Bolzano by bike

29th June

We’d booked to stay two nights at the lovely Lake Garda campsite. Weather forecast was for more storms today but they didn’t materialise (although there were some major ones yesterday afternoon and overnight). So we had a quiet day getting the washing done, having a swim in the lake, walking up to the little village for a coffee, and planning the next week or two.

30th June

We decided to drive up the western side of the lake to another campsite.  It was the last day the ACSI discount applied so just one night at this new one, near Limone sul Garda. Just as well as it was one of those campsites where they meet you with a grump and then pack the vans in. Anyway we spent the afternoon walking into Limone, discovering the lemon terraces there and associated museum, then being ripped off with a meal at a lakeside restaurant. (We ordered mussels for two and a plate of chips. The mussels were a small portion for ONE, and the chips never came. Left a review on Google. Hmph.)

lemon terrace.jpg
Lemon terrace at Limone

1st July

Time to hit the road and head further north. We drove along the lakeside to Riva but did not stop there (no parking for campers that we could find). On towards Trento, and then onto the Wine Road. This was very pretty and we stopped in a couple of villages for coffee and a look around. In one we went to a vineyard and did some wine tasting, followed by wine buying. The member of staff who served us was very friendly and informative, telling us about the history of the region.  It’s all mostly German speaking, and had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the 1920s. Mussolini tried to ‘italianise’ it, but now outside of the main towns most people speak German rather than Italian and the German place names are more widely used.

We reached Bolzano (Bozen) and parked at a camperstop near Bolzano South railway station, and took the train into town. We quickly realised that this was a town well geared up for cycling with good cycle paths everywhere, and although surrounded by mountains the town itself is flat. So a plan for tomorrow quickly formed.

Bolzano is famous for its archaeological museum which houses “Otzi” – the mummified iceman found in a glacier twenty years ago. We bought museum cards (amazing value – 80 museums in the area plus train and bus travel, and some cable cars, valid 7 days, only 34 euro!) and found the Otzi museum fascinating. It tells the story of his discovery as well as the research and science done since. He is 5000 years old, was perfectly preserved, and his clothes and contents of his backpack etc  have told us so much about how these people lived. Amazing.

Had a meal out then took the train back to our car park, to plan the next couple of days in this town.

2nd July

The bike paths had looked so inviting yesterday we took our bikes into town and out the other side, to Castello Runcolo (Italian), or Schloss Runkelstein (German name). We decided we like the name Runkelstein but prefer the word castello. Perhaps we can mix and match… This castle has lots of impressive medieval secular frescoes inside, depicting scenes of hunting and dancing and flirting. From there we went for a walk – up the hillside, around and down, and ended up at the foot of one of Bolzano’s cable cars, only to discover it was on a 3-hour lunch break (thus reminding us we are still in Italy). So we walked back to the bikes, cycled back into the town centre for lunch and a look at its cathedral, then cycled back to the cable car in time for its reopening.

bolzano bike paths.jpg
One of Bolzano’s many lovely bike routes.

This took us up to about 1100m, to a village with some spectacular views over the mountains. There are lots of walks, mountain bike paths etc here but we just had a coffee and came back down. Already tired from our earlier walk!

3rd July

Cycled to the two other cable cars. The first was a little uninteresting, but the second (to Renon) was fabulous. This is the longest cable car in Europe, with the largest height gain. At the top it meets a narrow gauge railway which we hopped on with no idea where it was going (included in our museum-ticket!) At the end of the line we realised there was a 30 minute walk to look at some weird rock formations so we did that, then retraced our steps back to the train, down the cable car, back to the bikes.

Next stop, still by bike via the wonderful network of riverside bike paths, was the Messner Mountain museum, housed in an old castle on the south side of town. Reinhold Messner is well known for being the first (with Peter Habeler) to climb Everest without oxygen, and for doing the first solo ascent, and many other adventures. Now he runs these museums-  there are 6 in the area.

And what a fabulous museum this was! It focused on man’s relationship with mountains, and made brilliant use of the castle’s towers and the crag on which it stands. We really enjoyed it and hope to get to another one or two of the mountain museums in the area over the next few days.

At the mountain museum

Finally, exhausted, we cycled back to a very hot Gertie (36 degrees!)  and our 3rd night in what is a grotty car park in a beautiful town.

4th July

Time to move on, and properly into the Dolomites. We had planned to drive the Great Dolomites Road spread over two days. On this route the scenery just gets more and more spectacular as you go over mountain passes of over 2000m. Lots of motorcyclists and also people on road bikes on the route, and a number of tour buses. The roads are pretty good though obviously very twisty. We found a nice little layby with a great view for our lunch stop, and then ended the drive at a camperstop with an even better view.  I went for a walk – basically was walking up a ski run to a col. Lovely and cool up here. I’d stay for a week only we have to meet our son Fionn in Bergamo on Monday…dolomites.jpg


A tour of town car parks

24th June

There were a whole slew of towns in northern Italy we wanted to see, and as overnighting in Loreto’s car park had been so successful we decided to find car parks in each town, either ones mentioned in the Camperstop book or just any that would take campervans. Spent part of the evening at Loreto planning the next few days. What?? A plan?? That’s a first!

First stop was San Marino. What a funny little place this is! It’s an independent republic, claiming to be the oldest in the world. It’s tiny and mountainous. The city of San Marino is built on a crazily steep ridge, with three towers along the top. It’s rich per capita, and there was a good campervan park part way up the hill, from where you could take a series of lifts to the town centre. Spent a pleasant few hours wandering round, looking at the towers, having lunch etc.

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San Marino ridge

And then drove on to Ravenna. We’d picked out a camperstop near the town, by a beach, which we looked at first but the place was heaving and full of parasols and sunbeds and Italians away for the weekend so we went on to the town itself and found a suitable car park near the centre costing a couple of euro for overnight parking.

25th June

Unloaded the bikes and set off to explore Ravenna. An AA Gill article saved from about 2004 is what drew us here, and it was well worth the visit. Quiet but beautiful. You buy a ticket that gets you into all the main sights, and the thing to see is the Byzantine mosaics. Ravenna was briefly capital of the western Roman Empire, then got taken over by the east and it was then that its amazing mosaics were installed in several churches. Dante’s tomb is also here.

Ravenna mosaics

Once we’d seen enough we moved on up the road to Ferrara, and once again found a cheap car park in a good site.

26th June

Bikes off again – it worked so well in Ravenna so we wanted to do the same thing again. Cycled round, checked out the market, toured the huge castle that’s right in the middle of town, and then rode our bikes round half of the town walls. They’ve turned the walls into a park with a wide gravel path running around the top of the ramparts, perfect for running or cycling along. Very enjoyable. In both Ravenna and Ferrara everyone cycles everywhere. The town centres are largely pedestrianised and totally flat.

Ferrara castle
View from top of Lion’s Tower, Ferrara castle

And then we moved onto the next town, Modena. Here we found a large free car park within walking distance of the town centre. As it seemed a little bit cooler we decided to walk into town that evening. Had a couple of beers out, and strolled around the pleasant cobbled medieval streets.

Modena by night

27th June

We were rudely awoken early this morning by a loud bang at the back of the van. I assumed Ignatius was trying to swat a mosquito or something, as he bounded out of bed and out of the van. ‘Someone’s nicking your bike!’ he yelled, which got me out of bed pretty darn quick too. But the guy and his accomplice were already across the car park with my bike. I ran after them, in my skimpy pyjamas and flip flops. I had the idea if I got close enough and shouted enough they might just drop the bike and run off. But once they realised I was coming after them the git just pedalled off quickly, despite me screaming my best swear words at him. Meanwhile Ignatius had clipped up the bed, started the engine and driven after me. I hopped in and for a while we drove madly through town, with glasses rolling around the floor, the passenger seat facing backwards etc hoping to spot where my bike had gone. No luck. In the end we drove to a parking spot near the Ferrari museum, had breakfast, got dressed etc.

My bike was the one on the outside of the rack, locked to the next bike, and the gripper holding it to the rack was also locked. And there was a cover over the whole lot. They’d quietly unclipped the cover, undone the straps that hold the wheels to the rack, cut through the cable lock, then wrenched the bike out of the gripper – I think this was the bang we heard. Bastards.

We decided on balance we did not want to report the theft. Basically we felt the stress of finding the police station (the right police station – there are several different police forces in Italy), finding somewhere to park near it, making ourselves understood, filling in all the forms etc, was probably more hassle than it was worth. Actually I’m more upset at losing my lovely Madison saddle I’d had since 1985 that was on my bike, than losing the bike itself. But it was all a bit upsetting, especially that it could happen while we were sleeping.

We debated giving up on Modena and just moving on, but decided not to let the thieving bastards totally spoil our day. So when the Ferrari museum opened we went in for a look at various models of Ferraris through the years. It’s on the site of Enzo Ferrari’s family home and workshop. Then we walked into the town centre, visited the market to buy some Balsamic vinegar and the Duomo.

Then we headed out of town via a branch of Decathlon. I bought a new bike for 200 euro – totally different to my last one but more suitable for pootling round towns which is all we’re doing by bike on this trip. To be honest I’d discovered a cyclocross is not the best bike for town cycling, and was still suffering a loss of confidence since my fall in Zadar. So maybe my new black town bike (Ignatius calls it my Ferrari since it was bought in Modena!) will be better for the rest of this trip.

Drove on to Mantua which for some reason is also known as Mantova. We had actually meant to go to Parma next, but decided to cut it out after what happened in Modena. Mantua’s a lovely little town, surrounded on three sides by lakes. Another free car park, by the lakeside. We arrived in time to give my new Ferrari a trial run. There’s a gorgeous track following the shoreline so we cycled around that, then into the medieval town centre. Had a look at a couple of churches then realised it was dinner time, so we had a meal out before cycling back to the van. I think me and the Ferrari are going to be friends.

With my new bike, by the lake in Mantua

So, for a day that started out so badly, we managed to pack a lot in, in the end.

28th June

As we’d seen the town yesterday we spent a while researching campsites around Lake Garda, then drove up that way. The weather forecast was for a stormy afternoon and evening and we wanted to get settled before that came over.

So here we are, in a nice campsite by the western shores of Lake Garda (much better than those Adriatic coast ones) and planning to stay a few days. Since arriving back in Italy we’ve not spent more than one night at the same place, and it gets quite tiring! One storm has been over already but there may be more tonight. Hope we get cooler weather afterwards!

Car parks vs campsites – the former are much cheaper and better for town centre exploration. But as we found to our cost, are not always secure. We like a mix. Will be very happy to spend the next few days in a fully equipped campsite.

The Giro and a puncture…

Last diary blog left us parked in San Leone in a delightful free car park, on May 4th. How can it be May 11th already? I am definitely beginning to lose track of the days.

May 5th

More sightseeing! Certainly making up for lost time when we had the battery problem. We drove to Ragusa, a hill-top town, parked Gertie in a great free car-park which had an area reserved for campervans, and climbed a load of steps up to the old town. We had a happy day wandering through the mostly Baroque streets. This town was flattened in a 1693 earthquake, and then rebuilt in two parts. The Baroque rebuilding on the original Medieval town plan was the most interesting area. One church was closed as they were filming an episode of Inspector Montelbano there. Ate an extremely pleasant lunch out.

We drove on to Noto, and arrived at a campsite 1km from the town centre. Met our first fellow Brits since France. The campsite was set amongst lemon trees and mosquitoes.

May 6th

Spent the morning wandering around Noto – another Baroque glory, also rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake (along with the rest of south-east Sicily from what I can gather). I have seen more Baroque churches in the last few days than in the rest of my life put together.

Church bells in Noto

Moved on to a campsite near Avola on the coast. This one was down a very narrow lane. When we arrived I said to the Dutch woman who ran the site, stating the bleeding obvious, ‘that lane’s very narrow’. ‘Is it?’ she said, horrified, and called her Sicilian husband over, ‘Honey! Our lane’s very narrow!’ I guess everyone arrives and says the same thing in whatever language they speak…  This campsite was full of cats.

May 7th

The plan was to check out a possible overnight car-park in Syracuse before heading back up to Etna to allow Ignatius to cycle up it the day before the Giro, but the car park was stuffed full, and traffic was horrible, so we ended up going straight back to Etna. We were parked in a layby half way up in enough time for Ignatius to do his bike ride the same day. So the road bike came off the back of Gertie for the first time (we are carrying 3 bikes), and he kitted up, cycled down to Nicolosi then turned round and cycled up to the top, then back down to Gertie. I spent the time cleaning the van (oh I know how to live, me!) He had a few problems – his electronic gear shifter seems to be out of charge and guess what, he’s forgotten to bring the charger; and he couldn’t get the bike into lowest gear so had to do the entire ride (up and down) in 2nd lowest gear… So at some stage we will need to find a bike repair shop to get this looked at and buy a new charger. All Ignatius’s cycling buddies will be reading this and laughing, muttering ‘serves him right for having poncey electronic gear shift’.

ig on bike
Ready to ride!

We spent the night in that layby. Pretty cold but not as cold as the night a couple of weeks back when we camped at the top. There were a few stray dogs lurking around. Friendly, but you don’t want to trust Sicilian strays. They freaked me out when I went outside in the dark and two of them were nosing around the van.

May 8th

Took a morning walk up through the woods to a mountain refuge (which conveniently was open and had a toilet!) then drove back down to Nicolosi where we had lunch and went to the Volcanology museum, which was very interesting – free and we had a personal guided tour around. It also shows a 30-minute video of the 2001-2 eruption of Mt Etna. I feel we know this mountain quite well now.

Spent the night back in ‘our’ layby on Etna.

May 9th

The day of the Giro! As soon as we were organised in the morning we drove 4km up the road to the last layby before the main car park which is where the stage finish was. There were already a couple of campers there. This was about 1.5km before the finish line. We walked up to the finish for a look around, then spent most of the day waiting. Road cycling is an odd spectator sport – you spend all day waiting for a few minutes activity! It’s all about the atmosphere. The layby filled up, and we chatted with a Slovakian family parked next to us, and several Italians. All day there were people cycling up, ahead of the race. About an hour before the race arrives, the ‘caravan’ of sponsors drove through. When we’ve seen stages of the Tour de France in the UK or Ireland the sponsors have been chucking free stuff out as they pass but that didn’t happen today.

Ignatius watched part of the earlier Giro coverage on his laptop, sitting outside. He made a lot of friends as people crowded round to see what was happening. Finally the cyclists arrived – we could see them pass the 5km banner down the mountain. The leaders passed us pretty quickly but the stragglers and ‘autobus’ took 30 minutes or more to arrive.  One of the lads who’d been watching Ignatius’s laptop stripped off to his undies and chased the leader up the road a bit. All good fun to watch!

ig with friends
Ignatius and all his friends
undies man
Underpants Man. He is the same chap wearing a pink cap leaning over Ignatius in the previous pic. I showed him this photo after on my phone and he zoomed in to take a look at his own bum.
The lead group of cyclists going past. That Sky rider with the white-rimmed glasses is Geraint Thomas, the Welshman who came 2nd on this stage.

When it was all over we drove further down the mountain to camp overnight (too darn cold up the top when the sun’s gone down!) So that’s a total of 4 nights spent camping on Etna.

May 10th

The next stage of the Giro was due to start from Pedara, the next town to Nicolosi. We hadn’t planned to see the start, but decided why not? So we parked on the edge of Pedara and walked in. Huge crowds everywhere. The main town park was taken up by the sponsors’ stalls. A central square was cordoned off for the stage on which the cyclists sign in for the stage. There was a lively atmosphere. We watched most of the cyclists arrive and sign in, then moved to another spot to see the race start. So another several hours watching and waiting for a few minutes activity!

Once it was all over and we’d had lunch, we got on the motorway and headed south again, to Syracuse. This time we were able to get into that car park but decided we would not want to stay overnight there. But we had a few hours to walk around the old part of the town (Ortigia) which is another Baroque masterpiece, also largely rebuilt after that earthquake. Parts are much older, and the Duomo (cathedral) was built on the site of a Greek temple, using some original Doric columns in its construction.

We got back to Gertie to discover she had an almost flat tyre (front, passenger side, and no, not a result of my weight sitting above it thank you very much). Thankfully Ignatius had packed a compressor so we were able to re-inflate the tyre running the compressor off the engine battery, but it was obvious it was a slow puncture and would need to be fixed. So we drove a short distance to a campsite 10km from the city centre, checked in and called the AA to advise us where we would be able to source a replacement tyre. Of course motorhomes don’t use standard car tyres.

While waiting for the AA to call back (as it was evening by now and they needed to call round Sicilian garages to see who had the right tyre, and they’d be closed) we got talking to the campsite owners. I say talking, but as we had very little language in common it was mostly points, grunts and Google translate.  Anyway, when I told Mrs Campsite that we had called breakdown assistance assistenza stradale she laughed, hugged Mr Campsite (whose name was Salvo) and said he’s your assistenza stradale.

And he was. He jacked up the van, whipped off the wheel, took it away, came back this morning with the puncture repaired, and replaced the wheel. Turns out we’d driven over a screw which was embedded in the tread. He took just 20 euro for his trouble. We spent the night with the van on a jack (and with a support thingy Salvo had, in case the jack failed) which was a bit unnerving. The repair seems good – we’ve driven a fair way today and it’s stayed at the right pressure.

Salvo, our saviour, alternatively known as Giorgio 2. We are collecting lovely helpful Sicilian men.