Travel


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 …

After my recent bike tour I spent a few days in Lucern, Switzerland. Or, as my title would suggest: Lucerne or Luzern. The city names all seem to be interchangeable and it all depends on what you’re reading. The train station is ‘Luzern’ and that’s pretty official! Google maps will find them all.

The photo I put at the top is one among my favs of my short visit but I must have taken hundreds between the lake view and the mountain hikes and in between. This shot was taken from the back of one of the many tour boats that ply the lake all day long. The gulls like to follow them as the boats take off and churn up the water.

I have made a short visit to Lucern in the past but it was long ago. Almost 20 years ago. What I remembered was that it was a very beautiful spot and so I wanted to return for a short stay before heading home via Zurich, an hour away.

My hotel stay for the duration turned out to be just right for me. I snagged the photo of the hotel along the way. When I say ‘just right’ it turned out to have some things that I really liked: first among them was that I could drive up and park right next to it since I had a car, and they had parking. Then (as planned) I had booked a lake side room and even though the [single] room was ridiculously small it had all I needed AND the little balcony. I could sit for hours just having the door open to that balcony and watch the world below go by. The weather changed by the minute. The boats came and went. So despite the crackerbox room, the ability to enjoy the view from that perch was worth the 4-star price of admission.

On my first full day in Lucern I was up early and arranged to make my way to nearby Mt Rigi. The plan was to get to the top while the morning sun was still allowing great views and then hike.

I chose to take advantage of the well established tourist route to the top of Rigi: I booked a round trip via the Vierwaldstättersee to the top of Rigi. What that implied was the following itinerary: 1st, that you take a lovely boat ride down the lake to Vitznau and from there, a cogwheel train up to the very top of Mt Rigi at around 5900 ft above sea level.

One of the photos I have here is of the gondola ride back down later. It’s stunning to me the height at which you descend. I have no idea how high up it is but let’s just say I’m thrilled that it was in a glassed in gondola and not just open to the air. It’s frighteningly high.

Once at the top I chose to hike for a good chunk of the way back down. It’s not surprisingly very pretty. And based on the rains that seem to come a bit every day, very verdant. There were also lovely flowers clinging to the rocky mountain trail. I don’t know the names of these but I loved the blue ones I have posted here.

There were many flowers along the way. The ones above and the one I have below were just a couple of the many along the trail back down. These are just a couple of my favs.

Choosing to take the cogwheel trail all the way to the top and then hike down is, trust me, a winning strategy. It’s a long way up! (i.e. aroudn 5900 feet) and to walk up would be interesting for sure but also a big undertaking. Keep in mind I’d just finished a bike tour. The hiking I factored in could be classified as ‘easy’ hiking.

Toward the very top of Rigi I encountered these cows just off the trail. Most of the cows you saw along the trail were in distance so these so close were pretty cool.

Many of the cows wear a big bell around their neck. I’m not sure why it’s not all of the cows but it definitely seems to be only some of the cows. Anyway, it makes a lotta noise! For people like me that don’t hear this often it’s kinda charming. But between the cow bells and the church bells ringing through the day in this neck of the woods you’d hard pressed not to have bells ringing in your head day and night. As enjoyable as it is as a tourist I gotta figure the locals just tune it out – but I’m sure it does serve a purpose for finding these critters up in the mountains.

I took a similar day hike up a different mountain on another day after this one and may post some of those photos and notes too but the full day on Rigi is one not to be missed if the weather allows it!

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.

The only time I go out of my way go to Las Vegas is when there is a work related event there. The glitz of Las Vegas can be fun to look at but there’s something very unnatural about Vegas. I suppose that’s an understatement. This glitzy place with large water attractions like the one at the Bellagio and yet it’s right in the middle of the desert.

Regardless, it’s very photogenic and can be a fun place to wander the streets with a camera in hand. Over three nights while there I snapped the photos I’ve posted here. If you follow my Instagram account I posted these there but thought I’d capture some notes about them here as well.

Elvis and his dancing girl were standing on the street outside Caesar’s Palace and begging for attention. Quite literally. For a tip each they were happy to give me a great pose and show those great pearly whites. I really liked how this one turned out, considering how quickly it all transpired. There was not much setup time here. Just a few seconds. It was probably 40 degrees out there at that point so I’m not sure how long they were on the street. Probably not too long.

The black and whites below were each taken on separate nights on different sections of the strip.

The ballerina was all alone and had some music playing but was otherwise seemingly oblivious to passersby. But she was actually a pretty good dancer. I took several shots but this one turned out the best. She wasn’t in this pose but for an instant. And I was lucky to have so little traffic in the background.

The cowboy accordian player was on one of those pedestrian bridges over the street and between hotels. He had a tip basket out and I passed him twice – once going and later returning. On the return trip I tipped him and asked if I could take his picture. As you can see he agreed but he also asked me where I was from and then immediately broke into “Deep in the Heart of Texas” on his accordian.

The last guy with the guitar was out there a couple nights in a row on the bridge between Caesar’s and the Bellagio. I think I tipped him both times I walked by him. He was pretty good. I snagged this shot that second night I saw him out there.

These were some of the interesting people on the strip in the evenings that seemed very approachable. At other times – and particularly very early in the morning – there were some really sketchy people out there. They probably wouldn’t have been too happy with me taking their photo – and I was conference bound anyway.

I did leave Vegas though with the thought it’d be fun to go back and spend more time with the camera and on the streets there, seeing what I might be able to capture.

 

Day 3 had doing a loop ride out of Rocamadour and then right back to stay at the same hotel as day 2.

The weather and the riding on the routes in this area were again fantastic and especially in the morning.

The photo at the boulangerie (bakery) was a particularly fun little stop in the morning. Nothing fancy, just some good coffee and a croissant. That’s Jim on the left there, me on the right.

By mid day we had arrived at a planned activity for the day and that was a visit to Gouffre de Padirac. Quite touristy but also actually pretty cool – quite literally. You descend into this giant hole in the ground to find some spectacular caverns and an underground river. And, it was much cooler down there than up top so I was glad that we had been given a heads up to bring something more to wear. I was also glad to not be in cycling shoes down there. It’s wet, its slippery and you actually do quite a bit of walking up and down stairs.

You’re prohibited from taking photos while on the tour (though that has to be hard to police and I saw more than 1 tourist being admonished) so consequently I don’t have any to post here. I would suggest instead you check out the official website.

The darker evening photo was taken from our terrace dinner location back in Rocamadour. Rocamadour is pretty small. There where other restaurant options but many of us – based on recommendation – opted to eat again at the same terrace restaurant we had been at the night before. Food was again good – I got the duck. The most enjoyable part though was simply being able to dine outdoors in what amounted to room temperature. It was really perfect weather to be outdoors in the evening.

I’d be remiss while I jot notes about Rocamadour if I didn’t also mention the cheese I ate at every opportunity while visiting. I’d never actually heard of it before the visit but the 1st night it was served as part of the dessert courses and then I noticed it was available (along with some meats/cheese) at breakfast the next morning. It was rather aptly named Rocamadour Cheese and was a little goat cheese served in a small flat and round shape. I’ll look for it around here in Austin but I don’t expect to find it. I did, however, find it in other nearby towns. In fact, I bought some more in the town of Sarlat, which would be our next destination.

One last photo. This one was taken from my hotel room window just about sunrise as we prepared to head out and ride to our next destination.

From Rocamadour

Day 2 had us heading off from Brive to the little village of Rocamadour.

Check out the link to read more about Rocamadour but as you can see from the photo it’s a beautiful little town tucked into the limestone cliffs. As you can also see, the weather we had that day was spectacular. Warm but not hot – at least by Texas standards for the time of year.

The route from Brive to Rocamadour was in my opinion outstanding. While there’s undoubtedly some troublesome traffic to endure as you leave the center of Brive, once you’re out on the rural roads it was quiet, quaint, rolling and picturesque.

Not far out of Brive we had a pre-arranged visit planned at a little farm and bakery. Had this not been pre-arranged it would have been very easy to simply roll by just another farm. But having pulled in, we were directed into a little barn and inside was the owner of the farm/bakery was a big wood fired oven and a whole lot of loaves of bread and bread-making equipment. He was also in the midst of making more bread with plenty of doughy goodness ready to be stuffed in the oven. You can see a photo here of some of the loaves in a big bin. The best part of course was sampling the fresh bread!

After leaving the bread behind and what seemed like a relatively short ride on our route we passed through another pretty little town named Collonges-la-Rouge. The town is clearly mostly a tourist attraction at this point but it’s beautiful. I didn’t take a lot of photos here but you can see one I’ve included. The town was built entirely of red sandstone bricks. Had I arrived post the noon hour I would have been inclined to stop for lunch at what looked like some interesting little places. I was a little too early though so I kept on.

Our route that day was 47-something miles and the afternoon presented both some warmer temps and some hill climbs. Challenging enough but the grades were not that bad and the roads were quiet. It was an outstanding route into Rocamadour.

Rocamadour consisted of pretty much one main street at the base of the cliff. Along the street were mostly shops and restaurants and hotels. It definitely exists mainly as a tourist destination though I would say I didn’t find the touristy bits to be too overdone. In late August, we were told the crowds were much less than just a couple weeks before.

Our hotel was right in the center of the town and conveniently had two highlights: the first was that it had a really inviting terrace/bar next to the hotel. It was shaded in the afternoon and afforded good people watching at the same time. Our crew of riders and guides gravitated to the terrace given the fantastic weather and tasty beverages. You can see a photo of some of the group laughing it up at the terrace bar post that 2nd day ride. Good times.

The other good thing about the hotel turned out to be its restaurant. The food was excellent and it too had a terrace. Loved dining outdoors!

Next day: a loop ride and right back to Rocamadour.

Next Page »