Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc: Part 2

For only the second time this trip it was time for Andy and I to split up for a few days. Andy kept walking around Mont Blanc while I gallivanted off to Switzerland to hang out in Geneva.

Andy’s experience

That’s right folks, yet again Andy was flying solo…along with four other hikers (Hank, Parker, Hannah and Rowan for those who need a wee reminder). We left Refuge Robert Blanc after a fairly standard European breakfast (slightly sad bits of bread with butter, jam and plenty of coffee). After saying farewell to Brittany, we set off toward the Col de la Seigne which marks the border between France and Italy. The route towards the Col skirts beneath the ‘Glacier des Glaciers’, affording fantastic views of both the glacier face and the down the Tarentaise Valley.

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The Big Climb: Cycling over the Col du Mont Cenis

This was it, the big day. I think I had built it up as this huge event in my mind, while Andy was just excited about the challenge. Our plans to leave super early sort of worked out and we set off at 8:30am. The weather was looking a little bit ominous with thick clouds around the surrounding peaks. It would be sad to put in all the effort without getting any of the views but it was too late to change our plans now. On the plus side, the temperatures were very moderate for the first time in many weeks.

Ironically, due to our choice of accommodation, we hit the steepest section of road for the whole day as soon as we got on our bikes. Giaglione is one steep village and I was pushing a few times up until we joined back onto the state highway.

Ominous looking clouds as we leave Giaglione

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Ciclostrada Val di Susa

Our home in Turin was a one bedroom apartment organised through Airbnb (and paid for out of the leaving gift my former work colleagues gave me – thanks team!) It was a really nice apartment and super good value, costing us about the same as a hostel would have. Unfortunately it was super hot and not air-conditioned. Neither of us slept particularly well while we stayed.

Square in Turin

Once again our trip enjoyment was plagued by logistical planning. To be fair, once again having bicycles was causing us headaches. Bicycles are great when you want to cycle but they can be a real pain when you want to travel by other means. This time it was our connection from Modane in the east of France where we were meeting my mum to Bordeaux in the west where we were meeting Andy’s parents. There was a high-speed TGV train (via Paris, not kidding) but it was €300 which seemed like a lot of money, especially when Andy described it as over half the cost of one of our bikes. It felt like we investigated every possible option, from either Modane or the nearish big city of Lyon. Flixbus once again let us down with no bike carriers on the Lyon-Bordeaux route. We investigated taking a series of local trains like we had in Germany but this didn’t seem so easy in France and wasn’t necessarily that cheap. There is a low-cost alternative to the TGV but bikes need to be in bags. We thought about cycling part of the way but we didn’t have enough time to make this work. The endless discussion and research of options was creating a lot of angst.

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Cycling from Pavia to Turin three ways

The Italian ‘Vento’ cycle route runs in part from Pavia to Turin, roughly following the Po River. However this route is a little bit theoretical, some planning and feasibility studies have been done but it is by no means a completed route in this section. Other parts of the Vento cycle route are more developed and the whole thing is part of Eurovelo 8, one of Europes long-distance cycle routes. There is no signage on the ground but there is a map of the planned route available online so we figured we’d still be able to follow it.

The distance from Pavia to Turin was about 210km so we decided to spread it over three days.

Italian countryside

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Milan dah-ling

From Como we decided it was too hard to bike to Milan. It was only about 65km from Como township but we would have had to either bike around the lake (busy and narrow road, I called veto) or catch a two hour ferry from Menaggio to Como which didn’t leave us a whole lot of time to cycle. Plus it was still really hot (mid 30s): we were feeling lazy.

Instead we caught the ferry to Varenna and the train to Milan. It was a bit of a challenge getting our bikes on the train, we bought bike tickets easy enough but our specific train didn’t seem to have a bicycle-friendly carriage. We just kind of had to squeeze them in around all the people. No one seemed fazed by this though, Italians seem pretty laid back about bicycles.

We spent the afternoon in Milan, leaving all our bags in a handy but kind of expensive (€13 for five hours) luggage storage locker near the station. I had contacted my cousin Matt for tips since he had lived in Milan for a year and he had come back with a whole heap of suggestions which was great. In the end we only managed to visit a few things in the short time we had.

Milan Duomo

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Menaggio, Lake Como

I have a huge problem with expectation management. I usually enjoy things much more if they are unexpectedly good. If I go into something expecting it to be really great based on my own ideas or someone else’s recommendation I almost always end up disappointed. So although I had returned to the Menaggio Hostel because I had enjoyed it so much, I sort of went in expecting to be disappointed because I knew my expectations were too high.

The first time I had enjoyed it so much because I had arrived on my second ever day of solo backpacking, I met a really cool group of people and went canyoning, hiking and out to eat really great food during my three night stay. One of my favourite hostel experiences.

View of Menaggio

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A second visit to the patron saint of cycling

In 2014 I went on a holiday to Europe which included cycle touring in Italy. I started out in the area around Lake Como and stayed at a really awesome hostel in the town of Menaggio. From here I undertook my first big cycle climb with panniers up to visit the church of the patron saint of cycling, Madonna del Ghisallo. A ‘pilgrimage’ seemed like an appropriate start to my first ever cycle tour.

Three years later I was keen to return to Lake Como to show Andy since I had enjoyed the area so much. Andy isn’t into pilgrimages but was keen for the climb up to the church for the bike ride if nothing else.

We caught the bus from Zurich to the town of Como and that first evening aimed for a campsite only about 10km away. That seemed pretty achievable even with an arrival time into Como of 6:30pm since it was going to be light until 9 or 10 pm. Unfortunately we hadn’t counted on the elevation gain of 200m.

Italian village

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Biking over Stelvio Pass

Stelvio Pass. Passo dello Stelvio. 2758m. 75 zig zags.

But the hostel owner in Menaggio had told me I would be fine. No worries mate, she’ll be right.

Start of Stelvio Pass

Beginning the climb up to Stelvio Pass from Bormio

It wasn’t until the day before that I started researching what was actually involved. Around 1500m of climbing over 22km. I had climbed about 700m up to the church of the patron saint of cycling. But all of the Stelvio Pass stories online were from hard-core road cyclists in full lycra talking about how hard it was. Uh oh.

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The Sentiero Valtellina

I had the best time at Menaggio Youth Hostel – La Primula. A group of us went canyoning with Alberto from Lake Como Adventures which was awesome (and we even made it into one of his website’s photos!). I went for a walk up to Refugio Menaggio with an Australian backpacker. And every night the hostel put on a delicious (and cheap) meal and we all hung around outside drinking house wine and chatting with other backpackers. Highly recommended. My only regret is that I somehow never went swimming in the lake, I’ll have to go back.

Refugio Menaggio

Refugio Menaggio

But enough of the sales pitch. I spent a bit of time at the hostel trying to work out where to go next. Eventually I worked out – based on a lot of searching of the Italy Cycling Guide website – that there was an off-road cycle route from Lake Como to the east, the Sentiero Valtellina. This almost joins up to another off-road cycle route coming down from Austria – the Via Claudia Augusta. The only problem was Stelvio Pass in the middle. I discussed this with the hostel owner who assured me that I would be fine cycling over the pass. No problem. Just a casual 2,700m pass. Oh well, I figured as a backup I could always catch a shuttle across.

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A visit to the patron saint of cycling

Lake Como is a common destination for cycling-inclined travellers. There are many day rides and you could easily base yourself there for a week and explore. One of the popular climbs is up to the church of Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling. At the start of my cycle tour it felt very appropriate to make the climb.

Bike on the boat to Bellagio

En route from Como to Bellagio with a fully loaded bike

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Arrival into Italy

I successfully transported my bike on the train from Chamonix to Zurich to visit some family friends. A few days before I was due to leave I still hadn’t confirmed my cycle route. One main cycle route from Switzerland into Italy seemed to be over St Gotthard Pass. The prospect of a lot of traffic on the road scared me off. On the advice of my Swiss friends I decided to catch trains all the way to the town of Chiasso on the Swiss side of the border.

Swiss train tickets

It took three train connections to get to Chiasso

On arrival in Chiasso it suddenly struck me that I was now a solo traveller. I was all alone. What I had dreamed of doing for so long suddenly seemed very intimidating. Oh well, there was only one thing for it. Time to find lunch.

I picked a restaurant and was immediately struck by a practical difficulty of travelling solo with a bike. I sat at an outdoor table in the restaurant to watch over my bike. But then I needed to go toilet. How inappropriate is it to take pannier bags into a restaurant’s toilets? Deciding that this was going too far, I attempted to mime to the waitress that I wanted her to watch over my bike and made a dash for it. In the early stages of my trip I was constantly terrified of my bike being stolen in a situation like this but on reflection it was pretty unlikely in a busy restaurant.

After lunch it was time to head to Italy! I was pretty excited about crossing an international border by bike. It turned out to be a bit of a non-event, the officials just waved me through. The road into Italy was a bit scary but the traffic wasn’t too bad and I cruised down the hill into Como.

Border crossing between Switzerland and Italy

Cycling across the border into Italy

On arrival into Como I cycled around the waterfront and into town. Spotting a Vodafone shop I went in and bought an Italian SIM card with €20 prepaid. It took about 15 minutes and the entire time I was anxiously glancing at my bike out the front of the shop. Again, my bike didn’t disappear and I was newly equipped with mobile internet. Google Maps here I come!

I had booked into the YHA hostel in Como and spent the first night with a group of other backpackers standing by the lake eavesdropping on a random concert. Maybe travelling by myself wasn’t so scary after all.