Italy by Bicycle: From Venice to Florence

My dad and I recently took a trip to Italy. Our agenda: bike for six days then explore via foot and train Florence, the Cinque Terre, and Rome. Being the savvy internet junky (love you dad!) that he is, my dad found a reputable company called Bike Rentals Plus! that offered self-guided tours in Italy. He also happened upon a deal that The Clymb had with this same company. So we booked, crossing our fingers that this would be a great first experience renting bicycles and touring in a foreign country.

From the beginning both The Clymb and Bike Rentals Plus! were timely in their responses to any questions we had. Before leaving for our trip Bike Rentals Plus! sent us tips on things to bring and directions on how to get to the hotel from the Venice airport. I highly recommend Bike Rentals Plus! for anyone wanting to see the countryside of Italy. This experience was nothing short of amazing. The best part is you don’t have to be a die-hard biker either; you go at your own pace. And, if on hill day you want to take the easy route and ride a train, you can do that. But I promise you, the feeling of accomplishment once you reach the top and the rush of going back down is so exhilarating you won’t even think twice about the pain in your legs half way up (or maybe you will, but it’s still worth every bit of it!).

So here it is, our trip from Venice (Chioggia) to Florence:

Day 1: Bike fitting.
Sara, from Bike Rentals Plus!, arrived at the Hotel Grand Italia in Chioggia (the tour actually begins here, not Venice) with our bikes so that we could get fitted and acquainted with our new ride for the next six days. We opted to bring our own pedals, shoes, and helmet. I recommend doing this if you have the room in your luggage, it makes for a much more comfortable biking experience. After getting our bikes fitted, Sara sat down with us and the other couple also doing the tour, to go over last minute tips and gave us our day-by-day directions. (The directions were very detailed and even gave suggested stops for sightseeing and water/food along the way. One great thing about Italy is that all the water, unless otherwise noted, is safe for drinking. And, there are many public water spouts to fill your water bottle along the way—no need to spend money on bottles of water.) Sara was super friendly, spoke very good English, and gave us some no-nonsense advice for biking in Italy.  ChioggiaDay 2: It begins! From Chioggia to San Basilio (Po Delta).
We left Chioggia early on Sunday morning. Apparently Sunday morning is market day in Chioggia, so we started our journey weaving through a sea of people moving slowly from one side of the street with tents full of clothing to the other side with tents full of food and spices. Soon we were on a bike path passing Italians of all ages out running, biking and rollerblading. We weaved through city streets and saw our first “real” bikers going as fast as the traffic beside them. It didn’t take long and we ended up on a levee road with little traffic. We had a river on our right and beautiful country Italian homes on our left. The houses and scenery were so breathtaking my neck became sore from constantly turning my head to the side, not to mention my slight weaving from one side of the road to the other. The road was just big enough for a car to pass by. Fishermen with the longest fishing poles I’ve ever seen were fishing along the bank somewhat hidden amongst the tall grass. Today we had the option to do an extra loop and explore the Po Delta. We of course wanted to see all that we possibly could and take it all in, so we decided to do the extra ride or, at least we attempted to. About 12km in we came to an orange barrier, the trail beyond unpaved and large machines blocking our way. We turned back. (We found out later that night that the other couple also doing the self-guided tour, went around the barrier and did the whole loop. We weren’t that brave.) By afternoon it had become sunny and hot. We reached San Basilio not realizing that our hotel was just a couple miles (if even) down the road. By then I was ready for a gelato and a break from the heat. We stopped at the only restaurant in the town and, although I’m not sure they were really open, got a delicious ice cream treat. We explored the only other business in town (pretty much the only other building in town besides a church), which happened to be an information center. Paintings and archeological findings lined the walls. Soon after we headed just down the road to our “hotel”. In Italy they have these delightful agriturismi (plural for agriturismo). Agriturismo is a combination of Italian words that mean “agriculture” and “tourism.” They are working farms that offer accommodations and I would stay there again in a heartbeat. They had peach trees and pear trees (my first time seeing both of these fruit growing trees). The room was actually fairly large and very clean. That evening we walked back to the only restaurant in town where we had had the ice cream treat earlier and ordered pizza. I had read a book prior to our trip that said Italians order a whole pizza for themselves because it is unlike the pizza that we have here in the United States and that it is considered a “personal pizza.” I’m not sure how anyone could consider the massive pizzas we had as “personal size”, but apparently this is how the Italians eat pizza. (Side note, if you go to Italy and order pizza, eat it with your fork and knife. Picking up a slice with your fingers is considered very odd and most likely you will be stared at). Italian PizzaDay 3: To Comacchio, a.k.a. little Venice and eel capitol of Italy.
The ride today was gorgeous; we road another levee road next to the Po Delta River. Cornfields stretched for miles to our other side with old farm homes tucked in amongst the many fields. We arrived in Comacchio around 3p.m. with plenty of time to explore before the dinner hour. (Don’t even think about dinner until 7p.m., and then wait another 30 minutes before beginning the search for a restaurant. You literally cannot get dinner before 7:30p.m. in Italy, unless you happen to be staying in a very touristy town such as Rome, but no promise on the quality or price as they are catering to us tourists). Today we had our first real gelato and it was out of this world. After much picture taking and exploring to find that Comacchio was much larger than we initially thought, we decided to fulfill my dad’s mission of having his first Negroni (recipe below). Since neither of us had ever had a Negroni before, and, because the bartender seemed amused that we were ordering such a drink, I decided to join my dad in having his first Negroni. WOW! I had no idea that this drink was all liquor in a large glass. Thank goodness the bartender also was so kind as to bring us an hors d’oeuvre plate to take bites of olives, chips, bread sticks, anything in between sips of Negroni. It was so strong I wasn’t able to finish the entire thing, which along with my apparently rosy cheeks, was much to the amusement of the bartender. That was my first and last Negroni, however, only one of many for my dad. Dinner here was one of the few that we didn’t much care for. I had pasta with craw fish that made the entire dish taste like fish, tomato sauce, noodles and all. My dad had eel, because when in Comacchio… He wasn’t thrilled. Bike in ComacchioDay 4: Ravenna: sweet, sweet Ravenna.
The biking today was brutal. I can handle hot, long rides, but throw in a breeze of any kind other than a tail wind, and I’m like a turtle going uphill in a thunderstorm. In other words, slow. Yet the ride today was another flat day and that helped. It was also our shortest day 42km. We stopped in a small town at the most amazing little bakery. Bread lined the back wall (have I mentioned my love for bread in windows? This started in 2008 when I first visited New York City and saw bread piled high in multiple windows exploring Little Italy and other parts of this glorious city. But I digress.), delicious smells of freshly made lasagna and Parmesan crusted eggplant floated in the air, and decadent sweets filled the display case. The rest of the ride was much warmer and less windy. Ravenna was the largest city to this point of the trip. We enjoyed the numerous food options, sipping lemonade (by the way if you order lemonade expect to get sparkling lemonade, more soda-like than anything) and beer, and watching women in heels petal their bicycles with ease, men with loafers and dressy slacks, and children too, all passing by on their bicycles. For dinner tonight we ate some of the most delicious pasta I have ever had. I’m sure I had the whole pasta box worth of pasta on my plate too. Fresh, al dente pasta with fresh mozzarella, eggplant, and tomato. Yum!
Eggplant pasta, Ravenna, Italy. Day 5: Faenza where an adventure awaits!
Today’s ride was sunny and perfect. It really looked like how you might imagine Italy—vineyards upon vineyards. Today was even the day I picked a kiwi from a tree! (It was hard as a rock, but I can at least say that I picked a kiwi from a tree…and got caught by an Italian biker while doing so.) One of the most memorable and a high for my dad, was meeting Aldo Ronconi’s son at the Ronconi Sport bicycle shop. Aldo Ronconi finished fourth overall in his first Tour de France where he won a stage and wore the yellow jersey for two days in 1947. Unfortunately Ronconi passed away in 2012, but it was a complete pleasure meeting his proud son and hearing second-hand stories of his father’s victories. By dad bought a yellow jersey with the Ronconi Sport name and I regretfully didn’t. When it finally came time to locate a restaurant for dinner, we found that although relatively large, restaurants were not in abundance. After roaming around the city for what seemed like hours (in reality it was probably 30 minutes but believe me when you have to wait until 7:30 to eat dinner after biking all day, it feels like forever) we found a cute, organic, fresh-herbs-growing-on-the-counter kind of place. We sat at a lopsided table outside opened the menu and realized we were at a Spanish infused Italian restaurant. Nothing like eating Spanish food when in Italia. Our waitress was beyond helpful and tried incredibly hard to please us, although neither my dad nor I really knew what we would be getting for dinner. In the end, my dad had mystery meat and I had a potato cake that literally tasted just like a McDonald’s hash browns and half of a tomato with cream cheese, sweet and sour sauce, and a little balsamic vinegar. Tasty? Not so much. But memorable? Definitely. Tomato with cream cheese.Day 6: The Apennines: a.k.a. hill day.
Rolling hills start the day, building your confidence and conditioning your legs. We stopped at an olive oil factory that Sara had told us about way back on day one. Never experiencing an olive oil tasting and fully expecting it to be something complex and highly adventurous we decided we had to stop and check this out. I will do my best to paint a clear picture of this experience: Imagine taking a medicine cup, like the one on top of a Pepto Bismol bottle, filling it to the bottom line with olive oil and taking it like a shot of whiskey. In fact, it will even burn your throat just like whiskey, especially once you reach the third and (thankfully) final sample. All I can say is thank goodness they had chocolate for sampling too. Climbing the hill was challenging, yes, but the smells when we entered each village—bread being baked in ovens—the views all around us, and the sheer knowledge of knowing that your biking up a mountain in Italy, makes it all worth it. We did have to stop once to let my lungs relax and my legs stop mildly screaming. Determination and putting my head down and my legs to the grind pushed me to the top. Making it to there, to the top, was exhilarating. I had done it. I biked up a mountain in Italy. There also happens to be a restaurant at the top. My dad and I were more than ready to take a break and my dad needed a little nourishment to continue on. Although I wasn’t too hungry I figured I should order something and on the menu with English translation (the waitress quickly realized we didn’t speak much Italian) I spotted a “grilled cheese.” I also wanted to add a slice of tomato (pomodoro) to my grilled cheese and tried my best to translate this in Italian to our very kind waitress. She left the table and I explained to my dad that I either was getting two different sandwiches, one cheese and one tomato, or something entirely different. Turns out on a menu in Italy, “grilled cheese” literally means grilled cheese. No bread. Just two slices of a slightly salty, slightly gooey, yet just firm enough to cut, delicious grilled cheese. And those tomatoes? Well, I also got a plate with grilled tomatoes. It was phenomenal and not just because I had bike for hours up a mountain. The flavor that simple, fresh, foods have (and what we largely lack in Wisconsin and most of the United States frankly) is out of this world. After our lunch we had roughly 9km of steep down hill and switchbacks until we reached our hotel. At first timid, I quickly realized the rush of going 35+mph downhill, weaving around corners, and pumping my brakes until my fingers and hands were numb. Not much was in this mountain town other than a couple of hotels, so our hotel fed us a 5-course dinner that night. We sat at a table set for four (my dad, myself, and our fellow bikers to sit around), told stories and ate family style passing plates of whatever our waiter brought out for us. Apennines MountainDay 7: The Final Ride: From Ronta to Florence.
Thinking I had tackled hill day and would be enjoying more flats today, I wasn’t initially mentally prepared to tackle another hill, although thankfully much smaller than the previous day’s ride. But I can’t stress enough how fun downhill becomes, the wind in your face, and the sheer rush from zigzagging downhill at close to 40mph. It truly makes the climb worth all of the effort (both mentally and physically). Sara had warned us not to ride into Florence too early in the day or we would hit lots of traffic so we had plenty of time to explore a mountain village with the most incredible views. The views today while riding were breathtaking, the weather absolutely perfect, and overall the day was bittersweet. We did get slightly turned around in Florence, biking the wrong way on a one-way street, but otherwise had no problems. It was sad to see our biking time end and as all good things do, it went by way too fast. Dad and I in ItalyI could go on and on about the people we met, the beauty all around us, the architectures, the food, the espresso!, but if I did this post would be twice as long as it already is. All I can say is, DO IT. Do it if you have the chance and do so in the last part of July and beginning of August. The weather could not have been more perfect for us. If I were to rate Bike Rentals Plus! I would honestly give them a 10 out of 10. Everything was highly organized, the hotels expected us, we were never a surprise, and they all knew the drill of where to park the bicycles for the evening and where to leave our bags the next morning for pick up. Hands down one of the best experiences I have ever had. I will always cherish these memories biking and exploring Italy with my dad. I can’t wait to take my husband on a similar trip in the near future!

Negroni Recipe Negroni

  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • Slice of orange

Pour gin, vermouth, and Campari into a chilled medium-large glass over ice; toss in a slice of orange. Enjoy?! (Consume in moderation. This is a strong drink!)

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1 thought on “Italy by Bicycle: From Venice to Florence

  1. Pingback: A look back at 2014 | Ironwoman Diary: Destination Finish Line

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