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Alpine Escape: Green dreams in Central Lombardy

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12 Sep 2018
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

Blessed with blazing green mountains, languid olive groves and silvery rivers which meander through its fertile valleys like strings of spaghetti, Lombardy is rich in natural beauty.

But as the industrial heartland of Italy, it is also dotted with striking monuments, from the famous red San Michele bridge of Paderno to the Unesco-protected old factory town of Crespi d’Adda.

This captivating blend of verdant scenery and industrial archaeology is evident wherever you pedal along the paved bike paths that roam across the region, offering traffic-free cycling adventures and easy access to spectacular Italian climbs.

Lombardy enjoys a rich cycling heritage. The great Italian cyclist Felice Gimondi, who won the Tour de France in 1965, the Giro d’Italia in 1967, 1969 and 1976, and the Vuelta a Espana in 1968, was born in Sedrina, just north of Bergamo and a 162km gran fondo bearing his name takes place here every year.

Iconic bike marque Bianchi – which has associations with Grand Tour-winning champions Fausto Coppi, Marco Pantani and Mario Cipollini – has its headquarters (painted in the brand’s famous celeste colourway) just outside the city.

And the Giro di Lombardia, the fifth of cycling’s five Monuments, takes place around Lake Como every October.

In a nod to Lombardy’s industrial heritage I start my ride in Crespi d’Adda, an atmospheric former ‘company town’ of factories, houses, schools, theatres and churches that was developed by 19th century textile manufacturer Cristoforo Crespi to house his cotton workers and their families.

Accompanied by knowledgeable local guide Paolo Puglioli of Emotion Bike, I ride past factory chimneys and pastel-coloured houses before following the bike path north along the Adda River, a tributary of the River Po.

Lombardy is meshed with waterways which link its rivers and lakes and these form the skeleton of its cycle path network.

We pass villages of lemon-coloured houses, before arriving at the imposing red San Michele bridge near Paderno d’Adda. Built between 1887 and 1889, in the same era and lattice style as the Eiffel Tower, the 266m-long bridge is regarded as a symbol of Italian industrial achievement.

It is made from 2,500 tonnes of iron and held together by 100,000 nails. As we ride beneath it, trains and cars pass across high above. In the distance we can see the plump hills east of Bergamo, a visual reminder of the vertical adventures we’ll be enjoying later in the day.

The radiant landscape appears almost tropical in the fierce sunlight. The region enjoys healthy rainfall all year which triggers an explosion of dazzling forests and colourful foliage, as if the view is being beamed to our eyes in ultra-high definition.

After darting through this sun-drenched scenery, we get a surprise boost at Imbersago, crossing the River Adda on a water-powered wooden ferry inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, before diverting east to Bergamo.

On arriving in the city we ride along the city’s 16th century Venetian walls, which extend for 6km over arched gates and around a labyrinth of ancient streets. From up here we enjoy extraordinary views of the lower town - a sprawl of white buildings and terracotta roofs spreading out into the distance.

Bergamo is a city of baroque architecture, bustling bakeries and sunny piazzas - and the perfect stop for lunch. The region is famous for its hearty cuisine, including polenta served with game or stew, and casoncelli alla bergamasca – pasta stuffed with succulent meat and smothered in a sloppy butter and sage sauce.

From Bergamo it is possible to continue along the bike path for a leisurely spin past villages, vineyards and olive groves to the town of Sarnico by Lake Iseo, where you can finish your 83km ride with a refreshing swim in the cool water.

But it is easy to adapt and upgrade your ride at any point, whether you want to add on a trip north to the thermal pools of Terme San Pellegrino (home of the famous Italian mineral water), or a diversion south to the Italian Renaissance castle of Malpaga, before rejoining the bike path.

We are keen to inject this ride with some altitude, so we sweep north to take on the climbs of Colle del Gallo and Colli San Fermo for a longer 108km journey.

We pass houses the colour of dried apricots and pristine white chapels, Italian flags rippling in the hot, thick air. The 436m ascent of the Colle del Gallo is short but challenging, especially in the fierce sunshine.

At the top we discover the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Cyclists, where every year local riders complete a candlelit vigil with bikes to receive a blessing from the spirit of the Madonna of Colle Gallo.

From up here we can see Lake Endine sparkling like a gemstone in the valley below, and towns of red-roofed houses clustered in the thick folds of the mountains.

We continue through buzzing meadows and sleepy villages to the twisting 1064m Colli San Fermo. To reach the top we battle up layer after layer of hairpin bends but we are soon high enough to see the shadows of clouds dance across the vast, green landscape which unfurls like a patchwork quilt beneath us.

A paraglider slices through the sky above. Despite the sweat and the pain, it is a spectacularly scenic detour for those who have the energy.

We arrow down the mountain to rejoin the bike path at Sarnico on the banks of Lake Iseo, passing art nouveau villas on our way onto a wooden jetty that protrudes onto the glittering surface of the lake.

Italian architectural endeavour has created some striking sights on our ride, from the red iron bridge of Paderno d’Adda to the elegant Venetian walls of Bergamo, which are a UNESCO official site as of July 2017, but the view of Lake Iseo in the late afternoon sunshine is a visual treasure only nature could serve up.

The route: Natural wonders

Exploring Lombardy's rich array of visual treasures

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/alpine3. A dedicated bike path takes you north from Crespi d’Adda to Imbersago, from where you can cross the River Adda and head east to Bergamo.

After leaving Bergamo you can follow the bike path east all the way to Sarnico for an 83km ride, or tag on the two climbs to Colle del Gallo and Colli di San Fermo for a more challenging 108km adventure as per the route link provided above.

How to get there

Travel

Ryanair have return flights from London Stansted, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, Manchester and Glasgow to Milan Bergamo. From the airport – which is also known as Il Caravaggio or Orio al Serio – it’s a 6km, 12-minute taxi transfer or a short bus ride to the city centre in Bergamo.

The journey from Bergamo to the bike path in Crespi d’Adda, which marks the start of this route, is around 20km.

Where to stay

We stayed at Best Western Hotel Piemontese (hotelpiemontese.com; +39 035 242629), a hotel in central Bergamo close to a bus stop with regular services to and from the airport.

The hotel has a locked terrace where you can store your bike, an on-site restaurant serving pizza and pasta, and a good breakfast buffet.

More info

Details on cycling in the Lombardy and Bergamo area can be found on the regional tourism websites in-lombardia.it/en and visitbergamo.net.

Maps of the bike path network can be found (in Italian) at lombardia.movimentolento.it/it/ but there are also supplementary resources available at italy-cycling-guide.info, as well as piste-ciclabili.com/regione-lombardia.

Bike tours and pick-up services can be booked through Paolo at Emotion Bike (emotionbike.eu; +39 3479662900).