Getting out of Genoa was a bit tougher than getting in. Genoa (or Genova) is a large and busy city. Added to that was our departure during the tail end of a long morning rush hour. You needed to keep your wits about you especially as the motor scooters are a law unto themselves zipping in and out of the traffic flow in ways that are only predictable if your prediction is that they will do anything to get ahead. The outskirts were quite industrial with the shipyards apparently endless. After 20 kilometers of trying for 360 degree vision and radar like alertness we finally rode into nice surroundings.
Here we were able to experience the essential reason for why we ride. For dedicated cycle tourists the ride IS the thing and this ride along the northwest coast of Italy is one of the most breathtaking rides any cyclist can hope to enjoy. The road turns and scoops along the coast offering new vistas with every turn. It is like riding through a Hollywood movie and brings to mind some of those scenes where James Bond is in his Aston Martin heading to some lush Mediterranean resort . There are tunnels and rock cuts into the sides of cliffs as you wind your way along the coast. The towns are mostly small and touristy. Castle like homes perch on the sides and look out over the sea. The seaside towns have promenades along the sand and the usual assortment of establishments designed to part the tourists from the contents of their wallets. The vehicles along the way are well used to seeing many cyclists and they give you plenty of room as they pass. Plenty of time to soak in the eye candy.
After some days of hard riding (by my standards) today was a day for rest. Since I can only take so much rest without becoming restless, I decided to start my day with a walk to explore the town. Genoa is, like many European cities, ancient. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied cites in the world with evidence of of a settlement here since the fifth century BCE. Its location on the sea encouraged its development as a maritime power with trading connections unmatched by most other Mediterranean cities. It has been a center for ship borne trade and ship building for centuries. That status continues today with its busy port and shipyards among the busiest in the world. It is a popular location for cruise ships to return to for refitting and overhaul. The city also claims to have invented denim but is not known how much that first pair of blue jeans sold for or if they were skinny or relaxed fit.
The city is also known as the childhood home of Christopher Columbus. A restoration of his home exists just outside of the old city walls. Unfortunately it is a busy area and I was unable to get a decent picture of it. The area is also home to a number of beggars some of whom were quite obnoxious so I did not hang around.
Aside from a few badly positioned beggars and the usual urban graffiti, Genoa is a beautiful and well kept city. Once away from the industrial part of the waterfront it has a number of nice tourist attractions including a well regarded aquarium. Having seen a number of aquariums over the years I decided to give it a pass. The only fish I am currently interested in seeing needs to be on a plate with a side of roasted potatoes.
When walking around Genoa it is important to choose your route wisely. My walk past Columbus’ house and down along the waterfront was interesting with plenty to see but my route back was less of a great idea. To return to my hotel I chose the most direct route which is also a busy auto route. The result was a walk that included few places of interest and two fairly long auto tunnels that I was quite happy to exit. The route was also sort of a food and beverage desert. Luckily I was able to find a live preserving beer as I neared my hotel. Next time I will take the bus.
After yesterday’s climbs in the rain we were hoping for some better weather today. With rain still in the early morning forecast, we decided to delay our start by an hour to give it a chance to clear out. It was a good decision. The skies were mostly clear and the sun warm without being overly hot as we started on the first and steepest climb of our day in the mountains.
Today we climbed nearly a mile in elevation (1602 meters) but aside from the first 550 meters (1800 feet) it was far easier. First, we hit the climbs early when our legs were fresher and second, the climbs were far more gradual. Best of all, once at the summit and our lunch stop, the rest of the way was almost entirely downhill and what a spectacular downhill run it was. Nearly 30 kilometers of steady downhill grade all the way into Genova and our hotel for the next two days.
Along the way was some of the most spectacular scenery anyone could hope to see and only a minimal effort needed to take you to the next scene. This part of Italy makes the most of its real estate. Every few kilometers is a new little town for you to wind your way through in a matter of seconds. These villages cling to the sides of the mountain and sometime look as though a good shake could send them tumbling down into the gorge below. Where there are no villages there is the odd church or farm house hanging as if suspended from invisible wires to heaven.
Occasionally, there are tunnels but we usually avoided them if at all possible, especially if the road was busy. While there was some traffic on the long downhill glide, Italian drivers are quite savvy about sticking to their side of the road on the tight turns and switchbacks. As a cyclist I was always alert for the small rock slides and debris that were sometimes in my path. Overall, it was worth every bit of the effort it took to get to the top.
Only words can describe this day. While I did try to take photos, the weather made most efforts useless. The day started nice enough. Sunday mornings in Parma are fairly laid back so traffic was not a factor getting out of town. We are done with flat-landing for now as we head into the hills. Today’s ride is around 126 kilometers with 1629 meters of climbing (5600 feet) but only a net gain of 188 meters (616 feet) in elevation from our starting point in Parma. We went up and down a lot of hills. To add to the fun we had thunderstorms and rain during the entire ride. It seemed the heaviest thunder always seemed to happen as we climbed the steepest hills.
The best climb was saved for the very last when our legs were the most tired. This little beauty was a 5.5 kilometer climb of 647 (2100 feet) meters elevation gain at a 7% or better grade. I have a 100 kilometer route that I ride a few times every year and over which the Monarch of the Mountains race of the Tour de Bonnechere is run. It is a tough route but it nothing to compare with our last climb of today.
I am certain the scenery would have been breathtaking if not for the rain and fog. Occasionally we could catch a glimpse of what we might have seen but such windows were rare. We arrived in the tourist town of Bobbio wet, cold and ready for a rest.
The road to Parma was much like every other route we have taken in Italy so far. It was a mixture of villages, farm land and a few larger towns. For a country with a well developed mass transit network it certainly has plenty of vehicles on its roadways causing us to take a fairly zig-zag route from town to town to avoid as much traffic as we can. Still, there are place where you need watch your rear view mirror as much as the road ahead. Italian roads are narrow with small or no shoulders. However, bike lanes, while sometimes rough, are almost always present in the larger towns.
We are riding near the end of the grape harvest. Many of the vines are empty while a few still have some grapes being harvested. There are other crops as well and the region is also known for its ham and cheese.
Our destination city of Parma is quite famous for ham and cheese as well as being a center for art and architecture. The Parma River was not much to look at being mostly wrung dry by field irregation and where it passes through the city it seems to collect a lot of graffiti where its course is contained by walls. The Ducal Palace and surrounding parkland makes for a pleasant stroll and the nearby Pallazo della Pilotta palace houses a museum as well as a center for the arts.
Today involved over 120 kilometers of riding but almost totally flat roads. Tomorrow we return to a more common landscape with hills of both the up and down variety.
Today was sunny and mild. Perfect for the 90 kilometers of flat riding we had along the banks of the Adige and Po rivers. Leaving Chioggia we immediately headed into the farming countryside where it appeared some crops were ready to be harvested. Following the flat roads and paths along the River Adige we crossed over and into the town of Cavarzere where an open air street market was in progress. Somehow we managed to pass up the tempting bargains being offered and continued along our way crossing into the valley of the mighty Po River.
The Po is the longest river in Italy at 652 kilometers with the Adige a distand second at 410. We would only be able to take advantage of the relatively level terrain along its bank for part of this day as or next destination is further south. The Po is known across Europe for its fishing and judging by the excellent and colourful graffiti that we saw at lunch time, catfish appear to be a popular sport fish. I’m not sure I would eat a catfish from the Po. It looks clean enough but there is quite a bit of farm runoff that must go into it. Besides, I am spoiled with the tasty freshwater fish we have in Ontario.
Ferrara is another star shaped, walled city and is famous for its brick castle. It was founded as a university city during the Italian Renaissance and was second to Bologna in its importance as a member of the Papal States. It was heavily bombed by allied warplanes during World War II due to its importance as a manufacturing center for rubber and plastics. Today tourism is one of its main economic drivers offering plentiful hospitality for which we bike riders are grateful.
Ferrara is also a center for the arts and within the walls of the Renaissance castle is a sculpture garden featuring the sculpture group Humanity created by Sara Bonzani and Nicola Zamboni depicting scenes from Palo Uccelo’s triptych, The Battle of San Romano as well as some scenes from modern life. Here knights battle to the death, horses tumble and courtly characters are depicted as marginalized people from modern day life. There is much more to this art installation but I shall leave it to you and Wikipedia for further details.
This will be our shortest riding day of the tour with a mere 20 kilometers of pavement under our tires. Most of our time will be spent on a ferry, a boat or waiting for them. It is the Island hopping portion of our journey and designed to get us from the island of Lido back to the mainland where we are no longer governed by ferry schedules.
The rides were a leisurely cruise along the sea walls with a few small villages along the way followed by two leisurely cruises. Once on the ferry we passed some of the long ago obsolete forts that served as the outer defenses of Venice. Here the economy is much more geared to fishing and industry than tourism. No gondolas in sight.
Our destination is the town of Chioggia, sort of Venice lite with a blue collar. It is far more relaxed than Venice and even Lido where our hotels was located while visiting Venice. From here we will leave on roads both paved and gravel, for the rest of our travels. So for the rest of today we are tourists but tomorrow we ride!
Our second but first, full day in Venice started with high hopes for a wonderful time. The vaporetto or water bus was quick and dropped us off right at San Marco, the large square that you always see in any movie with a Venice location. It is magnificent! The frescoes and sculptures that seem to adorn every building are far more striking in real life than on film. Getting to the plaza early avoided many of the crowds; however, the museums only open at either 10 or 11 am so any way you try it, you are going to wait in line. Buying the 4 museum ticket at The Corner Museum seemed a good bargain until we discovered that the 4 museums did not include the San Marco cathedral.
The Corner Museum is quite interesting in itself with artifacts from the city’s history where it dominated northern Italian culture and economic life. Inside its many rooms are the chronicles of the city-state’s rise to domination of the eastern Mediterranean. Maps and globes chart the known world and the heavens above emphasizing the region’s evolution into a dominate naval power. Elaborate frescoes cover the ceilings in a showy display of wealth and influence.
Around the corner from the plaza is the Doge’s palace. The Doge of Venice was a true merchant prince holding his position more through wealth and influence than through family lines. While some did inherit the office most ruled with the support of the most wealthy and elite citizens. The Doge was elected to his office through a tradition that lasted for over 1000 years. The first Doge was elected in 697 AD and the last ended his rule upon dying in 1797. Quite a stretch when you consider the longevity of other elected offices.
The Doge Museum features the vast rooms of what was a combination Doge’s palace, seat of government as well as a sizable prison. Within those vast rooms a nesting layer of governing councils, known as Senates met to debate the issues of the day and guide the ruling hand of the Doge. At times the power shifted from Doge to the senates but most of the time the power was shared hence the longevity of the Doge’s office. The one time a Doge attempted a coup d’etat he was removed, tried in the Senate and executed. His name was forever stricken from the record and his image blacked out in all murals.
Our visit to the Doge’s Palace brings me to my efforts to get out of Doge. As mentioned the prison is a vast labyrinth of passageways leading past cells and other highly secured rooms designed to hold everything from debtors to the the truly dangerous. You come to it near the end of your visit and there is a way to exit without going through it. Unfortunately, we decided to go through and even more unfortunately, a large group of students somehow appeared directly in front of us filling the narrow, frequently turning passageways and making a quick breeze through that section impossible. After 15 or 20 minutes of being the caboose to a long, slow moving train we finally emerged into the ever present bookshop at the end of the museum and the free fresh air of the palace courtyard.
At this point my travelling partner for day had seen enough and wanted to go back to the hotel. I decided to continue on to the Glass Museum on the nearby island of Murano. Venietian glass has a long history and is famous the world over. Their craftsman used carefully guarded processes to create some of the finest lenses in the world. The secrets of the glass makers were protected by the government and to even speak of those secrets could get you killed. So secret were some processes that the knowledge was nearly lost until modern day craftspeople reverse engineered it.
My history with the museum is quite short. After an hour long boat ride to the island and a walk through its many maze like streets I discovered that my glass would remain empty. The museum is closed on Wednesdays. Instead I had a shorter boat ride back to Venice a bit of walking and a fine dinner of pasta and fried squid topped off with some gelato. Along the way I entertained by a circle of dancing Jews.
Today was a short 56 kilometer group ride to Venice. I generally do not like to ride with a large group preferring to set my own pace and stop where I see something I like to explore. Still, it is nice to do something different once in awhile. It was a fast ride even at what our leader and professional bicyclist, Doug considered a relaxed pace. Fortunately, us mostly old folks were up to the task. We zipped through small villages and into the seaside communities of Lido where we stopped to load our bikes onto a boat and ourselves onto three boats for a long, watery tour of Venice on the way to our hotel in Lido.
Venice is much more than narrow canals, arched bridges and gondoliers. It is also a very large and working city with terminals for deep water ships and industrial activity. Of course this is not what we were here to see but itn was quite noticable in the distance as we cruised the many waterways around the islands that comprise the Venice / Lido metropolis.
Today was mainly a day for travel and while we saw a different side of Venice from our water taxis, we are looking forward to taking one of the bus/boats that form the vaporetto mass transit system. I understand that there was once talk of building a subway system but that idea was quickly torpedoed even though it was sunk before it could be considered.
Today’s ride was a complete change from yesterday. The weather was sunny and mild and the terrain a complete ossopite from yesterday’s mountains. Aside from one small hill leading out of Gorizia, there was very little change in elevation.
The ride was mostly through farmland and wine vineyards with some small villages and towns sprinkled along the way. Our distance was longer at around 102 kilometres not counting the unscheduled detour that added an extra two or three. We maintained a fairly fast pace but still slow enough to snap a few photos and soak in a few sights.
The most interesting of those sights was the ancient walled city of Palmanova. The town is actually a Renaissance star fort built by Venetian Republic in 1593. It is a World Heritage Site and is an early example of urban planning based on the Utopian ideals of Thomas Moore. The ideal was for complete equality among the residents with all wealth and responsibility equally shared. Just guessing here but I don’t think what looked good in theory worked all that well in reality. The builders of this Utopia must have anticipated envious troublemakers since they took the trouble to enclose it with a strong, defensive wall as well as an extensive mote and other battlements. All must not have been peaceful in Utopia.
Palmanova of today is still an interesting place with tourism replacing the Utopian ideals. The center square was given over to an open air market with a flea market variety of vendors selling widgets, gadgets, foods and floss. In the center were amusement rides of the type found at most carnivals. The place was packed and we had to walk our bikes carefully through the crowd.
After a riverside lunch we were off on the final 50 or so kilometres of our trip with more great scenery such as the old water mill seen in the photo below as well as an unexpected detour that briefly forced us ointo a busier road than we normally travel. Our journey ended in the town of Corbolone, where there was little except for a nice place to stay, a church with an obviously brand new bell that they were eager to show off…frequently and a restaurant that closed that decided to shut down just as everybody was ready for their second beer. However, TDA staffer Tim, was the hero of the hour bringing back a refreshing supply of sudsy goodness from an more spirited entrepreneur.