Arrivedeci Bella Italia …

On Sunday, with a day in hand before heading back to Venice for our flight home, we cycled 25 miles northwest of Verona to Lake Garda. Nested in the foothills of the Dolomites, the lake is one of the premier tourist destinations in Northern Italy. It is easy to see why, the location is beautiful and despite the huge number of tourists, is very tranquil by the water.

Garda Town, Lake Garda

There are plans for a dedicated cycle path all around the 34 x 10 mile (at its longest and widest points) lake but currently it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Pedestrians, holiday makers almost exclusively on electric bikes, sandy paths, coarse stoney sections, diversions on to roads and a bridge requiring riders to carry their bikes up and down the steps either side are just a few of the obstacles encountered. It took twice as long as it should have to get to Peschiera Del Garda, at the southern end of the lake, where we spent the night.

Building in Vicenza designed by Andrea Palladio, a 16th century architect considered to be one of the most influential in his field

To avoid a repititious, return, journey to Verona on Monday we caught an early train to a village just east of the city. We had a very enjoyable ride, largely following bike route I1 alongside the river Bacchiglione, through vineyards and farmland. A 250 metre climb up a long hill gave glorious views of and a heady descent into the city of Vicenza, where we passed a couple of hours viewing the architectural legacy of the city’s most famous son, Antonio Palladio. His palladian coloumns and facades grace many fine palaces and public buildings. A star exhibit in a gathering of vintage cars in the main Piazza was made in 1908.

Typical cobbled Street in Padua

Our penultimate night was a very comfortable ‘Agriturismo’ B&B at the small village of Montegalda. Paulo, our charming host, runs the oldest Grappa Distillery in Italy, it has been in his family for 179 years, with the farmhouse dating back to the 1400s. Today’s ride continued on route I1, with a small detour to visit Padua. We enjoyed its cobbled streets, fine old Piazzas and the amazing carvings and frescos in the Basilica of St Anthony.

A further 30 miles this afternoon sees us about 3 miles from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport for our flight home tomorrow.

Another wonderful trip, 1,038 miles pedaled, through five countries with just one puncture and a wobbly mudguard.

A couple of happy pedallers leaving Paulo’s Distillery.

Spot the Crop …

The past three days have centred on the Adige, Italy’s second longest river, which rises in the Austrian Alps and flows south and east to the Adriatic. We joined the river at Cavarzere, having cycled the length of the narrow islands of Lido di Venezia and Pellestrina via a short vehicle ferry ride between the two. A second passenger ferry took us from Pallestrina to Chioggia on mainland Italy.

Chioggia – a delightful surprise, a mini Venice with canals and bridges

From Chioggia we found quiet roads through fertile farmland with almost no population until we encountered the river, which is dotted with small villages.

There is a choice of cycle paths on either side of the levee above the river or the quiet roads winding alongside. We chose the roads for greater rolling speed, seeing the villages along the way and avoiding hoards of flying ants near to the water. We were concerned that despite the clearly productive land, so many houses and farm buildings are abandoned and falling into disrepair.

One of too many houses now deralict

After a night in the tiny village of Concadirame, at a family run B&B we continued another 65 miles up river on Thursday. It was a day of ‘spot the crop, as maize and soy beans gave way to horticultural and orchard crops. Acres of apples, so ripe we could smell them, kiwi fruit, pomegranates, some hi-tech, high rise, hydroponic strawberries, polytunnels full of peppers, tomatoes and chrysanthemums to name but a few. The only livestock in evidence was the odd horse.

The river provided a very easy run in to the beautiful city of Verona with its wealth of Roman antiquities. Today (Friday) was spent walking around the historic sights which included the 14th centuary house where Shakespeare’s Juliet lived, fine old bridges across the river, a Roman amphitheatre and the famous 1st centuary Roman Arena. Once the setting for gladiators and lions, it now hosts opera and other musical performances. The shear scale of the engineering defies imagination, especially in the knowledge that even though a 12th centuary earthquake destroyed all but four of the outer arches, the main body was unscathed.

Inside the Arena, seating 30,000 people, the four remaining arches on the far side
Outside the Roman Arena in Verona

Water everywhere …

We seem to have left the hills behind. Our journey, once away from Trieste’s urban sprawl, mainly followed bike route I3 through flat, open farmland (maize and vines) and small villages, many with ancient Roman pedigrees.

Trieste to Lido De Venizia

The 120 miles to Lido di Venezia took two days with an overnight stop in Portogruero, an interesting, non touristy town, with many fine old buildings including a bell tower that can match the one in Pisa when it comes to leaning.

Both rides were marred by rain, Sunday afternoon was warm with persistent drizzle. Yesterday, at 11 degrees Celsius, was fully 10 degrees cooler than previous days. A couple of ominous claps of thunder heralded a huge downpour with the rain bouncing back off the ground soaking our feet in no time. Curiously, the water spraying up from puddles felt warm, the effect of tarmac heated over previous sunny days?

St. Mark’s Campanile (Bell Tower) behind the Ducal Palace. Venice Waterfront

With a nod to our purse strings and as bicycles are banned in Venice, last night (Monday) and tonight we are staying on the Lido di Venezia a long, thin, outer island accessed by a 20 minute ferry ride from Jesolo. This morning we caught a vaporetti, a bus service by boat, to San Marco, to explore the wonders of Venice.

West Door St. Mark’s Cathedral

The half hour queue to enter St. Mark’s Cathedral was well worth it. Colourful mosaics, depicting biblical scenes, cover the ceiling vaults and cupolas. A jewelled, golden alter-piece, The Pala d’Oro, commissioned in Constantinople in 976, and four lifesize copper horses dated as Roman works from the second centuary are highlights.

Canal between the Ducal Palace and former gaol, Bridge of Sighs in the far distance

Three countries in one day

Our ride up the Istrian Peninsula has continued over the three days since leaving Rovinj. Hugging the shore wherever possible has allowed us to marvel at the glorious, clear blue, sparkling water of the Adriatic sea. On occasions we have found ourselves on rough, stoney tracks to avoid busy roads, safer, but very much harder going. After cycling around the Lim Kanal, a fjord like inlet, the next major town up the coast is Porec.

The old town of Porec

Porec is home to the earliest, best preserved site of Christian worship in the world. Now a world heritage site, The Euphrates Basilica, dates back some 1700 years to the fourth centuary. A wealth of mosaic floor and wall decoration dating back to that time has been discovered; well worth the visit.

Fourth centuary mosaics – Porec, Croatia

Following a night at a room in a private house, just outside Porec we followed the coast north to the last sizable town in Croatia, Crveni Vrh, (no we don’t know how to pronounce either). Needing to use up our remaining Croatian Kona, we stayed in a room at the superbly located Pizzaria Laura, which is right on the shore with views to Slovenia’s coastal gem, Piran, and the mighty Dolomites in the far distance.

Pizzaria Laura. Our last night in Croatia

Today (Saturday) after eight miles or so, we found a windy little road that avoided the lengthy queue of traffic crossing the border from Croatia into Slovenia. We were waved through with hardly a glance at our passports and immediately picked up a paved bike path which lead us around Slovenia’s pretty but short coast; through Portoroz, Piran, Isola and Koper.

Isola on the Peninsula, Koper in the distance

We crossed the now deserted border contol between Slovenia and Italy this afternoon. Then peddaled on through the charming town of Muggia, to the city of Trieste, which boasts some large squares, fine architecture, Roman antiquities and narrow streets.

Waterfront at Trieste

An Istrian Iydll …

We are spending our third night on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula at the coastal resort town of Rovinj. The ancient town was originally an island, but is now joined to the mainland. The old streets are paved with flagstones that are shiny with age and the passage of generations of feet. The steep, narrow, streets speak of a bygone age.

An old back street in Rovinj – managed a shot with no people!!!

Our route from Buje was very lumpy, the terrain reminiscent of Tuscany, with old hilltop villages looking down over vineyards and olive groves. It was quite an effort to cycle up to Grozjan (lots of day trippers) and Oprtalj, but well worth the effort to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the views.

Grozjan

Last night’s stop was just short of Motovun, another of these fabulous hilltop villages. We had a room in a private house, with glorious hillside views, run by a lovely Croatian lady who welcomed us with wine from her own grapes. Very good it was too. Because it was there, and to avoid Gavin getting FOMO (fear of missing out), we naturally had to do the 30 minute climb up to the old town and circumnavigate the its ancient defensive walls. Sipping a refreshment, sitting on the wall with feet dangling out to infinity was a bit scary but a fitting end to our day.

Hilltop town of Motovun

Going underground…

So beautiful is the area around Divaca, we decided to stay another day and have a look around some of the sites.

In the 1850s a group of explorers were surveying the Raka river in order to provide a water source for the city of Trieste. They followed the Raka downstream only for it to disappear deep underground through a limestone gorge. This led to the discovery of a series of caves at Skocjan, now a world heritage site. We joined many others, of all nationalities, on a 2 km trek through the caverns. The oldest stalagmites and stalactites, formed over the past 250,000 years are huge and magnificent. Some have joined up to form vast columns. The many steps and levels were like taking a hike through an Indiana Jones film set.

Returning to daylight after touring the Skocjan caves. No photography was permitted underground.

A few miles further on we stopped to admire the beautiful lipizzaner horses at Lipca, which gave them their name back in the 1500s when the original stud farm was established. Although the horses can be bay in colour, the majority are grey once they have reached maturity. The foals are born black, with their coats fading into grey over the first 6 years of their lives. They are very sturdy strong horses standing between 15 and 16 hands high, with great longevity. They were famed as carriage horses for the Hapsburgs, and are the beautiful horses used by the Spanish riding school in Vienna.

Lipizzaner mares and foals at the Lipca stud

Heading south west out of Divaca, this morning (Monday) had a long, fun, downhill followed by a 300 meter climb with gradients of 18%+ in places, gruelling! From the top, the glorious views down to the Adriatic sea, in the bay of Trieste, are amazing.

A good number of the minor roads, marked on maps of the area are not paved. Whilst it makes for safe peaceful cycling, as cars and lorries avoid these roads, it does make the going somewhat more difficult. The bonus is that you get to see local life, currently farmers are busy grape picking on the many vineyards in this region.

View over the Bay of Trieste – Adriatic Sea

This afternoon we crossed back into Croatia to begin a mini tour around the beautiful Istrian peninsula. Tonight, we are staying in the hilltop town of Buje in an apartment annex of a private house overlooking olive groves and vineyards to the sea beyond. A spectacular sunset tonight. Our hosts are lovely, he speaks to us in Italian and his wife in Croatian, let’s just say sign language seems to work best! They are lovely people, we received coffee and cake on arrival and were later presented with a bunch of grapes straight from the vine.

Furniture made from wine barrels at a bar where various wines are dispensed from a vending mechanism straight into a glass

Capital …

Saturday’s 50 mile ride from Lasko (A) took us out of the Savinja river valley, over some lumpy hills to follow the Sava and Ljubljanski rivers into the Slovenian capital Ljubljana (3). The first half of the ride was on busy roads without much shoulder, a bit scary at times. A coffee stop and peruse of options using Kamoot, a cycling and hiking satnav app, saved the day finding us a quiet alternative on the other side of the river. A short section of bumpy, unpaved path was a small price to pay.

Lovely buildings of Ljubljana with the Castle on the hill

Ljubljana is first mentioned in the 1100s, it sits on the Roman city of Emona. The city straddles the Ljubljanski river, the banks connected by a series of old and new bridges. The smallest capital city in the EU, it is home to just 200,000 people, roughly one tenth of the Slovenian population. It is a vibrant place, well worth a visit.

Door to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Bronze 3D Relief of former Bishops

Heading south west out of Ljubljana on, largely, good cycle routes we were treated to 20 very flat miles over the Barje, an area full of drainage channels, much like the Somerset Levels. The fields are very green and lush. The final thirty miles to Divaca provided some sweeping, world class, downhills. Naturally, we paid our dues slogging up the other sides. As seems to be the case everywhere we have cycled, weekends bring out the motorbikers delighting in taking the bends as fast as they can, on machines with engines bigger than small cars.

Back to the hills …

We are progressing well with 320 miles under our belts. Having cycle through Austria, Hungary and a small section in eastern Croatia, we are now well into picturesque Slovenia.

Yesterday (Wednesday) was a short ride of circa 35 miles from Varazdin on the Croatian section of the Drava river to Ptuj, upstream in Slovenia. Leaving Varazdin on busy roads, and past a gypsy camp with rubbish strewn around the road, was not much fun. Once into open countryside, through a border control at Ormoz, into Slovenia more than compensated. Largely following a section of Euro Velo 8, The Drava River Route, the run into Ptuj, which claims to be the oldest inhabited town in the country, was particularly pleasant along the north bank.

A view over Ptuj to a dammed section of the Drava River

Today (Thursday) was a 56 miler to Lasko, home to Slovenia’s most famous beer, and reason for the hop fields we cycled past on our way. The first half of the ride was a wonderful, following the Dravija river, up its delightfully quiet valley, on smooth roads with a helpful tailwind.

There are no hedges here making views completely open as we cycle along. It is curious to see the different crops side by side, maize, pumpkins, vines, grass and strips newly cultivated in readiness for planting. As there are no field boundaries cattle are zero grazed, the smell of freshly mown grass overpowered in places by that noxious invader Himalayan Balsam.

A roadside tableau celebrating the region’s agriculture

The scenery, and gradients became much more Tyrolean as the day progressed, truly breathtaking both in terms of the views and climbing up some steep, switch-back hills. Sore legs this evening. Now in the valley of the Savinja river, tomorrow, we will follow it downstream for a short way before tracking it’s tributary, the Sava upstream into Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city.

Lasko on the Stavinja River

Country hopping & little pigs …

Since leaving Sopron on Sunday morning we have added another 174 miles to our bike tour. Sopran is a fine town with a ancient history dating back to Roman times with some of the old wall still visible. The town escaped the devastation wreaked on much of Hungary over the centuries. A graphic display on one of the old walls depicts the the awful conditions endured by the people of Hungary by the arbitrary drawing of the the iron curtain after the second world war, and sheer joy as the fences were torn down in 1989.

Sopran, Hungary

The route we followed meandered between Hungary and Austria, mostly through quiet rural, wine growing areas, interspersed with little villages and small towns such as Kozeg where we paused for our lunch. The town was largely closed down for a fun day, which included many of the children competing in a race around the old streets. Our bed and breakfast for the night was on the Austrian side of the border in the little town of Unterbildein, in the eclectic home of a Swiss couple and their three pet micro piglets, Lola, Jumpy and Stoney.

Inongruously large church in the small town of Kozeg. The inside was exquisitely painted with very fine stained glass windows.

Sunday night’s thunderstorm had cleared into a fine day as we ventured south, still following Euro Velo 13, the Iron Curtain Route. This 60 mile day was perfect cycling, well surfaced roads, virtually no traffic and stunning scenery, just reward for the constant steep (13%+) hills. The down hills were great fun and allowed our legs a bit of respite. Leaving Austria behind, the route weaved between Hungary and Slovenia, where the farmers are frantically harvesting vast acerages of maize and cultivating ready for the next crop.

Beautiful Slovenia, so tidy, with extensive deciduous forests.

No two days are the same on these tours, today’s ride from Marokfold in Hungary to Varazdin on the Drava River in Croatia, was no exception. Although similar distances, today gave way to more villages, busier roads (still quiet by Torbay standards) and hardly a bump in the road, let alone a hill. I find this cycling quite hard on the legs, there is no respite.

Varazdin Castle, Croatia dates back to 1100’s

A wet start to our VVV tour …

We can confirm, after a full day of testing, that Austrian/Hungarian rain is just as wet as the English variety. The saving grace was that it was neither cold nor windy, so two out of three ain’t bad.

Day one of our latest adventure saw us leave Fischamend, a small town next to Vienna Airport, for the Hungarian town of Sopron, some fifty miles south. The first leg of a circa 1,000 mile peddle through Eastern Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, down the chain of islands protecting Venice, and onwards to Verona, finally heading back to Venice Airport for our homeward flight.

Our route

Besides a decidedly damp start, we had to contend with a series of roadworks which had completely closed the path we were following. Fortunately, Austrian road menders appear not to work weekends so we managed to sneak through certain sections and detour around others; albeit somewhat muddy in places.

The fields are ripe with vast acres of maize, head-drooping sunflowers and vines, netted to protect their bounty from birds. Our sound track for the day was firework- like whistles and bird of prey calls set to scare off the feathered thieves. Several of the Austrian villages we cycled through are lined with small wine cellars, very reminiscent of those we encountered jn Czech last year. Very atmospheric.

A village street of wine cellars

Our route took us down the east bank of the Neusiedlersee following the Jubillaum ‘Radweg’ (cycle path) until we joined up with Euro Velo route 13, The Iron Curtain Route, as we entered Hungary; a country neither of us has visited before.

Entering Hungary

Our first experience in Hungary is delightful. The town of Sopron has many fine old buildings, beautiful, cobbled squares and ornate statues. Our visit co-incides with the annual wine festival, so plenty of street traders, music and locals enjoying the evening.

Gavin at the beer cabin