Italy, again

The coach from Rijeka took us as far as Trieste where we caught a train to Verona, conveniently missing out the boring flatlands north of Venice, and getting us to within a couple of days ride of Trento where we were due to meet up with Deeks who had been with us back in France and by now had finished his job and was itching to erase the last vestiges of corporate life from his soul.

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Verona was eyeball-poppingly hot so we found ourselves a shady terrace, demolished what we didn’t know at the time was to be the last great Italian meal of the trip and set off towards Lake Garda, resigned to a boring ride along a busy road. Somehow we got lost and ended up on a picturesque bike path next to a canal. Don’tcha love it when that happens?

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Lake Garda caught us a little off-guard. I don’t know what we were expecting to be honest, but it wasn’t that. We emerged from small country lanes onto a roundabout and straight into tourist hell. Traffic jams and commerce everywhere, and zero chance of any wild camping. The campsite we checked into was enormous, expensive and rammed, but we scored a plot right by the lakeside and thanked providence that this was for one night only. It wasn’t bad exactly, it was just weird. The restaurant bar, for instance, looked like it belonged in a flash hotel. It was actually quite nice to sit and sup cocktails and expensive food and wine in luxurious surroundings, but on a campsite??? Doesn’t really compute.

That said the place was full of German tourists getting increasingly dejected as Germany contrived to lose their opening game to Mexico, so that was fun to watch (they also contrived to not to make it through the group stages, hilariously losing their final game 2 – 0 to South Korea. In case you’d forgotten.)

There’s only one road round Lake Garda and long sections of it were hectically busy, full of old blind people in camper vans inadvertently almost killing you and young stupid people in sports cars deliberately almost killing you. Both were stressful. But on the plus side we had a strong tail-wind and it’s a very lovely place.

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A quick coach ride over a mountain pass closed to bicycles plus a couple of hours ride got us to Trento where we met up with Deeks who you met earlier on in this trip, then turned our front wheels north and headed for the Brenner pass.

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Trento to the Brenner pass is interesting from a cycle touring point of view. On paper it’s perfect: almost the entire 150 km is on freshly laid bike paths or tiny traffic-free roads; the scenery is stunning; it’s the South Tyrol so the people are chilled and the food is good, though this being the South Tyrol it’s all schnitzel, sausages, knödel (dumplings), beer and potato salad. And bad pizza. Don’t order the pizza. Or the pasta. You may technically be in Italy but you’re not really in Italy anymore.

Anyhow, that all sounds perfect, right? Except for the pizza of course. But here’s the thing: the scenery never really changes. The bike tracks can get a bit boring. The days all kind of run into each other. Honestly it was the least memorable week of the trip. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t great, just not quite as great as all the other bits.

The first evening we ate a decent meal in an expensive restaurant, and slept in a field with a great view.

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I woke up before the others and to my surprise – on a Saturday morning – there was an old peasant working the field. I wandered over to him and sort of apologised for camping on his land. He could not have cared less, in fact he’d been a keen cycle tourer in his past and regaled me with stories about 3000 metre passes and cycling in the snow. At least I think so: my Italian is poor, his accent was strong and it’s possible he was speaking some Germanic dialect. It’s also possible he was threatening to have me and my hobo friends arrested for trespassing, we’ll never know.

By 10 am it started to get distinctly warm. We were riding along the river Adige which was still bringing freezing meltwater down, and which provided natural aircon, but as soon as we left the river it was like being in an oven and it got tiresome very quickly.

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Our joy upon finding a small refreshing lake to swim in was therefore boundless, despite us only having speedos to swim in and there being old women and small children around. Deeks, for reasons of propriety, rightly banned all use of cameras, but James snuck this photo which pretty much sums things up (and mercifully frames out the gruesomeness of the swimwear).

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Gratingly, right after blissfully cooling off we were forced to climb a long and steep-ish hill, arriving on the outskirts of Kaltern hungry, sweaty and a little late for lunch. It was here that we learned a valuable lesson about Google Maps. If you are a city dweller you take it for granted that all restaurants will be on Google Maps. If Google Maps says that a town only has one restaurant then it only has one restaurant and you would be a fool to go poking around in the hopes of finding another one. Google Maps said that Kaltern had just one restaurant, and that it was open. We knew this was wrong because we were standing outside it and it was as shut as a nun’s… ah… well, it was shut. The centre of town was up a steep hill and no one felt like struggling up it just to have it confirmed that there were no restaurants, but eventually I volunteered and found not one, not two, but many restaurants, all open and busy. We ended up eating shit pizza but were so relieved to be eating anything at all that no one cared.

A gorgeous but uneventful afternoon took us almost as far as Bolsano, where, too lazy and battered by the heat to bother finding a wild camping spot we checked into a campsite, much to Deek’s disgust. Luckily a hearty dinner in buzzing local restaurant rounded things off nicely.

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Next day more of the same, bike paths, stunning views, good carby food, tractors pulling caravans, sleeping in fields. I’ll let the pictures speak. Click for big.

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If you’ve watched the whole thing you’ll see that we ended up outside a supermarket in the pissing rain. This was in a place called Vipiteno, where we stocked up on food and wine and set off up a long hill to do something a bit out of the ordinary.

James had been surveying satellite imaging data on his mobile phone, because that’s the amazing world we now live in, and had noticed a point where the road went into a tunnel, but the old road appeared to run next to the tunnel and he’d got it into his head that the old road would make a great place to camp. Deeks agreed with him. So without bothering to wonder why anyone might have gone to the trouble of building a tunnel we cycled 6 kilometres up a mountain and found out.

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Turns out the reason was the same reason people always build tunnels on mountain roads, fucking huge rocks falling down and killing people. Weirdly this didn’t bother James or Deeks one bit but freaked the very shit out of me, so I pitched my tent where the rocks couldn’t get me but I could, conceivably, be seen by a passing motorist if he stopped his car at night in the middle of the road right before the entrance to a tunnel and shone a powerful torch right at my tent (which was in any case obscured by trees) . The other two somehow thought this was a) more likely and b) more dangerous than camping right under a cliff with rock debris everywhere. In a storm.

But whatever, in their defence, death aside, it was a great place to camp and we lit a big fire and sat around it with our food and our wine and after a few glasses I managed to more or less ignore my probable imminent demise.

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The next day we cycled up a fucking amazing bike path, into a fucking ferocious headwind and by lunchtime we’d made it to Brenner, and the top of our very first alpine pass. OK, granted it’s the lowest of the alpine passes at about 1300 metres, but still, it’s an alpine pass so fuck off.

Again, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

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We were so hungry by the time we reached Brenner that the shit pizza we were served was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten it. We snarfed it down, ordered our last Italian espresso and prepared to head for the border and enjoy a 45 km descent into Innsbruck.

Austria