The unexplained intermission will now be explained. Victor received notice of his admission to a masters program in Lisbon, Portugal along with being awarded a scholarship for attendance. This resulted in all “blog” computer time being reallocated to taking care of preparations, research, and correspondence needed for this new plan. While excited about the turn of events, he realized that this would result in the shortening of his trip. For Victor, the trip will now last until the middle of July, and for Katy the length of the trip is yet to be determined. Either way, they will both continue being lifelong cyclists and continue telling others about traveling by cycle.
Venice is very hard to get to by bike. In fact, bikes are not allowed in Venice, neither are cars, and for good reason. The whole city is connected by a maze of footpaths linked by bridges which cross over the network of canals that surround and bisect each neighborhood. We did not know much about Venice, and although we figured we couldn’t bike in Venice, it shouldn’t be too hard to bike to a campsite nearby and then get into the city in another fashion. The plan was to bike to the coast along the Po River, head northeast along the coast to reach Chioggia, then follow the strip of barrier islands up to Lido di Venezia, a beach town right across the water from Venice and with frequent ferry service for only 3.50 Euro. We even had a GPS route shared by an Italian biker on Wikiloc, the gps route sharing network. If only it had been this easy; the story starts in Reggio Emilia.
|From 2012-05-20 Mestre Venice|
Post Date: May 20, 2012
After our struggles and the long battle to reach the Venice area by bicycle, Katy and I decide we must continue the mission and try to get into Venice itself by bicycle. This will be a challenge since the island itself is not bikeable, and it seems that the tourism industry has worked especially hard to ensure that all visitors pay to cross over the bridge into Venice either by purchasing a train ticket, bus ticket, or ferry ticket. Over our morning macchiato’s at the camping cafe, I use the internet to research how to enter Venice by bike. I find a confusing statement about Venice and bicycling on the city of Venice’s tourism website, stating that one can bike along the bridge that connects Mestre and Venice, however it does not mention how to reach this bridge, nor what to do at the other end of the bridge as it enters Venice. After a few more searches I stumble across a personal site that documents one person’s attempt to enter Venice by bike, citing the highway style roads that lead to the bridge, the degraded condition of the entrance to the bridge sidewalk, and the location that he was able to park his bike adjacent to the parking garages before entering Venice.
We pack a day bag with food, cameras, and our beginners Italian language books. Jan is taking a rest day to follow up on errands, so we say goodbye and head out of the campground. The road that the campground is located is a major two lane road with a sidewalk for part of the way, so we take it until it ends. We pass a series of rotundas and a large park that is near the entrance to a mess of ramps that connect to highways and bridges. Patiently we wait at the edges of the roads until we have a clear opening to cross over to the ramp that leads to Venice. On the ramp large buses and cars full of people pass by, and then we merge onto the left side of a 3 lane highway style road, forcing us to wait again and then cross quickly to get to the right side. Although people are travelling fast along this road, we can monitor oncoming traffic using our rear view mirrors, and the European drivers do a good job of moving over into the left lane before passing.
|From 2012-05-20 Mestre Venice|
Just before reaching the 5 kilometer bridge across the water I spot a decrepit boarded up building on the right side of the road and a gravel path. Having looked at the man’s website this morning I figure this must be the entrance so I signal to Katy and we pull off the road behind some trees and onto a path, which indeed leads us to the beginning of the sidewalk that rides along the bridge. The sidewalk itself is actually in good shape, and it is wide enough for a bicyclist to comfortably ride along, so the main problem is that it is not connected to a bike accessible entrance on the Mestre side of the bridge. Coming across the water we are on a bridge that is also shared by four lanes of traffic and a few railroad tracks, all constantly in use and trafficking hoards of people into the mother of all tourist destinations. The flat bay is calm, we can see rows of floating buoys marking fishing lines or trapping cages, boats of all types spread across the water, and the city in the distance.
As we approach the island cluster that is Venice we encounter first the island that serves as the cruise ship docking area, followed by a jam-packed parking lot for scooters. Up ahead over another bridge we can see the large parking garages that everyone driving to Venice must pay to park in, so we decide we are close enough and we lock our bikes to cemented poles along the perimeter of the scooter parking area. Both bikes are U-locked and cabled in a highly visible area to attempt to deter any kind of thieves from taking a crack at our bikes. Within 5 minutes walking, we pass the square where all of the buses drop off their passengers, and we cross our first footbridge into the maze that is Venice.
Post Date: May 19, 2012
From Chioggia we are theoretically close to Venice, only some 15 kilometers as the crow flies, however we must navigate a watery landscape with only sparse pieces of land. The GPS route has us taking the barrier islands to the north in order to reach Lido di Venezia, which is directly across the bay from Venezia. There a ferry can take us across the water to reach Venice, and we hope to find a nearby campsite at Mestre on the mainland. The ferry will only cost 3.50 euro to get us across.
On the way through Chioggia we stop to restock on groceries at the Lidl and eat a kebab at a beachside shop. Within minutes of leaving we hit the north end of the Chioggia peninsula and find that there are no bridges connecting the barrier islands. We must take two ferries between the barrier islands to even reach Lido, and then a third ferry to reach Venice, but we won’t be allowed to disembark with the bicycles because they are prohibited on the island of Venice. All of this will cost a 24 hour ferry ticket of 18 euro plus 1.50 euro extra per ferry for the bicycles, for a grand total of 22.50 euro each. This is a huge difference from the 3.50 euro, and we sit around disappointed at the edge of the pier deciding what to do.
|From 2012-05-19 Chioggia Mestre|
Eventually we decide this is too much and we need to ride south again to circle around to Mestre via roadways and bridges. This is easier said than done and we begin the process of biking, getting lost, using the tablet to reorient ourselves yet again, and repeating this cycle numerous times before getting on the road leading up to Mestre. Along the way we keep trying to take secondary and minor roads to reach our destination, but inevitably each one of them reaches another river or canal without a bridge and we have to get back on the major roads to cover any ground. Thankfully there is a small shoulder for us to ride on part of the way, and after a couple of hours we reach a straightaway and notice there are a few bikers riding on a gravel path parallel to the roadway. I’m not sure how long we have been traveling next to this path, but we switch over to it and start passing pedestrians and cyclists. One woman in full Italian custom says “ciao, ciao, ciao” to Jan as he passes first, then “ciao” to Katy, and “ciao, ciao” to me. 6 ciaos in ten seconds seems like a good representation for the Italians as I seem to hear this word repeatedly everywhere I go, although this may be because it’s one of the words I actually know.
Back on the main road we eventually reach the industrial outskirts of Mestre and spend almost an hour finding the campgrounds near the bay. The industrial section, while low in traffic and with wide roads, is quite unpleasant to ride through. It reminds me of the industrial wastelands on US route 40 just east of Baltimore, except here we keep passing prostitutes that are just standing by the road waiting for something, someone, anything. Reaching the bayside involves navigating a series of highway style roadways and bridges, and we grow wary and tired of trying to reach this elusive attraction named Venice. We finally find the way to the road leading to the campsite, first stopping at a fancy camping that wants to charge us almost 60 euro per night for the three of us, we continue to the next camping and find much lower, but still touristy prices. Katy and I are paying 18 euro per night for two adults, a small tent, and a measly patch of grass next to a hoard of young restless German guys with pimped out cars.
The camping turns out being very different from any campsite we have stayed at thus far. Most campings we have visited have a majority population of older couples with campers and canopies, many Germans and few English speakers, and what appears to be a regular community of season-long camp residents. On the other hand, this campground has a huge number of young people speaking many different languages, English is heard almost everywhere we walk, there are a fair number of tents compared to the number of campervans, and there are a large amount of small cabins and permanent tents that can be rented directly from the campground. The permanent tents are about 2 meters by 2 meters, and looking inside of one I see that the entire space is taken up by 2 cots side by side with space to store bags beneath the cots. The cafe restaurant is thriving until late in the night as people eat pizzas, drink wine and beer, and use the wifi connection. I know that the reason this campground is different is because we are in close proximity to Venice, a worldwide tourist attraction, and staying at this camping is probably one of the cheapest options for lodging anywhere in the vicinity.
Post Date: May 18, 2012
In the morning we are put to shame by the early rising bike tourers. As I emerge from the tent at about 9 AM I see that all of their tents are gone and their bikes are loaded, two of the bikers are standing over their bikes near the reception office, and two other bikers are riding their bikes over to the washroom building. I sleepily head to the bathrooms to brush my teeth and casually check out their bicycles and gear. All of the bikes I see have Ortlieb panniers on them, and they all appear to be Koga Miyata brand bicycles, a famous Dutch touring bike company that reportedly makes the best touring bikes available. I am curious and want to chat with them and ask a hundred questions but I also don’t want to impose on their urgent need to get out of camp as soon as possible. I greet them in English as I enter the bathhouse but they only mumble back, so I assume this means they don’t understand me or they speak another language.
By the time I return to the tent all of them are gone, except for one bike that is parked under a tree, fully loaded, and leaning on its kickstand. This one is also a Koga Miyata with red Ortlieb bags, and it’s owner is sitting at a small table near the reception building eating breakfast and reading. He must be the owner of the 5th bike we saw when entering last night, and he is apparently not traveling with the other four bikers. As Katy and I pack up camp he wanders over and we start chatting. Jan is from Holland and he is also taking a 6 month expedition by bicycle around Europe. He is also heading in the same direction as we are, towards Venice, and after talking for a while longer we decide to ride together for the day. We are ecstatic to be able to ride with another cyclotourist, compare notes, talk shop, and make a new friend.
|From 2012-05-18 Ferrara Chioggia|
Jan tells us that he spoke to the other group and they were also from the Netherlands, but they were following a planned route from a popular bike touring book. The route leads to Rome, and the book marks out the exact routes to take, and possible camping and lodging options along the way. Once we are all ready to leave, the three of us head into Ferrara to purchase some groceries and when we come out of the store there are two other cyclotourists sitting outside with their loaded bikes. They are also Dutch, and have come from Rome to Ferrara following the same bike tour book that the other group was following heading in the other direction.
Today we are heading to Chioggia, a beach side town on the way up to Venice, using a GPS route shared by an Italian man on Wikiloc. We are surprised to find out that Jan has been navigating his trip using a large map showing the Alps region and a handlebar-mounted compass. His philosophy of routing is to head in the general direction of his destination using the roads he encounters, and if a road is too busy or too rough, just switch to another one. The positive aspects I like about this method are that I would not be confined to a predetermined route, I could take any road that looks appealing to me as I pass them, and I would potentially discover many interesting places along the way. What I would fear about this method is ending up horribly lost, going in circles because of winding roads, and having to resort to whatever lodging was around when the sun began to set.
The majority of the day we spend travelling eastwards along the tops of the levees that are built on either bank of the Po River as it heads out towards the delta and the Adriatic Sea. The riding is calm, flat, and relatively free of traffic, giving us time to talk and relax. After spending the last two months with only each other to talk to, it is nice to have another person around with whom to share stories and ideas. As we near the delta of the river, we leave the levee route and head northeast towards the beaches just south of Venice. The land is flat, bays and marshes start to appear, rivers and canals crisscross the land repeatedly, and then we notice that we are off track. We are being guided by a line on the gps, but it appears to have been generalized because in some sections of curvy roads the line appears straight. When we approach intersections or forks in the road I have to guess left or right because the GPS line doesn’t have enough detail. At some point in the last several kilometers I must have guessed wrong because the line continues to get further and further away from my little point on the screen until it’s all the way on the left edge of the screen. I look off into the distance across the bay and I see a tiny car driving along a road all the way on the other side. I am sure we are supposed to be on that road, but how do we get over there, how did that car get over there? I don’t remember seeing any turns to the left anytime recently. I break the bad news to my travelling companions.
We pull off the road onto a small side road heading along a thin isthmus of land towards the north. Does this road continue or does it deadend somewhere ahead? Katy researches on her tablet while Jan and I munch on cereal cookies from Lidl, our favorite low cost grocery store. The sun is about 15 degrees above the horizon and we know it will soon be dark. The closest campsites are along the beaches near Chioggia so we must reach this point or risk camping out in the maze of marshes and wetlands of the Po River Delta. Katy gets a bearing on directions and we continue along the isthmus heading north as this thin piece of land crosses several kilometers of water, eventually returning us to the mainland. We must do some further navigation to manage the crossing of several small rivers to reach the Chioggia area. As the light dims we resort to taking the main road to get us there as quickly as possible. The sun has set but in the remaining 30 minutes of dusk before total darkness we cross yet another bridge and see the signs for campgrounds ahead.
We reach the beach town area, reminiscent of American beach towns like Ocean City but with smaller roads and more bakeries. The strip of campgrounds leading down the coast are rated with stars for amenities, similar to hotel ratings. We choose a 3 star campground with beach access that quotes us a descent price, and we set up camp a mere 30 meters from the sea. The night becomes very humid as we cook dinner over the Primus stove, treating Jan to a home cooked meal on the road.
Post Date: May 17, 2012.
The next few days we will be riding across the flat plains of northeast Italy, following the Po River bike route that is shown on the maps that we acquired at the tourist information office yesterday. Our speeds are much higher than normal since we are travelling along flat roads. Passing through the outskirts of Reggio Emilia involves riding on busy roads to reach the quiet country roads, however we feel that this is because we don’t know what the best cycling routes are leading out of the city. The country roads are narrow and relatively free of traffic, and once we reach the Po River route we find that some of the roads are paved and others are gravel surface. This is somewhat of a problem because riding on gravel is slow and we need to cover about 140 kilometers to reach Ferrara, so we are counting on the high speeds of flat pavement to be able to reach that distance by dark.
|From 2012-05-17 ReggioEmilia Ferrara|
The Italian plains are very flat, covered by farmlands and grasslands, criss-crossed by rivers, canals, and irrigation channels. In the far distance we can see the Alplilles mountains to the south, and a small cluster of montains off in the far distance to the northeast. Unfortunately this section of the Po River bike route is not signed on the roads, and the map does not have the names of the roads we are supposed to be following. I am deciding when to turn judging by the shapes of the roads as they curve back and forth, trying to match our real life roads to the small lines on the paper map. A few times we miss our turn, travel for some distance before realizing that we are off track, then have to turn back to find the road we are supposed to be on. This does not fare well for reaching Ferrara before dark.
Around the middle of the afternoon we roll into the small town of Guastalla in search of food. The major square and strip has many closed shops and stores, and several expensive restaurants. Heading through town we decide to ask someone for advice so Katy turns to a man and says “dove trovare restaurante economico,” a good mix of the little Italian we know and Spanish words that are similar to their Italian counterparts. He points us in the direction of the train station and we find an amazing full touristic menu (the Italian version of the menu of the day) for 11 euro each. The food is phenomenal and we are recharged for the long road ahead.
Our riding pace is quite possibly the best we have acheived during any day of our trip, thanks to a combination of flatlands and the pressing need to go fast in order to reach Ferrara before dark. After a few more wrong turns we come to the beginning of a rail-trail style path that is part of our route, promising to take us 50 kilometers further along our route. My constant fear of the ill-marked map is relieved for the time being since we will easily be able to follow the paved route over a relatively straight course for a few hours. The advantage of the path is that we are away from traffic, and are now sharing our route with many joggers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers. Since the path connects a series of small towns, it seems that this linear park is very popular for recreational strolls and exercise circuits. The most amazing thing we see on the path is a man riding a bicycle carrying a small metal soccer goal frame on his shoulder. It is so large that it comes down to within inches of the ground, he must move slowly to balance the frame on his shoulder and keep any of its edges from scraping, and we have to wait for him to pull off the path for us to pass.
Unfortunately the path is frequently interrupted by these strange barriers at every road crossing. They come in sets of two and first there is a horizontal bar on the right side of the path, then a second horizontal bar on the left side of the path. These are meant to slow you down, but in this case they overlap quite a bit and are placed very close together, forcing us to repeatedly dismount the bike to squeeze it through the bottleneck this creates. Combine this with a busy path full of bikers and runners and you get a mini traffic jam. At many of these barriers the people have just started going off of the path, cutting through the vegetation to get around them completely, making the whole effort seem like an expensive waste of time.
As we pass through small cities the path often ends randomly, dumping us out on a road without any indication of where we need to go next. The map shows that the path goes straight through the towns, but in many instances we come to a road and there is a building or a commercial property straight ahead. We need to take a small detour to get through the town and then continue of the path, however someone forgot to mark the way, or they just assumed that everyone using the path is local and knows their way around. As the sun gets lower in the sky, these unplanned detours are making me nervous, and every wrong turn we make costs us precious daylight. At one of these cities we try to find the way and get totally lost, so we’re standing at an intersection wondering what to do when a car slows down and two men start yelling in Italian. I yell back “no parlo Italiano!” and one man says “Espanol?” Excellent, then men talk to us for a few minutes, give us complicated directions to reach the continuation of the path on the other side of the city, and are truly excited to talk to us and hear our story. I am too shy to ask, but I wish they would invite us to camp in their yard or stay at their house.
We reach the end of the path in Finale Emilia as the light fades from the sky. The tablet and Google maps tell us there are no hostels or campings anywhere before Ferrara, and that is still 30 kilometers away. We have already covered about 115 km today, but thanks to the flat terrain we have energy to continue, but our problem is that our daylight did not last long enough. Due to lack of other options, we turn on all the lights, make sure the reflectors are all visible, mount the headlamps on the handlebar bags, and continue into the dusk towards Ferrara along empty roads. Every so often we pass through a small town where the only life left outside is taking place at the bars, and many shocked and surprised faces of old men look back at us as we pass in the night.
The last several kilometers into Ferrara, starting two suburb towns out, is facilitated by a full blown separated cycletrack to the side of the roadway. This is highly beneficial because as we approach large cities the empty country roads become full of traffic coming into or out of the city. Even though it is dark, we see evidence of a well developed cycle network as we pass connecting bike lanes, routes, and cycletracks that split off to who knows where. Luckily my GPS has a backlight for when it gets dark, so I switch on its light every few minutes to check and make sure we are still on the right track.
As we enter the downtown area we notice that there are hoardes of people walking on the sidewalks, and some people even sitting on the sidewalk. All of a sudden we see that the road ahead is blocked off to vehicle traffic, and police are diverting all cars. Playing the non-motorized vehicle card, we cruise by unhalted on the sidewalk, then get back onto the empty road. Within minutes four luxury Mercedes vans fly past us covered in logos that we can’t see due to darkness, and we assume they are part of whatever event is going on in town. Then without warning several expensive exotic sports cars scream out of the night and rumble past us. I glimpse a few Ferraris and a Lamborghini in the milisecond it takes them to overtake us.
We are heading to the hostel in town, and are now fearing that everything will be booked and full, the way it was back in Millesimo. As I’m dreading bad news, I see a sign that points to Municipal Camping!!! We are saved, overjoyed, happy that we will have cheap lodging for the night, and confident that we will have a place to sleep since cycle-campers are never turned away from campsites, even if they are full. The signs, which for some annoying reason never indicate how far the campings are located, lead us clear across town, out the other side past the old fortification wall, and into a distant park with camping. As we pull up to the gate we see it is closed, the sign says gates locked at 10pm, and it is now after 10:30pm. The gate is tall and there is no way we can jump it or pass the bags overtop of it, so I start ringing the call button next to the little speaker every few seconds until we hear a groggy and annoyed voice crackle on the other side. “We’re closed for the night”. “Yes but we’re cycling and we need camping and we don’t have anywhere to go!” After some back and forth in Spanish, which the Italian man understands, he opens the gate from us and allows us to check in for the night. We are so very grateful and sorry for disturbing the man during his time off. As we roll into the camping area we discover there is a pair of touring bikes tied up next to a tent, then we spot another pair, and another single touring bike tied to a tree!
Story date: May 16, 2012
After the train debacle we experienced trying to reach Reggio Emilia we decided to take a day off and enjoy relaxing at the Hostel della Ghiara and walking liesurely about the town. The building we are staying in is absolutely amazing, very grand in scale with tall cielings, wide corridors, and an impressive courtyard. From appearance it could have previously been a palace or some kind of institutional building, as one side of the building is connected to a governmental office and there is a large clock tower somewhere ontop. (Actually after looking this up I found out that “the hostel is in the additional building of the Basilica della Beata Vergine della Ghiara”.) Every time the hour strikes I can physically feel the force of the bells and the vibrations coming down through the building; I could feel them as I slept last night. Having stayed in several of the hostels that are on the “Europe’s famous hostels” list, I believe that this one would be a good candidate for their group of oustanding and impressive hostels.
|From 2012-05-16 ReggioEmilia|
Walking around Reggio Emilia we are in wonder at how many bicycles are zipping around on all of the streets in the old town. It is like we have entered a different dimension of Italy when compared to Genova. There everyone was zooming around on scooters, driving fast in small cars, or walking en masse on the narrow sidewalks. Now we are in the historic part of Reggio Emilia where most roads are narrow and inconvenient for driving, the city is completely flat, and everywhere you look there are bicycles parked and all ages of people riding bikes.
We visit the information center and find a woman who is very enthusiastic when we tell her we are travelling across Europe by bike. Instantly she starts pulling out maps showing the cycling routes in the area, showing us large scale city maps, regional maps, then a set of maps for a bike route that goes from Reggio Emilia all the way to the coast, following the course of the Po River. We take this set of maps, since it heads in the direction of Venice, our next major destination.
As we leave our hostel we stop at the nearby large grocery store to purchase food, which interestingly does not have a parking lot for it’s customers. Instead, the whole length of the front of the building has long bike racks that hold the front wheel of bikes to keep them standing upright. Customers of all ages, sizes, and genders are constantly coming and going, most on old cruiser style bikes. Interestingly to me, most people just lock their bike to it’s own wheel but not to a fixed object as we are taught to do in the USA. Here there are so many bicycles that the only theft deterrent that is needed for the common bikes is that their wheels be immobilized to keep someone from riding away on them. While Katy is inside buying food I watch our bikes outside and decide to count how many bikes are parked at one moment in time. I count 80.
|From 2012-05-17 ReggioEmilia Ferrara|
Tomorrow we will embark on another unloaded bike ride, totaling about 80 kilometers. We are currently camping in a park over the largest cave in Slovenia, Postojnska Jama, right outside of the town Postojnska. We were lucky to find this campsite, thanks to the great Slovenia visitor website that the government publishes in many different languages. As I type I am sitting at the campground’s outdoor cafe, which overlooks a giant hole in the ground that leads to one of the minor entrances of the cave, named Pivka Jama. I can see all the way down into the hole to the rushing river that runs underground through the cave. Unfortunately this entrance to the cave is closed to visitors right now even though there are stairs that descend into the depression.
|From 2012-05-26 Postojna|
As I learned in my geography classes some years ago, Karst topography refers to areas of soluble bedrock (like limestone) which result in many sinkholes, depressions, and caverns. We are currently in the Karst region of Slovenia, and there are thousands of caves all around us. Here’s an excellent map of the major caves in Slovenia open to visitors, and a table of each cave’s measurements. The largest cave in Slovenia is the Postojnska Jama, which stretches almost 20 kilometers underground with the Pivka River running through about 10 kilometers of the chambers. As we investigated this cave we found that it is the most touristy cave in Slovenia, with a train that runs inside of it to carry the rambunctious hoards of tourists, a Disney sized parking lot, and a hefty pricetag of 23 euro per person. This does not bode well for us, as we have found time and again with the tourist hotspots we have encountered on our trip.
We are choosing to bike over to another cave system, the Skocjanske Jame, designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. This cave is created by the Reka River, which has carved a canyon into the limestone before disappearing underground into the cave below the village of Skocjan. Parts of the gorge extend down into the cave, and the unique formations and environment have resulted in many endemic fauna and flora that are specific to these caves. The Reka River flows about 30 kilometers underground before resurfacing near the Adriatic Sea. The Skocjanske cave’s website holds a wealth of information for potential visitors.
We are excited to have another day of unloaded bikeriding, and are very lucky to be in the beautiful forested hills of southwest Slovenia. Our experience biking on the roads here thus far is that they are relatively empty of traffic, and wide enough to accomodate cyclists and passing vehicles. We obviously can’t ride on the highways, and the only set of gravel farm roads we took turned out being too steep to handle on fully loaded touring bikes, so we’ll stay away from those. I planned out the route on Google Maps, taking one road out to Skocjanske Jame and a different road back. While designing the route I used GPS Visualizer to check the elevation profile and ensure we won’t be crossing any giant mountains. The Wikiloc version of our bike route is now posted for others to use and share.
Last night we completed our extremely visit of Cinque Terre region and were reminded of how little we can afford touristic Italy. Walking around the town of Levanto looking for some remotely affordable food, we failed miserably and ended up eating pizza for dinner because it was the only option costing below 40 euro for both of us to eat. Having used all of our grocieries while cooking during the previous two nights, we had no option but to eat out because the shops and markets close early. By the time we returned from hiking between the small towns everything was closed.
This morning we find ourselves in the same boat as we need to eat something before leaving; we are desperate to leave the tourist coast and get away from the steep mountains conspiring to keep us here as long as possible. The plan is to take the train just across the mountains, therefore saving us an exhausting two day mountain bikeride requiring more expensive food and lodging. After checking out from the campground we have 2 hours to kill before the 15:30 train so we ride towards last night’s pizza place for a quick feeding session. Since most of the restaurants here charge you a silverware (coberto) charge between 1.50 – 2.50 euro each for eating at a table, I wait with the bikes at a plaza with benches while Katy goes to order the “carry out” pizzas. A few minutes later she comes back with the sad news, the pizza place is closed on Tuesdays.
|From 2012-05-15 Levanto ReggioEmilia|
We walk around the small town with our loaded bikes, checking out all of the menus for something reasonable and filling. Pizza by the slice is the only option we can find, so we get a piece to hold us over during our search. The slice shops have the rectangular pieces of pizza already prepared and sitting in their glass display cases, the customer specifies what size piece is desired, the piece is cut, and then weighed because prices are by the kilogram. I point to our pizza of choice and indicate a piece about 3 inches by 5 inches, which ends up costing 2.75, and it is served to us cold. I am not amused nor satisfied. We continue snaking back and forth down the streets checking out menus, but many places are closed and the open ones are out of our price range. The least expensive option ends up being a bar that serves simple pasta and pizzas, and we come back to it while the owner is standing outside smoking a cigarette. I pull up onto the sidewalk with my loaded bike, say hello to him, and Katy sees him laugh at us behind my back.
We are fed up and tired with this place, I feel defeated, and Katy will not stand to support the business of this man so we turn down his indication of where to park the bikes and walk away. Katy tells me she is just going to go back to the station to eat raisins and wait for the train, but I have to keep searching for food because I am afraid of being hungry during the 4 hour train voyage. We part ways and I ride up and down the streets looking for something to no avail. As I approach the beach I remember the campground owner telling me that one of the old rail tunnels was converted to a cycle and pedestrian path, allowing people to easily reach the next town down the coast about 4 kilometers away. I don’t want to spend any more of my money in Levanto so I race towards the tunnel, knowing I have about 70 minutes before catching the train.
The tunnels are long and cold, opening up briefly from time to time to a window of sunlight, waves crashing on rocks, with solitary sunbathers sitting in the mini private beaches. About 15 minutes pass before I reach the next town, seemingly smaller than Levanto, and I circle around the center. From what I can see during my 5 minute tour of the town, most lodging and restaurants are closed, and I find only one fancy resaurant, one bar, one gelateria, and one pizza slice place. I walk into the pizza place and am greeted by a fat man behind a tall counter who tells me I can get 3 pieces of pizza and a beer for 5 euro! Finally I am relieved to find some realistic prices, so I point out my 3 slices and say “caldo” to tell him that I want them served hot. Knowing I am racing the clock, I devour my three slices while cherishing every bite without wasting any time, then run back inside to order 3 pieces carry-out to take back to Katy, who is probably gnawing her fingers off at the station.
I throw the slices and the beer back into my pannier and see that my bike computer says I only have 30 minutes before the train leaves. I am racing out of the town and back into the tunnels, pushing the bike to speeds of around 30-35kph as I stand on the pedals pumping with a full stomach of pizza. I don’t even have to ring my bell as I approach pedestrians because I am going so fast that people can hear the hum of my bike tread on the pavement before I reach them. I fly back into Levanto 10 minutes later and head the last kilometer through town back up to the station, climbing up the hill to the platform and spotting Katy sitting on a stone wall in front of the entrance. My anxious face must have revealed my state of panic at only having 15 minutes before boarding time because she jumps off the wall and runs into the station to buy the tickets.
This morning I had read on the TrenItalia website that bikes travel free if accompanied by their owners, and the 3.50 euro fee that we each paid to travel from Genova to here, was in fact only applicable to bikes travelling alone. I am not sure why this is so confusing, but a few minutes later Katy sticks her head out of the station to say that the ticket office is making us pay the bike fee anyways because we are travelling out of the region, and that bikes only travel free accompanied within the region of Liguria. She goes back in for a couple more minutes and I am in full panic sweat mode as I see the clock approach 15:10; the train leaves at 15:18.
The reason for sweating is that these stations are not handicapped accessible, and therefore not easy to pass through with fully loaded bicycles because they have stairs and no elevators. We are at the front of the station, which is at the level of the ticket office and adjacent to track 1, and our train is coming on track 2. To get to tracks 2 or 3 you have to go down into a tunnel to go under track 1 and then climb a set of stairs to reach the other tracks. The ramp entrance to the tunnel is on the other side of the station, requiring us to ride down the street to the road that goes under the tracks, then back up the other side towards the station and into the tunnel. As Katy runs out of the station with tickets in hand I push off and we dash to the other side and into the tunnel amidst a flood of people that are walking out from a recently arrived train. At the bottom of the stairs leading to track 2 we yank the panniers off the bikes and pile them next to the wall, taking up the bikes and the bags separately since the bikes are too heavy to push up the steps when loaded. We are loading the panniers back onto the racks as the train pulls into the station; I am panting from the combination of nerves and running up the stairs with all the stuff.
The bicycle car on the train is always either the first car or the last car, however this is not indicated beforehand so we have to watch the front of the train go by, looking for the bike symbol. If we see the bike symbol up front, we run towards the front of the train while it stops, and if we don’t see the bike symbol, we run to the back. Since the trains are about 8-10 cars long, this means we are running on average 4-5 cars down the platform dodging other passengers waiting to load, and those coming off the cars that have just arrived. We reach the last car and I look up in horror to a 2 step entrance with a wide doorway featuring two vertical bars spaced just narrower than my back panniers are wide. The bars are presumably for people to hold onto while they enter and exit the carriage, but they should not be in the doorway that is intended for cyclists to use, and the height difference between the platform and the bike carriage floor is an extreme difficulty for us.
As I stand there confused not knowing what to do, the doors close and I emit a loud noise of frustration at our disappearing chance to board the train. People on the platform start yelling something at me and I look around confused, then realize that I need to yank on the door handle for the doors to open again. I do so while protesting to them in Spanish and sign language that the bars inside are too narrow, and I see the train conductor up at the head of the train waving at us angrily. Suddenly an older man and woman come up behind me and start pushing me and the bike into the train carriage. I start lifting and pulling the beast of a bike up the two tall steps while they push the wide butt of the loaded bike in between the bars. My bike makes it in and then Katy is heaving and hauling while the couple push her bike from the rear, except her panniers are a bit wider and they wont fit in between the bars. In the seconds before the doors close she manages to twist the bike diagonally so that one pannier squeezes through before the other, and we’re in, sweating and panting in disbelief.
As we head towards La Spezia, our first transfer point, I am not sure whether we have to change physical trains or not because while the TrenItalia website indicated that train changes were necessary for many of the itineraries, it did not specifically indicate this for ours. Contradictorily our itinerary showed three different segments of travel with different route numbers. Not having much experience with the Italian train system I did not know if separate routes are always separate trains, or if trains go from one itinerary to another much like flights sometimes do. We come up with a plan that as soon as we arrive Katy will jump out the door, look at the departures screen to see if we are on the right track, and if we need to change we will do so as quick as possible. We only have 12 minutes between the arrival and departure at La Spezia, and our arrival train is running a few minutes late. As the passengers exit the carriage, Katy runs out and returns to say that we have to change trains, we’re on track 5 and our departing train is on track 1T.
We clumsily perform the entire boarding procedure in reverse, except without the pushing couple since we’re now going down instead of up. Once on the platform we search up and down for a way to get to the other tracks but the only options we can spot are the stairs down to the tunnel and a tiny elevator that is about 1 meter by 1 meter. I am specifically looking for ramped crossings over the tracks, which are illegal to use, but as a German man said to us in Spain, “sometimes rules just have to be broken”. I can’t see any and I tell Katy I am going down the steps with my bike, but she is going to try to hold her bike vertically balancing on the back wheel to go down the elevator. My bike is just too heavy to lift up in that fashion, having already done this several times without any bags on my bike I know it is very difficult. I slowly descend the stairs one step at a time with my hands on the brakes of the bike while walking next to it; the bike is heavy and loaded and makes a sound with each step, cachunk, cachunk, cachunk.
Down in the tunnel I wait for Katy’s elevator to descend and it comes down ever so slowly. I see her come down into view with a strange expression in her face when I notice the elevator has no walls, it is just a platform moving inside of a shaft. She must hold the bike vertical without touching the walls of the shaft because they move as her platform descends. To compound matters, this elevator requires the occupant to constantly hold the button for the destination level while the elevator is in motion, or else it stops moving. When I realize this, I hold the button from the outside so that she can concentrate on holding the bike vertical. Finally she comes out of the elevator and we move towards the stairs leading up to track 1. There is a line for the elevator, so I start removing my panniers while two American guys waiting in line help Katy push her bike up the stairs to the first landing. They exclaim at the heaviness of the bike and don’t help her ascend the second flight of stairs to the level of the tracks, so she ends up having to take the panniers off anyways.
We repeat the bikes then bags procedures as in Levanto and rush as fast as we can to clip the bags back onto the bikes. The station clock reads 16:12 and the train is supposed to leave at 16:12; the bags are clipped and we are running down the track as I hear the woman on the loudspeaker announce that the train heading towards Parma will now be leaving the station. The conductor is on the steps of the train up ahead and I see him blow the whistle while looking at us running towards the train with large bicycles; the train starts to move as we are reaching the rear carriage of the train. Defeated once again. We walk back in the glorious sunshine towards the station to see when our next train to Parma will be leaving. Unfortunately that was the last itinerary of so called “bike accessible” trains to Emilio through Parma for today, but upon further request the ticket office gives us an alternate itinerary requiring 3 more trains to get there by 22:00. We realize that our new train will be leaving from track 5, the same track we just came from, so we have to go back through the process of descending into the tunnel and taking the bags off to climb up the stairs to track number 5. During the 90 minute layover we now have, I am eager to get away from the Italian bike train nightmare.
While Katy relaxes on a bench guarding the bikes I walk down the street from the station to find a grocery store to buy some extra food for tonight. The part of town I pass through is seriously run down and I pass several seemingly homeless people sitting in abandoned doorways. I walk into the nearest market to find that the produce section is almost bare, the few remaining vegetables and fruits are mostly rotting, so I pick the most firm tomato, carrot, and zucchini that still look edible. Most of the cheap tags on the shelves are for items that are sold out, and the remaining items are the expensive things that nobody buys. I can’t find much, so I just get a baguette to be able to make sandwiches, and go in search of another market for something to cook with the curry and rice we have in our panniers. I manage to find an Asian African market a couple of blocks away near a plaza area that is swarming with children, people hanging out, and several men and women yelling across the plazza. Walking into the old crusty market there is no lighting inside and rays of sinlight peek in through the dirty windows; I can see the dust lingering in the air. The shelves are almost bare, with only one or a few of each item sitting there, reminding me of the “front” stores in Baltimore that pretend to be real shops while serving as a facade for some underground business. After seeing that a small can of coconut milk costs 2.50 euro I walk back to the station to catch the next train.
Our second train we have to take only for two stops before switching trains again in Sarzana. While waiting, the station momentarily clears of trains and I notice there is an at-grade crossing of the tracks down in the other direction, and people are walking back and forth across the tracks every so often without repercussion from the authorities. Had we known this the last train probably would not have been missed. The train pulls in and we see there is no bike symbol up front so we run towards the back. Another man loads his mountainbike as we run up and the two giant steps into the carriage are so tall that I can’t lift the bike up, and I am seriously worried about hitting my large chainring on the metal edge of the entrance steps while struggling with the bike. Katy leans her bike on the train itself and helps me by pushing from below while I pull from the handlebars. Once my bike is in we pull her bike up and into the passageway of the bike carriage. The other biker in the train is alarmed because we have just had such a hard time entering the train and we are completely blocking the exit doorway. He communicates that he needs to get off in two stops and we tell him that we also need to get off at Sarzana. During this short ride one of the train conductors comes into our carriage to check our tickets, the first time anyone in Italy has checked our tickets for any bus or train that we have ridden.
At the Sarzana station we wait for 30 minutes for our train heading across the mountains to Fidenza. In the meantime I see several trains pull into the station with wide doors and carriage floors that are at the same level as the platform or only one step up, except none of these trains are marked for bicycles. We position ourselves near the back of where the train will stop and we see the bike carriage roll by in the front of the train as it pulls into the station. We are running as fast as we can to reach the front of the train in time and I get to a narrow doorway with three giant steps to get into a narrow passageway. What kind of joke is this? I start heaving and grunting, not getting past the second step, when a bulky passenger comes out of the carriage I am trying to board and helps me pull the bike up into the car. He helps with Katy’s bike and we thank him gratiously “grazie mille!” We are supposed to be on this train for 90 minutes while crossing the mountains and we are standing in this narrow passageway just wide enough for the two bikes.
A conductor walks up and indicates that we are supposed to put the bikes in a luggage room through the door behind Katy, so we struggle moving the bikes back and forth and turned sideways to go through this door. Once in the luggage room he indicates to hang the bikes from these hooks in the ceiling, and I think to myself he has to be kidding. In Spanish I tell him the bikes are too heavy to lift up and ask him if we can lean the bikes somewhere. Thankfully he points me to an unoccupied corner of the luggage car where we strap the bikes to a pole in the wall. He then checks our tickets and tells me we are on the wrong train and will have to get off at the next stop. I ask him if he speaks any other language, “parla espagnol, inglese, o francese?”, and he tells me he understands Spanish. I explain our plight to him and the missing of the train in La Spezia due to the track change, and the rerouted itinerary given to us at the ticket office there. Luckily he allows us to proceed on Fadenza.
My body and brain are exhausted and this is not even a day of biking. I fall asleep in one of the train seats while Katy researches information with her tablet. By the time we reach Fadenza it is dark outside, and we have to descend from the train by ourselves when the train reaches the station. The three giant steps are too much to handle and Katy almost topples over with her bike when it reaches the platform at an almost vertical angle. I do the same, stumble backwards, catch myself before falling over with the bike and come face to face with a woman conductor just standing on the platform staring at us in disbelief. After the train pulls away we search for and find an at-grade illegal crossing of the tracks to go from our arrival track to our next departure track. I am done with dealing with these ridiculous stairs and tunnels and miniature elevators the size of small closets.
The last train is similar to the second train, so we use the one person pulls from the top while the other person pushes from the bottom technique. We finally reach Reggio Emilia at 21:45 tired and spent, walk down the platform, and find a large elevator with room to spare. Katy walks out of the elevator and into a bike lane in the tunnel under the station. On the walls are bike murals made with photographs of other objects arranged in manners that resemble different types of bikes. As we come out of the station tunnel on a ramp leading to the street level we see giant rows of bicycle racks filled with bikes. It is dark but people are still riding by on the streets and the sidewalks on old cruiser bikes. We are only 1.5 km from the hostel, heading into the historic center of the town, passing cheap Chinese restaurants and kebap counters, and we realize we had to travel with our bikes through the inferno of the Italian train system to reach this bike mecca.
Pyrenees Col D’Ares, Spain/France border; April 13, 2012.
We unfortunately did not get to post this back when it happened. We are just now getting our YouTube channel started, and are having problems uploading the videos on the often slow internet connections we can access at hostels and campgrounds.
This video was shot on the ride of the Pyrenees, at the Col d’Ares, where we crossed from Spain into France back on April 13, 2012.