Not only am I not a cyclist but I’d almost go so far as to say I don’t even like cycling. I avoid the bikes at my local gym in favour of the cross trainer or the treadmill. Not only do I find them boring but I have to notch the difficulty level down to about 3 before I can manage any more than 10 minutes on one! Moreover, I’d never really used my third or fourth hand BMX, which I’d bought 7 or 8 years previously for about £20, and which was still sitting in my kitchen gathering dust.
Yet for some strange reason I was being drawn towards the concept of a cycling holiday. Or rather, one particular cycling holiday. Starting in Venice, we’d cycle along the Adriatic coast through Italy and Slovenia, and then follow the Istrian peninsula on to Porec, northern Croatia.
I loved the idea of seeing 3 countries in 1 week, but doing it all under the power of my own steam made it seem all the more appealing. I also loved the fact that this was a self-guided cycling trip. No group (although there would be others booked on to the same trip, cycling the same route) and no tour leader. Just a series of maps and route notes to get me from A to B. What’s more, my main luggage would be transported by bus to my next destination. All this meant that I’d have the ability to stop whenever and wherever I wanted, I wouldn’t be limited to the amount of time I chose to spend at any given location, and I’d have the freedom to go at my own pace. Most of the trips I’d taken prior to this had been short-term or long-term backpacking holidays, relying heavily on local transport to travel between destinations. This time I fancied doing things differently. I wanted to challenge myself a little.
Or a lot.
Yes, I consider myself to be reasonably fit. As I mentioned previously, I do a lot of cardiovascular work at the gym 2 or 3 times a week. But the fact that I can run and use a cross-trainer and a rowing machine does not mean that I can necessarily cycle. Experience of using the bikes at the gym had proven that I can’t. Or at least, not very well or for any length of time. Would these factors detract from my enjoyment of such a trip? Would I be physically capable of covering the distances involved? How tricky would I find the terrain? What about the gradient? and what sort of bikes did the tour operator supply us with? Were they fit for purpose?
So many questions spun around my head, some of which the information in the tour brochure would answer but many of which I’d never know the answers to until I’d bitten the bullet, booked the trip, and spent a day in the saddle.
The tour was graded as moderate – one step up from leisurely – which meant that there was going to be a certain level of physical fitness, strength and endurance required. But I liked that – I wanted to push myself to some degree.
The average daily distance covered was 51km (32 miles), which was over 2 thirds of the way to Chester (my University city) from my hometown of Shrewsbury. Now it was starting to sound a little scary.
The bikes supplied to us were 27 speed road bikes. Sturdy vehicles with more gears than you can shake a stick at. This was good.
Should I need it, there was a 24-hour emergency assistance telephone number. Otherwise each bike came with its own puncture repair kit. Normally this would be a problem, as I’ve never had to fix a puncture in my life. However, on this occasion my boyfriend Stu had decided to come along for the ride. He’s a plumber and electrician, and is generally good at fixing things and staying calm in stressful situations. However, he’d never really considered himself a cyclist either…
This was going to be interesting!
We considered training in preparation for said holiday. However, although my BMX is great for nipping to the shops or cycling over to a friend’s house (which is all I’d really ever used it for), it wasn’t really suitable for long cycle rides through the Shropshire countryside. The Shropshire countryside – for those that don’t know it – is hilly. My BMX has no gears. Moreover, the ‘lovely’ English weather in March and April (our trip was in May) was not helping our cause.
So we arrived into Venice 2 months later, having completed one 5 mile cycle ride between us.
We’d been to Venice 4 years previously as part of a backpacking trip around northern Italy, but It was lovely to see the city by night. Getting lost in Venice’s back streets – away from the main canals and tourist spots – is both interesting and fun at the best of times. But those isolated streets, crumbling buildings and empty canals are somehow much more atmospheric once night has fallen.
We even found a mask and costume shop open at 10pm. As I looked around me at the bizarre, beautiful and sometimes macabre adornments, I really felt like Sarah at the masked ball from that scene in Labyrinth.
And then the cycling began…
We’d collected our bikes, equipment, maps and route notes the evening beforehand, so all we had to do in the morning was wake up relatively early, get in the saddle and go. And get out of Venice, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than it sounded.
The first part of the journey involved navigating our way from Mestre (the location of our hotel) to the island of Tronchetto. We referred to our guide for instructions about this route, which is when the following sentence leapt out us:
“Some parts of the road from Mestre to the island of Tronchetto are extremely busy and quite dangerous.”
It gave us the option of taking the train from Mestre to Venezia Santa Lucia. Sold. I really didn’t want the first part of my first day of cycling in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, to be amongst busy traffic in a potentially dangerous situation. The problem with our chosen option was that there is a limit to the number of bikes that can be loaded on a train, so we had to wait until 10am for a train that would allow us to load our bikes on board.
When we reached our destination station, finding the landing stage for our ferry transfer from Tronchetto to Lidio San Nicolo was a little more tricky. The directions in our route notes were making very little sense, and when we finally found (what we thought was) the right place, the surly Italian gentleman told us in broken English that we were not permitted to bring our bikes on board. I was ready to cry. It was nearly midday, we were still in Venice and we couldn’t see a way to get out of the city.
Fortunately, after asking for directions, pointing desperately at maps and attempting to utilise the limited Italian vocabulary I possess countless times, we were finally directed to the correct landing stage – which incidentally was not where our route notes (route notes that I was ready to rip to pieces and throw overboard at the earliest opportunity) had advised us it would be.
We travelled the 35 minute journey to Lido San Nicolo only to discover that, having disembarked the ferry, we then had to board a direct motorboat to Punta Sabbioni. Okay, so I was a little apprehensive about the cycling, but after getting lost in Venice and changing transport from ferry to vaporetto with a lot of waiting in between, I couldn’t wait to get on the bike and start exploring a little bit of the Italy I’d come on this trip to see – the Italy away from the noise and the traffic and the crowds.
From Punta Sabbioni we cycled 7km of dirt road along the Sile river towards the small village of Lio Piccolo. Surrounded by lagoons on each side, the landscape seemed so desolate and remote, and it wasn’t helping matters that we were having to cycle into a 14kph headwind. Disenchanted by the landscape and disheartened by prior events, I should have been feeling deflated and disillusioned by the whole trip. But I wasn’t. I was actually feeling pretty alive. Realising that I was cycling along a dirt road and into a strong headwind and NOT struggling lifted my spirits. A lot.
Will we ever make it to Caorle?
That was the question we found ourselves asking before long. Looking through our route notes as we stopped to catch our breath, it became apparent just how much more ground we had to cover, and we were already a large chunk of the way into the afternoon.
The rest of the day passed as a blur of map checking, clock watching, route studying, and brief glimpses of the scenery rushing past us. We finally found ourselves crossing the bridge and heading down into the colourful coastal town of Caorle at around 9pm, just as dusk was approaching.
We’d not eaten anything since breakfast (aside from a bag of peanuts we’d bought at a small market we’d found in Laguna del Mort) so all we were concerned about doing in Caorle was finding our hotel, and then locating a nice harbourside restaurant for dinner.
Upon checking our notes it then came to light that our hotel was not actually in Caorle; it was 6km out, at the start of the descent down into Caorle. Back the way we’d just come and uphill. I was ready to tear my hair out. We had spent half the day getting out of Venice, a large chunk of it cycling around some very unspectacular lagoons, and then the rest of it pedaling so hard towards our destination that we didn’t even allow ourselves time to stop and have a look at the towns and villages we were travelling through. We’d well and truly deserved that harbourside meal I was so desperately looking forward to. But by the time we’d found our hotel and checked in, the hotel restaurant was no longer serving food, and I really didn’t fancy cycling all the way back into Caorle at almost 10pm – in the dark. So we had a couple of drinks in the bar, and decided that we’d make up for it at the buffet breakfast the next morning.
Tomorrow was another day.
And tomorrow really was another day.
Bright sunshine and blue skies had replaced the stubborn cloud and strong winds of yesterday. As we arrived into the centre of Caorle, we got a taster of what was to be the first of many colourful little coastal towns.
At its centre stands the symbol of this town – a cathedral built in 1038 and its coeval cylindrical bell tower.
From Caorle we followed quiet country roads traversing lands rich in water, where dykes and isolated farms mark this wonderful landscape.
Now I was starting to enjoy this cycling malarkey. For the most part I didn’t even think about the physical aspect of pedaling the bicycle; it came as second nature to me whilst I soaked up the sights and sounds that surrounded me. What’s more, today the directions in our road book seemed much more comprehensive, much less ambiguous, and therefore completely navigable.
We cycled through Boccafossa, Sant Elena, Torre di Mosto, and Concordia Sagittaria, where coincidentally we bumped into 3 dutch couples who were part of the same self-guided tour that we had embarked upon (the orange bicycles gave it away). After a brief conversation about yesterday’s logistical nightmare, we discovered that they had experienced similar problems getting out of Venice, and that they had only made it to Caorle an hour before we did. Upon closer inspection of their bikes, we had an idea as to why that was – they had electric bicycles. Granted, there hadn’t really been a lot of need for switching from pedal to electric power so far, but it’s something I so would have utilised yesterday evening on the climb back up to our hotel. Even so, I didn’t really see the point in undertaking a cycling holiday if you were going to cheat, as it were.
We arrived into the elegant city of Portogruaro (our final destination for the day) by 3pm, giving us an ample amount of time to explore what became my favourite Italian city on our trip. However, after seeing the hotel we were to spend the night in, I was almost too flabbergasted to leave. The Hotel Residence Portus stands boldly on the banks of the river Lemene, smack bang in the centre of Portogruaro and it is AMAZING! Maybe it’s because I’m used to staying in hostels when I travel, but this 3 star hotel seemed like a 5 star luxury apartment to me, with wooden floors, a flat screen TV, a walk-in shower and enough room to swing a tiger.
But drag myself away from this new found luxury I must….
So we wandered along the pretty banks of the Lemene, along which several 12th century mills can be found. Weeping Willow trees gracefully overhang the river, and colourful pink and white flowers decorate the little wooden bridge that crosses it.
In Portogruaro’s Piazza della Repubblica – dominated by its equestrian statue and gothic town hall dating from 1265 – we grabbed seats at one of the local cafes, ordered a couple of glasses of red wine, and soaked up the last few rays of sunshine. The town’s major economic activity is its production of wine, and quite rightly so – this was good stuff.
The next morning it seemed a shame to be leaving such a charming little town, but we had a 68km ride to Palmanova ahead of us, and I absolutely did not want a repeat of day 1; I wanted to get on the road.
A journey towards the eastern star
Today we cycled some pleasantly flat, virtually traffic-free roads through peaceful little villages dotted around the Italian countryside. We passed countless vineyards, churches decorated with brightly coloured ribbons, foretelling an upcoming festival or celebration, and coffee-drinking locals gathered around tables on the corners of streetside cafes. In one of the villages we spotted the tiniest toy dog who was yelping incessantly behind an imposing wrought iron gate to which a sign was nailed advertising his ferocity, “Attenti al cane”, that made us giggle as we cycled past.
We continued on, as far as the city of San Michele and the Tagliamento river, whose peaceful course marks the border between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. The Tagliamento river is 170km long and is considered to be the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. Shortly after a break in the beautiful ancient village of Precenicco, we were directed on to a dirt road (which although it plays havoc with your control over the bike, it does make for a more authentic hands-on cycling experience!), and soon found ourselves following a narrow grassy path alongside woodlands, where flowers like this beautiful little gem can be found…
This narrow pathway soon gave rise to an unpaved track flanked by more solar panels on either side than I’ve ever been witness to in my life. We were cycling through a solar farm of enormous proportions!
The ever-changing scenery is one of the aspects of this trip that I was starting to love, and it’s something that you don’t necessarily find to such a noticeable degree when you’re trekking or backpacking. Yes I suspect I’m not a very fast cyclist by any stretch of the imagination – particularly when faced with uneven terrain, busy roads or slight gradients – but it’s still a darn sight quicker than walking, which means that you can cover much greater distances in a much smaller amount of time.
This is why – only minutes later – we found ourselves cycling into the picturesque fishing village of Marano Lagunare, watching fishermen haul in their catch, and hoards of seagulls circling noisily above them. As someone who has a definite fondness for seafood, I was eager to try some of the fish here. Unfortunately the people of Marano Lagunare had other ideas: the harbourside restaurants and cafes were all very empty and very closed, but the menus still hung tantalisingly inside the windows, torturing the tastebuds of hungry passersby.
When we arrived into the unusual city of Palmanova – famous for being built as a fortress in the 16th century in the shape of a nine-pointed star – the winds were bending the trees so forcefully that it felt as though there was a storm rolling in.
The next morning, said storm had not only rolled in but it didn’t look like it had any intention of rolling out…
The day the weather forced some tough decisions upon us
We woke to the sound of torrential rain, which was already so heavy it was leaving large puddles in the hotel courtyard. The rumbles of thunder were growing closer and closer to the bolts of lightning that preceded them – so much so that when we stood in the doorway we half expected one to strike the clock tower in true Back to the Future style. It was spectacular to watch from a distance, from the shelter and warmth of the hotel lobby, but then the reality hit – we were supposed to be cycling in this.
That fact had obviously dawned on the rest of the group too…one by one (or should that be two by two? An ark might have been a better form of transport today) the dutch appeared, followed by 2 Mexican couples. Some of us took up residence on the comfy leather sofas, some of us paced around, some of us watched the rain hammering down on the pavements outside. Yet the same question was running through all of our minds – could we cycle in this?
I desperately wanted to cycle. Obviously not in the current weather conditions, but I kept trying to convince myself (and everyone else in the room) that the storm would roll through, and the day would turn out to be beautifully sunny (ever the optimist). I didn’t want to miss out on a whole day worth of sights between Palmanova and Trieste – the medieval village of Strassoldo, the archaeological site of Aquileia, the panoramic coastal roads, and the castles of Duino and Miramare. I freakin love castles.
But then my conscience (Stu) began pointing out the dangers of cycling in such severe conditions. When the roads were wet they became slippery; stopping distances (of our own vehicles as well as those of other motorists on the road) were reduced and visibility was impaired. Not only that, but would I really enjoy exploring villages, archaeological sites and castles in the torrential rain in the middle of a thunderstorm?
The others had already begun organising alternative transport, and I eventually conceded that perhaps that was the right thing to do. It wasn’t an easy task but after several conversations with our tour operator’s Italian representatives, we eventually secured 3 minivans to transport the 12 of us and our bicycles all the way to Trieste.
An uphill challenge
As we walked out of the hotel the next morning, into the wonderful Piazza Unita d’Italia, the pavements were dry, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a single cloud in the perfectly blue sky. I was feeling good again – until I read the route notes for today’s leg of the trip:
“Today’s stage is more difficult than the previous stages…when you leave Trieste you will have to face some short but difficult slopes uphill…the rest of the itinerary goes on a slightly hilly territory, and the last 2km to reach Piran are uphill.”
How many times did I just read the words ‘hill’ and ‘difficult’? True enough, once we’d negotiated the traffic on the busy roads that lead us out of Trieste, the road started climbing – gently at first, but still consistently climbing. Yes, it was taking it out of my legs a little but I was doing ok. I was cycling uphill without a significant amount of effort. Maybe I could be a cyclist after all…
But then the road started heading downhill quite dramatically, which was great apart from the fact that – just as night inadvertently follows day – a downhill is always followed by…yep, you’ve guessed it! Now for those of you who don’t know me, I can be incredibly stubborn, independent, and possess a very tenacious sense of determination when I want to. This was an occasion when I wanted to. I’d done so well up until now that I wasn’t going to let a silly little hill get the better of me. I had 27 gears after all.
So I sped down the hill as fast as I could safely manage, in the hope that I’d gain enough momentum to be able to climb a reasonable distance uphill before I’d need to start pedaling. That was before I saw the hill. This wasn’t a silly little hill; this was a freakin enormous hill. So I pedaled, and the more I pedaled the harder the wheels became to turn, and the harder the wheels became to turn, the more likely the bike was to stop – causing me to fall off into the road. Or worse still – causing me and the bike to roll backwards downhill. So I dropped down a gear – better. I dropped down another gear, and another. True, the more gears I dropped down the easier it became, but it got to the point where I felt like I was on one of those bikes at my gym – pedaling so hard yet not covering any distance. I contemplated the fact that I would have been better off walking, and I would. But I couldn’t let this hill beat me, no matter how long it took.
The dutch had sailed past me on their electric bicycles a long while ago. Even Stu had overtaken me, bemused and mildly tickled by the determined look on my face, my bright red cheeks, the beads of sweat running down my forehead, and the fact that I was panting furiously yet didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “Why don’t you notch it up a gear?” he suggested breathlessly. He obviously wasn’t finding this a walk in the park either. So I did, and I’ve no idea how, but I made it up that hill – and I felt so damn good at the end of it.
We made it over the border too, which was also a miracle considering the unusual nature of the border crossing. The route we were directed to take involved cycling up a dirt road, which then became so rocky and uneven that we had to dismount and push our bikes. The path then wove its way between olive trees, and we were forced to adopt a single file approach in order to get through . We were actually starting to wonder whether we’d taken a wrong turn, but all the landmarks we’d passed – the end of the wooden fence, the olive trees – seemed to tally with our instructions.
The remnants of the path gradually trickled away beneath our feet and gave way to an area of overgrown shrubbery, nettles and a mass of densely planted trees. We sent one of the game dutch folk out into the undergrowth to investigate, and sure enough – there was the asphalt road we were looking for on the other side. No government officials, no passport control; just a scramble through some vegetation and that was it. That was our border crossing. Welcome to Slovenia!
All the best things come in small packages
Slovenia’s coastline was one of them. I’d never been to Slovenia before, but within minutes I loved this country. I loved how much more cyclist friendly it was compared to Italy…miles upon miles of well marked and well maintained cycle paths that took us through some beautiful countryside and into the pretty coastal towns of Koper, Isola and Piran. I especially loved Piran.
Piran became all the more special for me because it felt like a culmination of everything that had come before it. The rural landscapes, glistening seas, red-tiled roofs, almond trees and salt beds at Strugnano were just the beginning.
Once we’d passed these the road began to climb again as we neared Piran, signalling the start of the 2km uphill run. I knew this was coming; I’d been forewarned when I read the road notes before we set off earlier this morning, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much such a long stretch of uphill takes it out of you. I’d had no problems with sore legs or muscles so far on the trip; all I’d suffered with was saddle-sore (skin abrasion on your bum due to spending long and continuous amounts of time in the saddle) – and God only knows how much worse that would be if I hadn’t invested in some good padded cycling shorts beforehand! However, part the way up this tough uphill section, my right knee became really painful. At first it was just a dull ache, but then it developed into a shooting pain every time I put pressure on that leg in order to turn the pedal. Again, being the stubborn madam that I am, I refused to give up, and ended up pretty much cycling the rest of the way in a blur of pain and determination. So when I reached the top, and was confronted with this view down into Piran, it had somehow made all that pain and effort worthwhile.
As we cruised down into Piran, I properly fell in love with this place. Piran is an old, fascinating and well-preserved Mediterranean city situated at the tip of the peninsula on the Gulf of Piran. It gets its name from the Greek word for fires, ‘pyr’, referring to the fires lit at the very tip of the peninsula , to guide ships to the port at (what is now) Koper. Its old town (centred around Tartinijev Trg) is a gem of Venetian Gothic architecture and alleyways, and tempting seafood restaurants.
I desperately wished that we’d have been stopping the night in Piran, but as my fruitless quest for some tempting seafood continued, so too did we – on to Portoroz.
Portoroz is a place that definitely does not belong in Slovenia; its presence on Slovenia’s tiny coastline is so out of place amongst the beauty of Koper, Isola and Piran. For that reason I don’t wish to say much about it, apart from the fact that it’s much like your stereotypical beach resort, and I wouldn’t recommend staying there. Why Exodus decided we should – when picturesque Piran is virtually on the doorstep – is beyond my comprehension.
The final stretch
Despite hobbling a little in an attempt to avoid putting too much pressure on my knee, walking around in Portoroz the night before hadn’t been too much of an effort. When I woke up the next morning, I appeared to be able to walk properly without any pain or twinges. But the real test would be how I would fare in the saddle. Was my knee up to 52km of cycling? What’s more, was my knee up to another 2km stretch uphill, just beyond the Croatian border?
So far, so good. The first leg of the journey was on some lovely flat roads alongside a lagoon.
We then passed the Secovlje salt mines (part of a fascinating nature park included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list), and followed the old Parenzana railway as far as the border. This border crossing was more as I expected border crossings to be. Not only did we have to show our passports twice – once to the Slovenian border officials and once to the Croatian border officials – but we also had to meet a Girolibero official there at 9:30am to see our own backpacks through.
My knee didn’t cope too well with the hill and I must confess that I did have to get off and walk my bike for the final stretch of it, but in my defence I made a pretty valiant effort nonetheless. The hill was Croatia’s way of introducing us to its territory of vast forests, caves, and hillside villages. The first of which was Buje, located at the top of a hill and famous for its vintage olive oil and excellent wines. The centre of the village is full of winding alleys and traditional taverns, and there are some stunning views across the surrounding countryside.
Upon leaving Buje we continued on through Croatia’s wine-growing regions, where Stu made a small detour…
Our next stop was the colourful little coastal town of Novigrad, awash with brightly painted buildings, inviting cafes, and an attractive little harbour.
As we cycled back inland, we passed countless poppy fields and olive groves. By this point we were making pretty good time, so we decided that we deserved a stop at the underground world of Jama Baredine. A 300m long path runs through the cave up to 60 metres below the ground, and into 5 beautifully decorated chambers. At the end is an underground lake where we would hopefully catch a glimpse of the cave olm (Proteus anguinus Laurenti), a blind amphibian endemic to the subterranean waters of caves in the Karst region of central and south-eastern Europe. We arrived at the caves just in time for the last tour of the day. Coincidentally this seemed to be the best time of day to visit these caves as we were joined by just 4 other people on our 40 minute tour. Not only was I impressed with the guide, but also with the quality and detail of the curiously shaped stalagmites and stalactites (all of which we were permitted to photograph).
Moreover we got our sighting of the olm, an unusual and fascinating little creature that can apparently survive for up to 10 years without food!
I don’t know why but I’d not really expected much from Porec, assuming it was just a final port of call from where we could hop on a boat back to Venice. So when we cycled into this charming, historic, and beautifully compact harbourside town I was genuinely – but pleasantly – surprised. Porec is almost 2000 years old, and there are still remnants of old Roman structures scattered around the place, along with Roman houses, Gothic-Venetian mansions, and the Euphrasius Basilica – dating from the 5th century.
Seats from the town’s numerous cafes and restaurants spill out on to its attractive paved streets, and stalls selling honey, olive oil, wine, truffles, and lavender line the harbour front. This was a perfect location for a comparably enjoyable end to our 7-day cycling trip, which I’d found relaxing, exciting, challenging, and rewarding – in equal measures. Whilst on one hand it was a holiday – an opportunity to see a myriad of ever-changing landscapes – it was also a great physical accomplishment for me. The combination of these two factors meant that it was a truly memorable experience, and one that I would happily repeat.
So if you’ve not considered a cycling holiday before, I hope this article has helped to alter your perspective a little. You may even enjoy the experience. I certainly never expected to 😉
The cycling holiday I undertook was Cycle the Adriatic: Venice to Porec, run by Exodus. The general quality of the hotels used was excellent and mostly central to the town (with the exception of Caorle) and the buffet breakfasts were enough to fill us up for the majority of the day. The 27-speed bikes were of excellent quality and made the ride smooth and hassle-free. The waterproof panniers supplied were spacious and easy to attach and detach, and the waterproof box on the front of the bike was exactly the right size for my camera. The routes chosen generally avoided main roads, which is great if you’re not a confident cyclist and also meant that you experienced the real heart and culture of each country, travelling on country roads through quaint little villages and pretty coastal towns. My only negative comment is that the directions given were sometimes vague and ambiguous, resulting in us covering a vastly increased distance on the first day, not reaching our destination until 10pm, and not having any time to stop at any of the towns/villages on route. We did get used to the way they were written and learned to interpret them accordingly as the trip went on, but there were still times we resorted to using a map and picking our own route to the next place named on our itinerary!
All views and opinions expressed within the article are wholly my own.
All photographs used are also my own.