On the ski hills, on the bike trails, and thru life in general

Posts tagged ‘Italy’

Verona – Oct. 12

Another beautiful day so Al and I went on a bike jersey hunt after breakfast. Darryl said that there was a bike store on the northeast side of the city, and showed us where on a map, so at least we had a target. We wandered over to the Castelvecchio and the Ponte Scaligero, one of the many old bridges that cross the Adage River. Unfortunately, the architectural museum was closed but we could wander around the grounds. What an impressive middle-ages fortress! The bridge, as all of them were in Verona, was destroyed by the retreating German army in 1945 but rebuilt to the same design using the recovered bricks.

The Ponta Scaligero, looking towards one of the towers of Castelvecchio.

The Ponta Scaligero, looking towards one of the towers of Castelvecchio.

Part of Castelvecchio wall.

Part of Castelvecchio wall.

Ponta Scaligero over the Adage River.

Ponte Scaligero over the Adage River.

Ponte Pietra, the oldest bridge location in Verona. Rebuilt many times since the Roman era, the 5-arch marble version was built in the 16th century. Destroyed, yet again, by retreating Germans in 1945, leaving only the leftmost arch, it was rebuilt in the 1950's.

Ponte Pietra, the oldest bridge location in Verona. Rebuilt many times since the Roman era, the 5-arch marble version was built in the 16th century. Destroyed by retreating Germans in 1945, leaving only the leftmost arch, it was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

Verona is a very pretty city, with the old city walls surrounding a large portion of the downtown. Roman ruins abound, as well as relics from the middle ages. We noticed a lot of bikes on the roads and sidewalks. We stayed on the north side of the river, just following the sidewalk and stopping lots to admire the views. One woman stopped me and said something in Italian that I didn’t understand. When she realized that she said “Verona is beautiful, yes?” I replied “Si, bella” and she smiled and walked on. Yes, Verona is beautiful indeed.

By 10:30 we needed a coffee so we stopped at a café in the university district. We noticed a sign that said something like “every hour is happy hour for university students only”. Not a bad deal! We finally got to Darryl’s supposed location of the bike store but it was nowhere to be found. The address was right but it was no longer there. Rats! At least we had a nice walk.

After lunch, our group of 13 made its way over to the entrance of the Castelvecchio to meet our biking guide, Mike, who was to lead us into the Valpolicella valley to a winery. After leading us back to his shop and fitting us on bikes, we set out riding through the centre of Verona on one of the main streets. He took us about 12 km out of the city, mostly on good cycle paths and quiet roads, to the Villa Mosconi Bertani winery.

Our wine-tasting cyclists. A good time was had by all.

Our wine-tasting cyclists. A good time was had by all.

The impressive Villa Mosconi Bertani winery estate.

The impressive Villa Mosconi Bertani winery estate.

The winery is on an old estate which has been refurbished and is a gorgeous site. The grapes had just been picked the week before so the vines were mostly bare now. Mike set us up with the winery guide, Irena, who toured us around the grounds. She was a university summer student, spoke excellent English, and was very knowledgeable and informative.

First on the agenda was a tour of the estate, showing us many of the rooms and the English garden. The place is used at least twice a week to host weddings (which must cost a fortune considering how beautiful it is and how expensive their wine is!) and also hosts music recitals, both inside and out in the garden.

The reception room. Lots of marble, frescoes ans statues.

The reception room. Lots of marble, frescoes and statues.

The tea house in the English garden.

The tea house in the English garden.

Next was a visit to one of the wine cellars where some Merlot was being aged in huge oak barrels.

Casks of Merlot aging in one of the wine cellars.

Casks of Merlot aging in one of the wine cellars.

The wine tasting was the whole point of the visit though and anticipation was high. She poured the 13 of us at least 4 oz. each of a white (€?/bottle), a Valpolicella (€22), and an Amarone (€60), all very nice wines. Gwen wasn’t a white wine drinker and gave it to me, so I had a double dose of that.

Rapt attention by a usually voluble group!

Rapt attention by a usually voluble group!

The objects of our attention. Tasty wines all.

The objects of our attention. Tasty wines all.

Then followed the purchasing of quite a few bottles, mostly of the Amarone. I actually liked the Valpolicella better, with my obviously unrefined tastes, so bought it instead. I intended to bring it all the way back home but, with 2 weeks left to go yet, there was no hope of it surviving. Sorry Brendan!

We spent more time at the winery than Mike expected and he was in a hurry to get back before dark (or maybe a date) so sped up a bit on the route back. The group kept up fine, even weighed down by wine, both internal and external. Thankfully, most of the homeward route was downhill.

Our winery bike route.

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Mantua to Verona – Oct 11

Today was another travel day. After checking out at 10 a.m., we all made our way to the Mantua train station, about a 20-minute walk from the hotel. I showed my usual lack of directional abilities by leading JoAnn, Alan L. and Thelma in the totally wrong direction for a few blocks before I realized my error. They now know that me walking fast just means that I get lost faster :(. Other groups trickled in over the next little while as we had plenty of time before our 12:28 train to Verona.

Darryl made the train reservations back in Canada so he picked up all the tickets and divvied them out to everybody. The ride, taking about an hour, was comfortable and we even broke open a couple of bottles of wine to make the journey even more enjoyable. The conductor just shrugged. I guess having a wine and cheese picnic on public transport is normal, with tourists anyway.

It was another 20-minute walk to our hotel, the Hotel Verona, a nice modern hotel in the downtown. Our room not only had another big towel warmer but we had 2 balconies! This is important when you have clothes that not only need washing but drying. While we were unpacking, a horrendous roar came from the street. Apparently, they were having a rally car race or exhibition, because about a dozen of the little roaring beasts drove past. After the noise of last night, I wasn’t looking forward to another night of street racket but they faded into the distance and weren’t heard from again.

Al and I went for a walk to check out the immediate area. The arena is impressive, as are the extensive city wall fortifications from Roman and medieval times. Even though the temperature was 21C, Al and I were the only people wearing shorts and sandals. Maybe the Italians considered this to be cold? We finally saw one other person wearing shorts in the distance but it turned out to be Doug :/. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a nearby sidewalk patio for a beer and slice of pizza and bought a bottle of wine for later. You never know when you will need a bottle of wine.

Our first view of the arena, taken from the vantage of atop the city fortifications.

Our first view of the arena, taken from the vantage of atop the city fortifications.

Part of the arena walls. It is still used for concerts, operas, etc.

Part of the arena walls. It is still used for concerts, operas, etc.

Later that evening, 8 of us went for supper at Ristorante Greppia, located in an alley near Juliet’s house (and famous balcony). It was a lovely, warm night so we ate outside in the alley, as usual shuffling their tables and chairs to accommodate the size of our group. The atmosphere, the service, the food, the wine and the company all were superb – this is a great restaurant! Being Italy, there was no problem finding a gelateria on the way home for our preferred desert fix 🙂

Mantua – Oct 10

Today was our last day on the barge. Actually, our last few hours because they wanted us out and gone by 9 a.m. in order to prepare for the rooms for their next, and final, group of the season. So we said goodbye to Rosita, who had to leave at 8 for a long drive to meet her next tour group (not with the barge), ate breakfast and dragged our luggage off to our hotel. Darryl had booked the Hotel Broletto months earlier and it was only about a 10-minute walk from the barge so it was no problem getting there. We had found where it was located the evening before but, because they couldn’t put all 19 of us up together in the main hotel, they put us in an adjunct building (Broletto Residences) across the square and down and alley. The rooms were still acceptable though. One nice discovery was that our room, and all the others, had a huge towel warmer, almost a floor-to-ceiling radiator that was great for drying clothes that desperately needed to be washed!

After stowing our luggage, some of us went off to the Palazzo Ducale for a tour. This is the second largest residence in Italy, after the Vatican, although most of the vast building is now closed to the public. It was the ever-expanding home of the Gonzaga family, who ruled Mantua for 400 years, until 1707. There was a lineup for tickets and Lucille and I got separated from the others. Due to a communication error with a guard (no English on his part, no Italian on mine) who prevented us from going into an area that seemed to be open, Lucille and I were directed to go to another area. There were some Rubens paintings and nice architecture and frescoes in the 4 rooms that we saw but not really worth the entry fee. Later, we found out that the guard only wanted us to see that area first and then come back to wing that he was guarding. The others said that it was quite impressive, like a mini Versailles. I’ll have to take their word for it :(. Clear signage would have been appreciated.

One of the hallways in the Palazzo Ducale, though roped off so we couldn't walk in.

One of the hallways in the Palazzo Ducale, though roped off so we couldn’t walk in.

One of the many churches (the Duomo, I forget) had shutters on it's organ. Doubt if they ever close them though.

One of the many churches (the Duomo I think) had shutters on it’s organ. Doubt if they ever close them though.

One of the many squares with vendors. Good place to score free samples of cheese and wine!

One of the many squares with vendors. Good place to score free samples of cheese and wine!

Not knowing where the others were (still touring the castle), Lucille and I went off to find where the Bibiena Theatre was located, as she wanted to go to a ballet there that night. It turned out that it wasn’t too far away but wasn’t open. It is a very ordinary looking building from the outside but supposed to be gorgeous inside. Apparently, Mozart had played there when he was 13 and said that it was the most beautiful theatre in the world. We finally ran into more of our group and had lunch at one of the many patio restaurants on the Piazza Erbe.

Other interesting facts about Mantua: Verdi set his opera Rigoletto in Mantua, Shakespeare had Romeo in Mantua when he heard of Juliet’s death in Verona, and the Latin poet Virgil was born just outside of town. It’s not a tourist hot-spot – most tourists just go to Verona, only an hour to the north – so it’s not too crowded and there are lots of interesting things to see. Mostly churches mind you, but there is a lot of history in that town. The rest of the day was spent visiting said churches, with the odd break for beer/wine/coffee and sampling the free food and wine that vendors were offering in the squares. Some purchases were made.

Chris had made a reservation for all 19 of us at one of the better restaurants for 7 p.m., its opening time, but the place was chaotic to say the least. Six of the group had to head off to the ballet for 8:30 but it took forever for the waiters to get their act together. We were a large group admittedly but speedy or efficient service does not seem to be an Italian priority. The ballet group barely had enough time to eat before running off and the rest of us spent at least another hour there before being able to leave.

Our hotel was on one of the (many) squares in the centre of town and our room overlooked an alley just off the square. During the day, the square and sidewalks were filled with vendors and tents – much like a farmer’s market – even spreading up the narrow alleys.

Vendor in the alley just under our window.

Vendor in the alley just under our window.

I figured that the noise of the day would die down at night, but NO. With the bars still open to all hours, and being a Saturday night I suppose, the partying went on until 3 a.m. Yawn.

Biking Italy – Oct 9

Today was our final day of biking on the bike/barge tour and Rosita led us out of town on a clockwise loop around and through a large nature reserve northwest of Mantua. Our first stop, after 10 km, was in the small town of Curtatone where she showed us the Basilica Santa Maria delle Grazie. Large but unimposing and typically ornate inside, the church is an important pilgrimage spot and is still visited by great numbers of pilgrims. The interior is strikingly different from any church I have seen before. Most churches display pious statues of various religious figures but this one also displays life sized statues of people from different walks of life who represent a particular miracle that saved them from a gruesome death thanks to their prayers to the Virgin Mary. I am sure that the one of the guy with his shoulders dislocated and legs chopped off wishes she had acted a bit sooner though!

Large square but unimposing church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Large square but unimposing church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Statues of people facing gruesome death, supposedly saved by Virgin Mary. Methinks a little too late for some.

Statues of people facing gruesome death, supposedly saved by Virgin Mary. Methinks a little too late for some.

Continuing on through quiet streets, dirt and paved trails, this route was a lot more interesting than our former diet of boring levees. At least we got to travel through a few small towns and park-like settings along with the canal trails.

Through quiet residential streets...

Through quiet residential streets…

...along gravel roads...

…along gravel roads…

...and canal roads, a nice route through the park.

…and canal roads, a nice route through the park.

After 28 km, we diverted into the small town of Soave for coffee, where we also picked up a few bottles of beer and wine for future breaks (thank goodness for panniers).

Typical mid-morning coffee/beer stop. There was always a cafe at a convenient distance on the rides.

Typical mid-morning coffee/beer stop. There was always a cafe at a convenient distance on the rides.

Back on quiet trails, we eventually crossed a causeway between 2 of the lakes around Mantua (Lago Superiore and Lago di Mezzo) and back into town.

Back on the park trails...

Back on the park trails.

The causeway path between the lakes.

The causeway path between the lakes.

Riding beside Lago Superiore...

Riding beside Lago Superiore.

A huge collection of lily pads. Or a collection of huge lily pads. Whatever....

A huge collection of lily pads. Or a collection of huge lily pads. Whatever….

Mike by the lake.

Mike by the lake.

Rather than go straight to the barge, now only a few km away, we decided to have lunch at a vacant restaurant patio located right off the path. With nobody in sight, we took over a bunch of the tables, opened our beer and wine stocks and had a nice picnic lunch. It was a little disconcerting when Darryl somehow set off an alarm but no cops came and it eventually turned off.

Getting ready to take over the patio of an, as yet, unopened restaurant.

Getting ready to take over the patio of an, as yet, unopened restaurant.

Back at the barge, after stowing our bikes for the last time, some of us wandered off to explore the town before supper. The Basilica di Sant’Andrea is a standout – a massive, ornate church with an 80-metre high cupola. The frescoes are deceiving – they appear to be 3-dimensional but are actually just painted in the trompe l’oeil style – you have to get within a few feet before you realize that they are not carvings.

Inside the impressive Basilica di Sant'Andrea. Lovely frescoes.

Inside the impressive Basilica di Sant’Andrea. Lovely frescoes.

I'm still not standing at the back of the church. Our guide told us that the architect of St. Peter's in Rome used this church as a test case for design.

I’m still not standing at the back of the church. Our guide told us that the architect of St. Peter’s in Rome used this church as a test case for design.

Our route for Oct. 9th.

Biking Italy – Oct 8

The following morning, Oct. 8th, we set off from Zelo for Mantua, our final destination on this tour.

Offloading the bikes in Ferrara.

The bikes lined up on the dock in Zelo.

After riding for 15 km, Rosita led us to a cheese processing facility where they make Grana Padano, an absolutely delicious, tangy, hard cheese. I had never heard of it before but others in the group were almost salivating at the hope of getting samples. Our guide explained how the cheese was made, a careful and complex process. Then she took us into the warehouse where the 40-kg wheels of cheese were being ripened. Each wheel is turned every 2 weeks and aged from 9 months to 2 years before sale. Following the tour, we all trooped outside where they did indeed treat us to healthy sized chunks of Grana Padano and, of course, wine. What a great way to start a day of cycling!

Racks of 40-kg wheels of Grana Padano cheese.

Racks of 40-kg wheels of Grana Padano cheese.

That would exceed my baggage limit unfortunately.

That would exceed my baggage limit unfortunately.

The stacks were approx. 22 high, 26 rows, 23 deep. At 40 kg each, that's over half a million kgs of cheese!

The stacks were approx. 22 high, 26 rows, 23 deep. At 40 kg each, that’s over half a million kgs of cheese!

Enjoying the finer things in life - wine and good cheese.

Enjoying the finer things in life – wine and good cheese.

A few kms later, we stopped in Bergantino, where the main industry is making amusement park rides. Not a small-time endeavour, the rides manufactured in the town are sold to amusement parks all over the world. We toured the museum, had a presentation on how the industry has evolved, saw many examples of older rides and carnival instruments (player pianos, calliopes) and how they use present day technology in the new rides. This was definitely a change from touring churches and castles!

The amusement park ride museum in Bergantino.

The amusement park ride museum in Bergantino.

After lunch in Bergantino, we hit the road (levees, mostly) again for another 30+ km. We met the barge, moored alongside another boat, just outside of the small town of Governolo. We hauled our bikes onboard and set off to cruise into Mantua. Sam and Sara, our chefs, fed us snacks while we lounged on deck, enjoying seeing the bird life on the river, including white herons, swans and egrets.

Back on the levees

Back on the levees

The parade of senior cyclists.

The parade of senior cyclists owning the road.

The Vita Pugna waiting for us to arrive.

The Vita Pugna waiting for us to arrive, snuggled up against some other boat.

Cruising with wine (again) and munchies.

Cruising with wine (again) and munchies on way to Mantua.

White heron looking for its own snacks.

White heron looking for its own snacks.

Rosita walked us through some areas of Mantua that evening but she was disappointed that her favourite gelateria was closed. So was the ducal palace but, since we are staying here for 2 more nights, we should be able to tour it another time.

The ducal palace at night.

The ducal palace at night.

Our route for today.

Biking Italy – Oct 7

As I mentioned in the previous entry, inconsistent internet combined with living my adventures in the moment (i.e. too busy exploring and socializing to take the time to document everything) means that I am now forced to rely on a few notes, pictures and a senior’s temperamental memory to update this blog. Taking place almost a month ago, the last few days of the Italy portion of the bike/barge trip have become a blur of churches, castles, small towns, and similar looking levees. Why levees? Because the Po River has been known to flood in the past, with devastating results, so high berms have been built in strategic locations to protect the towns and fields on either side of the river. The levees also serve as secondary roads and trails and are a convenient, and flat, route through the area.

On Oct. 7th, the barge departed at 7a.m. on a misty morning and cruised for a few hours. Our group of 19 bikers eventually set out from the middle of nowhere, heading for the town of Ferrara. As usual, much of the ride was on levees.

Rollin' on the river. A calm and misty morning cruising to our departure point.

Rollin’ on the river. A calm and misty morning cruising to our departure point.

Cruised for 2.5 hours.

Cruised for 2.5 hours.

On the road again...

On the road again (actually a levee).

The pace of our group was usually slower than some of us were used to so, when given permission by Rosita on some straight section where we couldn’t get lost, Lucille, Chris and I would wind it up a bit to stretch our legs and lungs.

Lucille and Chris sprinting ahead.

Lucille and Chris sprinting ahead.

We passed through a few small, nondescript towns but, with most of the ride on levees, our typical views were farm fields and canals for most of the ride. Not particularly interesting visually. Levees are nice for a change because of the flatness and lack of traffic but the similar views get a little boring after a while. Riding into Ferrara was a treat though. It is an old town (no surprise there!) and one of the few larger cities in Italy not of Roman origin. It is presumed to date back to a Byzantine military station in the 7th century. A high wall, 9 kilometres in length, surrounds the city centre. The wall served the double purpose of fortress and flood protection when constructed in the 16th century. Nowadays, the top of the wall has been turned into a popular walking/jogging/cycling path and we rode a portion of it into a quiet city park. Most of us settled down for a relaxing lunch at a convenient café while Lucille went off for her usual 12 km run.

Settling down for a nice lunch in the park.

Settling down for a nice lunch in the park. You can find cafes everywhere.

Afterwards, Rosita took us for a tour of some of the sights and side streets of the town.

Wandering through the side streets of Ferrara.

Wandering through the side streets of Ferrara.

The courtyard of the moat-encircled castle, built in 1325.

The courtyard of the moat-encircled castle, built in 1325.

Standing at the castle entrance overlooking the moat.

Standing at the castle entrance overlooking the moat.

Oct 7 route

Ferrara was the end of our riding for the day, as we loaded our bikes into a trailer and took a bus from Ferrara to the small town of Zelo, about an hour away, where the barge was moored for the night.

After supper, Rosita took us out for her usual tour of the town. It’s a small berg, with only about 350 residents and 2 bars. We passed one bar but it was dark – strange for 9:30 at night. Unsurprisingly, we spotted 3 others of our group in bar number 2. We stayed with Rosita, who led us to the cemetery, which was actually a neat place in the pitch dark. Not in a spooky sense but just in the way it was set up. The area of traditional graves was surrounded by crypt walls containing the remains of the cremated. Each “cubbyhole”, illuminated by a small night-lite type light, had the name and dates of the deceased, as well as a picture of him/her. For that matter, the gravestones had pictures on them too. I don’t know if all Italian graveyards are set up in this way but that is the first time I have seen that sort of memorial on every grave.

On the way back, we noticed that the first bar was now open so we dropped in for a drink. Strange hours – closed and dark at 9:30, open by 10 and just hopping by the time some of us left at 11. Four of the group got involved in a game of darts with some locals (it was an English-themed pub) and made their way back to the barge much later and a little worse for wear. At least they were quiet about it.

Chioggia to Adria

Tuesday, Oct 6. We have found that the internet connection on the barge is inconsistant at best and mostly unuseable :(. Updates will have to wait until we get to Mantua and beyond. Trying to catch up might take some time.
Tuesday was our first cool and rainy day. After breakfast, Rosita took us on a walk around Chioggia. First up was a visit to the fish market. Chioggia is a fishing town and the main supplier of fish to all the towns in the region, as far away as Verona. The market building is about 100 meters long, with tables running the length of both sides, all filled with every kind of fish. Mussels, clams, shrimp, eels, octopii, squid, swordfish, tuna, all types of ocean goodies.

Fish market in Chioggia.

Fish market in Chioggia.

We were docked where a lot of the ships, large and small, offload their catch into the warehouses, surrounded by the noise and smells of a major fishing industry.

Trawler returning to port, much to the delight of the gulls.

Trawler returning to port, much to the delight of the gulls.

The rain, light though it was, didn’t let up on our walk and kept us moisturized off and on throughout the ride. We started in town, making our way through some heavier traffic, before entering quieter country roads. Link to our route today.

Riding in the rain in Italy.

Riding in the rain in Italy.

We eventually came to the delta of the Po River and were able to ride on one of the levees. These are great for biking, being long, flat, and mostly straight with few intersections. Lucille asked Rosita if we could go on ahead on our own, with no danger of getting lost. With permission granted, four of us bolted on ahead, glad to be able to open it up a bit. We actually got to cruise at 30 kph for a while!
The delta is full of bird life. Cormorants, white herons, grey herons, geese, ducks, egrets and, though not seen by us, flamingos who live in the delta year-round.
We moored up against the Ave Maria,  our sister ship. It is about twice the size  and more opulent than the Vita Pugna but I don’t think that it would be as personal an experience with that many people. They have 2 guides but they would have to split up into 2 biking groups I expect.
After supper, Rosita took us on her regular evening walk through whatever town we happen to be docked at. Adria is about 10 minutes away from the dock and we just ambled around until getting to the “downtown” area. It was very quiet,  with only a few locals about and no tourists other than us.
She stopped at a church to show us the elaborate door and stepped aside to let a local enter. The local was a member of the choir, going in for a practice, and she invited us inside to listen. Wow – what a find! There were only 6 singers, no organ or piano for accompaniment, but were they ever good! We stayed for 3 songs, all obviously religious in nature and in Italian/Latin, and enjoyed it immensely. A great end to another lovely day.

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