The Po River: Bologna to Cremona

Friday dawned sunny and cool, but warmed as I rode the Piana Padana to Modena and then to the little town of Rolo near the Po River. I wore my short-sleeved pilgrim’s bicycle jersey, but long pants. My hosts would not be home until 1830, so I had time to stop in Modena at the Enzo Ferrari Museum, a modern complex built around the famous car designer’s birthplace. After he inherited the house from his father, the young Enzo sold it to buy his first race car; the rest is history. The Modena site of the museum (the other site is at the factory outside town) holds the street models. I hoped to photograph a pantera of the State Police, but none were on display. I did, however, see a civilian Ferrari 250 GTE 2+2, which was the model that the Squadra Volante used in the sixties.

After an orzo (ersatz coffee made from barley) at the museum bar, I mounted up and headed west, the opposite direction from my ride last month from Bologna to the Adriatic. It being Friday, traffic was rather heavier than normal for a provincial road, but there were ample shoulders, smooth pavement, and courteous drivers everywhere. Each town seemed to have built a bike path next to the road, but no one appeared responsible for the spaces between towns. The pavements and the markings differed so much, that often I was better off staying on the road, because the bike path was so short.

It was easy to find my hosts’ home in Rolo, which was just over the line in Reggio Emilia province. Davide drove up from work just as I arrived. Giovanna joined us shortly thereafter with the little ones (Thiago, 3.5, and Mia, 1.5). Pizza and prosecco made for a pleasant meal. Davide works in agricultural services, having taken over management from his father. I learned that much of the peasant work in the vast fields I rode past is done by contractors like Davide. They irrigate the fields, clean the ditches and canals, plant the seeds, and harvest the crops. It’s hard work, but provides a good income for Davide, his father, and a dozen long-time employees. I also learned that this part of Italy is in a drought, while the rest of the country is suffering floods. Reggio Emilia and Bologna have not had a good rain in two months, and the food industry has reason to worry, with the summer coming on. I slept like a rock in a comfortable private apartment downstairs.

Saturday promised as much sunshine as ever, and warmer temperatures. I donned my bicycle shorts for only the second time this year, and I was glad that I did. I rode west to the provincial road that lead to the town of Guastalla, which I knew was near the closest bridge over the Po River (Cremona and Lombardy are on the northern, or left, bank). After meandering through farm tracks and expansive fields, I crossed into Mantova province and had my first sight of Italy’s mightiest river. On a calm day, it seems to move slowly, but if you look closely, you can appreciate just how much water is moving past the bridge. It reminded me of the way a big jet looks like it is hanging in the air when in fact it is moving at 200 knots or more.

With no signs to help me find the famous Eurovelo 8 cycle track, I decided simply to take the first left and go to the river’s edge. There had to be something between the highway and the water. I almost gave up in the town of Correggioverde, when I saw a sign on a steep little road leaving town: “no entrance 1200 Saturday – 0700 Monday”. In small print, it read “except bicycles and authorized vehicles.” Aha! I climbed the road and sure enough, it was a ramp to the top of the levee that protects the villages in the floodplain from the river.

Eurovelo 8 runs along the tops of the levees, more or less all the way from the source to the sea. On the levee, it is well-marked, with alternative loops along minor dikes and into parks and natural reserves. However, all road signs seem to disappear upon approaching a city, so it’s sometimes a challenge to find the levee on the other side. I found it more useful to follow the sun and head west than to try to follow a map. Inside the cities, like Casalmaggiore and Cremona, there are plenty of bike lanes, protected bike paths and other facilities, making it easy to cross town to look for the levee on the other side.

FWIW, Google Maps has done a good job of mapping France for bicycles, but has done nothing for this part of Italy, which has a denser network of bicycle facilities than France. This may be because the French have mapped their routes, and the Italians have not. In Italy, there is no working national-level effort to coordinate the facilities among the municipalities that maintain them. Openbikemap (http://www.opencyclemap.org/) has fairly good coverage, but it depends on crowdsourced input from riders, so the coverage becomes patchy in areas not favoured by tourists, like crossing minor towns, or between remote villages.

The views from the levees are very tranquil and pleasant. In the spring, the brilliant greens and yellow flowers stretch to the horizon. On the weekend, the industrial plants that rise occasionally among the fields are silent. Eurovelo 8 rides at about rooftop level, so looking at the villages in the floodplain provides an unusual perspective. I noticed that each village had a Romanesque church that rose about three stories above the town. Each church had a phony plaster façade, probably added after the original construction of the church. These temples mostly date from the Middle Ages, with a burst of construction in the 10th to 12th Centuries.

When I reached the town of San Daniele Po, I left the Eurovelo 8 and opted for the quiet provincial road 85, which led straight into the southeast quarter of Cremona, where my host lived. San Daniele had the only church that was not in the Romanesque style. Some locals considered it ugly, being a faux-Gothic mix with no clear pedigree, but I found it cute in its uniqueness.

My host, Massimo, was delayed while on a motorcycle ride with a friend, but had arranged for the next-door neighbour to let me into the flat. I arrived as promised at 1730, and rested for a while. Riding 84 km on the first day and 91 km on the second day lowered my blood sugar to acceptable levels, to be sure. One reason that I wanted to ride the Po after Bologna was to put in some longer distances on flat terrain, working my strength up before tackling the Ghisallo for Easter. Riding upstream meant riding very slightly uphill, which was good training for getting used to the load, and also a foretaste (I hope) for what the 1200 km riding up the Danube would feel like. By the time the Danube steepens in Switzerland, I should be in shape.

When Massimo appeared shortly after 2000, I had showered, changed and was checking my email on the kitchen/dining table. His striking girl-friend Emanuela showed up shortly thereafter, and we rode downtown for supper at an Irish Pub. The pizza was tasty, though the pre-formed shells were dry. The beer was predictably delicious. There is something about a beer after a long bicycle ride.

After dinner, Massimo drove the car back to the house, and we walked into the historic center for the traditional caffé. They showed me the Cathedral and the Violin Museum, and the main square. I planned to come back on Sunday, before riding to Piacenza.

Back in the flat, I made up the hide-a-bed and turned in. The springs of the bed did nothing to disturb my sleep.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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