Cycling Italy 🇮🇹 

Pazin- Trieste (90km)

Breakfast in Croatia, lunch in Slovenia and dinner in Italy!
Cycling the last 40 kilometres out of Croatia marked the end of our first trip of many to this amazing country situated in the middle of the Med. The detailed archipelago has so much to explore that you would need to take months to do it even a little bit thoroughly. We constantly rank the transport options while riding; watching people in their various forms of transport pass through our world. So after many hours of pondering, I don’t mean to preach but biking is the hands down winner for exploring this part of Europe. You feel every turn, smell every change in the atmosphere, stop at random places when you’re exhausted and drink beer but stay fit. It’s the bestest (except when going up gut retching hills, through industrial areas or hungover). Coming in behind the royal bicycle; b) moped c) motorbike d) train e) van f) caravan g) car.
So we left Pazin in Croatia, following a thick fog out of the mountains on almost off-road pathways suggested to us by the Lovac hotel owner. Because the directions are never as straightforward as they might sound, we did a few extra kilometres to get to the border of Slovenia, where the rain started patting us on the shoulders and giving us a friendly escape from the heat, allowing us to ride all day. It was amazing momentum with the wind and the rain and the swooping roads with traffic that are well and truly used to bicycles, we could have ridden through the Slovenian section in a couple of hours if we didn’t stop for homemade gnocchi with shaved local truffles and red wine (Marie had the truffle goodness, I’m a poor student so I had the less appetising sounding fish soup). It was a lovely half day in Slovenia, and when the restaurant owner told us about a full blown cycle path all the way to Trieste on the border of Italy, I think we fell in love with the country (see picture below). So we zoomed along this gorgeously green path, passing umbrella clutching walkers and dainty towns with their compulsory church in the middle of each. Looking over at the highways, we couldn’t contain our happiness with this lovely little path. And then it stopped. It was kind of a maze to follow in the first place, and the next thing we knew, we were faced with one of the biggest auto strahns yet, but couldn’t see another option. We decided to just illegally ride on it, an I gulped hard when the beeps started coming and one man even turned his head right around and slow motion wagged his finger at us in the most unstilling way, just like the little boy I tried to wave over to come and see a stick insect I found the other day. We kept on going and came to what looked to me like the tunnel to hell, which was accompanied by lots of extra beeps. We weren’t allowed to go in the tunnel, but the road on our side had a neon cross on it to stop cars, so we took it on, and with my stomach in an impossible knot, we kept going until we found an exit off this massive highway with the obsessive Italian cyclist nazis. We have ridden on lots of big roads, but never been beeped so incessantly to get off! We somehow found our way in Trieste while trying to get out of it, and we are so glad we did. The city is an enormous realm of pastel buildings with the most delicate decorative work. It was like riding in some sort of Italian New York, with our eyes bulging from architecturally scenic overload. We found an apartment on the strand and walked the cobblestone streets until our calves begged for a break, stopping for the bright orange spritz that accompanies every elegant hand in the trendy outdoor bars of the city. We skipped dinner and ate tiramisu and chocolate soufflé in a proper Italian restaurant while talking to a balding man enjoying every course of his dinner like it was a last supper and he gave us tips on where to stay near Venice between slurps and bites. Tiny fluffball dogs on leads prance along side perfectly made wedges and loafers belonging to their equally strutting owners. Delis with four hundred types of salami and cheese hanging from the window and houses with carefully placed bunches of flowers swaying from high windows fill my vision. By crossing an imaginary line in the ground, we have truly entered another world!

Diary 20

Trieste- Venice – Padova 140km
Italy has been a pretty wild ride so far. I have gathered that nobody gives much care about distance or time, hence the road signs that say Venice 100km followed by Venice 112km. I swear I’m not going crazy because Marie sees them every day as well, tricking our little legs into further punishment than excepted. After a month on a bike it would be possible to start going a bit mental, but I am still loving it thanks to the diversity of the European culture. Leaving Trieste, I raced with cyclists on the coast, asking their preferences on the road to take to Venice. We stopped at cafés and ate huge, flaking crossoints with lashings of oozing dark chocolate and drank coffee smoother than silk. I have developed a pretty annoying cold, so I can’t wait to try all of this again once I can taste and smell properly in a few days. We pushed out the ks while freezing our pins off in the sudden temperate change that all of the holiday makers on the beaches who paid handsomely for their sun drenched Mediterranean experience are complaining about. Crops constantly fill the roadside, with vineyards growing in mathematical equations of lines and perfect circles playing games with my eyes, framed by snow splattered and imposing alps far beyond them in northern Italy. I hope they are far away from us anyway! We are heading straight across Italy because going the long way down would be beautiful but I have to be in Barcelona by the 6th of September to go to Uni in Madrid on the 8th. We are cutting time fine as it is, but it is kind of helpful to have a goal to aim for or you would spend eons going round and round and up and down. But is that such a bad thing? The other day we met a guy who has been in Europe since April and has clocked up 7000 km of cycling in a specific few countries of Southern Europe. Woah.
Late afternoon we arrived in a large town called Latisana, which we originally thought was far enough out of Venice to have reasonable priced hotels. They were like 75 euro, so we jumped on a train with a lot of effort finding the right carriage to put a bike in and went straight into the thick of it, locating a place only ten minutes from Venice itself for just 60 euro! We scrubbed the grease off our arms and legs and set off into the magical city, which I visited the same time of year on my round the world trip two years ago for one very memorable day. We met some Italian boys on a road trip of Europe and they dragged us around the city in the night light, pointing out the best places and giving us a run down of the country’s history without taking a breath. We crossed tiny bridges at leopards pace, catching a glimpse of the moon glow reflecting in every ripple, the royal gondolas parked on the side to rest after a big day of being abused by sweaty tourist bottoms. When we couldn’t keep up with the boys anymore, we broke free for some crazy priced pizza perched at an outdoor table and dreamily watched as the world of Venice revolved around us. Crashing at midnight, we woke for another day in Venice by daylight. Feeling free in our silk dresses, we clearly forgot we are cycling for seven weeks and went on a bit of a shopping spree, decking ourselves out for the cities of Paris which we will soon be gracing. It was a beautiful morning, scrunching up the useless map in the wild maze of walking streets, and just allowing ourselves to get lost and found by tiny trattorias, unused bridges, tucked away coffee shops and then once again on the tourist path of high end fashion, souvenirs, murano glass and Venetian masks that sprawl out into the streets. Street sellers from the international community have made their way into the tourist bubble to sell toys, rip off Gucci and roses, the homeless beg on their knees and Ralph Lauren models watch silently from double glass windows. We are a funny bunch says Marie. I couldn’t agree more, but the romanticism of the old city hasn’t faded, regardless of the water seeping in and pee stained alleyways. We left the city on major highways, Marie’s sunscreen dropping out of her panniers and smashing white on the road for the second time on the trip. Someone clearly wants her to get a tan. The highways quickly dissipated and we found ourselves brushing alongside corn fields and castles once again. The extravagant houses really blow my mind, with a casual Grecian statue straight from the realms of heaven hanging in the front yard next to the dog. We rode 50ks and found ourselves on another disgusting auto Strahn somehow, praising the world when a man have us directions to the local hostel in big city Padova. We drank in the huge cobblestone square, in a massive conversation about anthropology until we realised we had to get back to the hostel for the very strict 1130pm curfew!

Diary 21

Padova- Ostiglia 110km – San Guirmio 120km
Oh northern Italy! This morning we left the ancient monastery we stayed at after stumbling upon it in the dark last night and have continued riding through seamlessly breathtaking narrow farm roads. While our legs knowingly revolve, charcoal painted river birds take off in lazy slow motion. Stark white birds that I swear are the ones that carry the baby elephants in Dumbo stretch their long limbs after hiding from the lightning storm last night. Farm houses covering their naked brickwork structure with long and sprawling hands of moss sit away from the road. At one stage we found ourselves off-road in the backyard of an abandoned farm, lavender and mauve growths tickling our ankles while we tried to stay upright on the grassy path. One bird has been following us our whole way through Italy, singing ‘woohoo’, an external voice to express my internal frame of mind. The smell of sun charred corn, pungent fertilisers and churned earth mix in our nostrils. Hay bales are scattered across the paddocks like a cinnamon log cake has been sliced into generous quarter tonne slices. Old castles vulnerable to the relentless force of time fade in and out of our vision. It feels like we are in some sort of whimsical film set, but this is real life. And it’s really wonderful.
The long series of events which led us to staying in an old monastery involves the help of countless strangers, and that’s what I will focus on explaining. It all started on our way out of Padova while decked out in rain jackets and cycling through a maze of streets looking very unsure about our direction. A bearded man in a white Fiesta stopped and decided to donate half an hour of his life to helping two australian bikelysts make the most of their day in the Northern Italian region of Veneto. We told the Italian cyclist our plans and he got out a big map and unfolded it in the rain while we all squinted in geographical and linguistic confusion. He then changed tac and jumped in his car, telling us to follow. He slowly drove through small streets and led us to a cycling track on the edge of a great river, which has become our friend and guider over the last few days. He left us with a big wave and countless tips on where to find more cycling paths. We managed to lose it pretty quickly and fell back onto the roads, making sure to keep the mountains on our left. We passed through carbonara, making our stomachs grumble and then another town called cannelloni made the situation even worse. It seems like when we are really hungry, food isn’t that easy to come by. On another cycling track, we were guided by a tanned, older Italian man in a wife beater singlet who rode with us toward este, speaking to us in Italian the whole way. We nodded and smiled and left him with more good wishes. Then three pro cyclists turned up behind us and were eager to find out about our trip. I got red cheeks and puffed all the oxygen out of my quads keeping up with these speedsters for 10 kilometres. Or maybe I got red cheeks because the tattooed one with blazing green eyes wearing the Olympic cycling shirt was so drop dead. We ate four euro pistachio icecream in the romantic walled city of Este and headed south west, kind of winging it and hoping there would be some accomodation for the night. The roads became large scale agricultural areas, with overloaded trucks dropping tomatoes and corn kernels while they zoomed around us. A pair of Moroccan boys guided us on their bicycles toward a hotel, but we didn’t like the look of it and pushed out another hour to our temporary home in Ostiglia. The most gorgeous host at the hotel gave us some incredibly helpful cycling tips and showed old pictures of his mother who once lived in Australia. He never stopped squeezing my cheeks and holding my face the whole time. We chatted to his daughter in Scotland on Skype, because that’s just the kind of thing you do when you are one of the rare Australian cyclo-tourists staying in a random town in the middle of Italy. On our way out the next morning, I went wild with excitement to see the very first eurovelo 8 sign on the trip. The eurovelos are supposedly cycle paths all across Europe, which they are trying to establish by 2020. It only took 2000km and 5 countries to know I’m on the right path. We ended up going a different way to what the arrow suggested anyway, because we make our own tracks. Another day of awesome assistance, we zoomed along the bike paths alongside the Fiume Po (river) and were met with friendly smiles and directions from cyclists and pedestrians, cafe owners and men playing cards. In the middle of the day after taking a few wrong turns, two cyclists took us under their wing. Literally. One said ‘hey girls, where are you going? We are going that way too. Hitch behind me for 30ks in my slipstream because it’s my 52nd birthday today and I feel like taking it easy’. We followed this legend sitting on a casual 28km an hour in the wind pull of his powerful frame, admiring the countryside along the way, and watching his hand signs to warn about potholes or turns. Buzzing with the day, our empty stomachs screamed for food, but it seems that the Italians have a very extended afternoon siesta. Even major supermarkets close! Marie was looking wobbly from starvation, so we found a cafe and ate crossoints stuffed with salad and poured on pesto I bought earlier. I saw signs for the eurovelo 8 and was adamant to follow them for a while- lucky my partner in crime is pretty chilled and compliant with my whims, even when we were completely off-road but I thought it could link up again. We laughed our way through paddocks and arrived in colorno at nightfall. A huge castle appropriately named Marie Louise made us want to stay there, but the accommodation options were horribly limited. When we rode 3 ks out of town on a highway and found a grumpy old woman in a road house charging 60 euro for a room and no food, I couldn’t handle it. We went back to colorno to see our new friends at the cafe we had been riding past back and forth trying to find a place to sleep. They welcomed us with free beer and then set on a mission to find another hotel for us. Lots are closed because it’s such a wet summer. At 830 we set off with very hazy heads and directions to look for some old monastery in the middle of nowhere. We absolutely did not find it, and started to get concerned. But then another saviour came into view- a man sitting out the front of his house who just seemed to be waiting for two lost girls to come along. Ivan Milat style? No! He got in his car and told us to follow him in the dark along completely abandoned roads and farmland for about four kilometres. As bugs smashed into our faces we realised we had buckleys of finding this alone, and we thanked the man with offers to come and stay at our homes back in Australia. We looked up at the massive castle that was to be our home for the night, and a young girl showed us to our room. I knew it was extra nice because they had full sized towels, not the flea sized ones that the rest of Europe has been offering. We came out to the dining room to our spread of Parmesan (direct from the city of Parma a few ks down the road), local ham, bread, oil, balsamic, cherries and chocolate. We were literally the only people staying in the monastery, because it is currently closed! Those men at colorna really helped us out. And normally they wouldn’t open their kitchen unless it was for a party of over 25, but we sat there just the two of us and enjoyed every last crumb. Breakfast was almost embarrassing. I woke to two joyful spoodles wanting pats and stick throws, and we said goodbye to the high walled castle complex to continue on our mind blowing journey.

 

Diary 22

San Guirmio – Padagasca 105km – Bobbio 55km
Holy guacamole we have just seen the sweet sweet salty water of the coast… Which means we have just crossed goddamn Italy, topped with the Appenino mountain range to finish it off! The inland experience was great, but I really do adore the ocean and the simple geographical skills required to follow it. Being next to the big blue makes me feel alive, regardless of how dead my quadriceps might feel.
Leaving the monastery and riding in a dream bubble of farmland and butter field induced calmness for most of the day, we really pushed ourselves with distance. A beautiful bike track at the end of the day took us a (very long) scenic route, following the Fiume Po. Looking up at the succulent cumulus clouds with rays of sunshine extending down to us like an elevator to heaven, I did what I always do and got my camera out of the little front pouch to take a picture. But somehow I fumbled it and dropped the shockproof Lumix. My camera is a cat with nine lives but I just dropped it for the tenth and it is now kaput. Marie has also killed her iPhone and I have a big crack in the screen of mine, so we are on a warpath with technology. I forgot about my sadness pretty quickly when we rolled into a tiny village that very unexpectedly had a hostel with English/Italian owners. We sat down and were given champagne by a boisterous American Englishman with a house in Italy, 67 year old Dave. Dave was pretty tanked on this champagne already, and his cheeks flushed and saliva splattered as he played the guitar and sang for us. Another Italian man sat on my left, his eyes burning a hole in my side and saying ‘Bella’ every time Marie or I looked at him. After a few glasses of bubbles, we decided to float (thanks to the champas) through town and escape the paws of these gorgeous but overly keen male kind and find some sustenance. We found more than that in our ricotta and spinach tortelli with butter and sage followed by thinly sliced rare veal soaked in black truffle oil. It cost more than my bed for the night but we were onto the red so couldn’t care less. The daughter of the hostel owner was out at the restaurant and began to introduce us to friends. Then the whole village started to get to know us, and we were driven to the next equally tiny village to have drinks with somebodies extended family. My eyes were little tiny red slits by this stage. I was contemplating the cold concrete under the table and weighing up the sleepability. But we weren’t even close to bed yet. We were zoomed back to a pub called Waldo’s and met more friends of friends and ended the night with Robbie Williams karaoke and magnums. It was So. Much. Fun.
But these fun times have their consequences. Yesterday I felt like someone had reached inside my thighs and squeezed so tightly on the tendons and ligaments and glands that no blood could get through, and it was all swirling around extra thick and poisonous in my beating head and chest. It’s normally called a hangover. But it’s not normally accompanied with 60kms of cycling after a few thousand in the weeks prior. Oh my god it was the hardest day of the entire trip so far. I said to myself ‘alcohol never again’. After spending a few hours getting our bikes serviced for next to nothing by the Orsi bike boys in San Nicola and receiving their free cycling tops, we rode 5ks down the road for a gelato. As usual, a couple of nice men started talking to us in Italian and we did the head nod and smile thing. Next minute we had two champagnes in front of us and it wasn’t even twelve, AND I had just given up alcohol for life. I downed it anyway – just like that time I was going to be a vegetarian but we had a BBQ for lunch- and we pawed through an atlas with our drink donators before setting off through the mountains towards Bobbio while I rode like a paralysed snail. Poor Marie was pretty sensible the night before and had to deal with my ridiculous pace and exhaustion. I begged to find a tree and nap, so we did just that on a dried up river bed while looking up at the small but dramatic town of Travo. Italy does dramatic pretty well in general. Not just the architects but the natural world is in on it as well. We slept the night in ancient Bobbio, struggling to find accommodation because of a local film festival. We got ripped off in our farmhouse cross hotel so we decided to make the absolute most of our French provincial bed, buying olives and Philadelphia and stealing some breadsticks from downstairs and then picnicking in bed followed by a crucial ten hour sleep.

Diary 23

Bobbio – Genova 95km
Crossing the Appenino mountain range in Northern Italy
I am perched at an outdoor cafe listening to someone play the violin and watching hoards of people slowly wonder through the Sunday art and craft markets of savona, 45 km north west of Genova. It is such a cafe culture, where designer dogs and city bicycles join the crowds on the pavements to assess their peers. Cafe smoke and coffee beans fill the air in the majority of the cities, which is not very welcoming after the delightful vanilla oxygen while riding the coast.
We left Bobbio early yesterday morning and rode through the vast green valleys, following a shallow river to our left. Crossing the appeninos has been something I have been contemplating since Australia. It’s the only really obvious mountain range on the whole trip, and I was looking at all the ways to go across it, whether it would be too tough, how other people have negotiated it etc. So here we were at the base of this huge range, well rested and rearing to take on the steepest mountains that out bikes could keep two wheels on the ground. We got to a place for some compulsory crossoints and the rain started, joining the wind smashing against us to make it all more dramatic, Italian style. We rode at a steady pace, continually rising but then falling back down to the river, expecting to cross one of the giants to our left and right very soon. We pulled into a small village after maybe 30 ks and were informed that we were already at the highest point of the appeninos. What!!!?? We climb more difficult mountains than these on a daily basis! Marie and I hugged and shivered our way back onto the bikes, and that’s when the rain really began pelting. I felt the water creep it’s way down my ankles and underneath the sole of my foot, making a warm slosh with each revolution. I loved the adventuressnous of it all, but Marie pulled me up and said we should stop because it’s unfair to drivers who can hardly see the road as it is. It was on and off like this for a while, so we stopped at a dangerous portion of road and tried our luck with hitchhiking. Who wouldn’t want to pick up two drenched, mouldy Aussie girls and their mud splattered bikes and panniers?! Not many people actually. I stood there with a huge smile and my thumb out while a ute went past and hit just the right puddle to splash my entire body. Marie was watching me from under a tree and was in stitches. We gave up on numerous occasions and just kept riding the 100km to Genova through these beautiful mountains. We went into hysterics on this wild weather day, and stopped for a huge plate of steaming pasta mid afternoon. We had been talking about all the kinds of soups and hot food we had been craving all morning, so it was a pretty blissful experience. The rain cleared after that and the strangest thing happened. We rode downhill for like 25 kilometres. Huge, sweeping speed demon downhill. We felt like we didn’t deserve this incredible experience, but I guess it means we have been riding up a lot while going across Italy. We rolled into Genova without breaking a sweat, and I felt like it was a huge milestone to cross Italy from coast to coast on the fat northern part. I may as well be in Spain already! We have 1000ks to go and 12 days to get there, so say some prayers for us that Pos and the Phantom survive the ride smoothly.
Genova was a lot more dodgy than I remember when I visited it two years ago. We got lost in the maze of narrow streets that are dark because of the huge buildings that tower over you, and walked past busty girls in see through slinky white dresses and see through slinky white g strings. Hare Krishna danced in the main square and building after intricate building made our jaws drop. We ate our typical hazelnut gelato in front of the big fountain to finish off our experience with this major coastal port.

 

Diary 24

Genova- Alassio 93 km
One of my favourite moments on the entire trip occurred yesterday. It involved a white 1.5m cubed plastic jetty floating on the milky blue rolling ocean and some perfect sunshine and mountains to frame my vision when I bothered to open my eyes while laying on that pontoon and while my real world thoughts were washed away with each wave like butter melting in a pan. Our hair snaked out in knotted tendrils and the grease on our limbs accumulated water beads while Marie and I had this tiny white island to ourselves for eternity. People tried to climb on and somehow failed; the beach was so packed with bodies and beach umbrellas and noise that we couldn’t understand why the hoards weren’t attacking us for the floating piece of paradise which seemed a world away from the human chaos, rather than fifty metres. My dream man would build me a white jetty on my own secluded beach and we would live on it happily ever after with a Cavalier King Charles.
So the ride from Genova to Alassio was incredibly coast hugging. We smiled with joy while weaving under rocks which threatened to drop with a deadly thud at any moment. They even had big nets above the road at some stages, further encouraging ideas about getting squashed. The coast is a constant frenzy of holiday makers and hotels- no wonder the inland was so quiet, the whole country have escaped to the sun drenched costa! And sunny it is. It is once again so hot that I catch myself looking at the succulent leaves of particular trees and bushes and thinking about how bursting with liquid they are. And then my serious voice comes in and tells me not to be jealous of plants and to drink some goddamn water. It’s really hot.
We stopped at a few different Sunday markets and committed one of the ultimate cyclo-tourist sins. We bought shoes. Not just thongs or sandals but full blown, gorgeously soft brown leather, cork soled wedges. This is a big no-no on an already overloaded bike, but we egged each other on and now we are facing the consequences of not being able to fit any snacks in our panniers. The sacrifices we make. It didn’t seem so hard in Albania or Croatia but the Italians are just so goddamn stylish and we are just so drab! I might feel like this as a result of wearing the same dresses for over thirty days, and maybe even more so from wearing my super elegant leopard print tights day in and day out. Anyway, we have shoes now so we should fit right in.
After riding through landscape impossible to get tired with, we eventually settled on a place to stay about 6pm. What we didn’t realise is that it’s one of the ritziest Italian resort towns on the coast. The two star hotels are 100 euro a night, and we would both rather spend our pennies on some mouthwatering gastronomical goodness than a bed you aren’t even awake to enjoy. While painting our toenails steel blue sitting on one of thousands of beach chairs that line sand, we made a decision to sleep there for the night. Glamming up with our new heels and cute dresses by doing the sneaky shimmy in an alleyway next to our bikes, we left Pos and the Phantom and strutted along the corso. Chandeliers hang in outdoor restaurants, bottles of Moët and Chandon are put out on tables for fun, and the clothes walking around possess unimaginable price tags. We were in it, and we were about to get better ocean views than all the people in their Hilton hotels. After dinner we realised the entire beach was lit up, presumably discouraging dirty, law breaking squatters. But we searched hard with our tired eyes and found a dark place. Someone had also conveniently left their blow up beach mattresses just for our added comfort! We walked back to the bikes and put on all the clothes we could, walking as inconspicuously as possible with silk liners and roll up mattresses in our arms and looking like Eskimos in layers of jumpers. We kind of lost it with the giggles and the irony of the money we were walking past. In their wildest dreams they would never imagine sleeping on the beach, so why would they think we were about to?! Especially not while we were wearing our super trendy Italian wedges. We settled into our super cheap beds and slept like babies with full bellies. Definitely contemplating buying one of those mattresses to replace mine at home. I woke up this morning and jumped in the ocean at sunrise to celebrate our final day in Italy!

 

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