Italy


The bike tour I mentioned in an earlier post is now over and I’m back at home.

The brief recap: the tour had us cycling from Venice (actually very near Venice in the smaller outer town of Mira) to Konstanz, Germany. We headed north through Italy to Austria and then on to Germany.

If you only read this far, let me just say it was a wonderful bike tour through northern Italy and into Austria and Germany punctuated by just about every emotion you might want from a bicycle tour. From the exhilaration of descending mountain passes on winding roads in wonderful weather, to quiet scenic roads, to struggling up mountain passes when the wind was against you and it was starting to rain, to full on down-pouring rain, to some white-knuckled rides in what seemed to me to be some highly trafficked roads. Oh, and those dark tunnels… So, just about perfect! Just the diversion desired.

I typically have high hopes that I’m gonna post something here every day of such a bike tour but that ends up just not very practical. For one I tend to spend a fair bit of time digging through photos and finding links to things when I post and there’s just not time for that. I could adopt a different strategy and just make posts very short and sweet but I use Facebook and Instagram for that sort of stuff. The other primary reason is I’m just preoccupied. When you’re not cycling you’re either prepping to cycle or just enjoying yourself after cycling or with other tour participants.

And then practically, the wifi often sucks at many hotels and uploading photos or otherwise using the internet is marginal at best.

So, I’m gonna try to just summarize and then follow up with some other posts. Let’s see if I can get at least that accomplished.

See the map to get a better idea of the route covered:

This comes from combined Garmin data over 10 days of riding. If my Garmin data is reasonably accurate, we covered 462 miles and approx 42,500 feet of elevation (amount climbed in aggregate). Those are the major aggregate stats. Some days were harder than others based on factors of the day – heat, rain, steep climbs.

As you can see from the following elevation profile over the 462 miles, we climbed slow but sure from the coast of Italy and into the Dolomites. Those spikes in the overall profile were mountain passes we did along the way. It may not look like much in this context. Those spikes were a lot of work. 🙂

Hightlights

Wine & Food

What would a visit to Italy be without some good wine?

Right from the start, and particularly toward the end of the first day of riding we began to see vineyards. That first day’s route took us from from Mira to San Pietro di Barbozza. The photo below was taken from the hotel stay at the end of the ride. Beautiful wine country and home of very good Prosecco (sparkling) wines from the Valdobbiadene region. (DOCG wine designation.)

The forecast on that 1st real day of riding was for rain. Ugh! And not just rain but ‘thunderstorms’. But we (or rather, many of us) managed to avoid the rain on that day. The route was pretty flat and 86K so we made hay while the sun shined and even with a stop for lunch in one of the small towns along the way we were in by 1:30pm. But not 20 minutes later, I looked out and saw that the rain had started. And then it just unloaded and came down in buckets. Some folks on the ride got drenched. Not only was there a lot of rain, but the wind picked up and it became a raging storm for at least an hour.

That kind of rain forecast pretty much stuck with us for the entire 2 weeks. It might rain overnight or early and then there would be dry (enough) weather to take off and ride for most of the day. But by afternoon, there would be rain again. If you timed things right, you could miss the big rains.

Late in the day of that 1st day of riding the rain subsided and we walked to a tasting of some excellent Prosecco wines (a Brut, a Very Dry and a Dry). Suffice to say they were all very good but I was more fond of the first two. The 3rd starting to be just a little too sweet for my taste.

As we walked to dinner that evening at Trattoria alla Cima it started to rain again and by the time we were seated at the restaurant it was a raging storm again. Dinner though was top notch and just a ton of food. There was a plate of starters and then a course of pasta with mushrooms, followed by a course of wonderfully done beef with potatoes, eggplant and zucchini. I was stuffed after all that (I had seconds on the pasta!) but of course had to try some of the Tiramisu for dessert. It’s a good thing we had ridden 86K.

There would be other wine and great food along the way and not surprisingly the cycling made for good appetites and the freedom to eat whatever we wanted along the way.

Scenic Mountains & Climbs

It didn’t take long in the tour for the terrain to become much hillier and mountainous. That made for spectacular scenery and some choice mountain passes.

The photo you see here is from very early on in my climb up Passo Falzarego from Cortina, Italy. We have only just begun the climb but the views are great! The town you see in the valley in the photo is Cortina. Click through the links for more insights on both of these.

We woke to fantastic weather the morning we rode up the Falzarego pass. Nice temps and little chance of rain. An excellent day to make the climb.

You’ll find alongside a couple photos of me during the climb as well as at the top.

In my experience you need to bring enough gear and layers to account for both heat and cold and possibly wet weather. You can see here I’m wearing a jacket. Near and at the top, it was chilly! A key reason I have a rack on the back of my bike is to stow the extra layers.

On the climb up we were really sweating but with the temp plus the humidity early in the ride I could see my breath as I huffed and puffed up the climb.

At the top I donned leg warmers and thicker gloves for the descent. Without the jacket and other gear you can get really cold on these long descents at high altitude. Your hands can easily go numb since you’re constantly gripping the brakes and your hands are cold anyway.

It’s always nice to find a little bar/cafe at the top of such climbs. In this case I went in and had a coffee and a bottle of water. The tour guides in both cases took these pictures of me. They were also very conveniently along the route for refill of water — though on this particular climb there were places that would have been easy to stop for that.

There were other days of big climbs that followed. Not least of which was a couple of days later when we did a loop ride out of Corvara. We did 4 mountain passes that day: Gardena, Sella, Pordoi and Campolongo. Regarding the links, I think I have the directions correct for which way we went up the passes.

I already posted some pics and notes from that day in a Facebook album so I won’t repeat here. Click thru the link for more of that day.

What turned out to be the most challenging climb of the tour for me – and the group, judging by the sentiments expressed after the ride – was the day we climbed the Hahntennjoch pass in Austria.

I’ve included here the result of the Garmin data from that day. We spent the morning riding a pleasant bike route along the Inn River. Generally the morning was a flat route though we did have some wind in our face that day and it was warming up fast. By the time we’d covered 40 miles and stopped for a bite of lunch, it was getting just plain hot. The lunch break in Imst was helpful though for the calories because even before you leave the town you begin to climb and it gets steep right away. And then you climb for about 9 miles. As you can see in the speed graph, my pace really slowed down! Click for a more detailed climb profile.

The climb was steep and toward the top it began to rain and the wind picked up more. As you can see in the temperature graph in the image the temp really dropped as I approached the top. The Garmin recorded 50s (F) but it sure seemed chillier than that. But … wind and some rain.

Finally at the top, the descent down to the small town of Elmen was fantastic. At one point as we came out of the switchbacks I stopped to take a photo. (My bike is facing the opposite way I’m descending. You can see the road up ahead down below my vantage in the pic.)

Tour Participants

Aside from myself and a guy from Hong Kong, all the tour participants were from Australia. The tour idea originated from AllTrails in Australia hence the group dynamics.

You often spend breakfast, lunch and dinner with folks on such a tour so it’s great when you find folks you can easily get along with for that much time.

I tended to spend the most time with the three guys in the photo here. We rode at a close enough pace to one another that typically at coffee stops and lunch stops we’d grab a table together. From left to right in the pic: Antony (who took the photo — it was bright out so I think he’s struggling to see he’s got this photo framed right), then me, Peter, and Jeff. The waitress was a surprise addition to the photo since we were all looking the other way and she seemed to get a kick out of it.

We often ended up at dinner at the same table too. Antony was a wine fan and so we often went in halves on a wine for dinner.

Here’s the whole group:

From the left (and more for my memory than for you the reader) : Bob (from Tasmania), Lisa (tour guide), Jeff, Richard (owner/operator of AllTrails), Antony, me, Jo (married to Richard), Di, Peter, Jan, Mary, Tana (married to Bob), Barry, Percy (from Hong Kong).

Only three of us (Antony, me and Percy) signed up for just the 1st half of the tour to Konstanz. Everyone else (plus a rider that only joined the 2nd half) continued on to ride all the way to Paris.

I’ll finish this section with one last photo of the usual suspects taken by Antony. Half the fun of these group bike tours is after all the hard work of cycling you clean up and spend time socializing with the other folks on the ride. Stories of the day. Politics. The locals or tourists walking by. You name it, we probably talked about it. This shot was taken in the old town and after arrival in Innsbruck on a particularly warm day. We had to stay hydrated of course …

I’m backdating this post so it’ll be a little odd that I’m referencing a New York Times article “Venice, Invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea’” that was published in early August 2017, and yet I thought it better to date the post when I actually visited.

The NY Times article was, however, pretty interesting for perhaps no other reason than it highlights just how much of a tourist haven that Venice has become. And even more so because they refer to it as Disneyland. This was exactly my thought after arriving in the city. It’s just so picture perfect.

And speaking of pictures, I took many photos during my short 3 day stay in Venice but I have only posted 3 of my favorites here.

The top photo was taken late in the day from the Rialto Bridge. There are only four bridges across the Grand Canal and as you might imagine given the tourists they are all pretty heavily traveled. No doubt I had to almost muscle my way to the edge of the bridge to take this photo.

Despite the overall negative tone of the NY Times article and how the city is overrun with tourists, I still found the city an enchanting place to hang out for a few days. I arrived jet lagged to hang out before beginning a bike tour that would leave from very near the heart of the city. And yes, I did find the city crowded with tourists but having been to the city only once before – and back in the early 90s – I would have to say it didn’t seem any worse or different. On that particular occasion I was most certainly a day tripper arriving on the train from Milan. The city was jammed with people as I recall and it was the same this time.

That said, it was not hard to wander away from the main places like the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco and find that crush of crowds was diminished.

Case in point … The photo I have here of the gondolier rowing up one of the many side canals that are everywhere throughout the city. Note how few people are along the streets next to the this canal. You could find similar throughout the city. Quiet spots with wonderful views and sights to see.

Side note: I don’t know whether these two in the photo are coworkers or brother and sister or what but given the romantic nature of the moment they don’t appear to be “together”. They are about as far apart as you can get in a gondola. Maybe they had an argument earlier in the day … who’s to know? But to me the city seems to really be ideally suited to a romantic getaway. (You can shop till you drop too of course but the authentic feel of the buildings and canals still seems to suggest the reason you go is ideally suited to couples.)

If it had not been for the bike tour I was joining, Venice would probably not have been high on my list of destinations. It’s beautiful of course and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit but I’ve been once long ago – and half the charm is the city hasn’t changed all that much in centuries – and if I were to go again I’d rather have someone join me.

This next photo was taken from one of the Vaporetto that ply the Grand Canal day and night. You do get a sense of the tourist crowd on the Vaporettos for sure. These are basically water buses that go up and down the canal and they are very handy but also packed. It was standing room only and given the temp was quite warm I was fine with that because I would find a place up near the front of the boat to catch the breeze.

I liked this photo in part because of the reflected light but also the brisk business of restaurants and the gondoliers along the Grand Canal.

Thought I’d finish up this post with a few notes about logistics for a visit to Venice. If nothing else, I may be able to refer back to this if I ever plan to go again.

Years ago I had arrived by train. This time though I flew into the local airport. The airport is actually a pretty good distance from the old island city. You have options to get into the city but the main ones are to either to take the bus (low cost), take a regular taxi (car, mid cost) or to take a water taxi (high cost). There may be others … I used this website and found it to be very helpful.

After having traveled over night I was not interested in waiting whatever amount of time it might take for the bus into the city so I opted to take a taxi to the main jump off point of the city, Piazzale Roma. The buses arrive at the same place. And so do the trains for that matter.

If you bus or taxi the way I did to Roma you still have to make it to your hotel destination. There are again options but I simply chose to hoof it. The advantage of taking a water taxi from the airport is you would typically not have to worry about the 2nd leg. The water taxi could very likely take you within steps of your hotel. But it’s also probably > 100 Euro for the one way trip.

Traveling with bike gear – including a bike – I left almost all of it behind at the airport at “left luggage”. 7 Euro per bag for 24 hours. (2017 prices). Worth the cost. There’s absolutely no reason to take large luggage into the city of Venice. Travel as light as possible into the city. I took only a backpack and lived out of it for 3 days just fine.

One last note about traveling around once you arrive. The Vaporettos are so easy and so frequent you have to use them. Basically a bus on water, they allow for a multi day pass you can buy. Online notes like you find at http://europeforvisitors.com/venice/articles/buying-vaporetto-tickets.htm are great and yet what it doesn’t tell you is you can also avoid any lines to buy a ticket and just do it all online using a mobile phone app. I got the app and bought via it and never had a problem. The only tricky bit was that few of the many Vaporetto stations actually have a QR Code reader so you just get on the boat and ignore it. For those (main) stations that have a reader you just skip the line and hold your phone showing the code under the reader and the gate opens like magic. All aboard!

Around Christmas time I was pretty set on doing an interesting bike tour once summer rolled around. I found one that fit the ‘interesting’ criteria and where the timing would pretty well suit as well. And so, I’ve been trying to routinely ride since then. Nothing like planning a bike tour to motivate you to get out on your bike!

On many of my rides since Christmas I’ve had a Garmin device on the bike. Perhaps the majority of the rides – but not all of them. But I found it pretty interesting that the Garmin website had a calendar view that identified the days that you had logged a ride. You can see a screen shot of the calendar in this post.

Seems pretty clear that the time I get a chance to ride has mostly been on the weekends. But I’ve tried to step it up a bit and get in some mid week rides at the end of the work day as well. It’s been easier to do that after Daylight Saving Time kicked in, and while we haven’t gotten into the truly hot weather of central Texas.

If I can keep a similar routine up I hope it’ll make the tour more enjoyable.

I’ve mentioned many of the high points of my visit to Piedmont here already (though I may yet backdate another post or two for some specific things I never got around to commenting on) but at this point the visit there is done and I’m just trying to gather a few last notes.

For me, this was not a look at old historical things and museums and things like that. My visit to Turin was short and mainly transitional from one thing to the next in the area. I made the visit to Piedmont primarily because I wanted to bicycle there and I wanted to learn about and taste more of the wines of the region. In both cases, I found what I came for.

Whether they were places I found and arranged or places that were arranged by as part of the bike tour, I had fantastic hotels and B&Bs to stay. Similarly I managed to eat at some great restaurants. But I wanted to note two places in particular that were standout favorites for me in the event someone just happens by these notes and takes these as tips.

The first was my stay at Hotel Castello di Sinio. On top of being a beautiful place the service and food were perhaps some of the best I can recall. Driving in you have to buzz in at the intercom down below the castle. So they knew I was coming up. As I rounded the corner to the entrance I was met by a small team of people that greeted me and helped me with my bags, took my car to park it and helped check me in. Immediately someone handed me a glass of sparkling wine. And then Denise Pardini (who runs the place and is exec chef) walked me through some really helpful notes on the area. I really just can’t recall ever getting this kind of helpful and personal welcome anywhere.

I found this place via TripAdvisor. I otherwise didn’t know anything more about it. But if I have a good enough reason or chance, I’ll go back. Check out the rooms at this place. I had the “Superior Room No. 3”. Dinner there was by arrangement and appeared to be only for guests of the hotel. Similarly excellent. If the weather was good and the timing was right then breakfast was out in a patio area to the left in the photo. While you can’t see it, between those two buildings in the photo is a nice little pool.

And one final note on the hotel: when I got ready to leave they went and got the car for me, backed it up to the entrance and the guy cleaned the windows and mirrors before sending me on my way. Meanwhile Denise was there to say ‘so long’ and hand me some of the seasoned salt and honey she uses at the hotel. Seriously, I don’t think a hotel can do much better than this.

Ok now switching gears. I wanted to mention a restaurant. Now I’m not going to say it was better food than every other restaurant and certainly not that of the Hotel Castello di Sinio but it was great food and the service was also excellent. The place was the Da Felicin in Monforte D’Alba.

It was a bike tour group I was with that night and there were lots of choices and we weren’t really sure what to order. So here comes what I can only assume was Nino (see web site) to help us. Basically he said ‘just leave it to me’ and we did. He then essentially arranged a prix fixe menu of a set of appetizers and a main course + a nice (but not crazy expensive) Barolo to go along. All were good. Among the choices was a veal tartare. I’m not big on raw food of any kind other than vegetables but this was pretty darn tasty. I didn’t take photos of all the food served but I did of this one so I’m including it below. Sorry it’s half eaten. 😉 Taking food pics gets a bad rap these days but a picture is worth a thousand words so you’ll keep seeing them from me from time to time.

Ultimately I’d like to visit Piedmont again some time. I really enjoyed the small hill towns and the great little hotels and restaurants – not to mention some really great wines. I never ventured too far from home base in the heart of the Langhe so if I were to go again I might consider venturing to other places too. I might check out Asti. I might take a drive down to the coast. I purposely avoided that this time because past experience has suggested to me that trying to take in too much always has you on a timetable with no time to just relax and enjoy a place. The other interest I now have based on seeing just how close the alps are would be to explore the mountains near Turin.

As with most bike tours, you don’t really get a completely full week. It’s typically 6 days/5 nights and both the first and last days are somewhat abbreviated to account for transfers. This final 6th day of riding was one such day.

There were at least 7 of us that decided to ride the last morning – plus Alessandro, one of the tour leads. The rest were just enjoying the last bit of down time. Unlike previous mornings the ride was to get started at 7:45 instead of the usual 9am so that probably had something to do with it too. We needed to be packed to hit the road by 10:45 and the bus was going to leave at 11am so we didn’t have a lot of time to ride plus get some breakfast, shower up and pay any last minute bills from the night before. So, it was a quick out and back of just over 10 miles.

We were treated again to spectacular weather that morning and it was just cool enough that it felt great to be on the bike. Our turn-around was in a sleepy little town named Mango. We all stopped in a little coffee place there before heading back. Total elapsed time of the ride, even with the coffee stop, was just over an hour. And if you check out the elevation data for the ride you can see it was a lot easier heading back to the hotel than going to Mango, so it was a fast return trip.

After the ride, only time for a quick breakfast, a shower, and last minute packing before we were all loaded up for the bus ride back to Turin.

Everybody on this trip seemed to get along pretty well and mix together well. That’s not always true on these kinds of tours. And even though 6 of the people all came together they didn’t just hang together, and that was cool. In Turin it was handshakes and a few hugs and then like that, we all scattered to the four winds. Below is a good photo of the group right before one of the dinners. You can see everyone is having a good time.

And one last photo below of the vineyard hillsides as seen from the Relais San Maurizio. Couldn’t get enough of the vistas in Piedmont.

This would be the last day there’d be anything like a long option for riding. Typically Backroads gives people a few options and today was no exception and you could opt for a pretty short ride to a wine tour/tasting and picnic lunch (and then shuttle back in a van) or you could bolt on an extra loop in the morning to make it close to 30 miles before hitting the tour/tasting and lunch, and then if you felt like more riding, you could bike back to the hotel too. I took all the options and got in a pretty good ride with plenty of time left to just hang out at the pool for a while before a fantastic last dinner with everyone.

We lucked out again with the weather. At the end of the 4th day, we once again got just a little bit of rain. But by morning it was beautiful again and maybe even just a little chilly. The ride out to the winery/lunch + bolted on loop was a roller. If you look at the Garmin details by clicking thru the map, you can see we had plenty of ups and downs. After those first ~30 miles, I was ready for that picnic lunch despite having the usual bountiful breakfast options (which almost always included mounds of some local cheeses and meats). I shouldn’t have been hungry but the hills were a workout.

The wine tour and tastings at Marchesi Alfieri were pretty good. We did some other tastings during the bike tour but this was the only winery visit we made. After the winery tour they had us tasting three of their wines. 1st was a Barbara D’Asti (La Tota), the 2nd was their Barbara D’Asti Superiore (AlfierA) and the 3rd was a Nebbiolo from the Monferrato region (the Costa Quaglia).

The 1st Barbara was an easy drinking and fruity wine. Lots of dark fruit but not much structure to it. The Barbara Superiore really stepped it up a notch and according to the woman that helped us with the tour and tasting, it was their best wine. Lots more going on. Dark fruit but also notes of oak and spice and some tannins to give it a nice structure though not overly so. My fav of the three. The Nebbiolo was just so so. Too thin and light for my taste.

By the time we finished the tour/tasting and a picnic lunch we were well into the afternoon. These kind of plush events are nice but they do make it a little hard to get back on the bike.

The afternoon option for riding back to the hotel included a long, steep 5K+ climb. It had warmed up at that point and so it was long and winding enough to having me wondering “ok, when’s this uphill going to end?”. But, I was back by 4’ish and out to lounge by the pool for a bit. We had plenty of time till dinner (meeting at 7:30’ish).

The restaurant at the hotel was said to be a Michelin rated though I couldn’t find evidence of that online nor in evidence at the restaurant. But in any case, it was really quite good and I liked the old wine cellar setting. The wine list was a thick as the phone book of a sizable town. They started us with some snacks and then moved to (at least for me) a big green salad. I then moved on to the primi course of risotto and finished with a main of some beef that I’d characterize more like really tender roast beef. I should have taken a snap of the menu to be more exact than that but that’s the quick and dirty.

At the end of day 3 we were treated to a big thunderstorm. It even hailed pretty hard nearby based on the iPhone video of it we saw from one of the women on the bike tour. Thankfully we had finished riding hours earlier and had even managed to squeeze in some hunting for truffles with one of the locals and his dog Jolly. I’ll post some photos of that separately. But the good news was it left a stunningly clear morning sky that let us get a good view of the alps in the distance from our vantage at the top of the hillsides.

The alps are a little hard to make out in the photo here so it doesn’t quite do the view that morning justice. Suffice to say it was hard to take our eyes off the horizon while we headed toward our next stay at the Relais San Maurizio later in the afternoon.

Once again I took the long option that day. (In fact I took them every day.) It took me down to Dogliani and then north to Neive for lunch. It included a sizable climb! I could have optioned to ride into Barbaresco first but I’d gone there the previous week and by the time I got there I was ready for lunch so I just headed directly to Neive. While I’d stopped in Neive the previous week, this time I got a chance to try a great little lunch spot right in the center of town. We were on our own for lunch on this day and it turned out most of us stopped in La Contea. I got a pasta dish with tomatoes and basil. Not chunks of tomatoes, but instead a light tomato sauce. Really good! Lunches here and especially at this restaurant tend to be lengthy. We settled in for a while. I joined Catherine and Jim that day and they were very nice to share some of their fresh fried mushrooms (which were fantastic!) and not only that, they picked up the check. Thanks again Jim and Catherine.

Following a long lunch with a big helping of pasta plus bread plus mushrooms plus a nice glass of Arneis it was a little tough to mount the bike and keep riding but it wasn’t too far at all before we landed at the Relais San Maurizio.

Suffice to say the Relais San Maurizio is a very nice place to stay. All of the places were nice but of the 3 stays we had during the tour this one just nudged the 1st stay at Palazzo Righini out by a nose. Both places were top notch. The 2nd stay at Boscareto Resort & Spa was nice too but by comparison the food and service at the other places were head and shoulders above it.

The end of the 4th day of cycling came with plenty of time to just settle in and enjoy the place. The weather was nice and they had both an indoor and an outdoor pool and it seemed pretty clear most of us decided to opt to head for the outdoor pool to catch some rays, cool off in the water and just enjoy the pretty hillside views. You can see what I mean in the photo below.

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