Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Cycling Italy and Switzerland

I have a garden again! After two years splitting time between the Bay Area and the foothills, I’m now back in the Bay Area full time. The foothills were nice but ultimately an impractical place for me to live, and I spent way too much time driving. Also the cows rampaged every time we tried to start a garden, which frustrated me after a while. So now I’m back in Berkeley, and my new place has a garden. It’s not terribly interesting at the moment, but it has a lot of potential. There are a half dozen vegetable beds, a shady area with some natives, and a large area that was recently reclaimed from blackberry and now patiently waits for fresh new plantings. At some point I will start posting about it, but for now I am just taking ‘before’ photos and developing ideas.

At the moment I have other things to blog about: I spent the last six weeks riding a bicycle in Italy and Switzerland! It was fantastic, of course. Hotter and sometimes steeper than I might have chosen, but awesome cycling and fantastic landscapes. Lots of stonework of course, plus art, architecture, plenty of gardens. I took about 1500 photos and made a stack of drawings. I’ll probably post my drawings next and then some posts focused on specific places, but first, here’s a rather self-indulgent selection of photos from the road.

I flew in and out of Bologna, and my route was a large circle, seeing both coastlines and going down somewhat close to Rome then up across the length of Switzerland. I went through Umbria as far south as Spoleto then up through Tuscany to Siena and over to Pisa and the Italian Riviera. I then took a train up to Geneva. In retrospect, I probably would have liked riding through Piedmont, but there was a heatwave in Italy and I felt ready to get up to Switzerland. I rode east along Lake Geneva, through the Valais, over the Furka pass and then the Albulapass, through the Engadine Valley, into Austria for about three hours, and then down through the Dolomites to Venice. I rode a little in the Venezia, but I found the flatter parts of Italy hot, boring, and full of traffic, so I used the train to get from Venice back to Bologna. All told, I rode about 2000 kilometers, which is put to shame by a Scottish woman who just rode 18,000 miles in 124 days. Almost all of it was great, and I can’t think of anything I would have chosen to skip, exceot maybe one tunnel near Trento.

The ducal palace in Urbino was possibly my favorite building on the entire trip. So beautiful the way the various walls are tied together. I tend to focus on stone, but Italy has fantastic brickwork.

I was riding with a friend in Umbria and Tuscany. One of our favorite moments was when we rode into the old plaza in Bevagna and discovered that Paul Verhoeven of Showgirls and Robocop fame had dressed up the plaza for a salacious movie about 17th century nuns he was set to begin filming the next day. There were minor anachronisms still visible on the sets, such as the hat on the left of the photo above, and there was never any question that we were seeing something fictional, but it created an odd overlay. We’re planning to see the movie on opening day.

We rode past many fields of sunflowers. I saw a surprisingly limited palette of crops: sunflowers, hay, grapes, olives, corn, apples, and a vetch cover crop. Not much else in significant quantities. I don’t think I could ever get tired of riding past fields of sunflowers.

Val d’Orcia was an absolute highlight. There’s a purity and minimalism to it that surprised me. I guess I’d seen it in photos but it was different to be surrounded by it.

Siena was another favorite. I loved its famous concave plaza. San Gimignano’s convex plaza was also quite nice and an interesting contrast to see just a day later. Everyone gathered on the steps of the cistern, rather then spreading out through the amphitheater-like space of Siena. San Gimignano was great in the morning before the tour buses arrived, a bit less so after the crowds flooded in.

I saw a number of leaning towers in Italy, not just in Pisa. Bologna and Venice, several other towns. They were all much more beautiful than San Francisco’s leaning tower. A little weird that an architectural mishap is so iconic.

‘Now for something completely different’ was my first thought when I got to Switzerland, but I started to see more continuity between the two countries after I’d been there a while.

A kindly woman let me sleep in her shed after I cycled the Furka and Oberalp Passes in the rain. I’m not sure the exact ratio between ‘she was nice’ and ‘I looked pathetic’. Obviously she was very nice and I’m sure I looked very pathetic, so I guess I just don’t know to what extent she was motivated by pity.

I had a much more beautiful day going over the Albulapass. The train line crosses the road repeatedly with gorgeous stone-clad bridges (they are Unesco world heritage listed). Can’t say enough how much I admired Swiss bridges.

I love the look of this type of Y trellis. I know this system is chosen for practical rather than aesthetic reasons — I think it’s often for Sauvignon Blanc? — but I loved the look of it.

This photo with the Dolomites and corn fields is in the Valsugana almost directly east of the Valais where I took the photo of the Alps and grape vines. The similarity is probably not a surprise to people who know the area, but it was surprising to me. The ride down from Switzerland into Italy was the best cycling I’ve ever done. I was on a bike path for about 150 miles, often up on a levee and sometimes winding through apple orchards. The scenery was great and the transition from Switzerland into the Tyrol and then the Venezia was subtler and more interesting than I had anticipated.

Palladio designed this wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa in 1569. I think it has been rebuilt a number of times, but always according to the original design.

Venice was initially a bit of a shock for the end of my ride. I hadn’t understood just how crowded it would be, and it took me a little while to literally find space to appreciate it. Drawing saved Venice for me; after I found a place to sit and draw for a while I began to appreciate what a rich visual environment it is. I’ll probably put those drawings in my next post. Cheers to everyone who stayed with me through this one.

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