By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman,
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We hadn’t biked far from the Hotel Alexander on the mainland of Venice in Mestre on the first morning of a week-long self-guided bike tour that would take us some 300 miles following the seacoast to Porec, Croatia, before I imagined: had I done this by myself as I had originally planned, I would have been found weeks later wandering in a wilderness. I was so grateful that my son could come along – his tech prowess (and insistence on getting an app of our route) made all the difference, not to mention his companionship.
Each morning, he would unfurl the day’s Stage map and have his smart phone tucked into the plastic case on the handlebars. Once underway (after a delightful breakfast in the pre-arranged inns), I would be trying in vain to follow the cue sheets and do mathematical gymnastics with the kilometers, and was so consumed with these and watching for Eric ahead, and being enrapt by the scenery and taking photos, that I would miss the mark the tour operator left on sign posts for each turn.
“It’s simple,” Eric says. If you don’t see a mark, you go straight.” But what if you have missed the mark that told you to turn? You could find yourself kilometers ahead before you even have a clue you missed the turn and have no idea where to go back. At one point, Eric installs the hang-out app on my phone so he can find me on his map and I can see where he is, that comes in really handy when I miss a turn altogether in the middle of Trieste. Typically, though, even though he rides faster and is ahead, he waits for me at key turns.
But all of it becomes part of the adventure – the excitement of doing, not just seeing, of becoming immersed in a place or not knowing what will beyond the next turn. And having no window between you and what is around you. Biking lets you travel at a pace to really see things, and yet cover a reasonable distance, and most importantly, gives you the ability and freedom to simply stop and look around.
The day before we set out from Venice for the first stage ride, Anthony, the guide from FunActive, the local tour operator that Biketours.com selected to coordinate the tour, had come to the hotel in the afternoon to deliver and fit our rental bikes, the vouchers and maps and sit with us for an orientation reviewing each day’s trip. He arrived specially, as we requested, shortly after Eric arrived by plane, and we rushed him through so we could have the afternoon and evening in Venice. Anthony sat patiently with us in the hotel’s lounge trying to review the route for each of the six days of riding (he would have to repeat the entire thing for the four other self-guided cyclists later that afternoon). He reviewed the particularities of the route – the recommended “options” for sightseeing and the route “variants”. He tried to give us a sense of the road, and the highlights. I took notes but we rushed him and I think we missed a few things.
Each day has alternatives of a shorter, easier ride (usually with some ferry or train) and the longer one. But one day stands out in Eric’s mind in particular when he is determined to take “the hinterland” route.
Stage 1: Venice mainland/Mestre – Jesolo/Caorle (22 or 50 miles/35 or 80 km)
I thought the thunder storm that hit during the night would mean fair weather for our first day’s ride, Venice to Jesolo, a distance of 51 km (30 miles, though there is an option to take a shorter ride, 22 miles). No luck. It is raining when we leave and surprisingly cold – about 20 degrees cooler from the day before. We set out anyway because the rain is part of our adventure, after all.
I had thought we would mainly be riding on roads with traffic but am surprised and relieved that most of our ride for the next few days are along bikeways – often paved but sometimes gravel or pebbles, but nonetheless a bikeway – or else some country roads with very little traffic. And for the next few days, our ride is flat, taking us through farmland and along the coast.
This first day of cycling is designed by FunActive to be easy (and would be but for the rain and head wind). Our destination is Jesolo, a seaside beach town. Many of the days offer options to cut off some of the biking (or the climbing or the traffic) by taking a ferry from the lagoon in Venice to Punta Sabbioni, which would have cut the day’s ride to 22 miles). We opt to take the “hinterland” route, cycling along the river Sile, 30 miles to Jesolo, passing the ruins of Torre Caligo, a tower from the Middle Ages which is situated near the canal “Caligo.”
FunActive has given us excellent background material – a guidebook in fact (I wish I had paid more attention to it before we set out) that includes background on the landscape, history and culture of the regions we travel through, plus recommendations for attractions and restaurants in each place, along with local maps. The route map, broken up into each day’s Stage, is well marked with places to stop for food, photos, attractions.
We ride through countryside – farms and villages – we can even see the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Dolomites in the distance.
This first day is really an orientation to learn “the rules of the road” – for me, figuring out how to correlate the cue sheets and look for the trail markings. At first, I am very disoriented, but Eric manages to get us to our destination.
Jesolo is utterly charming seaside beach resort that attracts local families and despite its proximity to Venice, doesn’t seem to have attracted any foreign tourists at all (another delight of a bike tour, that brings you into local places well off the beaten tourist track). I am amazed how fine the sand is. The weather has cleared but it is rather cold and there is a red flag on the lifeguard stand, so no one is in the water this late in the afternoon. We enjoy walking along the beach, sticking our feet in the water, and taking in all the color.
The town has a ferris wheel, amusement park, water park, go karts, arcade, lovely shops and restaurants, is loaded with surreys and bikes, and in the evening, closes the street to cars altogether. What we notice is there are few (if any) bars. This is really a family place. We love our hotel, the Marco Polo which is right on the main street, a block off the beach. The scenes evoke flashbacks to my own childhood, when our family would take trips in February to Atlantic City, normally a beach resort, and enjoy the boardwalk.
There are a plethora of restaurants – many are full and one in particular, Atmosphera, has people (including many families), lining up in the street. Lucky for us, they have a table for two. This place is a revelation – and we can soon see why it is probably the most popular restaurant in Jesolo – it has a sensational menu (pages and pages of pizza offerings, meat and fish selections), wonderfully prepared with fresh, flavorful ingredients in open kitchens, large portions beautifully presented and modest prices.
Our hotel, the Marco Polo, is most charming, and right on the main street which at night is closed to cars.
Stage 2: Jesolo/Caorle to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro (19 or 31 miles).
Today’s ride, 31 miles from Jesolo to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro, is easy, cycling along the coast and it’s sunny! which dramatically adds to my sunny mood and puts metal to my pedal. We ride through scenic farmland and countryside. We take a slight detour into Caorle, which the FunActive guide, Anthony, has heartily recommended we do, and this proves one of the pure gems of the tour.
As we enter the town, the colorful buildings around a plaza makes me think of Sausalito over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, or, then again, of Seaside, Florida, that idyllic village in the “Truman Show,” and as soon as we make the turn into the Old District, with the warm sun streaming down, I think what a fantastic movie set this would make. It seems that all the property owners by choice or decree paint their buildings before each season, according to a certain gorgeous palette of colors.
The colors are stirring, surreal almost, especially because of the narrow alleys and the angles. A riot of color. Think Nanny McPhee. I can’t get enough of it- the scenes make my heart race, especially the narrow, angled alleys. As we walk, each new vista is like a new painting.
We discover Carole in layers – first wandering through the streets. Eric has zoned in on a restaurant for lunch. We eat outside but this clever place, inside, actually has a model train set that delivers your food to the table.
Caorle has been settled for about 2000 years. Wandering around, we come upon the Cathedral San Stefano Protomartire Caorle, built in 1038.
Then we walk back and hone in on the Madonna dell’Angelo Church, perched on a cliff overlooking the water and the beach at the end of the stone promenade, wrapping around on two sides. Across the way, there are a gazillion beach umbrellas set up, but where we are, there are like random, ad hoc DIY blankets and umbrellas. Eric swims in the Adriatic while I take photos.
We are so delighted with Caorle, we buy refrigerator magnets with the scene of the colorful buildings.
We leave this enchanting town and find ourselves in absolutely gorgeous countryside – with what I presume are the Dolomite Mountains as a backdrop. At one point, we ride along a berm that elevates us over the farmland on either side.
Anthony had strongly recommended that once we arrive at Concordia Sagittaria where our inn is, we ride the few extra kilometers into Portogruaro, and when I see the photo of the Town Hall on our hotel’s card, we race out to take advantage of the warm, late afternoon light.
It is a delightful ride on a bike path along a river into Portogruaro, aglow in golden light. The town, founded in the 12th century as a port on the river Lemene, is surprisingly big and bustling, and we dash to try to capture that scene from the photo before the sun sets. We find our way to the Old City and the Plaza della Republica with its grand Gothic Town Hall, A concert is going on and we are drawn in but pull away in order not to miss the fading sunlight.
The setting is absolutely magnificent – this 12th century Town Hall with ancient watermills (one still spinning), is very Venetian in its look. I realize that the shot I want is across the river, and cross the bridge beside working water wheels to a small park adjacent to a monastery. I get there just in time before the light fades.
We bike back to Concordia Sagittaria, a delightful village well off the tourist “beaten track,” which is why I love bike tours so much. The village sits in what was a Roman colony on the River Lemene.
By now we’re famished. It’s a Monday night and some restaurants are closed. But Eric finds a marvelous one (which turns out to be listed in the FunActiv guide): Pizzeria Al Solito Posto. All the tables have been reserved (notably, by locals), but we notice two people just finishing their meal at a table outside. There are something like four pages of pizza to choose from and I have the best pizza I’ve had in my life: cheese, olives, capers and anchovies with the freshest tomato and thinnest of crust done to perfection.
Our inn, The Julia, is right on the river and in the middle of the square, towered over by the 10th century Byzantine Cathedrale di Santo Stefano Protomartire, dedicated to the first Christian martyr. (Inside, our notes say, is a holy water stoup in Greek marble from the 1st century and 13th century paintings). Just across the square, we discover an archeological dig with sarcophagus,. The excavations of what was the first basilica have also uncovered ruins of a Roman street. Next to the church is a Roman-style bell tower from 1150. There is also a Bishop’s Palace (1450) and town hall from the year 1523.
This day has been the most magnificent. And the most interesting thing of all is we would never have seen or experienced any of it except for riding our bikes.
There are four other riders following the same self-guided FunActive itinerary as we who have started on the same day, and we meet up with them periodically in the inns and even on the trail and delight in sharing stories and comparing notes of our travels.
Next: Discovering Ancient Christian Cite of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado
(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com, [email protected])
May marks the 63rd annual National Bike Month, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists. The month-long event promotes the benefits of cycling and encourages new riders to join in on the fun. Biketours.com is celebrating all month long, including National Bike to Work Week from May 13–19 and Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 17.
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