Bicycle ride Venice to Faenza
Every journey starts with a single pedal
It's mid September and autumn is coming to Europe. It's time to have a week or so's bike ride. This year, Mrs Bilbo told me that we had decided to ride around the Po valley, because it is flat and it's about time I visited Venice.
The “holiday programme” starts a couple of weeks into August as I cannot speak Italian. For the cost of a good double room I get 10 lessons from Elisa Polese on Skype from www.verbalplanet.com which proves to be perfect, I can just about understand +1/2 of what I hear, I can order food and hotel rooms and if a mad woman starts telling me that I cannot ride a bike over a zebra crossing (I could) I can look bemused.
The Po valley has grown over many years as a giant delta and it has been inhabited actively for the last 2000 years so that many of the rivers have had their banks raised to stop the flooding and are now high above the land, the land has grown some 35km out into the sea and a great many canals have been built to drain the land and to provide water born transportation. In order to maintain the rivers and the canals you need to access both sides of the water and these access roads now make for very fine bike paths. Normally one side is used for local transport while the other is used for long distance transport.
If you want to access the google map details, click on Venice or paste the following in your browser.
Canal side house
Another canal side house
Day 1 Venice to Dolo
We book a room for the first night near Venice and the last two nights in Venice itself. I pack up the bikes in giant plastic bags and stick them on the back seat of the soft top car and drive up to Leeds airport. Jet2.com drop us into Venice Marco Polo with bikes being delivered by hand before anything else off the conveyors. I find a quiet corner in the airport and rebuild the bikes, wrap up the giant bags and we peddle out of the airport an hour after we landed.
Mestre's (the town on Venice's coast) Tourist Information has published a bike map for the city but not all of the paths have been built yet, so our attempt to ride beside the lagoon means we end up in a Fred Carno's camp-site without access to the Lido but lots of wurlitzers. We back track to the SS14, cut thorough the town centre (two lovely old towers and a fine pedestrian area) and end up at the Mestre Station. There should be a bike path under the station but we cannot find it so we end up riding up onto the elevated roadway and climb down some steps into the service path under the roadway. Mrs Bilbo is not impressed (by the smell mainly, but the shadowy figures and the piles of "dirt" didn't help) and we emerge on a nice pathway, past a good cafe with cakes, and half an hour later have to do 15 minutes on a truck road SS11 (with added “ladies of the day”, goodness knows how ugly the "ladies of the night" are) until we can turn onto the Brenta canal. The start is a bit tricky to find but once found we stick on it to the rest of the day, what a find, the canal is lined in villas from the 18th and 19th century. Our first night's hotel is the Casa Colori in Dolo, which is a converted nunnery (friendly staff and classy with a touch of Ikea in the rooms), and they recommend we eat in al Fogher which proves to be very high class.
Padova stary-gazy tower
Battaglia Terme posh bridge
Monselice nestling in the shelter of an Euganian hill
Day 2 Dolo, via Padova, to Monselice
The next morning, after the 45km ride yesterday and a good night's sleep certain muscles are in some pain which even a buffet breakfast and loads of tea cannot remove. Dolo is really just a small town based along the canal but Padova (Padua) is a famous ancient city, while the Euganian hills were being used by the Romans before the empire, it should be fun. We follow on along a series of canals trying to keep off any busy roads into Padova. The villas and mansions are glorious along the canals, many falling down and waiting for major investment but one or two stand out.
Padova has a ring canal, a few bits of old wall and some wonderful looking old towers. We enter Padova and discover that the bike paths often runs along pavements, all over pedestrian areas and cobbled streets (owh!) and are just not sign-posted, in fact the whole area is terrible at indicating bike paths, streets and where Tourist Information is. We never find TI in Padova.
The only sign we do see everywhere is to St Anthony (a yellow label on all good lamp posts) which keeps showing up when we need it most, we have no idea where it went but it kept helping us out. A sensible older woman, on a sensible older bike with basket, spots us and asks where we are trying to get to. Once we have explained she says "follow me" and sets off putting us on the right path.
In Victorian Padova the wealthy locals liked to spend their evenings staring at the stars, which was proving difficult due to the modern street lighting, and so they built a special tower for looking at the sky. We grabbed a snack at the bar by the tower and headed south. After jinking though a complicated canal/road junction we ended up on a canal running south, parallel to the SS16, with some fine views of the Euganian hills to the west. This part of the Euganian hills is famous for its spas (which we have been to before) and some very small IGT wine regions.
Of particular note is the town of Battaglia Terme with a fine old fashioned bridge (protected by its own statue). Soon after this photo, a massive wasp flew up Mrs Bilbo's trousers. I don't have a photo of the thing or indeed Mrs Bilbo's trousers but it was at least 2" long and I'm told I looked very worried as I tried to get it out, I know she did.
We passed two old castles/chateaux one of which was founded by the guy who developed the first howitzer (according to the Italians). We finally stopped in Monselice, a walled city built in the hollow of the most southerly of the Euganian Hills. Tourist Information was playing its usual hide-and-seek game and we circled a town square looking for it. Mrs Bilbo takes a break (along the "I've done enough" break) and I take on the hunt myself. Based on a hunch I pop into an old ex-church and there it is hiding behind an art competition. A very friendly guide recommends an old monastery in the town which had been converted into the town's tourist hostel. It proved to be clean, empty and they checked us in in Italian. (that training works)!
After a quick wash we head out for a look round and find first one enoteca and then a second one hidden just south of Tourist Information (so well hidden it is not on Google). The food was reasonably good but the individual glasses of wine (from the Euganian hills) are splendid.
Day 3 Monselice to Rovigo
While I had brought with me a number of maps of our trip in the far north and far south of the trip I had not brought any details for this section. We normally try to pick up tourist maps as we go along but since we were now leaving Padova Province we are out of luck. So it will be a bit tricky and basically a bit boring finding our way between small towns and haystacks.
We follow the canal clockwise around the Euganian hills until we saw the sign to Schiavonia, Bertazzo, then we keep to the west of Sant'elena, Grompa, Vescovana, along the canal to Rialto and Lusia. Much as I love the Italian language these names could be "Pew, Pew ,Barnie, McGrew" but at least they stand out and appear on the odd sign. The whole route is flat and without bicycling signposts. (Apart from good old St Anthony) We spot virtually no restaurants or bars and once when we stopped to look at our maps a bus pulls up (blocking the whole road) and the driver shows us the right way (what a nice man).
We finally find somewhere to get a sandwhich and a bottle of iced tea. There are even more canals which keep popping up to give us elevated views of the area and the sign for St Anthony helps us along. These duller paths get a bit painful (mainly palms and bottoms) but at least we are getting closer to the next city.
Once across the river Adige we pass through yet more hamlets called Grompo and Concadirame. Then we ride into Rovigo from the north (well we should have, but we got a bit lost, and had to come in from the West on a busy road over the motorway). In Rovigo (with more bike paths) they have managed to hide Tourist information so well that even the locals do not know where it is. I'm sent all over town by four very helpful but completely ignorant people (hey, it's not raining and it's warm so not much of problem) looking for it and then decide to track it down by my nose. This time the whole frontage had been obscured by a large piece of white canvas so you would only know it if you fell over it. The place has lots of good information and they suggest various hotels.
We book into the four star Villa Regina Margherita (as you may know TI cannot make phone bookings for you) which is a little faded, but some fine art Deco features and has a wedding supper just starting. Rovigo turns out to be a nice town, lots of bicycles and this Saturday night it has a rave in the centre of town which keeps going into Sunday morning.
WW2 resistance monument
Day 4 Rovigo to Ferrari
Rovigo province is very wide east to west and very narrow north to south. As a result any map from Rovigo is pretty useless for guiding our bike route south. We get a bit lost until we hit the Po.
Anyway, it is Sunday and there are a variety of pseudo-military types on horses in town (with added poo shovels and staff) there are lots of people around who we can ask the way from. The first two are deaf (which foils even my language skills) but the third is fantastic and points us the right way. The weather holds off from raining and from Rovigo we go along a canal to St Sisto then the path to Pontecchio Polesine requires us to skirt a major freeport (strangely not on any map) which is plonked in the way. We pass by St Apolinare and then down to Guarda Veneta . Finding the path onto the bridge, over the real Po, at Polesella is a bit tricky and we end up doing our best which means we have to go much further than I expect and end up riding behind three Polish women.
Once we have crossed to Ro, I'm tired but Mrs Bilbo is all for looking at a group of buildings down by the river bank. It turns out that there is a floating mill, restaurants and an information centre here. Despite claiming to speak little Italian she marches in and starts chatting to a man who speaks only Italian. I drag myself in and we get to see the local bikes maps (which clip onto our handle bars, nice design) and lots of information on the province of Ferrara. We follow the main Po west and turn off at Francolino down to Ferrara. Our hotel, the Carlton, is close to the old town centre, they provide a good bike park for us and the room is perfectly OK while breakfast will be enlivened by the breakfast manager who was originally from Essex. Ferrara is fully walled and has some wonderful buildings plus a moated castle in the very centre.
Day 5 Ferrara visit
I'd always seen Ferrara as a key objective of the trip so we stayed two nights, this allowed us to get some washing done, to walk around the town and see the sites. For the first night the local African community had turned up to boogie the night away in the hotel ballroom. Despite the obvious bottles of scotch, the local heavies and the East London accents of many of the Somalis present the night stayed peaceful and even the local police had to go home as it broke up at 10:30 on the dot. For supper we had a vegetarian banquet in the next door Indian restaurant, we should have asked them to turn up the spice.
In the morning, since it was Monday, we could not go into any of the museums but we could get into Tourist Information which was poorly hidden in the central moated castle, we tried to pick up street wifi but failed miserably and then followed some of the official walks through town including the Jewish and Medieval walks.
Using my well developed knack of getting lost we stumbled onto one of the city walls and Mrs Bilbo had a chance to visit a large flea market, which is the sort of thing she loves. We visited goodness knows how many markets, the externals of the Diamond Palace and then grabbed a cup of tea and ice cream in the main park. The experience of so many bicycles, so many pedestrians and so few cars has to be seen to be believed.
That night we ate again in our hotel square at a Chinese who had re-organised their normal menu into Anti-Pasta, Prima and Seconda. Despite the weird sequence food was delivered in the actual food was very good. For wine we began to drink house prosecco in a jug, which became our wine of choice for much of the holiday.
Next morning all we had to do was pack up, dig our bikes out of the hotel store and we were on our way through the throngs of cyclists. People are riding next to people walking, there are no cars and everyone is behaving sensibly. We leave the walled city in the south eastern corner and link up with the correct canal but we have to follow the main road.
Bikes only bridge
Day 6 Ferrara to Argenta
Getting to Argenta starts on the main road running parallel to the Po di Primaro. Traffic slowly reduces as does access to street side restaurants and bars. The dullest part of the route was from Traghetto to Argenta which goes straight due east. At the entry to Argenta is a massive pumping house (home to the Museo della Bonifica) and going south we also visited the outside of a 11c St George priory which is a pretty little building. Moving south we stayed in Val Campotto, Agriturismo which is to the west of the giant man-made lake south of Argenta (all part of the flood management system put in in the 1920s). The B&B have their own wines and a restaurant making food from their own products.
Day 7 Argenta and the train to Ravenna
The Agriturismo has some nice rooms and we sleep well, and have breakfast with more plum cake than was wise. The morning was not sunny and heading towards Argenta saw us riding under glowering skies. We went to the door of the Museo della Bonifica which has a speaker phone stuck to a pole by the front gate. I then tried, with my Italian, to get in. They are not very welcoming, “come back in an hour” and “we only speak Italian” did not put us off so we peddled into Argenta where a local guy grabs us and shows us where Tourist Information is. (it was hidden in the main town centre, who would have thought of that?) and where the railway station is. (such nice people)
Tourist Information is in full hand waving chaos with all three staff shouting at each other so I pick up the material I need and head back outside. We ride back with an old guy, chatting away, to the Museum and call the speaker phone. It's off the hook. However, we wait and ten minutes late a young man walks out and shows us around. He normally shows large groups of school kids around, is a blacksmith, loves being challenged to explain how the thing works by two professional Engineers (yes that's us) and even puts up with it when our Italian proves too weak. An hour later we walk out some €4 poorer but far more knowledgeable and impressed by our first Art Deco pumping house.
We ride back along the canal paths to the Argenta railway station and try to buy a ticket, but of course, the ticket machine is bust. The traditional station facilities have long gone and all we can find is a bar, where we get a good snack from a woman who normally directs the British to the war memorial.
We get ourselves and the bikes up onto the train with the help of the conductor, who is most upset when I explain that I need to buy tickets for the bikes and 2 humans. “Why had I not bought the tickets in Argenta?” “Because, it was broken” (rotto is such a great word) “well next time buy them at a station” which, of course we would have if..... Anyway we bumble along on the train, which is virtually empty except for two African girls who spend their time shouting into mobile phones about their very active and physical love life, naturally to avoid embarrassment they did not do it in Italian, but in English. We left the train with my ears and cheeks glowing in embarrassment.
Getting down from the train I had to force the bikes through people who insisted on boarding the train as we tried to get off. Mrs Bilbo was helping two old Italians (+80) off and finally just stuck out her arms and shoved back against the crowd from the height of the train, at which point it got a great deal easier. No lifts in Ravenna so moving bikes through the station takes a bit of effort.
It's raining in Ravenna and the way to our room is blocked by a good number of covered pavements, bars scattered in the street and tricky wet cobbles still we find the Aurora R&B (Room and Breakfast) quickly. Nice simple room, with sensible hosts and Tourist Information is just down the way.
We dump the bikes and bags and waddle (those saddles your honour) to TI, which amazes us. For once, it is where the map says it should be, it is open when it says it should be, the material available is relevant and sensible, the staff is calm and the staff know the answers to our questions in English or Italian. After this shock we considered turning to god and so we take the tour of the religious mosaics of Ravenna. To do this you ignore all the places offering to sell tickets and go to the Basilica of San Vitale and buy the 5 site ticket which have to be visited in 24 hours and costs roughly Euro 8 each.
Ravenna is a World UNESCO Heritage centre because in around 500c it was the capital of the Roman empire and many of the churches were decorated with fine mosaics. Due to the gradual decline of the city over the last 1000 years the mosaics have been left in fine condition.
We visited as many as we could that night before stopping for tea and lemon cake at Costa Cafe (not the brand but a cafe on Plaza Costa). After a shower we had supper at the heaving La Gardela whose staff were clearly multilingual and used to chaos. We ordered a particular wine and they tried to flog us another wine (it suits you sir) which was rubbish but happily they replaced it with the one we had ordered. The meal was further enhanced as a crazy American began boring all the others near him about how wonderful Romney was. His departure was applauded ironically by most of the restaurant. I'd recommend this place for the theatre alone and the food was pleasant enough.
Day 8 Ravenna to Faenza
In the morning we visited the last few mosaic sites and then saddled up to get to Faenza and the R&B we booked that morning over breakfast. There is no official bike route there and Tourist Information look surprised that we could ride there. Still we followed the town map out of town and then linked up with two parallel roads either side of a canal. Needless to say I chose the busy side but after a bit it evened out and we end up on the quiet one approaching Faenza from the east through the new town.
The new town proves to be pretty long and our maps give out and even asking people for the street names prove useless but we stumble on the right road and the luxurious commercial R&B with added high class restaurant and swimming pool. It is very clean and very posh. That evening we ride into the old town which proves to be made up of just a few streets in the centre before heading back for our first pizza of the trip in this restaurant.
Day 9 Faenza, to Bologna and Venice by train
Booking our tickets to Venice proved to be a good joke to the ticket salesman, “Bikes to Venice, you know you cannot use bikes in Venice”, “why do you want to go there?” “Why two bikes, wouldn't a tandem be better for two of you?” Still he does understand that we have to buy the tickets in person as TrenItalia will not sell you bike-carrying tickets on the right routes (for the bikes or the people) as the software is just too stupid. It will take 4 hours and costs peanuts.
In the morning we go off to MIC , which is a massive ceramic museum, and leave our packed bikes outside while we try to visit it in two hours. I've never had to run through exhibition halls before but since we were the only people in the place for two hours we felt we could. The highlights for me were the Japanese collection and the 1900-1930 Northern European collection but there was so much more and so little British stuff we could have spent half a day here. Still we finally had to leave to catch our train.
Our trains are the "Regionale" as they are the only trains that take bikes. Unfortunately they are very slow and are used by people who cannot afford to travel on normal trains. As a result they are packed and, in this case, full of German kids who sprawl all over the dirty floor. The bike racking area has been designed by an idiot who has left no instructions and the entrance areas are blocked by bodies. Still we get on, I manage to clip away our bikes and we travel into Bologna. Along the way get told off by the conductor for not understanding the bike rack system. So I asked him how it worked and it became clear he also did not understand it either.
Bologna station is heaving with people, and again people will not let us off the train with our bikes first. But they have lifts on all the platforms. Anyway getting from platform to platform via a lift is so easy in comparison to lugging bikes up and down stairs.
Luckily the train to Venice is old fashioned so they have half a wagon to hold bikes hanging off sensible hooks. The train slowly empties until we reach Mestre. Mestre station is a bit tourist-trappy with unofficial porters offering to help etc. (Beware of unofficial porters as they have no controls and no fixed rates).
Day 10 Venice for 2 days
We can store bikes in the official bike park to the south of Mestre Station for €2/24 hours which we do for a day, but we notice that the place is closed on Sundays. Then we catch the train into Venice St Marco. I grew up close to the water and this feels a bit like I'm coming home. If you want more details on what to do with bikes in Venice look at Visiting Venice.
A short walk through the maze that is Venice with bike bags is a pain as the things are not designed for hand carrying. We have to 'phone the R&B (Repubblica Marinara) to get access, when she turns up she is very organised and gives us a fair bit of time and information. We are both pretty tired from the travel and a migraine seems to get us both, we eat in the same street which has poor service but good food.
Next day it is warm and sunny and we do all the usual touristy things, we walk to St Marks, then towards the Arsenale but visit the Old Maritime Museum (which is splendid). Lunch at a locals small bar, then dropped into the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery (which is a great place to watch the grand canal from). Needing to get our bikes out of store we catch bus 2 out to Mestre and move our bikes into a insecure slot near the Avis office. To make it as secure as possible we lock the bikes with every chain we have and take off the saddles hoping that the things will be there in the morning. Despite my attempt to eat in Mestre Mrs Bilbo insists on eating in Venice so we catch the bus back and walk through the setting sun and the dark forbidding alleys to our room.
Supper is at a small chain (Pane, Vino e San Daniele), the food is very good and the staff are extremely funny flirting with two female customers. Once again we have eaten in a town at a restaurant on the same street which we are sleeping on, but other places had looked so dull.
Day 11 going home
Next morning we catch the Vaporetto from the end of our street to Mestre bus station. A famous English actor is having a temper tantrum in the queue for bus tickets. We go back to the bikes and they are OK. The ride through Mestre is much easier now we have good quality maps. Central Mestre includes a lovely old pedestrian square with a Sunday lunch type market going on. The ride back to the airport is a gentle end to the holiday and grab lunch in the last town before the airport. It takes about an hour to strip the bikes and put them into their giant plastic bags. At "checkin" the Jet2.com staff try to claim that only one bike is booked in. Fortunately Mrs Bilbo has a complete print off of our contract and shows that Jet2.com Italy have a system error. So keep those records and don't trust even the best cheepo airline. We leave Italy at 25C and sunshine and arrive back in Leeds at 7C and pouring rain.
Lessons learnt. Do not park your bikes on the wrong side of a yellow line on the railway system (no idea which is the wrong side but don't). Do not ride bikes over zebra crossings even if everyone else is. Finding Tourist Information requires diligence, Italians are sensible and pleasant but you sometimes have to let them vent their problems. The Po valley is very flat. Keep a copy of all contracts as computers are idiots.
If this sort of holiday interests you then you can find more at MyBikeGuide.