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A short tour around the Italian Lakes

I had never been to this part of Italy and Switzerland before.  I fancied a nice mix of lakes and mountains in an area which generally gets good weather. I got the lakes and mountains but unfortunately the weather was very poor at times and affected the trip. Overall, however, it was well worth the visit and a place I would happily return to.


The last few years I have left my bike box in a hotel, staying there first and last nights. This time I would be returning late in the evening, so decided to leave my box in the airport's left luggage. At 70 euro for 7 days, I might have been wiser using the hotel option again.

Bike safely reassembled, I rode up to the old town where I was staying, including up some steep brick laid streets. Bergamo is a very pretty place and deserved more time. I stayed in the Il Sole hotel, which was very friendly but hot without air conditioning. Having had a drink in the cathedral square, little did I know that would be the last evening I would be able to sit outside. A couple of hours after arriving came the first rain.  I had a traditional meal of beef and polenta at Da Franco which would fuel me for the following day.

Day 2 – Lecco – Chiaso - 76km - 655m ascent

Researching the trip, it looked like I would face a lot of traffic getting across from Bergamo to Lugano, where I was staying next.  I opted instead to catch the train from Bergamo to Lecco and then for most of the day hug Lake Como.  Travelling with a bike by train in Italy is very easy, with all the ones I’ve used still having a guard’s van. 

Leaving Lecco there was a bit of traffic for the first few miles but I managed to find a bike route eventually which took me away from it.  I didn’t take the coast road to Bellagio due to the long tunnels, which might even be closed to cycles, but instead headed west towards Cesana Brianza.  From there the road kicked up to for the first climb of the tour. From the summit there were views over the lake.  The descent is about 5km to the small town of Onno.

From here I kept to the coast road.  It doesn’t always run along the shore, sometimes rising high to give good views. The weather was good, with people on the small pebble beaches.





















Bellagio is the highlight of the area; a very pretty town at the top of the inverted y. I stopped to have slice of pizza and take some shots before then heading towards Como.  There are a few short tunnels but nothing to worry about along this road.  There is a lovely view of Como, with its Duomo for the last few miles before you enter it.  I passed through, climbing a badly pitted road to the border town of Chiaso, where I was waved through by the border guards.

To avoid more traffic, I caught the train to Lugano. This was fairly expensive but might have been avoided had I gone to the tourist information. When I arrived at my hotel I was handed a free transport card for the duration of my stay.  Lugano itself is a very pretty town rising steeply above the lake of the same name.  I stayed off the Via Catedral which is an infeasibly steep pedestrianised way, at the Hotel Acquerello. My room was very oddly situated at the bottom of the funicular but was comfortable enough.  The hotel was very much set up for cyclists, with a small workshop attached for maintaining and cleaning bikes. I had a chance to wander for a couple of hours around the streets near the lakeside before the heavens opened.  I have rarely been in such a heavy storm.  From that point on in the holiday, the heat was taken out of the atmosphere.  I grabbed a pizza, a quick dash from my hotel.


Day 3 – Lugano to Vercaie - 85km - 1295m ascent

The day was overcast but dry to begin with.  The road out of Lugano was initially fairly busy but then you can follow local lanes which avoid the long tunnel which begins just over the Italian border. It’s a very scenic route along the lake. 

Coming into Porlezza it started to rain heavily.  I took shelter for fifteen minutes, hoping for it to pass, which it duly did, reducing to a drizzle. 


















I took a chance that the weather wouldn’t deteriorate too much and headed up into the mountains, shortly after leaving the town.  The 10 km ride up to the small village of Cavargna is very quiet, largely through woodland.  I’m glad I decided to do it.  There is a very rough section of road at the top before descending the other side of the loop.  Thankfully the rain stopped and the road dried out quickly, making the long descent a lot easier. The hilltop towns on the way down are spectacularly perched and strangely large given the limited roads.

Back on the flat, I cycled on to Menaggio, rejoining Lake Como again. The road is busy but there are quite a few stretches where bike only paths hug the shore avoiding the tunnels and the traffic.  I met a German cyclist along this stretch who had been riding around the Alps for a month, with this the first day of rain. 

I had prebooked a hotel in Vercaie, a village overlooking a small lake just north of Como.





















The place doesn’t make the most of its setting, divided from the lake by a busy road and train track.  There is nothing to see there and in retrospect it would have been better to have stayed in Chiavenna, a much more substantial place a few miles on.  Nevertheless, the hotel was fine and had a very good restaurant, where I tried a lovely wine of the Valtellina area for the first time. 

Day 4 – St Moritz to Zernaz - 34km




















In the morning the rain was hammering down.  It would have been a horrible ride in those conditions, so I opted to catch the train from the local station to Chiavenna. Even in the five minutes I took to do that, I got soaked.  The weather didn’t improve, so I then took the option to use the Swiss post bus service to take me to St Moritz.  The buses have about five hooks on the rear from which you can hang your bike.

The rain continued to chuck it down as the bus crossed into Switzerland and climbed up the Maloja Pass.  It looked a very good road from the comfort of the bus, ending in a series of switchbacks which brings you up to the plateau on which St Moritz sits. As I rolled into the station, the rain finally stopped, so instead of taking another train on to Zernez, I rode instead. 

There is a waymarked cycle way, some of which I followed, that takes you away from any traffic.  The route is very flat for the first 30kms, which made a change.  It’s a bit odd to be up at over 1500m, riding for so long on a flat road. 

Whilst Lugano felt very Italian, Zernez was very much Germanic Switzerland.  It is a nicely situated town but a little dull.  I stayed at the very friendly Hotel Adler on the edge of the town and walked in for something to eat at the pizza restaurant, which was very good.  With not much going on, I turned in for an early night.

Day 5 – Zernez to Bormio - 68km - 1862 ascent

Day 5 was planned to be the highlight of the tour – the Stelvio.  The forecast was for more rain with thunderstorms, so I set off with some trepidation and a plan for a shorter ride over the Umbrail Pass, which would cut off about 30kms and probably a couple of hours.  As it turned out, the weather was a little overcast but generally dry.  The climbing began straight out of Zernez, up the Fuorn Pass.  The whole climb is around 20kms but there is some respite in the middle.  Having effectively had a day off, I managed it without too much difficulty.

I reached Santa Maria, where I had the choice of doing the Stelvio climb from Prat or taking the Unbrail.  I opted for the latter and didn’t regret it.  The Unbrail is 13kms long but steeper than the Stelvio.  It’s also a lot quieter with very few of the sports cars and motor bikes I saw later in the day on the Stelvio.  The initial climbing is through woodland but then it gives out to high mountain scenery.  It’s a very beautiful road. 
















Towards the end you can see the Stevio pass buildings above you.  I crossed the unmanned highest border point I’ve been to at 2500m and joined the Stelvio road to Bormio. The view of the road snaking down is even more staggering than the photos suggest.  It’s a good surface, which I raced down. If only to confirm my choice, it began to rain a couple of kilometres before I hit Bormio.  I’m glad I missed doing the whole descent in the wet. 

Bormio is very nice town.  I probably didn’t see it at its best, in drizzly weather but I thought it had everything one might need for a few days as a great cycling base.  The hotel Reine was the most comfortable of the trip and had a drying room, so I could sort out some of my clothes. For the first time since Lugano, there were some nice bars.  I ate at the Enotica, which was the best restaurant of the trip.  The manager paired wine with my three courses and gave me some grappa to finish.  It was an excellent meal.

Day 6 – Bormio - Morbegno - 102km - 178m ascent

















With all the rain of the past few days, my chain was showing signs of rust.  I found a cycle shop which kindly lubricated it for me and then set off for Morbegno.  There is a cycle route which runs for the whole trip, taking you on quiet roads or dedicated cycle paths, so it was a very pleasant ride.  More than that, after the exertions of the day before, it was downhill for the first third and along the flat for the remainder. The first part of the ride is a fast downhill section which takes you to the town of Tirano. 













There were plenty of cyclists out on the roads looping from Bormio.  I stopped for a coffee in the town before heading off along the more dedicated and flatter cycle route. 

I got lost for a couple of miles, having to retrace my steps to a small inconspicuous sign that I had missed.  The oddest bit of the trip was hitting a ford, where the river was running so strongly that I daren’t risk going over it and again had to double back.  The countryside was less spectacular than previous days but always pleasant.

Morbegno was a fairly undistinguished town but the old part was pleasant enough. The Hotel Trieste was in a very nice building. I ate at a very traditional restaurant which unfortunately lacked atmosphere but the food was fine.

Day 7 – Morbegno – Bergamo - 94km - 1810m ascent

The weather was much better on the last day; warm and clear, perfect for cycling.  The climb up the Passo di Santa Maria begins straight out of Morbegno and rises nearly 1800 metres over 26kms.  It’s a lovely ride; not too steep, scenic and low in traffic. The descent is very dramatic and equally long.

The road eventually levels out and becomes a little busy, although cyclists are diverted around tunnels onto quieter alternatives. I made a mistake of stopping for lunch too early.  I should have hung on for the good looking spa town of San Pellegrino.  After that the scenery is not so appealing and it feels more like a commuter run for the last miles into Bergamo itself.

I arrived early at the airport, repacked my bike and returned to Manchester without any issue.


Last thoughts

This was a very beautiful trip. With the exception of Wednesday, the weather was mostly dry during the day.  Despite this, the rain during the evening and the ever present threats of thunderstorms did take the edge off the trip.  I was often thinking that I might get soaked and the denial of the chance to drink and eat outdoors, which is one of the treats of European travel, affected the tour.  I would, however, certainly recommend the area and most of the rides and places I stayed.

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