Saturday, 31 August 2013

Heading into the Dolomites

They have such wonderfully romantic names for their cycling routes over here.


After spending my first day on the "E4" route, I have found myself on the "I4" route for the last few days as I have headed off the Venuto Plains and slowly up into the Dolomite Mountains.

Them there are hills ahead ...
Into the pass ..
A roads for me and above the road for everyone else ...
I think I've gained about 800 metres in altitude over the last two days (currently typing this in Pieve Di Cadore a small village about 40km north of Belluno) but I am still about a day and a half's ride from officially entering the Dolomite Region (so the guide book, not the mountains, tell me).

Looking up at the start of day four 
... and looking back down at the end of day 4.
I'm finding that like most trips, this one has a routine.

Day one is always chaos as a hundred small problems all bombard you at once, each one usually minuscule, but when put together they combine to become almost overwhelming.

Then what was new becomes routine, what seemed hard becomes known and easy.  Little steps like figuring out where to stop for lunch, how long the GPS battery will last, finding a bike shop to repair my broken rear rack and finding accommodation at night all become sorted out, and you find yourself just settling in and enjoying the riding itself ...




I'm still taking it pretty easy (riding 3-5 hours a day and covering 40 to 60 kilometres) as I try and get some fitness and test my knee, though I will say that with me and my bike weighing in at over 150kgs even that distance can be a challenge in this heat and terrain.  Furthermore, I always seem to plan the day so that the steepest/hardest section comes up when I've slipped into that "Ah, I've made it only 2 kilometres to go" mindset.  Nothing like a good steep hill when you're on the verge of collapse and all you really want is a shower and cold drink.

I would also like to say to all those people who told me that "all Italians speak English" that it is my heartfelt experience that once you get out of the tourist hot spots, that this is not true, and that in fact very few of them do at all, but this has not been too big a problem.

I did try and order a pepperoni pizza last night, and despite the strange look from the lady serving me, I insisted that I did indeed want just a pepperoni pizza, so she had one made up.  Turns out I had ordered a "pepper" (as in capsicums) pizza so there's a lesson learnt.  She is still probably trying to figure out who on earth would want a capsicum pizza now.  To be honest, I'm with her on that one.

However, once we get past the stereotypes we hold about a country, friendliness the world over still abounds.  I managed to walk out of a shop yesterday leaving my wallet behind ... the owner (with a shop full of customers) ran down the street after me to return it.

And that, and the mountains, is I think why I travel. To remind myself that this world is a beautiful place.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Day 1 - Venice to Treviso

One of the hardest parts of any trip (hold onto your seats for this one ...) is the first step.

Yep, getting started is a bitch.  It's that moment when you tell yourself can still back out with dignity, you really can, but at the same time you know at the back of your mind that you only have a finite amount of days, so if you don't do it now, then when?

I love planning (well, most would call it dreaming, but I call it planning), I love being in the moment and doing stuff and I particularly love looking back on what I've done ... but getting started, turning the dream into reality.  That is something I hate doing.  Whether it's opening the car door when you arrive at a trail head for a ride in the rain or unpacking my bike after a week lugging it around Italy, my love of the first step is universally non existent.

.and yet still it happens, this ...


turns into this ..

albeit with a time lapse of over an hour, and a lot of sweat, swearing and "why am I doing this?" thrown in for good measure.

Then with my trusty stead assembled and still not ready for the first step, I did what any person in my position would do having just assembled their bike in a strange country ready to launch themselves out into a major bus and car thoroughfare ... I walked over to a cafe, sat down and ordered a cold drink so I could try and figure out what I had forgotten or done wrong.

But, no, after some thought, I confirmed that I'd checked the spokes, the wheel turn, the brakes, the handlebar alignment, admittedly I'd just thrown things in Panniers but at least I'd made sure the weight was about the same on either side ... I figured I was good to go.

So with a few more breathes to steel myself, I jumped onto the bike and set off ... and it went swimmingly ... just long enough for me to enter the stream of traffic (and yes I did remember to ride on the other side of the road) and get going ... then I realised that my seat was about an inch too high just as my handlebars collapsed down under me because I'd also forgotten to tighten them properly (having gotten distracted mounting the handlebar bag).

Fortunately I somehow managed to not kill myself and fifteen minutes later, after several more adjustments and starts, I finally took off into the traffic heading from Venice to Mestre.

Now, after you come out of the maelstrom of the car and bus parking at Venice, you head onto a long causeway to the mainland, and it is very important for cyclists to get off the road and onto the bicycle lane than runs between the road and the railway.

I realised this just as I cycled past the unsigned, and as I was about to find out, the only exit from the road onto this path resulting in me cycling for about two kilometres down a busy, narrow two lane road with barriers on either side.

My stress levels were getting rather high when I say a guy and a kid coming along the road in the opposite direction which made me think "this is OK, there's other people doing this as well" at which point a gap in the concrete wall between us appeared and I saw that they too were on a cyclepath on their side.

It was just me and the traffic.

Somehow I got to the other side, at which point all of the traffic got channeled into a single lane due to roadworks (yes, this really was my hell) and I had to cycle along for what seemed like forever with all this traffic banking up behind me.  Fortunately, the cycleway had merged with the road at this point, so at least there was another cyclist with me.

Finally I made it to Mestre where I fired up my Gaia GPS App and prayed to any god that would listen for it to work ... and work it did ... like a charm as it guided me all the way to Treviso down some gorgeous backroads, small towns and river paths ...









In fact the only times I got lost was when I turned it off because I thought I knew where I was going or when I saw a bicycle route sign and thought "Oh ... that must be the way I should go, how many cycleways could there be in Europe?" ... only to check my GPS a few kms down the road to find out that there are quite a few (thousand) cyclepaths in Europe and randomly following every cycle route sign I saw was not going to be a good travel strategy.

Eventually I did find my way onto a cyclepath that I was meant to follow (The E4 - I know a spectacularly poetic name), but I had lost all faith in cyclepaths by this stage so continued to consult Gaia App at every junction regardless ...


I had two (other) problems with today's ride.

Firstly, I had trusted some travel guide route notes I had found (and followed) which said that this ride was roughly 35-45kms.  A good distance for a first day I thought.

Turns out I should have checked as the total distance ended up being well over 60kms (my Strava for the day shows just under 60kms, but I forgot to turn it on after a drink stop and lost about 20-30 minutes of riding) and the second problem was that when I got there, I couldn't find anywhere to stay - literally.

I cycled around and around the centre of town looking for a tourist information office or a hotel, but everything was closed and it was only by luck that I went back to Gaia App (getting the idea that I like this App?) and found that it had some hotels showing on it, so I clicked on the nearest one and 10 minutes later I had myself a bed (breakfast included) for 50 Euro.

First days damage is a bit of sunburn (finally found some sunscreen now) and very sore hands as the tape from my handlebars had all come off during transit.  Will fix that tomorrow.

I also discovered what could be a rather major problem with my rear rack ... I'd kind of forgotten that one of the rear bolts had the thread sheared on my last flight back from the US.  I tried jerry rigging it with a larger bolt, cable ties and sticky tape today but it developed a rather worrying rattle by the end of the day and this isn't a job I can fix on the road.  Heck, who am I kidding - I couldn't fix this if you gave me a fully equipped workshop.

If it gets worse tomorrow I shall seek out a bike shop and pray to the cycling gods that they can help me with a repair.

Strava link here.



Gifts

For twenty years I've managed to get away with not buying people gifts whilst overseas on the basis that when you're flying around the world with a bike and all the associated gear, the last thing you want to do is to be buying more stuff to lug home.

But that was in a time before monsters.

A week of so before I left Kim informed me that the monsters will expect presents upon my return, and having watched as she carefully bought them each presents when in New Zealand (monster gifts must be balanced in terms of both numbers and value or else all hell breaks loose), I know this to be true.

I therefore had a stroke of genius a few days before I left and went and bought a handful of iTunes cards for Kim to give to them while I was away thus killing two birds with one stone ... Presents bought and no worrying about what to get them whilst travelling and how to get it into my luggage limit.

Turns out it doesn't work out that way.

The iTunes cards were gratefully accepted by Kim, but then she pointed out that they don't cut it as travel presents, and, oh, by the way, girlfriends also expect presents when boyfriends take off overseas for six weeks ... and no, I know exactly where your mind is going because mine went there too ... Apparently (and who would have known this) giving her my credit card and carte blanche to rip out and replace my kitchen while I was away apparently does not constitute a present ...

So many rules!!!

So anyway, as I've been wandering the streets of Rome and Venice I've actually come across some pretty cool presents ...

Firstly, I saw this unicorn and I just knew it would be perfect for Zara ...

Only problem was that it was the size of a small pony, so would have been a bit difficult to lug around on the bike.

Next, I got a bit practicable ... cheap sunglasses and cheap throw squishy things that return to their original shape ... Perfect presents for Monsters, and maybe even girlfriends ...

Thinking "shopping done" I then wandered down this lane and came across what looked like the world's longest marshmallow and squishy ball things and cheap sunglasses lost all meaning ... This was the perfect present.

Now all I needed was something for Kim, and wouldn't you know it not 20 minutes later, I found not one, but two perfect presents and I just don't know how to choose between them.

Should I go for the bobbly head queen figurine ...

... With bobbly head Corgi!

Or should I go with a Venetian mask ...

You see ... This buying presents stuff is hard!!!!

Actually, I just checked and noticed that I have a four hour stopover in Dubai on the way home.

That sounds like the perfect time to go present shopping.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Venice

I first planned on doing this trip in 2010, but was foiled in my departure by a broken knee, a blood clot and three months spent sitting on a couch recovering when I was supposed to be overseas.

However, despite the intervening years and my other travels, my plans here have remained pretty much the same ... fly into Rome, spend a few days there, head down to the Amalfi Coast and cycle around to Pompei before heading up to Venice and then cycling up through the Dolomites into Austria.

Which begs the obvious question ...














Why am I already in Venice?

What happened to my dreams of cycling the Amalfi Coast and exploring Pompei?

Well the short answer is ... Rome.

I loved Rome, don’t get me wrong, but as I always seem to do, I underestimated what I’m now calling the Eiffel Effect ... the lure of the big ticket location, and all its associated expectations, compared to the reality of actually being there.

You know the reality ... the crowds, the heat, the overpriced drinks, the long lines, the well hidden public toilets that you only find due to the horrible smell that emanates from it, and the fact that whatever it is you’re there to see, it never look as cool as it did in the movie, documentary or picture which was what lured you there in the first place.

Standing in the Sistine Chapel, locked elbow to elbow with 300 hundred other people in what felt like an overcrowded lift, with the curators walking around going “Shhhhh” and “No Photos – No Video” every 30 seconds didn’t leave me with any sense of magic or of having visited a special place.

No, the highlights in Rome for me weren’t the big ticket items, the magic for me was following a sign pointing down a lane to some fountain only to come out onto one of the most amazing man made features I’ve ever seen – that was magical.

Another highlight came an hour or two later when I saw a couple of people duck into some church door that wasn’t even on my tourist map, and thinking “What the heck”, I followed them in only to find myself inside this massive and virtually empty Basilica which in my mind easily exceeded St Peters ... that was magical.

And that’s when I felt the road off the tourist track calling me, and so I headed north.


I had planned on doing a kayaking trip in Venice which is why I came here, but my luck was out on that one because while I was on the train north an email came wending my way saying that due to lack of numbers there would be no trips until at least the 29th, and at the prices they charge for accommodation in Venice, I just can’t afford to hang around that long.

So, having heard stories of how horrid and smelly Venice is I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed just spending a couple of days wandering around.  Mind you thinking about it now, given that Venice is essentially one giant maze and given how much I love mazes, I don’t know why I would be surprised.


Mind you, Venice is small enough that you can’t really get lost.

At least I don’t think you can.

So I’ve just wandered around, curling up in the occasional open area to eat a kebab or a gelati, do a bit of people watching or just read my kindle (I’ve finished two books already since I left Australia).  Basically just unwinding.  All those deadlines and stupid work hours I was doing back in Tassie seem so far away already.

I did have one very cool moment. I had flicked on BBC World News when I first arrived in Rome and watched this interesting show where these two guys were comparing historic and contemporary art, and one of the exhibitions they went to was from this dissident who was locked up for 81 days and who has created this exhibition where he’s captured this time in sculpture inside these huge metal boxes and you sort of stare in through this tiny window to see his world.  Kind of like this ...


I thought it was a very cool idea, so you can imagine how doubly cool it was when I wandered into this church, more because I wanted to get out of the sun than anything else, and there in front of me was the very exhibition I’d seen on TV ... given all the random twists and turns I’d taken to gt to that spot, and all the hundreds of places I walked right past, to just walk into that one exhibition ... that was very cool.

But my time here is ending, tomorrow I intend to assemble my bike, and all being well make my way north to Treviso, which I think is about 45km north of here (by cycle route). Then, all going well I intend to spend a week just slowly wending my way north through the Dolomites to Belluno, Cortina D’Ampezzo and Toblach at which point I shall have to make a decision to either turn right to Lienz or left to Brunico (and then Innsbruck in Austria).

But that decision is at least a week away ... assuming I don’t change my mind and head back down to the Amalfi Coast.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Vatican City ...

So I figured I'd spend my birthday with the Pope ... seemed kind of appropriate.

So I started the day by having a look around his local church ...





Then I read my kindle for an hour and a half as I shuffled my way into the Vatican museum ...
















I wandered around with the hordes rather overwhelmed by everything ...




Then it was time to leave for my lunch appointment with the big P.


Just me and fifty godzillion other people that decided to turn up ...


and then ... there he was ... if I held my camera up high enough and at just the right angle, I could just get a shot of him standing at his window ...

But then I got sick of that so I walked back to my hotel with my birthday treat ...


... and that was my birthday.