Up the Susa valley to the Alps

We had a lovely time in Ireland visiting Paddy’s mum and dad. We both had to catch a flight down to Falmouth for a job interview and so quite a bit of time was spent preparing and practicing interview questions… It was all worth it though as we were both successful! This means that we will definitely be finishing the trip in Cornwall, now soon to be our new home. It wasn’t long into the start of the trip that we agreed we weren’t going to go back to London after finishing. One of the best things about the trip has been living outside for so long so the idea of going back to the concrete jungle, however wonderful it is, seems so alien now.

I will really miss climbing out of the tent every morning to somewhere different. Falling asleep to the sound of the wind in the trees and waking up to the dawn chorus. Setting up the chairs and cooking breakfast in a wooded clearing, a desert, a beach or on the edge of a mountain lake… So being close to the sea and the wide open countryside is an important life choice for us now.

We had always had Falmouth in the back of our minds as somewhere we would like to live – suitably rural but with a lot going on and beautiful countryside all near the sea. But practically it would all depend on securing jobs down there after 19 months away so it feels great to have most of it all sorted. Now we can really relax and enjoy the final 2 months of cycling. 

Robbie and Margherita had looked after tandem well and had even organised for our bags to be dropped off at the bike shop so we could pack up and get going soon after our early morning flight from Dublin. It would have been nice to spend an extra day in Bergamo but the clock was ticking away to our ferry – already booked – from Cherbourg in France! It was time for us to complete the final leg in what has been an epic ride across the Eur-Asian landmass… 


We kept on a route north of Milan – it felt like the city sprawled out for miles and miles and that we were cycling through its suburbs for most of the day. We kept to a canal route to make things easy which was good as it was super hot, the air heavy and the wind like a hot hairdryer blowing in our faces the whole time. 

They have recently cancelled all roaming charges in Europe now which means using our UK SIM cards here is the same as at home. In one way this is good as it has meant it has been easier to keep in touch with people at home – useful for negotiating job contracts, searching for rental properties and looking up car insurance. It has also means that we have both fallen back into the bad habit of being glued to our phones in the evenings however – something we were going to try and stop! 

On the second day out I received an another job interview invitation (another part-time role to potentially go with the one I’ve already secured) which slightly put a spanner in the works for our schedule. It would probably mean taking a train for some of the distance and after looking at all the flight options we chose Lyon as a good place for me to fly out and back from. We were still keen to cycle over the Alps so we headed to the nearest local station to see if we could catch a train to Turin – covering around 150km.

We weren’t sure how easy travelling with the tandem in Europe would be… We have found getting the bike on various modes of transport in Asia relatively straightforward as there is a much more relaxed approach to transport. Now we were in the ‘regulated west’ we weren’t sure how a tandem was going to go down… As it turns out – it was a piece of cake – and the Italian tickets were very cheap. €17 euros for us both and the bike. Paddy was delighted at the prospect of sitting in the air conditioned carriage for two hours away from the mid-day sun – he struggles with the humid weather! 

We reached Turin by 3:30pm and although it took us an hour to cycle out of the city, with the summer solstice only a week away we still had plenty of daylight remaining. 

From here we headed up towards the Alps starting the gentle climb up the longest valley in Italy – Susa valley. This would eventually lead to our last major mountain range and final 2000m+ pass! We slept in a disused quarry that evening and reverted back to our Cambodian practice of having a ‘litre bottle shower’ to wash away the sweat and sunscreen followed by a diorolyte because we had lost so much salt in the heat. 

Hot!!

Mountain top monastery

The next morning we were delayed because Paddy’s helmet was missing. We realised he had left it on the side of the track leading up to the quarry overnight and it seemed an early morning walker had picked it up… He would have to do without for a few days… we started to climb proper and although the road was quite busy with cars and many campervans the trucks mainly kept to the motorway tunnels and there was a decent hard shoulder. Quite some time has passed since our last big climb in Slovenia so our legs were feeling it a little bit. The scenery was very nice and we passed up through the Susa valley with spectacular views of the Fort of Exilles which sits on a spur dominating the narrowest section of the gorge. The site has played an important part in the original string of fortifications between the House of Savoy and France and the castle passed from one side to the other throughout the 16th century. Napoleon demolished the fort after he captured it in 1829 and it was then rebuilt in its current form and used by the Italian army until 1943 after which it was completely abandoned. 

Exilles


That evening we pulled the bike off the road down into the riverbed which is almost completely dry now thanks to most of the snow having melted away. Our grey tent camouflages very well on this white stoney ground so we didn’t worry too much about being completely out of sight. It was another spectacular camping spot with plenty of opportunities to sit and watch the wildlife including an adult Chamois (we think!) who made his way slowly from the river up a sheer cliff face into the safety of the alpine woods above. The night sky was incredible that night. 

Well hidden


Tomorrow we cross over the Montgenevre pass into France. Italy has been great and we definitely hope to come back here in years to come. 

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Lake Garda to Bergamo

Knowing that the campsites along the banks of lake Garda would cost an arm and a leg we needed to come up trumps with a good wild camping spot if we were going to stay and go sailing for a day. The lake is a top tourist destination for water sport enthusiasts because the wind patterns are so predictable here – a thermal southerly breeze begins to build just before noon and blows continuously getting stronger and stronger until the evening. 

We cycle into the top of the town and before winding our way down the steep road to Riva del Garda town we consult the map to see if we can see anything suitable. Paddy spots a green park like area not too far away – it sits on a producing cliff and looks as if it might give amazing views out across Garda town and the lake. It looked more than perfect but would we be moved on quickly if we were spotted setting up camp there? 

It’s a lovely spot – lush green picnic areas with tables and water taps and plenty of tree cover. We cycle up to the cliff edge and can’t quite believe the view… This is going to be one of our best camping views of the whole trip! We peer down into the town and seeing all the tents and caravans squeezed into the various campsites below makes our chosen spot all the more sweeter. We will certainly miss moments like this once we are back…

There’s no one around so we wash at the tap and while I set up camp Paddy decides we need to celebrate in style so goes off with tandem to seek out some wine. A few people pop up every so often to look at the view but we mostly have the place to ourselves and we enjoy our evening before climbing into our tent for the night.

Paddy came back with this beer looking very pleased with himself!
Incredible views!
Good night!

Neither of us had any inclination to leave our spot the next morning and with enough food and access to water we decide we’re very happy to avoid the crowds for one more day and enjoy the views from here. So we have a rest day up here, whiling away the morning by playing an epic game of scrabble which saw Paddy lose by just one point! He thrashed me in the second game however! It’s Saturday and by lunchtime there are lots of people already out on the water so we spend some time setting up an awning to avoid the pounding sun and settle down to our private regatta! I can’t help but hummm snippets of the song cycle La regata veneziana by Rossini – it made up a good chunk of my final year recital at University – it’s sung by a girl called Anzoletta as she watches an Italian regatta in Venice. 

Lazy morning


The next morning we decide it’s our time to get out onto the water so we pack up and say goodbye to the view. There were plenty of boat hire places to choose from but Paddy had his eye on a 18ft catemeran so we chose a club which had a few of these for hire. This would be my first time trapezing in a harness and Paddy was practically hopping with excitement. 

A lovely Italian lady called Nora signed us in and showed us where we could get our wet suits, boots and harnesses. Once kitted out we were helped into the water by two attendants and by 2.45pm were sailing out onto the lake. The wind had reached a good 25knots and we were absolutely flying, Paddy at the helm and me looking after the jib sheet (under close instruction). It was brilliant fun twin trapezing off the side of the boat – it feels like you are flying over the water – and the only slightly irritating thing was when the metal harness clips would bash me over the head before we could clip in after every tack.

Only once did we nearly capsize but we both lurched our weight quickly enough to the tipping side and P steered us upright again. It was great fun trying to race the windsurfers zooming along beside us and with the sun shining and the spectacular surroundings it was a great two hours. 


Windswept and with our legs and and bodies aching from using a completely different set of muscles we de-rigged and came ashore. Nora had kindly sorted us a great discount for one of the campsites on the lake but it was still the most expensive night in our tent of the whole trip – 28 (down from 40 thanks to Nora’s help!) 

We sat out in our helinox chairs in one of the lake side parks that evening with a few beers. We had tactically sat close to a bar where there was a group of musicians playing Irish jigs and trad songs so we had a good time singing along to the ‘Auld Triangle’ and ‘The Wild Rover’!

Because we had stayed an extra day on lake Garda we decided it was a good idea to try and quickly cover some distance the next day. Fortunately this is easy with the regular ferry service which operates on the lake. You have to choose your ferry carefully because not all boats go to every destination and not all agree to carrying bicycles. We managed to catch one at 9.30am to a town called Salo which sits on the west side of the lake. Another very warm day and it was enjoyable docking briefly at all the picturesque lake towns along the way. We ate lunch in Salo’s town square where we got chatting to a British family for a time before tackling the steep climb up away from the lake. 

Lake side towns

We had a few days to reach Bergamo and again we followed a great cycle route for the majority of it often along a canal which meant we covered a lot of miles.

That night we camped in a field just off a horse race track and had fun watching some jockeys putting their racing horses through their paces in the cooler evening air. The next we continued on our road north-west of Brescia and reached another lake where we stopped for creamy gilatis in Sarnico.

We reached Bergamo by 5:45pm and headed straight to our warm showers hosts Robbie and Margherita. Robbie owns a bike shop cooperative in Bergamo and has been big into cycling all his life. Him and his girlfriend Margherita who is just about to complete her PHD had kindly agreed to store the tandem and most of our bags while we flew back to Ireland for a week to see family. 

We met Robbie at his bike shop ‘Bike Fellas’ and then rode over to their lovely apartment where we could take a shower and get things sorted for the next day. Margherita and Robbie then took us to a great traditional Bergamese restaurant that night owned by their friend Gianni. The man himself explained everything on the menu himself and you could really tell that he had a passion for his local culinary traditions – these naturally included cured meats and delicious cheeses but also polenta cooked in various forms and delicious red wine served up in the traditional Bergamese way – in a bowl! It was a lovely place, filled with original photographs of Jianni’s ancestors and to our surprise and gratitude Robbie and Margherita insisted on paying the whole bill which was so generous of them.


We walked off the rich food with a lovely long evening stroll around Bergamo’s old town centre which sits on a hill surrounded by impressive Venetian fortified walls. There are four gates to the old city each with a stone lion (traditional Venetian symbol) perched on top guarding the entrance. The town is filled with cobbled streets, beautiful old churches and an old fort – not to mention the old house of Italian composer Donizetti!

The next day we have the whole afternoon to explore the city again this time by day light. Bergamo is really beautiful – I can thoroughly recommend visiting for a long weekend! We spend a lot of the day eating and then – because it’s so hot – lying in the park which surrounds the old fort.

The old town
Pastries!
The view of Bergamo from the fort

We now fly back to Dublin for a time to see family and as it turns out we will also fly to Cornwall for job interviews while we’re there! Glad those log nights in the tent writing personal statements paid off! We really are starting to get back to real life now! Gulp! 

Bled to Lake Garda – into Italy we go -Country No. 22!!!

Thankfully, the warm weather has finally arrived – so getting a good cycle in before the hottest part of the day is going to be important from now on – at least until we reach Northern France. Paddy is less enthusiastic about the warmth particularly the hot afternoons – I’m a bit of a sun worshipper though so I’m very happy to be leaving the cold mornings behind.

We had easily fallen out of our early rise routine while Andy and Rach cycled with us – not that our early rise routine can ever be considered ‘early’ by most other cycle tourers’ standards. Paddy and I have always enjoyed our 2 hour + morning packdowns… The days are getting longer and longer so we’re not too worried. Nevertheless we will try our best to get going by 9am. Let’s see how we get on! 

There was quite a hard climb out of Bled town but then we joined back onto the good cycle route and the cycle turned into a manageable steady incline. This continued all the way to the ‘border’ with Italy and by the afternoon we were soon crossing into country number 22. Like Greece, suddenly we were cycling through a country we have both visited lots before – home feels closer than ever! 


Our route will see us swoop across the top of the country, avoiding any of the big mountains on its northern fridges and making a bee-line across the flat plains to Milan. It’s sad we won’t be doing any cycling in the rest of the country; But with only 10 days until our flight home to Ireland (where we are visiting P’s family for a time) from Milan Bergamo we don’t have much time for many rest days let alone a detour further south… We’ll have to save Tuscany for a short cycle jaunt another time!

The great cycle route continued for the rest of the day and well into the next. Taking the place of an old railway line it was blissfully flat and slightly downhill in our favour so we ate up a lot of miles very fast. 

It was great to be away from the cars and traffic, we enjoyed great views and liked stopping for regular breaks outside all of the beautiful old station houses. We camped in a wooded area between the cycle path and the river that night.

Outside an old station

Whenever we come to Italy we always quickly remember why Italians are known for their style and dedication to aesthetic. Every town or village we seem to pass through is an idyllic hamlet of pastel coloured houses with painted shutters and cobbled plazas peppered with fountains and elegant classical statues. Every garden is covered in blooming roses and the smell of Jasmin hangs heavy in the air wherever we go. 

Wine making is big business here and we cycle through miles of vines which must be growing at a rate of a ft a week at the moment. Many of the vineyards stretch across vast fields which often surround a small hill. There is often a beautiful ancient casa perched on top of these hillocks. All the farmers are busy hay making too and we have loved cycling along the wheat fields which are often stained red with wild poppies. It’s all rather idyllic! 

A spot of property browsing
Picnic on stone steps of main square of Venzone – the town was totally flattered in a terrible earthquake in 1976.


Along some of our route, houses and gate posts still bare pink ribbons and bows which we assume are left over from the Giro d’italia – Italy’s version of the Tour de France where it’s all about the pink jersey rather than the yellow.

It’s been very hot but there has been plenty of chances to cool down in the clear blue rivers. The air has also been very heavy and on our second night we had to endure a crazy flash thunderstorm – we just about got in the tent in time and it’s probably the biggest test our MSR Hubba Hubba has had to cope with so far!

From here we wound our way up an impressive gorge towards lago di corlo – a man made reservoir/lake where we would stay in a campsite for the night. Avoiding the main road and tunnel we take a spectacular switch back route up through the valley – the road we took was actually closed with big bollards blocking cars from passing through so we could relax, take our time and enjoy the peaceful climb without worrying about vehicles tearing around the corners. The views were amazing and Paddy got the heeby-jeebies looking down into the gorge below! Half way up we see what looks like a large stone lying in the middle of the road and wonder whether this is why the road had been closed… but as we get closer we realise the object isn’t a stone at all but rather a beautiful adolescent male deer who has clearly played too close to the edge and toppled off from the sheer cliff above. He’s untouched apart from a small trickle of blood flowing from his antlers – it’s definitely the saddest and most majestic ‘road kill’ we’ve come across. We reach the remote hill top village of Incino where we stop to take in the view of the lake and the lush green valley and then make our way over to the campsite. 

The next morning we enjoy a lazy breakfast by the lake then pack up and get going. Cycling is big around here and we meet lots of road bikers as we wind our way down another excellent riverside cycle route to Trento, another beautiful town. We’ve made great progress thanks to a strong tail wind and we manage to reach the northern tip of Lake Garda for 6:30pm. The plan is to stay here for at least a few days. We’ve made really good progress and should easily make it to Bergamo. Despite the lake having an almost Mecca like status with sailers all over Europe Paddy has never actually been to Garda… We may even treat ourselves and go sailing!