Recently, I was reminded of something I already knew, something that was floating in the back of my mind: Lake Garda is a mecca for cycling. Upon further investigation (read: my daily perusal of Google maps over coffee), I realised it wasn’t that far to go from Innsbruck. With a failure of other plans on where and how to spend Easter, I loaded up my belongings into my faithful expand-to-carry-everything rucksack, and headed to the train station. I was sad to be leaving without my trusty camera, which had retired itself last week, so the photos here are a mixture of just slightly grainy mobile phone pictures, and fantastically distorted fisheye photos from the GoPro. It makes for an interesting mix.
Although the plan of getting on the Eurocity express was nice, the reality of bike travel meant taking the slow train,three stops included, to Rovereto. Traveling with a bike is super simple here though, its almost like they expect people to use public transport.
My confidence in German was useful for about two hours of the journey south, at which point the signs reverted entirely to Italian, and things felt reassuringly foreign. I couldn’t find any info online about transport from Rovereto to the lake, but I wasn’t particularly worried; the worst case would have been riding the 15 miles. Bikes are great. Instead, I utilised one of my pre-practiced Italian phrases (Parli Inglese?) on the ticket seller, and he responded in perfect English that the next bus would be arriving in 20 minutes, and I could buy a ticket on board. I waited patiently, until right on time a bus clearly marked ‘Riva Del Garda’ showed up. I was juggling in my head how to explain my need to bring the bike, but like almost every European adventure, the problem was solved in English when the friendly conductor grabbed my bike and said ‘Jump on board, you can pay then’. A real living conductor is a fantastic thing; more countries should replace these terrible automated machines with the real thing!
I arrived in Riva Del Garda as the sun was trying its hardest to make an impression through the thunderclouds. Strands of clouds were clinging in every nook of rock, and the background light was fading from an orange glow through shades of purple to eventual darkness. As lakes have a tendency to do, it held onto the last fronds of light, prolonging the daytime, but eventually the black waters seemed to amplify the darkness instead. I had booked two nights at a youth hostel in the centre of Old Town. Youth Hostels are always a mixed bag; never really sure whether you’re going to walk into a cute bed and breakfast style place, or something that fits halfway between school trip and open-prison. Although new and clean, this one was closer to the school-trip scale. Either way, for the price, I was happy. I went in search of food, and a quick wander through the tiny cobbled streets revealed there to be only one choice; pizza. After turning down the option of an 11 euro ‘meat and pasta’ meal at the youth hostel, I was happy to find that a plate sized pizza, a salad and a large beer cost 14 euros. Good choice. Sated, I headed back to the hostel and straight to sleep.
The forecast for the weekend was decidedly mixed, and I was a little apprehensive heading down in the first place, on the chance that I might spend two days watching the rain fall outside. I’m glad I made the choice though; I woke up Saturday to an overcast but warm day. I planned a ‘Giro Della Monte Baldo’ – basically a loop around the biggest mountain on the eastern shore of the lake. 120 km total and some steady climbs. I headed out and down the lakeside for 20 miles, passing through towns that alternated from rustic fishing villages with pretty harbours, to overgrown 1970’s built hotels perched unceremoniously on the water. I left Trentino alto Adige and entered Veneto, continuing south to a town called Torri del Benaco, where I took the steep, zig-zagging road out of the valley and into the hills. I was navigating based mainly on memory of the maps I had browsed back at the hostel, and occasionally with the assistance of the ‘Open street maps’ on my phone; a crude depiction of the landscape as a series of different coloured roads. Together, they got me to the small village of San Zeno del Montagna.
I looked out and over the lake, where I realised the southern shore was now entirely encased in thick heavy clouds rolling their way across the water. The rippling of the rain on the water was obvious, and I could plot its path heading straight for me. I stopped for a moment next to a run down house and pulled out my woefully inadequate mobile maps. Less than half way around the mountain, with lots more above treeline riding left to do. Decision time. A little too late though, and before I had fully committed to turning tail and returning the way I came, I was being pelted by icy rain, backed up with rumbles of cloud pushing the water towards the ground. I pointed my bike downhill and sped towards the lake. Frozen and shivering, I had little option but to man up and pedal the way I’d come. 20 miles in the drops, pedals mashing; a teeth chattering Chris stripped to the skin in the hostel and headed for the closest luke-warm shower. Adventure for the day complete, even if it wasn’t the exact adventure I was looking for.
I am always critical of myself when I make a decision to cut something short. the feeling that I was just being a little too soft always creeps into my mind. As I sat on the veranda drinking a beer that evening, with no sunset in sight, and progressively thicker cloud marching across the lake, I was rather glad of my decision. The rain didn’t relent, and I would have been a mess if I’d tried to complete that ride.
A little more perusing of maps was in order for the Sunday adventure. Even after yesterdays experience, I know there are positives aspects of not knowing exactly where you’re going. I chose a route that looked like an obvious loop on paper, and as I was rolling out of the town under picture perfect blue skies on Sunday morning, I almost stopped in at the bike shop to run my idea past them. I’m really glad I didn’t though. I rode North, away from the lake and in the direction of a small town called Bolognano, and up the slopes of the wiggliest line I could find on the map, towards Monte Velo. The makeshift red tape strung across the directions to said mountain were a little disconcerting, but I pushed on anyway; an illogical part of my brain telling me that if I didn’t find out why the directions were censored, I wouldn’t need to know the answer.
In the lee of the hill, the shade harboured olive groves and apple trees, spread in orderly rows between modest houses. The kind of plots that looked like family farmed fields, interspersed with lived-in houses. A contrast to the brash buildings nearer the lake edge. I climbed on, up into the hills, with a niggling doubt that the road would probably either turn to dirt, or end abruptly around the next corner. It didn’t, though, and I kept on climbing. The primroses and snowdrops lining the narrow road lower down the slopes gradually faded into the snow covered banks, and the trees got shorter, transitioning from lush deciduous woodland into alpine conifers. As the road rounded the ridgeline, a huge view of the snow-capped mountains of Trentino and Lombardy opened up.
An hour into the climb, I was feeling good, not too interested in pushing the pace considering I only had the vaguest ideas of how long the ride was going to take. I stumbled upon a ‘Strada Chiusa’ sign. No knowledge of Italian was needed to understand what the accompanying blockades meant. With little interest in cruising back the way I had come, I decided it was in my best interests to climb over said barriers and walk through the snow, and around the corner. Sometimes persistence pays off, and I was greeted with a clear road, and another 15 minutes of uphill to the village of Santa Barbara. from here the ride just got better and better. With my map showing only a limited number of turn-offs, I rode over a series of small ridges and down into a shaded valley, set with the village of Cimone, and framed with Monte Stivo and Monte Bondone behind it.
This was the first time that I realised the second of my planned super-wiggly roads probably climbed higher than I had anticipated. With little option other than ‘just keep pedalling’, I did just that. The wind picked up a little as I rode through the second set of olive groves for the day, and it pushed me around the rock-cut road overlooking the Adige river valley.
With the cliff face hanging overhead, and the road meandering around it, I had no idea of how high I would be heading, but full knowledge that not many other people would be out here today. Out of the small villages and back into the trees, I went through the same progression of landscape until the snow banks got higher and higher; first to shoulder height, then eventually towering overhead. The sporadic road signs told me that Viotte was 4km closer than Monte Bondone, but with no idea which one I was heading to, this proved of little use.
Eventually my own private road of continuous switchbacks arrived in Viotte, where the road spat out into a huge car park filled with ski-adorned cars, and plenty of people wondering why I was riding my bike on the day after a massive snowstorm had dropped 20cm of fresh powder. Although descending on the two lane highway back to the valley floor might have burst the romance-tinted bubble, I’m glad my climb was filled with solitude and forests, and I had the wide, smooth, well maintained road to fly down on. At the top, the road sign had told me 40km back to Riva. Most of the time I’m cycling, my head is consumed with numbers and calculations whirling around regarding speed, distance and altitude. The conversions from Km to Miles provided an extra set of arithmetic, and I happily worked out that 40 km in one hour was achievable with my stored gravity to utilise.
I’ve never been a particularly confident descender on a road bike; the consequences are so much higher when you’re doing 100 kph on tarmac, rather than 40 kph on dirt. Either way, I made the most of the empty roads, with the scenery now passing as a blur, and covered the distance back to the lake in hardly any time. Sometimes, after planning a big day in the saddle, it can be a little disheartening to finish and realise the adventure is over. This time was the same, but with another bout of storm clouds rolling in, and trains to catch back north, I had timed the ride perfectly.
A coffee and slice of chocolate cake by the lake was enjoyed, then I loaded up, and headed North to Sudtirol. I had planned on staying the night at my housemates place in very-northern-Italy, but my ineptitude at responding to messages resulted in a 2 hour break in Brixen, before I decided to cut my losses and get the last train back to Austria.