Nong Khai to Chiang Khan

120 miles pedaled, heading north, alongside the Mekong since leaving Nong Khai. The first day to Sangkhom was relatively flat, with frequent detours through villages to see day to day life whilst avoiding the highway despite traffic being very light.

The river valley is clearly very fertile with acres of vegetable crops and swathes of tiny red hot chilli peppers variously being watered, weeded or picked by straw-hatted workers.

Red hot chilli peppers

Setting off at first light, just after 6am, makes for much more pleasant cycling before the sun gets high and temperatures soar. Today we completed the 68 miles from Sangkohm by 12.30pm allowing time to chill in an air-conditioned room before venturing out to explore once the heat recedes.

Today’s ride was more undulating and scenic with views of beautiful, tree-clad hillsides in Laos across the river. Farmers are busy harvesting rice, mostly by hand, with small, hand-cut sheaves being loaded using pitch forks onto pickup trucks and curious tractors. However, two tiny combine harvester type machines on catapillar tracks were causing much interest amongst the locals, and no doubt putting many out of work.

The traditional …..
… and the modern

Much time and effort appears to be expended in spreading the rice crop out on plastic matting to dry each day.

Rice drying in action

Escaping the cold …

Capture
A rough approximation of our route c. 800 miles

Unable to make our usual Jan/Feb escape to warmer shores in 2020, we are taking advantage of some very competitive flights to Bangkok to spend three weeks cycling in East and North Thailand. Some of which will be the trip we had to abandon in 2016 after Gavin broke his ankle.

Following a straightforward 12 hour flight (Boing 777) from Heathrow to Bangkok, we took a 1 hour internal flight, northeast, to Udon Thani and then a taxi to get to Nong Khai where the pedalling will begin. Nong Khai is located on the Mekong River, almost opposite the Laos capital city, Vientiane, which we visited on our 2013-14 South East Asia trip.

Park of huge Hindu & Buddhist concrete sculptures – Nong Khai

Tuesday was spent getting the bikes ready, exploring this delightful little, non touristy, town and acclimatising to the 32 degree temperature.

We plan to start tomorrow’s fifty plus miles at first light, closely following the river northwards, to get the bulk of the cycling done before it gets too hot.

Water spouting dragons beside the Mekong River Nong Khai

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