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Bushwacking Italy, or

il Dolce Far Niente on Two Wheels

By and Copyright © of Arthur J. Weitzman, Fri, 12 Sep 1997 11:57:55 -0500 (EST)
"Coraggioso," intoned the bar-keep as he pressed two steins of beer to a couple of very hot American cyclists escaping the gaudy sun over the Lombardy plain. It was a word (courageous) we heard often on our three-week bicycle jaunt from the French- Italian border on the Riviera to Venice on the Adriatic.

Two more days of pedaling in intense heat and we began to appreciate the nuances of "courage" as used in Italy. They mean fortitude, stamina, spirit, not necessarily in the face of danger, for there was no danger. Contrary to popular belief, Italian drivers showed courtesy to our pannier-laden bikes and frequently, well, usually, slowed when the pavement narrowed, which was often on the backroads we sought out.

On hot summer afternoons men--rarely women--idle about the local with a cool Soave or beer and look upon foreigners spinning about on two wheels with wry amusement. Their addiction to il dolce far niente (pleasure of doing nothing) was serendipity with us because every town and hamlet had a cool sanctuary in which to consume a limonata or agua minerale to punctuate our leisurely roll through some of the loveliest landscapes Italy has perfected in 2,000 years of history.

This sultry road to romance began in Alassio on the Italian Riviera, where the French train disgorged us and our high-tech cycles into the 90 heat. Could two not- so-young-anymore American cyclists bushwhack the monolinguistic byways of rural Italy?

Apprehension soon gave way to intrepidity as we soon encountered everywhere "Buongiorno," "Buongiorno," and our minimal language skills improved with the speed of the new bullet trains.

The Italian adage, "When in Rome . . ." applies north as well, because in bucolic Liguria or Lombardy very few speak English. A chipper, curly-headed driver of a van who transported us one morning to Cremona (an emergency) studied English in school for three years but could not pronounce one word. His life story sounded like a recitative from a Rossini opera. This was language immersion with a vengeance.

The key to a successful bike tour of the Po valley lies in detailed maps showing the back roads known perhaps to the local farmers and cycling clubs which abound here. Sport cycling is very much in vogue for adult men (many in their sixties and seventies), who wear blue, green, pink, yellow jerseys, tight shorts and black leather headpieces (no helmets!) and dart the country lanes either racing or just exercising on their high-tech bikes.

"Bellissimo," "Mamamia," they would exclaim upon seeing Catherine wearing similar gear on her American Cannondale touring bike. Women they know pedal klunkers to their shopping or ferry children but not for sport in this surprisingly old- fashioned country where manners and customs age slowly like parmesan cheese. Among the matrons, Catherine got a mixed reception. Some frowned, others smile approvingly, a few cheered!

Every day in this feisty land had its street drama. The clerk at the Hotel Astoria in Cremona put us in a foul mood with the misinformation that Verdi's home fifteen miles distant was closed Sundays, but Monday he said in broken English, "she is open."

"Bene," I said in broken Italian, "we go tomorrow morning." Too bad, as we rolled up to the superbly landscaped Villa Verdi in St. Agata, near Busseto, next morning, "Chiuso Lunedi (closed Mondays)," the sign read. Closed also was the small museum devoted to the opera composer in the plump and contented town of arcaded streets where he grew up.

On the other hand, in tiny Pozzola on the way to Mantua, while picking up our lunch fixings from the green grocer, then the cheese and sausage, we sauntered into the local bakery, where we were immediately introduced to the owners' English speaking daughter, who all but ate the thick bread for us. The parents were bursting with pride that their university student could make good use of her studies. One more minute and we would have been invited to lunch. Italians love Americans.

On summer nights Italy relaxes and tolerates a mischief that might seem rude elsewhere. During a memorable under-the-stars meal (in Venice, I think) the patrons of the restaurant were being pelted by grapes. The waiters expressed amusement. The cause? One very drunk tourist had no more appetite for his dessert, which he smuggled into the place. "From Napoli," the waiter announced smilingly. Everyone tittered because in Northern Italy, a Neapolitan always plays the fool.

Not everyone is so amusing. "Tedeschi" (Germans) a shopkeeper muttered as we entered a groceria in unprounceable Castelceriola. The war is still remembered. "No," we shook our heads. "Americano!" the scowl turned to smiles. He couldn't have been more helpful.

Our route roughly paralleled the vast River Po, except for excursions north to touristy Sermione on Lake Garda (just right for cooling dips) and south to Bologna (a gourmet's mecca). "Fruitful Lombardy," Shakespeare called it, "the garden of great Italy." From the seat of our high-tech machines, we surveyed a manicured landscape dotted with farmhouses, tall fences of poplar trees and a varigated palette of greens shading into ochre colors.

Mostly flat but not monotonous like Kansas or Iowa, the terrain spontaneously undulates along the Mincio River (the outlet of Lake Garda), where a mixture of wooded hill, canals, and cultivated fields make bike travel a heavenly experience. At Este, the dark-green Euganean Hills celebrated by Shelley and Byron loom over the reclaimed land. The exiles' temporary residence, the Villa Kunkler, lies just across from the ruined castle and palatial grounds.

Though our travel plans do not center on reaching this or that museum, church or palazzio, we brake at sights when convenient like the monument to Virgil in Pietole near Mantua (which also maintains a marble tribute to the great Latin poet.) But no one should leave this ancient city without taking a peek at the rococo masterpiece in the Via Accademia, the so-called Scientific Theater, whose "science" lies in trompe l'oeil decorative painting and not a straight line anywhere.

Another roadside attraction is the well-preserved monastery, the Certosa of Pavia, one hour's spin north of the city. The monks' cells and their ingenious means of isolation suggest a way of life as distant from modern existence as burning heretics.

A day turning a crank in 80 + weather creates an immense appetite and thirst. The food from this vast Mediterranean garden easily satisfies the most ravenous biker. Restaurant food tending to be expensive in Italy (even with a favorable exchange rate), we picnicked at lunch time, for example, in festive Codogno one Sunday afternoon on cold salmon and veal, artichokes in pesto sauce and pasta--bought at the deli--washed down with cool beer in a roadside bar.

Suppertime was another matter. After a day on the trail, there is nothing like alfresco dining, for example, in Piazza delle Erbe in Mantua while the fatigued muscles of backside, thighs and calves relax in the cooling evening air. Washed down by a riesling white, the meal of pumpkin stuffed ravioli and succulent roast veal at the Cento Rampini recalls how good the food can be in Northern Italy.

If it rains, try the tables under the arcade at the Buca San Petronio (literally The Mouth of San Petronio, the church across the street) in food-famous Bologna. This turned out to be a culinary revelation--a platter of mixed and delicate sausages (light years in taste and blends of spice from American Boloney, from which the word derives) was one starter. For a pasta, the white-jacketed waiter brought out a classic and classy lasagne of green noodles, after which we ordered only one main course of veal in red peppers, a concoction we had never seen before, nor since, unfortunately. There was room enough only for a mixed berry compote in liquor. The wine: vino frizzante from San Martino. Rich, dark espresso brought down the curtain to a memorable evening of culinary art.

Eat like that often enough and you have to pay for it by an expanding girth. Surprise! we actually lost weight by the time we rolled into Venice, because biking 40 miles per day carrying four panniers actually burns up more calories than you can ingest including a few gellati (ice-cream) stops each day.

But the real glory of cycling the Lombary plains comes when approaching Venice, which as everyone knows lies off the smoke-choked (and choking) Adriatic coast at Mestre. With two-wheels, this polluted and congested approach may be avoided. Try working up the archipelago from Choggia, a charming fishing town. By alternating riding and ferrying, the bicyclist may roll through the untouristed lagoon islets Pellestrina, Alberoni, and Malamocco right into Lido, and then it's a short ferry to St. Mark's.

We returned via the Galileo, a crack train direct to Paris, where we boarded a plane home. The bikes traveled ahead on a slow train and waited redemption at the Gare du Nord. At the airport, Air France supplied bike boxes for shipping these well- used and faithful companions in the belly of the plane while we reflected in French comfort on the charms of rural Italy.