We are on our way from Blois to Romania and Jean Michel has chosen Lake Iseo as our first stopover. We’ve booked an apartment for two nights in Cazzago San Martino 2 km from the Turin-Trieste motorway. By 5 pm, we are on our bikes and ready to begin our holiday.
The scenery is delightful as we wind our way along small country roads through the vineyards of the Francia Corta region. This is our first “real” ride with our new electrically-assisted bikes and we are more than convinced! The itinerary is graded as “easy, family” but the Italians are used to hills and bad roads I guess. I would hardly think that loose gravel, occasional main roads and quite steep descents are suitable for children. With our power bikes though, it’s a breeze!
We join the bike itinerary at Monterotondo where there is a local fête in full swing. Throughout the evening we hear a lot of music and later learn it is Italy’s national day, festa della Repubblica.
A dirt path takes us through a natural peat bog reserve and we glimpse tiny lakes surrounded by vineyards and cane fields. We meet many other cyclists and joggers.
The next village is Cremignane and we have our first view of the lake, followed by a quiet road to Clusane sul Lago. We are attracted by a lakeside restaurant called Rosmundo. It’s still early so we book for 7.30 pm which will give us time to reach the end of the itinerary at Paratico. The last 5 K are not very interesting. The bike path runs along one side of the main road.
We arrive back at the restaurant in plenty of time, ready to sample the local specialities. Jean Michel has fried fish from the lake while I have an excellent scallopina al limone. We have a carafe of frizzante and I finish off with tiramisu.
It’s 8.30 pm by now and we have a 15 K ride home. We have the bike paths to ourselves now and the light over the little lakes is lovely.
After Monterotondo, we have a a bit of trouble finding our way back to our apartment and it’s nearly dark when we get back at 9.45 pm. We’ve done a round trip of 43 K which we could never have done with our previous bikes.
Next morning, the sky is clear and blue and we set out for Breschia at 10 am. Once again we join the itinerary at Monterotondo and head in the opposite direction. The castle of Dosso rises majestically from the surrounding vineyards.
We have a cappuccino break in Paderno Franciacorta along with the locals. Jean Michel reads the Brescia Times in Italian, seated in front of a poster of the Empire State Building while drinking a cappuccino and eating a pain aux raisins. It’s 11 am and a group of men are already drinking Campari.
We pass a square with a mediaeval castle and an angel of mercy. A local comes up to talk to us (in Italian) and tells us Breschia is 13 k away. It’s getting hotter by the minute. We have trouble finding our way out of town – the bike signs are not very visible – but ask some cyclists who reassure us we are in the right direction. All we usually get is that little green squiggle on the signpost below. This is the only time we see one that shows distances.
At Rodengo-Saiano, we stop to visit San Nicola’s but it’s already closed for lunch. We will stop on the way back. The bike sign says that Breschia is 9.70 k away. In fact it is 12 K. We pass through Gussago and see a beautiful private home with stunning frescoes.
It’s the end of the Saturday market in Breschia. It’s also steaming hot and we are thirsty and hungry as it’s nearly 1.30 pm. We find a rstaurant in a shady street off Piazza Paolo VI and sit down without even looking at the menu. It turns out to be a “bistrot” with salads and pasta. It’s called Dei Notte di Calabria. We order pasta al ragù and a glass of chardonnay. Jean Michel goes into mild depression when he sees the small plate of pasta (what did he expect for 8 euro?) but I reassure him that he can order something else if he’s still hungry. We then order focaccia stuffed with steak tartare and patatine which I can’t finish but Jean Michel is looking happy again. We have a cold glass of rosato to go with it.
In the meantime, the piazza has filled up with people obviously dressed for a wedding. At first we think they are Jewish but more turn up and the Catholic church is chock-a-block by the time we visit. It’s an interesting piazza, with a round Romanesque church from the 12th century over an 8th century crypt, next to a 17th century Baroque cathedral and a typical Lombardian palazzo and tower.
Next is piazza della Loggia, with its 15th century Venetian palace and monumental clock.
After visiting the vestiges of a Roman forum, it’s 3.30 pm and 34°C so we decide that the World Heritage monastery of Santa Giulia will have to wait for another time. We still have a 2-hour ride home.
This time, having finished all our water, we stop for a cold Coke at another bar in Paderno Franciacorte. We are next to a group of 4 teenage boys. It’s very amusing to listen to their antics in a language we can’t understand.
By the time we get back to our apartment after stopping on the way to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese and yoghurt for an at-home dinner, it’s 6 pm and we have clocked up 65 K. Our total riding time is 4 hours which means an average of 16 K which is pretty good going and certainly better than the 12 K we did with our other bikes.
We can highly recommend the Breschia–Paratico bike itinerary for its great variety, lovely scenery and interesting architecture. However, I would not say it’s easy riding! The instructions given by the iseolake.info website are essential if you are to find your way. Our choice of Apartamento Franciacorte in Cazzago San Martino, found on booking.com, was excellent. It was very comfortable and the owner was friendly and helpful. At 180 euro for two nights, it was very good value for money.
Imperia is four hours by car from our destination of Crema in Lombardy so we plan a lunch stop at Voghera along the way. As we go north, the sun disappears and the sky darkens. We arrive in the main piazza just before noon to find everything closed. It’s Monday. Note to self: never try to do anything on a Monday morning in Italy. Voghera has absolutely nothing to redeem it so we make a detour to the Po river to have our picnic (it’s an intermittent fast day). We find ourselves on a bench in the full sun in the middle of nowhere instead.
The Tom-Tom then sends us to Crema by a very devious route. Maybe it gets paid for staying on the motorway whenever it can instead of taking a more direct route. We go north to Pavia, famous for its beautiful Carthusian Monastery which we have visited in the past, and almost to Milan before taking a motorway that isn’t on any of our maps. Sigh. We reach Crema too early to check into our romantic B&B (called an agriturismo in Italy) for 3 nights so pick up some more fruit and vegetables and vino bianco while we’re waiting.
By now, the sun is scorching. We drive through the front building which is very beautiful and find ourselves in the courtyard of a working farm which is a little less charming. I look for an office but can only see a fitness club. The door opens and a very pleasant young lady asks me in Italian to come in. I give my name and she takes us to see the room. It looks like the photos and seems fine so we take it. Breakfast is a tray with everything an Italian might need for breakfast, all in cellophane packets. How anyone can eat those biscotti, I don’t know. There is an espresso machine outside the door.
We unpack, have a short rest and then set out to explore the town which is 1 ½ km away. I notice there is a bike path but Jean Michel prefers to drive. He is feeling a little frazzled after all the driving on the Italian motorway which is an experience in itself. We park the car and walk into the pedestrian centre and are completely charmed by the little town of Crema. There are bikes everywhere so we plan to come back and explore further the next day since the tourist office is closed on Mondays.
In the meantime, I take a photo of the map of the main sights and we create our own little circuit – the 13/14th century cathedral and Renaissance square with its Guelfo Tower bearing the lion of San Marco, witness to Venetian domination of the town from 1449 to 1794 and the Torrazzo originally built for defence purposes and the remains of the city walls. We see a very large covered market on the way which I can’t imagine could be filled every morning.
Back in our room we discover its defects. The table is too high to eat at comfortably and there is very little light in the room, either natural or artificial. One of the chairs is very uncomfortable and the other is too low for the desk/bedside table. There are no extra pillows. The other bedside table is too high to use from the bed. The bathroom is fine, thank goodness, and the wifi works. We can hear the TV above us. There are no common areas we can use. We decide we’ll only stay two nights so cancel the third one with booking.com at no extra cost.
After a decent sleep, we make our coffee with a few fits and starts and begin taking our bikes off the car. A lady comes out of the Fitness Club and asks if everything is fine. She seems as though she might be in charge of the show. She offers to give us a map of Crema showing the bike paths (how come we weren’t given one yesterday, I wonder) but in the end she can’t find it. She does have a visitor’s map of Crema though. She confirms that we are staying two nights. All this in Italian.
We ride into the town along the bike path and join all the other cyclists in the pedestrian area. Many are older people (like ourselves) but there doesn’t seem to be a fixed rule about what side of the road to use. You need to keep your wits about you. We start with the tourist office and get some other maps and brochures. I find a series of 5 cycling maps that seem to cover the area we will be visiting.
We go to a café for breakfast with a shady terrace that we noticed the day before. Jean Michel is hungry so chooses several pastries (I’m not that keen on Italian pastries so only choose a couple of small ones). We order fresh orange juice and cappuccino. The waiter congratulates me on my excellent Italian which is surprising because I mostly just string together the words I know without bothering about verbs.
During breakfast, we examine the maps and discover that only the first one in my series of five is useful. We have another one that gives you a general idea of where to go but needs to be backed up by good signage. Our destination is Soncino, about 20 km from Crema but first we are going to visit the basilica of Santa Maria delle Croce on the outskirts of Crema.
The building, representative of the Lombard Renaissance, is very impressive but what intrigues me most is a painting inside the crypt. I later learn that according to local legend, on 13 February 1489, a young woman from a well-to-do family in Crema called Caterina degli Uberti married Bartolomeo Pederbelli also known as Contaglio, a convicted felon from Bergamo and long-time resident of Crema.
There were many quarrels between him and her family over payment of the dowry. On the pretext of taking her to see his family in Bergamo, he took her into a local wood where he cut off her right hand and part of her arm on 3 April 1490 before punching (and maybe stabbing) her in the back and leaving her for dead. She prayed to the Virgin Mary who is said to have taken her to a nearby farmhouse. She was then moved inside the city walls where she died, after receiving the last rites and pardoning her husband. You would wonder why. A wooden cross was placed in the woods where the murder took place but a series of miracles turned the site into a holy place and a sanctuary was built there and later became a basilica.
So far, so good. I mean the cycling of course. Now it’s time to find the bike path along the canal to Ginevolta then up to Soncino. It’s already 11.15 am even though we left the B&B at 9.15. We stop at a well-hidden café to ask directions. An over-enthusiastic puppy jumps all over us and we each have a plastic cup of cold melon pieces for the incredible price of 50 cents each. No one has ever heard of the bike path but they direct us to the canal.
We eventually find it but Jean Michel is not satisfied we are going in the right direction so I ask a passing fisherman. He tells us (in Italian of course) that we are on the wrong side of the fiume (it doesn’t sound like a word that could mean river does it?) and that we have to go back over the train tracks (Toot! Toot!), cross the bridge and turn left onto the tow-path. Which we do. The path is quite narrow and bumpy but improves after a while.
Unfortunately the problem is with the signage or lack thereof. We see a tiny, faded sign that tells us to cross the canal, but gives no indications after that. We follow a small road until I see a sign that says “south canal”. Then I see a real bike path so we take it and end up in Offanengo which is not supposed to be on our route.
Jean Michel says we should find a place for lunch and check the directions afterwards. By now it’s 36°C. I have just seen a sign saying “pranzo di lavoro €11” which I assume means “workers’ lunch”, equivalent to the French “repas d’ouvrier” so we lock up our bikes and go in (it’s too hot to be sitting outside). A nice young man takes us to a table and gives us the menu. We can have a complete menu including a vegetable buffet with wine and coffee or just one or two courses for the same price which seems a bit strange. The waiter comes back and explains the menu to us (but doesn’t explain why all the prices are the same).
We choose different dishes at his suggestion with a carafe of frizzante and go and get our buffet. None of the food is outstanding but all seems to be fresh and it’s certainly filling. The tables around us fill and empty regularly. It’s obviously a local favourite. We’re pleased with the experience.
The sun is still shining brightly when we walk out of the air-conditioned restaurant. Jean Michel examines the maps again and we push on to Genivolta. After a couple of wrong turns, we seem to be going in the right direction (not that we have any proof – there are no signs). We come across the canal again just as a very large machine turns in front of us. A man on foot tells us to get out the way because it’s dangerous. It appears to be a canal-cleaning machine.
We start to follow it along the tow-path so the man tells it to stop so we can get past. Fortunately, he wheels my bike for me as I think I might have ended up otherwise in another small canal on the other side. We are happy with our canal path, though, even if it isn’t very scenic. What we do see everywhere are signs of the agricultural wealth of the Po Valley.
Along the way, I see a small group of plastic garden chairs in front of an altar with Ave Maria written on it. Italy is still very religious.
We see a sign that sends us across the canal and onto a bitumen road. Once again we have no idea where we are going. We finally come to an intersection with a sign saying “Soncino 12”. We still don’t know where we are so ride into the town and discover we are in Trigolo. There is a sign saying “Crema 11”. I can’t believe it! We’ve been riding for hours and are still only 11 k from Crema. We follow the road to Soncino. It’s a beautiful little winding road with a good bitumen surface and no cars.
It takes us through Cumignano sul Naviglio with its typical cemetery.
We then take a large, new, uninteresting road through an industrial park that takes us to Soncino. We arrive very hot and weary and very disappointed. It seems a rather miserable result after riding for 40 km! Jean Michel finds a café with gelato artigianale and orders some Coca Zero to go with it. We’re hot and thirsty! The ice cream has the strangest flavours – Kinder, cheesecake, etc. – so I choose stracciatella, bacio and fiore di latte as being the most innocuous. The cans of coke are warm so I take them back. They only have one small bottle of Coca Zero that is cold so we share that instead.
After examining the tourist brochure we picked up in Crema, we discover there are several churches with frescoes as well as a castle. Maybe it was worth coming after all! We start with the closest, the parish church of Pieve Santa Maria Assunta, a large red brick building erected in the 12th and 13th centuries with stunning frescoes and a deep blue dome.
Just round the corner, behind a very ordinary, unrestored 12th century façade are more beautiful frescoes, a sculpted wooden chancel, a descent from the cross and a cloister that leads back to Santa Maria Assunta.
We continue down the street and turn to the right and up a path to the castle. What a pity we arrived through the industrial estate. We would have had a very different initial view of the town! The present castle, the only one built entirely by the Sforza family, dates back to the second half of the 15th century. The extensive fortifications are 13th century.
To the left is a former spinning mill containing a silk museum, open on Sundays only.
Down the hill to the right is a somewhat dilapidated water mill from which there is an excellent view of the castle.
Our last stop is another church just outside the town, Santa Maria delle Grazie, which contains more frescoes and a most unusual modern wooden sculpture of the assumption. We leave just as a busload of teenage boys sing their way into the parking lot!
We have now clocked up 45 km and are 13 km from Crema via the main road. Jean Michel tries to find some small roads but with little success. They seem to have disappeared. The cars and trucks whizz past at 90 kph (it’s 5.30 pm, obviously knock-off time) with only a white line between them and us. After 5 km, we come to Ticengo and take a left turn. We then follow a small, perfect road winding through relatively pretty countryside. We eventually come to Offanengo and take the bike path past our lunchtime restaurant and into Crema. We do not try to find the canal route again.
At 7 pm, after riding a total of 5 hours and covering 63 K, we are sitting in a café next to the cathedral in Crema, with a cold glass of white and Italian aperitivo nibbles in front of us. Although we loved visiting Soncino, the stress from the lack of signposting for cyclists was exhausting. NEVER AGAIN!
Tomorrow we are off to Innsbruck in Austria to a hotel we’ve been to before.
We have been driving most of the day. After a lunch stop in Cavaillon, famous for its melons where we have a delicious lunch under a shady terrace recommended by the lady in the bookshop where we buy a guide book, we have an afternoon tea break in Saint Laurent du Var, just next to Nice. It seems easier (and quicker) to go there than into Nice itself. We discover some beautiful oleander avenues and the pretty little village of Saint Laurent.
We cross the border into Italy and leave the motorway at Sanremo. Our destination is a B&B in Baiardo, up in the hills, about 20 km and ½ hour away according to my iPhone. We have reserved a room with a view. The GPS says 50 minutes. We find ourselves on a very narrow road with a succession of hairpin bends. We get lost a couple of times and tempers are getting frayed. I’m too stressed to even take photos!
Before we even reach the B&B we have decided that we are only staying one night and not the three we’ve booked. The further we get up the hill, the less sun and more mist we have. We see no other cars on the way, only three cyclists obviously in training for the Tour de France. We reach the address at last and ring the bell. No response. We try the house next door and a friendly German who speaks both English and Italian phones the owner.
She talks to us through the intercom and explains how to get in the back way. We bump over a dirt road and she is waiting for us at the door. She greets us warmly asking if the drive up with OK. She sees the stress on our faces and asks if we have a “navigator”. Our GPS didn’t choose the right route it seems. There is a much easier one but which is just as long.
We visit the room which is very pretty and see the mist enveloping the hills from the balcony. The deck chairs look a little superfluous. She apologizes for the weather and hopes it will be better next morning. We explain that we will only stay for one night, because 45 minutes of such horrendous roads twice a day is not part of our cycling schedule.
She is very understanding and says it’s important that her visitors are happy with their stay. We are relieved that we have a picnic with us and don’t have to go out again! We have a good wifi connection, thank goodness, and are able to find another place to stay for the next two nights. We sleep well and wake up next morning to bright sunshine and a most spectacular view.
We are able to have breakfast on the terrace overlooking several hills and valleys. The breakfast is excellent with freshly made apple juice, apple cake, scrambled eggs and bacon, fresh fruit and different sorts of bread. “Make the most of this”, I tell Jean Michel. “This is probably the best breakfast you will get in Italy.”
With instructions from our hostess, we take the easy road down to Sanremo which includes a couple of large villages, but it’s still 45 minutes so we don’t regret our decision to move on. We’ve found a one-bedroom apartment with a view in Imperia, only 15 minutes from the centre.
Parking around Sanremo proves to be impossible so we ask the GPS for underground parking. It is practically empty which is suspicious and no prices are displayed. I ask someone but my Italian isn’t sufficient to understand the answer. I try someone else who fortunately speaks English. “Not expensive”, he says, “just a few euros.” We lug the bikes up the stairs (there is no lift or ramp that we can see, and join the bike path from Ospedaletti to San Lorenzo, 25 km of converted train track, reputed to be one of the best bike paths in Italy.
It lives up to its name with beautiful houses, oleanders and plumbago along one side and the sea on the other. We turn left towards Ospedaletti, 6 km away, passing through a 2-km long tunnel which relates the history of a famous 298 K bike race from Milano to San Remo nicknamed “La Primavera” which first started in 1907. At Ospedaletti, we have a cappuccino at Il Golfo di Napoli.
We turn back in the other direction and pass Sanremo. What a wonderful place to pass through by train (though I imagine the soot and noise were less attractive to the inhabitants).
As we go past Taggia, we see a large church so decide to explore. Closer up it proves to be quite recent so we join the bike path again. The next section is the least attractive of the entire route, but we eventually get to San Stefano al Mare and are feeling puckish but don’t seem to be able to leave the bike path. I see a lady emerging with a pram so we follow a ramp down to a children’s playground. I’m not keen on any of the waterfront restaurants so we push on further.
We come to a likely-looking restaurant near the marina called Il Sandolino where I have a fritura mista (mixed battered fish and seafood) and Jean Michel has a tuna steak. Both are delicious but very copious. We choose a very cold and very welcome frizzante (slightly bubbly white wine). Riding under a bright blue sky at 30°C after a miserable 20°C in Blois is hot work even if the bike route is flat most of the way.
Back on the bike path we continue to San Lorenzo past more seascapes and through another tunnel. We will have been through 4 altogether but none as long as the first one.
As the town looks totally deserted, we turn around to go back to Sanremo and are surprised to see that the sky is looking a little murky. We arrive back at the car just before it starts spitting! It didn’t even occur to me to take our rain capes with us.
We end up paying 6.80 euro for our 4 ½ hours in the car park so the man was right – it wasn’t expensive. However, we saw that we could have parked right next to the bike path in an above-ground carpark about 2 k from Ospedaletti where they also have rental bikes. It would have been simpler.
By now it’s 4 pm and it’s a half an hour’s drive to our apartment in Imperia. Our cycling holiday is off to a good start!
I do not understand where all my time goes. When I lived in Paris, I had lots of time for blogging. Now that we live in Blois, I don’t seem to have any spare time at all! I do keep up with Loire Daily Photo though.
I have several posts in the making: Secret Blois, the arrival of our inlay marble table from India, flooding in the Loire, Montreuil Bellay …. but don’t seem to be able to finish them.
We personally did not suffer from the flooding. There was a flash flood in our street but it disappeared within a couple of hours. There is still a lot of water on the low-lying areas around us and the mosquitos have arrived in droves.
Our roses were momentarily lovely but most have succombed to the rain. It seems to rain most days but tomorrow, the sun is supposed to come out and from a maximum of 20°C today it will be 30°C. We are hoping to go cycling. We should also mow the garden as everything is hopelessly overgrown.
We are currently debating about where to go on our next cycling holiday in 9 days time. We had thought of going to Saarland in Germany but it has also been flooded which means the bike paths will be a little worse for wear. At the moment, we think we’ll go to the south of France – I have never been to either Marseilles or Toulon – then to the new bike path in Italy that goes from San Remo to San Lorenzo al Mare. We hadn’t cycled in Italy until last year in Padua because 1) there are a large number of hills and 2) there are not a lot of bike paths but at least there is sun! Stay tuned.
I’ve been wanting to visit Padua for a very long time. Many years ago, we toured northern Italy and got as far as Vicenza. We can’t remember why we didn’t go any further. Our Routard guidebook tells us that the best way to visit Padua is by bike. Jean Michel is a little dubious, especially after Lake Garda which is not really geared towards cyclists, even though we made the most of the bike paths that do exist, particularly on the eastern side.
We’ve reserved a B&B seven kilometers from the centre and I’m hoping we’ll be able to cycle into the old town. The Routard also says that if we buy a Padova (Padua) Pass, we can park for free in the Rabin car park just outside the historical centre. The only catch is that you have to park first, then buy the pass at the tourist office.
It turns out that you enter your registration number in the ticket machine, then insert one euro. You pay the balance when you come back to get the car. We set off and are very impressed by the number of people on bikes. Most of the roads have a bike path on one side, though it is usually only separated from the road by a yellow line. It doesn’t seem to pose a problem.
We get to the pedestrian only area and see that everyone is wheeling their bike. I ask at the tourist office, which is just nearby, and the lady explains it only concerns the immediate vicinity (Piazza Cavour). Elsewhere, you can cycle wherever you want. You just have to watch the pedestrians. Which we do.
Our pass costs 16 euro for 2 days and also includes free public transport and free entrance to several monuments, the most important of which is the Scrovegni Chapel which already costs 13 euro so it’s worth it. The lady then reserves our entrance to the Chapel at 2.30 pm next day which seems to me a very civilised way of doing things.
We head off for the Parco dell’Arena to have our picnic lunch (it’s an intermittent fast day) and decide what to do next. Although the old town isn’t that big, having our bikes gives us a much better choice than if we reon foot.
We visit the Piazza della Fruta and the Piazza delle herbe where they are starting to pack up after the daily market, including a visit upstairs.
The 13th century Venetian-style building has both a clock and a sundial.
But the oldest clock in Italy is in the nearby Piazza dei Signori, unfortunately being restored.
At the Piazza del Duomo, we visit the Baptistry next to the cathedral with its lovely frescoes. Entrance is covered by our Padova Pass.
We’ve had enough visiting for one day so head back to the car. I have to press the SOS button on the ticket machine and give the car registration number and Padova Pass number so we can get out the car park.
The B&B is in a residential area called Noventa Padovana and has a large garden. As soon as we’ve taken our things up to the room, we take our bikes off the tailer and, following our hostess’ instructions, cycle down to the canal. So far, so good. It seems we can take the path on either side. Not far along we see the most amazing building which turns out to be Villa Giovanelli, a Paladian villa built in the 17th century.
After that, the road narrows to a couple of deep ruts and we’re no longer sure if we chose the right bank. We eventually come out on a road and don’t know whether to turn left or right. I ask another cyclist for the centro historico and he sends me to the right. We go over a bridge and see the Brenta on our left. By now it’s about 5.30 pm and people are obviously coming home from work. We follow the path along the river hoping we’re going the right way.
I ask for directions again and am told to go left over the bridge and straight on. Jean Michel is his usual doubting-Thomas self but we eventually reach an intersection that he recognises. He then takes me back to Piazza dei Signori for a cold drink.
The ride home is less eventful and takes a little over a half an hour. Wonderful ! We won’t have to take the car tomorrow to visit Padova.