This page was last updated 17 april 2000.

tuscany panorama

 

Bicycle Tour: Venice to Naples

map, 18k Statistics:
Tour date: July 1996.
Total distance: 1300 km.
Total altitude gain: 9 km.


Itinerary:
Venezia (Venice)
Chióggia
Ravenna
Rimini
San Marino
Firenze (Florence)
Siena
Montepulciano
Roma (Rome)
Napoli (Naples)
Pompei


General Information:
Italy Survival Guide

See my related page about a tour in Umbria and Tuscany, which also touched Siena and Florence.


VENEZIA (VENICE)

Canal Grande, 9k

Our tour started at the Venezia airport. Naturally the first destination was Venice downtown. It is somewhat hard to find the two-kilometer bridge that connects old Venice with Mestre, we had to use some very congested freeway-like bridges and roads. In Venice, no bicycles or cars are allowed (or practical), the road ends at Piazzale Roma. To park the bicycles, make a U-turn when reaching the piazza and ride down a steep driveway just before the first of the two small bridges, right across from the parking garage building. Then walk back to the piazza and take the vaporetto (shuttle boat) #82 north (south is much more scenic but requires switching boats at San Marco) until the Zitelle station, which is one block south of a very pleasant youth hostel. Use 24-hour tickets. The picture above shows - what else - the Canal Grande, seen from the Rialto bridge. The two big boats are vaporetti; a few gondolas can be seen on the right.

We stayed in Venice for two full days. There is much to see. The long S-shaped Canal Grande, which begins at San Marco (with the ducal palace) and the famous Campanile (bell tower) you'll see on every other postcard) and ends at Piazzale Roma. You can tour it with vaporetto #1 or #82. During the past 1000 years, the most magnificient palazzi have been built here. It is useful to have a guide to explain the history and interior of each palace.

RAVENNA AND RIMINI

We left Venezia the same way we entered it, and continued south along the Adriatic coast, mostly along busy four-lane highways because there is no good alternative for most of the way. We passed Chióggia , but it was noon and consequently everything was closed. We couldn't get so much as water, the town was completely dead. A waste of time.

tree-lined road, 7.5k

We continued on to Ravenna. A rather long ride in the afternoon heat, about 180 km, but there was no alternative. We stayed overnight and spent some time on the usual church circuit. Visiting churches and associated museums means countless pictures and statues of Madonnas, Apostles, people nailed to trees, children being killed (a favorite theme, apparently) and assorted other gory scenes so enjoyed by the church. Interestingly, the Vatican is a refreshing deviation from this uniformity. The Basilica San Vitale proved to be the most interesting sight here. We also visited the mausoleum of Dante Alighieri.

We next rode to Rimini, using the road along the coast that parallels the highway. It's an endless procession of beachwear shops and other tourist traps. Rimini itself is also totally tourist-oriented. We first tried to find the youth hostel, which is listed in the IYH guide but turned out to be an abandoned building close to a busy highway, filled with stacks of chairs and garbage and long defunct. We stayed instead in the Albergo Filadelphia (Via Pola 25).

SAN MARINO

San Marino, 9k Until now, the terrain had been flat. Rimini marks the northeastern corner of the Apennine mountains that cover most of central Italy. From now on until Roma, our daily rides included an average altitude gain of about 1200 meters. Grades are usually about 5-7%, occasionally up to 12%, rarely more. Most climbs were shorter than 500 meters. Our first climb was to San Marino, a small mountaintop enclave that is not part of Italy. It is totally tourist-oriented but manages to be very pleasant and certainly worth the trouble to climb up there. Most roads in the centro storico (historic center) are very steep, and we rode up all the way to the top. We even found a scenically located restaurant at reasonable prices. San Marino gives the impression of being very rich.

After descending from San Marino, we continued on highway 258 through Pennabilli, and used a small side road to cross over to highway 208 at Pieve San Stéfano. It's an interesting little village, but it was noon and it was consequently completely closed. We proceeded along highway 208 through Bibbiena and Poppi, turned into highway 70, and stayed overnight on top of the last hill before Firenze, in a small town named Consuma. The hotel there isn't exactly cheap but reasonable.

FIRENZE (FLORENCE)

Firenze hostel, 7.6k We rode down to Firenze the next morning. The ``Ostello della Gioventù'' youth hostel in Viale Augusto Righi 2-4 is a bit remote, but it's located in a beautiful garden that also contains a campground. The picture shows one of its gardens. What the youth hostel guide doesn't mention is that some of its 322 beds are actually located in tents outside. The youth hostel staff is bureaucratic and arrogant, and partially seriously underbrained, which made the stay less pleasant than it could have been. The price for a night includes breakfast, like in most other youth hostels, but it is completely inedible so you might as well skip it. Thin coffee, stale bread, butter turned sour (!), and unidentifiable fruit jam, bon appetit. Most youth hostels also offer dinner which is similarly disgusting.

Uffizi, 7.5k

Firenze downtown can be reached from the youth hostel with the #17 bus. The largest landmark, like in most other historic cities, is the duomo, a huge black-and white cathedral, and the Piazza della Signoria, the piazza in front of the building from which the ancient government, the signoria, for a long time dominated by the Medici family, ruled the Firenze republic.

If you would like to visit the Uffizi, originally guild offices built to keep the guilds under control but now one of Europe's foremost museums, make sure to arrive very early because they admit visitors in batches, and the line gets enormously long. As in Venice, you should read up on the history before visiting, so you understand the significance of what you see and can better enjoy it.

The picture to the left shows a view from an Uffizi window along the Uffizi courtyard, with the Piazza della Signoria with the signoria palace and its tower.

SIENA

From Firenze, we rode on highway 2, which has little traffic because it runs in parallel to an autostrada, through San Casciano and Poggibonsi. Due to misleading road signs we also went through Colle di Val d'Elsa and back, but there wasn't anything to see there. Beginning in Firenze, we followed the recommendation in the guidebook Mittel-Italien per Rad.

Siena, 8.7k Siena Campo, 8.4k

cathedral basilica, 10.4k


In medieval times, Siena was a competitor of Firenze, but later came under control of Firenze. There are far fewer tourists here, except perhaps during their palio horse race festival, which we missed. The center of Siena is the Piazza del Campo, a very large shell-shaped piazza dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico and its bell tower. There is also a cathedral, curiously built on top of its baptistery because the hill it's built on wasn't quite large enough for the ambitions of the Sienese. We bought the combined ticket for the baptistery and various museums, including the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana next to the cathedral.

The top left picture shows Siena with its cathedral in the center; the top right image shows Piazza del Campo seen from the Museo dell'Opera. The picture to the left shows the inside of the basilica built under the cathedral.

The Museo has some very interesting exhibits, such as some relics including a mummified finger of St. Catherine, lovingly mounted in a golden shrine, and some children's skulls including the one shown in the picture to the right. Somebody here has a very sick taste. From the top of the Museo's tower, reached through two narrow spiral staircases, one has a gorgeous view over Siena, including the one in the top right picture. Don't miss it. human skull relic, 12.3k

The big thing in Siena is Panforte, a sweet cake made with citron and various nuts. It's so strong that in comparison a Powerbar seems like a Ritz cracker. Personally I prefer Torrone, a concoction of honey and almonds also sold there.

SIENA TO ROMA

Montepulciano, 7.5k We left Siena on highway 438 through Asciano. On the uphill my friend's rear Campagnolo derailleur was caught in the spokes, which crushed the derailleur, bent several sprockets, snapped a spoke and sharply bent two more, and bent the dropout. We limped to Montepulciano, a small medieval town that completely covers a hill, where the Let's Go guide listed a bike rental store. The mechanic of this tiny hole-in-the-wall store actually managed to repair the damage and align the frame so well that later a professional mechanic in Roma couldn't find a fault with it. So, a special plug for: Cicloposse, Via dell'Opio nel Corso 16, Montepulciano, 0578-716392, fax 0368-462497. If you see them, say hello for us. The picture above shows Montepulciano capping its hill.

Otherwise, accommodations in Montepulciano are expensive. The town is crowded with enoteche, places to taste and buy local wines. It has turned out to be difficult to mail cases home though, postage is very expensive.

enoteca (wine shop), 10.7k

After Montepulciano, we proceded to Chianciano, Chiusi, and Orvieto. We didn't stay long in any of them. From there we continued along the three lakes north of Roma, first to Bolsena, northeast of the large Lago di Bolsena and then to Capodimonte on the southwest shore, using a narrow road directly along the lake shore, which contrary to the map was almost completely paved. We decided to stay in a campground near Capodimonte rather than Bolsena because it seemed less touristic, but we should probably have stayed at the oddly named ``Romantic Chez Vous'' campground instead.

The picture shows an enoteca, a wine store.

Next, we continued to Viterbo, a small town so crowded with car traffic that after locating the supermarket we got out of there as fast as possible. We rode up to the crater lake Lago di Vico through San Martino, which involved the hardest climb of the entire trip. The view over the lake was certainly worth it though. After circling the lake, we went through Ronciglione to the last of the three lakes, stopping for ice cream at Bracciano at the lake shore. This quiet town was the last respite before Roma.

ROMA (ROME)

We entered Roma through Spizzichino, which looked quiet enough on the map but there was still a lot of traffic, and like any suburb it was decidedly un-scenic. We were lucky at the youth hostel to get beds despite arriving rather late.

Roma from San Pietro, 12.4k

We stayed for two full days in Roma, and dutifully visited all the usual tourist watering holes - the Vatican, Forum Romanum, the Colosseum, and various odds and ends. As usual, we were seriously crowded by unreasonable opening hours. Many places open around 9:00 and close at 13:00, leaving only four hours each day for sights requiring admission. To get from the youth hostel to the Vatican, buy a 24-hour ticket and use bus 32. To get from there to the Forum Romanum and the Colosseum, use bus #64. However, the Metro is much more reliable than buses, which in one case got wildly rerouted in a long and complicated tour opposite to its regular direction because of some rollerblade event. The picture to the right shows the piazza in front of San Pietro's, seen from the top of its dome. The straight road leading out from the Piazza leads past the Castel d'Angelo (the papal bunker) to the Tiber river.

San Pietro, 15k

We visited the Vatican museums on the last Sunday of the month. On this day admission is free, so although we arrived early there were already several thousand people in the line in front of us. When they opened I estimated about 8000 people in the line reaching about one quarter of the way around Vatican city. The museum was certainly worth the long wait, and includes a visit to the Sistine chapel as a bonus. In it, guards clap their hands and request silence and reminding people that taking pictures is not allowed, but nobody takes much notice. Another sight not to be missed is the climb to the top of the San Pietro (St. Peter's) cathedral - 336 steps rewarded with a beautiful view over Vatican city and beyond. Remember to bring long pants or you won't be admitted to the cathedral! No exceptions. The picture to the left shows the interior of San Pietro, with sunlight streaming through the windows of the main dome. (The image is not retouched.)

The Forum Romanum requires some kind of guidebook to explain the ruins, or you won't much enjoy it. If you have one it's fascinating. It's quite large. Don't forget to bring a large water bottle (there is a faucet behind the entrance). We just barely managed to see the Forum before closing time. The Colosseum is right next to the Forum, but admission to the upper floors is excessively expensive. During an earlier visit to Rome I have also seen the Caracalla baths and the Pantheon and would have liked to see them again, but those idiotic opening hours didn't allow it.

Not to be missed: the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, Via Principe Eugenio 65/67, west of the Termini train station, is a century-old gelato (ice cream) factory. Best ice cream in town, with flavors you have never heard of. Good prices. Incidentally, the way to judge an ice cream place is to check the color of banana ice cream: it must be gray, not yellow.

NÁPOLI (NAPLES)

road with vineyard, 8.7k Leaving Rome was more difficult than entering. We left towards the south, passing the EUR exposition area on the left, and following Via Laurentina to Ánzio and past Sabbáudia to an unremarkable but expensive campground just before Terracina. Terracina itself is completrely dead even outside the customary early-afternoon hibernation period. The next day we followed highway 213 to Mondragone, where we turned left to follow quiet side roads to Cancello, the suburb Marano, and Napoli. Near Mariano we first got a taste of the chaotic traffic in Napoli. We rode past the Capodimonte park and followed Via Roma (also known as Via Toledo) to the end, turned right and followed the shore to the youth hostel.

I have been in Napoli ten years ago and was pleasantly surprised that the overflowing garbage everywhere and the rats seemed gone. Napoli has a reputation for, hm, quick unauthorized transfer of ownership of everything that isn't securely nailed down, so we left valuables in the youth hostel's safe, but it's probably all exaggerated. We had nothing stolen.

Napoli itself has a number of interesting churches and museums, and we visited the Museo Nazionale (which contains many items, including wall paintings, found in Pompei), but after the San Pietro and the Vatican Museums we were somewhat numbed. The old quarters to the west of Via Roma and south of Piazza della Carità are not to be missed - all narrow streets with people doing their work on the street, laundry hanging overhead. The real reason for our stay in Napoli was the fact that it has an airport, and its proximity to Pompei.

human skull relic, 10.3k On the day of our return to Berlin we had a few hours to kill, so we left the luggage in storage at the airport and rode Corso Secondigliano to the northeast. We found a small suburb bustling with an open-air market stretching for many blocks, filled with people shopping, like in the picture to the left.

Not to be missed: Osteria Canterbury, Via Ascensione 6, was probably the best restaurant we have visited during our trip, and still one of the cheapest. From Piazza Amedeo (southwest of the historic center), follow Via Vittoria Colonna, take the first right down the stairs, take the first right again and the next left. The restaurant has a red neon sign on the right side.

POMPEI

To visit Pompei, take the Circumvesuviana train from Stazione Centrale (Garibaldi) towards Sorrento and exit after 35 minutes at the Pompei / Villa dei Misteri station. Before entering Pompei, turn right, go straight to the end of the short road, and turn left parallel to the Pompei city wall until you see the GS supermarket to the right, where you can find the water and whatever else you need for an extended stay in the ruins of Pompei. The prices at the Pompei cafeteria are excessive.

Pompei plaster body, 5.2k

Pompei was buried under six meters of ash from an eruption of the nearby Vesuvio volcano (between Pompei and Napoli) in 79 AD, so suddenly that life in the city was frozen instantaneously. The city is exceptionally well preserved. During excavations, they found cavities in the ash where people had died, and made plaster casts of the cavities that even show the expressions on the faces of the people who died. They are on display in the vine garden. The one in the picture is one of two shown in the Terme. Many parts of the town are roped off, but there are many impressive villas, and most streets are freely accessible. The best wall paintings and most of the statues and other objects have been moved to the Museo Nazionale in Napoli (see above), but Pompei still offers a unique opportunity to learn about the life in a Roman city nearly two thousand years ago.





ITALY SURVIVAL GUIDE

Chiuso

means closed. During the early afternoon, Italy shuts down almost completely. The exact times vary, but between noon and 17:00, and especially between 13:00 and 16:00 you can expect shops and restaurants to be closed. This often includes museums. In large cities there may be some restaurants and large supermarkets that stay open, but in general the result is that it is very hard to buy water during this time or to have lunch in Italy. We often used that time for riding, even though we would have preferred to avoid the heat.

Orientation

consulting a map, 7.3k Italian transportation planners display a stunning incompetence when posting directions. Usually there aren't any. If there are signs, they may point in the wrong direction, perhaps because there is an autostrada (freeway) there. After Montepulciano we were treated to five consecutive signs to our destination, alternating between pointing left and right! Often there is a sign for a destination near the city limits, but you are expected to guess the direction at all following intersections because there are no further signs. Street names are often hidden, unreadable, or missing. Road numbers and distances are almost always missing. Some villages post maps, but the voi siete qui (you are here) arrow is typically missing, or there is more than one (!).

In the absence of conventional methods of orientation, you must bring a good compass and maps. We used blue 1:200,000 maps by Kümmerly + Frey, based on green TCI (Touring Club Italiano) maps. It has turned out to be somewhat difficult to find the green maps in Italy. We used sheets 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12. We also used the bicycle tour guide Mittel-Italien per Rad, Cyklos, Verlag Wolfgang Kettler, ISBN 3-921939-41-0 (German language) to plan our route in Tuscany. It often points out quiet alternatives to the main roads.

Traffic

Generally, Italians know how to deal with cyclists on the road, and leave enough space and don't pass closely at high speed. The inevitable idiot percentage is very small, except in and near Roma and Napoli (befuddled tourists, I suppose). Most roads are well-paved and smooth, although wide shoulders only exist on large roads. However, cities are usually paved with stones, not asphalt, which are safe but uncomfortable to ride on.

Remember that if you decide to include Roma or Napoli and no doubt other large cities in your itinerary, you add a hundred kilometers of unpleasant riding for each one. Riding in large cities and their suburbs means sharing wide and busy roads and their entry and exit ramps with high-speed traffic and trucks. Napoli (Naples) is especially fascinating because stoplights, one-way signs and other traffic rules are strictly optional, and you get honked at if you stop at a red light. In fact Napoli drivers will honk at cyclists, other cars, passing insects, and cosmic rays - , traffic in Napoli is incredibly loud and filled with exhaust.

Sights and Accomodation

I don't expect anybody to tour in Italy without visiting any of those ancient cities. Half of our days were spent walking instead of riding. We didn't use a bicycle inside towns because distances are usually small, and we didn't feel it would have been safe to leave the bicycles unguarded for hours while we were visiting a museum.

The third essential item in addition to a compass and maps is the Let's Go, the budget guide to Italy, Harvard Student Agencies, ISBN 0-333-65288-6. I recommend to always follow the hotel and restaurant recommendations in this book. It also contains directions and maps, even some historical background and museum listings. You'll waste much time and money without this book. Expect prices to be 10-20% higher than listed in the book.

When sightseeing, always wear or carry long pants, or you will be refused entry into many churches. The Vatican's San Pietro cathedral has guards who refuse entry to improperly dressed people.

You must have a IYH youth hostel membership card if you want to stay in youth hostels. Since we went in June, which in Italy is off-season (peak is mid-July and August) we had no problems getting beds in youth hostels, except almost in Roma where they filled up 15 minutes after we got in. I also recommend bringing an IYH hostel list, it contains directions that are sometimes useful.

Language

Don't expect anybody in Italy to speak a foreign language. Even in tourist centers people who make a living dealing with tourists will generally speak only Italian. Information offices are an exception, but there aren't many and they may be closed.

I don't speak Italian, but I bought Langenscheidt's ``express course'' Italian (book and tape) two weeks before we went and memorized the vocabulary, and the resulting marginal ability to communicate was usually better than the English spoken by the Italians we dealt with. Intonation is very important; as the Let's Go put it, ``penne all'arrabiata'' means ``pasta in a spicy red sauce'', while ``pene all'arrabiata'' means ``penis in a spicy red sauce''. One simple pronunciation rule: c and cc are pronounced as in hatch if an e or i directly follows, and like k otherwise. The Let's Go contains more.

Tell me if you found this information interesting or useful, or if you have comments.