Crossing Italy – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Northern Italy was chalk full of extreme highs and lows for our trip.  Some of the places we have visited were undeniably romantic and incredible, but overall, the cycling journey was slow and arduous.  It was definitely the country least friendly to cyclists so far, with free camping opportunities limited, paid camp opportunities expensive (Italians glamp like we’ve never seen before), busy roads with crazy drivers, limited opportunities to speak to locals (no English), badgering cops (I think berating touring cyclists is a game for them), slow, expensive and hard to access WiFi (thus the delay on blog posts), picnic spots always in jeopardy from soccer balls, some spooky and slimy experiences, and an extremely dull landscape full of sprawling industrial and agricultural development.  Still, if we hadn’t gone to Italy, we wouldn’t have witnessed the rainbow over Lake Como, viewed a few of Italy’s magnificent cathedrals, or camped in castle ruins overlooking the City of Verona so I hope to eventually look back on Italy fondly, even if I NEVER want to cycle it again.  This post is going to be a longer one, so I will divide it into chapters,

Chapter 1: Cycling out of Milan

From Milan, Kyle and I cycle northward again towards Brescia and another lake surrounded in mountains.  Originally, we had been tempted to go southward towards the coast, but our host in Milan insisted that north was a better route with more hills and less flat.  Happy to see more lakes with mountains after Lake Como, Kyle and I decide to take his advice.

Our first day north, we experience another round of bike trip synchronicity, even if we don’t necessarily appreciate it at the time.  In a town next to Flume Adda, we find a water spigot in a town park and decide to break for dinner.  Setting up on a patch of shaded ground far away from park activity, we start boiling water for rice and chop veggies.  Shortly after putting the rice into the pot, a group of boys begin a game of soccer in the grass next to us.  After a couple close calls with the soccer ball, I tell Kyle we better move or risk the stove getting bombed with it.  Yes, perhaps we could have communicated to the boys that soccer is not a good idea next to a camp stove with some angry gesturing and disapproving facial expressions, but angering parents that only know Italian while we know zilch did not seem like a good idea, so we start packing up our things.  A second later, Kyle is squirting water from a water bottle onto a scalded knee and telling me we might need to visit a doctor’s clinic somewhere.  I tell him to go run water over it from the spigot, the most important way to treat a burn early, then taking over the task of moving our stuff across the park to an empty bench.  I am a little worried; a severe burn on the knee while biking 50 miles a day does not seem like a good thing, but there is no doctor in town, nor an accommodation for the night.  We are going to need to wild camp, and close, not an easy thing to do in Northern Italy where there are very few wild and secluded places left.  However, I am happy to discover (with the aid of Pocket Earth) that a trail just a little ways down a back road leads to flat, secluded land right next to a very beautiful fork in the river.  Kyle returns and his knee is only red, not the feared white and blistered, so we decide a doctor isn’t necessary, just rest.  The next morning the knee is fine and we get away with our first of only two free camping nights in Italy.  I can’t help but think that if Kyle had not burned his knee, we would have kept going and found ourselves in an area with no hotels or places to camp, so once again, I feel as if things were just meant to be.

Chapter 2: Glamping Takes the Sting Out of the Day

The next day we make it to the second of three lakes we visit, but not before I am hassled by police outside a supermarket for leaning our loaded bikes against the wall out front.  A woman officer insists that I park them in the bicycle parking spaces – spaces not suitable for touring bikes because if they fall over the wheel will be irrevocably damaged.  I explain with simple English and gesturing that the bags are the issue and that the bikes are too heavy, but she keeps angrily pointing, so I turn to the more reasonable one (there are two ganging up on me) and suggest I park them around the corner.  He at first seems fine with the idea, but follows me as I move them so he can yell at me for not going far enough.  CRAZY!  Well we cycle out of that town in a hurry, catching up with the route that will take us to the lake and then on to Brescia.  After cycling through charming vineyards and past a nice castle on a hill, Kyle starts having trouble following the route signs so we get lost several times around expressways and sprawling development before finding our route again next to a river that unnecessarily has us going down and then cycling up massive hills.  At this point I realize I have been contaminated by gluten in Milan where we ate out with our host at an Italian restaurant where they had gluten free pasta, but I couldn’t understand a word of the conversation.  This contamination will affect my energy levels and cause other issues, haunting me through most of Italy before finally dissipating.

Arriving at the very touristy and developed Lake Iseo, we check out several campgrounds, each asking for $40 a night, before we come to one priced at only $27 (our cheapest campground of the trip).  As it turns out, Italians love to glamp, viewing camping as a cheap way to have full access to a pool (or several), bar, tennis courts, volleyball, beaches, lakes, and in some cases, disco night.  Campgrounds compete with one another based on these amenities, making it a terrible situation for two poor cyclists that want to just cycle in late and roll out early.  Choosing to embrace it, since it was in fact our only option, Kyle and I try to check into campgrounds earlier in the day during the trip so we can enjoy all resort life has to offer (I mean, we did have to pay for it).

  • Lake Iseo
  • Lake Iseo
  • Lake Iseo
  • Glamping it up.

Chapter 3: Enchanting Verona

After encountering our first breathtaking cathedral in Brescia, another gorgeous big lake (Lake Garda), and another police officer outside a supermarket (this time taking issue with me laying down next to the bikes), Kyle and I cycle into Verona fairly early in the afternoon.  Having no idea what to expect from the city’s only campground, only that it was on a hill, it comes as a pleasant shock to discover we are to camp in the ruins of Castle Pietro with an incredible view of the city.  I mean, this place is cool!  You have to cycle to the top and then go down into the ruins, whereupon you encounter many different compartments covered by tree canopies, grape vines and party lights.  It is like living in a treehouse like the Swiss Family Robinson only better – because you are in a castle.  Everything is so romantic and the bar has a lovely chilled white wine for sale at $1.50 a glass.  Kyle and I hang out for a while, waiting for the intensity of the sun to simmer down, then we head into the city, first stopping at an overlook that gives you a full panoramic view of what is an absolutely beautiful old city.  After wandering around for a bit, taking a look at the old arena and paying our respects to the home of Juliet out of Romeo and Juliet, Kyle and I head back up the hill to our castle just in time for the sun to set.  The next morning we roll out early so we can declare our love for one another on the walls of Juliet’s home (the night before we had no marker) – Kyle & Robyn, 2015.

  • Adige River through Verona
  • Ponte Pietra, a famous Roman bridge crossing the Adige River in Verona.
  • View from Castle Pietro.
  • Castle Pietro
  • Castle Pietro
  • Grape vines covering the campsite.
  • Can you find a tent?
  • Coming down from our hill.
  • Juliet's house.
  • I swear Italy is in cahoots with Disney.
  • Us in front of our castle.
  • Castle Pietro

Chapter 4: Just When You Get a Little Bored, Things Get Interesting

The next day, boredom sets in as we cycle through more sprawling development, so we play some tunes.  Almost instantly we are climbing a major hill to the beat of Ed Sheeran’s Sing!  A thumbs up sign greets me at the top, courtesy of a gentleman resting on a bench.  I flush a little cycling past because the lyrics are getting a little racy, but he just grins.  Before long we are flying down a mountain with a beautiful view of a valley, past a town encased in the walls of a castle, and up another major mountain pass, this time in the Dolomites.  At the top, we encounter some fellow cyclists from the Northeast, including a Buffalonian!  They love that we are doing this trip, hoping that we will take what we see back with us to The States and into planning practice.  One reminisces over the time he sailed to all the way to Venezuela in his youth, an experience he’ll always remember, a journey that put his mind in the right place for the next chapter.  Another remembers five years in his 20s working all over Europe.  The next morning we run into them again on the road, twice, before their group finally cycles a different route – that day was pretty boring aside from our exploration of Padua, so I will skip forward to Venice, the nightmare from hell.

  • Going up!
  • We meet our friends at the top.
  • View of Vicenza.
  • Vicenza
  • Vicenza
  • Vicenza
  • The next day we visit a market.
  • The owner is very excited we are going to Istanbul. Another man gives us apricots as we are leaving. Friendly people in this town!
  • We stop and picnic hear, watching our friends from the Northeast cycle on by.
  • Padua
  • Padua
  • Padua
  • Padua
  • Padua
  • Padua
  • Duomo di Padova - We never feel right taking photos inside, but please do note that the inside is beyond spectacular.

Chapter 5: Venice, the Nightmare from Hell

Early in the morning we set out for the city – we are only about 10 miles out, but directions are hopelessly confusing so at first we believe we made a wrong turn when we turn right and encounter a busy, narrow highway overpass.  We stop to ask for directions from a ferry worker who tells us “Go left, over the pass, and straight.  It’s okay for bikes.”  He is set on repeat; we try to get some other information but the same message comes out every time.  Hesitantly I cycle forward and nearly get creamed just taking the first left onto the overpass.  Right after it, a bus zooms past, about a centimeter away from me and my bicycle.  Heart pounding, I pull over to the side of the road to regroup and gulp down some water.  Luckily, we discover that this is where the bridge begins, with a bike path on the other side of the guardrail.  We get most of the way across the bridge before we run into another obstacle – a construction zone blocking the bike lane on our side of the guardrail.  At this point we have to unload all of our bags from our bikes and reassemble on the other side.  The view during all this isn’t so pretty.  Regretting our decision to follow the bike route to Venice, we finally make our way past the bridge and hop up on the sidewalk to protect ourselves from bumper to bumper traffic (mostly big vehicles), a common practice in Italy.  I don’t even have a chance to catch my breath from our terrifying trip before a cop is dressing us down in Italian for riding on the sidewalk.  I mean, we were barely riding, just standing over our bikes and he continues yelling at us even after Kyle dismounts and I immediately take my bike off the curb.  At this point, both of us already hate the city without yet having seen it.  This is the moment we realize – we can’t wait to get the hell out of Italy!

We quickly realize that Venice is not accessible to bikes – at all.  We manage to get over one bridge and then stop for lunch in a park.  I suggest that we go into the city one at a time, just to look around.  Little did I know that Venice is a maze filled to the brim with lost tourists rolling around their suitcases.  I quickly get lost myself after making my way to the center, horrified that the romantic gondolas from the movies are 80 euro and that a huge advertisement for Diesel spans the main bridge over the central canal.  Little stands selling tourist junk are everywhere and no one really seems to live anywhere.  I get the distinct impression that I am in a Disney theme park; just five minutes later I am therefore not at all surprised when I see The Disney Store.  Anyway, I am horribly lost at this point, in 100 degree heat, with no phone and no map, just wandering in the direction where I think Kyle is still waiting for our bikes.  An hour later, I finally make it over a big bridge and see the park.  Two more bridges later, I am hugging Kyle and sinking down onto our picnic mat in sheer exhaustion.  Kyle doesn’t even want to go in, so we start trying to figure out the ferry situation.  A couple of hours later and many wrong turns and closed tourism offices, we make it onto a ferry that takes us to an island where we then have to make another connection.  On that island is just one campsite, in a swamp, filled with mosquitoes, very little in the way of extras, but still 30 euro.  We don’t care – we just need to sleep.

  • This is the only was into Venice.
  • And this is the view.
  • We literally had to unpack our bikes, move them over the rail, and repack them again - and this is an official bike route!
  • It IS a beautiful city though.
  • Lots and lots of tourists.
  • These gondola rides cost 80 euro!
  • I am convinced Disney bought out Italy's old cities and turned them into theme parks.
  • View from our ferry.
  • The next day, we take this passenger ferry to mainland Italy, thankfully getting out of our swampy campground. The ride is beautiful!

Sunshine the next day puts me in a better mood as we board another ferry, this time a passenger ferry, and ride over to an agglomeration of campsites on a beach facing the Adriatic sea.  I need a break, so we agree to find a beach resort and just relax for the day – which is just what we do!

Chapter 6: Robyn Gets Spooked

Our last night in Italy is the most terrifying night of the trip for me.  After running into dirt roads not suitable for our bikes, we take a detour that puts us in a place with no accommodations at a time when the sun is swiftly descending, nightfall impending.  We look for a free camping spot, discovering a patch of grass way back into a tree farm with no residences around.  For a moment we panic as a truck comes into the drive, but it turns around and leaves, making us wonder if we are in a popular teenage hideout.  After a while we go to sleep, but at around 1:30 AM at night, I wake up, thinking I am hearing footsteps going around our tent and stopping.  Imagining all kinds of horrors – serial killers, muggers, terrorists, rapists, etc., I wake Kyle and we sit up for an hour, just listening and peeking out under the rain fly.  Eventually, we agree that it must have been an animal; we believe there is something living in a pile of leaves next to the tent.  Kyle drifts off, but I lay awake all night, listening and waiting, my heart pounding and my whole body trembling.  I have never been so spooked and this is the first time I’ve really been scared like this on the trip.  The next morning, we realize we were attacked by something – SLUGS.  They are all over the tent, on our bags, on our bikes, and one even made it into my coffee mug, through the lid!

Chapter 7: Goodbye Italy and Hello Eastern Europe!

Our last day in Italy treats us well, supplying us with a nice ride, kind McDonald’s workers that recharge Kyle’s phone behind the counter, and another friend (see people profiles).  As we ride into The Alps of Slovenia, entering into Soca Valley and awing over the turquoise color of Soca River, we say goodbye to Italy as excitement mounts for the next part of our trip – Eastern Europe!

  • Udine
  • Udine
  • Udine
  • Udine
  • The view from Udine's mountain.
  • Kyle is excited to see mountains again.
  • Italy's former border control center, now abandoned.

Final Thoughts

I have been going back and forth in my head about Italy – why did it leave us with such a bad taste in our mouths?  We had some amazing experiences there and met nice people on the road, but for most of it we couldn’t wait to get out.  I believe one part of it was the perceived lack of freedom.  We could not go anywhere without being hassled by police, there was no place to put a tent or even a basic accommodation (other than glamping), and hardly a spot beside the road to take a nature break.  As I was telling Kyle, “It is like living in a gilded cage that you have to pay for.”  Aside from feeling restricted, we also had the observation that many of Italy’s ancient cities are now dead, transformed into theme parks for tourists.  The Disney characters and stores only exacerbated that feeling.  Elsewhere in Europe, we had visited historical cities brimming with life, modernized where necessary, but still nicely preserved, creating a highly livable environment for residents and an authentic experience for travelers.  Cities in Italy, on the other hand, had the stale, two dimensional feeling of an old museum, preserved only for the tourism dollars.  It will be interesting to see what comes of the country’s sacred places over time.  For now, we are just happy to move onto the next adventure!

1 Comment

  1. Diane Keefe

    Hi Robyn and Kyle:

    I travelled to Italy in my early 20’s and I could not wait to leave Italy either. Especially Rome where I left preyed upon. I also got the feeling they were living in the past and not able to move forward.

    You two look buff! Wow! Can’t wait to hear about the eastern European part. Be aware of all the unrest around Budapest with the refugees trying to pour over the borders. Will you be staying with any warm showers hosts? Sounds like you did not have many hosts in Italy.

    Mom xoxo

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