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.
The group was up and eager to roll after a filling breakfast at the City Hotel. Gotta give them high marks for everything. Clean and comfortable rooms and a killer breakfast. Everything a hard riding cyclist needs to stay happy. From breakfast it was on to a group photo and onto the bikes for the ride out of Ljubljana on onward to Gorizia, Italy.
Getting out of the city was a breeze with bike lanes and paths through the busiest parts. Of course much of this was not all that necessary on a Sunday morning when most of Ljubljana sleeps in. Once clear of the city the bike lanes mostly disappeared but so too did the little bit of traffic common for a Sunday morning. After a few flat kilometres it was into the hills and the beginning of just under 1000 metres of climbing. It helps to know Newton’s 2nd Law of Bicycling: For each up hill there is an equal and opposite downhill. It was the prospect of that lovely downhill that made some of those 11 to 15 degree grades tolerable.
The route is breathtakingly beautiful with quaint villages, farmland and alpine forests along the way. Every turn seemed to be a photo opportunity. The lunch stop was near the summit of the day’s climbing with the ruins of an ancient Roman fort as out lunch room. A few hundred calories later it was back on the road for a few more metres of climb and then one of the longest and most scenic downhill runs a cyclist could ever hope to experience. Wind rushing into your face and fast spinning wheels with little effort required allows the eye to capture a lot of scenery and the body the experience a heady exhilaration.
Once out of the hills a score only 30 or so kilometres remained of rolling countryside to the city of Gorizia. Along the way there were a few clouds of of tiny flying insects to welcome us. While they had very little flavor, they were plentiful and quite filling. Hitting the Italian border was a non-event. No one was around to ask for paperwork, vaccine proof or to see the 25 Euro Covid test we were said to need to enter the land of pasta supreme. The one cop who I encountered as I tried to check in at the deserted looking immigration building was quick to politely but forcefully tell me to beat it.
The rest of the trip was beautiful but uneventful. Gorizia is another example of European charm and my room comfortable and stocked with cold beer. Life is good!
A good night’s sleep allowed me to wake up feeling better than I had in days. The City Hotel was said to put out a great breakfast buffet and whoever said it was quite right. Pretty much anything a hard cycling guy or gal could want and plenty of it, all included with your reservation. From there it was on to meet my traveling companions and TDA tour staff. While we are mostly all seasoned long distance riders there were still things to go over and the mandatory safety chat.
Now fully indoctrinated, I was free to travel about the city-side. Ljubljana is quite old by North American standards with a town of a different name having been established here in Roman times. The name seems to have shown up in the 12th century but it has also been called Laibach by German speakers into fairly recent times. The official language is Slovenian but most folks seemed to understand my English even with my hybrid accent. It is the capital of Slovenia and was once part of Yugoslavia until becoming an independent state in 1991.
The city symbol is the dragon and a legend is told that Jason, of Golden Fleece fame, fought and killed a dragon here on his way back to Greece. Of course all magicians know that rivers have dragons and with the Ljubljanica River flowing through the center that too may be the source of the dragon that fronts their coat of arms.
The city is dominated by a castle on a hill overlooking the city. It can be reached by road, footpath or tramway. The castle has served in the city defences and also as a prison. Royalty and political prisoners alike have all been involuntary guests within its walls. The is a tale that a nobleman named Erasmo Jamski, was imprisoned there for stabbing an army commander. One version has him using the sewage network for is escape. Regardless of his method he was never heard from again but may it was because you could smell him coming.
The city is quite bicycle friendly with bike paths nearly everywhere. Hardly a roadway does not have a portion set aside for this use even some of the more narrow ones in the city center. Bikes are everywhere and you will see all manner of people coming and going about their business on two wheels.
The Three Bridges area is the heart of the tourist district but it appears that many local residents seem to stroll there as well to enjoy the riverside cafes and shops. It is a pleasant place to nurse a beer or a glass of wine and I plan to do one or the other just as soon as I type my last period.
My frequently postponed adventure began with unexpected ease. Getting to the airport in Montreal was easy thanks to a generously provided ride by my daughter. Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport was nearly empty compared to pre-covid times and I breezed through check-in and security in time for a leisurely lunch and restful wait for my flight to France.
Flying was uneventful except for having to assist the Arabic speaking woman seated next to me in filling out the somewhat detailed arrival paperwork required by the French government even though we were just passing through to other countries. Charles deGaul Airport was quite another matter.
Unlike Montreal, the Paris airport was a busy place or so it seemed to me. Maybe it is even busier when there is no pandemic but I had no way of knowing. Our arrival was in a far distant section of the terminal and required a rail ride and an additional security screening before hitting yet another line to officially enter France. Our flight was late and the time need to catch the next flight was short so there were some anxious moments for me and my seat companion but we both managed to make our connections after some scurry and sweat.
Eighteen hours and a few thousand kilometers finally landed me in Ljubljana, Slovenia, bicycle, baggage and me all a bit weary but sound. The last air leg of the trip allowed me to meet Lee, one of my fellow riders and one recent addition to the TDA staff on the same flight. The rest of my day was spent reassembling my bike and doing a couple of short tours around the town.