Koper, Slovenia: It took two full days to descend from the Alps, but yesterday I finally reached the sea — and finally exited the Alps. For the next several weeks I will be cycling along the Adriatic’s beautiful shores.
My Alpine descent began just above the Italian resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, where I had a classically steep and adrenaline-loaded Alpine experience, hugging narrow switchback roads as I zig-zagged down the mountain into Cortina. I had another such adrenaline-charged technical descent coming off Mauria Pass the following day — this time in the cold rain. Gradually the mountains tapered, the ground leveled, and the valleys widened until I could see nothing on the horizon except sky.
Yesterday I rode for a while with another touring cyclist from Vienna. We compared route plans and tactics as we pedaled, and he suggested I visit the Italian island resort of Grado. Visiting Grado would add about 40 extra kilometers to my route, but it seemed like a good plan and so on the spot I decided to head to Grado, without knowing exactly how to get there. In case there’s any doubt, I really am making up the route as I go. In the city of Udine I waved down a cyclist pedaling in the opposite direction (“scussi, scussi,” I hollered across the road). He stopped, he knew the local roads, and he spoke good English. Pronto; instant navigation. With the directions he scribbled on a piece of paper on the “dashboard” of my bike I headed to Grado. Navigating in Italy has been very straight-forward, and I haven’t relied on GPS once.
Grado is an island resort popular with Germans. The photogenic historic town is a tree-lined pedestrian area with plenty of public space for eating gelato, sipping espresso in a cafe, or just watching the world go by. It is an average beach but oozes unmistakable Italian style. There are a few canals on the island which lend some stretched comparisons to Venice. It remains an active fishing community, which means the delicious grilled squid I had for dinner was very fresh.
This morning, in checking out of the Hotel Eden, I had a disagreement with the owner over the room rate. Almost all my hotel rate negotiations are verbal; the smaller hotels don’t believe in much of any paperwork, except for noting my passport details. The issue was a 30 Euro discrepancy, and that led to quite an animated conversation between an over-caffeinated American and an indigenous Italian. Once we both calmed down it seems there was no disagreement after all; something just got lost in translation. He gave me a good bottle of red wine to make amends (I was tempted to toss the sleeping bag and keep the wine, but I had to decline). He then gave me his card and said to call if I ever need any help in Italy. Italy charms yet again.
Italy has treated me very kindly during my short jaunt here, but this afternoon I said arrivederci, but not before stopping in the city of Trieste for one last Italian meal. I had a deja vu moment when cycling by the main square in Trieste, which looks out to the sea. The square reminded me very much of the Praca de Commercio in Lisbon, where this bike ride began on June 5. I then spent a good hour trying to find a ridable road to Slovenia; all the signposts pointed to the off-limits highway. Eventually I got around the busy port and industrial area (which was quiet on this Saturday) to reconnect with the coastal road that winds its way to Slovenia. Earlier today a cyclist stopped me to chat. He spoke only Italian but I got one nugget of information that became invaluable as I navigated my way out of Italy: the italian word for Koper is Capodostria.
I noticed the subtle differences immediately when crossing another almost invisible border: in Slovenia the roads have far more potholes and much less traffic; the cars are older; there’s a different color-coded system of sign postings, which was very confusing to this cyclist who had just gotten the hang of the Italian system; and the houses and buildings seem less well maintained, which is ironic because I never think of Italy as being well-maintained. On the positive side, Slovenia has good internet. I entered Koper, Slovenia’s oldest city, on a bike path parallel to the highway.
In crossing the border into Slovenia, I have left Western for Eastern Europe, though the cartographers, economists, and politicians would probably disagree. Slovenia is a former Yugoslav state but is now part of the Euro zone. With just 20 kilometers into Slovenia I am slowly adjusting to the new normal of cycling in Eastern Europe, including the techno music blaring from the outdoor club next to my hotel. It may be a long night.
Days 50 – 51: Villa Santina, Italy – Grado, Italy – Koper, Slovenia
Distance: 116.49 km (Day 50) and 90.69 km (day 51)
Ascent: 144 meters (Day 50) and 275 meters (Day 51)
Weather: Hot (30+ degrees centrigrade) mediterranean sunshine, but it makes the gelato taste so good!
TransEuropa 2011 Trip Summary:
Distance: 3,761.48 kilometers
Ascent: 26,772 meters
Countries: 9: Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, Germany, Italy, Slovenia
Incidents: 2: flat tire on Day 45; police reprimand on Day 2