MOUNTAINS, VALLEYS, AND CANALS

ItaliaFeel free to jump ahead to another section:

Northern Italy Tour Map
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My friend Steve and I have been traveling together for about two decades.  We met when I was running a home beer and wine supply store in Austin, TX and he came in wanting to get started brewing.  Unsurprisingly, much of our travel has revolved around places with good beer and wine, like Belgium and Bordeaux, Oregon and Oktoberfest.

In 2016, things changed.  He was settled into a relationship with Laura, who owned more bikes than me and had been touring for decades.  We started talking about combining our annual trip with some bike touring.

I had never done an organized tour, and it sounded intriguing.  We agreed it should be somewhere in Europe.  None of us had spent much time in Italy, so we focused on tours there, eventually settling on a bike and barge tour of the northern part of the country.  It would follow mostly flat terrain, starting in Bolzano, near the Austrian border.  The first few days would follow the Adige River to Lake Garda, then the Mincio River to Mantova.  From there, a canal barge would follow us through small towns in the Po River Delta, eventually reaching Venice.   The Bolzano-to-Mantova section would be self-guided with hotel stays.  The rest would be guided with lodging and dinners on the barge.  The tour price was just over $2000 per person, including bike rental, lodging, luggage transfer, and meals on the barge.  The total riding distance would be about 250 miles.

By the time we finalized the plans, two friends of Steve from Texas joined the group.  I had met Mark on a 2015 trip to Idaho and was looking forward to meeting his wife Suzanne in Italy. The five of us would arrive in Bolzano on August 16 and start pedaling on August 18.  I made reservations to fly into Munich, spend a few days there, then take a train to Bolzano.




Disclaimer

I’m not going to name the tour company in this post, because my descriptions won’t be entirely flattering.  In most ways, they provided a good service for a fair price, but there were definitely some issues my fellow tourists agreed were unsatisfactory.

I’d also like to clarify that there is a point to some of my less complimentary descriptions.  Of course, one goal is to keep readers engaged and amused, but the more important aim is to provide useful information for those considering a similar tour.  Hearing about the parts of the tour we liked and disliked may be useful in helping potential travelers ask questions and make decisions that will result in a tour better suited their personal goals.

Girlie Bikes

Girlie Bike

Our first issue with the tour began in the planning stage.  We’re all serious cyclists with nice bikes.  If we were going to spend 2 weeks touring around Italy, the bikes needed to be reasonable.  We weren’t expecting $5000 carbon racing rigs, but we were headed to the land of Campagnolo, Colnago, and Pinarello.  Skinny tires wouldn’t work on the canal paths and we could deal with flat bars, but we were expecting to ride a few 40-50 mile days, and that wouldn’t be much fun on a “City Comfort Bike”.  Early on, I had seen that the tour company’s web page offered an option for a “Race Bike”.  That would be fine.  A few weeks after booking and paying deposits, I told them some of us wanted to upgrade the bikes and was told it would not be possible.  We could use the bikes that were on the barge, or we could bring our own.  We even asked about basic mountain/hybrid bikes that were used on many of their tours.  There were no other options:  pay to ship our own bikes or spend two weeks one of their bikes, otherwise know to our group as “Girlie Bikes”.  They were stepover behemoths with huge tires and a far too upright geometry that most serious cyclists would find unacceptable.

Our group went back and forth through the options – ship our bikes (Laura and I both had Bike Friday’s with trailer cases), buy used bikes in Munich to ride (then donate or sell in Venice), or deal with the Girlie Bikes.  In the end, with a degree of irritation, we decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to get better bikes to the barge.  We would ride the Girlie Bikes.  The tour company later modified their web site to eliminate the “race bike” reference, but we felt deceived.

ADVICE:  Before booking a tour, make sure you clarify exactly what equipment will be provided.

    
   

Bolzano:

We arrived in Bolzano (pop. 107,000) as planned on August 16 and checked in to the Hotel Scala Stiegel, a nice four-star place just a few blocks from the city center.  The weather was perfect and the city is beautiful, tucked into an alpine valley at the edge of the Dolomite Mountains.  The area has changed hands between the Italians, Austrians, and Germans numerous times over the centuries, so it feels like a blend of cultures.  We wandered along the river and through the city streets, planning to visit the South Tyrol Museum to see Otzi the Iceman, a Neolithic mummy found in on an Alpine glacier.  But it was the August vacation season and the line was around the corner, so we took a nice hike around the perimeter of the city instead then headed back the hotel and found a nice place for dinner.

The next day, we all agreed to take the Funivia Del Renon (cable car) up into the Dolomites.  It was an incredible climb.  The views are spectacular on the way up, but if you’re not comfortable with heights, think twice before boarding.    Once we got to the top, at the little village of Soprabolzano, we took a scenic railway across the Renon plateau to Collalbo, from which you can walk several miles to see some quaint villages and memorable rock formations.  The Dolomites are really unique and well worth the visit.  The round trip, including the train ride is about $15 per person.

That evening, we were fortunate to catch an amazing woodwind concert at the Maretsch Castle.  Back at the hotel, a few other cyclists were starting to arrive.  This was the self-guided portion of the trip and the group leaving Bolzano with us was fairly small.

Non-Girlie Bike

In the morning, we woke for breakfast and a meeting with the tour company.  We got maps and instructions about how our luggage would be handled, then were taken outside to get introduced to our bicycles.  They weren’t “Girlie Bikes”!  They were basic flat bar, non-suspension models that we would call hybrid or fitness bikes in the US.  We were able to pick appropriate sizes, then took a few minutes to fit up our pedals and other accessories.  The tour company provided nice Ortlieb panniers and handlebar bags.  Things were looking good.  We left our luggage at the desk and hit the road.

Lodging:

Hotel Scala Stiegl – 4-stars, just a few blocks from the center of Bolzano, clean modern rooms, good service, nice breakfast – Recommended

Food: 

Cavallino Bianco – Rustic traditional Italian and German fare in a charming old building in Bolzano – good food, reasonably priced – Recommended

Fully-Guided vs. Self-Guided Touring

This trip was my first experience with a tour company.  The tour we chose started out self-guided and transitioned to fully guided after a few days.  This would be a good chance to experience the two approaches in similar circumstances.  If you aren’t familiar with the terms, here is what they mean:

Self-Guided:  The tour company provides a bike, books the lodging, and arranges to have your luggage transported between locations.  They also provide maps and information to guide you from destination to destination.  The rest is up to you.  You start and finish when you want and stop at whatever attractions pique your interest.  This provides lots of flexibility, but you are responsible for your own navigation, which can be challenging.  It’s also generally less expensive than fully-guided touring.

Fully-Guided:  The tour company still provides a bike, lodging, luggage transport, maps, and travel info.  They also provide a guide to accompany you through a planned itinerary each day.  You travel in a group, starting, finishing, and stopping for meals and attractions at planned times and locations.  This eliminates the burden of navigation, and good guide can really help you connect to the local culture.  It can also be nice to socialize with the other tourists in the group.  However, a bad guide can be torture and not everyone likes being confined to the pace of a group.  Guided tours are typically more expensive, to cover the cost of the guide.  Larger groups can spread that cost among more travelers, but that tends to slow the pace because the logistics are more difficult.

I’m planning to add a more detailed post in the coming months about the virtues of different types of touring.  Check back!




   

Day 1: Adige River Valley to Trento (est. 40 miles):

Heading south out of Bolzano, we followed the Adige River for about 37 miles.  There were two possible routes, with one rising up into the hills along the wine road (Strada del Vino) to the west of the river and another on the flatter path beside the water.  We decided on the low road, but the higher route looked scenic and not too strenuous.  An occasional estate or castle appeared on the hillsides rising from the river, and farmland filled the spaces between small towns. 

There were trailside cafes spaced regularly along the path, and we settled in at one for a nice lunch.  Wine at noon is a nice treat, and one glass doesn’t have much effect on the afternoon ride.  If it’s OK for the locals…  The rest of the trail into Trento meandered through more pleasant farmland and occasional industrial sites until the population grew denser as we rolled into the outskirts of the city.  It was an easy first-day ride with almost no navigation issues – if we could see the river, we were on target.   

By mid-afternoon, we pulled into the Grand Hotel Trento, located on the northern end of the city center, near the train station and across the street from the lovely public gardens (Giardini Pubblici).  While trying to find the hotel, we had passed La Gelateria and headed that direction as soon as we got checked in.  This would become a fine ritual through the rest of the trip.  I started joking that if you see a sign that says “Gelato”, it means “Stop”.  Some people gravitate towards the fruit flavors, or chocolate. For me, it was the nutty concoctions, with the greenish tinge of pistachio always a drawing my eye.

Trento (pop. 118,000) is most famous for the being the site of the 16th century Council of Trent, which gave rise to the Counter-Reformation.  The compact and lively city center is filled with pedestrian friendly streets spreading out from the Piazza Duomo in front of the Cathedrale di San Viglio.

While the rest of the group made dinner plans, I took off on my typical evening exploration to the edges of town, getting out of the tourist zones and looking for good places to photograph at sunset.

 

Lodging:

Grand Hotel Trento – 4-stars, northern end of central Trento, nice modern rooms – Recommended

   

Day 2: Departing the Adige for Lake Garda (est. 30 miles):

Departing Trento, we again followed the Adige south past Rovereto, then parted with the river path at Mori, veering west through some hilly country towards Lake Garda (Lago di Garda).  Most of the path was nicely separated from the road traffic, but the climbs were a bit of a shock after a day and half of river flats.  Midway, we saw a nice market called Figli Duchi in Loppio and got off for a break.  It was a remarkable place, full of local produce, cheese, baked goods, wine, and liquor.  We tried some samples, bought some snacks, and kept moving.

Our route led us to the resort town of Riva del Garda on the northern tip the lake.  It was packed with tourists.  We had to catch a ferry ride to the bottom of the lake, so our first priority was finding the ferry terminal, which was more challenging than we expected.  It’s out on the far southwestern edge of the shore, near the hydro power plant, which houses a museum in a lovely early 1900’s stucco building that’s visible on the skyline at the base of the cliffs.  We picked up our tickets, sat down for surprisingly good pizza at a tourist café on the shore, then boarded the ferry for the 5-hour ride south.

The largest lake in Italy, Lake Garda has been a popular resort area for centuries.  The northern end is surrounded by mountains and the shores are dotted with estates, castles, and small towns.  The ferry ride was slow, making, making about 15 stops as it zigzagged back and forth across the lake during the 40-mile journey, but the scenery made it a pleasant opportunity to read, relax, and chat.

In early evening we finally disembarked at Peschiera del Garda and set out for our hotel, which was about a half mile west of town.  We checked in and had our first dinner with some of the other traveling cyclists, including Paul and Julie, a British couple who we would grow fond of over the rest of the trip. 

Everyone else was ready to retire, but I packed up my camera and headed to the town center, curious about the live music coming from that direction.  This was first exposure to the night culture in Italy.  In late afternoon and early evening, the streets are quiet, but once the sun sets, people start coming out.  It’s not just the partying young crowd.  Seniors, families with kids…it seems like everyone comes out to the piazzas and café lined streets to play and socialize.  One band was playing classic rock on the grounds of the Palazzina Storica and another was playing loud indie/punk outside a café a few blocks away.  I walked for miles around the edge of town and through the streets.  The Museo della Pesca was lit beautifully against the surrounding water, as were the canals surrounding the main peninsula.  Gelato was plentiful and I finished the night checking out the view from the Forificazioni before strolling back to the hotel along the waterfront path.

Lodging:

Hotel Puccini – 3-stars, 10-minute walk to central Peschiera, friendly staff but motel-like rooms, uncomfortable beds – Not Recommended

   

Day 3: Mincio River to Mantova (est. 40 miles):

I awoke anxious to chastise my fellow travelers about their foolishness in trading sleep for the undeniable joy of the local nightlife.  They were unmoved, and I realized this might be a repeating pattern.

Familiar with the lay of the land by this point, I guided the group along the shore, stopped at some worthwhile sites in town, and headed out where the Mincio flows south from Peschiera.  We followed an off-road path along the river for about 10 miles to the beautiful village of Borghetto, where I had my first blissful experience with Affogato – a scoop of gelato resting in a warm cup of espresso. 

Then disaster struck.  While we were wandering through one of the side streets admiring the water driven mill and rustic houses, Mark discovered that his phone was missing.  We backtracked several miles, scanning the sides of the trail.  We called his number, hoping someone would pick up or we would hear it ringing.  After an hour or so, we were ready to give up when my phone rang.  I answered, but the caller didn’t speak English.  My German is better than my Italian, so I tried “Guten Tag…” and we managed to get the basic idea across.  A woman had found the phone and picked my number from the recent call list.  Her nephew would meet us with it in the middle of Borghetto.  What a relief.  That’s one more good reason to learn the local language before travelling.

Two hours later, we were heading out of Borghetto, starting to think about lunch.  We were still about 30 miles from Mantova, but this was Italy.  There would be plenty of villages with cafes along the way, right?   We rode through Pozzolo, Morengo, and the outskirts Maglio but found nothing.  The skies turned grey but couldn’t commit to either rain or shine.  It was well past 3:00 when, famished and perhaps a little cranky, we finally got to Soave, a sleepy little town a few miles northwest of Mantova.  I joked that we would be rewarded now with the best meal of the trip.  We rode past a bar on the corner and a pizza place that was closed, then turned pessimistically onto the Via Della Liberta and someone spotted La Stella.  It looked unassuming from the street and we went in to see if they were open.  They directed us out back to lovely patio with white tablecloths and a smiling server (who turned out to be the owner) named Nicole.  She greeted us with some amazing crispy breadsticks and glasses of sparkling white wine.  We tried some local cheeses, mushrooms, and just about everything else on the menu.  The food and the service were spectacular.  It really was the best meal of the trip.  Sometimes a little suffering pays off.

The final push into Mantova was nice, along a canal, through some neighborhoods, and along the Giardini Fraccalini waterfront park in Mantova. At the end of the park, we reached the barge that would be home for the next week.  It was moored on the Lago Inferiore, the lower part of the “lake” created by the Mincio as it wraps around Mantova.

Dining:

La Stella – Via Della Liberta, Soave – Local home cooking – great food, great service, great atmosphere – Highly Recommended

“Helmet” and the Loss of My Dessert

As soon as we arrived at the barge, we met our future tour guide.  He greeted us, in his German-accented English, by immediately explaining that we couldn’t keep the hybrid bikes we had been enjoying for the past few days.  We needed to unpack them and transfer our equipment to the dreaded “Girlie Bikes” that were already loaded on the barge.  After a circular discussion that got more and more heated, we conceded, solely to keep the peace.  The bikes would be bad enough, but we now realized we would be subjected to whims of this man for six days.

Once the remaining passengers had gathered at the barge, he told everyone that his name was Helmut, with an emphasis on the U, and explained that he disliked it when people mispronounced it as if he were a piece of headgear.  Had he been more engaging or personable, we certainly would have treated his request respectfully, but “Helmet” didn’t do much to earn our affection during the time on the barge.

At the tour stops, he recited what I had already read in the note pages and my guide books.  He had been guiding tours in Italy for a long time, but apparently wasn’t very curious.  You expect a guide to fill you in on some obscure details and insightful facts, but this was a bit too subtle for “Helmet”.

Every evening after dinner, “Helmet” would give us a briefing about the plans and routes for the following day. Of course, “Helmet” didn’t seem to realize that the term “briefing” was founded upon the word “brief”, as in: short, concise, succinct.  Having a captive audience, he would pontificate for close to an hour.  It was all in the printouts.  It wasn’t necessary.  Five minutes would have sufficed.  His “briefings” might better have been described as “dronings” or “prolongings”.

After the first one, I decided I couldn’t bear it.  This was happening at sunset, which is my favorite time of day to roam the area and take photos when the light is at its best, so I devised a plan.  I would eat dinner, but when the plates were being cleared and dessert being served, I would slip out unnoticed.  It’s ridiculous to have to sneak out of a situation that you are paying for, but it kept me happy without any ugly confrontations.

My fellow travelers chuckled each evening as a I got up, probably thinking they really ought to do the same.  The food on the barge was good, and I heard the desserts were delicious.  But I traded them for freedom.  It wasn’t so bad.  There was always a gelateria in town.

ADVICE:  Before booking a fully-guided tour, get the name of the guide and search for online reviews.

A “Sweeper”?  Oh, no!

At that first “briefing”, “Helmet” explained that on the road he would take the lead and his assistant would serve as the “sweeper”.  The what?  What’s a “sweeper”?  Well, it turns out that the sweeper rides at the back of the group and makes sure that no stragglers get left behind.  I get the concept, but “sweeper”?  Are we debris on the road, with the most important task being to keep us together in a single manageable pile that can easily be shoveled back on the barge at the end of the day?  Would we be like livestock, herded like cattle through the prairie until we were safely back in our pen in the evening?  This situation wasn’t feeling very good.  Maybe I’m a little too independent for guided touring.  We’ll see.




   

Day 4: Tour of Mantova:

The next day we had a decision to make.  We could explore the area around Mantova (pop. 49,000) on our own, or join the tour group on a ride focused on the park northwest of town near Soave that we had ridden through the day before.  It would be a good chance to meet our fellow travelers, but I was already getting skittish about being in a big cluster.  There were about 30 cyclists on this barge.  After doing some research, I opted to ride out south of town on some trails along the Mincio in a park called the “Riserva Regionale Vallazza”.  Steve and Laura decided to join me.  It was rougher trail than expected, with sections of rutted dirt and gravel.  That was fine with me.  I’ve been riding that kind of terrain since my adolescent years on dirt bikes in Pennsylvania strip mines.  Steve and Laura, it turns out, prefer pavement.  But the rough patches were short and we ended up having a nice day out there.  It helped that we found some bike-friendly paved roads a bit west of the river for the ride back.

For the rest of the day we relaxed in Mantova, but by this point in the tour, we needed to get some laundry done.  It can be surprisingly difficult to find a laundromat in a foreign city.  In Mantova, we found a nice one on Via Leopoldo Camillo Volta, about two blocks east of the stadium about a mile south of the city center.  Of course, figuring how to use the machines when all of the instructions are in another language…that’s another challenge altogether.  What’s the Italian word for detergent?

By all accounts, Mark, Suzanne, and the rest of the group had a nice ride.

The evening was rainy, but still allowed for a nice walk around Mantova.  Highlights included the Piazza Vergiliana and the Castello di San Giorgio.

The Sexy City Bike

It’s fair to say that I’m a bike nerd, familiar with a wide array of pedal-driven machines that have been produced over the years.  I’ve been to high-culture museum exhibits on bike design and lower-brow collections of vintage examples.  I’ve sought out oddities like wood-framed one-offs and ogled custom-made recumbents.  But in Italy, I met “The One”.  She was so beautiful.  She had curves and lines and innate grace.  She spoke to me.  And she was everywhere – the Italian City Bike.  I had never seen one before.  Why don’t they sell these in the US?  Look at those brake levers.  They’re magnificent.  I was in love.  I still occasionally enter “Italian City Bike” into the search box on Craigslist, but as yet she eludes me.  Perhaps one day…

   

Day 5:   Onward to the Po (est. 30-40 miles)

The next morning, the barge motored downstream on the Minicio River.  Riding on the roof of a canal boat in the morning is a joy.  You can see the rising sun, the mist on the water, and birds in all directions.

After a few miles, we arrived at Governolo, just upstream of where the Mincio flows into the Po River.  We disembarked with our duly numbered “Girly Bikes”.  Steve and Laura were prepared, having bought adorable giraffe and flower squeezy bells in Bolzano specifically for their rigs.  They actually made it a lot easier to discern which bikes were theirs among the matching fleet, and they certainly had style.

With reasonable efficiency for a group of 30, we all got ready and started pedaling.  It was a leisurely stroll on a lovely day that led us down rural roads and trails through Ostiglia and into Bergantino, where we were in for a real treat.  The town is home to multiple companies that manufacture amusement park rides and equipment, and there is a museum on the main street dedicated to preserving some vintage gems.  It contains a wide array of unique displays, with a particular focus on automated musical devices.  Our hourlong tour was guided by a charming young Italian man who spoke with a sing-songy English accent straight out of the cinema – “and-a then-a you-a wind up da machine-a and-a…”.  The whole affair was captivating, and we followed it with an al Fresco lunch a few doors down at Bar Caffe del Rio, which offered a unexpectedly wide selection of British and Belgian beers.

Next on the itinerary was cheese.  Hard, aged cheeses are a specialty in the region.  Everyone knows Pargmagiana Reggiano, but  Grana Padano is another local favorite.   We pedaled to the Caseifficio Sociale Ballottara factory on the edge of town, sat beneath a shady pavilion tasting various aged versions, and then toured the cellar.  It was a very fine dessert course.

The guides prepared the group to head back to the barge, which had moved to the canal north of the main river and was moored in  the small town of Zelo.  It was a perfect afternoon and I wanted to put in more miles, so I took my map and rode off into the countryside alone.  I only got chased by one dog and saw some lovely scenery.

Zelo is small, with about 300 residents.  Around sunset (just before dessert), I headed up the canal for a walk, then back to town where it seemed liked half the population was sitting outside a café called Bar Cacciatore.  I went in and order a draft wine.  Yes…draft wine.  It’s local and it’s carbonated.  The white was very nice.  I don’t recommend the red.

I sat at a table, did some people-watching, and texted Steve to join me.  The “briefing” was almost over, and he arrived in a few minutes.  By this point, the locals’ curiosity had gotten the best of them.  They asked a few questions but were self-conscious about their English-speaking abilities.  Once they understood that my Italian was much worse, but I was still willing to try, things got livelier.  One fellow in particular alternated between asking us questions and poking fun at his grandson, who was sitting across from him.  They explained that although the barge parks on the canal often, virtually no one comes up and socializes at the café.  They were curious to learn more about the tour.  It still boggles my mind.  We sat for an hour or so and had a great time.

Some of the other cyclists were headed to a British-style pub called the Old Pub across the canal.  It’s open from 8PM to 2AM every day and has a welcoming staff that, unsurprisingly, speaks good English.  We joined our fellow travelers for a couple of pints.

That’s quite a bit of night life for a little town. Now I needed a good night of sleep.

Attraction:

 Museo della Giostra e Spettacolo Popolare (Museum of the Carousel and Popular Entertainment) – Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, Bergantino –museum preserving vintage amusement park equipment, with a focus on musical machines – Highly Recommended

Nightlife:

Bar Cacciatore, Zelo –  local café with draft wine and lively conversation – Recommended

Paninoteca Old Pub, Zelo – British-style pub with good selection of drafts and bottles – Recommended

The Pace

By the end of the first group riding day, it was clear that we were going slowly – really slowly.  Apparently, we did need a sweeper.  One cyclist was a very nice gentleman from the UK who was in his 80’s. Most of us were donning cycling shorts, t-shirts, and jerseys.  A few had installed SPD pedals on their bikes.  We were ready to roll.  Our companion, however, was attired in khakis and a button up shirt.  He was ready to relax.  That was fine, except that it was holding everyone up.  What to do?  Fortunately, the boat had a ready solution:  an e-bike.  A little battery boost was just enough to help him keep up with the rest of the group, while allowing him to retain his trademark attire.

Even so, the pace remained slow, with what seemed like too-frequent “cappuccino stops”.  I like coffee as much as anyone, but we were there to ride.

Age

One of the things that surprised me about my first guided tour was the age of the tourists.  As a group, they were substantially older than I expected.  Here is my estimate of the demographics:

In retrospect this makes complete sense.  To undertake a 2-week guided bicycle tour of Europe requires at least two things:  time and money.  Who has those two things?  Retirees.

I was certainly one of the youngest in the group at 49.  I’m not complaining.  My traveling companions were in their late 50’s to late-60’s.  Age has little to bear on whether someone is a good companion.  In many ways I found the situation encouraging.  If this was any indication, I have a good chance of active cycling recreation for another two decades or more.

And let me be clear:  many of these cyclists were in great shape, capable of riding much further and faster than me.  Of course, that was not universally the case and, to be fair, this tour was described as “Easy-to-moderate”.  There was no reason to expect a barge full of spandex-clad racers, nor would I have wanted that.

Diversity

In addition to being mainly in their 50, 60’s, and 70’s, the tourists were all white.  Living in a diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia, that’s something I notice these days.  I find it odd when we are clustered together by ourselves.  I figure it’s good for everyone when people of different backgrounds mix together.  It’s more interesting and it fosters tolerance.

Based on conversations during the trip, most of the cyclists were financially secure -professionals and retirees.  There were a few who had sold businesses and retired early.  I wouldn’t use the word wealthy to describe the crowd.  This wasn’t an expensive, exclusive tour, but nobody seemed like they were scraping together their savings to be there.

The tourists came from around the globe.  There was a gregarious couple from Australia, a more reserved couple from the UK, a group traveling together from Switzerland, a couple from southern Italy, and several of us Yankees from various parts of the US.  There was even a travel writer in the pack, though I’ve never been able to locate her story about the voyage, if she ended up writing one.

Without exception, my fellow travelers were pleasant, polite, and interesting.  It takes a certain sense of adventure to voluntarily go and ride bikes with a bunch of strangers in a foreign land. These were people who had stories to tell and, after a few drinks in the evening, they did.  There were no boasters or exaggerators, just folks with interesting lives getting to know each other.  That was one of the best parts of the tour.

   

Day 6:   Ferrara and Adria (est. 25-30 miles)

On our last inland day, we pedaled through small towns and farm land in the Po River Valley, through Trecenta and Ficarolo, with its leaning tower and pleasant Piazza Marconi. 

The rest of the ride led us on a short but pleasant journey into the university city of Ferrara (pop. 130,000).  It’s visually striking, with piazzas clustered around the moated Castello Estense (Este Castle) and Cathedrale di Ferrara.  It’s also worth the short walk to admire the arches on via Della Volte and the ramparts on the south end of the city center.  We had a very nice lunch at an outdoor table at Osteria degli Angeli on via Della Volte before heading back to the center.   From there, a bus carried us to the barge where it had moored in Adria.

Adria (pop. 20,000) was another pleasant stop.  It’s a small island encircled by two separate branches of the of the Tartaro-Po Canal.  My evening stroll was pleasant enough that I continued the 4 miles around the full perimeter.  This was another town where the streets were quiet in the evening, but as soon as the sun set, everyone came out to socialize.  I texted Laura and Steve, who met me near the center where we did some window shopping then relaxed with a drink at a café, watching the kids play in the piazza.  

Dining:

Osteria degli Angeli – Via delle Volte, 4, Ferrara – Creative rustic Italian in a beautiful setting – Recommended

Breakfast and Lunch

There was always a basic European breakfast on the barge – bread, cold cuts, fruit, and yogurt, along with decent coffee from the espresso machine.

On the first day, the crew suggested that we make sandwiches and pack food for lunch from the remaining breakfast food, which most of the cyclists did.  But we took a different approach.  With the barge, you’re somewhat obligated to eat breakfast and dinner on board, which is nice because it’s an opportunity to get to know the other passengers.  But one of the more enjoyable aspects of traveling is going out to restaurants as way of experiencing the local culture.  Early on, we decided not to pack lunch on the barge and instead find a local place for lunch.  It was a good choice.  The restaurants and cafés in the small towns were welcoming, with good food, excellent service, and reasonable prices. 

   

Day 7:   Po Delta Park and into Chioggia (est. 25-30 miles)

By this point in the trip, it was very clear that guided tours with dozens of cyclists weren’t for me.  Most of the group seemed fine with it, but I decided to ride off on my own as much as possible for the remaining days.  I’m pretty good with maps and don’t mind if I get lost and need to backtrack.  The next morning, I set off solo, adding a bit of extra mileage at the beginning of the trip and planning an extended loop out into the Po Delta Nature Reserve.

The barge carried the cyclists ahead down the canal to shave some mileage, but I got off and started riding directly from Adria. The route was a bit rough in patches, but rural and pleasant, following a dirt path along the canal through Voltascirocco before turning to the south along a quiet road towards the main river where it joined the busy SP80 and headed east.   The shoulder was narrow, and the traffic was a bit harrowing as I passed an enormous solar field.  In Contarina (pop. 15,000) I got lost as the roads got bigger and curved in confusing directions . Eventually I found my way to Strada Arginale, which follows the levee along the Po out into the Po Delta Park.  The land was flat, marshy and interesting, but the wind started picking up as I approached the coast, and it wasn’t at my back.  I was planning to ride further out but decided to cut north into the park instead, heading back towards the main tour route.  It can’t always be fun!

A few miles up, I ran into the rest of the group on a trail and made plans to meet my friends for lunch and ride the remainder of the day with them.  The rest of the afternoon was pleasant.  We rode through the wetlands, looking for interesting birds and admiring farmland and villages as we worked our way north towards Chiogga.  Things got denser and busier as we approached the city, but the traffic never felt dangerous.

Chioggia

Chiogga (pop. 50,000) is at the tip of a peninsula pointing into the Venetian Lagoon about 15 miles south of Venice.  It’s long been known as a fishing port, and fishing clearly still dominates the economy.  Composed of four narrow islands separated by canals, the city is defined by water, both surrounded by it and split into sections by it.  Of course, countless bridges make access easy and add to the character of the landscape.

Thankfully, the barge was moored on the northern end of the easternmost island, just a short walk from the center of town.

I was immediately captivated by this place.  Though it attracts some tourists, it feels dominated by the comings and goings of the local population.  It’s full of energy, with abundant shops and lively foot traffic.  On the evening we arrived, there was a street market which felt like a cross between a farmers’ market and a flea market.  It stretched most of the kilometer-long main street and was clearly there for the locals, who arrived in droves on classic Italian city bikes.  This is only place I’ve seen so many bikes that they had to park in angle-style spaces on the street, like cars sometimes do in the US. 

Chioggia is a great place for people watching, with remarkable old streets, canals, and buildings, and long-time residents going about their business without any seeming concern about tourists who might be wandering nearby.  It’s a bit gritty in just the right way, and, by a wide margin, was my favorite place on this tour.  The photos tell it better than I can.

Life on a Barge

The barge was an interesting aspect of this tour.  It’s a fairly common approach to touring, and you’ve probably seen trips advertised.  Touring barges are typically older commercial/industrial barges that have overhauled and retrofitted.  They can vary widely in size, capacity, and level of accommodations.

We opted for a “premium” barge, which was very comfortable, though I wouldn’t describe it as luxurious.  Most of the guest rooms were below deck and each had a porthole for light and its own bathroom.  There were singles and doubles.  Both were small, but thoughtfully outfitted to make the most out of the space.  It was a perfectly adequate place to sleep and most of our waking hours were spent either above deck or out and about.

Most of the deck level was filled with a large dining hall, restrooms, and the galley.  Outside the galley were coffee machines and coolers/racks where we could purchase wine, beer, and liquor.  The tour rules said that you couldn’t bring your own alcohol on board.  If you wanted a drink, you had to buy it from them.  That worked out fine, since their prices and selection were very reasonable.

The roof of the barge was converted into an open deck with tables and chairs.  It was a great place to enjoy the scenery.  It also had a clever retractable roof that allow the barge to pass under low bridges.

The barge crew consisted of a captain and engineer, as well as a chef and her assistant.  They were all personable and professional.

The meals were good.  Breakfast was consistent and straightforward, in line with European norms.  The dinners were varied, and the chef tried to provide examples of local specialties.  There were a small handful of vegetarians (myself included) and the kitchen was gracious in accommodating us.  Not unusually, my dishes often drew the eye other travelers wishing they could trade their plateful of meat for what I was enjoying.  The offerings rarely rose to a level where the foodie crowd was pulling out their cameras, but everything was more than acceptable.

Internet service was limited.  It was slow and sometimes disappeared altogether.  If you are planning a barge trip and this is important to you, check with your tour provider to know what to expect.  It might make sense to buy a data plan that allows you to use cellular signal to supplement the barge wifi.

Water conservation was also an unexpected consideration.  The barge has to carry all of its own fresh water and waste water.  Short showers were suggested to ensure supplies would last.

   

Day 8:  Barrier Islands:  Pellestrina and Lido (est. 20 miles)

The next morning arrived with the sad realization that this would be our last day of cycling.  We would be exploring the two long, narrow barrier islands that separate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adratic Sea.  The barge headed a short distance north and we disembarked onto the smaller of the two – Pellestrina. There was no way to get lost, with water on both sides. 

A few miles up, we loaded onto a ferry that carried us across to Lido di Venezia.  Though wider and more populated than Pellestrina, it’s still only about 7 miles long and a half mile wide.  The group would be doing a loop, but I decided to explore on my own, heading off on the opposite side of the island.  I pedaled along the main boulevard (Via Malamocco/Via Sandro Gallo) to Lido on the North End.  This has long been a resort island and there are lovely neighborhoods, parks, and canals to admire.  As you get further north, the views of Venice island improve.  At the far northwestern end sits a rustic catholic church looking out across the channel to Venezia.

From there I navigated around the small airport and military base towards the park and beaches that dominate the east side of the island.  It was a relaxed ride with plenty of opportunities for gelato and other refreshments.  The barge was moored on the southwestern end of the island, near Malamocco.  I arrived before the rest of the group and headed up to the roof deck to relax and see the action on the water.  A nearby club was running gondola races in the lagoon, and they were rowing right past the barge.  The crew was concerned because we needed to continue this afternoon to moor near Venice, but the barge couldn’t leave until the races were over.  It was all fine with me.  The gondolas were great fun to watch.

An hour or so later, the races were done, and we were on our way.  The barge crossed over the lagoon and took a scenic route along the south shore of Venice Island past the Iconic St. Mark’s square.  From there we headed down the channel that separates Venice Island from Giudecca Island to the south.  We moored on the south side of Guidecca and prepared to find our way over to the main island.  Our cycling was finished.  Bicycles are not allowed in Venice because the streets and canal bridges are too small and crowded.

   




Venice

Canal to Bay

Venice (pop. 260,000) is a zoo.  St. Mark’s Square is a gorgeous collection of cobblestones and fabulous buildings that is virtually destroyed by the presence mobs of camera toting tourists and dozens of vendors hawking trinkets and annoying lighted helicopter toys.  I would advise you to go when it’s not crowded, but that’s probably never the case.  We pushed our way through the crowds on that first evening and that was enough for me.  Others may enjoy this type of scene, but to me it’s just plain tourist hell.

The next day, an organized tour with a local guide was planned for the group, but I decided to head out on my own and try to avoid the crowds by exploring the further out neighborhoods.  (My fellow cyclists enjoyed the tour, complimenting the guide as both knowledgeable and entertaining.)

From a map, it looks like Venice would be challenging to get around, with all the canals and channels, but it’s not.  The city has a vast network of public water buses (or “vaporetto” boats) with stops in countless convenient locations.  You can find info on routes, schedules, and fairs at the ACTV web site.  Single rides are 2 euros or less.  For 30 euros, you can buy a ticket that allows unlimited rides for 2 days, and for an extra 6 euros you can use it to get to or from the airport.  The boats generally go in a loop.  When you get to a vaporetto stand, it’s important to figure out which direction an approaching boat is headed.  Otherwise, the two-stop journey you planned might take an hour or more.  I did it once and could have gotten off to reverse course, but it was fun just to ride the loop and see more of the city.

I had decided that one other journey into the tourist center was essential and that was a water bus ride down the main canal.  I tried to get out early to beat the crowds and braced for the worst.  The boat was crowded, but I managed to eventually get a seat.  It was worth it.  The main canal is lined with incredible palaces.  Some are vacant and run down, while others are ornate and immaculate.  The people-watching alone makes the journey worthwhile.  Though a tourist zoo, Venice really is a special place.

When I get to a bigger town, I always go online and try to find a listing of local events.  One that caught my eye was the Architecture Bienniale.  The Bienniale is an annual Venice event focused on either arts and architecture, in alternating years.  2016 was an architecture year, which I was great, since I’m trained as an engineer and my work life revolves around buildings and sustainability.

The Bienialle is big.  It actually has a site dedicated to it call the “Giardini della Bienniale” (Biennial Garden), which is a lovely park on the much less touristed eastern end of the island. It houses about half of the exhibits.  The rest are in a cool old armory in the Castello neighborhood called the “Arsenale di Venezia”.

I got off the main canal “vaporetto”, hopped another one down to the Giardini, and bought myself a ticket. The garden was filled with unique buildings, each one housing the exhibit selected to represent a single nation.  After a few, I wondered what in the world this all had to do with architecture.  There was one exhibit related to construction site safety and the German exhibit was a logical (of course) study on how architecture can help integrate refugees into society.  Otherwise, the whole thing seemed like a collection of graduate school theses for modern art PhD’s.  I know quite a few architects, and they can be eccentric, but this was on a whole other scale.  I’m not sure I learned anything, but it was entertaining enough to keep me moving through the Giardini and then on to the Arsenale.  The pictures describe it better than I ever could.

After the Bienniale, I wandered the side streets back toward the Piazza San Marco, getting lost numerous times.  Venice is filled with meandering streets and canal bridges.  Particularly in the oldest section around Piazza San Marco, it’s virtually impossible not to get twisted around thinking you’re going north when you’re actually headed south.  Eventually, I found a vaporetto station and headed back to the barge for dinner and a drink with my fellow cyclists.

I had identified another event online that caught my eye, which was an organ concert at the Chiesa di San Vidal (Church of San Vidal) on the western edge of the San Marco neighborhood.  I was a little surprised to have the monsignor deliver a 10-minute service before the performance, but I guess he had a captive audience and felt inclined to take advantage.  The music was as majestic as the 16th century building.  Afterwards, I wandered the adjacent Campo Santo Stefano square and enjoyed one last gelato with the locals.

Back Home

The next morning, we took a vaporetto and a bus to the airport, said our fond farewells, and returned to our regular lives in the states, where we would reminisce and develop plans for the next adventure:  Prague-to-Budapest.

   

Conclusions

Looking back at my first organized tour, I think the answers to two questions provide a useful assessment of this adventure:

Would I Do it Again?

In most ways, this tour was a great experience.  We visited a wide array of places, from bucolic valleys, resorts, and small towns to medium sized cities with millennia of history.  The routes were mostly excellent, with close to 90% on bike paths or roads with little car traffic.  The accommodations were nice, meeting or exceeding our expectations based on what we paid, except for the “motel” in Peschiera del Garda.

We met a lot of really nice people.  Our fellow travelers were a joy.  They came from different parts of the globe and had interesting stories to tell.  Most were at least regular, if not avid, cyclists, so we had common ground to build on.  I know that some have maintained contact for years after the tour.

For all of those reasons, I’d say “Yes, I would do this tour again.”  Though the tour guide was a frustration, the rest of the barge crew was excellent – friendly, helpful, and full of good advice.  The maps and backup info they provided was succinct and adequate for us to navigate the first 3 days on our own and for me to explore solo on much of the rest of the trip.

What would I change?

I came out of this experience with mixed feelings about fully-guided tours.  They can be convenient.  You don’t have to worry about finding your way, and a good guide can show you hidden treasures or provide nuanced information that you would have never gotten on your own.  On the other hand, you are at the mercy of the tour.  You might show up and find (as we did) that the guide is not very good or personable.  You are also captive between the guide and the “sweeper”.  You have limited control over the pace and the stops.

Given those considerations, I’ve leaned towards self-guided tours after this one.  Of course, those have their challenges, too.  You’re responsible for both navigation and planning the sight-seeing.

Weighing both sides, I’d consider a guided tour again, but I’d do more research and try to pick a tour with a smaller group size.  I’ve seen barges with as few as 10-12 travelers.  That would be more manageable and personal, and it would be worth paying more if necessary.  I’d also choose a tour that was advertised as more challenging than “easy-to-moderate” simply because it would mean the other cyclists would probably want to move along at a faster pace.  I can climb a few more hills.  And finally, I’d do careful research about the guide, checking online reviews to ensure I was in for a positive experience.  Your goals may be different, but these are certainly factors worth considering.

Ah, yes…the bikes.  I have no interest in doing another tour on a “Girlie Bike”.  Since this tour, I’ve done two others and, well before any money was exchanged, I asked bike questions: “What kind of bikes are available?  What brand and model?  What sizes?  What kind of racks and bags are available?  Can you install SPD pedals?”

And if someone offers a tour on one of those Sexy City Bikes, count me in.  But I might never return home.

 

2 thoughts on “Northern Italy – Bike & Barge – 2016

  1. The whole experience was very memorable. The changing scenery, the background info provided etc. was great. The quality of the barge added to the overall enjoyment. One of the highlights was watching how well the crew worked together and genuinely seemed to be having fun. It was a very unique experience that surpassed my expectations. I wouldn t hesitate to recommend this trip to anyone. This is my first bike and barge experience and will definitely not be my last. Although others in reviews said the Vita Pugna was tired . I saw it as wonderfull vintage barge, with a crew that loved it and showed their care for it in their care for us. The food was outstanding and any hopes I had of losing weight on the trip were quickly dashed with each evenings meal. We joined a large group of Kiwis onboard, with 2 Brits and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. One thing that would have made the trip even better would be a different pillow; the one I had was too high and too hard for my taste and left me with a stiff neck in the morning.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ginevra. I’m glad you had a good time on your trip. I rode on a different barge, but saw the Vita Pugna at one or two of the stops. It was smaller and, though not as “luxurious” as ours, seemed like it would be more enjoyable due to the smaller group size. It’s great that the crew was so nice. Ours was as well, except for the unfortunate tour guide. Regards, Dave.

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