Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mont Sainte-Odile - 48° 26'14" N 7° 24'13" E

After a week of non-cycling activities, which admittedly, have involved much eating and drinking, we were missing our 1000m a day climbs and the burning of the additional 3000 calories. So we leapt onto our trusty bikes and did the run up Mont Sainte-Odile.

Proof that riding 1300km across a mountain range does improve your fitness, we zoomed by the placed we had stopped in a gasping, sweaty mess last time and arrived at the Convent with only one sneaky foot-down. 500m of vertical with grades 7-10% - c'est facile! Mont Sainte-Odile, you cannot daunt us!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bischoffsheim - 48° 29' 18" N 07° 29' 38" E

So we are back in Bischoffsheim in beautiful Alsace but not at 3 rue des Merles where we have spent some many wonderful times.  Florence and Christophe have decided to go their separate ways so we are at Florence's new pad at 2 Impasse du Castel!

And just to prove how homogenous our world has become that despite living in an ancient village in rural France, Florence still heads to IKEA for shelves, light fixtures and laundry hampers! IKEA is such an amazing business. The Strasbourg store was as busy as the one in SW Calgary on a Saturday afternoon with excited kids racing around, overtired toddlers screaming, young couples pondering kitchen fixtures and us hunting down the Billy bookcase! Stopping for coffee and cake at the cafe, we were very impressed to find wine available to have with our cake and IKEA has its own beer brand - cheaper than pop!

Our weekend, in and out of amazing food and wine, has included the assembly of all sorts of IKEA furnishings and decorations. Florence's flat is looking fantastic.

And now for the big challenge! I am making Pavlova for dinner tomorrow night in the Thermomix! Hilary and Meaghan, I hope you are right about how great these things are or the Pav will need to become Eton Scramble!!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Milan - 45° 29' 04" N 09° 12' 15" E

assembled models from Leonardo de Vinci's drawings

We jumped on the train this morning and were out exploring Milan before lunch! We lost time in the Leonardo Da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology. Despite the guide saying you needed two hours to do it justice, we managed about a third of it in four hours when it inconveniently closed!  The computing gallery contained an original Enigma machine and an Apple I, Apple ll and the first Mac and the telephony gallery had every cell we have ever owned - rather disconcerting when stuff you had is in the museum!

But what took up our time was the gallery where they had made models from Da Vinci's drawings. Amazing! Piling rigs, cranes, 'Bailey' type bridges, machines to measure the tensile strength of wires and strings, looms for weaving, carding (of textiles) machines and his flying machines. What a mind! Also some very cool exhibits on his town planning, water management and anatomy.

Sforza Castel - a moat!

We wandered through Sforza Castel which was most impressive and sported a moat. Sadly, no water, alligators or marauding barbarians.  Sempione Park was cool and restful in the late afternoon heat. The Arco Della Pace (Arch of Peace) was rather familiar - Arc de Triomphe meets Brandenburg Gate.

We skipped seeing Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' because you have to buy tickets to do so in advance and we simply are not that organized!  And there is only so much you can see in 8 hours on a stinking, hot day!!  AND no shopping, no shoes, no leather goods. A fail as tourists in Milan!!

As the major bike riding part of our trip is complete, below are a few observations....

Lessons learnt travelling on trains with bikes:

  1. It is much easier to roll a bike onto a train then lug a bike box!
  2. Travelling with bikes would be a nightmare when the trains are busy.
  3. Bike storage options vary wildly depending on type of train - from hanging bike racks and floor mounted racks through to balancing bikes in vestibules. No one seemed too concerned about blocking doors and aisles!
  4. Fewer bikes the better. Four people with bikes take up a lot of space.
  5. You always have to buy a ticket for your bike in Switzerland.
  6. France is well set up for roll-on bikes. The train timetable advise which trains take bikes - but limited space.  See #4.
  7. In Italy, you sometimes pay for your bike but if it is in a box, it is luggage and travels free.
  8. To save confusion, cost and uncertainty, simply finish your bike tour where you started!
  9. Crossing The Alps with your bike on a train burns far less calories than peddling!

after a hard day of sight-seeing

Milan Central Train Station - didn't know 'Fascist' was an architecture style

The only way to fly from Milan to Bischoffsheim

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Venice - 45° 26' 02" N 12° 20' 06"

Backstreet?  Back canal?

We stepped of the train at Venice's Santa Lucia railway station and indeed, the streets are actually water! The station over looks the Canal Grande and the impressive San Simeone Piccolo. Venice is one of the few cities in which bikes are not allowed. Our tired legs were thankful and with the narrow streets and many bridges, we understand why!

Venice, we determined, is rather crumbly and in need of a good pressure-wash but what a beautiful place. We skipped the gondola ride but hit most of the major sights, we ate some of the best pasta either of us have ever eaten and joined the hundreds of other tourists in aimless wandering and endless gawking.  We loved the architecture, the history, the canals (of course), the narrow streets.... We toured the Teatro La Fenice which was amazing and wandered around the Vivaldi museum filled with wonderful instruments. We discovered that they believe Vivaldi's Four Seasons to be the most played classical piece, far exceeding the second most played, Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven.

We bid arrivederci to Gord and Jenny and helped lugging their bike boxes to the airport bus.  Great travel buddies..... We, in turn, lugged our bikes in boxes to the train and headed to Milan!

Sean dips his toe in the Mediterranean

800 year old city ... built on a swamp

Naturally slimming streets

football match in progress in a city square

Kate gets into the carnival spirit of Venice

Gondola jam.  Don't be THAT kind of tourist.

Pedestrian thouroughfare crossing a canal

Lovely view.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Feltre - 46° 1 '4" N 11° 54'17" E

After having an extended visit to Switzerland, you do not notice leaving the country as much as you notice entering someplace else.  The metaphoric handrail that would magically be present in the correct spot when you happen to slightly come off your balance ... was suddenly and noticably absent. The asphalt on the roads was a little bit rougher and in worse repair.  The traffic seemed to whiz by just that little bit closer.  The houses seemed less carefully finished and more in need of a good scrub.  However, we are paying 1/3 the price for just about everything, so we are happy to be here.

Our multi-day ride from Stelvio to Feltre was a lazy cyclist's dream - gentle, undulating downhills (less than 300m elevation gain!) through valley bottoms. We were lucky to have neutral or tailwinds most of the time.  The route we had taken up is part of the Via Claudia Augusta, an ancient Roman road that links the german valley of the Po River to Rome.  We now know that the cycling pathway from Merano (where we stayed a night) to Trento (and south to Verona) is an increasingly popular outing for Europe's Active Seniors.  Scores of old folk's homes had emptied out onto motor-assisted e-bikes ahead of us.  We dodged and weaved our way around them, reveling in the unfamiliar happy songs our leg muscles sang to us.  Gord requested a stop at a castle that was home to a famous moutaineer and adventurer.  We wound our way, by shuttle bus (you're welcome, legs), up the slope of the valley to a meticulously-restored castle/loot-storage-chamber of Reinhold Messners.  It was filled with lots of lovely things but the real treat was the marvelous views along the valley it afforded.

The cycle route is gorgeous. Well maintained, rest stops with roses, benches and bike stands and outdoor cafes where you can stop for a beer. All very civilized. But do we get to continue along this pleasant way to Verona? Oh, no, at Trento, we turn left, up over a mountain pass to Caldonazzo!

We left behind the grey-haired cycling tours and saw only the lean, lycra'ed set on expensive racing bikes. Obviously back in the more hardcore cycling scene.

We landed in Miane - bang in the middle of Strada del Prosecco e Vini dei Colli Conegliane Valdobbiadene - or Prosecco country! It is a beautiful region with vines everywhere, even on the slopes the goats would have a tough time negotiating.  We had a rest day and some non-saddle time in a quiet pensione - or so we intended.  The region was hosting a car rally so our ambiance was shattered every few minutes by the roar and back-firing of a rally car.

Rest Day in Miane!  Hooray!

Instead of remaining at our quiet, out-of-town pensione for the gran fondo, it was decided that we should be staying close to the starting point of the event ... especially considering the 7 am start time and the 55 minute drive and bike-assembly that would have to occur before said start time.  A new AirBnB option had appeared and we snapped it up - even at its premium price.  The accomodation was lovely even though it wasn't very well laid out.  It was in the heart of old Feltre - right where we wanted to be. The ride to Feltre was gorgeous under the bluest of skies. Feltre was filled with cyclists and all the posturing that goes along with it; Shaved legs, fancy kits and even fancier bikes. Groups of skinny, fit young things in matching team outfits swaggered along the streets.  We stripped our bikes of any unneccessary weight and mentally prepared ourselves for the gran fondo.

The next morning, we made our way to the very back of the 4,500-rider-strong peloton.  The festival atmosphere was all around us - many nervous riders ("this was supposed to be just a fun ride - why does everyone look so competitive?"), blaring "Rocky Balboa"music, many very expensive bikes and an announcer who was belt on revving up all the participants-cum-competitors. When the countdown began and the cyclists all started to inch forward ("Hey, I thought we weren't racing!") and then an echoing pistol shot was heard, the result was ... less than exciting.  4,500 cyclists is a fair number to move through a ten metre wide starting gate.  Being at the back of the throng, it took us a good ten minutes of slowly inching foward over the cobblestones, barely at pedalling speed, to the exit the old town.  It was cool riding through the city gate and out towards the waiting countryside ... and 2,700 metres of climbing we had to get through.

Kate, Gord, Jenny and
4,497 others leave Feltre

We quickly fell towards the back of the group (we were on sport touring bikes rather than fancy racing bikes - rather like a VW Golf compares to a Ferrari) and enjoyed the quiet and lack of fanfare that came with it.  We saw some other riders, both faster and slower,  The first climb was not too steep but unrelenting which made it tough.  The second, taking us 2,100 metres total for the day, seemed to slow us down even more.  Just as we summited the second climb, the heavens suddenly opened delivering torrents of rain and a howling headwind.  We started the descent but it was bitterly cold, The broom wagon had been only a bit behind us (we had seen it on the switchbacks below), so rather than risk hyperthermia, we decided to take up the offer of a warm ride and make our way to the finish line in comfort.

Once back in Feltre, we met up with Gord and Jenny, who had finished the event under their own power.  Next, we pack up our bikes for travel on the Italian train system and make our way to Venice for one last day of site-seeing.

along the streets of Bolzano

Greatest climbing pictograph ... ever.

The ride.

Grey start to the day

winding through Bolzano

very flat along the canals

Apple-everything available here

Blue skies and flat riding through apple orchards

switchbacks to the castle!

the view from the castle

valley panorama from Castelbello-Ciardes

We noticed sport climbing anchors on the watchtower!

Winding through towns on our way to Miane

A fortification that looks to have seen some action

Along the Via Claudia Augustus

Strada del Prosecco.  How are we ever going
to get Kate out of this region?

Rest day repairs and maintenance

1.50 euros per litre of local wine.  Quite drinkable.

Old Feltre city gate

Our super-swish accommodation

Great view from Gord and Jenny's room.  Romeo, wherefore art thou?

bringing bike boxes back for the last-day pack-up

This is where we start from tomorrow

Tomorrow's end goal

We made it to the start of the second big descent

Monday, June 13, 2016

Merano - 46° 40′ 0″ N, 11° 10′ 0″ E

Things here in South Tyrol get a little confusing with everything having a name in both Italian and German. So today, we rode Prato Allo Stalvio to Merano (Italian) or Prad am Stilfserjoch to Meran (German). We are following the Val Venosta or Vinschgau - that is the valley through which we are riding. All that hard climbing is paying off as today was only 60km with net downhill!!  Woohoo. 

As this valley produces an eighth of all European apples, we spent much of the day cycling through apple orchards (and vineyards on the steep slopes). They are all grown on trellises which I assume they do for yield. 

Gord allowed us to catch the shuttle bus up to the Messner Mountain Museum (in a castle on the side of the mountain) rather than ride up the 20% grade switchbacks!!  What luxury. The Museum was pretty cool but featured a lot of Tibetan artefacts. Reminiscent of Thomas Bruce (Lord Elgin) and the Parthenon Marbles, perhaps setting up a museum in Tibet may have been more sympathetic!  

He does do good - with his support, the producers of Val Venosta have banded together and sell their produce under the Valley's brand. This gives the producers more money and helps guarantee quality as each producer is accountable. If I didn't have to carry it on my bike, I would have bought all sorts of yummy things to bring home!

We are finding there is very little English so we are relying on Sean's German. We are mostly getting things right but did have to suffer cream in our tea and on our cereal instead of milk after buying a huge carton. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Prato allo Stelvio - 46° 37' 12" N 10° 35' 47" E

Kate and I are both enjoying the benefit of burning 2500+ extra calories a day.  We plow through whole pizzas (each), dishes of pasta, schweine schnitzel, French fries ... all in a hopeless effort to replace what we use up on our rides.

Although we start out with some fatigue in our legs each morning, we are somehow able to push through to the new Bed and Breakfast each night. Most mornings start out dreary but improve as the day unfolds. The ride from Chur to Bergün was very much like that, with a solid climb out of a valley towards the next day's mountain pass.  I love pedalling through the little clusters of homes (village seems too strong a word), even if there are gravel roads and hills involved. Our exposure to the locals is limited to seeing where they live rather than interacting with them.  I suppose this is a step up from the bus tours that whiz along the main highways, but still I feel distant from the culture.

We do have our brief merchant transactions, though, to give us some insight.  On the way from Bergün to Prato allo Stelvio, Kate had a problem with her brakes on a big descent.  Luckily, at the bottom of the hill, there was a bike shop of sufficient size and experience to suss that her brake pads needed to be replaced and do the job.  While this was happening, we chatted with the bike mechanic. While Gord and I intently soaked up as much knowledge regarding the hydraulic/cable brake system as we could, I also was observing the two mechanics chatting and soaked in the laid-back atmosphere of the repair workshop.

Another example - when we landed at the base of Stelvio, our bed and breakfast hosts had limited English but when they found out I spoke (what they thought was fluent) German, they were delighted and unleashed a torrent of local information and hospitality. The evening we got into Stelvio was quite pleasant, so we decided to make use of the available barbeque and picnic table.  After a few beers, I was wishing I had my guitar.  When Christinie, our hostess, checked on us, I asked (in German) if they might have a guitar. They seemed very apologetic that they did not, and in ten minutes one miraculously appeared - I suspect it was hastily borrowed from a neighbor or friend.  What lovely hosts.


Now, the question on everyone's mind - how was Stelvio Pass?  Not as bad as you might think - just a long, gradual climb ... and very rewarding.  There were distracting views which made the climb easier. Most of the forty-eight switchbacks are signed with just a number - no explanation is necessary - to help you keep track of where you are in the whole ordeal.  We wound our way through scenic villages that seemed to clutch onto the steep hill.  The ambiance seemed to change with every kilometre - a new village, a change in foliage, a lone hotel, a new set of switchbacks.  As we grunted up a set of turns with our focus aimed down onto each pedal stroke,we looked up to notice the trees had suddenly disappeared. Scrubby alpine bushes and grass were all that lined the roadway.  There was some traffic (we claimed the outside edge of the  lane as no room for shoulders, let alone bike paths) but the cars and motorbikes and motorbikes and motorbikes mostly gave us a wide berth, seeming to appreciate the work we were putting into our trip up.  Just after the last village, there was a marked increase in the number of other cyclists on the road ... all on their way up. We learned afterwards that a large cycle tour had scheduled Stelvio in their multi-week, multi-summit tour through Switzerland.  A series of skinny guys thundered past, eventually trickling down to the middle-aged masses that we could keep ahead of.

The top of Stelvio Pass had a circus-like atmosphere. There were tourist booths selling trinkets; a gondola leading to a ski slope (that was very much in use, even in June); hotels and restaurants serving both the motoring and cycling tourists and bratwurst stands!  I happily gobbled down a hot serving, knowing I'd easily burned ten times the amount of calories the sausage, bun and German mustard offered. Pictures were taken to document the conquest, layers were donned ... then came the descent.  

What a fun ride down.  The traffic was manageable, so I was able to take liberties on the hairpin curves, helping myself to a a wide bank going in, cutting sharply across and swooping out, trusting the physics of my tires as I leaned into the turn.  Although my touring bike was built for stability and comfort, it let me enjoy all of the long, gently winding downhills.  I whizzed through the forests and past farmhouses and hotels I had struggled by a few hours earlier.  Four hours of climbing, rewarded by fifty minutes of delicious descent.

All together, it was a great outing with mixed weather, some mentally challenging riding with a circus in the middle.  No flats, no mechanical issues - just fun.

A cold summit for Sean's birthday

We earned our bowl of soup!
next day was sunny on the way up Ofen Pass

Ofen Pass

hot bike standoff

magical descents

Heidi takes a break from cycling
This way out of Switzerland

arrived in Italy

switchbacks as far down as you can see