Biking Through an Italian Heatwave

Sometimes the most disastrous vacation days end up becoming favorite family memories

Setting off from the village of Trento

It was the worst heatwave Europe had seen in decades. Dubbed “Lucifer,” southern Europe was experiencing record-breaking temperatures in August of 2017.

We were in the middle of the Italian countryside surrounding Lake Garda on a family biking trip. In the morning, a bus dropped us off in the village of Trento, and we set off — five middle-age men and women, a handful of our teenage children, and one septuagenarian.

An hour into our ride, the mercury had already climbed into the 90s and we still had a full day of pedaling ahead of us. It was the first of a seven-day trip and the only thought going through my mind was, “Why couldn’t we be at a beach resort or sitting by the pool?”

By noon, the sun burned so hot that moving through the air felt like floating in pea soup. It was the kind of day that merely sitting on a bench would have left you drenched in sweat.

We had to bike a total of thirty-one miles in order to catch a ferry back to the town of Sirmione where we were staying. “You cannot miss the ferry. It is the last one of the day,” the man from the bike rental company sternly warned us the day before, when he dropped the itinerary, directions, and maps off at our hotel.

“Yeah, yeah, we’ve done this before,” we assured him. This was our fourth self-guided bike trip in Europe as a family. One in Ireland, two in France, and one in Portugal.

Posing for pictures before the heat settled in

The bike trips were bonding experiences, something we did as a family every few years. It allowed us to explore villages and connect with locals in a way we never could from the confines of a tour bus or a car.

There were always hiccups — like when we had an excessive number of flat tires in Portugal, the year my sister’s passport got stolen, or the time we ordered what we thought was a green salad for lunch and it turned out to be pig ears marinating in vinaigrette.

But this didn’t feel like a hiccup. This felt like a terrible mistake. The directions provided by the bike rental company proved to be spotty at best. We had taken a few wrong turns, backtracked, and found ourselves on a route that we had very little confidence in.

My body began to feel like it was melting from the inside out. Was this what heatstroke felt like? I glanced at my husband, who hadn’t been on a bike since our last trip three years ago, and wondered if he may actually have a heart attack. My mother was the real biker among us, but this year she had a bum knee, and her typically optimistic face was colored with worry.

Still, we relentlessly peddled forward. As the hours dragged on, the conversation devolved into chopped snippets of irritation, mostly questioning our direction. And if we were going the wrong way, there was a strong sense that whoever was navigating us would be maimed by the rest of the group.

This didn’t feel like a hiccup. This felt like a terrible mistake.

At some point, we unraveled. We were officially lost, out of water, and had missed the ferry by an hour. We found ourselves on a cobbled road (if you could call it that). On each side were stone walls with olives trees behind them. We passed a weatherworn sign that identified it as an old Roman route, but I was too tired to adequately process the information.

The road was so bumpy we had to walk, bikes awkwardly bouncing along beside us. There wasn’t much talk about whether this would take us to the right village — we were beyond that. But it was downhill and appeared to be leading to some form of civilization.

The Roman Road

Like a desert oasis, a town and a sliver of the lake finally came into view. It looked relatively close but we silently marched on for what felt like hours. Passing orchards, grapevines, a decrepit stone shed, a house with no signs of life — each one denoting the possibility that at some point we may come in contact with an actual person — finally the road turned to asphalt and a neighborhood materialized before us.

We arrived in the village of Nago-Torbole looking like a motley crew of castaways. Our clothes dripping with sweat, hair matted down, faces burning red, and one thing on our mind. Water. We found a café and ordered a round, guzzling it down faster than they could refill the pitchers. We ordered every pizza on the menu and ravenously ate them all. Then we ordered a few bottles of wine because what else was there to do?

One of the teenagers finally asked, “How will we get back to our hotel?” We, the adults, looked at one another hoping someone had a plan. No one did.

We decided to split up — some heading to plead with the people who ran the ferry, others walking into random storefronts and a hotel to beg for help. All told, we were eleven people with bikes and had to get back to Sirmione, which was, evidently, fifty-five miles away.

“I know a guy who might be able to help,” the man behind the hotel desk told my sister and me, “but I can’t promise anything.”

He made some calls. We stood desperately anticipating the verdict. Finally, he said, “Lucca will help. He has a van that can hold bikes. But it may be expensive.”

We didn’t care, we would pool money together. Whatever it took to get back to the hotel without having to ride the bikes.

Our Hero! Lucca’s van

An hour later, Lucca arrived in a white van with a decal of his face on the side and heavy metal music blasting out the windows. He jumped out smiling and loaded the bikes with ease. We clapped and praised him as if he was our savior. Then we settled into the luxury of his air-conditioned vehicle. No one said a word on the ride home.

Indeed, no one mentioned that we were supposed to do another bike route tomorrow.

We never made it back on the bikes the next day (or any of the days after that). Instead, we went to the beach. Jamaica Beach in Sirmione, that is. There, we spent the day swimming in the water and lounging on the rocks. It was the vacation I had dreamt about, but what made it better was sharing our war stories from the day before. We replayed each detail — laughing about our misadventure in the countryside.

Jamaica Beach in Sirmione, Italy

Now, almost four years later, I still smile when I think about that day. The distinct relief of seeing the village from the Roman road. The water, wine, and those pizzas, which were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. The appearance of Lucca, and how he has unwittingly become one of the most endearing characters in our family stories.

The memory of biking through the Italian heatwave has become a part of our shared history. Travel does that. It can be messy and unpredictable, but that’s what brings us together. The days that go off the rails are the ones that stay with us the longest.

Darcey Gohring is a freelance writer based outside New York City. She specializes in human interest, home, and lifestyle content. She is a contributing author to the anthology book, Corona City: Voices From an Epicenter, and recently completed her first novel entitled The Road Home.

Connect with Darcey on Instagram or Twitter to learn more about her work.

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