Northern Italy – May/June 2002
May weather is variable. The roads are narrow but back roads (often one lane) are good. Scenery along the quiet sides of Lake Maggiore and Lake Como is brilliant. Excellent maps are a big help to find the back roads. Along the mountains in Veneto is beautiful but the plains are boring. The area between Bergamo and Verona to the south is great biking. There’s a gravel bike path from Peschiaro on Lago Garda south to Mantova busy with families biking on weekends. Also, you can follow signed bike routes on the back roads from town to town in this area. In Veneto around Asolo, Follina and Bassano there is excellent biking.
Other biker comments.
The trip from Trento down south is in the valley near the Auto Strada. It’s reported to be excellent. The road along the south of Lake Garda is reported to be poor biking.
Tuscany & Umbria – May/June 1999 & 1997
Originally, we rated Tuscany and Umbria and Northern Italy separately but for the sake of consistency, we have combined them for an overall ranting for Italy. Tuscany and Umbria, a great biking area, would be ranked #4 with a total of 111 criteria points. Northern Italy would have been #9 with a total of 102 criteria points. A future trip will take us to Sicily and we’ll have to average that destined in also. There is a separate report on each of the areas we’ve visited in Italy.
There is an incredible amount of information on biking in Tuscany and Umbria, but the reality is that armed with good local maps you can make it up as you go. Granted that you will do plenty of climbing and your progress will be slower because of it, but there are plenty of quaint hill towns to stay in. This is picture postcard Italy. There are plenty of tourists but it’s a large area so it’s not overrun. It’s a great place to just wonder around on a bike. This is a place we will return again and again.
How We Rate This Trip
Tuscany rating 7.
There’s a lot of terrain so the roads offer lots of climbs and descents. The roads are always well surfaced in Tusccany.
Northern Italy rating 6.
In Northern Italy the roads are too narrow, otherwise excellent. Best were single lane roads. They are well maintained. On any road the traffic moves fast.
Tuscany rating 6.
There is very little industry here so there are few trucks on the roads. Although you have to deal with more hills on the back roads, that is the way to go for tranquility and beauty in Tuscany.
Northern Italy rating 4.
In Northern Italy traffic is a problem. It’s generally heavy on any thru highway. However, Italians are excellent and fast drivers. Driving is a sport. There are lots of bikers on the road and drivers are used to dealing with them. A great break from heavy traffic is to ride on Sunday especially before noon. Sunday is a great day to leave a big city. It’s very quiet. At noon, weekdays, the traffic is manic.(Shops close noon to 3PM) It’s a great time to take a break.
Tuscany rating 6.
In the Spring, the weather is variable. The days are sunny and the nights are cool in Tuscany.
Northern Italy rating 4.
In Northern Italy in the spring the weather is variable.
Tuscany rating 5.
The wind is usually out of the west or south, but they are fickle. They can come from any direction and at various strengths. You have to get lucky for a tailwind in Tuscany.
Northern Italy rating 4.
In Northern Italy the wind is usually out of the west or south but they are variable. They can come from any direction and at various strengths. You have to get lucky for a tailwind.
Tuscany rating 8.
These are the picture postcard hill towns of Italy. The country side is gorgeous. The hills allow you the grand vistas of the hill towns and the picturesque small farms of Tuscany.
Northern Italy rating 7.
In Northern Italy the scenery along the lakes Maggiori, Como and Lugano was spectacular. In the heart of Veneto Region it’s beautiful. But on the plains, it was often boring and sometimes there was unexpected industrial sprawl (especially between Verona and Vincenza.)
Tuscany rating 8.
All the bike tours come through Tuscany. We used the tour maps of Italiano Classico Touring Company. We had friends who kept them after they took this trip. Very detailed maps are essential to find the backroads. It’s especially helpful to get a map that marks the scenic routes. Even the local tourist bureaus have very good maps. There are also lots of biking guide books.
Northern Italy rating 7.
In Northern Italy district maps with bicycle routes are often available. Often the bike routes were poor. Stay on the minor roads. Often the tourist office maps were great for finding minor single lane roads. There are a lot of Italian studs on bikes but their information is poor since they only want to go fast and don’t care if there is traffic.
Road Safety: 6
District maps with bicycle routes are often available. Often the bike routes were poor. Stay on the minor roads. Often the tourist office maps were great for finding minor single lane roads. There are a lot of Italian studs on bikes but their information is poor since they only want to go fast and don’t care if there is traffic.
General Safety: 7
Ratings the same. We had no problems but in the larger cities there are some issues.
Ratings the same. The excellent food, which can be found by consulting the locals is reasonably priced. Picnics are great with a stop at the baker and butcher. The house wine, usually by carafe, is always good value. Osterias are cheaper but poor quality compared to the Trattorias or Pizzerias. Lodging (usually 2 or 3 star) is expensive in the major tourist areas for the services offered. In small towns hotels are less expensive and better quality.
Ratings the same. The many bars along the route always cheerfully filled our water bottles. You can find excellent house red wines and European beers available everywhere. Bottled water is common. The cappuccino is great.
Ratings the same. Picnics of local sausage, local cheese and fresh rolls for lunch were always quality. The restaurants were always fun, cozy and excellent Italian cuisine. The quality of the food is surpassed only by French cuisine.
Ratings the same. The Hotels (2 or 3 stars) vary in cost and quality. With the right guidebook you can find decent rooms at reasonable prices. Breakfast is usually a bad deal, so try to avoid it. You’re better off at the bar for a coffee and a croissant. The hostels are very good – we are told. Camping is often available.
Ratings the same. It should be higher, but the language is a struggle for us. They are very helpful and appreciate bikers. The people are friendly and colorful and if you speak Italian you would give this category a 10.
Ratings the same. There are architectural gems even in the smaller towns and great works of art are found in most churches.. The Italian way of life is intact from cloths, cars, gardens, food and great style.
Ratings the same. The middle ages are almost always observable. Roman antiquities are usually found in all cities. Ancient walled hill-top cities are remarkable.
TOTAL SCORE 106
Northern Italy TOTAL SCORE 102
Tuscany TOTAL SCORE 111
Route Descriptions and Maps
Northern Italy-May/June 2002
Melpensa Airport Milan to Lugano Switzerland
From Melpansa Terminal 1, toward Terminal 2 then left to Somma Lombardo (all narrow roads with traffic) continue left to Golasecca after castle 4 ks then to Sesto Calendre. From Sesto Calendre to Luino 50 Ks. ( Take side excursions toward lake when the main road doesn’t and then come back to main road.) There are some hills and heavy traffic to Angera. After Angera the traffic is lighter and great scenery. The road becomes very quiet except in towns (excellent) The 20 Ks are hilly to Lugano and start out busy to Ponte Tresa, then very busy to Lugano. (Alternate route climbs to Dumenza then to Astano and joins the main busy road after Ponte Tresa) No alternative road into Lugano until train station 6Ks before. Cross the tracks, and take a path, then a minor road, following signs. It’s very hilly.
Lugano to Bergamo
80 Ks plus
Follow road to Menaggio, 30 Ks, busy, timing is important, NOT ON WEEKENDS, narrow and beautiful. Before Porlezza do not take tunnel – alternative – old road to right for 1 K that goes around the tunnel. Steep 3 K down into Managgio on Lake Como. Then take a busy road 3 Ks to ferry landing for Bellagio. Bellagio to Lecco is 22 Ks. Climb out of Bellagio on a narrow quiet road. There are two tunnels, one 2.2 Ks and one 1.6 Ks. They are wide and well lit. Tunnels are just before Lecco. Lecco to Calolziocorte is 7 Ks of flat, busy and wide road. Either climb up to Torre Busi (long climb then down)or continue on busy uninteresting road to Cisano. Main road to Bergamo is bad but wide with bike lane.
Bergamo to Montichiari
80 – 90 Ks
Leave town going south following signs to Stezzano. This is a flat route. Keept to minor roads. Our route is Stezzajo, Ghisalba, Martinengo, Pontoglio to Chairi to Bagnolo Melta, Ghedi and into Montichiari.
Montichiari to Verona
80 Ks plus
Toward Lago Garda the road is too busy. Take a right to Esenta then to Castiglione, Solferino, Volta Mantorianci, Valeggio. This is good riding and you can follow bike signs from town to town on small roads (not even on map) keeping north of Villafranca. Finally into Verona on main road S62, busy, narrow but doable. There are wide well marked roads into the city center.
Verona to Vincenza
Very poor riding, lots of trucks and not very interesting. In Vincenza we were told everyone takes the train, it’s not worth biking. The last 8 Ks there is a great bike path from the south along a terrible busy narrow road into the heart of the Old Town. Vincenza is a bicycle friendly city.
Vincenza to Treviso by train
Treviso to Sacile
We took the train from Vincenza to Treviso. Easy riding in and out of Treviso. Very flat route but not a very interesting area. Follow from small town to town to where you cross the Piave River at Ponte di Piave on a busy main road. Cross east to Grassaghelle to Gorgo, flat and ok. Then follow small roads and map to Sacile. (We used a route description from Backroads Touring Company).
Sacile to Follina
60 Ks plus
Excellent ride, beautiful views, ridges and hills. One major climb from Sarmeda to Rugolo 2 Ks then a nice run along a ridge and big down to Vittorio. From Vittorio there are many ups and downs to Follina.
Follina to Bassano Del Grappa
< 90 Ks
This is a circuitous route but great. There are small hills to Montebelluna. Leave Montebelluna via Via Ospedale toward S. Andreas then take a right toward Vedelago. Cross the railroad tracks and to Madonna del Caravaggio. This small section of the route is not very interesting. The beauty starts with the climb of 3 Ks up to Asolo (you must book way in advance to stay here). From Asolo a steep down to Castelcucco then up to Paderno and Crespano. Then down all the way to Bassano Del Grappa on a wide busy road.
Bassano Del Grappa to Vincenza
50 Ks plus
Leave Bassano via the old bridge, Ponte degli Alpini to the stoplight, go right, then climb to Valrovina. Ride a beautiful ridge then down to Marostica . The main road to Berganze is not recommended, but we took it. Turn south at Berganze on minor roads toward Vincenza. Go thru Lupia and Crosara, cross the Motorway to Manticello Conte Otto, and take a left on a minor road to the outskirts of Vicenza. Turn right on the main road to the city center.
Vincenza to Verona by train
Verona to Cermona
Train to Vincenza. Go south from the train station thru Piazzale Portananvo to Azzago then Villafranca and a picturesque town on the Mincio river called Valeggio sul Mincio. (There is a gravel bike path that follows the river here going north to Peschiaro on Lago de Garda and south to Mantova.) Good scenery along the river. Cross the river at Valeggio sul Mincio . There is a small climb to Volta Mantovana, then flat, fast and boring (pray for a tail wind) to Cremona.
Cremona to Trevigliana (train to Milano)
Good minor roads between S234 and A1-E35 are great, single lane roads, not direct but great riding. Good ride, nice small towns, very little traffic, except some cross roads.
Trevigliana to Milano by train.
Train from Milano to Malpensa airport.
Umbria and Tuscany, Italy
Flew into Bologna and took the train to Fano.
Fano to Urbino
Short 48Ks, Long 80Ks
Via Bellandria under Superstrada to small village of Bellochi. After 11Ks, cross over Superstrada to junction at 14Ks Choice of routes. Till now flat. Short route through Calicnelli to Fossombrone. More flat. Long route through Piagge. Ups and downs on this route to Fossombrone. Gradual hills to Calmazzo . Go straight on SS73. 5Ks up into Urbino, 6% grades. Busy road.
Urbino to Fabriano
96Ks, extra loop adds 16Ks
Retrace route back to Calmazzo. 14Ks then right to Gola di Furlo. Then to Furlo through a short tunnel built by the Romans. Along a beautiful river valley. Flat or rolling. Then to Acqualagna (27Ks). Parallel to the Autostrada. Then town of Cagli (37Ks). Parallel to the Autostrada . There’s a short climb then left toward Frontone. little climb out of Frontone. Now a choice (1) right to speclaculor 16K extra loop through Forte Avellana, or (2) straight to Petrara. Together again at Serra Sant’ Abbondio. The extra loop is more climbing. The straight route is a gradual climb. From Serra San Abbondio a twisty downhill toward Sassferrato. Right to Fabriano at 72Ks. Beautiful small road. It’s 6Ks up and down to Fabriano.
Fabriano To Gubbio
Out then a 2K climb to Collegiglioni, great views then 6K descent. Curvy. (Side trip 1K into Grotte di Frasassi and back). T-junction at 24Ks. Left to Saddoferrato and then Graville. Easy 2% climbs on twisting road. To Isola Fossara and another T-junction Left. Very windy road to Scheggia, 43Ks. Go through town then up a winding 5Ks then steeper down. Then into Gubbio.
Gubbio to Assisi
Out of Gubbio to the little town of Cipoletto, 5Ks then at 7Ks to the left toward Padule. At 10Ks at a T-junction go right. Up hill for 2Ks steep then down for 4Ks. Up again to Col Palombo. Move up to Carbonesca. At 27Ks, descend. Another T-junction, right. Busier road down. To Valfabbrica, 37Ks. To Pianello, 44Ks. Left in town then to Palazza. Then the outskirts of Assisi. Finally up 2Ks into the center.
Assisi to Todi
Out of town in the direction of Foligno. A 2K climb then descend. At 13Ks, go over the Autostrada. To Cannara, 19Ks over the river and stay left to T-junction. Left to Bevagna, 28Ks. It’s an interesting town. Toward Montefalco, you come to a T-junction at 34Ks. Right. A long steady 3K climb. Good views. Through Bastardo, 60Ks. Continue along this road to the to the bottom of the Todi hill. 2Ks straight up (we walked) to town.
Todi to Orvieto
We took the gradual way down. Go over the bridge toward Orvieto then at 4Ks go right to Prodo A long steady 10K climb. Good views then down to the town of Prodo, 25Ks, attitude 394 meters. Out of Prodo down then up again to top at 29Ks in town of Prato. A 10K downhill. Follow signs to entro. Another climb to another hill town, Orvieto.
Orvieto to Pitigliano
Down out of town, then follow signs to Bolsena and start a 10K climb. Spectacular views. Top out at 16Ks. At 20Ks, right to Bolsena. Down to town of Bolsena at 27Ks. We took the loop around the south side of the lake. (the north shore route is 30Ks shorter). Along the lake south. Gradual climbs to Montefiascone. Then descend for 10Ks to Marta then into Capodimonte, 55Ks. Along lake to main road then stay right along the lake back to route #489, 72Ks. Left and climb for 8Ks past Gradoli then flattens out. On a beautiful ridge all the way to Pitigliano.
Pitigliano to Castel del Piano
A German biker showed us this route north. We followed his route to Pistoia. A long up hill out of Pitigliano. Through Elmo. 45Ks to San Fiora. Climb to Arcidosso. Then another 5Ks to Castel del Piano. Windy and cool day.
Castel del Piano to Siena
To Montalcino 30 Ks. Took small roads to the west of Highway 2. There was one long steep climb and then down to Siena. The route through Asciano is longer but better.
Siena to Siena
Day ride to Bosson, to Viscane. toward Chiat and back to Siena.
Siena to San Gimignano
Through Monteriggioni 18Ks, some ups and downs. Through Colle.
San Gimignano to Vinci
Long climb to start. Through Certaldo 15Ks, then down to cross the Arno River in Empoli on small roads 45Ks. Then back up to Vinci (the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci) on small roads again. It rained so we stopped short of Pistoia.
Vinci to Pistoia
Pistoia to Bologna by train
Bologna to Cremona by train
Cremona to Milano
We used a detailed map 1:80,000 of the provence which we bought in Cremona. We wandered into Milano. Lots of fun and flat.
We flew into Rome and after a harrowing day of riding out of the Rome Airport, we got a train to Ortebello.
Ortebello to Patigliano
76Ks or 98Ks the long way
Along the coast on a “strada privata” for bikes only through woods. A short hill with views. Pretty heavy traffic for 10Ks. Hills through Ansedonia, then along RR tracks. Left toward Capalbio rolling and flat. Then mostly up hill to Manciano. You climb 400 meters in 10Ks. 50Ks from Ortebello. (1) Toward Saturnia for scenic and interesting loop 48Ks, strenuous. Multiple hills. 5 and 8K climbs. (2) Straight to Pitigliano, fairly flat and rolling 20Ks.
Patigliano to Orvietto
(see route description above in reverse)
Orvietto to Todi
(see route description above in reverse)
Todi to Assisi
(see route description above in reverse)
Assisi to Gubbio
(see route description above in reverse)
Gubbio to Cortona
Out on busy road with trucks. Downhill. After 8Ks left for Umbertide. Mostly uphill. 21Ks. Over to Niccone 4Ks then left on Highway 416 all the way to Cortona 40 Ks. There is a pass before Cortona.
Cortona to Sienna
To Foriano 20Ks then to Sinalunga 10Ks and finally to Asciano 20Ks. This trip is less spectacular and flatter. From Asciano to Taverne d’ Arbia is beautiful. A great ride 20Ks. Reasonable climbs and descents. From Taverne d’ Arbia to Sienna up 5Ks.
Siena to Pienza
Down to Taverne d’ Arbia then 20Ks to Asciano. This is a great ride. Continue through Sienna. Giovanni d’ Asso to Montisi. Rolling up before Montisi. More good riding. Cut down to Pienza.
Pienza to Chiusi 36Ks
It’s a beautiful ride to Montepulciano 13Ks. Easy down and a little up to Chiusi 3Ks.
Chiusi to Rome by train
Northern Italy Bicycle Trip
“Remove your card in 30 seconds or it will be destroyed.” I squint rereading the message on the ATM screen in the Milan Airport. I am aware of my heart pounding, my face burning and palms sweating as I snatch my card from the ATM. It’s my job to get the local currency while Peter unpacks the bicycles.
I stand facing the dead screen gathering my thoughts. I know what’s wrong. It’s too soon. I used my ATM card, in Milwaukee, barely nine hours ago. Peter will not like this. I will have to hear the “plan ahead” and “why must you leave everything for the last minute” lectures.
Walking slowly back to the bikes, I see Peter, buzz cut, bent over my bicycle making the final adjustments. “The ATM is on the fritz. We’ll have to exchange our dollars and find a machine in the morning.” Peter isn’t happy that we exchange our cash and have to pay an 8% commission.
It starts to drizzle as we ride out of the airport. Peter moans, ” I want to go home.” Not me, this is my favorite time of the trip. The hassles are over. We are on our bicycles and heading into the unknown. We don’t know where we will eat or sleep for the next 10 days. It’s an adventure. All our plans are at the mercy of the weather and terrain. I even like the drizzle. It gives the place a somber, “you’re not telling me what to do” mood.
It’s these first days on the road that we get a feel for the country. The cars are, like everywhere in Europe, small. They seem to have more power and look buffed and polished. The Italians drive fast and make it a sport. They never slow behind us on the narrow roads. They stream past us like a river skirting a rock. They don’t crowd us. On coming traffic slides to the side to make room for passing cars. The cars come up behind in packs, and tail each other like small trains. Once in a while a driver will “tisk” a horn.
Stretching above each village is a gray cylindrical church spire. When a house is being renovated or built, a yellow crane hovers over the roof to handle the heavy orange tiles. These thick stone homes are built not for a lifetime, but for generations.
Every home has a fence, garden and a dog. History has taught them to mark off their territory and guard it. Monstrous man-sized rosebushes with blossoms the size of cauliflowers authenticate the old age of the gardens. In contrast, small red climbing roses grip the stones walls of the house and time has allowed them to enwrap the windows and doors. Balcony window boxes overflow their greenery.
The Italians celebrate life. Everyday we see one or more homes decorated with large ribbon bows, sometimes white, sometimes blue. The bows are spaced along the fence, in the middle of every window and in a wreath on the door.
There are lots of other bikers on the roads. The serious kind, the ones who wear the outfits of stretch yellow shorts, colorful jerseys and pink socks! The outfits are typical of Europe, but the pink socks are Italian. Our baggy shorts and polo shirts put us in the galumph category.
The bikers come in all ages but many are older men. Peter asks directions of a biker and I know he chooses this one so I can get a closer look. He has thick gray hair slicked straight back. His high cheekbones show off azure blue eyes under long black lashes. Strong shoulders and flat stomach are evidenced beneath his outfit. It is the red bandana tied tightly around his Adams apple that transforms him from handsome to sensational. “Wow,” is all I can say as I tear myself away.
Our first sight of Lake Maggiore is staggering. We follow a river toward the lake. Our first glimpse is as we crest a hill in a pine forest. There, before us, are Herculean mountains with gray jagged peaks shooting through a white helmet. The granite peaks shine, and the snow twinkles against the deep blue sky. It drips like milk down the rock face to disappear into the bold, proud chest of green forests. Orange villages pyramid up from the lakeshore. White ferryboats, skim back and forth like swans, folding the gray lake behind them.
A favorite past time after biking all day is to enjoy our beer in an outdoor café on a square. The architecture is always beautiful, and the town comes out to see and be seen. Everyone is dressed in the latest fashions and here is where Italy beats all of Europe, hands down. Many of the great designers are Italian and everyone is sporting the latest fashion trends with class and flair. My favorite is the way older men wear their suit coats like a cape draped over their shoulders, arms free. The man is usually reading the newspaper while strolling and little fluffy dog is one pace behind his shinny brown leather shoes.
Italian food is a close second to French. The bakery is a touch heavier. Less variety in the cheese selections but the meat selection of cold cuts at the butcher is more diverse. The quality and variety of the food in Europe is found only in specialty shops in America.
The cappuccino cannot be beat. Just hearing the machine sigh, I salivate. The coffee bars are always lively. One coffee tender brought out an atlas for us to point to Wisconsin.
We find many wonderful restaurants. Our favorite on this trip was in Vicenza, Antic Casa Della Malvasi. I leave Peter in the square, observing the evening fashion show. The restaurant at six is closed, but the door is unlocked. The only light comes from the open kitchen door.
The restaurant is in an old palace with tile floors and marble pillars. There is a sweeping staircase with elaborate ironwork banisters in the middle of the room that leads to more seating on the second floor. The music of Andrea Bocelli is playing so loudly that the chef never hears my “Hello”. I get all the way in the kitchen next to the chopping block before the Pavarotti-sized chef sees me. He speaks no English “Mangiare?” I ask. His chin doubles with his nod. He strides into the restaurant, motioning me to follow. I write my name, and a time. He crosses the 7:30 off and writes 8. I nod “Si, si, bene.”. I turn toward the door and he gently brushes my back as I leave.
We return to the restaurant and are seated downstairs and I am directed to a specific chair. I see the chef peaking out of a small rectangular service window, directly in front of me, waving. “Peter, turn around and wave to the chef.”
We decide to leave our dinner menu up to this chef, indicating we each want different dishes. Each course is savored. We exchange plates and methodically devour everything put before us. The chef checks on our progress from his window with nods and smiles. He doesn’t know we have been biking all day.
When the bill is paid we go to the window and loudly call, “Signor Chef.“ Peaking in, we see him sautéing, he puts the pan down and comes to the window. We each use two hands to shake his one, exclaiming, “ Molto Grazie, Molto Bene!” As we leave the restaurant, a man at the next table, with a thick French accent, says “apparently you enjoyed your meal.”
For all the great biking, food, culture and history the down side is anything to do with the Italian government. The trains go on strike almost monthly. Our experience was with the Italian airline, Alitalia.
Each airline has their own rules for shipping bicycles. Alitalia’s rule is: you must ship your bicycle in a box.
We paid a hefty sum to store our bicycle boxes at the Airport while we toured. When we check-in at Alitalia to return to the US with our boxes, they don’t have packaging tape. We have no way to seal our bikes into the boxes.
I dutifully march over to the magazine shop to buy tape when the Alitalia supervisor sends me. “Why would we sell tape?” the clerk snips at me.
It is a Mexican stand-off. There are three supervisors, one is on the phone, one says “ It’s your problem,” and one disappears. I stay with the luggage and Peter goes into problem solving mode. He is back in minutes, “Guess where I found it? They slapped the whole roll in my hand and said ‘keep it’, Lufthansa.”
For What it’s Worth
We don’t know Italian and felt we missed a lot. So if you speak Italian the experience would be even better.