30 July 2012: Day 12 – Trieste to Venice…The Long Haul!

165.97 km (103.1 mi)

Preface: this was by far one of the most challenging rides of my life, or at least so far: 103 miles from Trieste to Venice, in the heat, on busy Italian roads… Plus, we learned a little bit about Italian culture on this day: “Maybe yes…maybe no.”

We were so proud of ourselves on this fine morning.  We had done all our research ahead of time and planned accordingly.  We knew we were facing a century ride so why not find some way to short cut?  After all, Venice was across the gulf…there HAD to be a ferry that goes there, right?  It’s a pretty major city, so logically… Well, technically there is a ferry, but you’d have to ride down to one of the coastal towns of Croatia, and sadly, while that would have been amazing, we didn’t plan too well.  We simply didn’t have enough days to ride down and catch said ferry.  Believe me, we thought of every possible scenario to make it work, including riding over night, but Croatia is big enough that we just couldn’t make it.  There’s always next time!  So we looked for the next best thing, and yes!  There IS a ferry, just not all the way to Venice.  It connects Trieste to Grado, which is the part of the ride that we would have had to duplicate anyway, so no problem skipping that bit.  This was a Monday and we had researched the ferry on Sunday and learned that it leaves at 8:30am and allows for two bicycles per ferry, first come, first served.  Perfect.  That meant we needed to be the first cyclists at the ferry dock the following morning.  We let Andreas at our B&B know that we needed an earlier start, so he arranged for us to have breakfast, despite it being earlier than B&B policy.  Such a wonderful host!  So off we went, far earlier than any other day.  While we missed our usual leisurely Italian morning, we were ultimately glad to get an early start because it was assuredly going to be a long day.  After all, we wanted to enjoy some of Venice that evening.

We arrived 15 minutes early at the ferry dock, delighted that we were the first and only cyclists.  Whew.  But…huh.  Where was the ferry?  Kovas went inside the communist-looking cement building that posed as a ticket office for all those invisible ferries that were allergic to their docks. (There wasn’t a single ferry docked that morning!)  I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, about 15 minutes later (and after the departure time of 8:30 I might add), Kovas emerged with a few college-age girls and an official-looking ferryman.  He was gesturing and Kovas was shaking his head, looking at the girls, and then at me.  He walked over and, with a huge roll of his eyes, said, “You are not going to believe this.  There is no ferry.”

Me: “No ferry?  Not ever?”

Kovas: “No ferry today.”

Me: “What do you mean, no ferry today?  The signs says the ferry runs every day except Sunday.”

Kovas: “That man said there is no ferry today because… ‘It’s Monday.'”  !?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Maybe yes…maybe no.  Today was a “maybe no” kind of day I guess.  So there it was.  No ferry because it was Monday and they didn’t feel like running it?  I felt badly for the girls.  It turned out they were Italian university students on holiday and were traveling to Grado that day.  Well, not that day after all.  My concern was what prevented the ferry people from deciding they didn’t feel like running the ferry Tuesday either?  Yes, it was dangerously close to August, when we know Europe shuts down and goes on holiday as a continent, but we still had two days!

So there it was…8:40am, no ferry, and a deadline to hit Venice that evening.  It was absolutely going to be a long day…and so off we went.

The first part of the ride toward Grado was familiar and blissfully quick because the gorgeous Adriatic wind was at our backs.  We flew!  At least, we flew until we reached our favorite fruit stand again and bought up their grapes, peaches, and perhaps another melon.  Yummmmm.  Lunch of course.

I won’t lie…the rest of the ride is kind of a blur for several reasons.  First, it was long.  Second, it was long and hot.  Third, it was long, hot, and flat.  Fourth, it was long, hot, flat, and crowded (with cars).  You get the idea.  I will say, though, that during the first half to two-thirds of the ride we were graced on both sides of the road with vineyards galore.  It was lovely!  And, of course, this provided ample opportunities for us to stop and rest (though instead of lightening our load we managed to make some purchases that added to the long, hot, flat ride).  We stopped at one vineyard thinking it was a commercial venture, but when we pulled in we met a bewildered Italian who immediately started shaking his head no.  Behind him was a mountain of massive wine jugs.  We thought we’d hit the jackpot.  We soon came to understand that this was not a bottling facility where tourists could taste and buy.  Nope, not here.

That said, we did make a couple of brilliant stops where we bought some brilliant wine!  First – Casali Aurelia.  It was a fun place because it was also an agriturismo, where tourists can stay overnight.  We decided we had to stay at one vineyard this trip.  We weren’t entirely sure how welcome we were at Casali Aurelia, however.  The proprietress wasn’t all too friendly and poured our tastes with very little love.  She, did, however, perk up once we decided to purchase a bottle.  Hmm, “This is not a bar,” comes to mind again.  Did we really look like the kind of couple that was bar hopping on our bikes in the middle of a hot summer day?  Seriously?

The second purchase was at a vineyard called Isola Augusta.  It was a bright, airy tasting room and most memorable were the most beautiful grapes I have ever seen tumbling from their vines that covered the pergola in the front entrance.  They truly were amazing grapes!

Soon, however, we turned away from the main vineyard drag and while there were plenty of grapes growing, we found ourselves passing through smaller villages, then huge fields, and then more villages.  It was very quiet and very very very hot.  Right about siesta time we ran out of water.  By now we should have known better and stopped for water before the bewitching hour of 1pm.  But of course…we didn’t.  The dread began rising in our throats as we passed through town after sleepy town, totally boarded up, no petrol stations nor grocery stores open to quench our growing thirst.  Deciding not to panic as the reality of dehydration set in, we finally rolled into a little town that had a grocery store as we entered.  Now don’t get your hopes up.  Of course it was closed…it’s siesta, remember?  However, there was a water vending machine right outside the store entrance.  We were saved!!!  Kovas managed to climb off his bike, lean it against a fence, and bolt to the vending machine in mere milliseconds.  He put some change in, pressed the button, and…and…nothing.  Nothing.  We exchanged glances and before Kovas resorted to kicking the poor machine, he looked around the back of it and saw that the darned thing wasn’t even plugged in.  In fact, it was totally empty anyway.  So much for that.

Then, suddenly, a woman appeared at the top of some stairs leading to an apartment above the store.  She looked at Kovas, who gestured at the machine and made drinking motions and pointed to our bicycles.  She shook her head and made some gesture that we took to mean, “We are closed.”  With a little more gesturing and obvious begging, she looked at us again and motioned that she would unlock the store and bring us some bottles of water.  Kovas handed her some money in exchange and we spent the next several minutes gulping down the blissfully cool water.  Thank you, Guardian Angel.

At this point we still had a long way to go, and as you’ll see from the pictures from today, we took very few until we got to Venice.  This was mostly because there wasn’t too much to see, but also because we were just trying to get to our destination before nightfall.  The ride was longer than we had thought and it seemed to take forever.  Plus, as we drew closer to Venice, our road options were fewer, and we were forced to take bigger roads, which meant more cars, and even worse, more heavy trucks.  It was, to say the least, nerve wracking.  So, more concentration than photo journaling ensued.

Finally we started seeing the signs for Venice and around the same time we began seeing more and more tourist busses.  Ah, must be getting close…  If you’ve ever driven or ridden to Venice, you’ll know that there is a long bridge that takes you to the main train station and parking area before you can hop on a water taxi to your hotel or walk to your “mainland” Venice destination.  That bridge is, well, popular, especially in summer on the verge of August.  Of course, there is a sidewalk/bicycle lane along the side, but it’s imperative that you catch the path right as you enter the bridge because there was road work being done and thus no hope of getting onto that path once you’ve missed the entrance.  The road shoulder (if you could even call it that) was lined with cement barricades and with all the traffic whizzing by, good luck trying to get over that barricade.  And, as luck would have it…we missed that path entrance.  Harrowing is how I would describe the next 20-30 minutes or so of riding.  I might be understating it a bit, but imagine a narrow bridge, traffic in both directions, with tourist bus after tourist bus blowing by us as we hugged those concrete barriers like they were fuzzy kitties.  Try tensing every muscle in your body for 30 straight minutes while trying to avoid massive metal objects moving at 40 miles an hour.  That’s a workout.  We were tired, ravenous from having only eaten peaches and grapes for lunch, and our nerves were frayed at every edge.  It was one heck of a day.

And suddenly we had arrived!  Venice!  And we were definitely not alone.  As we tried to get our bearings and I studied the map and directions to the B&B, which were really quite simple if you took a water taxi, we suddenly realized we might be in a bit of a pickle…  Of course there are no cars in Venice, but what about bicycles?  It never actually crossed our minds that traveling through Venice with bicycles might pose a problem.  Our first indication was at the water taxi stand.  One look at our loaded up bikes and the attendant shook his head with a loud laugh.  No bikes on the taxis.  Well, duh…everyone knows that!

Our only choice was to walk to our B&B (which was in the heart of the city), over canals and through narrow streets with our suddenly very awkward bicycles and panniers.  Thus, our second indication that bicycles and Venice may not mix well.  It took nearly an hour to wind through the maze that is Venice, with only a couple of wrong turns and dead ends.  The hardest part was carrying the bikes over the hundreds (or so it seemed) of foot bridges.  Fully loaded bicycles don’t ride too well up and down stairs.  All of that would have been doable and perhaps laughable, but now add to the mix what seemed to be a hundred million tourists wandering aimlessly and stopping right in front of us to snap a photo or stare at a gondolier.  Who could blame them, except perhaps two exhausted, starving cyclists lugging fully loaded bikes and desperately needing showers?  With my nerves ready to snap at the next person who stopped short in front of me, we crossed our last bridge, turned our last corner, and voila!  Campo Santa Maria Formosa – the plaza in front of our B&B.  Though at the time we didn’t know it, we were about to enter one of the most peaceful, perfect refuges of our trip.  And what a day for such a treat!

La Porta D’Oriente B&B is an absolute gem. Cinzia and Nicoletta are two native Venetian friends who went into business together running this B&B.  It is a beautiful traditional Venetian building with immensely tall ceilings, massive long windows, and rich decor that reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Dangerous Beauty (or the Honest Courtesan), which takes place in 16th century Venice.

Walking into the cool, quiet B&B was a breath of fresh air after the hot crowded canals of the city outside the doors. Despite arriving so late (7pm!) Nicoletta greeted us, showering us with compliments about how amazing a feat we had accomplished that day.  She showed us to a small courtyard where we could keep our bicycles safe for three days (three days of no riding!  yay!) and then brought us upstairs where Cinzia showed us our room and gave us a tour of the house.  We were given the “Zen Room,” and was it ever!  I’ll never forget how blissfully cool and clean the room was!  Ahhhh.  It was massive with an enormous closet and beautifully appointed with simple Japanese decor.  Once Cinzia left us to settle in, we both sank onto the modern platform bed and argued about who should shower first, leaving the other to lie on the bed doing absolutely nothing.  When we had at last cleaned ourselves up we were ready for a meal for kings.  We would have eaten bark from trees we were so hungry.  Cinzia was in the main sitting room that doubled as the breakfast room.  We asked for restaurant recommendations and she immediately pulled out a map and circled half a dozen favorite spots.  Sadly, about half of those were closed for the month of August, which included the last two days of July (“maybe yes…maybe no”), but we felt better being armed with a local’s favorites instead of tourist traps.  If you’ve ever been to Venice, then you know just how many tourist traps there are!

Oddly enough, both Kovas and I were craving doner kebabs…we’d had a taste of the deliciousness in Trieste and now it was all we could think about!  Venice has plenty of kebab stops that look like glorified fast food restaurants complete with french fries and pizza, with that weird fluorescent lighting and pictures of all the different possible meal combinations available.  We were hoping for something a little more authentic, or at least a little less, er, bright?  As we wandered we stumbled into a plaza (campo) and what did we see across the way?  Doner King!  I have no recollection where the place is or even if that was the name of it, but for these purposes I think it serves well.

We joined the queue of drunk colleges kids (it was only 8:30, people!) and decided that after a day like we’d had, the only option was the grande with everything on it.  This doner was much different from any we had seen before, including throughout Ireland, Italy, and England.  It was more like a huge burrito, all the deliciousness wrapped up inside and then grilled on a panini press (or that’s what it looked like) so that it was warm, slightly crispy and absolutely freaking amazing!  Now, we’re talking huge here.  Grande means grande by anyone’s standards, and it was just what we needed after our day.  The doner spot itself was a tiny hole in the wall.  So tiny that there was room for the chef, a young Italian guy who spoke no english, two chairs for patrons waiting for their order, and a vending machine.  The whole place felt maybe 15 feet long and 8 feet wide.  These kebabs were no quick fast food order, they were made with care and took a good 10 or so minutes each.  Well worth the wait!  Once they were in hand, we found ourselves a spot along a less traveled canal, took some fun photos, tried to ignore the river rats, and chowed down.  I wish I could describe those first few bites.  At that moment, skipping lunch seemed like the best idea we’d had all day because it made that meal so much more precious and delicious.  I guess it’s true what they say, “Hunger is the best spice!”  But that burrito, as large as it looked, just didn’t last long enough!  We began to wander the streets a bit and Kovas finally said the words I didn’t want to say myself…”I’m still hungry.”  Oh me too me too!  We exchanged glances.  “Want another one?”  Oh yes, did I ever.  And somehow we miraculously found ourselves back at Doner King.  “Grande?”  Ooo, could I really eat another huge kebab?  I really didn’t want to admit it this time, but I was pretty sure I could eat another whole one.  I was far too embarrassed to go back in there to order (because it was unseemly for a young lady to eat two grande kebabs in the course of an hour), so I sent Kovas in to order us up another pair of grande doners while I hid outside, wandering the campo, trying to blend in with the other tourists, despite my appetite being the size of a hundred hungry sailors.

Kovas finally returned with round two.  He said he shared a hearty laugh with the young chef who was definitely surprised to see him again, and more surprised to learned we wanted another round of grandes.  Kovas explained with a combination of hand gestures and sound effects that we’d ridden from Trieste that day and had already come from Munich so far and were headed to Rome via bicycles.  Chef understood and gave us his blessing with an extra helping of special sauce.  We devoured round two more slowly, but finished nevertheless!

It was finally time for much needed sleep and a full day of touring tomorrow.

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