The road to Venice | VailDaily.com

The road to Venice

Rob Philippe
Special to the Daily

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series about a Frisco cyclist's month-long bike tour in Italy.

Less than a year ago, we started to plan a 30 day bicycle ride down the length of Italy. Thanks to the Internet, and even before the first turn of the pedal, we had a good idea of what we were getting in to, or so we thought. So here we are now, two 60-something year olds, fresh from 30 days in Italy, 26 days on bicycles, 5 to 7 hours a day of pedaling through a total of more than 200 towns, villages and cities.

Along the way we slept in 25 different three-and-four-star hotels; we ate in maybe 10 Michelin-rated restaurants and had meals in many more Trip Advisor-type establishments. I lost count of the many small, local, one off establishments that fed us along the trail. We must have eaten pizza in another 20 different pizzerias, drank lots of house wine and never had a single complaint about anything. Not a day passed where we didn't meet interesting people. We experienced so many new things and heard so many different stories that it is easy to see why my significant other, Valerie, says "I still can't seem to get my arms around the entire affair."

Self-guided bicycle touring in Europe is a great value with bike rental, hotels with breakfast and many other convenient services costing around $130 per day. This is how the Europeans do it. The emphasis is on leaving no footprint and being able to experience the country and culture as few travelers of the modern age can. This is a rare experience for us Americans and even in tourist-clogged Italy we were told several times, "the first Americans on bikes we have ever seen." At least that's what I think they said since little English is spoken outside of the larger towns.

Back in the saddle

We were glad to be back in the saddle with EuroBike who we had previously used to circumnavigate the Spanish island of Majorca. The "A"-level, eight-day, seven-night self-guided tour from Bolzano to Venice, a trip of around 400 kilometers, costs 800 Euros or just over $1,000.

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The tour starts on Saturday evening in the American Bar of the comfortable Hotel Luna-Mondschein in Bolzano, Italy. Located in the Dolomites, just 40 kilometers south of the Austrian border, this city in German speaking south Tyrol is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and is home to Otzi.

Otzi is the 5,000-year-old frozen mummy that came out of a near by glacier several years ago. The museum built around Otzi and his well-preserved belongings is a must see. There were 14 other self-guided riders in attendance, all Northern Europeans, mostly middle-aged couples who, lucky for us, all spoke English. Even though this is not a group event, loose relationships form over the week and as the only Americans, we were a novelty.

By Sunday morning all riders had been fitted to the custom built hybrid-touring bikes and had deposited their luggage at the front desk for transport. It is early morning and those riders trickle out to take on that day's 70-kilometer ride through the autonomous Alto-Adige region to Trento. This is serious touring and takes some physical and mental strength. For the most part, getting in and out of the target town is the most confusing part of the day. This day we ride alpine bike paths and quiet two-lane roads that more or less follow a series of rivers down to the Adriatic Sea. The inhabitants of this area of Northern Italy enjoy the highest quality of life in what we were to discover is a highly troubled country. The further south you go the worse the social and economic woes.

Because it is the weekend there are lots of riders out on the trail and the occasional bici-grill or bicycle cafe is full of customers. This is a very popular route served by several self-guided tour companies. There could be maybe 30-40 riders on our same weeklong trek. You see the same travelers day-in and day-out, stopped on the road reading maps, drinking beer here and eating gelato there. Soon you start to recognize and acknowledge each other.

Mountains to the Sea

Imagine the most perfect day of bicycle riding … warm sunshine, breeze at your back, a bike path going downstream along swollen alpine rivers. You are surrounded by storybook scenery and are riding through storybook villages. This tour starts in Bolzano with excellent German food and the first day ends in alpine Trento. This renaissance city is filled with fabulous food and wine. The day ends at a four-star hotel with a king sized bed and a view across the narrow valley only blocked by an ancient castle and a 14th century cathedral, extra pillows per favore. This is day one, how could it get any better than this?

Following the route of the ancient Austrian Emperors, we assault many more walled cities each day beginning with Trento, the hybrid Austrian-Italian city. Oh oh … Valerie gets stopped by the police for riding through a red light. "Mi displace," I'm sorry in Italian. Early the next day, she's at it again, this time getting entirely swallowed up in a huge herd of sheep. I wonder if I'm ever going to see her again.

Before lunch, the trail goes over the first of the mountain passes to Riva on postcard perfect Lake Garda. The day's directions warn you to "be there by 3 p.m. "so as to not miss the five-hour steam ship trip down the length of Italy's largest lake to Dezenzano — but not before stopping at some of the most picturesque lake front towns you can imagine."

On we roll to Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame, yet another Italian city built around a completely intact Roman coliseum and yet another comfortable hotel. Still going down river the next stop was the surprise favorite of the trip, Vicenza. Similar to the other cities except for Palladio's architectural influence, it is walled and ancient. There is a river flowing under very old bridges with very old names and, of course, more Roman ruins. Like each nights stop, yet another memorable Italian meal. Is there any bad food in Italy?

The next day, we take a rain-soaked ride through Padova, said to be settled by the Trojans in 1200 A.D. We see all of the sights snug in our rain gear. True to our solemn pledge of "rain equals train" we take a very short 10-minute hop by rail to Abano Terme. This is a famous spa center with lots of hotels with big thermal pools full of Englishmen and other tourists.

The following day, we ride again in the rain to catch the train to Venice, where we have stayed before.

Rob Philippe lives in Frisco and is a connoisseur of "the fine art of bike touring." Send comments about this article to mwong@vaildaily.com.