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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2002

Italy Revisited

I’ve already written two columns on the subject of cycle-touring in Italy and Switzerland, and now, as I watch the 2002 Giro unfolding, stage by exciting stage, I am inspired to do one more, which I promise will be the last (at least until I’m fortunate enough to go back there and ride some more). If you’re sick of reading about my summer vacation, now’s the time to click that mouse and move on down the cyber-highway. If you’re still interested, sit in here for a few minutes and see where we’re going.

The first column examined the differences between euro drivers and american drivers, and how they relate to cyclists. The second column explored some of the famous Italian climbs and how they compare to some of our more notorious ascents. This final installment is a wrap-up...a potpourri of general impressions regarding riding in the region.

I want to start with a visit to a special place that says a great deal about how cycling is integrated into the European--or at least the Italian--way of life. This is the chapel of the Madonna di Ghisallo. If you’re not already familiar with this chapel, you may be wondering what a chuch has to do with cycling. But this is no ordinary church. The Madonna di Ghisallo is the patron saint of bicycle racing, and her little chapel is a shrine to the sport.

One would be hard-pressed to pick a more fitting and impressive spot for a shrine dedicated to cycling. The chapel sits in a lovely park, high atop a ridge above the southern end of Lake Como, considered one of the most beautiful spots in the world. From the edge of the cliff beyond the impressive statue of bike racers, the vista spills away down to the lake and to the mountains beyond...the beginnings of the Alps. It’s very nearly as impressive as the view from Glacier Point looking down into Yosemite Valley. As prime real estate goes, sites just don’t get any more prime than this.

Aside from the great beauty of the setting, it is also an important point on the route of the Giro di Lombardia, one of the classic bike races on the European calendar. I have seen photos of the pro peloton riding past the chapel. Same view you see here, only with the road filled wall to wall with riders. This is the summit of a long and sometimes wickedly steep climb from the lakeshore. The ascent begins in the village of Belaggio, probably Lake Como’s prettiest and most touristy town. (Think Sausalito, only much nicer.) We rode up to the chapel after a delightful lunch at a waterfront cafe, where I had perhaps the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (only toppings, aside from cheese: pears and walnuts).

I forget how long the whole climb is, but it’s at least a few miles, and the bulk of it is double-digit steep, with many tornanti (hairpins) stacked up on top of each other to lift the road up the hillside. The hard work of the climb is made somewhat less painful by the pretty scenery all along the way, mostly deep green hardwood forest, but also the handsome hilltop village of Civenna, just before the last, steep pitch to the summit and the church.

It would be a rare cyclist who would find his way to this church without some prior knowledge of the place and what it represents, but even with some expectations, it’s still quite a revelation to walk into this otherwise conventional looking church and find it filled to the rafters with bikes and bike racing memorabilia. And if you have any appreciation for the history and heritage of bicycle racing, then the experience is truly awe inspiring, much like going to Cooperstown would be for a dedicated baseball fan.

Bikes of Fausto Coppi, Eddie Merckx, Francesco Moser, and many more hang from the walls, often with little signs noting in which famous race the bike saw service. Below the bikes, the walls are draped with yellow and pink jerseys from past Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winners, and rainbow jerseys from world champions. Then there are literally hundreds of small medalions containing the portraits of racing stalwarts from a century of the sport. Little icons of legendary riders—Coppi, Gino Bartoli, Alfredo Binda—are surrounded by rank on rank of forgotten journeymen and dusty domestiques. All share space equally on the walls of this remarkable temple.

Some construction was going on while we were there, a few hundred yards away from the chapel. There was a sign announcing the building of a larger museum to house all the accumulated cycling treasure, which apparently has outgrown the tiny chapel. I guess this will in effect become the de facto cycling Hall of Fame. It’s probably a good thing in the end--having a nice museum to properly display all the great stuff--but I hope the chapel itself remains much as it is today. Because for me, what makes the whole experience of Madonna di Ghisallo so charming and impressive is that it is not a museum, but a real, consecrated church...that cycling, and in particular bike racing, is so seamlessly woven into the fabric of Italian life that it seems appropriate to celebrate its history in a house of worship.

This sense of cycling being an integral component of not only the traffic mix but of the culture in general is the single biggest difference between cycling in Europe and in the United States. Here, the cyclist is considered at best exotic and trivial and at worst a sort of untermensch, while in Europe, a cyclist is at worst taken for granted and at best is celebrated and saluted as someone of prestige.

But it was not my intent with this column to indulge in a rant about cyclists’ rights and drivers’ attitudes. What I really wanted to talk about were a few of the little details that really tickled my fancy while riding in Italy. So here, listed in no particular order of importance are some of my positive impressions.

1. Friendly people

This is almost a, “well, duh!” observation, as everyone has heard of the legendary hospitality and garrulous, outgoing charm of Italians. We were especially fortunate to be the guests of a native, living in his home in his boyhood hometown, surrounded by all his lifelong friends and neighbors. During our first few days in Bellano, we were introduced to shopkeepers and cafe proprietors around the village, and after that, whenever we would walk down the street, we would be greeted cheerfully, often by name or at least with a wave and a shout. Our gang of Santa Rosa Cycling Club members was assimilated into the local club--Pedale Bellanese--for congenial group rides, and we soon found that some things--like duking it out for hilltops and city limit signs--are the same on club rides everywhere. (One difference though: with such a densely populated and settled landscape, those darn city limit signs come up about every two miles...lots of opportunities for horseplay.)

People treated us with kindness and good cheer all over Italy, and not just in Bellano, where we had those homeboy intros. In all of our travels around the country, in big cities and little towns and in the middle of nowhere, I only had one encounter with a cranky person, and that one incident--with a ticket agent on a ferry--was more frustration at the language barrier than outright rudeness. (In fact, the language barrier was almost non-existent, at least for the rudimentary communication needed to muddle along. Almost everyone spoke a little English or could grab another clerk or neighbor nearby who did, and we had a smattering of Italian, so we got the job done. I think they appreciated our brave if feeble attempts at Italian. Just the fact that we made the effort seemed to win us brownie points.) People were amazingly helpful: in Rome, where you might imagine the locals have had it up to here with tourists, we asked one elderly lady for directions, and she ended up walking about six blocks out of her way just to guide us to our destination.

Being an American didn’t seem to count against us either. To the contrary, I got the impression that saying we were from California was like having a golden key that opened doors for us. Faces lit up, folks would exclaim, “Ooooh, California!” and the already friendly people would become even more animated. I’m pretty sure they’re impression of California is of a combination of Disney theme park and one, long Baywatch episode. (That bouncy show was on the TV in the bar at the top of Passo dello Stelvio when we stopped for a celebratory beer after climbing the big pass.)

2. Great roads

The old saying, “all roads lead to Rome” has its roots in the wonderful highway infrastructure the Romans laid down 2000 years ago. These folks are old hands at building roads, and they do an amazingly good job of it. In all the thousands of miles we biked and drove, on everything from freeways to tiny forest tracks, I can only recall one really crummy section of pavement (and that one was really awful, appearing to not have been resurfaced since maybe the reign of Hadrian). Aside from that one road of only a few miles, the roads we used were incredibly nice...well engineered--over and around some extremely challenging terrain--and uniformly well paved...a delight for cyclists. I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of backroad pavement, and I was constantly, repeatedly impressed at how solidly constructed and meticulously maintained even the tiniest roads are.

And the freeways are just as nice, and better than that, they’re often all but invisible. Take a look at the photo of Lake Como. (That’s our home base village of Bellano on the little peninsula in the middle of the picture.) Very pretty, isn’t it? What you don’t see here is any monster road cuts for a major freeway, and yet there is one--a freeway--right in the middle of the picture, just above the village. Why can’t you see it? Because it’s underground. Throughout the ruggedly steep hill country of northern Italy, the unsightly mess and noise of major highways is for the most part kept hidden inside long--really long--tunnels bored through the mountains. It took 40 years to complete the underground autoroute around Lake Como, but it saved all the quaint villages and the gorgeous lakeshore from a terrible fate.

There is a two-fold commitment here on the part of government: first of all, to design, fund, build, and maintain superb roads; and second, to make the roads harmonize as much as possible with the natural environment. Very little of Europe is left as wilderness, or what we in the western United States fondly refer to as, “wide open spaces.” By our sprawling standards, much of Europe looks like a model train layout: 3/4-scale and densely packed together. There are few of those vast tracts of emptiness we take for granted. And yet, it is those very constraints that encourage european planners and designers to come up with clean, green, tidy solutions to the challenges of creating or expanding their infrastructure, in this case roads and highways. It probably costs a lot more to put a freeway underground, or for that matter, to engineer and maintain a dinky backroad to top quality specs, but the end result is worth it, in my opinion.

3. Street signs

As impressive as the system of roads is in Italy, so too are the signs that direct you through intersections. As semi-clueless tourists, with barely functional language skills, we only got lost once in the course of many long rides. (And wouldn’t you know our getting lost involved that one lousy road mentioned above: that was the road we were supposed to take, but it looked so bad we couldn’t believe it was really our route, and so we rode on down a nicer looking alternate, only to have to backtrack a few miles later.)

The biggest difference between navigating here and in Italy is that, here, we usually follow road names--turn left on Joy Road, right on Bittner Road, etc.--while in Italy, most roads don’t have listed names, either on maps or on street signs. Instead, you follow the signs to the next village, or the village after that. Each junction has a signpost bearing directional pointers to whatever is on down this or that road, usually the names of towns. If you know where you’re going, it’s simply a matter of connecting the dots--the towns--to get from here to there.

Such a system wouldn’t work very well here. We often have country roads without any towns anywhere along their entire lengths, sometimes for many miles at a time. (Those wide open spaces again.) In Italy, there is another town, or at least a tiny village, just around every corner. In the rare instances where there isn’t even a village, the sign will point to a pass or to a “rif.” (for rifugio or refuge: a mountaintop cafe).

Often, especially when entering a larger town, the signposts will also list all the other places you might want to find in the area: all the inns, many of the restaurants, city hall, police, hospital, antiquities, etc. One single signpost at a busy intersection may have 20 or 30 little signs stacked up its length, all color coded to the different destinations--hotels in one color, municipal offices in another, etc. It can make for quite a busy little dispensary of information, but it beats the heck out of having the countryside littered with billboards touting all the different commercial establisments.

Before leaving the subjects of roads and road signs, I want to briefly mention the wonderful road atlases published by the Touring Club Italiano. These big books, similar in size and scale to our DeLorme Atlases, are about as nice as maps can be, with all the information you could possibly need for getting around, and all of it produced to the highest cartographic standards. There are three volumes for Italy: North, Central, and South. They can be found at better American bookstores, or ordered through them. The official name is Atlante Stradale d’Italiano.

4. Drinking fountains

How many times on a long, hot ride have you wondered where you would find the next source of potable water? How many times have you bonked after failing to find that water? How many times have you snuck into restrooms in bars or gas stations to fill up in the little sink? Or rooted around behind a building for a hose bib with a handle on it? Or asked the clerk in a convenience store if you could cadge a refill of water from their soda machine?

In Italy, none of that would ever happen because there are public drinking fountains everywhere. Most of these are located in the centers of towns and presumably date to a time before everyone had indoor plumbing...when you had to go to the village well for your fresh water. But there are also many fountains in the countryside as well, perhaps where natural springs have been domesticated.

The fountains are almost always attractive, embellished with assorted flourishes: the water spouting from the mouth of an ornate bronze fish into a clamshell basin, or something equally whimsical and quaint. You might suppose that, as times change and the need for these public water sources diminished, they might have been “decomissioned”...torn out or cemented over. But no, they are to all appearances being carefully maintained and kept in service.

Most of the fountains appear to be for general use, although we did find one, pictured here, that is dedicated specifically to cyclists. It’s in the village of Valbrona, at the top of a long climb, and not only does it say, “In honor of cyclists,” it has a brass plaque next to the fountain that lists the fastest times for the climb, which is a popular local hill prime. Imagine something like that in this country! How pleasant it was for us--on a hot afternoon--to roll into a little town and find a pretty fountain splishsplashing into a pool or cistern...to fill our bottles and slake our thirsts; to rinse the salt off our faces and arms, and generally chill out for a few minutes, watching the quiet life of the village around us.

5. Mixed use communities

Speaking of the quiet life of villages... Nothing impresses me more in Europe than the old towns where residential and commercial properties are intermingled. This is not specifically a cycling issue, although it speaks volumes about the kind of urban settings in which a bicycle makes perfect sense. We hear a lot these days from planners and future thinkers about mixed-use developments, as if the notion of living and working and playing in the same city block or core were some brand new concept.

It only seems revolutionary when you’ve grown up in a world where the automobile has dictated all planning priorities for the past century. Most European towns were laid out hundreds, in not thousands of years before the auto...when traveling by foot or public transit was the norm. Living within walking distance of where you worked and shopped, prayed and played wasn’t a lifestyle choice. It was just the way things were. And for this reason, contemporary European planners don’t get any credit for laying out these mixed-use communities, but they do get some credit for having saved many of the old environments from the pressures of the new auto-oriented imperatives...by banning car traffic in city centers and by not bulldozing old neighborhoods to put in huge, “efficient” roads.

More than any museum or cathedral or Roman ruin, I think the thing I loved best about Italy was the public life of these towns and villages. Sit outside in a sidewalk café and watch the village go by: an elderly lady rides by on her bicycle; half an hour later, she rides back the other way, her basket filled with the day’s groceries; a suit-and-tie office worker pedals past on his way to work. No cars intrude, except for the occasional (small) delivery truck. The noise and smell and the busy, bustling urgency of motorized traffic are all blessedly absent.

The absolute best time in the villages--at least in the summer--is after dinner. Then, as the day cools, everyone moves outside, into the streets and piazzas. Boys and girls--chic and sassy and fresh--flirt their way up and down the square. Their parents and grand folks haul lawn chairs out to the curb and settle in to chat and watch the passing parade. Children and dogs scamper about, underfoot. Merchants lean in their doorways, calling out to passing friends. Someone brings out a squeeze-box, and someone else a guitar. Soon there is music, singing, perhaps even dancing. In the space of a few minutes, the entire street turns into a block party. We saw this night after night, in one village after another. And it works because people live and work in the same street. All the many functions and attractions of the town are integrated, not broken up into shopping district here and tract neighborhood there and office park over that way.

Perhaps the gregarious Italian temperment has something to do with this socializing, this wonderful sense of community. And yes, to be fair, there are miserable neighborhoods in Italy, and places where none of this happens; where vast, faceless apartment blocks and sterile motorways wall people off from one another and from their community. But at least in myriad small towns, the life of the street--the heartbeat of the neighborhood--is still in robust good health. And one sees this most in the neigborhoods and villages where cars are either banned or discouraged; where the most advanced form of transportation is the bicycle.

Thanks to Wes Hoffschildt for the photos.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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