By ExperiencePlus! traveler JR Meda
June 11: My wife, Cheri and I had waited a year to finally fly from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany on the 1st segment of our dream vacation to bicycle across Italy in celebration of our 25th anniversary.
We arrived at the Marco Polo airport in Venice at 5:30PM, picked up our luggage, and took the Blue Line water bus 45 minutes across the Lagoon area of Venice, to an area called the Lido. The Lido is a beautiful strip of land about 30 minutes by ferry from the actual city of Venice. When we arrived the main street of Gran Viale S.M. Elisabetta was bustling with tourists, pedestrians, scooters and cars. We located our hotel, checked in, and went to explore the restaurants and little shops. The setting was unbelievable with eateries and pubs that had outdoor seating that flowed right out onto the sidewalk. Wine, pasta, salads, gelato, everywhere you looked it was the most enjoyable atmosphere that you could imagine.
June 12th: We would be fitted with our bikes, meet the tour leaders, and meet the rest of our riding group in the afternoon so we had the entire morning to explore. We joined Jill and Matt and took a water taxi to Venice proper including St. Marco Plaza and the Grand Canal. Being there the day before, Jill & Matt showed us the huge plaza lined with the clock tower, cathedral, and other ancient Venetian government structures. We walked the narrow back streets of the city just like a ton of other tourist before ferrying back to the Lido to meet the other riders and get fitted to our bikes by the tour leaders, Sara and Lizzza. At least that is how Sara pronounced her name, in her cute Italian accent. After sizing saddles, pedals, handlebars we took a test ride on the streets of Lido.
We met everyone in the lobby of the hotel to walk to a nearby restaurant. After a short introduction to the other riders: Jen (Australia), Doug (Connecticut), & Dean (Canada), with Sara & Lizzza, Dinner was quite the experience, beginning at 7:30 and lasting 3 hours with one course of food after another, I knew that we would have to do some serious biking each day if we were to eat meals like this every day! I considered changing the title of my vacation journal to: “How I Ate My Way Across Italy in 12 Days!” After dinner, our group was introduced to Grappa….this was to be a ritual drink that Jill and Cheri would end each evening with, for the next 11 days.
June 13th: We were all chomping at the bit to ride. After breakfast, Sara gave a general talk on bike safety, street signs, hazards, how the route would be marked, and general biking guidelines. Sara would lead our group single file out of the city. After a short time, we caught a commercial ferry for a brief ride to a small fishing village. After a morning coffee and snack, we boarded our chartered fishing boat with our bikes and continued to the mainland, the city of Chioggia and its port. After lunch, we road at our own pace as Sara had left a couple of hours early to mark the route to our hotel in Taglio Di Po. Getting out of Chioggia was a bit challenging as the streets were quite busy with scooters, vehicles and pedestrians, but by following the arrows Sara had laid down for our route, we were quickly in the Venetian countryside riding on the levee along the Po River. It was a gorgeous, relaxing ride through little villages and towns, along the way. All I can say about dinner is that it was unbelievable!
June 14th: Our ride to Ferrara featured one lane roads though farmer’s acreages. I think we all lost ourselves, and enjoyed the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Taking breaks, shooting photos and enjoying the beautiful countryside, we all rode at our own pace. At 11:00a.m., we met Sara & Lisa in the village of Berra, where a farmer’s market was being held. Sara purchased a load of goods that would be our lunch at a park on the outskirts of Ferrara. We feasted on 3 kinds of cheeses, prosciutto, spec, salami, apricots, cherries, and homemade bread, all spread on a picnic table, in a beautiful park. An hour after lunch we made our final 15K (9 miles) ride into the city. The streets were jammed with traffic, pedestrians, and hundreds of bicycles! I was ready for a cold biera, as it had been a warm day riding under sunshine and blue skies for 50 miles. The hopping city of Ferrara was home to both a small college, and a US Army base.
Each of the hotels on the trip were located right in the hub of activity, so we never needed any form of transportation not even our bikes, to explore the towns. The city plaza in Ferrara was a short walk from our hotel and featured a medieval castle with moat and several 14th century architectural buildings. Ferrara is a Renaissance city complete with a large wall originally built to defend against invaders.
June 15th: Sara & Lisa, our 2 tour guides, are absolutely wonderful leaders for this journey. On a daily basis, one will offer support with the ExperiencePlus! van, while the other takes the arduous job of bicycling toting several pounds of chalk to mark the route to our next hotel. They mark water fountains, sights of interest, cappuccino and lunch stops in addition to all the turns, roundabouts, and intersections that will lead us across the countryside of Italy. The van driver circulates on the route and meets us in different areas for breaks, lunch, and points of interest along the way. The van is a mobile bicycle shop equipped with every imaginable tool, part or repair item needed to handle any mechanical break down that might occur. Tires, tubes, cables, pedals, seats, chains, there are even spare bikes loaded on the van to handle any situation that should arise. Upon leaving one hotel and arriving at the next, Sara and Lisa will pack and load our backpacks and suitcases into the van and then have them in our rooms before we get to our next destination.
Today we started with an hour shuttle to the fishing village of Comacchio. The shuttling of people and bikes would allow more time to visit museums and historic sites in Ravenna. Comacchio was an old port town on the Venetian lagoon where cargo boats from all over Europe and North Africa came to unload and sell their wares. We were treated to a gondola / pole boat ride through the canal passages in town. Our hosts were 2 retired fishermen who were very proud of their heritage and told their life stories as we floated through the streets. We picked up our bikes and continued our trek through the Po delta where the fresh water meets the Adriatic Sea. Another gorgeous day for riding around the delta though a fairly stiff breeze made it a bit more challenging than any other ride so far.
We stopped for lunch at an agriturismo, or countryside farm co-op. They had a small restaurant, a few camping sites, farm animals, and a cozy atmosphere. Aaaaa lunch was like a feast from your wildest dreams. Good thing the ride to Ravenna was relatively short, as we were all stuffed to the brim with wonderful homemade foods prepared especially for us. We arrived in Ravenna at 4:00p.m. with temperatures hovering in the mid-80s, we checked into the hotel. Ravenna is the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. It is known for its cathedrals and churches loaded with mosaic art, holy sculptures and artifacts. Our hotel was renovated from an old orphanage and our room had a 25 foot ceiling and was no less than 1300 square feet! Complete with a double shower it was much bigger than any apartment or condo that I had ever been in.
June 16th: The weather is again unbelievable. Leaving the streets of Ravenna and moving into the countryside, time seemed to stand still as we peddled along viewing farms, scenery, and beautiful rural villas. Our first stop today is a well-known bike shop that is on our way to the “farm”, the headquarters for all of the ExperiencePlus! European bike tours. We toured the facility, ate some fresh fruit along with some cold refreshment then were on the road again. As the Apennines came into view I was glad that the first four days of the tour were fairly gentle and allowed us an opportunity to get comfortable with riding about 40 miles a day. The spring weather at home had limited our conditioning for the tour, and having the first part of the ride flat, was needed and welcomed.
Stopping at the “family farm” outside of Faenza for a wonderful home-cooked lunch, we met Paola, Rick (ExperiencePlus! founders), & Monica Price (co-owner). They had a king’s ransom spread of food laid out and enough to feed an army! Fresh veggies, fruits, meats, cheeses, salads & breads…It was like Thanksgiving. We toured the shop buildings that housed between 300-400 bicycles of every size, color, and style, and met the chief mechanic, Scott from Ft Collins. Then a neighbor woman, who was a Price family relative, treated our group to a homemade pasta demonstration. She went through the entire process from rolling out the dough, all the way through to hand forming the ravioli, tortellini, and noodles. The work that went into her labor of love had no doubt been repeated countless times over her life.
After lunch we rode the last short leg into Faenza which is Lizzza’s home town! Upon arrival I was heading straight for some cold Italian Moretti birra. The rest of the group went to a ceramic painting demonstration at a local gallery, while I sat at an outdoor patio taking in this beautiful cobblestone village, enjoying a few cold ones. After dinner that night I picked up a strange looking piece of paper on the street. It was a 20 Euro bill! I quickly spent it on the daily ration of gelato for the group. Tomorrow we ride the Apennines…and I was beginning to think that perhaps I shouldn’t have had that last Moretti.
June 17th: Today we break the fun barrier on our ride from Faenza to Ronta today. Although we knew from the beginning that this leg of the tour was going to have some hillier terrain, we had no idea the intensity of the climb that lie ahead. We stopped for coffee in the small medieval village of Brisighella surrounded by the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries. After the short break, we rode to the west side of the village to an olive oil/wine co-op for some sampling. This prettily decorated shop had at least a half a dozen “gas pump” machines built into the wall. Each of these pumps had an LED read out, and a hose with pumping trigger that dispensed your favorite wine in bulk! Local residents wandered in and out filling their containers with their favorite red or white wine. Unbelievable! They even had a pump for olive oil. As we left the shop we knew it was now going to be game on.
The next segment of the ride was going to be 40K (25 miles) uphill to the top of the pass. Though the climb started out gently we soon understood why there are two opportunities (in Brisighella and Marradi) to catch the train. The ride definitely became more challenging as we left Marradi. We took off on a grinding uphill climb, back and forth on switchbacks, steadily going up, up and up. The group was strung out with everyone going at their own pace. We had a breeze, which unfortunately was blowing right in our face…adding more resistance to the steepness of the road. Thank goodness we also had a few clouds to keep us from boiling over. Jill led the way through a particularly steep section near the top, with Dean, Matt, Cheri and I following. We were all exhausted and I said to Matt…”Hell, I didn’t know that you could have this much fun and still have your clothes on!” But the climb wasn’t quite over and when we finally reached the summit Lisa was on the side of the road next to the van chanting, dai, dai, dai, the Italian bicycle phrase for “go for it”. Pronounced die, die, die, and I’ll tell you… we all felt like we were dead, dead, dead. From the summit, we coasted 10K (6 miles) straight down hill and were in the mountain village of Ronta in no time. One birra after another, we didn’t stop until dinner time.
As customary every day after riding, we washed our bike clothing in our hotel rooms, hit them once with the hair dryer, and strung them out on a small clothes line wherever we could find to knot one off. Underwear, shorts, shirts, & socks hanging all over our rooms and out the windows, like every other Italian across the country.
June 18th and 19th: The bathrooms in Italy were quite the experience. Figuring out how to use the toilet, sink and shower each time was an event. Doug found a unique way to launder his riding clothes each day… he used the bidet! The strangest set of sink faucets that I found were 2 metal pedals that were attached to small rods, extending well below the wash basin and coming out of the wall.
Each morning the tour leaders made sure that the hotel provided an ample breakfast for us and we were blessed with yogurt, cereals, bread, pastries, juice, cheeses, salamis, prosciutto, and of course, all the delicious cappuccinos or espressos that you wanted! The breakfasts were perfect fuel for us and I was always surprised that we were all actually hungry in the morning after our nightly feast.
Our ride today took us out of Ronta to Borgo San Lorenzo and a good, hard but shorter climb to the summit overlooking Fiesole and Florence. It was a good thing that the uphill wasn’t any further than it was, because most of us were still quite spent from the ride over the Apennines yesterday. The hilltop village of Fiesole is perched above Florence and features a spectacular view of the city. This was probably one of my favorite stops on the entire trip. After lunch Sara led us, as a group, to our hotel in Florence. After checking in and the usual laundry and showers, we walked around the heart of the city’s historic buildings, sculptures and shops. Our hotel was on the banks of the famous Arno River just down from the Ponte Vecchio bridge. We’ll stay 2 nights here, seeing the sights, taking it all in, and resting up a bit after 7 continuous days of riding.
June 20th: Sara led us out of Florence on Monday morning and it was quite busy as you might imagine. We rode through a little park are on the outskirts of town and along the Arno river until we came to the little village of Signa. She warned us that as we rode out of the town, there would be a short hill, and the “road will be in your face” … and she wasn’t kidding! Our group now realized that any uphill grade in the road felt like a grind, especially after a straight week of 40 miles per day… strange to admit that we loved every bit of the challenge. Outside of the village of Comeana, we stopped at a roadside government park that housed 2 Etruscan tombs that had been discovered and fenced off for small public tours. We had lunch at a cute roadside café in the little village of Carmigano, and then rode into Vinci in mid afternoon. It was a hot clear day and after checking in to the hotel Cheri and I went to the Vinci museum located in this small village with but one traffic light. The next morning I took the additional 15K ride up the mountain to San Barto before we departed for our next stop, Lucca.
June 21st: The scenery definitely started to change as we moved into the Tuscan countryside with more woods and forests. We stopped just outside of Vinci in the little village of Cerreto Guidi, and visited the hunting villa of the Medici family who once ruled Florence. I would have described this so called “hunting lodge” as a small castle.
The ride today was rolling hills combined with flats and gradual grades; each small village seemed to be located atop a hill. No doubt this was a defensive strategy for these small Providences which didn’t have the resources to build large defensive walls like those in Ravenna or Lucca. Gardens, olive and grape orchard were prolific as we made our way along narrow-lanes though one-horse towns.
We rode into Lucca in early afternoon, atop the massive 17th century wall that surrounds the city. It felt as though we were arriving by chariot and yet no one seemed to notice that we were there. Our arrival here was bittersweet as we knew our journey was nearing its conclusion. I was happy to hit a local café to down a few Peroni drafts, and was soon joined by the rest of our group. It was a memorable afternoon sitting in an ancient city watching shoppers, tourists and bicyclists go by.
June 22nd: We headed straight into the countryside along a levee, peddling extra slow trying to make our final ride last a little longer. I don’t remember much of the ride that day as I was trying to recall the past 12 days. When we got to Pisa it was hot and there had to be 10,000 tourists posing and trying to capture the Leaning Tower in their hands while a friend snapped their photo. The group split up here, some went to the tower, others opted for lunch, but really all we wanted to do was to get back on the bikes for a few more scenic kilometers before trading in our bicycle seat for an airline seat. Cheri and I took our time getting back to Lucca.
Well that’s it. We definitely broke the fun barrier with the most magnificent and memorable time that we’ve ever had. I brought back the biking culture that I not only took part in, but observed on a daily basis on our journey across Italy. I thank ExperiencePlus!, the absolutely wonderful guides, Sara & Lisa, and my riding group of Jen, Dean, Doug, Jill, Matt, & Cheri, for the vacation of a lifetime!
JR Meda lives and works in Fort Collins, Colorado and has been a brewer at Anheuser-Busch for 25 years and loves beer. He discovered a new love for the sport of bicycling with the Venice to Pisa trip in 2010.