Posts tagged ‘bicycle touring’
As reluctant as I am to use the adjective crazy, it is the one that immediately comes to mind when I think of our arrival in Venice. The crazy boat traffic in the Grand Canal – the gondolas, the motoscafi, the vaporetti and traghetti. The crush of crazy tourists in the Sestiere di San Marco and lining the Ponte di Rialto. The completely crazy notion of building an entire city upon soft, marshy islands in the first place – its foundation consisting of tens of thousands of long wooden poles driven deep into the mud, topped with slabs of water-impervious marble … materials that had to be hauled in from crazy distances, far, far away, centuries ago. The crazy labyrinth of canals and calli, the countless bridges, the water entrances into nearly every building…
And the crazy, crazy, exquisite beauty of it all.
When we first arrived and stepped out of our motoscafi onto the damp stairs of the water entrance into our hotel, I wasn’t really sure if I could love La Serenessima … a name she was given long ago, the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Upon introduction, she seemed anything but serene. Far too many tourists, too many pushcarts of made-in-China Venetian masks, glass trinkets, tee shirts and souvenirs. The obscenely over-priced designer district – a parade of Versace to Valentino. And even the excess of clichés everywhere I turned – from the singing gondolieri, to the striped mooring posts along every canal, to the crumbling decay of layers of plaster upon brick.
I own a book with some of Canaletto’s magnificent works, and this just looked too much like I had stepped into one of his paintings – and (except for the tourist trappings) so largely unchanged from what he captured in the 1700’s to be believable. It felt more like an artfully crafted movie set than reality.
But then you wander out, away – well away from the crowds and noise and gondolieri. You discover that maps are useless in this place. You find yourself in an empty calle, light filtering down against honey-colored walls. You hear what sounds like an opera singer in the midst of a lesson – a soprano’s scales – from a shuttered window just overhead.
You are finally alone. Away from the tourists, you can breath again – and you begin to see and hear her.
A couple passes by in quiet conversation. Children with books walk home from school. The inflection in their voices, their words, are their own form of music. The most beautiful language… la bella lingua. It truly is.
You get lost crossing small bridges, tiny canals, and puzzle through small crooked calli – some of these small corridors are barely a shoulder’s-width across. Pieces of laundry hang to dry, like a dare, above the green water of a narrow canal.
You stop in the small empty shop of a book binder, eyes drawn to the exquisite hand-bound leather books and journals that line the wooden shelves. And you enjoy an unexpected and smiling conversation with the proprietor – part English, part Italian, heavy with gesture – about books, dip pens and fine Fabriano paper. And also about Elvis… when he learns you are from Tennessee.
As the sun gently comes to rest against the horizon and the tourists of the day make their exit, you feel the serene more than the crazy. You stop at a sidewalk cafe for a glass of wine and listen to the music of a string quartet playing off to the side. You understand Vivaldi’s muse, and imagine his genius being brought to life by the young girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.
Goden-pink light fills the water-edge of the sky and illuminates the domes of distant cathedrals and their halos of clouds. Slender, violet-black crescents – the silhouettes of gondolas now empty of passengers – gently rock against their moorings. It is Monet’s Venise, le Grand Canal before your eyes.
The moon rises and the trattorias glow with candles, wine bottles, and the fragrance of delicious food. Someone laughs and lifts a golden Colombina mask to their eyes. And in this strange, beautiful city, within in the maze of canals and calli, you instantly imagine all of the old stories of intrigues and assignations, of lovers and disguises. La Maschera. It is romantic beyond measure.
Like so many before you, and countless numbers yet to come, you have been seduced by La Serenissima. She has cast her spell – and you know you will never, ever, forget her.
I didn’t want to leave Slovenia, but there were other roads to explore and things to see. And upon leaving Slovenia, we had the opportunity to do something I may never do again – we rode through three countries on the same day. Granted, very small portions of each, but still… It felt pretty novel.
Leaving Slovenia we crossed first into Italy. With the current open border policy within EU (Schengen Agreement), moving from one country into its neighbor is not unlike moving from state to state within the US. Old border stations are vacant, and on some of the small roads and bikeways we travelled on, it was only when you saw signage in a different language that you knew you had crossed into new land.
From the Italian border town of Tarvisio – once an important village along the ancient trade routes across the Alps to Venice – we returned to Austria.
We would spend the next several days cycling in the Austrian state of Carinthia, and the beautiful valley of the River Drau, before heading to Lake Wörthersee. The cycling was easy and quite enjoyable, with expansive views of the valley and the river. Our daily routes included both paved and gravel roads, along with large stretches of the R1 – the Drau Cycleway – an easy 366km bike route that passes through the numerous towns and villages, and is very popular among both day and multi-day cycling enthusiasts.
From the city of Villach and the Drau River valley, we cycled along the Drava River and on to Lake Wörthersee and the resort town of Velden. While it was nice to be pampered at the Schloss Velden (a Condé Nast “Hot Hotel” and spa), I found the cycling here to be rather anti-climactic, especially after our days in the Alps of Slovenia and the mountain-flanked valleys outside of Spittal en der Drau and Villach.
My favorite sight on this leg of our trip was the village and church of Maria Wörth (dating back to 875AD), situated on its own peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Wörthersee.
Our cycling sadly came to an end in Velden, but we would still have one final adventure – albeit not on our bikes. From Austria, we would end our adventure in La Serenissima, the incredible city of Venice, a city that made her mark on me. And this will be the last story, coming very soon…
Cycling along the shores of Lake Bled, especially on a day when low clouds tease the mountain tops and mist drifts through the spruce forests, you can easily become convinced you have ridden into the pages of a fairytale. Out of the corner of you eye, veiled in eddies of mist, small white petals of woodland flowers – like tiny wings – tremble as a drop of water falls from a spruce tip. Something stirs the forest floor. A medieval castle, impossibly built high on a rocky cliff, rises above the steeple and stairs of an ancient church that sits, isolated, on its own small island.
You suddenly believe in fairies, dwarves, legends, and kings.
This is where our cycling adventure began, and where I first began to fall in love with the country of Slovenia. It was impossible not to.
Just to give some clarification and perspective on the cycling, we once again used trip planning services of VBT (Vermont Bicycling Tours) as we had such a wonderful experience previously on our trip through Tuscany. They supplied us with our bikes, arranged our lodging, moved our off-bike bags, and provided us with two of the most wonderful Slovenian guides – Damjan and Matej.
Each day, our two guides would provide maps and suggestions of things to see, places to stop, additional cycling routes and loops – and translation help when we needed it. On several days, they would appear en route, bringing us wonderful picnic lunches.
As lifelong residents raised and educated in Slovenia, Damjan and Matej had extensive cultural, geographical, political and historical insight – information that they shared openly with us, providing context to the often-dramatic changes the country has endured. On bikes, they let us customize our own trip to our own desires, and at our preferred pace – yet were always there to help when we needed it. Even though we were part of a larger group of 19 cyclists, we were free to ride on our own (as Mark and I did), choose our own route options, and make our own adventures. On several evenings, a number of us gathered to enjoy a beer and some engaging conversation and stories from the day – it was open, genuine, fascinating and enjoyable, and the friendships we made were one of the trip’s greatest gifts for me.
Upon leaving Lake Bled, we headed to the area around Kranjska Gora and Podkoren, and the stunning mountains in the region of Triglav National Park. The mountains here are breathtaking, with profiles and colors different than any other mountains I have seen – from Alaska to the Rockies. They are stunningly vertical and dramatic, their luminous granite peaks rising out of deep blue-green forests. Icy mountain streams, with beds of white stones, are pristine and crystal clear – and it is claimed they are safe to drink from (altho we did not – but I did stop and wade in).
In the village of Mojstrana, Mark and I made a side visit to the Slovenian Alpine Museum. Here we learned about the area’s mountaineering history, along with hiking, trekking and climbing opportunities within the region, and the network of mountain huts that are available to the public. They also cited the fact that over 75% of the Slovenian population are members of the Alpine Association of Slovenia – a testament to how beloved and culturally significant the mountains are to Slovenian people.
While our cycling was mostly along the valley, we did cycle up to site of the World Cup ski jumping area and did a brief stint on the Vrsic Pass – a popular and challenging cycling route, climbing nearly 1200 meters over 11 km, with 24 switchbacks up to the summit. We arrived rather late in the day, and I am not ashamed to confess that my legs fell off well before the summit. But it’s a ride I have added to my bucket list, and I definitely plan to return.
We also rode up to Lake Jasna – where a bronze statue of an Ibex stands over the stunningly clear turquoise lake, surrounded by mountains peaks. It made me think of a story Matej shared with us, the Trenta folktale of one of the most well-known and symbolic figures of the region – the legend of Zlatorog, the golden-horned chamoix. Rich in detail, filled with old taboos and enduring truths, is basically goes something like this…
Zlatorog is the name for a majestic white chamoix with golden horns. He roamed the mountains with the White Fairies, helping humans who ventured into the mountains, guarding the treasures hidden deep within the mountains, and keeping the valleys green and beautiful. In a valley village below, an innkeeper’s daughter was being courted by a local hunter, who professed his love and brought her flowers from the mountain meadows.
One day, a Venetian merchant arrived in the village and tried to win the heart of the young woman with gifts of gold. The hunter, in his jealousy, decided the only way to win back his love would be to kill Zlatorog and take the gold that was hidden beneath the mountains – treasure that was dutifully guarded by the golden-horned chamoix.
The young hunter left on his mission, managed to track down Zlatorog and took aim at him, killing him. Drops of blood fell from Zlatorog, and magically turned in to beautiful blooms – the Triglav roses – that still flourish to this day. Zlatorog nibbled at a few of the flower petals and miraculously came back to life – only to take his revenge on the hunter, steering him into a deep abyss and to his death.
After this, Zlatorog – in his fury – used his horns to gore through the mountainside, carving deep channels and tearing up the beautiful green hillside, leaving the steep dramatic rocky landscape and deep mountain lakes that exist today . Zlatorog left the valley with the White Fairies and has never returned…
On the edge of Lake Jasna, looking up at Mt. Triglav, and in love with this beautiful, friendly and magical country, I can’t help believe it is all true.
I am not an exceptional cyclist. Yet somehow, I have managed to have extraordinary and exceptional journeys. Slowly. Purposefully. Sometimes accidentally. On two wheels.
For me it is the love of slow travel. It is not about pushing through to a destination, or about arriving. Rather, it is a conscious savoring of each meter, each mile along the way – under my own power, and to the beat of my own heart. It is about letting the day unwind before me as it will. It is about the diversions and accidental discoveries. It is about seeing the beauty through all of the senses – through touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.
We – my beloved and I – spent mid- through late September traveling and cycling through three magnificent countries – Austria, Slovenia and Italy. We began in Salzburg and finished in Venice. And in between, we fell in love with the mountains, the people, and the villages of Slovenia. We were in the land of the Julian Alps, a region whose heritage is rich in music, folklore, and mountaineering. It often looked and felt like something taken out of a fairy tale … and in a way, I suppose it was.
It is difficult for me to write, at least publicly and impartially, about this adventure. There is so much that goes beyond even the best words and photos. But for the benefit of our boys (who are spread far and wide right now), our families, a few close friends – and anyone else who may be interested in a glimpse of this region as seen from the saddle of a bicycle – I will share briefly and as well as a I can. I will spare you all a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account, and instead provide a few posts and a few photo galleries about each of the regions. Just to give you a taste. Just to (hopefully) inspire you to visit this region a create your own journey…
We arrived in Salzburg several days before we were to begin cycling. Salzburg is a picturesque city, surrounded my mountains and watched over by the old fortress – the Festung Hohensalzburg, or the “High Salzburg Fortress”.
At the heart of Old Salzburg are magnificent baroque churches and architecture, the meticulously manicured Mirabell Gardens, and the gentle blue-green ribbon of the Salzach River.
The city is rich in its musical heritage, with Mozart being the biggest draw for me. It is the birthplace and childhood home of Mozart – and the resting place for his wife and father. It is home to the renown Salzburg music festival and the Mozarteum University. And more recently, it was the home of conductor Herbert von Karajan – as well as being the setting (and home of Maria von Trapp ) from The Sound of Music, which was filmed in and around the city and continues to be a major tourist draw.
Like many other old European cities, Salzburg is wonderfully bicycle-centric. In the heart of the city, bicycles are the rule, rather than the exception. The streets are mostly void of vehicular traffic, with the exception of a few delivery trucks and a network of electric buses. People walk or bike, or use some combination of the two – coupled with public transportation when needed. It is a beautiful thing to see.
After three days of walking and seeing Salzburg on foot, we were ready to get on our bicycles … but that will have to wait for another day, another post.
To be continued …
The second part of our Katy Trail cycling trip; a look at lodging and camping, food/water, sights and side trips and a few of my personal thoughts. (Like I said – I need a good editor … forgive me).
LODGING & CAMPING
While I enjoy camping on our bike adventures, I personally felt that the camping options along the Katy Trail were somewhat limited. We decided to stay in small local inns and B&B’s over the course of our trip. I remember passing only two campgrounds along the way, both in the same general area and both very open with not much shade. Some of the website listings for camping along the trail include places like a local fairgrounds, a city park, and possibly a trailside hostel. The only hostel we saw was a bit sketchy-looking, appeared to be closed, and I had read some very mixed reviews about the place. None of these options sounded particularly appealing to us.
Moreover, upon stopping in one or two of the town parks – which may or may not have allowed camping (?) – we discovered there was no available water, and the restrooms were locked.
While park regulations stipulate that camping is not allowed on trail/state park property, we did see at least one couple “stealth” camping off to the side of a trailhead parking lot. Personally, if I were to attempt stealth camping, I would plant myself on the edge of a corn or wheat field … but, whatever.
There are a wide range of accommodations convenient to the trail (i.e., within 1-5 miles, easily accessible). You can stay in anything from an B&B on the historic register, to a renovated train caboose, to a variety of other options in various price ranges. You can plan everything on your own, or you can make arrangements through a tour planner, like the Independent Tourist.
We spent our first night at the Hotel Bothwell, a fascinating and historic hotel in Sedalia (I think its founder, Mr. Sweet, had a thing for coffee). The next three nights we spent at small B&B’s in trailside towns: Yates House B&B in Rocheport, Cliff Manor B&B in Jefferson City, and Captain Wohlt Inn B&B in Hermann. All three provided beautiful and restful rooms, wonderful breakfasts, and they really catered to us as cyclists – providing appreciated extras like offering to wash a load of laundry, rinsing trail dust off of our bikes, to filling and freezing our water bottles for the following day. All three also offered to pack sack lunches for us for the next day’s ride.
FOOD & WATER
Most days we stopped for lunch in towns along the trail. The places we found were small and friendly diner-types or bar-and-grills – good enough for a sandwich, maybe fruit or salad, or just a pizza or burger-and-fries kind of thing. Even though we had a list of possible eateries in various towns, trailside businesses can struggle and change quickly; places were sometimes closed (especially on Mondays and Tuesdays), or we discovered they had gone out of business since our list had been compiled.
We also had lunch on the trail one day, as our hosts at Yates House provided us with a sack lunch. While it saved some time, I think we both preferred taking time to explore places in the trailside towns, riding on some pavement, and taking a break from heat and dust.
Dinner in the evening provided more options, and some very nice ones. Our favorite evening meal was at Les Bourgeois Vinyard’s Blufftop Bistro in Rocheport. We walked part of the Katy Trail from the B&B to a footpath that led up the bluff to the restaurant. The views over the river at dusk from the airy timber-frame and glass restaurant were lovely, and the food – mostly local and organic – was even better. We shared a bottle of their wine, took in the sunset over the river, and thoroughly enjoyed our evening.
Water. You need it, and you need plenty of it in the heat on a dusty trail. Unfortunately, I think it’s somewhat limited availability along the trail is one of the biggest complaints among riders. A number of trailhead stations did not have water (this is marked pretty accurately in the map and signage), and it may be hit-or-miss finding an easy place to buy a bottle of water in a few of the smallest towns. We stopped at one local park, thinking we could fill our bottles from a faucet in a restroom – only to find the doors were locked. So be prepared to carry plenty and top off your bottles at every opportunity.
SIGHTS & SIDE TRIPS
The places, stations and towns along the Katy Trail have a rich and diverse history. Nearly every railway station along the route has nicely detailed signage, offering a brief history of the area and outlining points of interest ahead – in both directions of travel.
Wildlife is also abundant along the trail, and we saw a wide variety – deer, many types of birds (including wild turkeys, cliff-dwelling swallows, waterfowl, and indigo buntings), turtles, lizards, snakes, and a healthy number of acrobatic bats in the evening.
For railroad buffs, there is much to see – railway stations, an “I-lost-count” number of bridges, an amazing old rock tunnel, and several old cabooses and railway cars. Several of the stations have their own museums; the one in Sedalia is even home to a small bike shop.
There are also a few trailside oddities, like “BoatHenge” near Easley.
While I enjoyed the railway-related history, I was most interested in the Lewis & Clark points of interest along with the old agricultural landmarks. All of the Lewis & Clark campsites – from their first weeks along the Missouri River – have markers and usually detailed signs, many containing excerpts and drawings from the mens’ journals and descriptions of their experiences. For me, it is just fascinating stuff. Especially to pull my bike over and imagine what it must have been like for them along the river.
The Katy Land Trust has partnered with the Missouri State Parks; their mission is to “increase awareness of the benefits of preserving agricultural resources and forests along the Katy Trail.” I was drawn to many of the old grain elevators that still sit along the trail – wonderful iconic symbols of the local agricultural heritage.
In Treloar, reproductions of paintings by artist Bryan Haynes are displayed on one of the old grain elevators; a beautiful way to promote the Land Trust and to celebrate the Katy Trail agricultural corridor.
We also enjoyed our side excursions to nearby towns, and wish we could have extended our trip to spend more time in some of them. Most are easy to reach by bicycle, the large bridges had pedestrian/bicycle lanes. We particularly enjoyed Sedalia, Jefferson City, and the old German Society town of Hermann – which is the center of Missouri’s wine region.
There are so many wonderful things about cycling the Katy Trail, and I feel I have barely scratched the surface. I still believe there is no better way to experience a place – every aspect of it – than by bicycle.
As I looked through my photos and read my notes, I realized how drawn I am to wide open spaces of plain, prairie and farmland – and to the endless span of blue skies and wisps of clouds overhead. I think it may be reflected in some of my photos, but I just don’t have a wide enough lens to adequately capture the feeling. I hope you will go and see it for yourself.
Our Katy trip was filled with wonderful cycling, friendly people, and provided a rich history lesson. It is a great place to ride for any cyclist, young or old, fast or slow. You can enjoy it for a day or longer, and it’s an excellent place for anyone who might want to make a first attempt at a multi-day bicycle adventure. Everyone should make their own journey, in their own way … I hope you enjoyed some of the pieces of ours.
My husband and I just spent 5 days traversing the the state of Missouri on our Xtracycles, from west to east on the Katy Trail – the country’s longest Rails-to-Trails project and the longest (and skinniest) state park in the country. The Katy is also part of Adventure Cycling’s Lewis & Clark route within MO, part of the trans-national American Discovery Trail, and is one of the first trails to be listed in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame. Its honors are well-deserved; it is a remarkable trail.
The Katy is not only a wonderful cycling trail, but also a fascinating historical journey that traces a fair portion of the first weeks of Lewis & Clark’s voyage up the Missouri River, as well as chronicling the history of the railroad towns that once flourished along the MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Railroad, often called the KT, or Katy. The trail also serves as a beautiful witness to the state’s agricultural heritage.
I initially wanted to condense things into a single post – which proved a little difficult (I need an editor). For anyone who might be interested in visiting the Katy, and who may be looking for another view of cycling the trail, I decided to offer up a little more and split our account into two posts and a photo gallery. In this post, I will include an overview, and a description of the physical trail. In the second post I will touch on things like lodging/camping along the trail, food and water, sights and side trips, and my own impressions of our bike adventure. The gallery will contain a few of my favorite photos.
We basically rode end-to-end, starting in the small town of Clinton on the west end of the state (SE of Kansas City) to St. Charles (a susburb of St. Louis) in the east. We did not ride the recently added 12-mile eastern extension to Machens out of St. Charles, as our last day was long and we did not have enough time. We left our car in St. Charles, and took a roughly four-hour shuttle ride to Clinton on the afternoon before we began cycling.
Over five days, we rode a total distance of 261 miles (420 km); 225 miles (362 km) was on the trail itself; the remainder was riding in and out of small (and large) towns along the way.
As you know by now, I am not a stats-keeper when it comes to cycling. I don’t keep a trip computer on my bike, but my husband did have one on his bike – and thanks to him I can share at least a few of the numbers that some people may be interested in (and which are the sum of both on- and off-trail riding):
- Day 1: Clinton to Sedalia – 42 miles
- Day 2: Sedalia to Rocheport – 55 miles
- Day 3: Rocheport to Jefferson City – 41 miles
- Day 4: Jefferson City to Hermann – 54 miles
- Day 5: Hermann to St. Charles – 69 miles
As for speed while on the bikes, we were fairly slow (as usual), stopping often for scenery, conversation with other cyclists, photos, and history lessons. Cycling on even the best crushed gravel trail is slower going than rolling on pavement. While riding we ranged between 8 and 11 mph with our bikes loaded pretty generously (I think roughly 25-30 lbs each). We carried clothing (street and cycling) and personal items, rain gear, tool kit, bug spray and sunscreen, a small first aid kit, camera gear, snacks, water – and a couple of “luxury” items that included books, my journaling stuff, an ENO hammock and two small backpacking seats.
We opted to “inn hop” rather than camp, staying at small inns and B&B’s in towns along the trail – which we enjoyed immensely. More on lodging and camping along the trail in more detail in the next post.
One of the best things about the Katy Trail is it’s friendliness to all levels of cyclists. Due to (or despite?) the flat terrain, you can make your ride as easy or as challenging as you’d like it to be. You can break things up into portions, ride the entire trail from end to end, or out and back – in as few or as many days as you want to spend, adjusting your daily mileage and speed to your desire and ability.
Small children can enjoy the ride as much as the most hard-core distance and speed-seekers. We met a young couple riding end-to-end with their 2-year old daughter in a bike seat, taking 9 days to cover the distance, allowing plent of break and playtime along the way. We also met two guys from nearby NC who were taking four days to ride a little less than end-to-end, but including a spur trail trip up to Columbia. We met a pair of cross-country cyclists traveling from Maine to California for a cause (FoodCycleUS), and they were using the Katy to connect with the next leg of their 4500-mile journey. Near bigger towns, we saw both fast and slower-moving fitness riders on a variety of bikes out for a few hours of workout time.
The terrain is basically flat to very gently rolling, with the western end of the trail having the widest range of elevation change – which isn’t much. Cycling west to east as we did, I believe there is roughly 19 miles (?) of very gradual uphill; easy cycling, but you will eventually realize you were, in fact, pedaling uphill.
Also on the west end between Sedalia and Pilot Grove, there are some very gentle “rollers” – if you can even call them that (?). I would describe them as gentle and extended undulations; still easy cycling, but you will be pedaling all the way – both uphill and down.
While your legs may not feel overly challenged along the way, you will be pedaling continually and will know you have ridden some miles at the end of the day. After fifty miles or so you may feel more discomfort in other body parts – from seat to hands to the annoying spot from the nosepiece of your sunglasses. It’s the strange result of long periods in a static position and cadence, where you tend to feel little things.
There is really no “coasting” on the trail; even along the most hard-packed portions, the surface still provides enough rolling resistance to slow any coasting momentum to a standstill within several yards. Your best chance to actually climb a hill or coast will he heading into an off-trail town on pavement.
While long stretches of the trail can be well-protected from both sun and wind by nice tree cover on both sides, there are lovely portions of wide-open spaces that wind through wheat, corn and soybean fields. In these places, the wind can either be in your favor or against you – adding a little variety to your ride.
The trail and it’s surface are incredibly well-maintained – by far the best conditions we’ve experienced (comparing to VA’s Creeper Trail and New River Trail). The MO State Parks people do an exceptional job maintaining the trail and trailheads. The surface is hard-packed crushed limestone, and was remarkably rut-, divot- and pot-hole free, as well as debris-free (no downed tree limbs, etc.).
You will, however, have to contend with significant amounts of fine, powdery white dust. Even with fenders it ends up covering and sifting into everything. It was in our water bottles, in our hair, coating our shins, and seeping into bag openings – and, of course, coating our bikes. It took my Pelican dry box to protect my camera gear from rain; it ended up being more useful in protecting against dust.
We experienced only one stretch of soft trail conditions near the high point outside of Windsor. Basically it was fine and loose, much like riding through patches of sand, sucking the momentum out from beneath your wheels. Fortunately it was limited to only a mile or two.
One of the most surprising things to us was how few people we encountered most days. On the first day, we rode 20 miles before seeing another person. There was so little trail traffic that we were able to ride abreast most of the time. We knew that autumn is peak time on the trail, but we still expected to see more traffic.
Tomorrow, I will try and post second and last part of our Katy Trail experience … until then, happy pedaling!
The last day of cycling – l’ultimo giorno. We had seen so much, yet at the same time, we had barely scratched the surface of the beauty and the adventures of cycling through Tuscany. Today, we would have an easy (50 km) ride down to the coastal town of Castiglione della Pescaia – a charming fishing village dating back to medieval times. As a defense against pirate attacks, the oldest parts of the village were built within a stone fortress, high upon the coastal hillside. Yeah, it was amazing.
The skies were clouding over, and we would have a bit of rain later in the day, but the riding weather was comfortably cool and the scenery was beautiful – as always, rain or shine.
We arrived at Castiglione della Pescaia and had been advised to park the bikes and walk the village by foot. Which proved to be very good advice, as the streets were very narrow and very steep.
After lunch, we (reluctantly) left the village and headed back toward Caldana and agrihotel Montebelli. We got rained on (a little bit), but had much fun – and a few laughs – along the way, riding with our friend Paolo.
Arriving back at the agrihotel with a little extra time, Mark and I decided to take a hike up into the Montbelli olive groves and up to their family oak tree that sits high on a hilltop and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys, their organic orchards and gardens, and the nearby village of Caldana.
The oak tree has a very special meaning to the Montebelli family. Allesandro Montebelli and his family shared with us some of the stories about their decisions to care for and develop their land in a sustainable manner, their commitment to organics and solar, and the spiritual connection they feel with their homeplace and the great old oak tree at the top of the hill. As Giulio Montebelli told me, “The oak tree is a sacred place for us, we all go there for the great views and, more importantly, to find an intimate space for connection with the world and the ones we care for.”
Montebelli became a very special place to us as well, a beautiful and inspiring part of Tuscany that we will never forget and hope to return to someday.
After visiting the oak tree, we walked up to the village of Caldana – in the rain. I think that somehow, with the low clouds and wet cobbles, it may have been more beautiful in the rain than in the sunshine? We made our way through the labyrinth of streets, trying to absorb our last moments in this small and beautiful village – the atmosphere that we had come to love throughout our time in Tuscany.
As we left Caldana to walk back to Montebelli in a light rain, the most amazing thing happened. The sun very briefly appeared, creating a rainbow – a rainbow that just happened to “land” upon the sacred oak tree on the Montebelli hilltop. I think that both Mark and I were speechless for that moment. Could it be a sign? I can’t say.
We began our days of cycling in Tuscany by riding under a rainbow, and ended our trip with the rainbow at Montebelli. We didn’t really need a sign to know that our experience in Tuscany – from the places we visited to the people met – was a gift to be cherished.
We would spend a day in Rome before returning home, but at this point I think I will spare everyone any more photo essays since there wasn’t any biking involved. If you are at all interested, the “final cut” of Italy photos can be viewed on FlickrRiver – which is the easiest way to scroll through them, and on a beautiful black background. The Rome photos should be up within the next few days. (Personally, I recommend viewing them on FlickrRiver in the large size for the best resolution and detail.) Whatever.
Coming soon … an overdue update on #330daysofbiking and some other local bicycling stuff. Meanwhile, thanks to friends and family who have been patient with me through all of the Italy adventures; I am grateful for your comments and putting up with the “vacation photos”! 😀
First let me say – rest assured, the Italy stuff is nearly over, I promise. But thank you for hanging in there, as this has really been the easiest way for me to share with my boys at school, some family and friends.
So … today would be the best cycling day of the trip – if there really could be such a thing? And I mean that by the cycling; the ride was spectacular. Today’s route would be roughly 75 km (46 mi) with some cycle-perfect climbing. We were leaving coastal Marina di Castagneto and heading to our next agrihotel, the beautiful Montebelli, in Caldana. More on that later.
Our ride took us up once again through the village of Castagneto Carducci (where we had taken a detour to see yesterday afternoon), and then up into the hills to the village of Sassetta – the name stemming from the Italian word sasso, meaning for “stone” or “rock”.
Although I am typically not much of a climber, this was a climb I absolutely loved. An scenic 8-10 km uphill with that perfect cycling grade … just find that comfortable gear, get into a rhythm, and enjoy the view!
You may wonder: why were all of these small villages built high up (and rather precariously) on the hill/mountain tops? We were told that long ago, the low-lying regions of Tuscany we fairly inhospitable; largely marshlands, malarial, not “healthy”. So to escape the unhealthy air, villages were built high in the hills, where the air was fresh, leaving the mosquitos and pests down below. It wasn’t until centuries later that the lowlands were drained, and the agriculture that we know today was introduced.
If I had thought the ride up was fun, let’s just say the descent was even more so. Long sweeping turns, the perfect grade, stunning views – and basically too much fun to stop, even for photos. Along the way we saw a number of people heading into the mountain woods with baskets. We guessed that they were mushroom hunting, as it was peak season for porcinis. (It almost made me stop …).
Once again, down from the hills, it was pleasant cycling through more small towns, vineyards and local agriculture. And, of course, the afternoon stop for gelatto.
Somewhere around the town of Bagno di Gavorrano, we came across this billboard. I figured you all could use a laugh by now … And let me say that Mark did not put me up to this. (No wisecracks from the peanut gallery, ok?).
A last little bit of uphill before arriving at the beautiful inn of Montebelli. And what is the end to a perfect day of Tuscan cycling? You probably guessed by now – a spectacular local, organic, delectable dinner. Buon appetito!
Today would be an easy cycling day … which was probably a good thing, considering that it (ultimately we) would be filled with amazing food and wine. We would be riding to our next hotel, the Tombolo Talasso Resort in the coastal town of Marina di Castagneto, and on our way, riding up into the hills to visit the tiny and beautiful village of Bolgheri.
We were told that the cycling Olympic gold medalist (2004) and two time World Champion Paolo Bettini is often seen riding these roads, and while I don’t think we ever spotted him, we did see some pretty incredible (and incredibly fast) guys heading up into the hills.
We arrived in Bolgheri late in the morning, allowing us time to walk around the village before enjoying lunch. Bolgheri had, for a time, been home to one of the most celebrated Italian poets and Nobel laureates (1906, Literature) Giosuè Carducci. While we did not find any books of his poetry, the little village offered some of the most famous regional wines, a small market selling pastas, olives and other Tuscan treats, as well as a shop filled with beautiful hand-painted pottery. We had lunch at a small restaurant in the heart of the village, and the porcini ravioli was to die for.
After lunch, we left Bolgheri to continue cycling along the slightly rolling and shady Strada del Vino “Costa degli Estruschi”. Basically, it is the road of famous “Super Tuscan” vineyards – names like Tenuta San Guido, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Michele Satta, Grattamacco, Guado al Tasso, etc. (I figure if you know your Italian wines, you will like know these names. I can only plead ignorance; to me, it was all amazing – the cycling part as well as the wine part.)
Mark and I took a little detour into one of the smaller vineyards along the way, and were treated to a tasting and picked up a wonderful vino rosso for later. Apparently, it was the height of the last grape harvest of the season – the Cabernets were ready. There were people gathering grapes in nearly every vineyard we passed, and at the Chiappini vineyard where we stopped, we got to see them loading the grapes into a big de-stemming contraption by the crateful.
We continued riding to our destination of the coastal town of Marini di Castagneto and our hotel. The Tombolo Talasso Resort was modern and very lovely, but I think we both preferred the more relaxed and simple atmosphere of the small rural agrihotels, like Elizabetta. But we had some time to relax and take a walk along the coast before heading off to one of the highlights of our trip – a visit to a local home where we would participate in preparing our dinner.
The best way to appreciate the Italian food, is by cooking and eating it … Cook with simplicity, with good and local ingredients, and mostly with the heart!
~ Chicca Maione
So, here we were – in Chicca’s kitchen. A charming and vivacious young Napolitan woman, and an accomplished cyclist in her own right, she invited us into her home and her kitchen to teach us some of the recipes that had been passed down through her family. It was remarkable. We gathered around her kitchen island, chopping parsley, crushing garlic, learning the stories behind her recipes – from pasta to baked fennel to semolina gnocchi. It was divine. And dinner was even better. Thank you, Chicca!
Where to start? At the beginning, in the rain near the coast …
I suppose I should clarify a little bit about our trip. As much as we may have liked to take a month or more and do self-supported touring, logistics and time constraints made it impossible at this point. Instead, we opted for a supported tour through VBT – and the entire experience exceeded our expectations ten-fold. I cannot recommend them highly enough; everything was seamless and amazingly well organized, and we had cultural experiences that I doubt we would have been able to plan or arrange on our own. Five gold stars to the amazing folks at VBT!
After leaving Florence, we began our cycling from Agrihotel Elizabetta in Collemezzano. We met with our trip guides/leaders, Andrea and Lucca, both native Italians who fitted us with our bikes and gave us our route maps and cue sheets. Although we never really rode with them, they would prove to be indispensable friends over the course of the trip; always entertaining, helpful and generous beyond description, doing everything for us “behind the scenes”. Our first afternoon was an easy (25 km) warm-up ride in the area around the agrihotel, just so we could adjust bikes as necessary and become familiar with their cue sheets and route directions. The weather was cool with scattered showers, but we felt the rainbow was a very good omen.
Our second day, and first full day of riding, took us down to the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea on a blustery morning. We approached the coast walked the bikes across a stretch of shoreline, before entering some beautiful maritime pine forests on our way toward the coastal foothills.
Our route today (68 km/42 mi) was to take us up to the medieval village of Casale Marittimo, a beautiful village dating back to the fifth century B.C. (Etruscan) perched high in the hills, overlooking the beautiful Tuscan landscape filled with olive trees and vineyards. The climb was fairly easy and extremely lovely, even through we encountered a few showers. The vistas were amazing. Luca and Andrea met us just before entering the village with a spectacular picnic lunch of vegetable salads, breads, cheeses and fruit. (I was already beginning to love these two guys… ;))
One of our favorite aspects of our daily route plans was the option to choose from various distances and additional loops. Mark and I opted to ride an additional 10 km loop that basically circled the hilltop near the village – which was really fun, except for a last (thankfully short) stretch of steep climbing. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Probably. 😉
After lunch we rode up and into Casale Marittimo. And were simply blown away. It was incredible – from the narrow cobbled streets and stone buildings, to the geraniums in the window boxes and the tiled roofs. An Italian couple (residents?) approached us as I was taking pictures in the village and kindly and enthusiastically pointed us up toward a little lane where they promised we would have a stunning view for photographs. It would be the first of so many friendly encounters with incredibly hospitable people we would meet.
We (rather reluctantly) left the beautiful village of Casale Marittimo, and headed back down toward the coastal town of Cecina. On the downward slopes, we really began to get the classic Tuscan views – from the silvery-green olive groves, to the tidy rows of grapes, the graceful lines of cypress trees and the warm golden tones of the stone and stucco houses.
As we arrived back near the coast in the town of Cecina, the sun was beginning to break through, and we had our final treat of the day … the G.O.D. (Gelato Of the Day). This stuff is so incredibly delicious … nothing compares. I also think it is official law in this region: if you cycle, you must eat gelato. And I am very happy to be a law-abiding visitor.