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This page was last updated 17 april 2000.
Tour date: July 1996.
Total distance: 1300 km.
Total altitude gain: 9 km.
See my related page about a tour in Umbria and Tuscany, which also touched Siena and Florence.
Our tour started at the Venezia airport. Naturally the first destination was Venice downtown. It is somewhat hard to find the two-kilometer bridge that connects old Venice with Mestre, we had to use some very congested freeway-like bridges and roads. In Venice, no bicycles or cars are allowed (or practical), the road ends at Piazzale Roma. To park the bicycles, make a U-turn when reaching the piazza and ride down a steep driveway just before the first of the two small bridges, right across from the parking garage building. Then walk back to the piazza and take the vaporetto (shuttle boat) #82 north (south is much more scenic but requires switching boats at San Marco) until the Zitelle station, which is one block south of a very pleasant youth hostel. Use 24-hour tickets. The picture above shows - what else - the Canal Grande, seen from the Rialto bridge. The two big boats are vaporetti; a few gondolas can be seen on the right.
We stayed in Venice for two full days. There is much to see. The long S-shaped Canal Grande, which begins at San Marco (with the ducal palace) and the famous Campanile (bell tower) you'll see on every other postcard) and ends at Piazzale Roma. You can tour it with vaporetto #1 or #82. During the past 1000 years, the most magnificient palazzi have been built here. It is useful to have a guide to explain the history and interior of each palace.
We continued on to Ravenna. A rather long ride in the afternoon heat, about 180 km, but there was no alternative. We stayed overnight and spent some time on the usual church circuit. Visiting churches and associated museums means countless pictures and statues of Madonnas, Apostles, people nailed to trees, children being killed (a favorite theme, apparently) and assorted other gory scenes so enjoyed by the church. Interestingly, the Vatican is a refreshing deviation from this uniformity. The Basilica San Vitale proved to be the most interesting sight here. We also visited the mausoleum of Dante Alighieri.
We next rode to Rimini, using the road along the coast that parallels the highway. It's an endless procession of beachwear shops and other tourist traps. Rimini itself is also totally tourist-oriented. We first tried to find the youth hostel, which is listed in the IYH guide but turned out to be an abandoned building close to a busy highway, filled with stacks of chairs and garbage and long defunct. We stayed instead in the Albergo Filadelphia (Via Pola 25).
Until now, the terrain had been flat. Rimini marks the northeastern corner of the Apennine mountains that cover most of central Italy. From now on until Roma, our daily rides included an average altitude gain of about 1200 meters. Grades are usually about 5-7%, occasionally up to 12%, rarely more. Most climbs were shorter than 500 meters. Our first climb was to San Marino, a small mountaintop enclave that is not part of Italy. It is totally tourist-oriented but manages to be very pleasant and certainly worth the trouble to climb up there. Most roads in the centro storico (historic center) are very steep, and we rode up all the way to the top. We even found a scenically located restaurant at reasonable prices. San Marino gives the impression of being very rich.
After descending from San Marino, we continued on highway 258 through Pennabilli, and used a small side road to cross over to highway 208 at Pieve San Stéfano. It's an interesting little village, but it was noon and it was consequently completely closed. We proceeded along highway 208 through Bibbiena and Poppi, turned into highway 70, and stayed overnight on top of the last hill before Firenze, in a small town named Consuma. The hotel there isn't exactly cheap but reasonable.
We rode down to Firenze the next morning. The ``Ostello della Gioventù'' youth hostel in Viale Augusto Righi 2-4 is a bit remote, but it's located in a beautiful garden that also contains a campground. The picture shows one of its gardens. What the youth hostel guide doesn't mention is that some of its 322 beds are actually located in tents outside. The youth hostel staff is bureaucratic and arrogant, and partially seriously underbrained, which made the stay less pleasant than it could have been. The price for a night includes breakfast, like in most other youth hostels, but it is completely inedible so you might as well skip it. Thin coffee, stale bread, butter turned sour (!), and unidentifiable fruit jam, bon appetit. Most youth hostels also offer dinner which is similarly disgusting.
Firenze downtown can be reached from the youth hostel with the #17 bus. The largest landmark, like in most other historic cities, is the duomo, a huge black-and white cathedral, and the Piazza della Signoria, the piazza in front of the building from which the ancient government, the signoria, for a long time dominated by the Medici family, ruled the Firenze republic.
If you would like to visit the Uffizi, originally guild offices built to keep the guilds under control but now one of Europe's foremost museums, make sure to arrive very early because they admit visitors in batches, and the line gets enormously long. As in Venice, you should read up on the history before visiting, so you understand the significance of what you see and can better enjoy it.
The picture to the left shows a view from an Uffizi window along the Uffizi courtyard, with the Piazza della Signoria with the signoria palace and its tower.
The top left picture shows Siena with its cathedral in the center; the top right image shows Piazza del Campo seen from the Museo dell'Opera. The picture to the left shows the inside of the basilica built under the cathedral.
|The Museo has some very interesting exhibits, such as some relics including a mummified finger of St. Catherine, lovingly mounted in a golden shrine, and some children's skulls including the one shown in the picture to the right. Somebody here has a very sick taste. From the top of the Museo's tower, reached through two narrow spiral staircases, one has a gorgeous view over Siena, including the one in the top right picture. Don't miss it.|
The big thing in Siena is Panforte, a sweet cake made with citron and various nuts. It's so strong that in comparison a Powerbar seems like a Ritz cracker. Personally I prefer Torrone, a concoction of honey and almonds also sold there.
Otherwise, accommodations in Montepulciano are expensive. The town is crowded with enoteche, places to taste and buy local wines. It has turned out to be difficult to mail cases home though, postage is very expensive.
After Montepulciano, we proceded to Chianciano, Chiusi, and Orvieto. We didn't stay long in any of them. From there we continued along the three lakes north of Roma, first to Bolsena, northeast of the large Lago di Bolsena and then to Capodimonte on the southwest shore, using a narrow road directly along the lake shore, which contrary to the map was almost completely paved. We decided to stay in a campground near Capodimonte rather than Bolsena because it seemed less touristic, but we should probably have stayed at the oddly named ``Romantic Chez Vous'' campground instead.
The picture shows an enoteca, a wine store.
Next, we continued to Viterbo, a small town so crowded with car traffic that after locating the supermarket we got out of there as fast as possible. We rode up to the crater lake Lago di Vico through San Martino, which involved the hardest climb of the entire trip. The view over the lake was certainly worth it though. After circling the lake, we went through Ronciglione to the last of the three lakes, stopping for ice cream at Bracciano at the lake shore. This quiet town was the last respite before Roma.
We stayed for two full days in Roma, and dutifully visited all the usual tourist watering holes - the Vatican, Forum Romanum, the Colosseum, and various odds and ends. As usual, we were seriously crowded by unreasonable opening hours. Many places open around 9:00 and close at 13:00, leaving only four hours each day for sights requiring admission. To get from the youth hostel to the Vatican, buy a 24-hour ticket and use bus 32. To get from there to the Forum Romanum and the Colosseum, use bus #64. However, the Metro is much more reliable than buses, which in one case got wildly rerouted in a long and complicated tour opposite to its regular direction because of some rollerblade event. The picture to the right shows the piazza in front of San Pietro's, seen from the top of its dome. The straight road leading out from the Piazza leads past the Castel d'Angelo (the papal bunker) to the Tiber river.
We visited the Vatican museums on the last Sunday of the month. On this day admission is free, so although we arrived early there were already several thousand people in the line in front of us. When they opened I estimated about 8000 people in the line reaching about one quarter of the way around Vatican city. The museum was certainly worth the long wait, and includes a visit to the Sistine chapel as a bonus. In it, guards clap their hands and request silence and reminding people that taking pictures is not allowed, but nobody takes much notice. Another sight not to be missed is the climb to the top of the San Pietro (St. Peter's) cathedral - 336 steps rewarded with a beautiful view over Vatican city and beyond. Remember to bring long pants or you won't be admitted to the cathedral! No exceptions. The picture to the left shows the interior of San Pietro, with sunlight streaming through the windows of the main dome. (The image is not retouched.)
The Forum Romanum requires some kind of guidebook to explain the ruins, or you won't much enjoy it. If you have one it's fascinating. It's quite large. Don't forget to bring a large water bottle (there is a faucet behind the entrance). We just barely managed to see the Forum before closing time. The Colosseum is right next to the Forum, but admission to the upper floors is excessively expensive. During an earlier visit to Rome I have also seen the Caracalla baths and the Pantheon and would have liked to see them again, but those idiotic opening hours didn't allow it.
Not to be missed: the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, Via Principe Eugenio 65/67, west of the Termini train station, is a century-old gelato (ice cream) factory. Best ice cream in town, with flavors you have never heard of. Good prices. Incidentally, the way to judge an ice cream place is to check the color of banana ice cream: it must be gray, not yellow.
I have been in Napoli ten years ago and was pleasantly surprised that the overflowing garbage everywhere and the rats seemed gone. Napoli has a reputation for, hm, quick unauthorized transfer of ownership of everything that isn't securely nailed down, so we left valuables in the youth hostel's safe, but it's probably all exaggerated. We had nothing stolen.
Napoli itself has a number of interesting churches and museums, and we visited the Museo Nazionale (which contains many items, including wall paintings, found in Pompei), but after the San Pietro and the Vatican Museums we were somewhat numbed. The old quarters to the west of Via Roma and south of Piazza della Carità are not to be missed - all narrow streets with people doing their work on the street, laundry hanging overhead. The real reason for our stay in Napoli was the fact that it has an airport, and its proximity to Pompei.
On the day of our return to Berlin we had a few hours to kill, so we
left the luggage in storage at the airport and rode Corso Secondigliano
to the northeast. We found a small suburb bustling with an open-air market
stretching for many blocks, filled with people shopping, like in the
picture to the left.
Not to be missed: Osteria Canterbury, Via Ascensione 6, was probably the best restaurant we have visited during our trip, and still one of the cheapest. From Piazza Amedeo (southwest of the historic center), follow Via Vittoria Colonna, take the first right down the stairs, take the first right again and the next left. The restaurant has a red neon sign on the right side.
Pompei was buried under six meters of ash from an eruption of the nearby Vesuvio volcano (between Pompei and Napoli) in 79 AD, so suddenly that life in the city was frozen instantaneously. The city is exceptionally well preserved. During excavations, they found cavities in the ash where people had died, and made plaster casts of the cavities that even show the expressions on the faces of the people who died. They are on display in the vine garden. The one in the picture is one of two shown in the Terme. Many parts of the town are roped off, but there are many impressive villas, and most streets are freely accessible. The best wall paintings and most of the statues and other objects have been moved to the Museo Nazionale in Napoli (see above), but Pompei still offers a unique opportunity to learn about the life in a Roman city nearly two thousand years ago.
Italian transportation planners display a stunning incompetence when posting directions. Usually there aren't any. If there are signs, they may point in the wrong direction, perhaps because there is an autostrada (freeway) there. After Montepulciano we were treated to five consecutive signs to our destination, alternating between pointing left and right! Often there is a sign for a destination near the city limits, but you are expected to guess the direction at all following intersections because there are no further signs. Street names are often hidden, unreadable, or missing. Road numbers and distances are almost always missing. Some villages post maps, but the voi siete qui (you are here) arrow is typically missing, or there is more than one (!).
In the absence of conventional methods of orientation, you must bring a good compass and maps. We used blue 1:200,000 maps by Kümmerly + Frey, based on green TCI (Touring Club Italiano) maps. It has turned out to be somewhat difficult to find the green maps in Italy. We used sheets 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12. We also used the bicycle tour guide Mittel-Italien per Rad, Cyklos, Verlag Wolfgang Kettler, ISBN 3-921939-41-0 (German language) to plan our route in Tuscany. It often points out quiet alternatives to the main roads.
Remember that if you decide to include Roma or Napoli and no doubt other large cities in your itinerary, you add a hundred kilometers of unpleasant riding for each one. Riding in large cities and their suburbs means sharing wide and busy roads and their entry and exit ramps with high-speed traffic and trucks. Napoli (Naples) is especially fascinating because stoplights, one-way signs and other traffic rules are strictly optional, and you get honked at if you stop at a red light. In fact Napoli drivers will honk at cyclists, other cars, passing insects, and cosmic rays - , traffic in Napoli is incredibly loud and filled with exhaust.
The third essential item in addition to a compass and maps is the Let's Go, the budget guide to Italy, Harvard Student Agencies, ISBN 0-333-65288-6. I recommend to always follow the hotel and restaurant recommendations in this book. It also contains directions and maps, even some historical background and museum listings. You'll waste much time and money without this book. Expect prices to be 10-20% higher than listed in the book.
When sightseeing, always wear or carry long pants, or you will be refused entry into many churches. The Vatican's San Pietro cathedral has guards who refuse entry to improperly dressed people.
You must have a IYH youth hostel membership card if you want to stay in youth hostels. Since we went in June, which in Italy is off-season (peak is mid-July and August) we had no problems getting beds in youth hostels, except almost in Roma where they filled up 15 minutes after we got in. I also recommend bringing an IYH hostel list, it contains directions that are sometimes useful.
I don't speak Italian, but I bought Langenscheidt's ``express course'' Italian (book and tape) two weeks before we went and memorized the vocabulary, and the resulting marginal ability to communicate was usually better than the English spoken by the Italians we dealt with. Intonation is very important; as the Let's Go put it, ``penne all'arrabiata'' means ``pasta in a spicy red sauce'', while ``pene all'arrabiata'' means ``penis in a spicy red sauce''. One simple pronunciation rule: c and cc are pronounced as in hatch if an e or i directly follows, and like k otherwise. The Let's Go contains more.
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