Through the Alps to the Dolomites

As we bid farewell to Pedro’s parents, with the songs of Sound of Music going through our heads, we pondered our next moves. It was 16h, and ordinarily we would start looking for a camping spot in the next hour or so (an hour and a half before sunset). Extending our rest days a few hours more, we decided to find a campsite nearby, stay put for the night and head off in the morning, rather than try and get back into cycling mode so close to the end of the day.

Our singular night off however quickly turned into a double, when we woke up the next day to the sound of big fat raindrops on the roof of our tent and Pedro with a sore crook in his neck. Clearly it was meant to be. Although we were a little disappointed we hadn’t gone to the campsite with a sauna, which might have done wonders for Pedro’s neck and our increasingly stiff muscles, nevertheless we happily resigned ourselves to a tent day.

A few blog updates and neck massages later, we left the next morning afternoon and pedalled into Austria, admiring the autumnal leaves as we went, after our brief stay in Germany (7 days cycling and 7 days resting was definitely a record for us… so far).

Our plan was to follow the signposted via Claudia Augusta cycle way through the Alps, an old Roman trade route. But plans are made to be broken and we had a few diversions up our sleeves thanks to warmshowers member Arto, who not only let us deliver a replacement sleeping mat to his house, but also gave us some route advice through the Alps as well.

Why follow a signposted route with the kindest elevation that you can find in the Alps, when you can take a steep diversion up a mountain for some amazing views?

Our first detour took us along the Lech river. We’ve been along many rivers so far on our trip, but this one was a favourite. Surrounded by trees it was a natural, wild, rocky torrent, free of the concrete, dams and managed flow that we have seen along so many of the other rivers we’ve pedalled. Even if the day had been warmer, given the speed at which the river was flowing, neither of us were tempted in for a paddle.

Despite it’s speed, the river was definitely not at full capacity – the Lech only covered a small percentage of the area of the river bed. We wondered how it would be in the spring, roaring down the valley full of snowmelt from the surrounding mountains.

The gentle, autumnal evening light had us stopping at every turn to admire the views which seemed to change in character with the angle of the sun, before it quietly disappeared behind the hills.

Clearly never learning from our mistakes, we found a camp spot close to the river with a distant view to the road we were due to climb up the next morning – stretching steeply up the mountain at a seemily 45° angle. As we should have already learnt, the sound from the river was definitely loud enough to keep us awake, and never did disappear into the background white noise that we hoped.

Sleepy, but warmed and regenerated with a mug of hot chocolate, we headed towards what would be our entertainment for the morning. It wasn’t long before we were peeling off the layers that we had been hiding under from the frosty morning cold. The road really was as steep as it seemed from our camping spot.

We weren’t quite sure how to interpret the head shaking of one particular driver that passed us going in the opposite direction – was the road closed, did he not like cyclists or did he just think we were crazy? We’ll never know.

The views down the valley were incredible, and even more so when we came across a villages tucked in top of the hillsides and we tried to imagine living in such a beautiful, but isolated setting.

The road was quiet, thankfully, leaving us to creep metre by metre up the hill. For a while the gradient was kind, until we took the turning that would take us over the pass. Cheered on by passing motorbikers and amused by the bemused look of drivers coming the other way, we continued. Slowly and breathlessly.

We sure that it was the longest and steepest stretch of road that we had covered so far, crossing the Pyrenees was a walk in the park by comparison. When we were pedalling at 5km/h it felt easy going, but the sections which were so steep that our speedometers were measuring just 4km/h left us stopping every 500m to catch our breath and let our legs recover before another beating.

As we reached the top we saw a sign warning drivers of the 12% gradient that they were about to descend and that we had just slowly climbed our way up. There hadn’t been a sign at the bottom… But perhaps that was for the best.

We sat eating our well deserved lunch at the highest cycled point of our trip so far, Hahtenjoch, unaware that this would be superceded again and again in the Dolomites in the days to come.

As we descended on the other side of the mountain it was apparent from the damp road that we were already at the time of the year when the sun would not reach this side of the valley. We reminisced about the heat we had experienced in Spain and were glad of the cooler climes we had pedalled up to the pass in that morning. Wrapped up in many layers we cautiously zipped down the road towards Imst, stopping occasionally to let our overused brakes cool down.

At the bottom and back in the sunshine, by contrast it was so absurdly warm, we found ourselves peeling off all of our layers and making a hunt for ice-cream. If not for the heat it was well deserved after our morning’s work.

Delayed by our ice-cream eating, we found ourselves reaching the town of Landeck just as the sun was about to set. Rarely a good combination when you typically wild camp and have no plan.

We went to checkout the campsite, but quickly ruled it out on the basis that we didn’t want to pay 25€ for the privilege of camping in what looked like someone’s back garden, inbetween caravans, next to another not so quiet river.

We rolled through to the other side of town, and further along the cycle path we were due to follow the next morning, in the hope of finding a potential spot for our tent. Alas, the land either side of the path was both steep, and still too close to this not so quiet river separating us from the main road out of town.

As darkness fell, Pedro continued looking for other potential camping spots and I started calling guesthouses and looking for hostels. We seemed to be in a region where the winter season was more expensive than the summer season, and apparently it was already winter, although no-one had shared that memo with us.

We struck luck with Gasthof Sonne who, over the phone, seemed open to bargaining. Still not happy with the price they offered, we decided to drop by on the way back to town (and potentially onwards back to the overpriced campsite, if we had no luck bartering) to see if we could haggle further.

When we poked our heads through the hotel door, the manager recalled our earlier conversation with “aah, the ones after a cheap room?”. That’d be us.

He slashed the price further, and we accepted his “very special offer”. It cost more than the campsite, but atleast here we wouldn’t spend the night serenaded by the river and we’d get to sleep in a bed, with pillows and everything.

The manager’s special price was so special that apparently it wasn’t going in the books. He swiftly pocketed the notes we’d handed over and he bid us goodnight.

An entertaining evening ensued with the classic game of “how to cook dinner on a camping stove in a hotel room”, along with the subsequent wondering of what the cleaner would think as she emptied a spaghetti packet, a handful of mushroom ends and an empty jar of pesto from the bathroom bin the next morning.

At breakfast the next morning it was apparent why the manager had been so keen to have us stay : this giant hotel was clearly empty, demonstrated by the bored waiter and three lonely tables laid for breakfast in a room that could have sat fifty.

With a few extra apples in our pockets (everyone does that at a buffet breakfast…. Right?!) we collected our bikes from the basement and found our way back to the cycle path.

The next day seemed uneventful in comparison to the last, in gradient at least, mostly gently rolling in and out of Austria briefly into Switzerland and back again before pedalling over into Italy as the sun was setting. It was late by the time we made camp next to Reschensee, our spot was right by the cycle path but with no road nearby we were too cold and tired to care.

Unfortunately, as when we had gone to sleep, when we woke the higher mountians were still covered with thick cloud. We knew we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks going over 3500m, the map said they were there… But today they were hidden. We considered staying another day, just to be able to properly appreciate our mountainous surroundings, but the thick cloud was forecast to stay. We’d have to come back another time to see them in all their glory.

We were going to continue along the via Claudia to Bolzano but from there we had little plans. We spent our first morning in Italy freewheeling down the valley through small higgedy piggedly villages, oohing and aahing at the autumnal trees as we went.

With so much cloud, without looking at a map, you would have had no idea that there were such high mountains around. It seemed to be just a peaceful valley filled with apple orchards of an uber-scale. Mono-culture doesn’t even begin to describe it. There were rows and rows of acres and acres of groomed trees heaving with those giant super-sized apples that typically fill the supermarket shelves. Given that it was prime apple season, some orchards were full of fruit, others empty and the rest mid-pick. In the eyes of a cyclist, the empty ones were best as there were always a few runts left behind needing a home.

Although full of apples, we were slightly confused. We had crossed into Italy, but lots of roadsigns were bilingual, in Italian and German, and most people we overheard were speaking Deutsch, and there were signs for Gasthaus and Trinkwasser and Bäckerei. Heading into a supermarket in a hunt for gnocchi, I wasn’t sure what language to use as one cashier appeared to be speaking Italian and the other German.

All was clarified a day or two later when we stayed, exceptionally last minute, with the lovely Irene, Markus and Florin.

We had a few errands we had wanted to do in Bozen/Bolzano – mostly involving finding a bike shop and ice-cream and investigating alternative camping pillows (see earlier crook in neck). Our wanderings had taken us longer than expected, and it had become too late to climb the surrounding hills and have any reasonable chance of finding a camping spot, so we found ourselves looking for a place to stay in town. Expecting the 80+ bed youth hostel to have space, we were a bit stumped when they said they were full and gave us suggestions of places which were charging 100€ a night. Not quite within our budget.

After pondering our options, we gave a quick search of warmshowers and called a woman named Irene. Explaining our prediciment, and knowing that she had a small toddler so not expecting the answer to be ‘yes’, we asked if it would be possible to stay with her that night or if she knew anywhere else we could rest our heads nearby. With no extra questions or hesitation she said we could stay and invited us to make our way over to their house, despite the fact that at this stage she didn’t even know our names.

Moods lifted and smiles returned to faces; after a pit stop to buy ingredients for dinner and a bottle of wine to share, no more than an hour after calling we were being warmly invited into the home of Irene, Markus and Florin. Our apologies for our general disorganisation were disregarded by Markus, saying that would just make us fit in all the better and that we were in good company. Our smiles grew further.

Florin had been so excited by these unexpected guests that his mum had been speaking to in English on the phone, that he was still up and quite excitable. With promises that we would still be there in the morning, after a few more leaps from the top of stepladder Florin went off to sleep.

As a thankyou for letting us stay at such short notice, and for disrupting the bedtime routine, we set about cooking dinner. As we cooked and then ate, they both gave us advice about our onward route through the Dolomiti and we all exchanged tales of our various travels.

Irene and Markus explained also that the now largely autonomous province we were in, Sud Tirol, was annexed to Italy after the first world war but used to be part of Austria. This not only explained the multiple languages we had been hearing in the region but also highlighted both my and Pedro’s poor knowledge of European history. From their descriptions, the social and cultural implications of this annexure were clearly still present today and reading more about the region online (thankyou wikipedia) we discovered just how complicated the history of this region is.

We talked about our respective travels – our experiences so far and their adventures in New Zealand, Australia and the Middle East. There were some funny overlaps in our trips – a shared wild camping spot, identical sleeping mat failures and a mutual feeling that meeting people along the way was the best and most memorable part of travelling.

This brief encounter was one of those memorable evenings that we won’t be forgetting any time soon. The only fault was that our time together was too short.

Markus and Florin cycled us out of town along the cycle path the next morning, saying our farewells at the bottom of a very steep hill that would keep us entertained for most of the rest of the morning.

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