Tue, Apr 6 to Wed, Apr 7 — Basel
Arrived in Zurich after an easy, uncrowded, but sleepless night from Boston. Zipped through the airport with a free luggage cart that rides escalators. Thirty minutes later we we were riding the train through the lush green valleys and hills of Switzerland. What a wonderful sight to see Laurenz meeting us on the platform in Basel. After a reviving hot chocolate we walked around Basel with Bob, Corinne, and Laurenz in intermittent showers to show Lyn this wonderful old/new city.
After a LONG sleep at Gsells, we packed the rented van and clever bike trailer, picked up Brian at the airport, and headed south through the Juras and the Alps. Since the high alpine passes were still closed with snow, we had to take the 17 km Gothard Tunnel underneath the Alps. Even well before the Easter holiday, it still required 3.5 hours of waiting to get into the tunnel. It was rain and snow on the north side of the Alps, but sun and warmer as we emerged from the tunnel and came down the valley to Lake Maggiore.
Thu, Apr 8 to Mon, Apr 12 — Avegno, TICINO
Another long sleep and we're starting to feel human again. We spent four days at Gsell's summer home in Avegno in the Valle Maggia just above Lake Maggiore—avoiding the Easter holiday traffic, crowds, and closings. Although modern and comfortable on the inside, their home is part of a 150-year-old small crowded stone village on the steep side of the valley. The flat parts of the valley were too valuable for farming, as people once scratched out a subsistence living in this steep and narrow alpine valley. This small piece of Switzerland, on the Italian border below the Alps, speaks Italian and should be part of Italy;but Laurenz explained that the people are actually very loyal and proud Swiss.
The first beautiful day we spent riding and exploring this gorgeous dead-end valley. It felt so good to get back on the bikes and be back in the Alps. The second day we hiked in the rain and had lunch at the Santa Ana Chapel, peaking through the clouds high above the lower valley and Lake Maggiore. The third day was showery, so we all drove in the van to walk around Bellinzona (a town with 3 castles to guard the mouth of the valley) and Ascona (wealthy Swiss town at the head of Lake Maggiore). While walking around the town we stopped in the square to listen to a wonderful men’s chorus sing for the joy of it. Then we continued to the top of town to view the impressive frescoes that are being renovated in the Colegio du Papas.
Easter day was sunny, and Tod and the fast group rode up the Centovalli, over a pass recently cleared of snow, and down the Valle Cannobina to the big market day in Cannobio, and then back home along Lake Maggiore. Lyn and the slower group took a 60 km ride up Valle Maggia to Feroglio, detouring through the wonderful picturesque towns along the way. Beautiful riding on a spectacular day—all up hill going out and all an exhilerating down hill coming back.
Mon, Apr 12 — Lake Maggiore and Ticino River
Our first real day of riding towards our destination of Tuscany. Rode 50 km along Lake Maggiore—part on the main road with moderate traffic, and part high above the lake on a quiet road with no traffic and great views. Ferry across the lake and rode 30 km down a busy road to Sesto Calende at the foot of the lake. Here we picked up Gustav and Elian—two friends of Gsells from Basel who joined us for the middle part of the trip. Rode 50km on a series of bike paths/trails/roads along the Ticino River and Canal. It was fun at first, but became boring on long straight paths with a headwind towards the end of the day.
Spent our first night in Italy at Cascina Caremmo in Besate, one of several Agroturismo operations we enjoyed in Italy. The road in skirted around rice paddies. It's a working farm that is also a well-run and popular hotel and restaurant. The food was excellent, but the restaurant was crowded and slow.
Tue, Apr 13 to Thu, Apr 15 — APPENINES
After a flat, straight, cloudy ride into Pavia, we looked around town and the Abbey SanLanfranco, and then ten of us piled into the eleven-passenger Ford Transit van for a rainy drive along the flat Po River Valley and into the foothills of the Appenines. I had always assumed the Appenines were a series of inconsequential hills, but they are a range of serious mountains that stretch across the top of Italy just below the Po Valley. They reach over 6,000 feet, and there was still skiing in late April. The southern approach is relatively steep and short. The northern foothills cover more land area with fingers that extend northwards. Climbing a finger southward is relatively easy, but riding east-west across the fingers and valleys can be very challenging—and beautiful. We had never associated rice with Italy, but the flat Po plain is filled with rice paddies and we had risotto instead of pasta for dinner.
While riding in Italy is often hilly, many roads run along ridges or around the contours of hills—providing relatively easy climbing and fantastic views. Except for the cities, traffic is very light and polite. However, the quality of roads varies from excellent to bad; and it's often impossible to tell on a map which roads are paved. Several times we came onto surprise dirt roads, which can be especially challenging on steep descents. Paved road surface can also change at any time. We generally found the yellow roads to be paved, reasonably smooth, and free of traffic in rural areas.
Our days in the Appenines were a mix of grabbing rides when the weather was good and jumping into the van when it turned bad. This system usually worked, and Laurenz was an excellent shepherd. One day he appeared behind us just before the clouds exploded. A few times we rode in the rain.
Wednesday we rode to Canossa Castle and on to Carpinetti. La Scruderie was like a ducal palace, on a high hill overlooking the town, valley and other hills. Our bedrooms were huge, and we had a great meal with vast amounts of food (although someone described the vegetables as British—overboiled and barely warm).
In general, I was not impressed with the Italian food, although I admit much of that was my very high expectations. The antipasta varied from skimpy to vast, varied, imaginative, and excellent. The local prosciutto was excellent and served at most meals. The pasta course was always generous and delicious and was usually served with the wonderful local parmesana reggiano. The meat course was occasionally excellent, but often barren and average. Sometimes it included salad and/or one or more vegetables, and these were all variable in quantity and quality. Desserts varied from skimpy to excellent. I can say the pizza was always excellent; the crust is thin and the coverings are varied and very good. Breakfasts were usually bread and coffee. I didn't care for either Capucino or Expresso, although others thrived on them. Occasionally the bread was good, but more often it was dry or even pre-packaged. Sometimes we had cereal, yogurt, and/or fruit.
Thu, Apr 15 to Sat, Apr 17 — San Miniato
We came down out of the Appenines into Pistoia and stopped to look around town in the afternoon. I rode 50 km down to San Miniato, a hilltop town at the transition from the Arno River Valley into Tuscany. Our hotel for two nights was a converted convent, and we had a pleasant room overlooking the plain below. We were on our own for dinner, so we explored the small village and enjoyed two delicious dinners—one in a very nice restaurant and a delicious pizza and salad in another. It was refreshing to occasionally get away from the long (2 to 3 hour) 4-course dinners.
Friday was questionable weather, but I rode two hours up a busy road to see Lucca—a delightful town relatively ignored by tourists. It was well worth it, even though it started raining after my visit and I had to ride two hours back on the busy wet road. I had wanted to ride back via Pisa, but not in that weather. On the way back I lost the jockey wheel on my derailler and had to limp back with only a few middle gears. Lyn went to Lucca by bus and train with Alan and Teri and visited the sites in the rain. They also saw the “leaning tower” as they rode through Pisa on the train.
Sat, Apr 17 to Sun, Apr 25 — TUSCANY
Left San Miniato driving in rain and clouds. There must have been views, but we couldn't see them. After a couple of hours, the clouds lifted, the sun started to peek through, and we looked across the valley and hills to the towers of San Gimignano. Not only did Laurenz watch the van and bikes as we walked around town, he also fixed my jockey wheel so I could ride that afternoon. All of us took our first ride in glorious Tuscany, and Laurenz scooped us up at different points before the heavy rain returned in the late afternoon.
We stayed this week in our own apartments in the hilltop town of Pentolina, 20 km southwest of Siena. In 1850 the Duke of Scarpa (?) bought this whole town and several thousand acres to use as a hunting lodge for his family and friends. He maintained it as a self-sufficient share-cropping village; residents kept half what they produced and gave half to the duke to sell or use. Around 1990 the current Duke's family was no longer able to maintain the declining village, and they sold it to Hapimag—a Swiss vacation development company who restored the entire village. It is now gorgeous—historic on the outside and modern on the inside. We each had our own studio apartment, and it was good to get a little separation for a week and cook our own meals.
Our apartment was in the former stable, where they used to breed pheasant, wild boars, and other animals for hunting. We had views in several directions over the valleys and surrounding hills. There was swimming, tennis, etc, restaurant, and a store where we could buy ready-to-cook stuff and fill our wine bottles from a barrel for $2. Saturday night was a magnificent welcoming buffet in the restaurant, and Thursday night was pizza night at the old ovens—where the host insisted on finding an English-speaking table for us.
Some days Lauenz (understandably!) just wanted to leave the van in the lot, and we rode or hiked from Pentolina. We spent one whole day in Siena, and just scratched the surface. Another cloudy/rainy day we took the van to explore the abbey at Abbadia Isola, Monteriggioni, and Colle di Val d'Elsa. One beautiful day we drove to Castellina and rode around the Chiant region between Sienna and Florence.
The last day we rode to Volterra and on to another hillside agroturismo in Castel San Gimignano. We had dinner in a huge main hall at a long table with the extended family. They would take turns getting up to wait on us. The excellent meal was served with lots of wine in unmarked bottles. I was disappointed when they only brought a basket of bischotti for dessert, but then they brought unlabelled bottles of vino santo (a sweet dessert wine) and explained that we should dip our bischotti. I quickly forgave them! Then they brought unmarked bottles of grappa!
Sun, Apr 25 to Fri, Apr 30 — APPENINES
After achieving miles in the van and enjoying a sunny lunch and stroll around the beautiful hilltop town of Montecatini, some of us hopped on the bikes for a gorgeous ride up the steep northern slopes of the Appenines. It was quite chilly as we crested the pass and screamed down the valley to our hotel in the steep valley in Pracchia. Before dinner we visited the local iron museum and learned how they used the water power and local wood to process iron—until the forests ran out of wood!
Monday we were on the northern fingers and riding through beautiful valleys and over the fingers to work our way northwest. At lunch it was cool and cloudy, and Laurenz found a restaurant with an old man making huge thin sampanelli (crepes) on an old stove. The room was warm and the crepes, some filled with wild boar sausage and some with Nutella, were delicious.
The rest of the week was more exploring over fingers and along ridges and valleys in the northern foothills. The weather was consistently better, and we did lots of riding. After we all had a great ride Thursday morning—and the ladies got caught in a shower—we drove the van into Piacenza to walk around in the rain, see the churches and sights, and enjoy another great pizza dinner.
Fri, Apr 30 to Mon, May 3 — The End
Friday was showery, so we drove to Certosa di Pavia. It is one of the most extravagant monasteries in Europe—ironic, since the monks took vows of poverty. The facade was especially intricate and memorable. Since we didn't have far to drive, we stopped off at the monastery at Morimondo and walked around. Finally back to Cascina Caremma for our last night (as well as first night) in Italy for another slow delicious dinner.
Saturday we abandoned the quiet back roads for the main highway back to Basel. We stopped in Avegno to pick up some stuff and stretch our legs, and then a quick drive through the Gothard tunnel and back. Sunday was a gorgeous day, and we all took a delightful easy morning ride together into the French countryside around Basel. Brian left for home at noon, while Bob, Lyn, and I took another ride after lunch—a great way to finish up a great trip.
P.S. The last few days I was bothered with diarrhea. It was unpleasant, but not debilitating. I still rode, but meals were less enjoyable. Immodium made the flight home doable. After a few more days at home, I decided I needed to see the doctor; and after a few more days the lab diagnosed it as Giardia. Antibiotics finally cleared it up very quickly.
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