Thursday, September 20, 2012

Into Italy

Okay, two years ago we thought we'd start in Italy and go north. Plans were delayed by a few weeks, we started in Zurich and went north. Last year we thought we'd go to Italy after a detour in Greece, but we were out of money and started house sitting earlier than expected. This year...

This year we were going to head straight into Italy from Zurich, and then we decided to work on getting Joshua's residence visa first, which meant heading north into Germany. But then we got the visa. And then we went back to Zurich. And over the Alps. And into France. From Chamonix, there is a bus that goes through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and you can bring your bike. You emerge on the Italian side, at the head of the Val d'Aosta. That is just what we did.

The tunnel was kind of cool. You had to stay 500 meters behind the vehicle in front of you. They staged the entrance with a red light-green light so you had to wait to enter, and once inside there were distance markers to help you figure out if you were staying far enough behind. It's only two lanes, one in each direction. And the trucks just barely fit, it seemed. There are speed maximum and minimum limits and everyone moved at the exact same pace. No passing. Not very French.

And what happens when you start at the top of a narrow valley through the Alps? You get to go down, down, down. Of course, there aren't a lot of great pictures from our descent, because we were going fast, downhill. The road options for cyclists are limited. There's the freeway - obviously not an option - and then there's the main road which is not the freeway. Route 26. It's fairly wide and there are some large-ish trucks, usually there's a shoulder. But it's not the freeway, and most of the traffic is on the freeway (which is often in tunnels, actually). Route 26 just goes down. At a really lovely angle. In fact, I think if we had been in some kind of hurry or if we wanted to skip everything in the Val d'Aosta, we could have done the whole thing in a day and barely pedaled at all.

fast views

As it was, we figured it would take us two days. The first half of the first day we just went down on Route 26. At one point we saw a sign for a pista ciclabile, so we thought we'd try it out. There was a bridge that was closed, which we crossed anyway. We couldn't find another way to get to the path, which we could see. The signs were weird.

And while the path was beautiful and ended up winding through lovely trees, it wound uphill and turned in the wrong direction. Risk it? Maybe it loops back? We decided that we'd just go back to the 26. Maybe it's a local bike path for recreation and stuff. It would have been awesome to have had more information or to have been able to use it.

But the 26 continued to be good.

Lunch break by a river, at a bend in the road, and with a great view. Time to dry out the tent!

In the afternoon, we veered from the 26 to see about a smaller road. We were also on the lookout for campsites. Joshua kept saying he had a feeling there was a path along the river, but we'd seen no signs or any evidence that such a path existed. We tried to find an alternative road that didn't go straight up into the mountains, but only found a few dead ends on the south side of the river. So we decided to cross it, and as we did we saw a bike path, going right along the river. We immediately turned around and searched for an entrance. Pedestrians could get to it fairly easily, but on a bike we had to backtrack really far until there was a stretch without a fence. And even then there was no curb cut onto the sidewalk by the entrance. Oh boy. But we made it! And it was good.

There's a push to get a route all along the Dora Baltea, the river that flows down the middle of the Val d'Aosta and eventually joins with the Po River. There are completed stretches and stretches that are not open. But it's going to be so great when they complete it! Go Italy!

The landscape was pretty dramatic. At some points we saw the snow-topped peaks of the higher mountains to either side of us. A couple of smaller valleys came in from the side and showed us glaciers and other wonders of Alpine beauty. There were tiny towns dotting the landscape.

When we emerged at the end of one stretch of completed bike path, we finally saw a sign with the full map. We took some pictures. This photo may not be helpful, but if you are going to cycle this route and you want better pictures, we took close ups of this map in sections. Cycling the Val d'Aosta is easy and fun, in the downhill direction, but finding information about where to go is not as easy as it should be. Or, I didn't find what I wanted when I looked it up online. I would be thrilled to help someone else find this path during the planning stage for a Val d'Aosta bike tour.

We went up and through a tiny town with a Chateau, still away from the 26 and on the south side of the river. Wait. Chateau? Turns out 70% of people in this region of Italy speak French. hmph. French is nice, but we're ready for Italian! Below the Chateau we stopped at a cafe and had a glass of house white, which was slightly bubbly, along with a couple panini con tomate e formaggio. We continued up the road after lunch, and I mean up, and found a small store where we bought supplies for dinner. At some point we realized that the map we were using was going to be crappy. Up we went. It was stunning. The tiny villages built into high, steep hillsides were silent and perfect. Far below we could see the river... is there a bike path down there? Who knows? This looks like the only road besides the 26. If there's a campsite it is way down there...

The possibility of wild camping was open to us. We had found a water fountain and filled up all the bottles. We had food. But there didn't seem to be a single, flat enough space that hadn't already been used for growing grapes or grazing sheep. The road went back down toward the river.

The scene now is that we're ready to stop. We're tired, we've probably gone between 70 and 80kms, there is no campsite where there was going to be a campsite, we've climbed a lot. A lot. And we are thinking about going to a bed and breakfast. We crossed the river and followed a road on the north side. We tried a dirt and sand road that went back upstream, but there were no good spots to pitch a tent.

Back on the road through a small town, there was a left hand turn with a strange sort of sign. There were distances marked and arrows pointing in either direction and a logo or something that we did not recognize. We did figure out that it was open to pedestrians but not cars. So we took it. It was a great path. Unfortunately, we were near the end of it. About 3kms farther we reached the end and a sign showing us that this was another recreational route. Another route along the river that would have been awesome to know about! We doubled back into a small grove of trees and decided to wild camp right there, even though the path was supposed to be closed during the night. As usual, there was some anxiety about being caught where we were not supposed to be camping, but the night was uneventful.

In the morning we packed up quickly and got moving again. It was pretty chilly before the sun managed to rise over the peaks around us. We tried to continue on a path that turned to dirt, but came up with a dead end - or rather the continuation of a path we could have hiked, but not biked. We did some exploring to see if we could figure out where we could ride and ended up under the freeway, poking around for a way out. Nothing even remotely appealing presented itself and we weren't sure we'd end up anywhere but on the freeway. Where was the 26 now? We were in a pretty narrow section of the valley, just where it turns south at Chatillon.

So we backtracked and made our way up the steep valley roads on the north east side of the valley, on a hunch that the 26 was actually high above us. We were right, and after some great hairpin turns and an on-foot push up an old footpath that was steeper than anything else we've ever pushed our bikes up, we were just below the 26 and unable to find an entrance.

Time for breakfast in the sun! Joshua asked a passing woman how we could get our bikes on the road and her instructions, in French, were to go out the parking lot, go down, go back up, and we'd see the entrance. Descendez!? We just climbed all this way! But it wasn't so bad, and we made it back to the speedy 26 where we stayed for the rest of the morning until we hit Ivrea, where we proceeded to waste a bunch of time.

Every time we get to a city we have a conundrum. What to do with the bikes? We figure there's some great stuff to do, often we have the equivalent of errands to run, and at the same time we're riding oversized bikes in crowded, unfamiliar streets, where every time we stop we get in the way of someone. We did have a really lovely lunch at a cafe in a park. It was warm and sunny and outdoors.

Then we started looking for the Internet, which we never found. The local library had Internet, but it was closed until 2pm. We checked out the old walking streets of Ivrea, which are beautiful, and got ourselves the first gelati of the trip. Oh yums. In fact, Joshua said he wouldn't have one, so I just got one. Then he ate half so I got a second one and we shared that too. It was some of the best gelato I've ever had. When the library opened, we learned that we just couldn't get Internet. The librarian made a comment about how crappy that was, since you can get WiFi in Africa, but not here in the piazza. She told us about an Internet cafe, which we found, but had changed into a normal cafe. New owners, no more Internet. We bought a cycling map at a kiosk that we liked a lot.

We finally decided that we did not need to know what was in our email and headed out of town towards Lago di Viverone, where we were going to camp that evening. On the way, we saw a bio (organic) food store so we stopped. Not open until 3:30. It was still only 2:30. Forget it! And off we went again.

Lago di Viverone was fantastic. In fact, we decided it was the perfect place to take a rest day.

 we even went swimming in the lake

All along I've been complaining about how incredibly heavy my hair is. There's a lot of it. I want it off.

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