Tuesday 17 November 2009

The Lost Boys 2009 Tour of Europe: Baths and Hairpins

In every trip to Europe we calculate at least one day off the bicycle in order to have some flexibility for bad weather, sight-seeing or simply recovering (this last is a bit hard to believe, I know).  Waking up the morning after our very successful Mendelpass ride, it looked as if cycling was out of the day as it was raining heavily.  I had learned from a previous trip to always pack a folding umbrella.While in the Black Forest on previous trips, we had enjoyed European spa life and our plan for a rainy day in Südtirol was to indulge ourselves although nobody suffered much from sore muscles yet.  But first several of us decided to wander around Bolzano a bit more.

In spite of the rain, this was great fun as we went to the fruit and vegetable market in the old city and had a good time poking around the beautiful produce, as well as buying some pastry.  The hostel breakfast was fine but basic so we bought some cheese, bananas and other fruit to bring back to our rooms.  After I bought a kilo of  mirabelle plums, I was about to walk away when I spied some gorgeous peaches.  I asked the vendor if they were local and he said that they actually came from Verona.  I was overcome with the urge to try one and since the vendor said they were ripe I did not resist.  A few steps and I had bitten deep into a marvellous fruit that had clearly ripened on the tree.  We turned around and bought a bag of them...

We stopped at the Citta Hotel for a coffee under their elegant arcades and soon the rain let up.  It was late in the morning but some of the group planned to go for a ride, while others of us headed to the main station and set out for our spa journey to Meran/Merano.

Although Bolzano is the larger of the two, Merano is certainly the bigger tourist attraction.  Our train filled up rapidly and we quickly rolled through the orchards and vineyard of the Etsch Valley, arriving in Merano (which is also a transfer point for another rail line) in an hour or so.  Just before you come to the station you pass a large racecourse, an indication of the city’s role as a major entertainment/watering/social place of the Hapsburg empire prior to 1918.  It was walk of about 15-20 minutes to get from the station to the centre of town, and we passed an interesting plaque commemorating the career of the late Marco Pantani, who began to make his mark in pro cycling when he won stages of the Giro d’Italia in the region.

Merano on this day (August 10) was totally packed with visitors.  This was the week when everyone in Italy takes holidays and it seems that a good number of the country’s inhabitants come to the Dolomites–and, as Corey explained, the locals went elsewhere.  We fought our way through the charming streets, lined with solid but elegant buildings and soon came to the original casino/spa buildings, which looked exactly like the kind of place Emperor Franz Josef II would have hung out.  There was a nice garden by the river, including some in-ground palm trees. Merano has a micro-climate and it was already getting quite warm.  Today’s spa finds itself across the river housed in an ultra- modern glass-and-stone building, with a large outdoor area of green lawns and pools as well as the indoor/outdoor thermal baths and sauna areas.

We lined up, got our tickets and checked in.  I always find it interesting in Europe that the thermal spas, which seem so 19th Century in concept (“taking the waters” and all that) have computerized systems for keeping check on how much time you spend (pricing is in time blocks) and which control which areas of the establishment to which you have access.

We enjoyed the thermal pools, which included the kind of water jet massages I had enjoyed in Germany, and swam in the outdoor pools as well, which come in a range of temperatures.  The weather was spectacular but I enjoyed the spa so much I did not mind we were missing some riding for one day.  Then it was off to the sauna area.  Although it was textil-frei, as in Germany, the Italians were pretty anxious about keeping on their towels!

No matter.  Our three hours were up and feeling pretty mellow we sauntered back through the thronged streets to the train station, stopping for a slice of fresh pizza on the way, and returned to Bolzano and our hostel.  After the usual celebratory ice cream, we wandered back to the old city for an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant, with half the crew having pizza and the other half going for pasta.

Tuesday, August 11 was meant to be a red-letter cycling day and the weather played along.  Although it was clear when we got to the Bolzano train station, the clouds began to roll in a bit as we headed back to Merano, where we transferred onto another hyper-modern little train.  Luckily this was the departure station for the train going to Mals/Malles since it rapidly got very crowded.  As we came to more stops it became even more very crowded.  It puzzled me that the railroad would only run a three-car train during what was clearly the busiest season as hikers with backpacks, cyclists with their bikes and locals with baby carriages got on board.  We were unable to sit during the two hour ride but at least we got on, unlike a number of cyclists further up the road.

Our big concern was getting through the crowd and actually getting off the train at our stop.  Luckily we had positioned ourselves to make the rapid escape we needed and soon found ourselves at the station platform in Spondigna.  Of course, before doing anything it was time for a bracing coffee in the little station restaurant, then we headed out towards our goal for the day, one of the world’s greatest ascents for a cyclist, the famed Passo dello Stelvio, known as the Stilfserjoch in German.

Of course, I immediately went the wrong way as I followed the “helpful” bikepath signs and lost everyone behind me.  It turned out that in fact I was going the right way, even if that meant riding some dirt and gravel sections of bikepath before coming into the little town of Prato allo Stelvio.  I waited a bit and eventually joined up with two others from our group and we turned to face southwest and the beginnings of the climb.

I rode this climb in 2005 when I did a week of riding in Eastern Switzerland, with this incursion into Italy.  It had thrilled me then but always wanting to see new sights I was not inclined to do it again but everyone was so keen I agreed.  As I found a different route back from the summit compared to what I did four years ago I thought this was count as undiscovered country.  But of course, to get to the undiscovered part you have to get through the first part.

The ride along the nicely-paved S38 road takes you through the hamlets of Gomagoi and Trafoi on a gentle upwards incline.  Spondigna is at 885 m ASL and by the time you reach Trafoi you have climbed to 1543 m in 27 kms.  Now the serious fun begins as you navigate 48 hairpin turns (each one marked with a sign) and head through some heavily-forested sections.  The road pitches up quite steeply in places (I had forgotten about this–ouch) and then you when you break out above the tree line you see the last dozen curves ahead stacked up in the distance almost like a ladder.  It is an extraordinary sight, both ahead of you and behind, and you will share the road with motorcyclists and sports car drivers (and even buses), as well as with like-minded cyclists wanting to partake of the Stelvio legend.

Although the weather had been somewhat overcast in Spondigna, the route up the valley was clear and it was fantastic.  I felt good and kept pace with Dr. Chef, stopping to take photos as the mood struck, and we soon caught up to a tall rider in a “Flanders” kit.  He was a young Belgian cyclist and we kept each other company all the way up to the top, although it was evident that he was more used to cycling those flatter roads back home.

Even if you have done it before, crossing the summit of the Stelvio (2760 m ASL, the highest road in Italy) gives you a terrific feeling of accomplishment.  After the obligatory pass sign photos, we tromped in to the nearest restaurant for hot chocolate/latte macchiatos/strudel.  Mariette, who speaks Dutch, could communicate with our new Belgian friend, who had very limited English, and he was delighted to accept a soft drink from us.  We seem to have done something for world understanding since he thought that Americans were not very nice but now that he had personal experience with them he found this not to be the case.  Of course, I would like to think it was also the Canadian influence.

Warmed up and, more importantly, dried off, we put on our cold-weather gear since a cold wind always blows over the summit from the Bormio direction.  But today we were not heading downhill towards Bormio, as I did in 2005.  Instead, we rode down the road a short way and turned right onto a very small road, soon passing an unoccupied border post.  We were now in Switzerland!

The 17 km road to Santa Maria, down the Passo di Forcola, has to be one of the most enchanting rides I have done to date.  There is no traffic to speak of and the scenic vistas of the Müstair Valley are exceptional.  The road is quite good until you suddenly hit a section, perhaps 3-4 kms long, of gravel.  This is not something you want on a rapid downhill with curves but all of us managed to get through.  We were then rewarded with some of the best pavement I have ridden on in a long time (Ottawa roads make anything else seem like velvet, except Quebec ones) and we rocketed down the hairpins into the village of Santa Maria.  Regrouping, we turned right onto a main road, Rt. 28, and enjoyed a fast downhill ride that brought us to the border crossing back into Italy at Tubre/Taufers.  The border post here was occupied, as Dr. Chef and Zeezu discovered when they tried to sprint for the border sign, to the extreme annoyance of the guard.  He did not think Americans were so nice, although here I did point out that I was a Canadian.

Rt. 28 turned into an Italian road, S41.  We continued downhill, passing through the walled town of Glurns and turning right to follow the bikepath along the Etsch, parallel to the S38.  Some of the group continued on past Spondigna, but three of us stopped there to take the train back to Merano and connect to Bolzano so that we would get back in time for a classical concert with an orchestra of young EU musicians.  Of course at the Spondigna station we celebrated once again with excellent coffees after figuring out how to buy tickets from the automat since there no longer are any humans representing the railroad at the station.
The loop we rode was just over 69 km long but featured over 2000 m of climbing.  My maximum speed was 70 km/h, which is not bad considering all the tight turns we had to descend.  A glorious day indeed and something I would recommend as one of the best rides in Europe.  We were fortunate as a few weeks later the road was closed to motorized traffic for Stelvio Day and the cyclists who came for that “enjoyed” a ride in pouring cold rain.

1 comment:

Will said...

Stelvio, Stelvio, Stelvio,