This March we went to the little-known but all the more attractive Italian region of Friuli, near the north-eastern border with Slovenia. For those who want to enjoy a good ride in Italy, but do not want to drive eight+ hours from Bratislava like to Livigno or Lago di Garda, or even twelve to Finale Ligure, Natisone Bike Arena is a real treasure, especially in spring and autumn, when there is still snow everywhere at higher altitudes.
The road to our bike destination the town of San Pietro Al Natisone, or of the village of Clastra right next to it, started on Thursday morning in Martin with the first half of the crew and the rest joining the van ride in Trnava.
The journey along the highway went well and at about 19.00 we were stuffing ourselves with the most famous Italian meal – the pizza. Right after, we have moved to our villa for the weekend and since this part of the country is really untouched by tourism for the most part, we were not surprised when the owner of our house could not even speak English.
After a while, we found out with the help of hands and feet and broken English where the keys were hidden and could finally check in. Despite the fact that the rest of the conversation with the owner was limited to “si” or “no”, we managed it with a smile and it was clear that they value the guests here very much.
We pay attention to the choice of accommodation – the main thing is that it should be close to the action in terms of riding, there should be a place to sleep well and plenty of space for bikes and the equipment. However, there is usually no TV or other conventional tech miracles. As befits Italy, the kitchen was equipped with a coffee machine, which we appreciated all the more.
On Friday morning, after a well-deserved sleep, the sun greeted us and we started with an excellent breakfast. Paolo, the man who manages the Natisone Bike Arena project and together with his team of volunteers, builds and maintains trails here, was already waiting for us a short distance below the villa. The association also support young talents in various bike disciplines within their racing team. In addition, Paolo and his sons also jump in as drivers and guides when a group like ours needs to be shown around the trails.
Together with Michelle, one of his sons, who once competed for the Italian national team, not only in Enduro, they take us in their van to the San Leonardo area, where we begin to discover the Arena. Since it had rained heavily the previous days, we changed our riding plans and postponed the highlight of our trip – the 12-kilometer descent from Mount Matajur with 1300 meters of altitude down until Friday.
The locals decided that an extra day to dry off would lead to a more fun and, above all, safer ride, so of course we took advice. San Leonardo offers several good trails, and after about a 10-minute drive by car, we were there.
One thing in which Natisone is exceptional compared to other places, is the fact that almost all trails can be “shuttled”, that is, you can take a van either directly or a short distance from the start of the trail, and therefore you only need to kick the pedals briefly.
Riding in San Leonardo starts right next to the parking lot at the Locanda Al Trivio restaurant, close to the Spig hill, after which one of the trails is named. In addition to Spik, we have the Trivio and Bunker trail, which has an extremely exposed part that can be bypassed using the Baita trail in the lower half.
The hardest Bunker trail, as well as Trivio and Spik, were relatively wet after Tuesday’s rains. It was mostly felt on our wheels, which packed with mud took their own line on all roots and stones, but even so, we were all extremely satisfied with the ride. The trails are planted in the valley, and whether we were here in autumn, winter or spring, it has never been totally dry over here.
In addition to these first trails, we also tried the Pikon trail a little further, which was interesting, but the first three were more fun for us.
Locals here really only make a minimum of changes to the trails in order to preserve their natural character and have as few disputes as possible with hunters, who, like in Slovakia, have great reservations about anyone else in their forest.
Before lunch, we tried the Clastra trail on the opposite hill, which coincidentally happens has its access road right below our accommodation. It is a great zigzag trail, which is not very fast if you are not a very fit or a crazy rider, but thanks to the many turns, steep passages, crossing over roots and stones, it is very fun.
After Clastra, Paolo took us for lunch to a local trattoria with a homemade “cucina” in a small village, where they speak English about as well as we speak Finno-Ugric. However, Paolo was with us and it must be said that the home cooked meals and for example fried cheese called Frico, which is one of the most popular regional dishes, is really worth it. The pasta here, like everywhere in the area, is home-made, so we licked ourselves all the way behind the ears.
In the afternoon, we went to the next location, the Machette trails directly above San Pietro or Vernasso right next door. These are the main trails where Paolo and his association spend probably the most time with and you can really feel it. The trails here go either towards Torreano on the other side of the mountain or towards Vernasso/San Pietro. Both sides are great, but the shuttling from Torreano take a bit longer, as the road leads a bit round and round. Since we had already ridden quite a lot on the first day, we have decided that we don’t mind sitting in the car for a few more minutes and would enjoy the rest between the rides.
Machette trails are shuttled, but it must be said that the trailhead, i.e. the beginning of the trail, you have to ride a little further for about 10 minutes from the Puller parking lot. It’s nothing terrible and the slope is small, but once you’ve done a few laps in your legs, it can take a toll on you.
In the direction of Torreano, we tried all the trails that first start with Cobra. It is a fast, wider trail that is dotted with rocks which acts as a link to other trails. It ends at a fireroad, which, when you don’t have a shuttle, is also used as the uphill trail. From there, it’s up to you whether you go to the Vernasso side, following the Vernasso Easy DH trail, or continue on the Radici or Falco trail.
If you follow the fireroad a little further, you will reach a very nice meadow that continues along a narrow path to the Falco trail. When we were here the first time, it was still marked as blue, but it also seemed to us then that, despite the fact that it is actually a fast flow trail, it is already much closer to a red and sometimes even a black trail, than to the lighter blue. Since then they have changed it to red. It is one of those trails that, despite the fact that it does not have a lot of natural or menmade elements, is very fun thanks to its speed, narrow trail and all the twists and turns. At the end there are a few more drops, jumps and berms, which are some of the very few artificial obstacles you can find in the area.
The last Slovak group that was here before us even did this trail three times in a row.
We decided, however, that we would rather go and have a taste of the black pair of trails Radici and Rock Garden, which are noticeably a tad more difficult. The Rock Garden is true to its name, as it really is one big trail strewn with rocks from start to finish. After the ride, we went back to the villa in Clastra with our hands properly shaken up, but with a bright smile on our faces.
The trails here are very similar to ours, but with more rocks and roots. What you could call 110% enduro, so really something for lovers of the pure wild rides. All natural tracks with very few “artificial” elements, just the way we like it.
Very fun and not so challenging were Cobra and Falco, which are more about faster and smoother trails. Despite the fact that the technical and rocky tracks of Clastra and Rock Garden are black, even our guys on their hardtails took a liking to them, even though, as our photographer Martin Remenar, thanks to whom we have these beautiful photos after the ride, put it “I couldn’t even hold a plate in my hands”. We ended the day with dinner in a restaurant with luxury cuisine right in Clastra a stones throw from our home, so we couldn’t have wished for more.
Saturday started with a fast pace, when right after breakfast we dropped into our “home” Clastra trail, and at the end of it our Guide & Driver team for the day was already waiting for us. This time it was made up of Michelle and young Davide, a local enduro superstar. The plan for the they was literally the “peak” of our trip, which was to conquer the Matajur mountain located at an altitude of 1645 meters above sea level with its famous 12 kilometer Matadown trail.
So we took the van up to the Riffugio Pelizzo hut at an altitude of 1,340 meters above sea level, where you can get excellent Italian coffee before heading steeply up pushing your bike for about 30 minutes to the top.
Magnificent views of the valley of Friuli Venezia Giulia and the Julian Alps in Slovenia on the other side will make even the most hardcore rider pull out his cell phone and shoot a few selfies or his bike with this stunning vista. After about a thousand photos and even a flight of our drone, we are finally ready to start the riding. Trail 749 is mainly known under the name Matadown, which is basically the concept of the French Avalanche race in its Italian version, where several hundred riders start at the same time and the first one down wins.
And as we found out, not only Slovakia has its curiosities. A nice Italian one is that someone has copyrighted the name Matadown and therefore the race will be known as 749 from now on, despite the fact that the name Matadown has been used for about 8 years.
But back to the ride. In the case of 749 de, it is a hiking trail, which, however, is shared as almost everywhere in Italy with hikers, cyclists and horseback riders. Therefore it can be legally ridden, but of course with mutual respect to all participants. Here, our legislators could learn a thing or two, since we have most of the interesting territory for mountain bikers, such as in Mala and Veľká Fatra or perhaps in the Tatras prohibited.
The ride starts on the still snowy northern side of the hill. Some of us enjoyed the slippery conditions to the fullest, and others struggled to even stay on the bike. The combination of a washed out single trail, snow and rocks will test the skills of even the best rider, and only a few will have their feet on the pedals in the first section, where there are several slippery rocks and some switchbacks.
The trail continues a little lower on a stony path in the style of old trade routes past farm houses and then winds through open meadows with wonderful views into the distance.
A few more very precarious narrow sections cut into the hill before the entry into the forest where the fun starts for real. Here and there you have to push the pedals and go uphill, but it doesn’t take away from the fun, it just hurts the legs a little.
In places, we again have sections of smaller rock gardens or dense tangles of roots, simply enduro as it should be. There are no artificially built obstacles such as jumps, drops or gaps on the trail, as they are shared paths.
Everything has a natural character and it is basically a tourist trail from start to finish. Somewhere around three quarters before the finish there’s a section bike trial enthusiasts in combination with ebike, and with a relatively exposed slope, but luckily with safety nets. Before the end of the trail, you can decide to finish the Matadown, or switch to the Sorzys Pigline, which is the only part with artificial obstacles, and after a purely natural and largely rocky terrain, a flow part with several jumps, drops and berms is suddenly very welcome. It ends at a beautiful church in the meadow, next to which a wooden kicker is built for those who still want more.
At the very end, excellent local cuisine awaits us again at Osteria Cascina, which is famous for its steaks and meat… However, paradoxically, we all chose pasta and gnocchi, which were not so rich in protein, but we coulnd’t have made a better choice in terms of taste. The biggest pleasure though was the beer. For me, it was probably the best beer of all the Italian restaurants I’ve ever been to. So definitely not to be missed when you visit.
After lunch we moved again to the trails above San Pietro, but this time we didn’t go to the Torreano side like the day before, but we went to see the Machette 3.0 trails with its combinations and then the Vernasso Easy DH, which is reached via Cobra. Very fun red stuff, albeit with a few rocky sections, just like everywhere else in the area.
On the way home, Michelle arranged a stop at the local Giulia brewery with a very good local beer. A few bottles down and a few to take home for the family and we went for a shower, since we had a reservation at a great pizzeria recommended by Michelle.
I can confirm once again that the Italian cuisine did not disappoint – the pizzeria Al Cavalino in the local capital, Cividale del Friulli, is a must-try. However, despite the excellent food, several of our crew, completely exhausted from two days of beatings, are already asking when we are going back to the villa to so they can rest.
In the evening, we still had to repair the bikes, change the brake pads or repair a torn tire (doctor Juraj sewed it up, just like in the faculty hospital in Martin), because the terrain makes you feel that the bike will need to be 100% the next day.
Sunday morning again marked by the Clastra trail for the start, which the guys like more and more every day. We are driving for about 40-minutes to the nearby Bernadia Trail Area above the town of Nimis. On our last day, the local bike hero Fabio goes with us together with his friends who build the local trails. Along the way, they show and explain to us how it the trails were created, how many people ride here, and that they actually ride year-round for two seasons in a row, because the winters were dry and without snow, which the Martin part of the crew quietly envies.
The trails in Bernadia are similar to the ones in Natisone Bike Arena, but in addition crocus saffron blooms everywhere and every trail is covered in purple colors.
All the trails are shared with tourists and the trail builders only adjust them so that they do not upset pedestrians. Here and there, they hide some natural jump in the trail in the form of a moved stone from one place to another. Compared to Natisone, the tracks here are a bit more up and down, so you have to push the pedals here and there.
At the same time, there are several nice views, which, although not like from Matajur, will make the entire ride a few percent more pleasant. We managed only a few trails, because the trip home waited for us in the afternoon. The best trails for us were definitely Zaiama and Tirfor, but we also managed Forte Alto and Forte Basso, starting from the old base from the 1st world war as well as trail Vigant. But we should definitely come back here for the whole day next time.
Overall, it must be said that Bike Arena Natisone is an ideal area for autumn and spring riding for those who enjoy natural trails. The difficulty is mostly intermediate or red, mainly because of the stones and rocks, although it must be said that it is far from the rocky trails like on Lago Di Garda and rather resembles Finale Ligure in character. With the possibility of shuttled uplifts by van, it is an ideal place for those who do not like to pedal up, when most of the cable cars are still or already closed. Or I can imagine that people will go crazy here even on ebikes, since the trails can be ridden up and down relatively easily. 10/10 for me and the whole group and we will definitely be back soon.