The Adda River: Piacenza to Valbrona

On Tuesday morning, I set out for Pavia, but when I crossed the Po leaving Piacenza, I changed my mind and decided to head for the Adda River and get on with my trip. The knee still hurt, but I studied my leg movement, and determined that the fit on my new pedals was wrong. I stopped just over the river, and adjusted the cleat so that my right foot could point outward more naturally. That seemed to make a big difference, so that I was able to ride back along the left bank of the Po (opposite the side I rode from Cremona) to the confluence of the Adda River.

The Adda River flows out of Lake Como to the Po, so I knew that I just had to follow the river to get to Valbrona. I rode until 1400, then picked a B&B from Booking.com: La Borasca near the unlikely-sounding town of Casalpusterlengo.

Eurovelo 8 on the Emilia (left) side of the Po was paved and well-signed, except in the towns. However, there was no asphalt in Lodi Province, except in the towns. There is an inter-provincial authority that operates all the land on the right side of the Adda River. It’s called the Parco Adda, and clearly it considers dirt tracks suitable for bicycling. At one point, the bicycle “path” was a grassy level spot halfway down the levee, while the provincial road ran along the top of the levee. I spent almost half of the 58 km this day riding on dirt. The bicycle looked like it had crossed the Sahara Desert when I rolled into the La Borasca B&B in Casalpusterlengo and put it in the shed.

La Borasca offered comfort and hospitality. The owner even invited me to share supper in the kitchen, so that I did not have to go out. The knee hurt, so I picked up a hot/cold pad and an elastic bandage at the supermarket and wrapped it for the night.

Wednesday, I rode the via Emilia and lightly travelled provincial roads back to the Adda River. The riverside path ended at the Lodi border, but resumed some 12 km upstream in Cassano d’Adda. I was riding on a dirt towpath all the way to Concesa, where the canal alongside the Adda River ended.

The canal ran far above the river, so that I had a pastoral, quiet scene to my left, and a lively, swift river to my right. There were locks occasionally, but rather than hold ships for raising and lowering, they seemed to be only for holding back the water so that it did not flow too quickly down the canal and back to the river.

About 14 km upstream, the easy part of the ride ended. Concesa is a tiny medieval village built into the side of the cliff cut by the Adda flowing south. I scrambled up the stony roads and picked up the road to Cornate d’Adda, where I had booked a room at another B&B, the Al Castello. At the top of the cliff, I found a fertile plateau, and flat riding through the fields to my destination. I also rode through Colnago, which made me think of the iconic Italian racing bicycles. In fact, Ernesto Colnago established his bicycle factory in Cambiago, just south of the family fiefdom.

The Al Castello was as clean and well-equipped as La Borasca, but also featured a full-service restaurant. The restaurant is a destination for the province of Monza, and the food was up to standard.

I could live in this part of Italy. It is easy to ride, clean, orderly, and the weather is usually good. However, I can’t get over the tasteless white bread and the weak wine that restaurants serve. And despite the proliferation of places called pizzeria, there is no pizza to be had north of Rome (maybe north of Formia; I did not eat pizza in Rome). Pre-formed, frozen crust does not hack it. I decided to treat the pizza I was served as a local misnomer and judge the toppings on their own merits. Delicious.

Settling into my room, I found that the sore spot on my right seat was a blister that had burst. On the plus side, the knee was no worse for riding 58 km up the river and struggling up the cliff in Concesa. The WiFi was blazing fast and strong in the room, so I had the desk extend me for a day.

The next day, Maundy Thursday, I wrote in my room, coming out only for meals. Far beyond the fields outside my window, I could see the beginnings of the Alps. I took no aspirin all day, knowing that anti-inflammatories slow the healing process. The blister responded to antibiotic salve and a bandage, and caused no problem all day.

On Good Friday, I rose with no pain anywhere, but still worried as I packed the bike. The day off was worth it. In addition to the writing that I accomplished, the knee did not bother me, and the bare spot from the blister was not irritated.

When I reached the Adda River at Porto d’Adda, I found another cliff, but this one did not have a stony or paved road. Instead a track of loose gravel led down to the water’s edge. I had to stop often for cars coming one way or the other, as I could not safely ride in the gravel while they were squeezing by. At the bottom of the road I found an Edison Company power plant, and I began to understand the lock-like gates along the canal. Passing two more power plants, I realized that the canal served to keep river water at the elevation of the river source, so that it could be passed through turbines periodically, before being returned to the river shortly before flowing into the Po. I don’t know how many of these old Edison plants line the river, but the idea is brilliant. It is a low-impact way to achieve flood control, local electric power, and preserve the scenery of the river. No massive dams altering the ecology of the river, but still the ability to fine-tune the flow through the turbines.

As I rode up the Adda to Lake Como, I passed many different species of waterfowl, from swans to ducks. Many I did not recognize, including a fat black soccer ball with a tiny white head, which I later learned was a coot. Now I know to what the pejorative expression “old coot” refers. I heard bird calls that I had never heard before, from barking sounds to rasping screeches, and the pleasant twitters and hoots of songbirds. The sounds of spring in a valley unblemished by modern insecticides. On the other hand, the no-seeums flowed over my skin like a dust storm any place where the water slowed in the rushes and allowed them to breed among the nests of the ducks and swans. None of the insects seemed to bite or land, but they did remind to keep my mouth closed and breathe through my nose!

After the last (or first) power plant, the bike path became the Ciclovia dei Laghi and ran along the river just below the provincial road that led to the bridge to Lecco. I passed that and followed a racing cyclist into the tunnels that put me on the shore road around Lake Como to Bellagio. On my left the mountains plunged into the water, and on the other side of the narrow neck they rose again, just as sharply. Naturally, the lake edge was flat, but the road climbed and dropped as it clambered around the rocks. Then I made the turn onto SP46 to Valbrona. The 10% grade led me into the mountains for almost 7 km. In just a couple of switchbacks, I was looking down at the lake. Halfway up, I had to rest for a few minutes. I expected to take an hour to cover the last 5 km to my destination, but the road levelled out about a 1 km before that, and I could speed through town. A sign at the city limits read “welcome to the valley of the springs,” and, indeed, I found public fountains with delicious clear water in the piazzas. One fountain had a marble sign engraved on it, “in honour of the cyclist.” I was in friendly territory. A road cyclist named Paolo was resting at the fountain, and we chatted about riding in the area while I filled my water bottle. He had come from Monza, about the same distance as I. He told me about Colnago and confirmed the route to the Ghisallo. He rode off, and I continued to my host’s home in the residential section of town.

Valbrona is a long town, consisting of six villages lined up along the valley. My host, Marieke, lived in a tightly built house with a small orchard and garden, two sons, three chickens, three cats, a rabbit, and a guinea pig. The three humans welcomed me into their home; the animals were not so sure, but tolerated me graciously by ignoring me. After a supper of quinoa and bulgur with greens, we went for a walk. The woods gave off gentle smells of flowers, wood, and green things, because there was almost no traffic in the valley. The mountains surrounded us as we walked through the fields outside the neighbourhoods and back.

The family turned in early. Marieke gave me her daughter’s room with a comforter that was so warm that it could have been an electric heating blanket. The silence and the dark were almost absolute. Sleep came, deep and long.

Smooth roads, and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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