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Day 15 – Riva del Garda to Trento – Southern Alps

Torbole, Lago di Garda, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

The air is cool under dark clouds today. There is nobody around. It is my father’s eighty-first birthday. I wish he was here to see this beautiful view. The only sound is the chug of a small boat in the distance, the sound bounces off the rocky cliffs. Layer upon layer of blue mountains slip into the lake. The Alps have hardly begun, but the ride into that realm begins now.

Luciana gave me delicious scrambled eggs and fruit salad for breakfast this morning. The ride started peacefully pedalling along the lake edge. Not much reflection, just deep dark colours. Then a turn up a particularly steep mountainside. I snigger proudly past a young man struggling up on his mountain bike. The e-bike advantage is enormous in this terrain. Karma takes immediate effect by making me miss the sign for the cycle track, so I ignorantly take the high road.

The high road is for quarry lorries. There is no shoulder for a bike. The lorry drivers gesture wildly at me as they bear down. I am caught between the raw stone wall of the mountain on my right shoulder and the wheels of large trucks on my left. As they pass they leave a gap exactly wide enough for my panniers – give a millimeter or two. There is nothing I can do but go on as fast as I can, making a lot of small screams as the giant wheel-hubs spin and thunder at my ear. Those drivers certainly know their dimensions.

After about ten kilometres later, at a small town in the valley between Riva and Trento, the cycle track reappears and whoosh! What an incredible ride! It’s the first ridiculously perfect cycle path so far. A mini highway just for bikes. Lines and signs keep us on track. Suddenly there are other bikers around, and we shout greetings.

Sarche

At the village of Sarche black clouds came over the mountains and the rain rushes down in torrents. A couple of road maintenance men point me to a hotel. Sitting comfortably in a nook with a cup of coffee… then cappuccino… then tea…eventually I give up waiting for the rain to pass and put on my plastic suit to go.
From then on things become very soggy, including my bladder. There is very little chance of a roadside pit stop, being a lady. So I go on. The track leads to roads and a system of bridges and tunnels leave me feeling dumb. Some locals tell me I can go through the tunnel, but it is long and very-very dangerous and illegal for bicycles. My confusion is complete. I phone my family for directions but nobody picks up.

In desperation I take a smaller road, pressing aimlessly on, checking google maps on my phone but not actually finding the way. It would probably help if I knew where I wanted to end up. At a weird intersection leading onto another truck-filled road, I get off the bike and just stand there like a cow chewing cud. Like the weather, a grey mood descends on me and the Catastrophic voice goes mute. To tell you the truth I would rather push the bike through a forest than go on another ‘high’ road after the experience this morning with the quarry trucks. I scan through the grey matter of my brain and find only fog. A small red car comes along so I wave, it slows a bit then roars off.

But not all is lost, suddenly my imaginary team comes to the rescue. My kids voices pipe up in my head and I listen while they discuss the problem amongst themselves before leaning over to me and say “Mom, just go up this road to see what’s at the top of the hill”. So I go. Turns out the cycle track starts right there. I giggle-cry a bit and carry on.

Two men are loading giant copper pots into a van. They give me directions: “Go here, then two curves further on, take the third track left for a few kilometres on farm roads until you see a fruit seller on the corner, then don’t take the marked track, take the one that goes to the left, then turn right almost immediately onto a dirt road, it goes up steeply but it’s fine, then at the fourth or fifth track on the right side of the big road, go down and up again, then cross over the highway at the end of that road…….

Miraculously I find the fruit seller sitting in his van with the window open. He has one precarious looking tooth. When asked “which of the four tracks go to Sopramonte?” He gestures vaguely towards a muddy track in the forest and grins widely. He leans out of his van window and hands me half an apricot to taste. I eat it in two snaps. It is as sweet as honey.

Something tells me to avoid the forest road, so I take one of the other options, they all merge around the corner anyway. The climb is huge, 1000 meters up to Candriai. I manage to find a loo at a cafe there, and the barista tells me I’m nuts to ride further up to Sopramonte.

Trento

Dropping 1000 meters down into Trento is exhilarating, switchbacks all the way down the raw orange cliffs. Trento lies flat in the valley, crusty and full of fuming industry. First a glass of Vermentino wine at a bar where the barman recommends the ‘Everest Hotel’. So I go there.

I must admit I’m falling in love with my bicycle. Seriously, after clinging to her all day there is a certain separation pang when I lock her up in the hotel Everest basement for the night. She looks so forlorn stripped naked of her panniers. In the morning I feel a wave of happiness to see her again. Going a little crazy?

I put vinegar on my pasta instead of olive oil at dinner by mistake. It’s apple cider vinegar, no more balsamic in apple country. I eat the sour pasta with long teeth.

 Heading for Meran tomorrow.

Trip distance so far 858.67 Kms.

Time in the saddle 55:32 hrs.

Happiness level: “high.”

See the route map ( forgot to add Candriai)

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Day 14 – Mantua to Riva del Garda – a boat ride.

Day 14 Lago di Garda by Leanne Talbot Nowell

I’m sneaking through the bushes along a little path in the woods this morning at Mantua. A large sticky spider web attaches itself to my back, and I take its owner for a short ride before swatting and swerving crazily. A couple of swans hiss at me over their goslings. Rabbits hop about. The fairytale continues.

Surprisingly, my knees seem to be holding up, and my back is unusually pain-free. It’s amazing what biking can do for a granny as gnarly as me. A nice lady points the way to the cycle track which leads out of Mantua towards Lago di Garda, and soon I’m cruising between wheat fields once again. I’m so happy to have a cycle track to follow, instead of those truck-infested roads.

This is the lowest point, geographically speaking. of my route across the valley. From now on the road will begin to rise up onto the foothills of the Alps. The catastrophic inner voice has been forbidden to speak of the Alps.

Farmers are turning hay, throwing up great clouds of hayfever-provoking dust. I hold my breath when a cloud billows my way. Tiny bits of wheat stalk stick all over me. A niggly dry cough hacks away at my energy, and my fingernails are black as they collect dust and carbon from scratching my itchy face.

A pig-swill truck swerves onto the cycle track, and the stink is so horrific it makes me gag. On a bike one is bombarded by the full buffet of smells, from star-jasmine to cow urine, to wet grass, to algae ponds. Water is everywhere. Gushing, chalky blue, over weirs, rushing along canals, fiery green in ditches or dripping invisibly off trees. I’m astonished at the number of pumping stations, locks, dykes and concrete walls. Whatever have we done to our beautiful natural rivers!?

An obsolete castle on a hilltop surrounded by a little forest brings history into perspective. I stop for a moment in Monte Borghetto to look at the charming Medieval village and a Metasequoia tree. Also known as a Dawn Redwood, they were initially only found in fossil form, but a few living trees were recently discovered in China, and have been brought back from the very brink of extinction. 

The quaint medieval village is festooned with pots of scarlet geraniums, gay splashes of colour against the mossy stone walls. A softly cascading river curls through the ruins of an old tower.

For some unknown reason, the bike battery, although plugged in all of last night, has not fully charged, so I am a bit anxious about how far and where to go next.

The catastrophic voice asks: “How will you ever ride over those mountains my girl? Don’t you think it’s time to go home!”. But my feet continue pedalling in answer, while my brain runs amok with anxiety. It will be bit like paddling a canoe over a tsunami.

Lago di Garda

The first glimpse of Lago di Garda is reached at Peschiera, the most southern village of this long lake. The road around the lake is too narrow and dangerous for a bicycle, so I’ve decided to cross it by ferry.

A man in a sailor suit standing alone on the pier tells me: “You have missed the boat. There are no more today”. At the information office I ask a tall dark girl with impressively long mauve fingernails. She points at the timetable, the nails clicking as they touch the card. I ask if there is another ferry today.  Judging by her reaction she has been asked that question way too many times. The answer is a definite no.

I pedal gingerly west along the southern shore, using as little battery power as possible. My loaded bike is impossible to pedal without it. At the ferry port of Sirmione, a man sitting in a small white ticket box interrupts me while I’m asking him about the next ferry, shouting repeatedly over the loudspeaker: “Schlange auf der rechten Seite”.

A group of German ladies giggle each time he yells. I ask which is the furthest jumping off point and he replies “Riva”, so I buy a ticket for there. The boat leaves at 15:30, just enough time to taste a peachy ice cream at the elegant Grande Cafe italia. My bike parked at the table with me.

He yells again: “Please queue on the right side”. About fifty of us stand in a hot line until the ferry arrives and my bike is safely wheeled on board and tied to a pipe. What a relief to sit down and travel on a flat chair. The cough sounds tight and wheezy. I realise the only thing I’ve lost since Florence is my appetite.

We chug over the rocking water reflecting late afternoon light and shadows up onto the ferry ceiling. Heavy fumes trailing behind us, away from the flat white-hot sky and coming storm. All around the lake, the green-blue mountains of the Alps surge up into the sky.

Heading north we cross from coast to coast, village to village, picking up and dropping off passengers. The deck is made of iron and painted apple green. Three young sailors man the ropes, shouting to the harbour hands to set the gangplank. When they’re not throwing ropes, they sit behind the bar and laugh into their phones.

I scuttle around the deck photographing the astonishing views. Italy radiates unearthly light. The sky turns to apricot, the mountains glow gold, and the dark water shimmers with bright reflections of crayon-box houses along the shore.

We pull up to Limone del Garda, clinging vertically to a towering cliff. Her fantastically terraced “limonaia” orchards are now beginning to be renovated after a total collapse since World War II. The ruins of old stone pillars half-stand in honour of the greatness of her lemony past. Thankfully, tourism has brought new life to the town of Limone.

The colours of sunset sink slowly into the lake as we drift up to the darkening pier of Riva del Garda.

Riva del Garda

My battery expires outside the nicer-than-expected Hotello dello Sport. Luciana gives me a warm handshake and shows me the dungeon where I’m to store my bike. She helps me carry all my things upstairs and shows me to a lovely, newly decorated room with a balcony and a delicious shower. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and – Ugh! a big piece of grey spider web is attached to the back of my arm. It must have hung off there all day. No wonder nobody spoke to me on the ferry. They probably shuddered at the sight of me. As if I had leprosy or something.

I plug in my battery and put on my one evening outfit – black knitwear pants and a white sleeveless non-crease blouse, and head into town for a little supper. A solo eater at “Al Vaticano” restaurant is a noticeable rarity.

In Italy one tries never to eat dinner alone. I’m a bit embarrassed to be within hearing distance of neighbouring conversations. A young couple nearby are having a quiet fight, full of hisses and groans.

The staff make an effort to pep me up with small jokes, as if they are almost ashamed of my loneliness – “With her one glass of wine and lonely candle.” They would be shocked to know I’m not alone at all, but having a conversation with a throng of internal voices. They’re discussing the mountain pass for tomorrow. And Catastrophic is furious that I haven’t checked my tires once in 800 kms.

See the route. From Mantua to Sirmione. The boat ride from Sirmione to Riva del Garda is not included.

Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu at the breakfast table in her garden.