So the novelty and challenge of half-freezing on a bike and in a tent through the UK and France has given way to the slow onset of a long summer in Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Arriving in Italy, navigating the easy warmth of the Mediterranean coast, was a bit of a shock to the system, having made an easy swap between London rush hour and -5 in a tent on colder days. So the trip settled into a more of a routine, one beer per day turned into at least three, and I sought out steep slopes to alleviate the guilt of not having a job and sending constant pictures of ice cream to friends and family.
Then again, while the trip seemed to evolve in the direction of a holiday, updating social media is also very selective. If everything is terrible you don’t generally get your camera out. You are too busy insulting the gradient of the hill that nature has ordained for you and you dont have any battery anyway. The end result of this, looking back over the trip, is a welcome gloss of constant joy and success through adversity – in my mind as well as (I imagine) everyone else’s. So much so, true to my RC roots, I am a little concerned I need to include more suffering to justify my extended leave of absence, and preserve my job prospects and fundraising ability… That might just be the beer talking though…
So here is the story of my trip since the Alps…
After arriving in the South of France, I visited Nice and followed the coast to pass into Italy and did a big loop as far south as Florence rather than traverse North Italy. Once I crossed the Apennines and made it back up the Adriatic coast, via the great cities of Ravenna, Ferrara, and Padua, I did another one up through the Dolomites, from Bassano del Grappa in Italy to Kransjka Gora in Slovenia, rather than follow the coast through Venice and Trieste. I’m now in Croatia, on the Istrian peninsula. Next up is the coast of Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, maybe with a trip inland into Bosnia along the way.
I am, I think, about 50km away from 4000km. My previously trusty Cateye Velo 5 cycling computer packed in during a rain storm leaving Trieste, prompting a minor panic in which I wiped it. Carefully collated photo evidence at 3500km and the shortest possible Google map routes leave me on at least 3879km, though, so I’m going with that, with a bit of a penalty. I stopped posting updates on how far I have been, but still have a long ways to go to cure the obsession with km cycled and metres climbed.. My new cycle computer has a programmable overall distance and tells me my average speed and revolutions per minute…
Part of the joy of cycling is having to go the whole way, and seeing what you find, but some places stand out…
The Gorges of Verdun
The most scenic places I have been to always seem to be covered in snow and the long narrow mountain road through the Gorge was no exception. Manageable wind and rain at the start turned into a horizontal blizzard of sleet and snow, up a constant slope, leaving me unable to fully open my eyes or look up to try and spot sudden bends in the road. Suffering! It was epic in its own way though, and a bit of an adventure.
I had wild camped before entering the Gorge, in the forest along the switchbacks on the way up to the entrance, with some beautiful views but also the repeated croak of what sounded like a dying wolf edging closer to the tent.
Initial euphoria after the end of the Gorge and sight of a touristy town, replete with a sign for various campsites and hotels, quickly diminished when I found everything was closed. An awkward moment ensued when I lumbered into a church / town hall building, teeth chattering and lycra soaked, and happened on a class at play in a primary school on the top floor. After making a swift exit I found a radiator on the bottom floor and had a bit of a picnic next to the hand drier before putting on everything I had to go outside again. Cue the umpteenth friendly samiritan who tried to find me a place to stay and, while that didn’t go very well, recommended a nearby campsite closed for the season with a small ledge I could park my tent under.
I woke to bright sunshine and a mountain descent, having come dangerously close to a proper adventure. There were barking dogs outside the tent though – I thought that would be more adventure points, until I dared to go outside and found this little one curled up guarding the entrance.
I cycled through Liguria province in Italy, in the off-season, along a part of the Italian coast that geared up for tourism in the 1920s and definitely maintains its sense of style amidst the hustle of over development.
Many, many miles of coasting along flat beach promenades with ice cream parlours, restaurants, closed beach resorts and grand hotels from yesteryear eventually gave way to the hills approaching Cinque Terre, a Unesco site made up of great mountain hikes surrounding five hard to reach villages hanging over the coast. The steep hills above the villages were some of the best cycling so far, with phenomenal views once you rounded each of the cliffs and saw the grand sweeping bays below.
Everyone should visit the Italian Dolomites! Somehow more intimate and small-scale than the Alps, while retaining their sense of grandeur, the mountains are stunning. The route winds its way along abandoned railway lines carved into the mountains and through tunnels and bridges in amazing networks of cycle ways linking Italy, Austria and Slovenia.
I started in Bassano del Grappa and went north towards Pieve di Cadore, one of a series of villages and small towns surrounding the epic Lake Cadore, before heading a short distance to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Setting off up the steeper slopes towards Tre Cime, unfortunately my way to the 2300m summit was blocked by snow, kicking off a 1500m descent surrounded by steep and sharp mountains that was completely brilliant.
Arriving in Slovenia via the mountains was like jumping into a picture postcard at speed, and it didn’t let up until I was the other side of Ljubljana. I went through Kransjka Gora and Bled and Bohinj, and then on to the capital for the weekend. Starting out, it was all cycle paths through small enclosed valleys with solitary farm houses set against snow capped mountains and only the whir of my bike to break the silence.
Then roads circling the steep peaks surrounding the lakes of Bled and Bohinj, before a rubbish day getting constantly stuck on a steep mountain bike path towards Ljubljana having picked the wrong route.
I started to meet some other cycle tourers on the road. The first in Ljubljana, and the next three all passed me sleeping in a bus stop in the sunshine on the way from Ljubljana to Trieste. Cool projects both –
Turns out the smart money is on Spain, Portugal and Morocco in the Winter rather than the Alps…
Slovenia is great. I only scratched the surface, as ever, cycling to Koper and Piran on the coast after visiting Kransjka Gora, Bled, and Bohinj, but can only recommend visiting. The countryside and the very cool atmosphere of the capital apart, I spent ages on a sunny day in the Modern Art Gallery in Ljubljana, in the permanent exhibition of 20C art. Early work of Bozidar Jakac left an impression, as well as the scale of the social and cultural organization of the anti-fascist partisan resistance in WW2 and what happened to it after. I will be back!
But now time to leave this cafe and cycle in the rain to Rijeka……..