available from your local airport in the UK. Turin has its own airport, but Milan’s two airports, Linate and Malpensa have a wider choice of flights and the latter has regular bus connections to Turin, with the journey taking two hours.
Wherever you end up in the first week, it’s also reasonably easy to get back to Milan by fast train – but equally, other airports in cities such as Genoa, Pisa, Florence or even Rome may well be better options for you, depending on your itinerary.