More Rivers: Brenta, Brentella, Piave, Tagliamento and Stella

Sunday, the 23rd of April, glowed with pleasant sunshine – enough to warm the cool air, but not enough to make me break a sweat as I made my way east from Verona. Regional Road 11 was smooth and wide-shouldered with a southerly crosswind blowing car exhaust away from me. Trying to get past Vicenza was a challenge, as I encountered another tangenziale which both mapping programs on my phone failed to recognize as off-limits for bicycles. I ended up in the country south of Vicenza heading toward the Euganei Hills, something that I did not want to climb. I spotted a group of touring cyclists (locals – no panniers) parked outside an old basilica, so I stopped to see if they could help me get past Vicenza without going through the center of town. The location happened to be another ancient Romanesque church, San Francesco, with incredibly well-preserved frescoes. I had never heard of the place, but I was glad to have gotten stuck there. The cyclists showed me their map, and we confirmed that I had to head toward town. However, I was able to turn east before the historic center and follow the railway back to the Regional 11 on the eastern side. I passed the Camp Ederle, home of SETAF, the US Army command in Southern Europe. If I had known that I would pass by another American base, I could have mailed the extra weight I was carrying home at domestic rates.

Thanks to the paper map, I was soon rolling through the rich, flat farmland to the town of Palazzolo sul Brenta, the birthplace of Andrea Mantegna (he of the rich triptych in Verona and other masterpieces). Before reaching the town, I stopped at a darling pink farmhouse called Casa Rosa. Another high-value, low-cost find on booking.com. The WiFi was spotty (fault of the national phone company – TIM), but I had so many gigabytes left on my phone plan that I did not mind using my phone as a hotspot to write after I checked in.

On Monday, I rolled into Palazzolo sul Brenta, fortified with a hearty breakfast. I was enjoying have cheese and eggs on the free breakfast table, which have been providing protein to start the day since Franciacorta. I swung by downtown Palazzolo to the post office. There, I shipped almost another kilo of things back to Charlottesville. I now had 23 kg on the rear rack and less than 9 kg up front. I could feel the difference riding, but, then, it had been two weeks since I left Bologna, and I was finally feeling stronger, too.

The mapping let me down again, as I ran south, wondering when I could cross the Brenta River. I was almost onto the tangenziale around Padova again when I reached a bridge and crossed. Then I rode back up past Limena (stopping for lunch). By the time I started heading east again, I had added 20 km to my day, and found myself in a line with the bridge in Palazzolo, which I could have taken when I was there in the morning.

I crossed the Brentella River and made my way past small villages and large fields, and the Desea River. Just outside the city limits of Mogliano Veneto, I spent a while behind the ultimate priority road user: a shepherd with his flock, dog and three asses. It was a familiar scene from the Via Appia near Formia. Down south, however, we would not have had an impatient woman pulling a trailer with a pickup truck, getting angrier as the herd ambled to their turnoff.

At the end of my ride, a real surprise awaited me. For only €38, I had booked a single in the Villa Marcello Giustinian, which turned out to be a luxury spa-resort in a park. Medieval chapel on the grounds; manicured lawns; full restaurant and bar; and beautifully appointed public spaces and rooms. I was grateful not to have to go out for dinner.

Breakfast on Tuesday was complete also, which was good, because this turned out to be the longest day in the saddle so far. I was making good progress eastward, and now I joined my old friend, the SS14, which I knew as the Via Adriatica when I lived in the Abruzzo. Here it was the Via Trieste, now that I was finally north of Venice and heading away.

As I rode along the right bank of the Piave River, my mind wandered to history lessons in the 5th grade. For a week in June of 1918, the Italian Army fought the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire here. Russia had dropped out of the war the year before, so the Empire could move troops to Italy from the Russian Front. The carnage matched the familiar tolls of Verdun and Flanders. The battle marked the beginning of the end of the First World War and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance during the battle, and Eugenio Montale’s poetry owed much to his experiences on this battlefield. For a good read and some pictures, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_the_Piave_River.

I decided to push for the town of Latisana, 94 km from Mogliano Veneto. This would put me in position to ride to Slovenia a day early – or to hunker down if the threatened rain proved too heavy. I rode quickly, enjoying the smooth roads and tailwinds that make my day. When I rode into the town of Caorle, I knew something was wrong: I had overshot an invisible left turn some five km back, and had to back track (I HATE backtracking). Soon I was crossing the Tagliamento River between San Michele and Latisana. The Tagliamento was also the border between Venice and Udine, and my entrance into the last region of Italy on River Run 2017. The extra 10 km turned the day’s ride into a metric century; I rolled into the parking lot of the Ositella B&B having covered 104 km in six hours. Alido and his young son Luca came out to greet me. Luca was quite taken by my ride and my rig. With my steed stabled in a locked room, I showered, changed and walked across the street to Da Michele, an excellent restaurant. I was east of Palazzolo dello Stella, only 84 km from the host family that was expecting me in Slovenia. The wind was picking up as the sun went down. The forecast was for 84 mm of rain over the next two days, essentially a month of rainfall in 36 hours.

The rain had not started as I walked back across the SS14 after supper (spaghetti alle vongole and pork chops). I learned that Marco and Arletta were willing to host me a day early. The train ran every hour from the station 6 km away. If the rain proved hard, that would be a backup.

On Wednesday morning, the wind was blowing hard out of the east and southeast. The rain started as I set out, light at first, but I opted to take the train from San Giorgio di Nogara to Trieste, so that I would have only 30 km to ride in a downpour if the rain continued to build.

The rain proved not to be the problem. Instead, the steep grade from the Trieste train station at sea level to the 400-m ridge above the city forced me to dismount and push the loaded bike 2.5 km to the top. It took me an hour and a half to clear the city (and the ridge), but from there, it was easy riding into Slovenia.

This was not my first time into Slovenia. As I rolled past the unmanned border booths, I remembered hunkering down on the floorboards of an old Fiat, hidden by the legs of the two guys in the back. I had made some friends ashore in Trieste on one of my first port visits on my first Mediterranean cruise. To my surprise, the driver took us through the Iron Curtain to gas up his car in Yugoslavia. They laughed at my concern, because everyone drove into Sežana for cheap gas. My soon-to-be-very-short career as a Naval Officer flashed before my eyes as the border guards lazily waved us into the country without looking at the car or anyone’s documents. Two minutes later we were fuelling in one of the many brightly lit gas stations lining the highway. Ten minutes later we were back in the West, and I let myself breathe.

“Just stay down, Hine,” Piero said, his feet on my legs. “It’s more comfortable with one less in the back seat.” We all shared a laugh.

Forty-eight years later, I rode past acres of concrete pads and paving, where today the long-haul trucks wait, and local commuters park their cars. There is no sign today of the many gas stations that once rose from those concrete foundations.

River Run 2017 had reached another milestone. I had left Italy. New places that I had never seen, and others that I had never seen from a bicycle awaited me.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan.

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