After our three days in Venice, it was time to get back on the road. It’s funny in a way that we get a little restless when we’ve been somewhere for two or three days. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s the freedom of the open road that we miss. Perhaps we’ve really become bicycle nomads. It has been our life for the last five months.
There was no plan after Venice, other than we wanted to end up in Ancona to take a ferry to Croatia. We kicked around various destinations along the way: Bologna, Florence, San Marino and finally settled on heading to Ravenna first and then sort out something else.
Camping was becoming more challenging since most campsites in Italy close in September. Finding out which ones were open was not easy, especially without internet connections. Even then, most of the sites did not clearly list a closing date, so, we were never really sure if the campeggio was open or not until we arrived. And sometimes they were locked up but with a phone call the owner would appear like a genie from an empty grappa bottle, and presto!, we would have a home for the night.
We headed south along the islands of Lido and Pellestrina towards Chioggia at the south end of Laguna Veneza. Easy cycling. Flat as a pancake. And completely deserted. All the hotels and resorts were boarded up for the winter. Shops were closed and there were hardly any people around other than workers doing maintenance on gardens and buildings. It reminded me of the movie Quiet Earth in which the main character wakes up to find he is alone on the planet. This quiet coast was the antithesis of Venice.
We headed to where a camp site was supposed to be open but found it was closed. After some inquiries, we were directed back towards Chioggia. We basically did a big loop cycling south of Chioggia ending up at a nearly closed campeggio at a marina at the mouth of the Adige River.
We arrived in near darkness but we got our tents up quickly and found a table and some chairs that we appropriated for the night and got our dinner on the go. There was a bathroom and showers, so, we were set for the night.
We carried on along the Quiet Coast through the Po Delta Nature Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest nature reserve in the Emilia Romagna region. Beautiful scenery through woodlands and along small waterways made for a lovely day. The occasional small town provided us with coffee and baked goods and the opportunity to buy some food for lunch and dinner.
We ended up near Comacchio at Camping Ancora, the only one open along that stretch of coast. It is a full-on Euro camping with stores and restaurants and all kinds of entertainment possibilities which were mostly closed. The store was open but had very little in it. The facilities included private bathrooms with showers and the price was hard to beat: 16 euros for the four of us. By far the cheapest place we’ve camped since Germany.
After a couple of days cycling through the boarded up resort towns, we had really had enough. It was boring. The cycling was nice enough but without any people around and all these quiet towns, Italy was quickly losing its appeal. Ravenna was a welcome change.
It is known for its early Christian mosaics and together, they form a UNESCO world heritage site. Ravenna is the capital of Emilia Romagna and was the capital of the western Roman Empire from 402 until its collapse in 476 and eventually formed part of the Byzantine Empire until the 8th century.
There are a total of eight buildings with a unique collection of early Christian mosaics. We toured five of them on a single ticket. The detailed artistry of the mosaics, as well as the buildings themselves, are quite amazing. Many of the icons represent familiar Christian themes, depicting Jesus and the apostles, the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist as well as the Trinity. It’s amazing to see these mosaics and think about the work that went into them all those centuries ago.
For two nights, we stayed at Ostello Dante. Yes, that Dante, the 13th century author of the Divine Comedy, who was banished to Ravenna and died there. Dante was involved in Florentine politics and found himself at the wrong end of an argument and was exiled from Florence and eventually sentenced to death. However, he found safe havens in Verona and eventually Ravenna where he finished his Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy. He died of Malaria in 1321 and was buried at Church of San Pier Maggiore.
We continued south from Ravenna along the Quiet Coast having decided not to tackle the Apennine Mountains by going to Florence. Our two companions, Ivona and Gary, are respectively 17 and 12 years older than we are and we did not want to injure, maim or otherwise cripple them by tackling those steep slopes. It would have been difficult enough for the two of us with five months of riding under our butts. Ivona and Gary are great cyclists and I hope I can still ride like that in another 15 years. Florence will have to wait for another time.
However, we did decide to get into the lower slopes of those mountains by going to the Republic of San Marino and away from the boarded up Adriatic coast line. We rode south to Cesenatico, the town where cyclist Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, began his cycling career. He was the last cyclist to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year, 1998. Even though he never tested positive for doping, in 1999 he was expelled from the Giro due to irregular blood values and did not race in the Tour de France that year, won by Lance Armstrong, the first of his seven consecutive wins, now expunged from the records.
Pantani came back to race the Tour de France in 2000 to challenge Lance Armstrong but was not up to the task. He raced sporadically from 2001-02 and made a come-back in 2003, finishing 14th overall in the Giro. After all the doping accusations, Pantani went into a depression from which he did not recover and died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. A sad end. It made me wonder, though, if there will ever be a statue for Lance Armstrong. Sadly, his achievements have been wiped off the record books, yet, all the others such as Jann Ullrich have had their records remain intact, even though they were confirmed dopers. However, I digress. The point was the statue – a nice piece of art in memory of a very skilled cyclist, despite his flaws and the accusations.
From Cesenatico we turned inland, finally away from the Quiet Coast, toward the Republic of San Marino, a small independent city state within Italy. It is visible for miles around as it’s perched atop Monte Titano at 755 meters above sea level, the highest mountain in that region.
Along the way, we crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return. It wasn’t quite like when Julius Caesar crossed it with his army nearly 2,000 years ago, starting a civil war in the Roman Empire, but there was no going back.
It was quite a climb up to the camp site with short stretches of 12 % climbs. Ivona and Gary tackled them like champions. Thankfully, the camp site in San Marino was open because accommodation in this small country would have been expensive.
Getting there, it reminded me of yet another movie: The Mouse that Roared, with Peter Sellers, in which the tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick is threatened economically by the United States and the Prime Minister, played by Sellers, decides the only course of action is to declare war on the United States. It’s a very funny movie, with Sellers at his best, playing three roles.
San Marino is the capital of this tiny country and known for its steep cobble stone streets and the three towers that were built to protect it. It was founded by Saint Marinus with a few Christian refugees early in the fourth century and quickly became a refuge for Christians fleeing persecution in the Roman empire. And so it became the oldest surviving republic in Europe.
We spent a full day in the capital of San Marino hiking up and down the steep streets. Thankfully, we didn’t have to cycle up there, courtesy of the campground’s shuttle bus service for which we arrived an hour early as, unbeknownst to us, Europe switched back to Standard Time overnight, a week earlier than North America. But it was a lovely, sunny day so we just sat enjoying the sunshine.
The mainstay of San Marino’s economy is tourism and the more than 1,000 retail outlets, mostly located outside of the capital in Borgo Maggiore. Up to 3 million visitors, mostly Italian tourists, visit the city with a population of less than 5,000. The towers are a major draw. The first, the Guaita, was built in the 11th century. The Cesta, or second tower, was built in the 13th century and the Montale in the 14th century. It’s a great walk from one to the other with gorgeous views down on to the coastal plain to Rimini in the east and to the west, the hills that eventually become the Apennine Mountains.
From San Marino we stayed in the hills, away from the coast, and rode to where we had found another open camp site near Urbino, crossing from Emilia Romagna into Marche region. The ride was truly a beautiful one through rolling hills. The climb up from the camp site was a steep one, but not very long, followed by a great 6-kilometre-long downhill run into Mercatino.
From there we climbed back up on the other side of the valley in two stages, both about 3 KM long at seven per cent with a magnificent view back to San Marino and Monte Titano when we arrived at the summit.
There, we had lunch and paused to remember Zarah, whose 11th birthday it would have been that day (see first post). It was a sad moment but also a happy one as we remembered a great little girl in a place surrounded by castles she would have loved.
We flew downhill from there for 12 kilometers to Ca’ Gallo and began the climb up to Urbino and our campsite just out of town. We had kind of dawdled along the way so it was late when we arrived in Urbino and completely dark by the time we arrived at the camp site gate which was closed. A woman living in the house across the street was not very helpful and seemed pissed off that we made her little dog bark. There was a phone number on the gate so we called and the owner said he would come and open up.
He magically appeared a while later and opened the gate. No hot water but a place to camp for a mere 10 euros per person. A bit steep for a flat spot to put your tent but beggars can’t be choosers. We “borrowed” some chairs from a nearby cabin so we at least were able to sit in the bathroom where we made and ate our dinner. Yet another day on the road. Doesn’t it look like fun? We think so.
Urbino is another hilltop city. Steep doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s a beautiful, old city that still largely retains its 15th century look. It was the home of Raphael, one of the great Renaissance painters. When we cycled into town up its steep streets we decided to stay and found a cheap but nice hotel to spend a night.
We dumped the bikes and gear and wandered around this enchanting little city. We had a wonderful dinner in a small, out of the way restaurant and when we wandered back through the main square, the place was alive with young people sitting around smoking and drinking. This is a university town.
We headed back to the coast coasting about 5 KM downhill along a major road to the small town of Trasanni where we began a short section of cycling torture: a climb of 1.5 KM with a gradient of 12-16 per cent. It was a hard, little ramp to climb and at the limit of my abilities but it proved too much for my three amigos who were forced to push their bikes up the steep switchbacks.
Personally, I think there is only one thing worse than riding up a very steep slope, and that is pushing your bike up that slope. But sometimes the road is just too steep and pushing is the only way. I was obliged to walk down and help with the pushing as it was my choice to ride this route.
Once up, though, the riding was lovely with nice views of the surrounding countryside as we headed east and down back toward the Adriatic coast and the city of Pesaro where we had booked a hotel as all the camp sites around were closed. Unfortunately, the fog rolled in part-way through the day and the views were lost.
Still, we pushed on to the Strado Panoramica Adriatica, a road along the sea-side cliffs between Cattolica and Pesaro. It’s a popular route with cyclists, mostly middle-aged men in multi-coloured lycra on very expensive race bikes, also known as MAMILS. The looks on their faces was usually one of astonishment as they rode toward or past us. Many of them, however, greeted us with an enthusiastic “BRAVI! BRAVI!” but I’m sure most of them thought we are nuts to ride up these slopes with our heavy bikes.
The hotel in Pesaro was under construction and we could not stay there, despite a confirmed reservation through Booking.com. The owner of the hotel, a short, portly woman greeted us enthusiastically and thought what we were doing was great. She apologized profusely and said we could stay at her brother’s hotel down the street but that the room for four we had reserved wasn’t available in that hotel. So, for only another 40 euros we could have another room so each couple could have its own room.
The budget room for 37.50 euros per couple had now become two rooms for 57.50 each. Not so budget any longer. But what are you going to do when you know, and they know, that there just aren’t many options at that point. We took the second room for an additional 40 euros, however, a complaint process has been set in motion with Booking.com. We’ll see what happens with that. Our stay there was comfortable enough although the bathroom tile work would have been enough to send one over the edge if one spent enough time in there.
We found a great little restaurant where we dined on lovely local fare and headed back to the hotel to sleep. It had been a couple of tough cycling days in the hills as our time in Italy was coming to a close.
The next day we cycled into the port city of Ancona for a date with a ferry that would take us across the Adriatic to Split, Croatia. On our last day cycling in Italy, Jan and I passed the 8,000-kilometre mark of our journey. What a great ride it’s been through Italy. Three weeks of good coffee, good food and the good company of our friends Ivona and Gary. I hope we haven’t damaged them too much.
Grazie, Italia! E grazie Ivona e Gary!
- San Marino rejects EU membership (worldbulletin.net)