The Ideal Day in Italy
If you asked the Gods of Cycling to put together a perfect day, in a perfect place, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with anything better than a home-base in Como… a ride up the Ghisallo… and a dinner to die for. It’s all part of the perfect Italian package.
[Pez Sez: Can we pull one more story out of Bob’s Giro di Lombardia weekend? You bet we can – because when the riding is this good, there’s just so many good stories…]
There’s a scene in the movie “Field of Dreams” where the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson turns to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and says, “Is this heaven?”
“No,” replies Kinsella, “It’s Iowa.”
I had that same exact feeling when I first ventured to Lake Como. Is this heaven? No, it’s Italy…!
You’ve probably seen the books, telling you about all the things you should do before you die. If your passion is cycling, let me help you put together a day you will probably never forget.
Como is a one-hour train ride north of Milan. The town sits at the southern-most end of Lake Como, not far from the Swiss border. I’d booked a room at the Palace Hotel (www.palacehotel.it), a converted royal palace that looks directly out on the lake. The rooms are a bit small, but very clean, and after you load-on on the limitless buffet breakfast, it’s time to head to the bike shop.
The Palace Hotel. A great home-base in Como.
There is one really exceptional shop in town. Como Bike (www.comobike.it), is a little more than a mile south of the lake, but it’s worth the walk. These guys have all the trick gear and clothes in stock, and it’s a great place to rent a road bike. Just remember to bring your own shoes and pedals and helmet. Brent and Elena speak English, but if they’re not around, Fabio can help you, too. His English is a bit limited, but he seemed to understand my grunts and hand-gestures. Fabio set me up with a nice Bianchi alloy frame, nine-speed Campagnolo groupo and directions on how to find Bellagio, and from there, on to the epic climb up to the Madonna del Ghisallo.
The ride from Como to Bellagio is pretty straight-forward…just follow the road along the eastern side of the lake. It may be easy to follow, but it’s far from boring. The route rolls along for about 20 miles, over a few climbs up rolling hills, and through a series of tunnels along the way. Little post-card towns like Necco and Lezzeno cling to the shoreline, and it’s easy to get seduced by all of this beauty. But this is just the beginning of the ride.
On the road from Como to Bellagio, every scene is like a postcard.
Near the 20-mile mark, the road drops into Bellagio. And no, this is nothing like the place in Las Vegas of the same name. [Ed Note: But it’s easy to see how ‘Vegas decided they could ‘sell’ this to millions of touristicos.] This Bellagio is lakeside enclave of high-end hotels, coffee shops and bars. It’s also the start of the climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo.
Bellagio sits at about 700 feet above sea level, and to find the route of the Ghisallo, just look for the signs that point to Erba (thanks to my friend Marvin Zauderer for telling me this before I left California!). It’s a bit confusing at first, but if you stay on the road to Erba, you’re going the right way.
The GPS read-out from Bob’s bike computer. The first big spike is the Ghisallo, the second is the Civiglio.
You know you’re going the right way when, all of a sudden, the road ahead of you kicks-up to a quad-burning 14% grade…and stays that steep for more than a mile, through a series of eight hairpin turns. You better do your hill work at home before you try to conquer this one…it’s as tough as anything I’ve done in the San Francisco bay area.
The climb up the Ghisallo…it’s a 14% grade for more than a mile!”
At times, I was going as slow as four miles per hour, and in a couple of sections I was convinced that I was going to fall over for lack of speed. But both times, I saved it at the last minute. Italian road-rash might have been something to brag about back home, but it could have really messed-up my day.
You hump it along for uphill for nearly five miles, without any real breaks. It’s not 14% all the way, but the grade rarely drops down into single digits. The really cool part of this ride…I did it the day before the Giro di Lombardia, and all along the route, there were pink course marking sings, telling me that I was on the same road that the pros would ride the following day. How cool is that?
The Ghisallo route follows the same road as the Giro di Lombardia.
Near the top of that five-mile climb, I had one of those “there’s no way we’re in Italy” moments. I’d stopped beside a road sign, intending to take a photo to document my position. I looked up ahead, and saw another cyclist coming down the road toward me. As he got closer, he must have spied my Pez outfit, because he yelled, “Hey, are you the Pez guy?” Well, not exactly, I told him. I’m A Pez guy, but I’m not THE Pez guy. It turns out that his name is Dusty Adams. He lives near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but he’s originally from Texas. And, get this…last year, he entered an online contest on Pez, and Dusty was the big winner of a Kuota carbon frame and fork!
So, since he was already a big Pez fan, I asked Dusty for two things…first, I asked him how far it was from here to the top of the Ghisallo: “Well,” he said, “you’re about three-and-a-half-k from the top. You’re fixin’ to hit the easy part. You have this little easy part first, and then when you hit the next set of switchbacks, you go up until you see the banners. You can’t miss it because there’s a banner right at the top!”
The second favor? …can you shoot a photo of me to prove to the Pez peeps that I was really here? He gladly obliged, then we shook hands and went our separate ways. He headed down the hill…I continued my climb up the Ghisallo.
The full-on kit is a magnet for PEZ-Fans. Thanks to Dusty Adams for the shout-out and taking the photo!
Dusty was right…this half-mile or so was a whole lot easier than the first five miles. After the hill leveled out a bit, it hit a screaming…and I mean screaming…downhill, which ends as you roll into Civenna. You’ve got to stop here, just to take in the scenery. These are views that I’d sell my mother to the Taliban for!
Another picture-postcard, near the top of the Ghisallo.
But this is also where the fun stops. The road kicks up again for a little more than a mile, reaching grades of 12% through a series of six switchbacks. But honestly, by this time you know you’re near the top, and the suffering will be ending soon, so it’s really not that bad. At least not at this speed. Imagine the pros, trying to race up this same climb. That’s suffering!
As you crest the hill at nearly 2,500 feet above sea level, it all comes into view. The tiny, venerated church of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the holy shrine of cycling, is on your left. Just past the church is the brand-new Museo de Ciclismo (the Museum of Cycling), and in the distance, you can see the Alps rising from the far shores of Lake Como. It is truly breathtaking.
A statue of Italian cycling legend Fausto Coppi guards the Church of the Madonna del Ghisallo.”
Scattered around the grounds are all kinds of cyclists, on all kinds of different machines, from various countries, and all age groups. In their own way, each has made his or her own pilgrimage to this spot. They all want to soak it in, on this picture-perfect Italian day. Cameras are passed around, so everyone can get the obligatory shot of themself at the Ghisallo. They will all go home to tell the story of the day they climbed the mountain.
The treasured keepsake…your photo in front of the Madonna del Ghisallo.
But this day is far from over. After the world’s best scenic rest stop, it’s time to head back to Como via the south side of the Ghisallo. You fly…I mean really fly…down the hill toward Asso, then as the road flattens-out near Canzo, you hang a right and head toward Como.
But first, there’s this thing called “the Civiglio”…huh? What’s that? Well, this is a little insult on the Giro di Lombardia course that no one warned me about. On the outskirts of Civiglio, the route takes an abrupt right, and starts to climb…again. It’s a steady 11-12% for nearly two miles, but once over the top, it really gets tricky. In just over three miles, you descend nearly 1,400 feet…and it’s all hairy hairpins and serious switchbacks. It was on this part of the course that Paulo Bettini would make his winning move in the Giro, but he almost paid dearly for the vistory. Bettini would just skim the guard rails on his left as he cut the corners, and he’d very nearly put a wheel into the ditch on the right again and again! Somehow, he managed to both save it, and go fast at the same time. For me, it was a white-knuckle downhill dive toward Como.
A salute honoring the fallen Italian rider. Thankfully, there were no falls on this ride up and down the Ghisallo.
But once I was safely on the outskirts of Como, I was both saddened that this ride had ended, and elated at having had such a memorable experience. Lucky for me it still wasn’t over.
The perfect way to end a perfect day in Italy is with the ultimate dinner. My friends Marco and Fabio own a great Italian restaurant in Petaluma, California named Risibi (www.risibisirestaurant.com). When these two guys from Trieste found out that I was going to Como, they told me that I absolutely had to have dinner at a place called Navedano (www.ristorantenavedano.it). When it comes to food, I’m not one to doubt Marco and Fabio’s judgment, so when fellow PEZ-Man Alessandro Federico arrived in Como that evening, I’d already made reservations for the two of us at Navedano.
Navedano is a little over a mile southeast of central Como, away from both the tourist crowds and city hassles. On the way to the place, I knew we were headed for something special. How did I know? Where else do you see official-looking road signs pointing the way to a restaurant? Signs for a roadway or government building, OK…but I’d never seen any thing like this.
In Como, all signs point toward Trattoria Navedano.
It was nearly 9:00pm when Alessandro and I finally arrived at Navedano. Owner Lella Casartelli greeted us at the door, and escorted us to a our table. The main dining room is not big…it seats maybe 60 people…but everything is done right. From the fresh-cut roses on the tables, to the tuxedo-clad waiters, Navedano is the kind of place you dream about in your Italian cycling fantasies.
Waiters in tuxes, roses on every table…welcome to Trattoria Navedano in Como. Other cues we’re not in Kansas anymore…? – Spot the “alta moda” babe and the cat in the two-tone blue jacket – only in Italy baby!
And the food…ahhh, the food…is amazing. It’s a blend of traditional northern Italian cuisine, with a twist. My first twist? An appetizer of three local wild mushrooms, served with crиme fraiche, and a balsamic reduction. Truly amazing.
My main course was Sicilian shrimp on a bed of Italian vegetables, while Alessandro opted for something that I called “risotto-to-die-for”…traditional risotto, with a dash of truffle oil. I also did my best to sample the local vino rosso, while Alessandro stuck to the mineral water. After all, he was driving…thankfully, I was not.
Alessandro and Bob salute all of us who can only dream of dinner at Navedano. Never mind if Ale looks sleepy – you would be to if you just drove 500 kms. Thanks to Lella Casartelli who actually took the photo.
Aside from the food, the best part of Navedano has to be the people watching…but if you go, try not to stare! Seated right next to us was “DaVinci Code” author Dan Brown. Signora Casartelli told us that Katie Holmes, the future Mrs. Tom Cruise, was in just a few days before, and George Clooney is a regular customer.
Arrivederci, Navedano! Ciao, Como!
We left Navedano both full, and fulfilled. It was the perfecting ending to an unforgettable day. Cycling the roads and hills of the Lake Como region is an experience not to be missed, and when you can top it all off with the finest local Lombardia cuisine, it all adds up to an experience that you’ll talk about for years.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Como.