Dolomites to Alps
We left the Dolomites via yet another series of mountain passes and by now I was getting quite good at judging where the right hand side of the car was. Just as well as I had to hug the rock faces or edge of some sheer drops to make it past oncoming trucks and buses. I had now become accustomed to Sharon screaming "slow down" or "ahhhhhhh". It ws annoying but apparently necessary. I really enjoyed the driving and the Panda was in its natural habitat (well that might be stretching it just a bit). In any case we wound our way out of the mountains and down to Bolzano, still quite high up but lower than we had been. Bolzano was a very smart town which looked to be doing quite well for itself. Lots of activity and everyone was on bikes. We spent a couple of hours here looking around. I could have spent longer as there was a good museum that held the remains of the "iceman", a mummified ancient man pulled out of the ice in the 80s. I read a book about it years ago and it's a fascinating story, both the find itself and the arguing about who "owned" it as it was quite near the Italian/Austrian border. We cleared Bolzano heading for Malles Venosta on the Tyrolean side of the Stelvio Pass. Malles was a great little town, very authentic, with houses, shops, churches and old castle interspersed with back yard barns and paddocks. The whole town had an air of cow s***, but not in a bad way!
We stayed at Hotel Grief, which was anything but. The highlight for me was the bike shed which was an old winter feed shed for cows owned by an elderly next door neighbor. It smelled like the cows left that morning (see pics). In the afternoon we hopped on our bikes and found a bike path that joined lots of neighboring villages. They were all quite lovely and on the way we passed many artillery bunkers which looked like they had seen some action. In the spring sunshine with cow and sheep bells gently tinkling in the background it was hard to picture this as a war zone. But clearly it had been. One of the towns we visited was Glorenza which is an ancient walled village and very beautiful. We returned to Greif for a four course Tyrolean feast in preparation for our ride up the Stelvio the next day.
For those of you who are not cycling fans just a quick explanation. The stelvio is the highest mountain pass in Italy and one of the highest in Europe. The Giro (tour of Italy) was finishing here and the the riders would get here after climbing three previous brutal mountain passes. It was also the penultimate stage so and pretty much would decide the outcome of the three weeks of racing. The race would come from the Bormio side and Sharon and I, along with thousands of others would ride, walk and climb up the Prato Stelvio side of the mountain. This road was featured in Top Gear as one of the best driving roads int he world. On the day of the race the traffic on the lower part of the climb was quite horrendous so we decided to drive up to where the road was blocked to cars and ride from there. This took a few kms off the climb but it was still pretty brutal with 47 hairpins and around one and a half kilometers of climbing. The top of the pass is at 2670m. We took it easy and to be honest it wasnt that hard, although Sharon may beg to differ. I loved it and the mountain scenery, thousands of other riders of all shapes and sizes and the carnival atmosphere was just great. We got to the top in about 1 and a half hours of riding and up there it was bedlam.
A pattern is clearly beginning to emerge. Italians so far had been incredibly warm and welcoming, hospitable and charming. However they have no idea about systems! Clearly with 500 people jammed on the top of a mountain some planning was required. Not much was evident, at least from a spectator standpoint! People were trying to push their bikes through the crowds and dont get me started on italian queing. Its not an innate skill here. I have observed two different systems used when you are queuing for service. First is the free for all where you push in as much as possible to get to the front first. Don't worry about where a que might start, just start your own anywhere. The second is the. "take a number" system. Under this system you take a number and wait - usually nothing happens or you revert to system 1. In any case it was all great fun and observing the crowds, the mountains and the anticipation was all good sport. The race finally arrived after a couple of chilly (around 2 degrees) hours on the top and the riders were clearly stuffed and any wonder. We cheered and yelled and waved the aussie flag, then descended like stones (Sharon more like a small pebble) back down the Stelvio. It was a really good day and a great achievement to make it to the top. Of course I bought myself a new cycling jersey to mark the occasion. We also treated ourselves to another 4 course Tyrolean feast and some local beer and wine to celebrate. One of the courses was a Tyrolean speciality steamed dumpling, which were very good. Next we were off to Bormio on the other side of the mountain and into the Vallentinese, a much more Italian part of Italy.