3 COUNTRIES, 2 WHEELS AND 1 PAIR OF LEGS - **Guest Blogger**
PART 1 (days 1 and 2)
I’ve just been re-reading Christina and Hattie’s tales of cycling in South East Asia and realise that this post is like a snack of beans on toast in contrast to their gourmet meal. There are distinct cycling tribes (see ‘Diary of a food-cycler’ post) and I am firmly in the “leisure” tribe. (For any regular readers of this blog, Christina made that pretty clear in the ‘Cycling in France’ post!) I enjoy cycling for the satisfaction of getting from A to B using only my legs for power. I don’t train and I can go for weeks without using my bike. I then just hop on and go, and hope to get fitter as the days pass. So far this strategy has worked for me. It also indicates that my type of ride falls squarely into the easy/moderate category. So if you love riding fast, fast and FASTER and if you love terrain that is hilly, HiLly and HiLlieR then this blog post is not for you.
The first question was: how to get our bikes to Italy? We had experienced the problems of taking bikes on trains in the UK where bike reservations are completely meaningless. We did not have enough time available to take a European train to Italy and it seemed a bit risky to try taking bikes on a no-frills airline with the possibility of being turned away at check-in. So, reluctantly, we opted to fly to Venice and hire bikes from there. This was relatively easy to arrange. An internet search and a couple of emails did it.
Day 1: Beside the seaside (Venice to Caorle) 32 miles
The first day of cycling began with collecting the hired bikes from Vicente. We had arranged, via text messages, to meet at the ferry in Tronchetto. We checked over the bikes, packed the puncture repair kit and spare inner tubes supplied (luckily ….wait and see) and I wondered if I could ever grow to love this machine which, although easy to ride and in good shape, just didn’t understand me the way my own bike does. Vicente arranged to pick up the bikes in Venice 6 days later and drove off looking slightly concerned about whether we (I should say ‘I’ as my partner is a lot fitter than I am) would make it. A ½ hour wait for the ferry gave us a chance to get breakfast, a coffee and croissant, at the ferry kiosk. The Italians really know how to make coffee! The car ferry from Tronchetto to Lido San Nicolo, then passenger ferry from San Nicolo to Punta Sabbioni on the mainland gave us beautiful views of Venice. By the time we arrived in Punta Sabbioni we were itching to get pedalling. We’d been up since 7.30 a.m. and it was already midday. The ride began with a long stretch of cycle path alongside the road. This sometimes merged with the pavement through the seaside towns of this part of the Adriatic coast, making it impossible to go anything but slowly, even by my standards. Once beyond Jesolo there was more open country which was very welcome. We cycled along a quiet road beside a canal and then, about 5 miles outside Caorle, we saw what looked like a cycle path on the opposite bank so we crossed over a small foot bridge to join it. The pleasure of being able to forget about listening for cars was soon dampened as the gravel path gradually became a grassy track and eventually disappeared altogether becoming bumpier and bumpier until it was like riding over corrugated iron. I nearly came off twice when my wheel hit a ridge. It did however allow us to get to the outskirts of Caorle without a massive detour to cross the canal using the road bridge. The road into Caorle was well served by cycle paths and soon enough we arrived in the Italian seaside resort, just in time for a quick dip in the sea before dinner. How had it had taken 5 hours to do just 32 miles? This was a recurring question throughout the ride. Our average rolling speed hovered around 10 mph (I said I was ‘leisurely’) but we tended to take considerably longer to finish a ride even taking café breaks into account. It seems that taking photographs and stopping to find the way eats into the day. I like to sing to myself when cycling and often found I was singing about bikes without realising my brain had selected a relevant track.
Day 2: Map?......what map? (Caorle to Latisana) 35 miles
One of the pleasures of cycling is that you need fuel i.e. you need to eat a lot - and I like to eat, especially big breakfasts. So each day starts with ‘the works’ and today was no exception. It took some time to find our way out of Caorle. We knew which road we wanted to be on but couldn’t find where it started. This had 2 welcome consequences. One was that we found the picturesque beach and Duomo which we would have otherwise missed and the second was that we found a different route altogether called ‘the Green Route’. As the name implies this was considerably more enjoyable to ride than the main road which we could see but could not find a route onto. Another life lesson: don’t worry if you seem to be going the wrong way –it can turn out to be the best way. We travelled on a quiet road through open countryside and even when we joined a busier road at San Giorgio dei Livenza we found the drivers passing us were very considerate of us cyclists – never impatient and always giving us a very wide berth when overtaking. It was very hot (about 34C) so we stopped in the shade outside a café in Portogruaro for some respite from the sun before pushing on to Latisana. 2 hours and several coffees later I left with a wet hanky under my helmet feeling much cooler – but only in the temperature sense of the word.
A good map is something I’d strongly recommend. It was a shame we didn’t have one! We had downloaded “maps” from Google before we left but they were lacking in detail. Perfectly serviceable when you are going the right way but as good as useless if lost. We again had trouble finding the right road out of Portogruaro, and then we found that the cycle path beside the fairly narrow, fast road disappeared leaving no apparent option but to join the thundering traffic. ”There must be another way” thought I, so the map was consulted and a detour was planned which involved doubling back for a mile or so and then following a tiny country road. We cycled deeper into the countryside only to be confronted by a huge, locked metal gate. Behind it was the railway line which was NOT shown on our map. So the carefully worked out alternative route was useless and we had to go back, again, to join the busy SS14. After a further couple of miles we spotted another possible detour via Fassolo which turned out to be more successful. On our way we passed a road sign which said “Portogruaro 5 km”, 2 HOURS after we had originally left! Eventually we arrived in Latisana, a small town with little but a Duomo, very few tourists and an Italian atmosphere which was less evident in the more cosmopolitan coastal resorts of day 1. During WWII it suffered heavy damage, especially in the bombing of May 19, 1944 that totally destroyed the historical centre so not a town for sight-seeing.
Today’s mental song list helped me push the pedals in sweltering heat (often in the wrong direction).Friends had supplied me with suggestions for songs; the only criterion was that they must be singable. I sang all of them, although I da-da-da-ed a few, and added some of my own.
PART 2 (days 3 & 4)
Day 3: The Star (Latisana to Palmanova) 26 miles
Against my free-spirited nature (I call it ‘free-spirited’; others might call it ‘can’t be bothered’), the route was planned today before setting off, to be sure of arriving in Palmanova before nightfall. It worked - we arrived at 1.30 p.m. despite several short stops to cool down and wet the helmet hanky – and it was only 26 miles.
The ride was mostly through quiet countryside and pretty villages with only about 5 miles of sharing a fast, busy, single lane road with HGVs. At times my relationship with lorries was a little too intimate and mildly terrifying. Otherwise songs continued to loop in my head and I had time to think. I enjoy the ‘stream of consciousness’ flow of thinking that happens when I’m cycling. I can surf my own internal internet and I’m never quite sure where I will end up. My thoughts flow from one thing to another without barriers, discovering so much that I was not aware was there. My mind literally wanders.
In terms of urban design, Palmanova is stunning. The modern city started as a fortress built by the Venetian empire in the 16th and 17th centuries to prevent attacks from Austrian and Turkish forces. A series of walls and fortifications around the city core are built in the shape of a nine-pointed star. The Piazza Grande sits in the centre of the town – and it is HUGE. The town has only 5,500 inhabitants with a piazza worthy of Rome! The town, during siesta, had a slightly tired, rundown feel to it which was compounded by the heat. There were a small number of rather elegant Italian visitors but it was hardly buzzing. I wondered if it would explode into life around 7 or 8 p.m. – it didn’t.
Day 4: HOT, HOT, HOT (Palmanova to Trieste) 43 miles
We shared breakfast in Palmanova with a young couple who were travelling from Rome (his home town) to Prague (her home town) via San Daniele del Friuli to taste the prosciutto ham. Apparently it is the pride of the area and is well known all over the world by gourmets who appreciate its sweet and delicate flavour. San Daniele is about 20 miles north of Palmanova but when our breakfast buddies suggested we did a quick detour we had to explain that we were travelling by pushbike not motorbike!
We made a good job of avoiding main roads today cycling through beautiful countryside and small Italian villages. The sun beat down and the mercury, or digital clock, reached 39C by the time we reached Monfalcone for a cool-down stop : 2 Fantas downed in one and a top up of the wet hanky. I now started putting a wet piece of kitchen towel into my helmet and tying the dripping wet hanky around my neck cowboy–style. It turned out to be a very efficient cooling system, although it looked anything but cool. We pushed on to Duino for a late fuel stop of pasta and salad. This was the only disappointing meal of the trip. We were in a very pretty village café just by the castle but were served packet salad and pasta in a supermarket microwavable plastic container!
The first 3 days of cycling had been flat, flat, flat but that was about to change as we got nearer to the border with Slovenia. As we approached Trieste there was a long, slow uphill, from sea level to 800 feet, over 7 miles.
We live in an entirely flat city so get little hill practice. Consequently I am no expert in climbing them. If I use the wrong gears I am doomed to failure but if in the right gear then it is the psychological barriers that need to be overcome. I have a number of strategies for getting up hills. These work for me:
- Distractors – do anything to keep doubt at bay. Once “I can’t do it” has crept into my head I am almost certain to get off before the top. Singing works for me, especially something rhythmic and repetitive. Another is naming countries of the world which begin with each letter of the alphabet. Replace countries of the world with fruits, bands, towns, book titles and the possibilities are endless.
- Focus – focus on the tarmac about 6 feet in front of the front wheel and on turning pedals
- Relax – I often become aware that my arms and shoulders are tense when climbing a difficult hill, almost as if I am trying to pull myself up. This just expends energy that would be better used in the legs so I make a conscious effort to relax my shoulders.
- And finally, NEVER look at the top of the hill.
A cycling friend and I used to describe hills using the names of difficult work colleagues “oh no, it’s an Alice” (code for it will go on, and on, and on...) or “that was a Graham” (short but hard work). It made both climbing the hills and dealing with the colleague’s easier. The hill before Trieste was definitely an ‘Alice’. We were eventually rewarded with a spectacular (and I mean SPECTACULAR) descent into Trieste. After 43 miles through Italian countryside in 39C heat, we arrived at our destination, skin slick with sweat and sunscreen. My sun-addled brain had put my mental song list on shuffle so each one was a surprise. I had been lost in space, rolling down the river, taking you down to Strawberry Fields, flying like an eagle, jammin', not wanting to go to rehab, drinking a case of you, looking for the thing I still haven't found, welcomed to the hotel California and on a road to nowhere.
As the town was surrounded by hills I was wondering how the hell we would get out the next day but decided to ignore that and enjoy the very lively party town that is Trieste. We ate in a café with a live guitarist playing passable (actually pretty good) versions of Dire Straits, Steve Miller and Cat Stevens……..with a café just up the street playing techno on full volume.
[I discovered on returning home that in 2012, Lonely Planet.com listed the city of Trieste as the world's most underrated travel destination. It’s not pretty but it is buzzing.]
PART 3 (days 5 & 6)
Day 5: HEAT & HILLS (Trieste to Portoroz) 28 miles
Dobrodosli Slovenia! I was right to be worried about getting out of Trieste. Post-breakfast decision: 1/2 mile through the tunnel of death or 5 miles up a BIG hill? The tunnel out of the city looked dangerously fast and narrow and the only other option was the 5 mile hill which was very unappealing at 9 a.m. so what to do? Nothing for a while, then an exploratory expedition to the tunnel revealed a very narrow but just about bike-width pavement. YES!! A flat start to the day! Another life lesson: if in doubt…… wait.
The tiny pavement on one side of the 2 very narrow lanes of 60mph traffic was the final deal sealer and the tunnel it was. The ride out of Trieste was fairly lumpy, followed by a fairly busy single lane road. We eventually reached Muggia, a vibrant little marina with a pretty church and good coffee; quite a contrast to the rather austere architecture of Trieste. There was no doubt that this was an Adriatic coast ride for the next 5 miles as the cycle path ran directly alongside the seafront. The water was blue and crystal clear and, providing we didn’t look too closely across the bay to the industrial port of Trieste, it was idyllic. Then a tough and very hot climb took us up 150 feet. After sometime we found the turning we needed to take to get to Koper. For some reason there was a barrier across the road and a temporary no entry sign. The alternative to taking this road was a long detour so when we saw a car drive past the barrier we decided to follow. A few hundred metres along the road it became clear that the road was still being used by a very small number of vehicles but someone was trying to prevent it. There was a large mound of earth about 3 feet high across the road to prevent access. It was easy to go round this on a bike but the tyre tracks across the top indicated that some cars were regarding it as an amateur motor cross challenge. We continued along a dual carriageway across a huge bridge accompanied by …..nothing. Our arrival in Koper was perfectly timed to coincide with my puncture and the back tyre was totally flat as I pushed into the main square. A very beautiful young couple offered to help and then had a chat about our journey. I don’t think they could quite believe that these 2 much overheated oldies could have started in Venice! We were so hot that we looked as if we would explode if we went more than 2 miles. Their friendliness provided a very warm welcome to Slovenia. Koper itself is in the middle of a heavily industrialised area. We passed acres of new cars waiting to be distributed and mountains of containers waiting to be shipped out of the port. Despite being a port, the old town is very pretty with a winding central street/lane which has a modern and lively feel. Continuing around the coast from Koper was beautiful beside the blue, blue Adriatic but with the heat and strong headwind it was quite hard work.
Then a MASSIVE hill (250 feet elevation and almost vertical) which finished me off. Luckily we found an old railway route into Portoroz to avoid another hill. 500m through a tunnel, then down into the town. The last hill up to our accommodation was impossible for me to contemplate as I was very hot, tired & running on empty. The only option was to push – I needed fuel and I needed it fast. We were greeted by Silvia at our accommodation with homemade wine, bread, cheese and salami. I think she took one look at me and thought I was underfed and overheated. She was probably right. A very warm welcome indeed. In the evening we walked to Piran, a picturesque small seaside resort with bathing platforms out into the sea. I wish now that I had gone for an evening swim but the only thing I could think of at the time was food. After eating huge quantities to replace the used calories we took the bus back to Portoroz to give our legs a rest. We almost couldn’t find our accommodation in the dark as we had forgotten to take a torch. This meant walking up the same steep hill TWICE.
There was no singing today as the heat, hills and headwind conspired to make my brain lose all connections except with the pedals. I entered into a kind of meditative state with the rhythmic turning of the wheels. This is another of my cycling pleasures when my brain feels entirely empty and free from clutter. It is literally a weight off my mind.
Day 6: Blue Sea, Hot Road (Portoroz- Porec) 36 miles
Having refuelled with a huge dinner yesterday we felt refreshed and prepared to enjoy the last day of cycling. It started with a slow amble along the pretty Portoroz seafront watching people sunbathing, swimming and breakfasting on the beach already. Then, after a pretty but short stretch on a cycle path alongside a canal, we crossed the border into Croatia. Almost as soon as we crossed the border we climbed a huge hill. At the top we stopped for a drink and re-wetting of the hanky before joining the 5002 road which would take us the last 20 miles to Porec. We refreshed ourselves with drinks beside the harbour in the seaside town of Umag with a dazzlingly blue sea and sky to admire.
En route to Novgorod we took some turns off the 5002 on cycle routes hugging the coast through a couple of beautiful, very quiet and untouched coastal villages. The next hill we encountered had several hairpin bends, in other words it was long AND steep. My chain came off half way up which gave me a good excuse to stop for a rest and wait for a break in the traffic so that I could replace it without endangering my life. The last part of the day was probably the least enjoyable (but still good) of the whole trip as it was a long, hot slog on a main road into Porec with the emphasis on long…and hot.
Knowing we were almost at our destination eased the pain though.
We were in for a surprise in Porec. I rarely read much about a place before visiting as I like to arrive with no preconceived ideas and experience it fresh. With the exception of Trieste, every place we had stayed in was fairly small and relatively quiet. I was expecting little different in Porec. How wrong I was. It wasn’t enormous but it was rammed with people. It was as if the population of Trieste had all decided to have an evening out in Porec and arrived just before us. The 2 main streets (Decumanus and Cardo Maximus, still preserved in their original Roman forms) were almost impossible to walk along as full of revellers as they were. All the senses were bombarded in this exciting little town.
So despite the hairpin bends my legs got me to Porec. My skin was sun-damaged beyond repair, my legs covered in pedal grazes, bruises and mosquito bites but my soul was uplifted!
And back to Venice?
Easy – caught the ferry!
I handed back the bike with a pang of regret and a touch of affection. It had been a holiday romance; we got on well together but we won’t stay in touch.
TIP: unless you are particularly keen on a group holiday, don’t bother to pay a travel company twice what it would cost to go independently. Arranging travel and accommodation is easy with the internet. This ride is offered by several travel companies as a self-guided tour. We spent less than half what it would have cost by doing it ourselves. Much more fun too!