Food And Wine Bike Tours Visit Italy’s Dolomite Mountain Range

Food And Wine

Food and wine may already be an embedded focus of vacation plans for many travelers. It’s not something to put on a to-do list, pencil in on an itinerary or even think all that much about when traveling. But maybe it should be. Travel companies feature and package food and wine bike tours in sizes that fit just about anyone and in 2013, there are plenty of them.

Discovering and experiencing unique cuisine around the world can make for rich, vivid travel memories. Tasting a wine in the region it was created can make us fans of a label for life.

ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine is a private guide service that creates biking, skiing and hiking adventures with world-class culinary programs. Last year, in Bike Tour Cycles Through Culture, Food In Italy, Gadling shared information about ItaliaOutdoors‘ Summer Chefs On Bikes Tour. That seven-day, June 2012 event took cyclists on one of the former trade routes that distributed spices and goods from the East throughout Western Europe.

This year, ItaliaOutdoors has several bike tours through the Dolomite mountain range in northeast Italy, starting this spring. Each tour is a challenging climb and riding exploration that gets up close and personal with Italy’s rich culinary heritage.

Train Like a Local – May 26 to June 1, 2013
As close to a beginner/intro bike tour as one might get, this one focuses on climbs ranging between 900 and 1700 meters in the foothills of the Dolomites. Train Like a Local prepares cyclists for more challenging climbs in the upper Dolomites and the Alps. Along the way, group members sample regional cuisine and discover local wines unknown beyond the area.
The tour repeats September 1-7, 2013.The Agony and the Ecstasy tour – June 9 to 15, 2013
For more experienced cyclists, this tour brings one of the hardest climbs in northeast Italy. Designed for cyclists who have trained hard and are ready for difficult climbs, this tour features the regions of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia, with stops to sample and savor local delicacies such as prosciutto, homemade gnocchi and grappa.

The Classic Climb tour – July 7 to 13, 2013
Adventure travelers will like that this tour traces a path through the heart of the Dolomites, combining little-known passes with the rigorous bike climbs that have made the region a sought-after destination for cyclists. Experiencing the blend of Italian and Austrian/Germanic cultures that define the region, expert cyclist and mountain guide Vernon McClure and cooking instructor and chef Kathy Bechtel, also an avid biker, will be along for the ride. The tour repeats September 8-4, 2013.

Limiting groups of 12 people or less, ItaliaOutdoors makes daily customization and refinement changes to itineraries, based on participants’ interests, pacing and real-time finds along the way.

ItaliaOutdoors also features private bike tours where a custom trip is planned and your tour is personally led by their owner/expert guides, as we see in this video:




Other sources for cycling tours include the Bike Tour Network, BackRoads and Bike Tours Direct.

[Photo Credit-Flickr user will_cyclist]

“First stop” in the 2012 world cycling events: The Santos Tour Down Under




The annual Santos Tour Down Under, the same race where Lance Armstrong made his comeback, will take place January 15-22, 2012, in Adelaide, Australia. The bike race, which is more than just your average cycling event, is actually the “first stop” on the UCI World Tour, which brings together the world’s most challenging road races.

There are about 500 miles total and 6 stages in the race, each offering a unique landscape for riders. During Stage 1, riders will cycle through the vineyards of the Barossa and into Clare Valley, while Stage 2 journeys through the winding hillside of Adelaide. Stage 3 brings participants to the Fleurieu Peninsula and through the seaside town of Victoria Harbor, with stage 4 traversing through the heart of wine country. This year, Stage 5 brings a new element, as riders will ascend Old Willunga Hill, the most challenging obstacle of the race. And finally, Stage 6 ends the event with a circuit race around Elder Park on the banks of the River Torrens.

Not a professional rider but still want to experience the fun? Participate in The Bupa Challenge Tour, which allows attendees to ride shorter versions of the main race a few hours before the WorldTour professionals as well Ride for a Reason and support Cancer Council SA. You can also experience the race as a bystander with a unique point of view, from a helicopter.

For a taste of what to expect, check out the Santos Tour Down Under promotional video above.

Eating and biking in Italy: The feast of Emilia-Romagna

If aliens had orbited the Earth during the Roman Republic, they would have spied a technological marvel: an arrow-straight highway, 162 miles long, beginning at the Adriatic coast and slicing through the farmland communities south of the Apennines. More than 2,000 years later the Via Emilia still connects the same neatly spaced cities-including the cultural gems of Parma, Modena and Ferrara.

The modernized Via Emilia (SS9 on motoring maps) feels like Italy’s answer to California’s Highway 49. Transecting the region called Emilia-Romagna, it’s a conduit rich with history, linking the past and present. It’s poetic justice that the ancient thoroughfare now hosts the titans of Italy’s automotive industry: Maserati, Ducati, Ferrari and Lamborghini all have factories here. But it also happens that everything I love about Italian cuisine, from pancetta to parmesan, originated along this road.

“Food in Emilia-Romagna is not a joke,” our guide declares as we sit down to our first dinner, in Parma. She’s dead serious. This is where tortellini was created, modeled after the navel of Venus; where the width of a tagliatelli pasta ribbon was decreed to be exactly 1/1,270th the height of Bologna’s Asinelli Tower; where pork rumps are aged in dungeons. And this was where a 19th-century silk merchant named Pellegrino Artusi, abandoning the family trade, created the concept of “Italian cooking.”

Food in Emilia-Romagna is a religion-and to visit is to worship.

[Flickr photo credit: Charles Haynes]

First, a bit of disclosure. Though this is ostensibly a cycling trip, arranged through Colorado-based ExperiencePlus!, we won’t be biking very much. It was never our intention to ride along busy SS9 itself, and heavy spring rains have washed out many of our side routes. Instead, we get around mainly by minibus and consume about 6,000 calories for every 1,000 we burn. Normally, I’d be distraught — but these are very beautiful calories.

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Parma is an ancient city, but it’s so cosmopolitan you know you’ll never catch up. A late afternoon stroll is filled with contrasting impressions: low sunlight illuminating the 13th-century Baptistery, with its weathered walls of pink and white Verona marble; organic cotton jackets and state-of-the-art espresso machines gleaming behind polished shop windows.

Parma was on the old Apennine pilgrimage route during the Middle Ages, and relics of that era remain, like the ceramic bowls mortared into the façade of the Bishop’s Palace, a sign that this was once a good place to get a bowl of soup.

After sundown, the cobbled streets of the old town swell with students and couples. Some huddle in tight groups, while others gather around tables covered with a dozen varieties of pizzas. Nighttime will bring the bar-to-bar pilgrimage that locals call La Movida, literally “the nightlife”-a far more civilized phrase than “pub crawl.”

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The next morning we mount our bikes and set off. A country road carries us past farm fields exploding with red poppies, through small towns clustered beneath broken clouds and vivid blue skies. Scarecrows slouch in the fields, warning the birds away from the cherries. After an hour, we reach our lunch stop: Al Cavallino Blanco, famed for its dried meats.

Countless cured hams come from this region, but the most prized and expensive is culatello: a cut from the center of the pig’s rump (culo). Unlike prosciutto – the dried haunch of the hind leg – culatello is hung in dingy cellars along the foggy banks of the Po river until it is coated in a revolting green mold. This mold sets up a chain reaction that, as with cheese, breaks down the protein chains. In this restaurant’s subterranean vault, an obstacle course of culatellos-some 5,000 in all-droop from the low ceiling. The choicest cuts are marked with small signs, already reserved for their buyers, a highly exclusive club that includes Prince Charles and Armani.

Lunch is a cold cut orgy. We dine on salumi, pancetta, two kinds of prosciutto, warm spalla cotta (cooked pork shoulder), and lardo: pure white fat with a mild, melt-in-your-mouth flavor.

The famed culatello arrives, shaved thin as onion skin and equally translucent. Aged 18 months, it has a powerful, almost fishy taste that requires many goblets of the sparkling red Fortana Rosso to wash away. Pig butt meat, apparently, is where my taste buds draw the line.

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Just west of Modena and slightly south of SS9 lie Reggia-Emilia and Rubiera, famed for their balsamic vinegars. At small factories, the boiled must of the local grapes is aged at least 12 years, and distilled in a series of wooden barrels of ever smaller sizes. It’s a careful, complicated process that Giovanni Cavalli, the passionate vinegar master, must explain five times-but once I understand it, the 80 Euro price tag on a three-ounce bottle makes perfect sense.

Cavalli leads us among the barrels, and offers us samples served in tiny spoons. The aceto balsamico is thick, and the color of molasses, but the taste transcends description. Sweet yet sharp, pungent and woody, it is the most complex and delicious flavor I’ve ever experienced: the world’s most sophisticated candy.

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We awaken the next day to heavy clouds, and race through the rain to a parmesan co-op located halfway between Reggio-Emilia and Modena. Here cheese master Giulliano Lusoli oversees the production of some 20-25 wheels a day, on behalf of the local dairy farmers.

The factory floor is spotless, with a long row of cone-shaped copper vats in which milk is mixed with veal rennet. Heated and stirred, the liquid separates into siero (whey) and cheese, which Lusoli tests by hand until it reaches the perfect texture. It’s then pulled from the vats in cheesecloth slings, placed in molds, and dropped in a tub of brine for a couple of months.

We sample three varieties of parmigiano reggiano, aged 12, 22 and 34 months. Along with age, there’s pedigree: upland and lowland. The difference, Lusoli explains, is diet. While lowland cows eat alfalfa and wheat, the upland cattle (living at about 4,000 feet) dine on a mixture of grasses, wildflowers and herbs. Dribbled with balsamic vinegar, the parmesans are a revelation, with aromas and finishes distinctive as any wine. After dozens of tiny portions, I have eaten about a pound of cheese.

“We’ll ride it off,” our guide assures me.

Someday, maybe; but not in Italy.

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The massive drawbridge of the vast Este family palace, in Ferrara, barely squeaks as scores of families cross the once impenetrable moat. I’m staggered by the thought that a single family ruled most of Emilia-Romagna for 350 years. It’s as if the same family had ruled America’s Eastern seaboard since The Dutch New Netherland colony renamed itself “New York.”

But Ferrara’s most welcoming attraction is found on Via degli Adelardi, an alley just behind the cathedral. Brindisi is the oldest documented bar in the world, providing refreshment as early as 1435. Ancient flagons of port are displayed in one corner, vintage Jack Daniels bottles in another. Musical instruments hang on the walls, along with an autographed photo of Miles Davis-a nod to the musical stylings of owner Frederico, who plays blues harp in a jazz band.

I order a glass of Sangiovese-the “blood of Jove,” a well-loved regional wine-and flip through the Guinness Book of Worlds Records, which Frederico keeps at the bar for skeptics who (like me) initially doubt this humble bar’s pedigree.

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When we do ride, it’s wonderful. Cycling from Faenza to Brisighella we pass rural vineyards and olive groves, and grind up curvy hills lined with wildflowers. Then down we fly, the wind in our hair. Pulling up in Brisighella’s piazza, we’re lured immediately into the local gelateria, where the feisty proprietor claims she’s just made “the best banana gelato in the world.” Banana-it’s got to be good for you, right?

Famous for its spa waters, Brisighella-surrounded by sheltering hills- also produces the region’s best olive oil. We are called into a tasting room to sample several varieties, including Nobil Drupa, the town’s signature product, a costly EVO with the pungent aroma of newly mown grass.

“This oil speaks for us,” expounds Giulliano Manduzzi, who may be the most passionate olive oil artisan in Italy. “It speaks about our people, about our farmers, about our ancient agricultural tradition. This oil is like our flag!” He swells with pride. “We’re very proud to show you this oil from our medieval village.”

Manduzzi’s enthusiasm is contagious. Sipping the oil, I feel like an honored ambassador. I’m tempted to set up a consulate-right next to the gelateria.

* * *

Via Emilia knits all these towns together, giving them a shared history. But on a culinary level, it was one man-born in Forlimpopoli, just south of SS9-who gathered Italy’s flavors and created the very notion of Italian cuisine. Pelligrino Artusi (1820-1911) was a marvelously engaging writer who crisscrossed the Italian Republic during the mid-1800s, collecting hundreds of regional recipes in his venerated Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. As wonderful as the dishes are, it’s Artusi’s commentary that makes the book:

“Life has two principal functions: nourishment and propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity.”

The recently opened Casa Artusi is a state-of-the-art culinary institute that serves as a research center, restaurant and cooking school. As one of our final activities, our group is invited to try our hands making piadina: a simple, round Italian flatbread. Our “laboratory” is an industrial kitchen, where each of us is assigned a chef-tutor. Under their exasperated eyes we mix, pound, roll and fry our little parcels of dough.

This might seem a simple task, but-as is often the case with cooking-it’s the simple things that get you. My result might not have pleased Artusi, but I found it delicious-smothered in a thick preserve made from local figs.

My visit to Italy, like all visits to Italy, is too short. When I return to Emilia-Romagna, I’ll spend more time in the saddle-and much more time at Casa Artusi. Because cooking, I find, is a lot like cycling: No matter where you end up, it’s more satisfying to have arrived there yourself.

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Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. His new book, which was published in October, is Snake Lake. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.

Five hot weekend travel media stories

In today’s round-up of the weekend’s newspaper media travel stories: delicious pork, among other edibles, in the French Basque Country; American summer road trips; the Italian border city of Ventimiglia; biking along the Danube; and a guide to the world’s waterfalls. These five stories inspire fantasies of several types, and hit on less popular spots (like the French Basque Country and Ventimiglia) as well as some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, including Niagara Falls.

1. In the Guardian, Andy Pietrasik goes on a fishing trip in Basque France and gets seriously sidetracked by small-scale local culinary specialties.

2. Also in the Guardian, Jamie Jensen and Max Grinnell offer seven road trip itineraries across the United States. These include a Lake Superior North Shore drive and Highway 61 from Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

3. In the Globe and Mail, Shawna Wagman explores the Italian city of Ventimiglia, which she hilariously refers to as “the Windsor-Detroit corridor of the Riviera.” Wagman is especially taken by Ventimiglia’s Friday open-air market.

4. In South Africa’s Sunday Times, Marilynn Berrington narrates her bike journey with Rad & Reisen from Passau to Vienna.

5. In the Independent, Harriet O’Brien provides a snappy guide to some of the world’s best known waterfalls.

(Image: Flickr/Alberto Mari)

Montreal Musts, to go: Get around by bike

Montreal has to be one of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet – certainly, at least, in North America. There are bike lanes throughout the city, and those using them don’t seem to have the fear found in other major metropolitan areas. Bike lanes are wide and bidirectional, so you don’t need to worry about clipping another rider.

If you want to become part of the cycling scene in Montreal, your first stop should be (obviously) to one of the many stores that rents bikes, unless you’ve brought your own. Prices vary with bike and location, but you shouldn’t have a problem finding the right saddle to carry you around. Also, be sure to rent a helmet. Though I saw quite a few cyclists riding around the city without them, it isn’t a good idea.

For those in need of a quick fix, take a look at the BIXI bikes located all over Montreal. They operate a bit like Zipcars in the United States. Pay with a credit card, and the bike is unlocked from the stand. Ride where you want to ride, and return the bike at the nearest BIXI stand. Your credit card will be charged based on how long you used the bike. This option has become incredibly popular, and it’s not unusual to see an empty BIXI stand (though this will probably become less likely when winter hits).

A nice touch, the BIXIs are environmentally friendly, powered by solar energy.

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When you have your wheels, pedal over to La Maison des Cyclistes, across from Lafontaine Park. Grab some coffee or (smarter) some water in the front, which is a café. Maybe grab a snack for later. Then, at the back of the café, you’ll find a Velo Quebec location. In addition to carrying bicycling accessories, they have maps and information guides on hand to help you plan your route. Feel free to ask for help; Velo Quebec is committed to putting wheels on the road two at a time.

Finally, you’re ready to ride!

Whether you decide to stick to the bike paths or cut your own through Montreal, keep an eye on traffic (it’s always an issue), and follow the rules of the road. If nothing else, this is good cycling etiquette, and it’s something the locals do take seriously. With enough biking space offered, there’s no reason to break the rules. Be sure to take the bike path over by the port; the views are nothing short of spectacular.

Disclosure: Tourisme-Montreal picked up the tab for this trip, but my views are my own.