27 July 2012: Day 9 – Gemona to Grado

83.8 km (52 mi)

There is a certain charm about waking up to the sound of church bells inside a medieval town…

But not in the case of Gemona.  4 AM and the bells start tolling, and that tolling isn’t a few dong dongs or a pleasant Big Ben tune.  Nope, it’s dong dong about fifty times, then a break, then another fifty dongs, then a break and you think the pain is over until the next fifty toll, and then a break, and then another fifty ding dang dongs.  Is it over yet?  Nope, two more rounds.  The ringing in your ears extends through every nerve ending, so that your entire body is pulsating to that incessant dong dong dong dong dong dong dong dong…until finally you hear and feel nothing except the next round of dong dong dong… Gemonans should be proud of their restoration accomplishments, but I think the campanile (bell tower) restoration went awry.  Dong.  That, or the town council decided Gemonans needed an extra push in the mornings to start their productive days.  “Early to bed, early to rise,” right?  Groooaaann.

My advice?  If you want to stay in old town Gemona, BEWARE the tolling bells.

We had two days to reach Trieste, which wasn’t all that far away.  We had the freedom to roam a bit in the direction of Trieste, so we brought our map to breakfast and thought we might see if our quirky host might have any ideas.

Down in the breakfast room, which was the same room with the odd fireplace and the multiple long tables set up for dinner the day before.  When we arrived, we noted that all the tables had been cleared off, but there was no evidence that any guests had eaten there the night before (we certainly hadn’t seen or heard anyone).  It seemed like a lot of work to set and clear tables that weren’t being used, but what did we know.  Our B&B and our host remained a mystery.  What I would have given to speak some Italian so that I could have learned who this guy was!

Breakfast itself was a disappointment.  We had a goblet of fruit, a sweet cake, and some stale crackers.  The table was beautifully set with a pair of champagne glasses, so we excitedly thought we might be starting our day with a special mimosa…but those remained empty throughout the meal.  To enhance the mood, our host shared his classical music collection with us.  He was clearly a diehard fan, because he cranked the volume of his CD so high that we found ourselves shouting to each other across the table.  In the background we could just barely hear Mr. Quirky singing along to his chosen pieces.  It was the perfect end to our crazy Gemona B&B experience.

Aside from the classical music mayhem, we managed to determine that we could enjoy two short riding days and still arrive at a comfortable afternoon hour in Trieste tomorrow.  Where to go, where to go?  Looking at the map (and seeing how blissfully flat the topography was), we first thought about a steady easterly direction before dropping south to Trieste.  Then we remembered some flyers we had seen at dinner the night before that advertised some place called “Grado.”  Grado was pretty much due south of Gemona and wasn’t all that far.  It was on the water, and as the weather was progressively getting warmer, we thought, we had a taste of the mountains, why not beaches?

Now, for anyone who knows me, yes, this was a huge sacrifice on my part.  I am not, under any circumstances, a water person.  I like rivers and love to hear the babbling brooks, but please don’t ask me to dip my toes into a lake or do any ocean diving.  I leave the fish to themselves and keep my landlubber feet above sea level.  (Oddly enough, I have a stomach of steel when it comes to seafaring.  No amount of stormy waves can get me ill.  Kovas, on the other hand…)

So we were decided.  Grado it was.  We had no idea what this place was all about, but we did know it was an easy trek and at the end we’d have to somehow get across a pretty large expanse of ocean before we actually could reach this island.  I was pretty excited to see that there were at least two interesting towns along the route that we could visit: Aquileia and Palmanova.  As we were bidding good-bye to our Gemonan host that morning, we mentioned our destination (“very nice”) and our intention to stop at both Aquileia and Palmanova (“very old”).  And so, since our host was such an antique buff, we figured that those towns must be well worth a visit.

The ride out of Gemona was pretty boring in all honesty.  No mountain passes to tackle, just a lot of traffic.  It definitely seemed to be the case that the farther south you travel in Italy, the more dense the population grows.  Already I was missing the tranquility (and cool temps) of the mountains.  I guess I’m just a mountain girl at heart.

We passed through Udine, which was a large city – we only saw the outskirts (and I had my first opportunity to go inside a Carrefour store, which is a really nice Walmart), but I think it would have been worth a stop had we had the time/days.  By the time we hit Palmanova, the unique and very lovely star-walled city, it was about 1pm and siesta had hit.  By star-walled city, I mean that the city walls were built like a 5-pointed star and remain to this day.  There are five gated entrances, but only three are in use today, where the roads enter the city and exit through the opposite side.  Because it was mid-siesta time, everything was, of course, closed, so we made do with a picnic in the central square in the shade.  It was hot…and only getting hotter the more we rode.  Suddenly we had found summer, and I began to worry what Rome would be like by the beginning of August…

Once we had finished picnicking we realized we were both perilously close to dehydration having finished our water and with still a few hours of riding left, so we went searching for any possible store open in Palmanova that would sell us water.  Around the five-pointed-star-walls we rode, hitting each ancient gate (both in use and defunct).  Palmanova was a ghost town.  So we found our exit and made our way south.

As we rode along this very very very hot road with vineyards and farms to either side and an occasional bridge crossing over a dry riverbed, we simultaneously saw a sign that read, “Obiz – Azienda Viticinicola.”  Open 9 – 12 and 14 – 17.  Well…it was 14 o’clock… Kovas looked at me and said, “Want to check it out?”

Now, you weren’t privy to a conversation we’d had before we left for our trip that had essentially consisted of a lot of back and forth about visiting vineyards.  The general consensus was that we simply could not make this a wine buying trip because there was no way we were lugging wines through Italy in our panniers to bring home.  We agreed that was absolutely ridiculous and a sacrifice we would have to make.  Kovas and I love wine…Kovas has even taken a class to receive his first level wine certification.  So this was a big decision for us.

So – Obiz.  We looked at each other and, all previous cautionary decisions thrown aside, I replied, “Yeah.  Why not?  It’s just 14:00.  They should be open, right?”

We rode the long driveway toward the vineyard’s main visitor area, guided by rows and rows of grapevines, some with trunks so thick they must have been decades old.  The day was getting hotter with every mile south we rode, and the anticipation of a cold glass of Pinot Grigio or whatever was the vintage of the region was almost too much to take.

The tasting room was a large, new building with massive doors that creaked open to reveal an expansive, blissfully air-conditioned warehouse with wine barrels stacked along one wall and huge stainless steel tanks in the back.  To our right was a modest set-up of brochures and several unopened bottles of wine.  It was completely empty.  The silence was deafening in that gigantic room.  Suddenly we saw a teenage boy peek out from behind the stainless steel tanks.  He saw us in our sweaty glory complete with bicycle helmets and quickly scurried out the side doors, gesturing with his hand, “One minute!”  We waited several, actually, still wondering if we had read the sign wrong about opening time post-siesta, but at last a woman about our age stepped through the side doors and said, “Hello?  May I help you?” in perfect slightly-accented english.

Kovas: “Hello!  We were riding by and saw your vineyard.  We would like to try your wine.”

Proprietress: “You know…this is not a bar.”  (um…yes…we were looking for a bar to drink ourselves silly in before getting back on our bicycles…)

Kovas: “Yes…it’s a winery.  We might be interested in purchasing a bottle…”

Proprietress: “Ah yes, good.  We only have two open.”

After tasting each wine and reveling in their absolute deliciousness (and refreshment), we learned that the special vintage of Fruili-Venezia Giulia was called Fruilano – a lovely light white.  Kovas and I, again very aware of our limited capacity to carry wine, looked at one another, and Kovas asked, “How much for a bottle of the Fruilano?”  Our host replied, “5 euro for each bottle.”  “5 euro for this bottle of Fruilano?  What about this Tramino (the other one open that we tried).”  “5 euro.”  “5 euro for every bottle on this table?” Kovas asked, incredulously.  “”Si.”  Well that changes things…5 euro for wine of that quality?  How could we not ride away with a bottle of each vintage???  Well, thankfully the voice of reason stepped in to say, “Not only are you riding bicycles, but you only got to try two of the vintages.  What if you don’t like the others?”  Well, for 5 euro a bottle I was pretty sure we would love them, but in the end we walked away with a bottle of each, and a plan to picnic as soon as possible.  By now, I was totally in love with Italy.  All of it.

Next stop, Aquileia!  This is an ancient Roman city and one of the largest archaeological site in Northern Italy.  You can tell you’re about to see something special in Aquileia when along the road into the town you begin to pass excavated Roman ruins.  Pieces of columns and statues litter both sides of the road in fenced-off archeological dig areas.  So cool for history buffs like me.  I mean, this stuff is OLD.  Or, as Kovas took to saying the closer we got to Rome: “Old stuff!!!”

The town of Aquileia looked charming, though we didn’t stop to look around.  We headed straight for the main event, the Cathedral complex.  Wow.  The floor is covered with beautiful mosaics that you can see through a glass walkway that covers the entire Cathedral.  It is spectacular.  As you can see in the photos, I was politely asked to cover my legs and shoulders since my riding clothes were less than respectable for the solemn building.  I can respect that, but I did feel badly because I was so sweaty and stinky that I was sure I had fouled the scarves provided to me to cover myself up.  Very sorry to whomever had to wear those after me.  Overall, Aquileia is definitely worth a visit.

From Aquileia, Grado was pretty darn close, by our standards.  It was noticeably warmer and more humid as we rode, but we also began to smell the salty Adriatic Sea air more definitively.  Then, of course, we began to smell the sea itself, or at least the shallow parts of the sea.  As I mentioned, not being a beach/water person, I don’t find that harbor fishy smell all that appealing.  However, the ride itself was fun and very flat (!).  The best part of the ride was the last stretch, which is actually a long bridge to Grado that connects it to the mainland.  It was incredibly windy, but so fun to ride alongside myriads of families who had taken day trips out on the bridge with their rented bicycles.  It was bicycle fest!  By the time we arrived in Grado, we realized what we had actually ridden into.  This was no quaint Sauris.  No, this was full on beach resort complete with hotel built upon hotel up to the beaches, sandy streets, and cheesy “Sea Hotel” names.  But we were there, sweaty, salty, and ready for a little bit of luxury if possible.  Not having a place to stay, we popped into the tourist office to see if they could place us somewhere.  Having looked around town briefly, we noted that this resort town meant accommodations would be more expensive and it would be worth paying for a 4-star hotel because that was likely the equivalent of a 2-star hotel in a normal city.  And so we did.  It was definitely worth it.

What we really walked away from the tourist office with, however, was not just a hotel reservation, but a restaurant recommendation from the local resident working the office.  The name of the restaurant is L’Approdo (translation The Landing – more or less).  It was absolutely far away from the touristy area and was a lovely walk along the boardwalk.  Our referee mentioned that the specialty of the restaurant is also the specialty of the region: Branzino.  Well, ok.  Whatever that is.

After showers and a glass of celebratory Obiz wine, we found our way to the restaurant, only to find that we were the only ones there, at least at first.  The waiter mentioned Branzino as the specialty (again), so without hesitation we ordered.  We certainly didn’t know what it was, but if it’s the specialty then we had to try it.  I was pretty certain it wasn’t tripe, which would have been a no thank you for me, but since we were on the Adriatic, we guessed it was fish.  Was it ever!!!  What arrived were two plates with our very own whole fishes!  With the help of Google Translate, we learned that Branzino is sea bass and the specialty is how it is served (whole).  Don’t let the scales, eyes, and bones scare you.  It was delicious.  Mmmmmm….

We spent the rest of the evening walking Grado and dipping our feet into the Adriatic.  It was delightful, until I saw a few crabs scurrying in the shallows.  Toe dipping ended abruptly for me right then and there.  Otherwise, the salty sea felt wonderful on our sore, tired feet.  Our next stop, Trieste, would be a welcome two nights.  A whole day’s rest!

Grado at night is much like you would imagine a resort beach town.  It erupts into dance clubs, bars spilling out onto outdoor patios, and plenty of food and drink and loud music to satisfy even the most discriminating of spring breakers.  It’s a fun beach resort that I would absolutely recommend if that’s your kind of thing.  For me, I’ll take the mountains, or perhaps beaches a little more, well, remote.  🙂





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