After finishing a study abroad program in Berlin, I had a couple of months to kick around Europe and do the student backpacking thing. I'm me, so it has to be done on wheel(s). I brought a 29er (the same setup I used in Nepal), used it as a commuter in Germany, and then planned to lug it around Europe with me, finding cool places to ride, and cool people to ride with. I also rented bikes for. It's not a coordinated tour, but in total it will be bigger than any single tour I've done before.
Bike touring in Italy is pretty awesome, regardless. It’s beautiful, the drivers are used to sharing road space, and the food is great. But I’m naturally critical, so I’m always considering what I might have done differently.
One thing I noticed is that I didn’t have the time for the personal reflection that was a hallmark of my tours in Croatia and France last year. Being with a group meant that I was always concerned with my relationship to others. I got some solo time on the climbs, but was always with people for the rest of the tour. That solo time is really an important part of bike touring to me, and I’d have liked to have arranged for more of it.
There were too many people on the tour. Managing 40 people, ranging from super-experienced bike tourists to inexperienced cyclists who didn’t do any training, is logistically impossible. This particular tour also had insufficient support; Rosita was the only real guide and the only real mechanic. She was great, but the whole group would have to stop any time something went wrong, which led to longer days, and generally less fun days. In the future, I would ask more about how much support there will be before I sign up for a trip.
More generally, I’m not sure I’d do a fully supported commercial tour again. I really prefer to take the day at my own pace; with the group, the start time, rest breaks, and tourist stops are dictated by someone else. I’m capable of handling tour logistics myself, and I usually ride with people who are comfortable bike tourists as well. For lodging tours, the self-guided style fits me much better. Self-supported works fine too.
Nancy really enjoyed the gravel riding, and I think that might be what we look into for our next tour. Her Long Haul Trucker is fine as a gravel bike, and I’m fine with riding my Marinoni on dirt.
Tuscany is amazing. I’d ride there again (for what would be my third time) without hesitation. But the east of the Apennines isn’t as interesting in terms of bike riding; it’s just way too flat. We’ve talked about Sicily, and Sardinia, and Rosita was heading off to lead a trip in Puglia. Those would be possibilities for the future.
Aperol spritz was the drink of the trip; we’ll have to have that at the party.
Because we had so many friends on the trip, I don’t think we made deep connections with new people. I enjoyed the time I spent with a number of folks, and I’d ride again with most of them if the opportunity arises, but I don’t know if we’re likely to be hanging out much together.
Overall? It was great. Highlights for me were the agriturismos, the mosaics in Ravenna, the picnic lunch in Emilia Romagna, the climb over the Apennines, pretty much all the riding in Tuscany, the Orti Dipinti garden, and the Lucca city walls. That kind of stuff is what bike touring is about.
Time to plan the next one!
To make up for our dinner disaster, Rosita arranged a walking tour of Lucca, where we learned from a very knowledgeable local guide about the various layers of history represented in the old city. I mostly took pictures.
It was a short riding day, and we got on the road after noon. We started with a ride around the town walls again–because, why not?–then started towards the end of the tour in Pisa.
After leaving town, we were back on gravel levees and river banks; very nice riding through poplars and teak farms.
At a railroad crossing, Kathleen had a fairly spectacular face plant, coming in second to Mary Ann’s pole crash for Best Biff of the tour.
After crossing the rails, we were back on roads, mostly low traffic, but as we approached Pisa they got gradually busier.
Then once we reached the city itself it got quite chaotic as we rode together to the Field of Dreams where the famous tower is.
The tower is certainly impressive from the outside, as is the cathedral which would be the primary attraction if the tower weren’t so unique. But the place is so inundated with tourists, all Pisa snow globes and trying to take the “holding up the tower” picture, that I find it hard to enjoy. And officially you’re not allowed on the grass, though Nancy was willing to transgress.
We were already near our hotel, but there was an option to do another 25km out to the beach, which seemed like the right thing to do. Grace unfortunately had a problem with the valve stem on one of her tires, and I stayed back to help her out (yay vise grips!). After getting it fixed, she, Nathan and I started to chase after the group.
The ride wasn’t anything special, along a straight, flat road with a decent shoulder and a lot of traffic. We kept up a good, solid pace, just above 25kph, and when we caught the rest of the group we just kept rolling, and cranked into the marina at the mouth of the Arno, where we got great views of mountains and the fishing huts in the lagoon.
While we were taking pictures we saw group pass by on the main road, and we followed them over to the beach, where most of us went for a swim. (Two sport day!)The water was nice, warm by California standards, and very salty. Debbie, who was from Kansas, said it was the furthest she’d ever been out in the ocean.
It was heading towards evening, and I got on the road with Dave to head back. In one of my favorite moments of the trip, we were doing our bonus loop of the roundabout at the marina just when the main group was doing the roundabout to enter, so we got to whirl around with them before heading back onto the main road to Pisa.
We’d had a slight tailwind on the way out, so now we had a slight headwind, but we still kept up a good pace, and caught up with Nathan, Grace and Mark at the edge of town. figured out how to find the hotel, and had our first apertivo. After cleaning up, we walk with the group to have another one.
Then, back over the river to the hotel for group dinner and the award ceremony.
We woke to clear skies and beautiful landscapes, enjoyed breakfast at the agriturismo, and headed off into the Tuscan hills.
We were done with major climbs, but we would have some more rolling hills as we headed towards the coast.
Our first stop was in Cerrito Guidi, where we got to tour one of the Medici family villas. We got it tour it for longer than expected because at least two people had flats, but it was a beautiful day to hang out on the veranda and take in the view.
The riding kept up the beautifulness, as the gently rolling hills brought us into our lunch stop in Orentano.
There, we arranged another breakaway, and a group of about eight of us headed out ahead of the main pack. We had to deal with about 2km on a busy, narrow highway, but once we made the turn off it we returned to awesome riding.
The roads by Castelvecchio, not only rural but also forested, were some of the best of the whole trip.
We kept things moving pretty well on super-pleasant roads, enjoying our own pace and our own company. And we even got to do some loops around traffic circles; Luisa had gotten mad at us about that earlier in the trip. (Hey, it’s a tradition for us.)
Lucca is a walled city, which makes it tricky to get into. We wound up climbing the walls on a staircase, though later we found the pathway we should have used.
Because the walls were built to withstand cannon fire, they’re 10+ meters wide, and there’s a pathway around the whole city, with lovely trees and a nice vibe.
We took the loop, which was about 5km, at a leisurely pace, and stopped off at a bar on the walls once we finished our circuit. That meant that we were well into beers, snacks and relaxation when the rest of the group caught up with us. (We win!)
It was still pretty early, so we arranged to get to our hotel just outside the city walls, clean up, and meet to get rid of the rest of our limoncello and other liqueurs together. It was a very nice scene.
That contrasted with the scene at dinner, which was comically bad. I don’t know what the problem was, but the hotel had absolutely no capacity to handle a group our size. And they ran out of wine. What self-respecting Italian runs out of wine? Didn’t Jesus solve that problem for someone?
Kathleen took hers to go.
Anyway, the vegetarians all bolted for other restaurants, and the rest of us had food that was actually quite tasty, but haphazardly prepared and presented. And they ran out of dessert, too, so Rosita launched an emergency expedition into the city for gelato. The place she wanted to go was closed, but we found another, where she shared some of her favorite dessert (caffe crema, sort of an espresso gelato slushy).
Only one more day to go!
We walked out of the hotel into intermittent rain. Because of a number of mechanical problems we were slow to get on the road, so a few of us snuck out to Orti Dipinti to check it out while we waited for the group.
There was a lot of anxiety about riding the cobblestone streets in the wet. They were a bit treacherous, but the reflections made them picturesque.
When we got on the road we took things very slowly, and managed to make it to the river without incident.
The rain tapered off and it looked like we might have a nice ride, until Luisa got a flat, and the first attempt to fix it failed. While Rosita was working on that, everyone else went to the street market up the road. The market was huge, over 100 booths, and continued for more than a kilometer along the Arno. This was not a tourist market selling duomo snow globes, it was a mash-up of what we’d call a flea market and a farmer’s market.
While we were there, the rain started again, and was still coming down when Rosita and the rest of the crew rolled up.
After crossing the river, we got onto a dirt path by train tracks, which would have been fun in dry conditions, but was nasty in the rain. Everything got dirty and gritty.
We happened to be going in the same direction and at the same pace of the one rain cloud; we rode for quite a while in the rain, with blue skies to the left and right of us. If I were solo touring I would have sheltered somewhere for a while to see if it cleared up. As it was, we all got wet and muddy.
Eventually the rain subsided, and the climbing started. Today’s ride would take us to Vinci (Leonardo’s birthplace), and we had a good ridge to get over to get there, with over 400 meters of climbing. It began with a very steep climb up to our first stopping point, a local cemetery where we used the restrooms and cleaned ourselves up a bit.
Our next stop was another cemetery of sorts, this one a cool Etruscan tomb over 2500 years old.
After the tomb, the climb began in earnest. It began with about 150m through a couple of small towns up to Carmignano where we would have lunch. The climb was mostly mellow, with beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside, and the sun started to poke through as we got to the top of the ridge.
It got a bit steeper just before the lunch stop, making the espresso taste just a little better when we got there.
Leaving Carmignano we got to do the rest of the climb. This was the last ridge we’d have to get over on our way to the Ligurian Sea, and I savored the effort and the sun-dappled vistas. I tagged back from the summit and got to take in the views as I met the folks still climbing up. It was challenging riding but most everyone was smiling.
After a beer at the top we had a beautiful descent towards Vinci.
I blasted off ahead of the group and enjoyed the twisty, fast descent. Midway down, the route forked to the right, and I stopped to make sure I was going the right way, climbing up an olive tree (Il barone rampante) to take pictures of the group flying by.
I went to chase them, unaware that there were still more folks behind; that group missed the turn and wound up getting some bonus riding. (Bike touring maxim: Never make navigation errors in the downhill direction.)
Vinci is a hill town so we had a bit of climbing to do at the end of the day, ending at a rustic agriturismo on the hillside.
We walked into town, visited the Leonardo museum, and enjoyed some sunset gelato.
After dinner at the agriturismo, Rosita gave Nancy’s ankle some reflexology (ow), and we retired to our lovely cottage to hang out our laundry and enjoy the rest of the digestivi we’d picked up in Ischia before the bike trip.
Nancy’s ankle was still tender, so we wanted to take it easy on our rest day. There was a group walking tour planned, but we decided to take it at our own pace. We found a great little pasticceria down the street, and walked around the Duomo.
Nancy found a mailbox for her postcards. Many shops have small yellow mailboxes sitting on the ground, but to an American it feels wrong unless the box is attached to the wall.
Nancy wanted to get a nap, so I went out on a solo photo tour of our neighborhood. I found the university, and then a lovely little community garden called Orti Dipinti.
I knew Nancy would want to see the garden, so I checked with the attendant for the hours. He said “Diece otto ora, tutti di giorni” (18:00, every day). This turned out to be 18:00 Italian time. I was still there at diece sette (17:00) when he called out that the garden was closing. I protested that he’d said 18:00, and he said “non oggi” (not today).
In Italy, ya gotta roll with that stuff.
When I met up with Nancy, we strolled by the outside of the garden, walked around the Four Seasons nearby, found a nice wine bar, had apertivi, grabbed some gelato, and got back to the hotel to relax the feet.
Ronta’s elevation is almost 400 meters, so people were enjoying the prospect of a big net elevation loss. Today wasn’t all downhill though; we had another ridge to get over, including a real climb of about 300 meters. But everyone liked the overall look of the elevation profile, and we all set out to do the whole ride.
The first descent was a blast, fast and fun. At the bottom we entered Borgo San Lorenzo, where we had to navigate some busy streets.
Then we were back in the hills on a low-traffic road, where today’s hill began.
I went to crank out the climb, and felt a little sore from yesterday but overall pretty good. I’d started at the back of the pack because I was taking pictures, and I was pushing because I thought there was a group still ahead of me on the road, so I wound up working harder than I needed to. I tagged back from the top so I got to see the crew doing the climb.Most of them were doing fine, except Jamie who had a flat and walked the top portion.
There was (of course) a nice bar at the top where we regrouped for coffee and beer. (Hey, it was after 11:00!)
After that we had another fun descent into Fiezole, with beautiful views into the Tuscan hills, with villas and vineyards nearby and Florence in the distance. More than once I thought, “man, this is so beautiful…it’s like we’re in Tuscany or something!”
Fiezole was a nice town perched on the ridge above Firenze, with great views in all directions. It had an active street market where we got lunch and chocolate. A few of us walked up to the monastery for more views.
We still had 250 meters to drop down into Firenze, which we took more as a group because the road was busier. For me it wasn’t as fun because I had to brake too much, but most of the folks enjoyed it.
At the bottom of the hill we were in Firenze proper, and it was quite hectic to navigate it with such a large group. There was a lot of unhelpful shouting of “car up, car back, car left, car right!” Yeah, I know. We’re in a city, just keep an eye on your surroundings.
We found the hotel early enough for a walk around the town and some pre-gaming gelato.
Unfortunately, Nancy stepped awkwardly on a pothole in the cobbles near Ponte Vecchio and sprained her ankle. She could still walk but wound up hobbled for a few days.
Fortunately dinner was just around the corner from the hotel, so we snarfed and headed back to bed.
Today we’d be riding into the hills we’d seen off in the distance yesterday, and eventually climb over the Apennines into Tuscany. This would be a real climb, near 1000m total, but it parallels a train line, so those who didn’t feel like going over the mountain could take the train the whole way, or take advantage of one of the train stations along the way to bail out. The first opportunity would be in Brisghella, about 20km in, where we had an olive oil tasting lined up.
But first we had to get out of Faenza, riding through the crappy modern developments. The unpleasant ride was made worse by several flat tires which held us up for almost an hour. But once we got out of town, the riding was perfect. Riding through vineyards and olive groves with the mountains up ahead in the distance; this is what I came to Italy for.
It was great to have some real terrain after four days of flat riding. And for the beginning of the day, the ride was trending upwards but only very gradually, and we had a strong tail wind to boot. Powering over rolling hills like that feels awesome.
The place we were visiting in Brisghella also had a wine filling station. I’d seen one of these on a previous Italian bike tour; you just bring whatever container you like and fill it up on a euro-per-liter basis. The cheap wine was 1.50/liter; the quality stuff was 1.75. I happened to have a 3-liter Camelback.
We learned a little about olive oil making, and tasted three different varieties; nice, but not worth hauling around on a bike.
The road after Brisghella started to get a little hillier, though it wouldn’t really start to climb until we reached Marradi, 23km up the road. Some people were taking the train from Brisghella, and the rest of us were released to ride at our own pace.
It felt great to be able to stretch out my legs a bit; I stopped a few times for photos and chats with friends, but after a while I was riding solo.
It was beautiful and dynamic riding, up and down with turns through the valley along the river, and a great tailwind. I realized how much I love the feeling of being on the open road with mountains ahead of me. Wonderful stuff.
Because I’d been riding well I arrived quickly in Marradi, and set about evaluating the gelato options. (Not bad!) I had lunch at a street cafe while I waited for the group.
From Marradi to the peak was a real climb, with a total gain of about 700 more meters, and grades up to 10%. Fun! I started out cranking and getting into my groove. We went through some small towns, with the narrow road squeezing between the buildings, reminding me of some of the beautiful shots of the Tour de France peloton in the countryside.
The climb came in waves, sometimes getting steeper, sometimes allowing some speed. Beautiful riding.
Towards the top, the road left the farmland and entered the forest, and I started to see pavement chalking counting down from 1500 meters to the top; it turned out that these were done by a tour group led by a friend of Rosita’s, doing more or less the same route a day ahead of us.
I made the summit feeling good, and turned around to tag back the rest of the riders. That gave me more time to admire the beautiful scenery from down the valley, and I got to see most of the group and take pictures.
When I got back to the van I hung out for a while and then re-cranked the hill. There was a bar at the summit (of course), and I had part of someone’s beer, then took off down the other side. The descent was technical and awesome, lots of hard braking into turns, and I had to pull over once to let a car get further ahead of me.
Our hotel in Ronta had some nice hang out space, everyone seemed to be in a good mood during apertivi, and dinner was awesome. This was my kind of bike touring.
Ravenna is famous for its wall mosaics. You see them decorating signs and objects all over town, and because it was a short riding day, Rosita had arranged a morning tour of the chapel and cathedral. Our guide explained how Ravenna, formerly surrounded by malaria-infested swamps, was an impoverished city. Because of that, the mosaic churches, though unfashionable, never got remodeled to Renaissance standards. Today, they’re quite spectacular; the texture of thousands of individual glass pieces made the walls look like a living thing.
After the tour we got rolling into another very pleasant day. As usual, getting out of the city was a little stressful, and we made a wrong turn trying to get onto the levee south of Fiumi Uniti, hitting a dead end and having to backtrack. So instead of more gravel we were on pavement. The road was not very busy but it wasn’t as quiet as some of the others we’d ridden on. We made decent time heading into our lunch stop.
Crossing over the Po yesterday had brought us into the Emilia Romagna region, and one of the specialties there is piadine, thin sandwiches on pita-like bread. I’d had some when I visited here last year; my brother-in-law’s family is from nearby Cesena. Lunch was at an agriturismo where they set out a great spread of piadine and other local foods, which we got to eat under the trees at the villa. It was special and we lingered for quite a while before getting back on the road.
Turning to the west, we got our first view of a new ride feature: a hill. The first three days had been entirely flat, with no elevation over 20m. We would not be doing any real climbing today, but we were transitioning from the river delta into the foothills, and we started to pick up some terrain. The light was not great for photography facing ahead towards the hills, but I realized that if the light looks bad ahead, it probably looks good behind.
The riding went fairly quickly (the distance for the day wound up coming in at exactly 60km), and when we got to old town Faenza we stopped at the first bar we saw for gelato and a beer. There, a local told me “You have Italian!”, so I tried to explain in my Italian that il mio bisnonno (my great-grandfather) was born near Napoli.
Faenza is famous for its ceramics, and on the way to the hotel we we got a tour of a ceramic workshop. It was interesting but I think people were jonesing to get to the hotel.
The hotel was outside of the old town, in an architecturally awful area of town with big-box stores and car dealerships. It really highlighted the spatial differences between classic and modern architecture. Riding bikes through modernist areas is both way less fun and far more dangerous.
The hotel was a modern box without any flair, but dinner turned out to be surprisingly good. Afterwards, Nathan and I got to meet up with Nicola, an Italian unicycling friend who we’d toured with in Nepal. We’d reached out to him to see if he had a spare 36” uni tire to replace Nathan’s failing one, and he kindly drove down from Bologna to bring it and have a drink with us.
Everyone else had gone to bed early, because tomorrow was going to be the hardest (most fun!) day.
Today would be our longest day day; still entirely flat, but close to 100km total. Nancy felt like she could do it, but we wanted to roll at a more regular pace than we had in the first couple of days. Because the group was so big, and because Rosita was both the only leader and the only mechanic, whenever someone had a mechanical the whole group would stop and wait for it to be fixed. Dave suggested that our group of friends break off the front so we could go at our own pace; he and I are both comfortable leading groups and can handle mechanicals on our own. So we hatched a plan to break off at one of the rest stops.
We had to ride on some high-traffic roads to get out of the city, but soon we were back in the country. We were now following a distributary of the Po, which provided us with more options for levee riding. The route switched back and forth between levees, country roads, and occasional dirt paths.
After our first group stop in San Nicolo we decided to make our breakaway. A group of about 8 of us headed out, but unfortunately managed to make it only about 3km before Nathan (our lone unicyclist) came down with a flat tire due to a failure in his tire casing. The main group caught up with us a few minutes into working on it. It took about half an hour to patch the tube (twice) and fashion a tire boot out of a dollar bill (U.S.A.!) and some duct tape. We got the thing back together, and headed out again with the whole crew.
I generally don’t like long days on bike tours. When you have the pressure of high daily mileage, you have to miss out on the place you’re riding through. For example, we didn’t have time to explore this cool abandoned villa because we had to get back on the road.
The riding remained pretty pleasant. We were mostly on roads now, and there was occasional traffic, but the cars (and farm tractors) were accustomed to having to slow down for other road users, so we had no real conflicts.
After lunch in Traghetto (translation: “ferry”), we again got our group together for a breakaway. We had a very long, very straight gravel segment on a levee by the Fiume Reno as it headed out towards the Adriatic, which gave us 16km of almost uninterrupted riding.
When we came off the levee, we were still in a rural area, but the roads were a little more trafficky. We were nearing the lagoons at the mouth of the Po; because of the wetlands there are fewer roads in the area, so, fewer places for the cars to go. But once we hit the lagoon we were back on quiet roads. There are no bridges across the Reno this close to the sea, only a cable ferry, so there was virtually no car traffic out here. The lagoon was beautiful, with lots of large migratory birds, including flamingoes!
The park on the other side of the cable ferry was quite pleasant, wooded and quiet. We stopped for a while to rehydrate and snack. Then when we got on the road we realized the next group stop was right around the corner; having just had a rest, we continued on towards Ravenna.
We were 85km into the ride and people were tired. We fortunately had a straight and fast road headed into town; unfortunately it was quite busy, some of the least fun riding of the trip. I think the original route plan had us going further out towards the sea and avoiding this direct path, but that would have been an additional 10km or so and the group was not up for that. So we blasted along for 10km on a road with heavy two-way traffic. There was a bit of a shoulder but it was still unpleasant, so we were very glad when we were able to veer off onto the residential streets on the outskirts of town.
We were staying in the old town, so our ride ended on medieval streets with no traffic except for (many) pedestrians. We enjoyed the ride through the historic buildings, and found our hotel after only a small navigation error. The day wound up coming in at 98.3km; I offered to go do a lap of the city to get to 100km, but no one was interested. We were very interested in getting into our rooms, getting cleaned up, and getting our Aperol spritz for the evening. Our breakaway put us about half an hour ahead of the main group, which gave us some much-appreciated time for relaxation.
On a lovely morning we rolled out of the agriturismo and back to the levees of the Adige River. It was nice starting with such an easy, pleasant ride, and I had a number of good conversations rolling along on the car-free paths. Some were still grumbling about the gravel but I personally was really enjoying it and had a number of great conversations riding alongside our tour companions.
After passing Lusia (not Luisa, one of our Italian riders), we turned south from the Adige River and headed across the delta towards the Po. This put us back on the pavement (mostly), but the area was very rural and the roads were still very quiet.
We had a tour at Villa Badoer (c1554), one of many villas in this area of Italy dating to the era of the Venetian city-state. It is significant in that it was built by Palladio, thus making it an early example of the neoclassical style which would come to dominate Renaissance architecture.
After lunch in Fratta Polesine, we got back on the road. We had to navigate through an areas where we had to cross major roads, and at one of these we had what would turn out to be Best Biff of the trail, as one of our Mary Anns (we had two) caught her handlebar on the bike path pole after crossing the road. She fell kind of hard and hit her (helmeted) head on a trash can, but she was OK. For the rest of the trip we’d hear many loud calls of “POLE!” as we navigated the bike paths.
We had one more rest stop at a cafe in Polesella. It was definitely beer o’clock.
Grace and Alessandra had to get some pictures with the old Italian guys playing rummy. I think they were mutually charmed.
After Polesella we crossed the Po River into the Emilia Romagna region. The crossing was on a busy bridge, but then our route returned to the quiet levee pathway as we rode towards the sunset. We turned south towards Ferrara and got into roads with a bit more traffic, but not too much to be able to enjoy the ride.
We were a bit behind schedule because of some mechanicals, so when we got to Ferrara proper we rode through the hectic streets, and walked our bikes directly through the castello, until we reached our hotel on the other side of town. We had dinner at a restaurant in town, and got to walk the charming streets looking for (and finding!) gelato. (Nancy got her favorite, an affogato, kind of an espresso float).
We headed to bed fairly early, as tomorrow was going to be our longest day.