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The last ice for the biking season was on the Drau near the pass.

#11 From the Plains of Northern Italy to Home:

 October 22 - December 2, 2010 

 

Snowbird Wannabe's

We wanted to be snowbirds in the worst way--American slang for people who head south for the winter to avoid severe weather. We headed south and out of the mountains in late October like proper snowbirds but the plan didn't deliver the intended results. As we pedaled under 100% cloud cover and too much dampness for comfort in temperatures that didn't clear the mid 40's F, we wondered what had gone wrong.

Though chilled to the bone, we felt smug that we'd successfully traversed our last pass of the season at the Austrian/Italian border with only a little snow and ice on the ground and a day or 2 before the next snow storm. But the temperatures didn't rise as expected when we descended from roughly the 4,000' level into the orchard-filled valleys below; we were still shivering while wearing all of our layers of warm clothing. The northern Italian hospitality industry didn't help matters by only trickling enough heat through the hotel radiators to keep the buildings from becoming damp--my unimpressed nose and toes were still cold when indoors at night. 


Little heat? Who cares when you have kaki's
(an exquisite, astringent variety of persimmons).

When we finally had an internet connection again, Bill checked an online almanac for a historical perspective. Darn it anyway but the overall average temperatures and those in 2009 and 2008 indicated that we should have been basking under clear skies in temperatures in the low 70's F for much of October in northern Italy. Our current daily highs were more than 10 F below last year's coldest October day.

The curse of 2010's dreary weather was haunting us again. We'd had unseasonably cool, damp weather everywhere we'd been in 2010, from Morocco, through Portugal, and into the Alps and here it was again, out of the mountains.

Bill spent an evening online checking the actual and typical weather patterns around Europe looking for better conditions for this, our last month of cycling overseas for the year. "Sardinia" was his final recommendation as the place for us to enjoy better weather. But the long train ride there and back and the high probability of very limited low season lodging options had us deciding to stay the course, to gamble on Italy. We would continue our journey south into the Po River valley in hopes of encountering some seasonal weather for the first time this year.

It was in Trento where we finally felt both the warmth of the sun and that Bill was able to visit a book store for maps--a store that had been closed the last time we were in the city. No ordinary bookstore, this was strictly travel information and unexpectedly, they carried a noteworthy selection of BikeLine bike route books, the series we'd used in Austria.

Rarely do we find more than 1 or 2 route books for sale when outside of Germany and Austria so this was a treasure trove for both the moment and the future. Bill dropped a night's lodging worth of cash to scoop up 2 bike route books for this season, a Lake Garda (northern Italy) DVD hiking map to be used next year, plus a standard road map of Italy. Map Man was grinning from ear to ear: his planning woes were again melting away, which is always good news for me.

With these Trento book store purchases the ambiguity of our next month of touring was further reduced as we'd continue to follow BikeLine's suggestions. Unlike in Austria, only parts of these routes would be on multiuse paths but they would direct us to the safest options in a region of heavy truck traffic. We might not have the snowbird weather we sought but at least we'd be on the best routes available. 

 


The Chiese River on the outskirts of Montichiari, south of
 Lake Garda. This was noon on Day 2 of a 3 day rain event.

Crossing Borders

The treaty agreements between EU member countries have made the official borders between the nations invisible but the long-standing cultural differences make it clear where you are at any given moment. Crossing the border from Austria into Italy meant that our average lodging costs instantly rose and the quality of the accommodations plummeted. Given that we were riding in 40F (4C) temperatures and perhaps rain, it was the difference in the room heating that immediately got our attention.

Our last night in Austria was at a simple but pleasant B&B and the bargain price didn't keep the hostess from cranking up the heat in our room upon our arrival. We savored the warmth as we shook off the day's chill and enjoyed the confidence of knowing our laundry would dry by morning. After 2 weeks back in Italy, I was still reminiscing about that last inexpensive, cozy room in  Sillian, Austria on the Drau River. There was no such reassuring warmth on our first nights back in Italy where our allergies kicked up in our hotel rooms, either from the molds or generally less thorough housekeeping.


Bagging the offending fan.

In addition to the annoyance of the spare heating, almost every night's stay our first weeks back in Italy required jury-rigging to make the room more comfortable--antics that aren't usually necessary in Austria .  We used yards of our masking tape to 'customize' our rooms. One night it only took an inch of tape to thwart the motion detector that triggered the clattery fan and ceiling light every time we entered the bathroom. Having the light and long-running fan come on with each trip Bill made to the bathroom at night would be a looser for me, the light-sleeper.

Another Italian hotel room had an outside door with a 1/4" gap at the bottom--using our tape to seal the door allowed the meager heating system to have some impact rather than none at all on the room temperature. And another place had a familiar problem, which was cigarette smoke wafting in from neighboring rooms through the bath room fan. Sometimes hotel fans seem to be vented to other rooms rather than the exterior, quickly triggering my cigarette smoke allergy each time that the neighbors lit up. The old "tape a plastic bag over the fan" trick quickly subdued my sneezing. (Never mind that these were no-smoking establishments.)


Lots of tight turns were often required in Italian bathrooms.

Other  typically Italian room hazards that had us longing to be lodging in Austria couldn't be solved with masking tape.

Awkwardly shaped and cramped bathrooms frequently had me wondering how people larger than us managed when even we had to sit sideways on the toilet. Several times the bathroom door couldn't be completely opened because it hit the sink. One such room also required stepping over the bidet to access the tiny shower stall. And curiously, the only way to visit our token balcony at another place was through the bathroom that had to be negotiated by walking sideways.

Almost every night back in Italy had us fiddling with the plumbing, with poorly draining or leaking sinks being the main issues. As we left one hotel in the morning we noticed a large puddle on the hallway floor that was undoubtedly supplied by our bathroom sink. It only took a minute to understand that it was the lack of caulking behind the sink that was channeling water down the bathroom wall, which then seeped under the wall and onto the hall floor. Our guess was that housekeeping mopped it up each day, ignoring the tell-tale damaged and mildewing woodwork under the sink on the other side of the wall.


One of many brickwork patterns seen on barns.

When we first started traveling in 2001 I used to say that I'd like to have Europe during the day and Motel 6 at night. That way we'd get all of our adventure while on the roads and cruising through the villages in the daylight; when in for the night, we'd the skip the adventure and just have things work the way they are supposed to work.  Now I can revise that request and say "I'd like Italy during the day; Austria at night." Austrian lodging generally delivers a good product for a good price, which isn't the often the case in Italy. But generally Italy is more interesting than Austria, especially as seen from a bike.

I love the views from the saddle in some parts of Austria, but day in, day out, Italy is more likely to deliver the visual interest than Austria.  Much of Italy's exteriors are more messy and crumbly than the pleasing orderliness we see in Austria, but neat or chaotic, Italy dishes out a steady stream of details to admire--details that keep our minds dancing as the wheels go 'round.

There is an almost decorative quality about the average sweep our eyes make of the Italian back roads and villages, which is continuously engaging.  Lattice-like brickwork on upper barn walls; repeating motifs painted under wooden eves;  fancy ironwork on gates or balconies; frequent bell towers; pebble pavers on driveways; old facades made from alternating layers of brick and rounded river rocks;  octogenarians slowly pedaling ancient bikes while holding an umbrella in one hand; and a road worker using an ill-fitting, inverted traffic cone as a funnel to aid in filling his earth compactor with gasoline were among the snap-shots that give us pause was we roll along the Po.  Except when having to shift our focus to staying alive on narrow truck routes, we always find feasts for our eyes in Italy.

 


Some painted facades were worth a long look.

Tour d' Po

From "Rambo-ing" to "Cowboying"

The physical difficulty of negotiating the rough surfaces and steep grades on the Drau River bike route in Austria had me calling it a "Rambo" route but "cowboy" was the label that came to mind while riding Italy's Po River valley. The flat terrain that had us tracing the grid created by thousands of irrigation ditches and canals around rice paddies and other fields wasn't physically challenging but instead created moral confrontations. We lean heavily towards being law-abiding but the situations in Italy often compelled us to bend the rules--just like the locals do.

Late one afternoon we dutifully waited at a train crossing...and waited...and waited. Finally a freight train whizzed by but the bar didn't lift to free the traffic flow. We waited, and waited, and waited. At last, a second train whizzed by and again the bar didn't budge. Almost anywhere else, I would have waited some more but this was Italy and they'd already broken the convention twice by not allowing the traffic to pass after the train cleared the area.  Who knew how long they'd makes us wait.


The logic of this joinery was a head-scratcher.

Impatient at the end of another cold riding day, I tilted my loaded bike to squeeze under the gate so as to assess the likelihood of getting under the second gate on the other side of the pair of tracks. The odds were good, so I waved to (a somewhat horrified) Bill to join me. In seconds we were safely across the tracks, under the second gate, and on our way. We felt a bit guilty for breaking the rules but never heard the 3rd train and wondered if even it would be the last before the gates finally lifted.

A few days later it took less consideration to slip under the pair of bars blocking the road at another train crossing. Here the road was closed semi-permanently because the pavement bracketing the rails had been torn-up. Like before, the very flat terrain gave us a long, clear view in both directions along the tracks and the quiet of the countryside assured us that we'd hear as well as see oncoming trains in plenty of time to be safe as we violated the barriers.

The next moral confrontation that brought out the cowboy spirit in us was the "No bikes" sign at a temporary wooden pontoon bridge funneling traffic into the city of Piacenza. We are never keen to backtrack and even less so when we are down to 2 hours of day light but here it was even worse: this was the only non-freeway bridge across the river into the city for many miles. The only other viable option for bikes was to backtrack an unknown distance to look for a train station to take a train into town. "It's Italy" we both said as we shrugged our shoulders, gritted our teeth and proceeded, hoping for the best. The crossing was quick and straightforward and the motorists in the slow moving traffic were accommodating.


A smaller, permanent pontoon bridge downstream of Parma.

The following day it was a "Road Closed" sign that gave us pause. In Italy the road is usually only really closed when they build a concrete block wall or other structure across the pavement. Moveable signs usually indicate that they'd rather you found another way to go but that you can pass through if you must. And if cars can't get through, bikes usually can.

We pressed on with confidence that the road closure would be an non-issue for us on bikes. But this time it was an excavator digging a trench that fully occupied the one lane farm road. We dismounted, carefully eyeing the steep bank we'd walk along to push our bikes safely past the digger. But this was Italy and the helper wouldn't have that.

Instead, the helper instructed the operator to stop digging and directed us across the freshly dug 2' wide trench, helping Bill with his bike and lifting mine over the neatly cut earth. We were then signaled to wheel our bikes under the bucket boom on the 18" wide strip of filled trench next to the rig. As we mounted our bikes I heard the helper say "Tedesco" to the operator, which is "German" in Italian. I flashed a smile back at him and shouted "American," which was countered with an approving tone. It felt like a typically Italian "win-win": we didn't have to backtrack and they had a brief break in what was likely a monotonous, drizzly day.


A 2002 example of a serious Italian road closure.

Bucking Broncos

It was in downtown Parma that I felt like a cowhand riding a bucking bronco instead of a roadie riding a bike when a city bus clipped me on a turn. Drivers frequently underestimate the room we need on turns and we are both in the habit of slowing as we are passed on right curves to avoid being squished. Unlike hundreds of other times, this time that well-practiced defensive maneuver wasn't enough, this time the situation was too tight for me to influence the outcome.

I was lucky: the bus contacted my back pannier, not my body; the impact was very light; and the temporary, springy construction zone fence confining me on my right side caught me as I went over. My bike and I tipped on to the fence, which caved-in a bit but fortunately didn't collapse to the ground. I was left in a semi-standing position in the fence as I'd gotten a foot to the asphalt when I realized I was going to be hit. And I wasn't in the fence long as nearby pedestrian rushed to help me return to standing from the awkward position as I was still straddling the heavily laden bike.

Rather than suffer a crushing or banging-to-the-ground injury, I skated by with a torquing of my soft tissues. No head or bone problems, only mild strains to my back and pelvis on one side. Too bad the twisting forces were most intense on my right side as those muscle groups were still healing from my solo crash 6 weeks earlier near Vienna.

Literally adding insult to the injury was having the bus driver say I should have been more careful...that he didn't see me. Nonsense! He approached me from behind on a straight-away before I entered the turn, then passed me. "Sorry" would have been a better response, but of course he was on the defensive. I had screamed; Bill, who was ahead of me yelled at him as he passed Bill; and no doubt the rush-hour load of passengers on the bus, some of whom were inches from me, made some noises too as they saw me go over.

Over the course of the next hour while we did our nightly marketing and made our way to our hotel, the jarred muscles got crankier despite my odd gyrations in the grocery store to discreetly sooth them. My concern about the length of my recovery escalated though I was still confident that my knowledge of yoga and Bill's massage skills would be sufficient treatment to manage my injuries. Luckily by bedtime the muscular tantrums had peaked and by morning I was far less concerned about being haunted by discomfort in the coming days and weeks.

Walking about the city the next day I was of course especially cautious about not getting hit by anything, bus or otherwise. Our hours on the streets made my 'event' of the previous day all the more perplexing as Parma's streets are teaming with bikes, so the bus drivers should be well experienced with sharing the road. But I suppose the most amazing thing is that in 10 years of international cycling this is only the second time either of us has been hit by a vehicle; the first time was in Scotland where Bill was clipped by a side view mirror of a passing car and me being pinched by a bus in Parma was the second.


Cleaning our bikes & shoes at a soccer field after a
 very muddy short-cut to dodge truck traffic.

A So-So Route

The "Tour d'Po" wasn't a particularly grand route, though we hadn't expected it to be stunning. It was an area we'd always darted past as quickly as possible in the summer on our way to the Dolomites because of the choking pollution. As we'd hoped, a late fall tour diminished the impact of the pollution and eliminated any risk of searing heat. This had been the right time to explore a region we had neglected.

But Map Man was disappointed in the route BikeLine had crafted and declared it the least-useful book he'd purchased in their series. The guidebook was unusually short on lodging options and did not route riders into thickets of lodging on a daily basis, which is one of the attributes we've appreciated in previous books. Adding to his challenges were the many road changes that weren't reflected on either BikeLine's hardcopy or his electronic GPS maps and after a week or so, he abandoned the Po altogether and crafted his own route through the plain.

Lodging was difficult to find and expensive until Bill gave-up on the formal route.  "Make the planning easy" was one of my criteria for our last weeks of riding and so he switched to finding lodging first, then designing a route to fit. We were traveling between a string of cities and suddenly booking.com had multiple options each night, with the suburban and convention center hotels slashing their rates.

Our lodging costs dropped by 30-40% and the quality went up as we were in the business class hotels. Getting to the locations, often near freeways, was sometimes a death-defying act but we loved the warm, clean rooms with minimal plumbing problems. I often had to remind myself that we were in Italy as the rooms no longer shouted that fact with their design and maintenance challenges. Though one night we resorted to washing the shower curtain in the bathroom sink as it reeked of cigarette smoke, once again in a non-smoking room.

The explosion in bike paths in these northern Italy plains was a grand discovery on and off the Po River route. Somebody had been busy in the last few years building paths as we encountered multiple paths daily. We always knew when we were getting close to a cemetery as almost every one outside of town had a new bike path linking it with the village. There were never any signs on the paths indicating where they were going and many were a half mile or less in length but we were elated with the attitude shift it represented. Several times we stumbled upon intercity routes that covered some significant territory. Some paths and lanes were a delight, others were so bad we abandoned them for the streets.

Occasionally we'd give-up on a bike lane because of an extremely rough or uneven surface which made riding in a confined space wearing or dangerous but more often it was a string of dumpsters and parked cars in the lane that made it impassable. Inexplicably, pedestrians also gravitated into the bike lanes even when an adjacent pedestrian area was striped though a few were very respectful of our allotted space. As in the US, there is still a lot of work to do on these routes to connect the dots but we savored and applauded the increased consideration for bike traffic.

 


This was the photo-op tree when we picnicked in the park.

Yielding to the Changing Seasons

Over these last 10 years, our life has become synchronized with the seasons. In the spring, we emerge from relative hibernation to launch our traveling season, often adventurously expanding into unknown regions like North Africa.  In the summer, we bask in the greater warmth and extended daylight by pushing ourselves to our physical edges and peaks with a combination of biking and hiking in the high mountains. A contraction accompanies the coming of fall as we drop out of the mountains to the valleys and our riding days shorten to match the shrinking daylight hours. The impending winter brings with it preparation for our dormant phase in which we bring our travels to a close, return home to the States, and spend more time indoors being more sedentary and thinking about traveling rather than doing it. 

We considered ourselves lucky this year when fall settled in around us and the inevitability of winter was hard to ignore.  After having a generally crummy weather year in 2010, the fall was better than most even though October was unseasonably cold. But it's really the rain and not the cold that we measure a day or a week by and this fall was quite acceptable rain-wise. In hindsight, we had about one soaker-downpour day a week, one or 2 days a week that were sunny for part or all of the day, and the remaining days were cool and gray. Coming from a clammy, drizzly region, such a pattern registers with us as a good week much of the year.

Being in relatively calm traffic and not bracing ourselves against rain and wind day after day in November gave us the opportunity to gain closure on the year as we rode. We had hours of easy going riding on most days, hours when our minds could wander and we could talk to each other. There was time to reflect on the year behind us with its triumphs and disappointments; there was time to create space in our beings for the joys and challenges awaiting us when we returned home. And since all of our exit strategy details unexpectedly had been resolved in Vienna, stewing about the uncertainty and all of the usual "what if's?" didn't distract us from our contemplation. We enjoyed the novelty of being on our bikes in acceptable weather with few stresses up until a week before our flight home.

 

From Sitting in the Saddle to Sitting on the Train

As we do every year, we'd left what was looking like a ridiculous amount of time to arrive at our departure airport for our flight home. This year the south to north trek was a train journey from Verona in the plains of northern Italy to Amsterdam on the northern edge of the continent, with time for depositing our bikes in Vienna along the way.  But there were new things to worry about this year that might foil our plans, possible events like another eruption of the Icelandic volcano or strikes in protest to the imposition of austerity budgets throughout Europe, so we'd left a week to leisurely make the journey and to rent a storage locker.

But what felt like a foolish amount of extra time as we embarked on the trek rapidly looked wise as things started going wrong on the first transition day even though the volcano was quiet and the current strikes in England and Portugal did not affect us. It was on the very first train of a series over a week in which we hit a show-stopper snag.


Seeing  favorite cities & mountain peaks again was a bonus.

We'd just hoisted our bikes and gear onto a nice new train in Verona that would take us to Innsbruck, Austria in a little over 3 hours when the conductor tried her best to throw us off the train.  As wily and as experienced as we consider ourselves, we'd encountered a new wrinkle. Unbeknownst to us, this was a German train, not an Italian or Austrian train, and the Italian conductor required us to have made online reservations with the German train company in order to transport our bikes--something unheard of in Italy where you buy a 24 hour bike pass for about $4 at a station ticket machine. There were 2 slots for bikes on the entire train and 1 was reserved for another bike beginning at Bolzano, which was a little more than half way to Innsbruck.

Curiously, the German train company ticket taker thought it was fine that we transport our bikes as the train obviously wasn't close to being full and of course, the Germans are very pro-bike. A combination of protests from Bill, lobbying by an Italian man seeing his mother off, and kicking the matter up a level to a non-uniformed Italian staff person netted us an Italian-styled compromise: we and our bikes could ride the train as far as Bolzano. No one boarded at Bolzano with a bike but our Italian conductor wouldn't let us continue on, presumably because we'd left our best advocates in Verona.

Fortunately Bill was quite familiar with the route and quickly found a printed schedule on the train before we left Verona, so Plan B was instantly in the works. A 3 hour travel day suddenly became almost a full day as we waited twice for over an hour for trains #2 and #3, but at least our series of hotel and other train reservations wouldn't be lost.


A sunrise walk at Innsbruck before boarding our next train.

It did however mean extra hoisting and lifting of our bikes and bags, but we managed to make good use of the annoying layover times in stations with unheated waiting areas. Bill dashed off to a pharmacy at Bolzano to see if a prescription allergy medication could be purchased without a prescription: barely, but "Yes."  And at Brenner Pass I found some beautiful kaki (persimmons) and ducked into an outlet mall we'd seen in August and determined it was not the sporting goods shopping bonanza I'd hoped. Our trek north had gotten off to a rocky start, but we ended the day calm and satisfied with our contingency plan and with having allowed enough time for it to work.

Next it was in Vienna where we were saying to each other "See, this is why we leave so much extra time...." I'd tried to make an appointment by email with the English speaking man at the locker business but he had assured me that either he or his equally fluent boss would be there the day we arrived but neither of them were there. The Croatian staff woman spoke some English, but she didn't want to go through the German contract with us, so we had to return hours later. It all worked out, but the excess of time budgeted in Vienna suddenly was just right.

It was in Vienna where we were reminded that all of Germany was still on high alert for a Mumbai-style kidnapping/random gun shooting type of terrorist attack through the end of November. We'd be sitting ducks while traveling by train in Germany on 2 of the remaining 3 days left in the month. The best we could do to decrease our exposure was not to visit the Munich Christmas fair the night we were there and to truncate our time in the stations and on the train platforms. Ironically, while strategizing about dodging a terrorist attack during our time in Germany while still in Vienna, our home, Portland, Oregon made the "Breaking News" category on TV with a bombing attempt at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the city center. How odd to be trying to navigate around the high-risk situation in Germany and then to have an attack be foiled at home where we'd be in a few days. It felt like a 'frying pan to the fire' strategy.

The repeatedly sinking jet stream that was dumping snow and dropping temperatures unseasonably early both at home and in northern Europe hindered the last leg of our travel plans.  The wheels on our newly purchased suitcases bogged down in the snow piling up on Munich's sidewalks, as it did the wheels on our train out of Munich. We left the station on time, but by the first stop in a 4 hour ride we were already 10 minutes behind schedule. We missed our connection at Hannover and didn't arrive in Amsterdam until after our bed time. Once again we were glad for the ease in our schedule as we'd still have time to catch-up on our sleep before our long flight home, which is the first step in managing jet lag.

Despite the inconveniences brought by the early harsh weather, the snow in the Alps was beautiful on the sunny day we rode over Brenner Pass--it was like rewriting an ending to a sad story to see these lovely places with a backdrop of bright blues skies instead in the rain as we'd seen this summer. And going for walks and spending nights in Innsbruck, Vienna, and Munich provided for a satisfying, prolonged good-bye at the end of another 9 months of traveling.

 

Where We Are Now November 30, 2010:  An Amsterdam Airport Hotel

The weather has been a thorn in our sides all year and it is currently presenting our last obstacle to surmount before getting home. Winter arrived in northern Europe one to two months early this year with a series of blasts of cold Arctic air dumping snow over a large area. The snow on the ground in Amsterdam isn't the problem, but weather-related delays across the continent are backing up flights in and out of Amsterdam and filling the hotels.  We'll hope for the best and do what we can to prepare for the worst. With a little luck, we'll arrive home on schedule on December 2.

 

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