Biking in Italy -- Bolzano to Venice
Day 1 -- Bolzano to Trento
Route for Day 1 (from GPS track)
The day before our trip was to begin in Italy we left Barcelona, where we had been at a business meeting, and flew to Milan. From Malpensa Airport in Milan we took a bus to the central train station and from there a train to Verona, where we would change to a train heading northwest to Bolzano. Everything had gone according to plan when we arrived in Verona about 8 minutes before our connecting train. The first big hint of trouble was that neither of the electronic signs over the two tracks at the station listed any train to Bolzano. A man and a woman were sitting on a bench by the track, and Len asked about whether they knew about the Bolzano train. "On strike," the man said, "Not until 7:40." That was more than two hours away.
The trains at Verona are on strike
We went down the stairs to the ticket agents to get more information, and reluctantly joined a long line of people waiting for tickets or information. Eventually we worked our way to the head of the queue, and were told by the ticket agent that in fact there would be only one train to Bolzano -- the last one at 10:20pm. "Is that guaranteed to go?" we asked. "Guaranteed," he replied. I was still doubtful, but in view of all the would-be passengers milling about the station, we bought reserved seats for that last train.
While I'm on the subject, I'd like to muse a bit about the ticket situation on Italian trains, because I've never quite understood it. When you board the train, you can basically take any open seat. However, someone can show up later and claim that seat based on having had it reserved. Then you're evicted, and you've missed your chance to claim any other open seat. You may end up standing or sitting in the aisle somewhere instead. There's no way to know whether or not the open seat you've taken has been sold to someone else.
With about four hours to kill we walked out of the Verona train station in search of a nice place to enjoy a leisurely dinner. We looked around outside the station, but what we saw did not look promising. There was no indication of stores or of any direction in which restaurants would be likely. This didn't look like a good part of town. Len asked a cabbie, and he said that the McDonalds in the station was the only restaurant in the area. So McDonalds became our first gourmet Italian restaurant on the trip. Len had a healthful tuna salad. I had a Big Mac. We spent the rest of the time in a crowded waiting room with dim lighting and a thought-draining atmosphere. I thought we'd never get to Bolzano.
My pessimism was unfounded, as that last train did show up and our assigned seats were available. Other passengers were standing on the crowded train, and around 11:30pm we reached Bolzano without further incident. Our hotel -- the Mondschein -- was a short walk from the station. I was ready to crash and regenerate before the big first day of biking, but my room was small, airless, and stifling hot. Sleep was hard to come by.
The next morning after breakfast we were met by two people from Eurobike, the company that had packaged our trip. They gave us a handful of booklets, including daily maps of our itinerary, touring tips, and turn-by-turn instructions for each day's route. Len and I were the only ones for that morning's welcoming meeting.
We were led outside the hotel to a garage where there were a dozen or so bikes stored. But here was a problem. We had arranged the trip through an agent who had advised us that he could, for an additional fee, obtain better bikes than those provided by Eurobike. So we had reserved two bikes from Girobike. After a bit of confusion, the Eurobike people found the two bikes that had been delivered by Girobike. But these two bikes weren't exactly what we had specified. We had asked that there be no panniers, no handlebar bags, and no seat on one of the bikes, as we were bringing our own equipment. Moreover, it did not appear that there were spare tubes, pumps, and tool kits. To add to our distress, the Eurobike people were saying that they had never had a customer where the bikes were supplied by someone else.
We looked at the bikes that Eurobike had, and we liked their look. One thing that was particularly appealing was the "unisex" design with a U-shaped frame for easy entry and exit. As long as you called them "unisex," rather than "woman's bike" that seemed like a good feature. In a hasty decision, and under a lot of pressure, we paid cash to the Eurobike people to rent their bikes, and by phone we cancelled the Girobikes.
What to do? The Eurobike people, their bikes (left) and the Girobikes (right)
The Eurobike representatives were most helpful. They set up our bikes, including mounting our own handlebar bags and GPSs. On every other trip we had mounted these ourselves, and had often spent much time doing so. But now this was accomplished rather quickly, and soon we were ready to ride. However, we did want to take the opportunity to see a little of the town before leaving.
Bolzano is in the upper middle of Italy in the foothills of the Alps. It is a German-speaking town with an architectural appearance mixed between German and Italian. Coming south over the Brenner Pass from Innsbruck, it is the first town encountered in Italy. On this Monday morning in mid-July it was bustling and picturesque. Several impressive town squares were filled with busy shoppers in outdoor markets, which were framed by the mountain backdrop. Unlike other towns that we were to visit, there were no obvious hoardes of tourists.
A town square in Bolzano
Bolzano has one special tourist attraction that we were sorry to have missed -- the museum containing the "iceman" Oetzi, the oldest preserved human. Unfortunately, the museum was closed on Mondays.
By noon we were anxious to hit the road with our bikes. We had about 40 miles to go, and time was ticking.
The bikes are loaded and ready to go
Getting out of Bolzano on our unfamiliar bikes was relatively easy. In fact, for a city of this size, it was unusually easy. After only a couple of blocks of light traffic we crossed a bridge and were on a beautiful bike path alongside the Adige River. We would follow this river for the entire trip to Venice.
The bike path leaving Bolzano
For the first mile or so the bike path was quite crowded. I stopped to take one of these pictures and almost got run over. In spite of the bicycle traffic, however, the path was absolutely gorgeous. The path was shaded by trees and framed with sweet-smelling blossoms. Views of the river below moved in and out of the protective shrubbery.
A verdant pathway
The bicycle traffic empties out
I cannot overstate how beautiful this section was. Our bikes glided along effortlessly at about 23 km/hr (about 14 mph). I remarked to Len that there was no wind at all. This was biking at its heavenly best, and it was an incredible high.
Unfortunately, this high only lasted about four miles. By that time the bicycle traffic had thinned out and we basically had the path to ourselves. That was the good part. But at the same time the protective trees and shrubs disappeared and the path began to cling more deliberately to the river. The river ran southwards in a valley between two mountain ranges, and often there would be a steep cliff on one side or the other. Now there were two bad things going on. First, there was a strong wind, channeled by the cliffs directly into our faces. Second, and I know this sounds unlikely, but the scenery got boring. For hour upon hour we labored against the wind, while the scenery around us was unvarying. There was nothing to break the monotony -- no small towns, no forests, no people, no anything. I felt like I was on a stationary bike in some gym, working my tail off for nothing but exercise. Whereas at the beginning of the path we had cruised effortlessly at 23 km/hr in the 5th or 6th gear (of 7 on the middle chainring), we were now barely making 15 km/hr working hard in the 3rd gear -- sometimes even in the 2nd gear.
For hours the path looks just like this
The only things to barely break the monotony were the occasional bridges where the path would move to the opposite side of the river and the castles perched on cliffs that we would see from time to time. I would always wonder how they ever built those castles in those impossible locations. Moreover, I kept thinking that I were the invader, I'd just leave the people in the castle alone. Why bother? Let them stay up on top of their cliff.
Every four or five miles we'd see little towns, but they were always several kilometers from the bike path, set back against the mountains, and occasionally even running up the mountains. I wondered how people got to some of these houses, since I didn't see any roads.
After a few hours we stopped by a little piece of shade -- which was scarce -- to eat a small lunch of things we had saved from the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Our bikes were not equipped with water bottles, so I had bought some bottled water in Bolzano and put it on top of the rack on the back of my bike. It was hot and we were working hard, and I was realizing that I would have to carefully ration out that water. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before I had a terrible thirst and no water at all. Just when I was desperate, we encountered a "bike cafe" right on the path. For a while I thought it must be a mirage. But it was real, and it saved my life. I had two orange sodas, which I immedately chugged, and bought two bottles of water to take on my bike.
A bike cafe on the path
In the hours to come on this day and the next I would look for more of these bike cafes, but they were few and far between. I think that in the 70 or so miles of the bike path that there might have been three similar establishments.
We pass a small town, closer than usual
I'm thinking as I write this account that the pictures I'm showing make this look beautiful. I suppose it was, but you had to have been there, with the wind thrusting in your face, the path leading straight ahead to infinity, and the unchanging backdrop. It made me appreciate the importance of variety in making time pass enjoyably.
Eventually we reached the town of Trento, our first day's destination. I'd never been there, but I knew of it because of the University of Trento. In 1995 someone in the math department at that university started a web site devoted to information about bike trips in Europe (www.trentobike.org). It now links to over a thousand accounts of bike trips. A handful of those accounts are mine, but I'm not going to tell them about this one. I'd be embarrassed, writing about a trip right through their own town.
Len and I have a friend who teaches at the University, and Len had arranged to meet him for dinner in Trento. As we approached the town he sent us a text message to Len's phone. "Where are you now?" it asked. "On the outskirts," replied Len. The mystifying and funny thing was that when we got to our hotel Len called him and heard an apology: our friend had gotten the wrong day, and was actually in Germany, while we were in Trento!
Entering a city is often dicey on a bike. This was about 6:00pm and traffic was heavy. We had a half dozen blocks of city traffic and several roundabouts to negotiate. Roundabouts are, in my opinion, dangerous for bikes. You have to pretend that you're a car, and wrestle your way in the midst of impatient drivers. I think they're a bad idea for traffic flow for cars too, but that's another story.
The turn-by-turn instructions had us making a left turn on a busy street, and we dismounted, looking for a break in traffic. Taking a brief opportunity we ran across and mounted our bikes. Here Len made a mistake that was a very easy mistake to make -- he forgot that we had "unisex" bikes without the frame bar across the top from handlebar to saddle. He went to throw his leg over the non-existent bar and ended up falling on the street. He was unhurt, but it was a warning to both of us. We loved the ease of entry in these bikes, but you had to always remember instinctively the kind of bike you were riding.
Soon we were in the ancient center of the city, which was a pedestrian zone and a pleasure for cyclists. Here's a picture of the central square (piazza) in Trento.
The piazza in Trento
I was really beat. The day had been draining. Even Len -- an iron man compared to me -- was exhausted. The first day is always the hardest anyway, as you have to get used to the long-distance biking, but the wind had made it a virtual 40-mile uphill climb.
With our university friend in Germany, we were on our own for dinner. It was Monday, and most restaurants were closed. We found a pleasant restaurant near the hotel and ate in an indoor courtyard. We sat next to a fountain with a small fish pond. Len inadvertently fed a knife to the fish, but there were no takers.
After dinner we got an ice cream cone at a gelatoria -- which is one of the great pleasures of visiting Italy -- saw the piazza at night, and crashed for the evening at the hotel. Once again my room was stifling hot and almost insufferable. Belatedly, the next morning I discovered that there had been a switch behind the door that turned on the air conditioning.
Trento at night