One aim of my midlife gap year of travel was to visit old friends. I’ve spent the past few days doing just that in Firenze, and feeling sort of emotionally recharged its time to get on with bicycling in Italy. I’ve been looking forward to this part of the journey since the very early stages of planning. I am beginning the Via Claudia Augusta. This is a route heading north up the Adige River Valley and into Austria.
Saturday 13 June (Day 20) – Riding my bicycle, and the train, from Firenze to Verona
I could take the train from Firenze to Verona with changes in Prato and Bologna. But for me, manoeuvring the bicycle, and the bags, on and off trains and through stations is a pain. I like to avoid it where I can. Since I haven’t ridden in days and I’m keen to just get back on the bicycle and peddle, I’ve decided to ride the 20 or so kilometres to Prato and skip one transfer.
I won’t say it’s a mistake – because I am glad to be back in the saddle – but it’s a pretty shitty ride. Bicycling in Italy is not always villages and castles. The suburban and light industrial areas I pass through as I leave Florence are okay, but the 15 kilometres on an ugly, hot, heavily trafficked state highway sucks. Motorists are, as usual, respectful but it is not a nice place to ride. Once on the train, however, the journey is smooth and easy.
I visited Verona with my then-husband in 2011. We were on our way to Bolzano and a walking holiday in the Dolomites. We had flown to Milan and arrived at this train station to begin that adventure.
It’s strange to be here again.
Ah, there’s the bar where we had coffees and, now, where is the city centre? Oh, yes, take a right out of the station and then a left. Ah, yes, just as I remember.
The B&B Primavera is run by a stooped older woman who speaks no English at all. She tries to make up for it with an endless stream of rapidly spoken Italian. If she would just slow down and use only the key words I’m sure I would understand more of what she is trying to tell me. I’m sure of it.
She shows me a handwritten note explaining that from 9 am to midday tomorrow all of central Verona is to be vacated while the authorities deal with undetonated World War II ordinance.
“Bomba! Bomba!” she says and that much I understand.
Europe I think, where history isn’t just a story.
Sunday 14 June (Day 21) – Riding the bicycle route from Verona to Rovereto (Italy)
There’s nothing like the anxiety of a small 80+ year old woman dashing about her B&B saying “bomba, bomba” to see me get on the road early. But there are two young guests who have barely stirred 20 minutes before we are all meant to be out of the city centre. When her increasingly frantic encouragement fails to register with them our hostess simply gathers her bag and leaves. I expect she is old enough to have some memories of le bombe falling on Italy – she isn’t prepared to fuck around.
Pedalling through very quiet, and emptying, streets, I pass emergency personnel manning blockades at the perimeter, and then, just like that, Verona, and her bombe, are behind me. I am on the pista ciclabile (or cycleway) which I will follow for days to come.
If my ride to Prato yesterday was a reminder of how bad it can be, this is a reminder of how good it can be: a fully separated cycle/walking path which follows a canal. It is clean and busy with Sunday morning walkers, joggers and cyclists. It’s fantastic – I smile and feel a rising joy. Now this is what bicycling in Italy should be.
The day is overcast, warm, and humid; the riding is easy. I climb into a village, stop for coffee in the piazza and pop a couple of postcards in a letter box. This is just the sort of riding I imagined when I planned this trip: bicycling through a quiet and beautiful patch of Italy.
I stand at a roundabout waiting for Google maps to tell me where I am when an old man on a Vespa approaches and offers help – in Italian, though he suggests German as an alternative. We muddle through in Italian but it’s a sign I have entered the German/Italian linguistic border zone and that the next few days will be particularly challenging. From here to the Austrian border most people – while they favour one or the other – speak both German and Italian but not a lot of English.
Following his directions I rejoin the cycleway to find it even better than before – I am winding through vineyards, the walls of the valley fill my peripheral vision, the Adige River gushes – it looks icy cold and full of sediment, a sort of whitish green.
I stop for lunch in a village bar where the only other customers are two local men. They are drinking glasses of white wine and having an animated conversation which might be an argument. Some rain begins to fall as I ride on. It gets heavier and I pull on my jacket. Just as it switches from steady to heavy I come to a Bici Grill – a café situated right on the cycleway. They have WiFi, coffee and a selection of cakes – I stay a while and watch the rain fall.
All day I have been going back and forth with a possible Warm Showers host in Rovereto. The actual host is away but her flatmate will look after me although he’s out of town until 9 pm. As the sun doesn’t set until then and I still have plenty of riding to do this suits me fine.
Rovereto is a pretty place with a fantastic old town area which seemed, in my 13 hours there, under-touristed. In the gloaming I push my bicycle through the meandering cobblestone streets as a nearby church bell strikes nine.
Fahmi, the host’s flatmate, is helpful and pleasant if, I think, a little unsure what this hosting thing involves. He is one of several flatmates – they seem to be a group of students. He greets me, helps with the bags, and shows me a room. There, he gives me sheets. He asks where I’m from and then assures me if I need anything at all to simply ask. And, with that, I am left alone.
I have ridden about 83 kilometres and have a similar day tomorrow so I’m happy to not have to socialise. I shower, make the bed, and fall asleep.
It has been a truly glorious day of bicycling in Italy.