Cycling from France to Italy, from Nice to Genoa: Europe's two Rivieras on two wheels

A little distance can go a long way on a bike in Europe. One moment I'm cycling out of Nice, the next I'm lunching in Monaco. By late afternoon, I've crossed into Italy. Three countries on two wheels in one day, and my journey has only just begun.

I'm cycling from one Riviera to another – France to Italy, Nice to Genoa – a week-long ride through sun, beaches and surprisingly rural and remote villages just the length of a few beach towels from the coast.

In Nice, the sun pours down on another Cote d'Azur day and the beach is a mosaic of umbrellas and bodies. Leaving this city of 350,000 people is surprisingly easy, with a coastal bike track wrapping around the bay. For a few minutes, I'm just another bike buzzing along the waterfront.

For a week, I'll never be far from this coastline, following roads and bike tracks, setting out along a coast where half of France seems to lay out in the sun in tiny bays nibbled into white cliffs. Soon Nice is behind me and plush villas hang from the coastal slopes like loaded wallets. Cliffs rear out of the sea, with stony bays and terracotta villages strung across their toes.

Ahead of me stretches 250 kilometres of cycling, but the burden is light. Each day my luggage is picked up from my hotel and delivered to my next stop. My own task is simple: pedal, eat and drink.

As is the nature of coastal rides, a pattern begins immediately – rolling down into seaside towns and climbing back out. I ride beside, through and under cliffs, and I'm forever stopping to peer down at the Mediterranean Sea, which is adorned with super yachts. There's not a bad view to be seen.

For the moment my journey is on roads that I share with vehicles, though on a summer weekend even the cars are bunched like pelotons.

I'm lured ahead this morning by the prospect of Monaco, that great grail of wealth that hides from view until I'm deep inside it, suddenly down at the edge of its port, a lone bicycle among sports cars and yachts so large they might qualify as islands.

I'm soon rolling east again, back into France, with the Vegas-sized resorts and hotels of the principality falling behind me. The road creeps up the slopes to Cap Martin before rolling to the point where France ends in a burst of beauty at Menton. With its long stony beach and backyard of craggy peaks, Menton is like a slimmed-down version of Nice, with fewer high rises and more beach umbrellas. At the end of its beach, beneath great cliff faces of rock, I roll into Italy. I'm less than 40 kilometres from Nice.

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There's immediately a more earthy feel to the coast. In the sea, for the first time, there's not a single super yacht, agriculture stripes the slopes and cars seem more sprawled than parked on the road. And against expectation, it's Italy that proves the most bike-friendly of the two countries.

The next morning, approaching San Remo, I turn on to the 25-kilometre-long Riviera del Fiori bike path, beginning through a long tunnel with a gallery of photographic moments from the famed Milan-San Remo bike race hanging from the ceiling. It's the perfect welcome to one of the world's great cycling towns, which is home also to one of Italy's four casinos, pitting it as a rival to Monaco.

Out of San Remo, the bike path runs long and flat and soon it's almost empty of bikes. San Remo becomes just a smear along the bay behind me, and then as I slip through two more old rail tunnels, it's gone forever.

The wind propels me on, and I feel as though I could happily ride this path every day of my life. Other cyclists materialise in what seems to be the local team uniform of bare skin rather than Lycra, and a woman in her 80s cycles by, working the pedals as though she is herself coming into the finish of Milan-San Remo.

Ancient towns crown the hilltops just above me, and as the bike path ends I turn up on to the rise. Within minutes I'm far above the coast, climbing through dry slopes dotted with ancient, gnarled olive trees. Apple and pear trees lean over the road, their limbs heavy with fruit, and the road is so narrow that when the only car passes me, I have to pull off into the grass to let it through. It's as though I've left one Italy and entered another.

My climb ends in the hilltop village of Civezza, where almost nothing moves in the midday heat. A radio pours chatter through an open shuttered window and cats laze in the shadows. The place is almost a caricature of itself – the idyllic Italian village – but so lovely for it. I cool my face in a 160-year-old fountain and roll back down the hill to the coast and an endless line of beach umbrellas.

For the next three days this is the new pattern of my ride – gentle cruises through the seaside towns of the Italian Riviera, broken by climbs to timeless stone villages that sit like sentries above. Even older than the villages is a section of the route along the coast out of Alassio, at around the halfway point of my journey. Here, beside an 11th-century stone church and archway, the ride turns on to a part of the Via Julia Augusta, a Roman road built in about 12BC, under Emperor Augustus, linking Italy's Po valley to Spain.

It's a short date with history – just a few kilometres to Albenga, the so-called Town of 100 Towers – but the way is dotted with the tombs and crumbled buildings of a Roman necropolis.

The Romans knew their aesthetics and it's one of the most dramatically beautiful sections of the ride, poised above the craggy coast with turtle-shaped Gallinara Island just offshore. Quickly the old road narrows to a dirt trail through the forest before it bumps across a section of the Via Julia Augusta's original 2000-year-old stonework. I feel as if I should be riding a chariot, not a bicycle.

The following morning, out of Finale Ligure, I begin the ride's final climb, a four-kilometre, winding, gradual ascent to the Altopiano plateau. The Ligurian Sea below me is now transparent, and for the first time I'm a little jealous of the bodies swimming in it.

On the Altopiano, the forest canopy becomes my own beach umbrella, and the greenery that lines the road – olives, grapes, figs – consists of the very things I'm consuming each night.

With this last climb suddenly behind me, the ride returns to the coast, passing through Savona, Liguria's third-largest city, to Varazze, where an old railway line has been converted into the Lungomare Europa bike path. It will mark the finish of my ride – 10 kilometres of traffic-free cycling – before I hop on a train into Genoa.

The Lungomare Europa twists and turns with the shape of the coast, which is rocky, rugged and indented with stony beaches. Sunbakers sprawl on rocks, looking for all the world like seal colonies.

The Riviera sun is warm on my back, and a wind pushes me once again towards Genoa, which now rises in the distance like Oz. It's pedal perfect.

FIVE OTHER EUROPEAN RIVIERAS

COTE D'AZUR (FRANCE)

The original and most famous Riviera, stretching through Nice, Antibes, Cannes and St Tropez to near Marseilles.

RIVIERA DI LEVANTE

Italy's second Riviera, on the opposite side of Genoa, featuring the famed Cinque Terre and Portofino.

SWISS RIVIERA

A strip of towns from Lausanne to Montreux running along the shores of Lake Geneva.

ENGLISH RIVIERA

It might sound like a tautology, but there is an English Riviera, wrapping around the coast at Torquay and Paignton in Devon.

BUDVA RIVIERA

Keep travelling south from Dubrovnik and you enter Montenegro and its Budva Riviera, encompassing the town of Budva and spectacular Sveti Stefan island.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of UTracks and Rail Europe.

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

traveller.com.au/france

lamialiguria.it

frenchriviera-tourism.com

FLY

Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Nice and Genoa. See qatarairways.com

TOUR

UTracks has an eight-day self-guided Cycle Nice to Genoa trip from $2025 including hotels, bike, breakfast and luggage transfers each day. E-bikes are available for extra. A Rail Europe France-Italy Pass allows travel between towns along the ride and into Genoa. See utracks.com, raileurope.com.au

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