Saturday 31 October 2009

The Lost Boys Tour of Europe 2009: On to Italy and the Mendelpass and Gampenpass

Strudel time!
(photo by Patrick Dominic)

On August 8, we got up insanely early and prepared to leave Rosenheim. The plan was to ride our bicycles to the nearby train station, and have our luggage sent over with a taxi van. There was a bit of panic when the van we ordered did not show up, but luckily there was one parked down the street waiting for clientele so it worked out fine.

It was not clear where we were supposed to meet our big tour bus and we were on the wrong side of the station when he came. Although the driver was very nice, he was surprised that we had come with our bicycles. I had organized this months in advance, so I was a bit annoyed. But there was plenty of room and after removing our front wheels and seatposts ten bicycles were nicely arranged. We got into the large, comfortable bus and headed out of Rosenheim. It was just after 6:30 a.m.

The bus we were using was actually a tour bus that takes people to Bolzano every Saturday for sightseeing and shopping, so all the other passengers were locals. Of course, this being Germany, the bus driver (who was actually very nice) had to apologize as he picked up passengers because he was five minutes late (thanks to us, of course). But soon enough everyone was picked up and we were soon on the autobahn heading south. Everyone settled in and half the group fell asleep.

This was unfortunate as our route was absolutely spectacular. Leaving Germany, we entered Austria at Kufstein and continued along the A13 highway, climbing steadily. Our driver, Ricci, gave a running commentary on the countryside. We passing Innsbruck, host to the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976, and I was surprised how built up the Inn Valley looked here. The city has only 117, 000 inhabitants but looks quite urban, albeit surrounded by stunning alpine scenery. Another 30 kms along the highway and we came to the Brenner Pass, marking our entry into Italy. The pass crests at 1375 m ASL.

The drive then took us past Brixen, descending on the A22 and on into Bolzano which, surprisingly, is only at 262 m altitude. The bus took us into a large underground parking garage and we unpacked our bikes and prepared to discover Südtirol, or the Alto Aldige as it is known in Italian. The first trick was to get from the bus station, which was connected to the main train station, to our hostel. One of our group, Mariette, met us with a car and Dr. Chef and I drove over to the hostel with some of the baggage but due to construction and the fact we were not sure where we were going we ended up taking a major tour of Bolzano. In fact, the hostel was just further down the street the railway station was on so in the end everyone walked over. Five in our party had accommodations elsewhere in Bolzano but they were not far away.

The hostel, unlike those I remember from cyclingtouring in Europe in the 1970s, was a modern building with all kinds of useful facilities, including laundry. All of the rooms had ensuite showers and three in our group had single rooms. The large room for four that three of us shared was really nice, with a huge balcony and lots of space for our gear and even desks where we could write. The furniture was kind of IKEA-ish, simple but clean-looking. There was a breakfast room in the basement of the hostel and a large courtyard where we were able to keep the bikes. Internet access was available and there was even a vending machine that provided espresso. It was quite comfortable, conveniently situated and very reasonably-priced. Unfortunately, the single rooms faced out onto the main street and the railway, so there was noise since without airconditioning you really couldn’t close the windows. Our room was quite as it overlooked the courtyard and some apartment buildings beyond.

On this trip, we had been fortunate in having excellent weather but here in the valley surrounded by mountains we found that the climate was very changeable. It was hot when we arrived in Bolzano but soon after arriving in the hostel and sorting out our gear it began to rain. I had not planned to go cycling anyway but wanted to want around in the city, and we proceeded to do this.

Bolzano (known as Bozen in German) is a city of around 100,000 people that is considered, after nearby Trento, as the city with the highest quality of life in Italy. It is the biggest city in Südtirol, the only province of Italy that is official bilingual. Originally part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Südtirol was split off from its northern half (still called Tirol, in Austria) after World War One and given to Italy by the victorious Allies. In the 1920s, Mussolini brought in a large number of Italian-speakers to settle and dominate this overwhelmingly German-speaking region and this was to have repercussions over the years, including home-grown terrorist attacks, until Südtirol was made it an autonomous region and both German and Italian were made official languages with equal standing. Apparently the Dalai Lama has visited the area several times, considering it as a possible model for a Tibetan province inside China. The cities of Merano and Bolzano are where most of the Italian-speakers are (73 percent of the population, in the case of the latter), while German-speakers are represented by the population in the more rural areas. As a German-speaker myself, I lean towards the German usage but will use both place names in describing our adventures. But not always, as it is kind of unwieldy.

Bolzano is probably not a big tourist attraction on its own although it has very nice architecture and a huge main square, named after the medieval German lyric poet, Walther von der Vogelweide, a famed Minnesinger who, as far as my research has taken me, does not seem to have had anything particular to do with Bolzano. He does, however, have an excellent statue on the Walthersplatz, surrounded by excellent cafés. I have looked up some of his poetry which is written in archaic German but quite lovely. I am curious whether the famous avenue in Berlin, “Unter den Linden,” actually derives it name from his poem of the same title and the linden trees were planted there for this reason. He flourished from c. 1170-1230.

Anyway, we reached the Waltherplatz after only a five minute walk from the hostel. The square is dominated by a massive cathedral, and ringed by the aforementioned cafés and restaurants. Walking further into the heart of the old town, we found ourselves in the Lauben, a medieval arcade section which now houses expensive shops. Of course, we had little choice but to stop for gelato, finding what our strongest rider, Zeezu, would name “the House of Infinite Choice,” a gelateria with flavours of ice cream I never knew existed. Some days we were to hit it several times, since cycling lets you eat anything you want.

I had contacted a fellow author, Corey, who lives in Bolzano about going for a ride and I called from the hostel and confirmed arrangements with him for the next day. I had discussed rides we could get to easily from the hostel and agreed that we would head out to the Passo di Mendola/Mendelpass.

Sunday, August 9 was another fine day, although a bit overcast. Corey, wearing his excellent Pez jersey so I could identify him right away, was exactly on time and eventually our group, a dozen strong, was ready to roll–not always the easiest thing to do! Most of us were wearing our beautiful Lost Boys 2009 jerseys, with the Bolzano-Gries poster design on the back. Corey led us at a good pace right through the streets of the old town, and it was good he was leading as I became almost immediately disoriented. Soon we were zooming down some astonishingly good bike paths, broad and well-marked. Bolzano sits at the confluence of the Adige/Etsch and Isarco/Eisack Rivers and the bike routes, with their own bridges, pass back and forth over them. The paths were well-used, judging from the number of cyclists already out on this Sunday morning.

There were some nice little climbs as we made our way to the crossroads of Appiano/Eppan, and with a right turn things started to get serious. As is typical of all climbs, our group broke up into different little units as everyone rode at their own pace. I knew that we would have a week of great climbing and I did not want to blow up on the first pass on the first day. Of course, it was also necessary to stop for photographs, a major part of any trip I take. After the first few turns, we had an excellent view of a small lake, the Kalterer See, below us.

With its summit at only 1363 m (4471 feet), the Mendelpass is open year-round but since the road has a lot of hairpins and is pretty tight in places, trailers are not allowed on it. There are impressive cliffs overhanging the road, and apparently these are rather unstable and major work was undertaken in 2005 to prevent rockslides. At various points I saw long section of gabions holding back the rock. The road was built between 1880 and 1885. There was a fair amount of traffic but drivers usually passed us with room to spare as cyclists are not an unfamiliar sight in this part of the world.

I had a very pleasant climb riding alongside the oldest member of our group. Janice is 67 and she is an impressively strong cyclist, thanks to all those rides in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland she has done. During the trip she never shied away from a challenge and was an example to us all. We cruised up the pass at a steady pace, except when I popped up the road for a photo, and we were joined also by Terry, another older but strong rider. The pass is 14.8 kms (9.2 miles), with a gain of 958 m (3143 feet). Although the steepest section is 12 percent, the average grade is a reasonable 6.5 percent.

The Sprocketboy and Dr. Chef excited by yet more food
(photo by Patrick Dominic)

Reaching the top of the pass, we quickly found the others who had arrived before us already digging into the strudel (a leitmotif of this trip!) and enjoying their cappucini. Everyone was in high spirits as the weather had cooperated, we had had an excellent climb, and in the busy restaurant we could stuff ourselves with giant pieces of cake. This is what holidays are about.

With everyone eventually together again, we posed in front of the pass sign for the obligatory col photo. I chatted with a group of German mountain bikers and we took a group photo of them after they had done one for us. Corey, who had been an invaluable guide as well as excellent company, turned back for Bolzano at this point and on we went.

Zipping up the windvest and putting on the armwarmers and long-fingered gloves, I was ready for the next stretch. We had a reasonably quick descent that took us to Fondo, where our next pass began.

The Passo della Palade/Gampenpass is also open all year and the grade from Fondo is a pretty easy 4.1 percent average. The pass is 13 kms (8.1 miles) long, reaching an altitude of 1518 m (4980 feet), giving an altitude gain of 538 m (1738 feet). The road is pretty straight, taking you through some dense forest and with views of impressive gorges.

At the top of the pass we assembled for our group photo and then began the long and exhilarating descent back to the Etsch Valley far below. The road was excellent and I enjoyed the views, stopping for more photos. The faster riders actually ran into a bit of rain on the descent but except for a few droplets I had no issues. Except for the fact that it was here that my camera batteries decided that they had done enough for me.

Down, down, down the road went and soon (much too soon) we were at our crossroads near Tesimo/Tisnes. The scenery was spectacular, with orchards and vineyards as far as the eye could see, old castles and flower-bedecked (overwhelmed, in some places) villages. At one of the villages, Nals, we arrived just in time for the local fire department festival and of course this meant we had to stop and enjoy the accordion music, the draft beer and the rustic food. I got to indulge my love of chanterelles yet again, this time with polenta. Listening to accordion music at long tables, drinking our beer and enjoying the brilliant sunshine–I could not have planned it better.

A Dirndl Girl with Weisswurst
(photo by Enrique)

We swiftly rolled back on the excellent bike path that parallels the Etsch and found our way back to Bolzano, getting lost on the outskirts of town (a theme to be repeated for the remainder of the week). Our first cycling day in Italy (nearly 84 kms/52.2 miles) had gone well and we celebrated at a rustic restaurant featuring local Südtirol specialities.

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