It would take you from the stately squares of Turin to the waterways of Venice; from the shadow of the Alps to the open skies of the Po delta, with the palaces of Ferrara and violins of Cremona just waiting to be admired en route. A plentiful supply of pasta, polenta and pork would help your stamina but you might consider an extra pannier for the bottles of Barolo.
For the past three-and-a-half years, activists in Italy have been lobbying for the construction of a 422 mile (679km) cycle path, known as VenTo, that would link the major cities of the north as well as a host of lesser-known treasures along the banks of the river Po. Now, as the eurozone’s third largest economy starts to see faint signs of recovery from its longest postwar recession, hopes are growing that the project’s time may just have come.
Last week, after meeting with VenTo’s proponents, the culture and tourism minister, Massimo Bray, lavished praise on the idea, saying it was an important initiative that could be an example of sustainable development for the rest of Italy and would ideally tie in with the Universal Exposition due to be held in Milan in 2015.
Paolo Pileri, spokesman for VenTo, said he was hopeful that under this, the third Italian government since its inception at the end of 2009, the project might not be falling on deaf ears. “The government is starting to say: this is interesting,” he said. Pileri, a professor of urban and environmental development planning at the Politecnico university in Milan, added: “This cycle path is like the chain of a necklace … Turin is the first pearl, Valenza the second pearl; there are so many pearls – but at the moment we’re just missing the chain.”
Pileri and his colleagues estimate the cost of VenTo’s construction at €80m. But, they say, that would be rapidly offset by the tourism-related income the path would generate throughout northern Italy – a figure they put at about €100m a year. The project, they say, would create 2,000 jobs in hospitality and other related sectors.
“[We want] to show the country that out of the landscape, cultural heritage and ‘healthy’ tourism can come a significant response to the crisis, which should not be sniffed at,” said Pileri, who wants the state to see investment in sustainable projects like VenTo as a new and improved model of economic development.
Like many cyclists here, both tourists and locals, he also just wants to be able to enjoy two-wheel travel rather more than is currently possible. Italy is famous for being one of the most car-dependent countries in the world and has lagged behind on the provision of the kind of long and continuous bike paths seen in some other European countries such as Germany.
But, with the recession, the country that gave the world Fausto Coppi and the neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette) has been rediscovering its past pleasures, with 2012 sales of bikes up 200,000 on the year before. Activists believe there is now an urgent need to create a national network of workable paths.
“While there’s no shortage of Italians who cycle around Italy, many are put off by aggressive drivers and high traffic levels, so not as much cycling takes place as it could do if conditions were made friendlier for lovers of two-wheel transport,” wrote Alex Roe, a Milan-based blogger, who said it would be a great shame if VenTo were not built.
If it did get the funding from state and regional authorities, Pileri says VenTo would be the longest continuous cycle path not only in Italy but also in southern Europe as a whole. According to the plans, it would have two lanes and be 2.5m wide – modest measurements that have not, however, prevented it being dubbed a cycle motorway.
The comparison is not altogether unfounded. Pileri said the route envisaged would draw inspiration from paths already in existence abroad that “have a design kind of like motorways – very linear, few curves, few slopes, because our idea is precisely to import into Italy a model of infrastructure that can be used by everyone – not just the very fit but also children, the elderly, everyone,” he said.