Friday, November 28, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
We visited Italy for nearly three months. We rode on our Santana Sovereign tandem fitted with S & S couplings for six weeks none stop, carrying four panniers, small backpacks, and fully self supported. Our bike and panniers weighed 75 Kg. On a daily basis there were a few extra pounds with water, and food for each day. The above doesn't include our body weight (that is a secret...).
The idea to cycle in Italy was born about a year before, and seemed a monumental task. We had no idea where to gather information, or how to even begin. We have been cycling for many years, using panniers, camping for several days at a time. Mauny had crossed the entire USA on a bike, yet still - a foreign country? Shipping everything? Disassembling? There were so many 'what-ifs'.
We were concerned with road condition, driver behavior, places to stay, food, what to wear in regard to weather, how to minimize on the weight, etc. We first looked at a general map of Italy to identify places of interest. A trip to the book store, a chat at the bike shop, a talk with riders we met while training (amazingly, so many have been to Italy), a surf on the Internet. Each added more to our initial knowledge. We were encouraged by the information we received. To narrow down our preferred roads we bought a semi-detailed Michelin map. We also found a Backroads brochure which we used to confirm some of the places we were interested in. Even though the itineraries were described in a rather general way, it helped us get some idea of where tour operators cycled.
We later discovered a Lonely Planet guide to cycling in Italy. Though helpful, the information there was for itineraries of 4 to 6 days with train/bus hops to and from. Since our trip was much longer, we were challenged with connecting the dots. After a few weeks of head scratching we laid out a continuous route.
Our plan was to start in Venice, work our way south through the Po Delta along the Adriatic until Rimini. We then would cut into the hills of La Marche, and Umbria working our way south into Tuscany. Once past Lake Bolsena, we would cut northward toward Siena, and finally arrive in Florence. Florence was our final planned destination. From there we made no solid plans to continue riding in any particular direction. We decided to see what the weather would be at the end of October, and then decide where to go. We definitely planned on visiting other places by train, and on foot.
Our time in Italy started at the end of the first week of September, and ended in the third week of November. If we were to describe our trip in Italy we would summarize it as beautiful, and full of surprises - some pleasant; others not so pleasant - but what is an adventure without a mix of experiences?
The not so pleasant experiences were solely disappointments, we soon overcame. For example, we didn't know the weather could turn cold in a very short time. We didn't know Italian businesses closed in mid day. We didn't know the roads weren't always marked properly. In contrast, we didn't know how beautiful the country would be. We didn't know how friendly the Italians would be. We didn't know we would eat tasty meals, and drink good wine. We had no idea one couldn't get a bad cup of coffee. And there is so more. Despite the physical challenges of being exposed to the elements, having to climb steep grades, and descend dangerous switch backs, we were always rewarded with a worthwhile experience.
A common denominator on our trip was that everything was "up". We were interested in hill towns, so at end of each day there was this final steep climb into a town. Once we arrived, there was another steep climb to our room as in most cases our room ended up on the second or third floor to where we had to lug our 6o + lbs of equipment.
Our main disappointment was that most campgrounds closed for business after the first week of September. This truly impeded on our budget. Luckily we did find numerous campgrounds operating year round, or into November, and we were able to find reasonably priced hotels, B & B's, and hostels. Also, prior to the trip we joined Servas, an international organization promoting cross-cultural experience through a host and traveller network. We would encourage every traveller to join Servas, even if they end up staying in hotels. We are beholding to our Servas hosts for not only great friendships and good accomodations, but also for providing us with local knowledge that saved us hours of time and great frustration.
We also experienced a certain lack of important information in both our Lonely Planet Cycling Guide, and the Michelin map. When you ride a bike all day, names of places must be supported with details marked on a comprehensive map. Mentioning where to start a ride, but not showing detail on how to get there doesn't make a cyclist happy. In most cases the book did not mention that a campground wasn't operating past August. At the end of a hard ride, a cyclist expects not to incur extra miles in search of a place to stay, or eat. The book also gave information that wasn't possible to verify in the field; names that meant nothing to help us get to a recommended place. This pertained to road signs, names of towns, or locations of hotels. We always found many more, cheaper, and better hotels not mentioned in the book.
We must also slap the wrist of the planners of the Michelin map. We realize that not all towns can be marked on even a detailed map. However, why is it that the towns that Michelin chose to indicate on the map were not the ones posted on road signs, and intersections? This fact alone caused us many extra frustrating miles. We were relieved when we switched to the Italian Touring Club Guide maps. We highly recommend these maps to any one contemplating a trip. They are available in most book stores around the country.
If Lonely Planet wanted to print a small book in order to save on weight, and volume I would say, bull! One still is compelled to carry adequate additional information. Why then not include this in a book?
We don't want to bash Lonely Planet to a pulp. Not at all. All in all, the Lonely Planet book was to us a crucial tool, and an important guide without which we still wouldn't be able to finalize, and carry out our plan. Despite the discrepancies, it supplied us with much much valuable information. We have seen a few guide books for cyclists in Italy, and in the US. In these cases the mapping, and cue sheets were superbly done. I recall a cycling book I had used for the Washington DC area that missed nothing in giving cyclists the best information on each ride with details on how to get to the starting point, and how to navigate through it, but enough said. We would still like to thank the people who took the time to publish material on the subject.
We packed our bike in two Dahon Airporter suitcases. Our 700 wheels needed to be deflated, and fit in an angle on top of each box. With padding, securing the parts with zip ties, the bike made it both ways without damage. We never paid extra charges for size, or weight. Our weight limit was never exceeded. The Dahon suitcase looks just like a regular suitcase, and only a couple of inches longer than the limit. We also put all our other equipment into two military duffle bags. We carried a folding dolly on which we piled up the duffle bags. Still, we never exceeded the weight limit. During transport, we rolled a suitcase each, and took turns pulling the dolly. It isn't easy, but it is doable.
Everything worked like clockwork! Our van came on time. We were able to fit our two bike suitcases, and two duffle bags with panniers helmets, shoes, etc. in the back. Our flights were on time. Everything was perfect except...
Except for this. We purchased bottles of wine at a German duty free shop, and were permitted to board the planes within Germany (two) without any problems. Alas, when we arrived in Denver, after going through immigration, and customs, we were informed that we couldn't carry our bottles onboard our plane to Santa Barbara. Security. Right in front of the counter where our bags had to go we frantically tried to figure out how to pack our bottle in our duffle bags without breaking. What a time to discover this! There were others doing the same thing. Chaos ensued, we unlock bags, tags fall off, cameras misplaced, shirts, and dirty cycling attire is used to wrap the bottles the best we can. We almost sent our bags untagged if not for Mauny wondering what was that piece of paper under the push cart. Tags back on the bags, we managed to collect the rest of the scattered items on the floor, put in our carry-on bags and proceed to our gate. Our advise is not to buy any liquids abroad unless your entry into the US is your final destination.
Other than this, everything went perfectly well.
In Santa Barbara, our friends and neighbors Oleg, and Everlina came to pick us up with two cars (due to luggage size). Our trip is over, and it was a very successful, and rewarding cycling adventure. Stay tuned for photos in the near future...
Today we are checking into a hotel near the airport. Our flight is at 6 am, and we didn't want to burden our hosts with an early wake up on a Sunday. We were told that there is a bus that goes from the train station to this hotel - bus number 15. With our heavy loaded suitcases and two duffle bags, we decided to take two bus trips. I had gone to the local Tabbachi to buy six tickets. Instead of getting six separate tickets, I received an electronic card that needed to be electronically swiped each time we got on the buss. In Italy one swipes, or punches a ticket onboard the bus. This is not so on trains where a ticket must be validated prior to boarding. If one forgets to validate a ticket, the conductor imposes a fine that has to be paid on the spot. Mauny towed the suitcase, Elaine the duffle bag. Every few steps they traded places. About a kilometer to the bus station, and a 40 minute ride to the hotel. At the hotel we left the luggage after checking in, and took the bus back to Mestre for the rest of our stuff. On the final trip to the hotel when Mauny swiped the card, nothing happened. A lady seated across the validating machine said something in Italian. Mauny tried several times but nothing. Mauny just sat down wondering what happened. Well, using an electronic card for the first time, it was possible that one swipe was recorded as two. Luckily no one caused any more fuss about this, as basically the transportation system in Italy is based mostly on the honor system. Mauny knew he had paid for six trips, and didn't feel he was in the wrong...
At the hotel we settled in our small room. Had to leave the bike boxes in the TV room. We went for an afternoon walk in the ever colder temperature. Dinner at a local pizzeria, and an early night in bed. Tomorrow we wake up at 4am.
This morning is a religious holiday and most government offices are closed. We met a friend of Stefano and Germana today. Being that Mauny is a magician, it happened that this friend was a skillful magician himself. The two took turns demonstrating tricks with ropes, cards, money, and rubber bands to everyone's amazement. Later the two - despite a severe language barrier - shared private time together showing, and teaching each other, a few secrets. In early afternoon Elaine, and Mauny took the train to visit Treviso, a near by town known to be like a small Venice. We found it to be a small walled city with a river, and a few canals going through it. Although it didn't have any boat traffic, the small bridges, canals, and houses did indeed look like Venice. A visit to the local church revealed for the first time frescos painted on the support columns, rather then on the walls and ceilings. The temperature were near freezing, and we knew that we pushed the limits staying here this late, it was time to go home. Stefano was cooking traditional risotto tonight, so we bought a bottle of Tuscan wine. We had a delicious dinner which included risotto with pumpkin broth, sauted veggies with pork stakes. There was the usual Martini for a starter, then wine, and finally grappa. Grappa is made from the grape skins left after the wine making process. This was our final dinner. Tomorrow we say our final good bye...
We wake up at Stefano's, and Germana's house and have breakfast. Both have to work today, so we are left to our own. It is an important day: We pack the bike to fit into two Dahon suitcases. Actually, it is not "we", it is I, Mauny who has the mechanical know-how. Elaine helps with small things as they come. We both feel lucky. Since the place is small, the disassembly must take place in the driveway exposed to the elements. This would be a disaster if it rained or snowed. The temperatures have been dropping drastically just in the last couple of days. It took Mauny 5 hours to take the bike apart, secure to cardboard plates with zip ties, wrap with foam, and place carefully in such a way that the parts would not damage during flight.
Once packed, there were a few hours of daylight left, so we went into Venice by train to walk to San Marcos Square once more, and see the inside of the cathedral. There were a lot less tourists then back in August. It was rather cold, but pleasant. We returned slightly after dark. Later at night we treated our hosts to a fantastic dinner. They recommended we went to a restaurant called La Tortuga - an ancient pirate ship - and had the best seafood pasta in our lives! This was only the second time we were in a car in Italy...
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
We feel so lucky. The weather turned sunny for the next several days. We will need it! Taking the bike on the train was our final phase. There were three trains to change. The first train went from Lucca to Prato, Prato to Bologna, and finally, Bologna to Venezia. Luckily, train schedule allowed for extra time at each station eliminating panic attacks at each station. Here is how it goes:
We ride the tandem with panniers attached into the train station. In Lucca, at least, a ramp leads down under the platforms. However, we must climb three sets of stairs up to our designated one. At the bottom of the stairs Elaine removes the two front panniers and carries them up one level so that we can keep an eye on them. Meanwhile people rush up and down as different trains arrive and depart. Mauny balances the bike until Elaine is back to help push the bike up. Tandems don't like panniers on the rear only. It is all or none! What a tandem bike does is flip corkscrew fashion when no one looks. It is absolutely necessary to be vigilant, and prevent this from happening by keeping steady hands on the handlebars. Elaine gets behind the bike, Mauny at the front. Both push the bike up one set of stairs until front wheel clears the top step. This is when the front wheel must be lifted rather high until it touches the next set of stairs. If the front is not lifted the chain and chain rings hang up on the top step. After the second third sets of stairs are tackled, bike safely on the platform, Elaine brings the front panniers and mounts them back on the bike. Now the bike must be positioned in a strategic place. Since no one can tell us where the bicycle car might be, we position the bike perpendicular to the arriving train, in the middle of the platform. When the train arrives, we both try to catch the bicycle icon. Is it stamped in the front of the train, or the back? Sometimes there is no icon, and we have to take a wild guess. Once identified, we push the bike and run along the usually empty opposite side of the platform. All the passengers are pushing to get on the train while we approach in a military maneuver from the rear. When we are parallel to the bicycle car, we turn the bike around, and reverse it toward the bike car. Here, again we must remove the front panniers, throw them through the door into the train. We both lift the heavy rear heaving the bike onto the train. Elaine immediately jumps inside to grab the rear of the bike as Mauny lifts the front wheel and pushes the bike all the way inside. This is not where it ends. The bike cannot be left blocking the sliding doors used by other passengers to embark, and disembark. No, it must be put inside a special compartment. Problem is the door is usually narrow (designed to accommodate a single bike), and swings open rather then slide. It is necessary to tilt the bike, push it back and forth, and lift the front wheel up until it touches the ceiling. The ever present middle post is right in front of this door, which makes things even worse. Somehow, finally the bike makes it inside. All this time the conductors say things Italian to us, but we can't understand. It seems from their hand gestures that they want us to disassemble the bike and hang it up on provided hooks, but we pay no attention until it is inside. Now they smile, and forgive us. The train leaves on time. Mauny uses a bungee cord to secure the bike in place. We take a seat, and give each other a five. Two more such drills and we are in Venice. From the Venice Mestre station it is about about one kilometer to our hosts' residence. We mount the bike and ride into traffic blending in, but no more than 300 yards ahead we get caught in a traffic jam. There are cars, bicycles, scooters, push carts, baby strollers, and people all in a tangle. It is impossible to ride, so we dismount and walk the bike. Not easy either. There is just not enough room with everyone going in every direction. What in the world? Three months earlier the place was easy to navigate. We soon find out. There is a major street resurfacing project in a major intersection ahead. We walk the bike on hot wet asphalt with buses cars, and everything else trying to smash us. Police officers blow whistles, and yell. Are they yelling at us? Elaine shouts a warning. A bus is about to cut Mauny's head off. We rush, turn, and duck for cover on a tattered sidewalk. We make it. We mount the bike again to ride the final few blocks toward a grocery store. We want to get a bottle of wine and cheese for our hosts. With bike in hand, and a plastic shopping bag, we ring the bell. Stefano and Germana greet us with hugs, and we get inside. We have dinner, wine, talk, and go to bed. Everyone is tired from a long work day...