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Biking in Italy - The Easy WayCycling from Innsbruck to Lake Garda
By Ron Van Dijk
Ever cycled in Italia? If so, you are likely to remember the many hilltop towns…and of course the climbs to make it up there! Whether you’ve biked in Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily or even the foothills in Veneto (north of Venice), it is hard to avoid the undulations and other ‘barriers’ so inherent to the Italian landscape. San Gimignano, Siena, Volterra, Assisi, Spoleto, Todi, Orvieto, Asolo all bring back good memories, but surely you did not forget the effort needed to reach them. These are some of the most scenic regions of Italy and there’s no other way than to endure the sufferings…you think! Maybe these feared tribulations even kept you away from exploring Italy on a bicycle altogether. Or they induced you to choose a trip in the much-less-interesting Po Valley just because it’s flat.
I don't want to discourage you from visiting any of the above Italian regions on a bicycle. Not at all! The scenery is incredible and if you’re in reasonable shape you will definitely enjoy biking there. There is no place in the world where you can find more art treasures per square mile. The vineyards in each of these famous regions produce some of the best wines the world has to offer. And the Italian cucina is second to none (let’s place France right next to it on the stage).
There are ways to make Italian cycling it easier on you. You can practice more before you come. You can book a trip with a reputable bike tour operator, because by doing so you will always have the possibility to ask the guide in the support van to give you that ride up the hill. And/or you can rent an electric bicycle: you still need to pedal, but it will only cost you 50-80% of the energy you would have otherwise used, depending which mode you choose. Since last year, electric bikes have been added to our bicycle fleet and we’ve already tested them on the flats and in the hills, including the Tuscan ‘colline’. I am happy to report that they passed the test. We’ve had many people who proclaimed that e-bikes is all they want from now on…even if the terrain is level! In short, all of Italy has now become accessible to any type of bike rider.
But if you’re looking for an easy Italian cycling vacation without any help or support, let me propose to you an Austin Adventures trip which is mostly downhill or flat, where the majestic mountains are constantly in view, without having to climb them. It takes mostly place in Italy, yet begins in Innsbruck (Austria) while ending on Lake Garda (Italy).
Innsbruck lies in Tyrol and is also known as the Capital of the Austrian Alps. During a guided walk, we will explore the town’s treasures, most notably the Goldenes Dachl (House with the Little Golden Roof) dating to 1500 and the impressive Hofkirche church with the Renaissance mausoleum to Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg and its 28 larger-than-life-size statues guarding it. I promise that you have never seen anything like it! And the views along the main shopping street Maria-Theresien-Strasse towards the steep slopes of the Nordkette (Karwendel mountain range) combines townscape and landscape to form a picture which is one of the most magical in Europe. Look in the other direction, and you’ll find the ski jump at Bergisel as well as the indoor ice rink and airport, which were constructed for the 1964 Winter Olympic Games. The superior quality of the facilities brought the Winter Olympic Games back once more in 1976, which have been improved since over and over.
The next day is our first day on the “Drahtesel” (Wire Donkey, as the Austrian lovingly nickname the bicycle), and it’s the only day we end up at a higher altitude in the evening than we started in the morning, as we cycle through the wide and gentle Inn Valley. Be sure to visit the Cistercian abbey of Stamps, which was founded in 1273. It was founded of Elizabeth of Bavaria, who had it built in memory of her son Konradin, the last of the Hohenstaufen line, who was tortured and beheaded at Naples by order of King Charles of Anjou: not the happiest of all reasons to start an abbey, but it sure is beautiful! In 1732 the church was remodeled in Baroque style, with a beautiful altarpiece representing the Tree of Life supporting 84 carved figures of staints surrounding the Virgin Mary. Truly a masterpiece.
After spending the night in the delightful town of Imst with its pretty fountains, we are transferred along the Upper-Inn Valley via the Finstermünzpass Gorge to the top of Reschen Pass (4945 ft), which is also the border between Austria and Italy (and nearby Switzerland), and between Tyrol and South-Tyrol. From here on, it’s all downhill. This may sound bad in real life, but not when you’re on a bicycle. Well…, all downhill is a bit exaggerated: to be truthful, let’s classify it as being primarily downhill and flat, with an occasional (doable) uphill.
South-Tyrol was originally Austrian, but became Italian after the First World War. It is now an interesting mix of the two coexisting cultures where both languages are being spoken. It is famous for its wines, its apples (the biggest and juiciest in the world!) and its smoked ham (Speck). And of course for the surrounding Dolomites.
The Etsch River (Adige in Italian) will accompany us for the next six days as we first roll via mountain villages like Burgeis, Mals, Glurns, Naturns to Merano. In Naturns, a large village of beautiful Tirolean houses, the frescoes in San Procolo church were discovered in 1923 under some Gothic wall paintings. The frescoes are in primitive pre-Karolingian style, according to experts with Celtic-Irish influences (the Alp regions were Christianized by Irish monks in the 8th century). They are the oldest frescoes in the German-speaking lands.
We spend two nights in the lively, aristocratic spa town of town of Merano, giving you ample opportunity to explore the bike trails along Passeiertal Valley. It is a prosperous fruit growing area, particularly dessert grapes. Or to trade in your cycling shoes for walking boots to explore the magnificent mountain promenades in and above Merano. A great walk is the one to/fro the spectacular gardens of Trauttmansdorff along the Sentiero di Sissy, named after the Austrian empress. The gardens were proclaimed the most beautiful garden of Italy in 2005 and one of the most beautiful in all of Europe in 2006. The pavilions host exotic plants from all over the world.
Our next destination Bolzano, whose Museum of Archaeology displays the famous Ötzi. This well-preserved mummified corpse was found in 1991, after spending 5300 years in the alpine ice. He’s kept in a special freezer at -6 Celsius and can be seen from behind glass, wearing his original outfit. If time allows, you can also choose to visit the MMM Firman museum, which was set up by the famous South-Tyrolean mountain climber Reinhold Messner. In the ruins of the 9th century castle Sigmundskorn he present sculptures and paintings – mostly from Tibet – where he did a number of expeditions.
As we proceed further down the Adige Valley, we notice how the Italian culture is becoming more and more dominant. Once we leave South-Tyrol and reach Trentino and the town of Trento the transformation has been completed. Definitivo siamo en Italia! With the Dolomites on the left and the Brenta Massif on the right, you are always surrounded by steep rugged rocks.
Trento is the town where the famous Council of Trent took place upon orders of Pope Paul III in an attempt to study methods of combating Protestantism. The Pope found himself at variance with the Emperor Charles V who urged the council to treat the Protestants with consideration. As we all know, it could not stop the rupture in the church and the following Wars of Religion. It is also interesting to note that after Trento was freed from Napoleon rule, it was awarded to Austria in 1814 and wasn’t taken back by the Italian army after a fierce battle in 1918.
After visiting the WW1 Museum in Rovereto (there is also a great modern art museum, probably the best in all of Italy), a former train track turned bike path leads us over a lower pass to an awesome descent upon the deep blue Lago di Garda, Italy’s largest lake. The views are incredible, so reduce you speed as you go downhill! We spend two nights in the resort town of Riva del Garda. Visit the beach behind the hotel and/or do the loop ride which takes you on a bike trail along the Sarca River (which feeds Lake Garda) to the peaceful towns of Arco, Dro and Drena. This beautiful landscape was formed by the glaciers thousands of years ago. The mild climate, due to the sheltering mountains, stimulates the growth of palm, lemon, orange and olive trees.
The last morning, after a hearty breakfast, you are transferred to nearby Verona for departure, but if time allows, don’t forget to explore this romantic city of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare based on a story that supposedly took place about 1302. En route to Verona, we pass by Bardolino and its famous vines. Valpolicella is not far away either. From Verona, you can either fly (it has its own airport with international connections), or you take a train to Milano, which has the intercontinental flights.
Does this whet your appetite? For more information, check out:
Ciao and Auf Wiedersehen!