Links: Just the photos (check out the map view!) , Dave's biking page , my biking page .

So this whole thing started when Dave Petrou sent me e-mail saying, I'm flying to Italy to do some biking along some Giro d'Italia routes, do you want to come with. And in an unguarded moment I went, yeah that sounds cool and said yes. Dave had some kind of a friend-of-a-friend contact near Verona for bike rentals, but could not track the guy down. So he went to the font of all knowledge and clicked on the first thing that came up. Which turned out to be these guys Experience Plus, who were great! Very helpful and professional.

Here's a collage of the trip photos created by AutoCollage.

And here's a map covering the route we eventually decided on, with the route highlighted in yellow. The map was created by scanning in the 1:200000 Emilia-Romagna map from TCI, stitching the images using Hugin, and the highlighting was done in Microsoft Digital Image 2006 Suite. Of course this was before we realized we could've just done it all without any paper maps whatsoever. This Google Earth overlay has the photos, the TCI map as an overlay, as well as a track of our journey created by playing with driving directions on Google Maps and converting them using GMapToGPX.

So Dave flew to the UK with some cunning use of frequent flyer miles, and spent some time in London taking photos of tower bridges and what not. Then we took Sleazyjet to Bologna to commence the cycling adventure ...

Sunday, 14 Aug 2005

We landed in Bologna, and went to the airport tourist information desk to find out about hotels, but there was no one manning it and not much information either. We found this older Scottish guy and his daughter (girlfriend? guide? daughter's friend? one of those anyway), decided to share a taxi into the centre and cruise for hotels. And hey, the taxi driver took us straight to one that worked out pretty well, the Pensione Marconi. Just by the entrance there was a very intriguing sign taped to the door of a dark garage-looking thing.

We wandered around the centre for a bit, around Piazza Maggiore and then went into San Petronio, where the most interesting thing is the cunning astronomical stuff, apparently in the 17th century some students made the most accurate meridian line yet, with a pinhole in the roof where the sun would come through exactly at noon to hit the line, at some point depending on the time of year. The line was marked from the Summer to the Winter Solstice with the days, months, Zodiac signs, etc. Also a Foucault's pendulum, which sadly was fixed and was not actually oscillating. All very cool but a bit odd to find inside a church, weren't they a bit down on the whole heliocentric thing?

Then we had a very nice dinner at a restaurant called (or was that just the name of the street?) La Colombina (also recomended by our taxi driver, lovely man) which included a chat with a character called Adriano. I found out later this guy Adriano had worked at the restaurant for decades, and still insisted on coming in, so they humour him for a while and then send him home because he has heart trouble and isn't supposed to be working. But in any case the food was excellent, my first taste of real Bolognese tortelloni.

After dinner we header back to Piazza Maggiore, and boy what a change. Until now Bologna had seemed a ghost town, hardly any people and not many restaurants/bars open either. It was mid-August, which is when Italians all run away from home and go to places like Rimini. But that night it seemed the entire remaining population of Bologna had crammed into the Piazza Maggiore to hear a concert by Francesco De Gregori.

Monday, 15 Aug 2005

Faenza - Marradi (+278 m, 36 km) - Colle di Caságlia (+585 m, 18 km) - Ronta - Borgo S. Lorenzo - Firenze

120 km, 1050 m total climb, led mostly by David

August 15 is Ferragosto, a big holiday in Italy, and also Indian Independence Day, but more importantly, it was the first day of our bike trip! We took the train down to Faenza, from where Massimo of Experience Plus drove us to the farmhouse where they have the bikes. So we chatted a bit with Massimo, Brian, Maria, and others of the crew, all very friendly and helpful. Got the bikes prepped and with some advice from Massimo, decided to do one long trip out and return by train, instead of loops around Faenza.

It was about 1pm by the time we headed out; we made a food stop at Brisighella, a nice place but the service at the café was a bit slow. Then we pressed onwards to Marradi, and on the way met up with a local cyclist, Andrea, and chatted with him. He would be the first of many cyclists we met on the road, what a fantastic difference in cycling culture from the UK/US.

At Marradi, Andrea turned back, and we started climbing towards the Colla di Caságlia, which is where we would cross the Apennines. (We had already left Emilia-Romagna and we were in Toscana by this time, but didn't know it at the time). During the climb, Dave pulled ahead, and I couldn't keep up with his cyclist legs and 20lb weight advantage. So I huffed along, taking a brief pause at one point to eat a banana and take some snaps. Dave was supposed to wait for me before the top, and as I sweated up that damn hill I kept wondering where the hell he was.

I made the Colla di Caságlia, still no Dave, and was about to ask at the bar/restaurant if they'd seen another cyclist go by, when a shout right behind me almost caused me to fall off. Turns out Mr. Petrou had been waiting back in the village of Caságlia (a goodish climb back), but off the main road where I couldn't see him nor he me. So then he had to pedal hard to catch up with me.

We filled up our waterbottles and were off again, but this time going down a steepish descent, so I had a bit of breath to look around and admire the countryside. We were trying to figure out whether to stop at Fiésole, but in any case we got a bit mixed up in the tangle of roads around Firenze, and before we knew it we were in Firenze. I think we stuck mostly to the planned route, I definitely remember the little climb and descent around Olmo. We'd had to ask directions once along the way, and realized the locals didn't call the roads by the names on the map (if you asked for "statale no. 302", they looked at you quizzically and then went, "oh, you mean La Faentina").

We biked straight into the centre of Firenze, and I racked up my first of 4 "falls at 0 kmph". I was told when I first got the pedal cleats that I would fall once and exactly once. Huh. I would total 4 for the trip, plus I already had 2 in Cambridge. Maybe I can go for some sort of record. Stopped for a photo op with a most disrespectful treatment of Giotto's Campanile.

I have been in the Piazza della Signoria before, but never in lycra ...
Gotta have the obligatory Ponte Vecchio snaps.
We went to Hotel Crocini a bit outside the center but quite close to the Arno, it had been recommended by Massimo. Perfectly satisfactory, though not run by the world's cheeriest character, he communicated mostly in grunts. And here's how Dave "Red Lobster" Petrou looks after a day in the sun ...

Had a pretty good dinner, Dave had pizza, and I had bistecca "alla" Fiorentina, not bad but not anywhere near as good as the bistecca Fiorentina I remembered from before. Maybe there's some cunning technical ruse where if it's "alla" Fiorentina then it doesn't have to be Chianini or 2 inches thick or whatever makes it so goddam tasty. We then walked round a little bit and made the obligatory gelato stop (I think Dave had one every single night, I like the stuff but am not a die-hard fan). At one point we were were chatting to some locals outside a bar and told them we were biking to the Garfagnana the next day, and they were all like ooh, that's a climb and a half. Pah. Day 2 would turn out to be absurdly flat compared to the climbs on days 1 and 3.

This is the view over the Arno at night, as seen by my wimpy litte Casio Exim.

Tuesday, 16 Aug 200

Firenze - Empoli - Lucca - Castelnuovo di Garfagnana

152 km, 270 m total climb, led mostly by Dushyanth

We tried to make an early start the next day but failed, it was past 10 when we headed out. We took a few wrong turnings, and ended up on a national highway instead of the provincial one, cyclists I think are allowed on these but I don't recommend the experience. We got off, found the right road with help from a fellow cyclist, who also directed us to a uninspiring bar wherw we had breakfast. Uninspiring was the mot juste for this whole leg. Hot, flat, and industrial surroundings. The heat was a killer (from Dave's notes "very hot, affecting Dushyanth, who drinks infrequently, more", which sums it up. I should force myself to drink more on the move).

Made a brief stop at a café (judging by the timestamps, at Fucécchio) where Dave tested out his mobile phone camera.

We stopped in Altopáscio for a silly photo op (click on the thumbnails to see why we did this).

After Altopáscio, we got lost after about 10 km detour of fast, flat riding, and then got back on track to Lucca. The last bit was quite windy, and what with the heat I was pretty happy for David to take the lead after Altopáscio. Had a couple of panini (I was HUNGRY) at a café, was chatting to the girl at the bar and she was telling me how she used to bike quite a lot. Everyone's a cyclist here, what a great country.

We headed north from Lucca, upstream along the Sérchio into the Garfagnana. The scenery got better, cooler, and with a slight climb and a cool breeze I was feeling a lot happier than in the morning. At Borgo a Mozzano, we passed the "Ponte del Diavolo", and of course Dave had to try and bike up it. And then of course I had to try it too, I made it almost all the way but then had to do one of my celebrated standstill falls, natch.

Soon afterwards, we took a wrong turning at Fórnoli, we thought we were fine because we were still along the river ... but it was the wrong river (the Lima meets the Sérchio at Fórnoli). An extra 10 km there, then back on the road and clomb up to Castelnuovo, where we commenced the hotel search. We found one place run by a funny old guy who kept trying to get us into a "double" room with a single "letto matrimoniale". I like Dave, but not *that* much. So we went and found another hotel, again extremely satisfactory and very reasonable price. It was quite late and we decided to eat in the restaurant attached to the hotel, and got an outstanding meal, finished off with some vin santo and cantuccini and I felt extremely at peace with the world. We strolled around for a bit: it was pretty happenin' out there for such a small town, I think it's a big holiday spot for to get a way from the heat, and a fine idea it is too. So I took some more photos, which turned out crap as they always do with this camera in the dark.

Dave took some mobile-phone photos, which turned out just as well as my overpriced digital camera, sigh.

Wednesday, 17 Aug 2005

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana - Arni (+834 m, 20 km) - Massa (-1113 m, 25 km) - La Spézia

90 km, total climb 834 m, led mostly by David

Had a calorie-filled breakfast at the hotel, a quick photo (they'd let us put the bikes in a corner of their dining room), and we were off.

Almost immediately the road started climbing and I couldn't keep up with Dave, who evidently was also stopping to take photographs, or maybe just firing from the saddle. So I toiled up at my own pace, and the ascent just kept getting steeper.

Finally got to a fork in the road just past Campaccio, where Dave had been waiting for 6-7 min, occupying himself by photographing the road signs (!). I thought we were pretty much at the top but as it turned out we had a bit more climbing to do. We decided to take some revisionist "cranking up the hill" photos (in reality, I'd been spinning up in my lowest gear).

Then a further climb to Arni, where Dave was waiting again, but we weren't at the top yet! A final steep climb, but luckily a short one but also involving scary long dark tunnels. Caught up with Dave for the third time, and this time we were really at the top of the pass, and we could see the sea on the other side! Utterly fantastic, though I was pretty pooped. Dave on the other hand was going on something about mind, body and bike in perfect harmony. He's lucky I was too tired for any serious violence.

We saw several cyclists going the other way, also chatted with a Swiss couple who were doing the route on motorcycles. Then we started the hair-raising descent into Massa, steep hairpin bends and all. We stopped at one place for a very brief photo op and then raced into Massa.

In Massa, we stopped at a café to ask directions to the sea, and the guy was really nice, he gave us some free focaccia to restore ourselves before shutting down the café for the afternoon siesta. After a couple min this little kid comes out and says something to us about salsiccia, and we figure we can't really take any more free food from them, so we're going "no, no, grazie". She gives us a really odd look and scuttles away. I take a bite and realize that there were bits of salsiccia in the focaccia. And very delicious it was too, though maybe we need to work on our Italian comprehension a bit more. We then biked on a couple more kilometres to the Marina di Massa, and on the way I chalked up my fourth slow-motion sideways topple (have you been counting? If so, you'll notice I forgot to tell you about a fall I had during a little break on day 1, on the way up from Marradi).

We had lunch at a fairly forgettable restaurant by the beach (impressionist photo by Dave), biked down to the pier (almost like we'd forgotten how to walk, by now) and took some photos.

We did the coastal road to La Spézia, accompanied for a while by a "fearless, older cyclist with an EsseZeta jersey" to quote David, in other words this guy was even more aggressive at jumping red lights and weaving between motor traffic than Dave himself. The older dude veered off towards Montemarcello, and we steamed into La Spézia about mid-afternoon, found our way to the railway station, and started to cast about for hotels. This being a seaside resort in mid-August, we had to try three or four before we found "L'Astoria". I had a shower, David had a sandwich (different strokes for different folks), we bought ciabatte (sandals), and then we asked the hotel guy where the seaside was. Turns out we had to go 10 km along the coast either way, either to Lérici (which we had biked through) or in the other direction to Portovénere. Dave was for Lérici (better sand) and I for Portovénere (better water), so naturally we went to Portovénere. Also there was a Festa della Madonna Nera (or Bianca; there was a 5 min digression while the hotel guy argued this point with another customer) that evening at Portovénere.

We took the bus to Portovénere, and (David's immortal words again) "Dushyanth swims confidently. David floats a little in shallow water and cuts his foot on rocks". For all that I didn't make it to the rock I was aiming for. Or maybe I did, but I kept looking up to see another rock further down. We had an aperitivo and a few snacks, as well as the obligatory gelato for Dave. Then we tried to get back, but there were no buses. The buses were all stuck and couldn't turn around to go back to La Spézia, because of the Festa della Madonna (Bianca as it turned out). So we got back a bit late, found a pizzeria as nothing else was open, mediocre food/wine compared to what we'd gotten used to but hey we were hungry. A gelato stop (surprise), and thence to bed.

Thursday, 18 Aug 2005

In the morning I walked around for a while, had a coffee, came back to the hotel, then Dave and I went out and walked around for a while again. Not a huge lot to do in La Spézia other than go to the sea, but there was a nice square and also a pretty interesting looking church whose campanile we could see straight out of the hotel window.
Photos by me
and by Dave.

Oh, and climb up some steps (turned out to be much higher than they looked from below) to try and get some good views of the city.

And then it was back on the train towards Faenza. In spite of repeatedly harassing the people at the station, we still weren't quite sure where the bikes went. At La Spézia we were told to haul them into the last wagon, so we did, and we just left the bikes in the vestibule. No one seemed to mind. At Parma we had a bit of time so we headed out for a bite to eat. The area around the train station is not much to look at, we did find a pizzeria and get some food, and I had a beer to celebrate the end of all that exercise and the return to my normal booze-and-grease lifestyle. Then we scurried back to the station, and again wondered where to put the bikes, when we noticed this lady with one of those crappy old bikes with the humongous basket in front. Train comes in, she gets on the bike and hares off down the platform, so of course I follow right behind. I'd switched my biking shoes for ciabatte by this point, biking with plastic sandals on mountain SPD pedals is feasible but I wouldn't recommend it as a regular thing. Anyway there I was biking after this person hoping she knew what she was doing, and Petrou forced to follow suit. Apparently I sideswiped someone with one of my panniers, well I didn't notice and anyway they should just stay out of the way. Railway platforms are for cyclists, obviously. We reach the end of the train and there's a little wagon with bike racks and all. So that worked out.

Massimo met us at Faenza station to pick up the bikes and we headed back to Bologna. I checked back into Pensione Marconi -- Dave was going to stay at his cousin's -- but I had to wait for this French guy who was haggling over a few euros on the room rate (my Italian had gotten so good I could tell he was French just from his accent). So I tell him (might was well practice my French, I thought) that the rate was pretty good and I didn't think you could do better, and he gave me a pitying smile and said he had already done better, he'd got a better rate at the Hotel Cavour and he was going back there. So he did; I reassured the Marconi dude that I was staying with them all the same. Next time though maybe I'll try the Cavour. It's certainl more central, Marconi is like a 15 min walk away from the Piazza Maggiore.

That evening was spent with Dave's cousin Paola (photo by Dave) and her husband, very nice people who also gave us a very nice dinner and then drove us up to the top of San Luca. I didn't take any photos because I'd given up on night-time photos with this camera.

Here is how David sums up the bike trip: Overall, decent miles per time, and rarely any time with nothing to do. Lots of luck in logistics, and being in the right place at the right time. Dushyanth stronger than expected on the bike. Next year, the Dolomites!

Right on!

Friday, 19 Aug 2005

On Friday the plan was to go to Ravenna, but the day started late, and I decided to hang around in Bologna and go to Ravenna the next day. So I slouched about and took photos of the Piazza Maggiore from various angles. The excitement of that didn't last very long, so I went up the Torre degli Asinelli and took some more photos.

Then I went to San Petronio, to see the fabulous sun-through-pinhole-on-meridian thing, I hung around looking at my watch, it got to noon, five past noon, nothing. There was an old guy with an official-looking guide sort of badge, so I asked him what the deal was, and he said, oh midday actually is at 1, because of daylight savings. So I thought, that make sense, and I went and sat outside to while away the time until then. At about 10 to 1 I turn to go back in ... and they've locked the doors, and this sign has appeared where no sign used to be, saying closed from 1300-1430 for lunch. They totally refused to let me in, despite my pointing out that (a) it wasn't quite 1300 yet and (b) it was really silly to close at exactly the time that the allegedly interesting stuff happens.

So screw 'em, I thought, and to console myself I had a nice lunch at a place on Via Clavature, included a chat with the cute Brazilian waitress and various sideshows involving some urchins that walked past and ate a piece of salami right off someone's table (to their understandable indignation) and also a frantic tourist who had lost her handbag with her passport and plane tickes in it.

After much meat and wine, I wandered out in a daze and found the local Feltrinelli, where there was a discount sale on all Oscar Mondadori publications, and they do the paperback Calvinos, so I bought a bunch I didn't have (Fiabe Italiane, and Marcovaldo which I only later realized was for kids, and also all three of I Nostri Antenati) and then back to the hotel for some much needed kip. That evening was pretty slow, I hung around the Piazza Maggiore some more, decided I didn't really want any dinner, and headed back.

Saturday, 20 Aug 2005

On Saturday I did finally get my lazy ass over to Ravenna, where I wandered around looking at the Top Five Mosaic Places. You get a ticket for all of them together, so I figured you might as well do them all. Of, course I took tons of snaps, but what with the poor lighting, non-professional camera, even less professional photographer, and with the annoying feature where if you do a video in portrait you can't rotate it to be right way up ... anyway, here they are, you be the judge.

This is the Basilica di San Vitale

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia (they aren't really all-black, you can see some faint mosaics in the full-sized version, it's a mausoleum, it's dark, what d'you expect?)

Battistero Neoniano.

Museo Arcivescovile.

Then I went had a very nice lunch. As usual, I tried to find something from the Lonely Planet (Ca' de Vèn) and as usual it was "chiuso per le ferie". Then I stumbled on this place Melarancio, where I had a very nice lunch indeed. Also notable for the enormously blown-up framed autographs on the wall, I recognized Nanni Moretti and Dario Fo, there were tons of other no doubt equally famous people's names but I hadn't heard of them.

After lunch I wandered some more, and found Dante's tomb. He died in Ravenna in exile, and as a "penance" for having exiled him apparently the city of Florence continuous to pay for the oil for the lamp that hangs from the ceiling. Or so I heard. I found it a surprisingly moving experience, spiritual almost (and it's not often you here me say that), being in the great man's final resting place. Final is the right word, apparently his poor bones got moved around several time, most recently during the war: right next to the tomb there's a garden with a tumulus sort of thing and a sign saying the bones were housed there temporarily for safety during the World War. Anyway, I didn't take any photos because I wasn't in the right mood for touristy clicking.

Not that I suffered from any general dearth of touristy clicking, before heading back I stopped at the last place on my inclusive ticket, the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.

Sunday, 21 August 2005

My flight wasn't until the afternoon, so I had some time to kill (plus this was my last chance to catch the 1pm sun thing at the church), so I filled it by going down to the Piazza Maggiore and having a coffee at the third café: three of the four corners of the piazza have cafés. Then I went and sat at the other side of the piazza, on the steps next to the church, and read my book (I was working my way through Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati, not one of Calvino's best if you ask me, but still readable). Then I walked back to the café, and sat a table next to two attractive young blondes, I thought maybe I'd start up a conversation or something. And just as I ordered my "cappuccio" (I'd heard people ordering this cappuccino-without-the-diminutive, so I thought I'd try it. But it's just the same thing, it's not larger or anything. Rats.) the two birds up and flew away.

So I had nothing to do but sip my disappointingly normal sized coffee and read my book and pretend to ignore the crazy guy two tables away. He was a bit smelly as well, the silver lining to the two girls leaving was that I could move up to take their table which was a bit further away. But of course you can't help listening, and it was fascinating in a sad kind of way. He had this ratty old satchel full of really old looking books, and he'd pulled out one that was evidently a German phrase book, and was practicing phrases aloud from it. So he'd just sit there and say "Vorrei un caffè col latte." (you'd think he was ordering, but the café staff clearly knew to ignore him) and then "Allora ... Ich möchte ein Kännchen Kaffee mit Milch" and so forth. Like I said it was interesting in a sad kind of way, but only for about two minutes.

Then I got up and walked around again, took a photo of the Torre degli Asinelli, decided to have a quick fixed-menu lunch at some nondescript restaurant so I could get to San Petronio well in time. Which I did, and walked around inside marking time until 1pm. Except (you saw this coming, didn't you) at about five minutes to 1 they start shooing everyone out, oblivious to my most impassioned pleading. But it's only a couple of minutes, I say. Can't help that, they say, it's cloudy anyway, we'd only stay open if it were sunny. But the sun just came out, look, I say. Too late, we've decided to close, they say. And that was that. Italians. Love them. Hate them.

Then it was time for the flight back to Stansted, except of course it was delayed for more than an hour. Can't really blame this one on Sleazyjet, there was a sort of tropical thunderstorm going on. Noticed this cute girl checking in at the counter next to me, and again in the waiting area, I got the feeling she was checking me out when I wasn't looking but wouldn't make eye contact. So I get on the plane and she's sitting in this window seat, and so I take the aisle. I figured taking the middle seat would be a bit too obvious, and anyway I hate the middle seat, she wasn't that cute. But of course the plane filled up and some guy did take the middle seat and anyway even before that she pulls out this book and uses it as a protective mechanism to avoid any eye contact. I snuck a peek and the phrases "blow job" and "sperm bandit" caught my eye. So maybe whatever it was, was much more interesting than chatting to random-dude-on-plane. And that, as we say, was that. Bet you expected a more exciting ending to that one, eh? That'll teach ya.