2023 Italy & Switzerland Cycling Adventure

Contributor: Barry Ridout

Man posing with his loaded touring bicycle in a busy city center marketIn August 2023. I started my 10-day European cycling adventure in Bergamo, northeast of Milan, Italy. The aim was to do a loop east from Bergamo, around Lake Garda, head north through the Trento Valley to the Alps, climb Stelvio Pass and get to Bormio by day 5. From there, I head southwest through Italy and Switzerland via Lakes Como and Lugano and finish at Lake Maggiore.

After 4 days of enjoying the Italian food, wine, and beer in Milan, I unpacked and assembled the trusty old travel road bike (with about 60,000 kilometers on the clock) in the hotel car park. Loaded all my gear on the bike, rode around exploring some sights of Milan, then to the central station and boarded a local train to Bergamo.

Cycling in Europe again, I recall my motto of “Keep right – Keep it upright – keep your eyes open” every time I get on the bike, to avoid, well, minimize the times you end up on the wrong side of the road.????

Man sitting at a patio table in front of a beautiful lakeI headed east from Bergamo to the first of the stunning Northern Italian lakes I had planned to visit, Lake Iseo. I stopped at a lakeside café for a panini and coffee. Such a refreshing stop, as Italy was currently in a heatwave, even up north, it’s extremely hot and the Garmin had already hit 38°C in mid-afternoon. I rode up the west coast of the lake which was quite spectacular. Later that night, I stayed at Pian Camuno, on the northern end of Lake Iseo. Stopped at the local bar in the small village while consuming a few…actually, quite a few well-deserved local draught beers. Stayed with a lovely local Italian host Amy and her family (this was my first stay with Warmshowers). I enjoyed their traditional food, wine, and hospitality.

Next morning, riding down the east coast of the lake, I stop for the first of many coffees for the day in a small town on the water, drinking espressos, and trying to speak Italian with a few locals. Heading east again until I came across Lake Garda, I stopped at the popular Scaliger Castle. Lots of European tourists around the lake. I then headed north up the coast of this massive lake. Again, on this day, the Garmin has just reached 40°C. What’s worse is that the heat is at its highest mid-afternoon when you’re smashed and with an additional 10-12 kilograms of weight on the bike/backpack. It’s a killer. I stayed with another Warmshowers host, Maria, the interesting mountain climbing woman who let me have the whole apartment to myself, what a treat at Veronese, Lake Garda.

Starting day 3, even after all the training/climbing in Australia prior to the trip, the first 2 days of cycling were hard work. My legs are feeling a bit stronger/fresher today and I’m starting to feel a bit more confident than I can make it to the top of Stelvio in a few days, with the additional weight on the bike.

I followed the fantastic cycle path up the Trento Valley, and it’s as good as a regular road, but without all the mad car drivers ????. Actually, I have found the local drivers to be very courteous and understanding. It feels a lot safer cycling on the road over here, compared to many other countries I’ve ridden in. It’s a beautiful valley by the river all day with grapes and apple tree orchards in abundance…stunning scenery. I stopped along the way and had a look at the spectacular cliff Face Chapel, at Monte Baldo, just staggering how they built such quality, architecturally ornate buildings on the side of a cliff!!!

I got to Mezzocorona late in the afternoon, where I savored a few more beautiful cold beers in a local bar while doing the important things like downloading on Strava, finding accommodation etc. typical ritual at the end of the day’s ride.

On day 4, the first thing I needed was a coffee and across the street is a great little café with about 8 old men (yes, older than me) drinking their shot and smoking, a young mum with her 2 little kids, and a couple of mangy looking dogs. I park the bike, plonk myself at a table under a shady tree, and blend in with the locals.

Another day, getting closer to the Alps region, it’s hard not to want to stop off every 5 minutes and keep taking photos of this stunning scenery. I’m only about 2 kilometers from the Swiss border and start to head east in a valley along the base of the Alps. The scenery is looking a lot more like Switzerland now, with numerous beautiful Swiss style chalets between the villages. The local “Northern Italians” as they like to reiterate, are very friendly and love to have a chat, as I gobble down the best bruschetta I’ve ever tasted with a coffee for lunch. I stayed at Hotel Golden Rose, or more appropriately, the Golden Pose because it was ridiculously expensive and upmarket, in Silandro at night.

Picture of a zig zagging road on the side of a steep mountain.Well, it’s day 5 and it was the day I aimed to climb Stelvio. At least I made it this far! To be honest, I’m not totally confident I’ll even make it…as I selected the hardest but most spectacular of the 3 possible climbs (Stelvio Pass route from South-Tyrol -24 kilometers at average of 7.6%) and it’s the only way to get through the Alps to Bormio. It was a massive day and certainly one of the toughest rides I have ever completed, with the heat and additional weight compounding it.

The first 10 kilometers average about 5.5%, but the next 14 kilometers average about 9%, relentlessly. Playing mind games all the way, as the hours roll by, you’re trying to convince yourself that this is the new benchmark and it’s not hurting!!

The road up to the summit was very busy all day with motorcycles, bikes, cars, etc. and this was on a weekday! I couldn’t believe how busy it was at the top, like a small village and people everywhere, along with souvenir stalls, etc.

After a long break and soaking it all in, the 17 kilometer descent into Bormio was fantastic. I stayed at the snow ski resort, the Hotel Alù in Bormio. Eating like a horse, I just couldn’t stop consuming food, and drink, no matter how much I ate, I couldn’t seem to fill up.

The next day was a rest day in Bormio, and I really needed it as I was feeling a bit depleted after the previous 5 days of cycling in the persistent heat. On an average day cycling, I’m drinking up to 10 water bottles, a couple of coffees, even Coke, etc. Bormio is a beautiful alpine/cycling village, very upmarket. I  got my haircut with a local personality named Tony, then chilled around town exploring.

Man posing with a loaded touring bicycle in front of a road sign in Italy.Started heading south from Bormio on day 6 of cycling, Yeah, downhill for the first 30 kilometers. I detoured up from the valley along the Bernina pass from Tirano climb and crossed into Le Perese, Switzerland, for morning coffee at this stunning little café by the lake. Headed off to Morbegno and another Warmshowers host, Juha (the Viking from Finland) for the night, who cooked up some very tasty pasta and I washed it down with a local white wine.

More heat, drinking, cycling, eating, soaking up the scenery on day 7 as I headed east along the valley, riding around the northern coast of Lake Como. At Menaggio, I climbed the Croce from Menaggio on route, through to Lake Lugano, riding the perimeter of this stunning lake. I arrived at Marchirolo late in the day at the amazing 15th century manor house of Alessandra, tonight’s Warmshowers host. She told me a brief history of the fascinating old historic house which has been owned by her family since the 1600s, about 400 odd years!! Not far behind the house in this small village, was an even older massive abandoned monastery, which she explained that the authorities just don’t have the finances to reclaim/renovate these old buildings. There are just so many of them. This village called Marchirolo will probably become a major tourist attraction in years to come (hopefully not too soon) as more money and tourists start to discover it.

Man riding a touring bicycle on a town road in ItalyEarly coffee as I head down out of the mountains to the waters of Lake Maggiore, stopping at the first village café with about 8 old local guys that looked like they had never seen a tourist before, let alone someone their age riding a bike in Lycra ????????. A lovely old woman that was a bit rough around the edges, came and sat at my table and lit up a smoke. She offered me one, dear old thing. She couldn’t believe I didn’t smoke!!! Cruisy day riding past lake Varese, the amount of road bikes, beautiful Italian bikes with all types of riders I have seen on the whole trip was amazing. I was constantly passing other bikes all day…it was fantastic.

I arrived at Sesto Calende, at the south end of Lake Maggiore that night. That was the finish of day 8 and where the main ride ended.

It was an epic solo journey that I will cherish forever.

Ride details were (stats from Strava):

  • Approximately 830 kilometers
  • 8,000 meters climbing
  • Approximately 12 kilograms of gear on the bike/backpack