Wednesday, June 30, 2010

6/30/10 Knopf B&B in Kircheim, Germany

Well we are back at Stefan’s B&B, a little tired but safe and sound. Even though today was just a travel day it was incredibly pleasant in lots of areas as Dad planed a route that took us primarily on country roads and through small German dorfs (towns).

I had a bit of a fitful sleep last night. Not because Dad and I were sharing a bed but rather because, like our beds in Valdidentro, the length of the bed was exactly, if not a ½ and inch shorter than my legs. With Dad so close I really couldn’t spread out to get more comfortable. Once asleep, we were both awoken in the middle of the night by the most intense thunderstorm which sounded as if the lighting bolts were happening in the backyard.

The innkeeper provided us with a light breakfast and we left Pffanhausen about 9:30am. It was crisp outside after the rain cooled things but dry and clear. I was reminded of riding in the early morning thru the farm hills of southern Virginia on past trips with Dad. The little dorfs were perfect and clean and we had no traffic with the exception of farm equipment for most of the day. It warmed quickly and we were forced to take a few Umleitungs (detours) which threw the GPS off terribly and we often pulled over to look at a map. This was ok as it was fun to stop on the side of the road or in the center of a small town and take a few final pictures. This was an area of Germany I would not have normally seen and I was glad this picturesque ride would cap a perfect trip.

We had lunch in Gschwend at a very nice Gasthaus where of course none of the staff spoke any English. Fortunately there was a woman at a table adjacent to us who helped us navigate the menu and another gentleman who helped Dad find our route on the map. It was very hot and humid and the clouds looked a bit menacing so we suited up fast and rode out of town right after we finished our lunch.

More country roads until we hit the final umleitung near Heilbronn and decided to take the autobahn the bulk of the way back to Stefan’s. Not the ideal way to end the trip, but we split some lanes in heavy traffic and cut lots of time off our journey. The GPS got us a bit sidetracked when we got off the Autobahn but it took us through a town where Dad noticed a car at a gas station that had these German flags that we have seen people put on the car side mirrors to support the World Cup. We have looked all over Germany for these stupid things and I went in to the station and they had them and we bought four sets for our bikes at home.

Finally, after a few missed turns we made it safely back to Stefan’s and Dad and I had a long hug and hearty self congratulations. I have packed, and spoken to my Mother and texted Amanda and we are soon going to go to a beirgarten nearby with Stefan and some other guests for dinner.

It has been an amazing adventure and is a bit too soon to put it all into perspective. Andermatt seems like ages ago and even Corvara seems a distant memory. It will take some time for me to process it all.

That being said, here are a few choice memories:

Favorite Meal: Dinner at the Eibsee Hotel
Prettiest Lunch: Lake on Piz Boe
Tastiest Beer: Storchenbrau at Beirgartern in Pffenhaussen
Favorite Hotel Room: La Fontana in Corvara
Best View: Passo de Gaiu
Most Difficult Road: Umbrail Pass
Favorite Ride: Anywhere in the Dolomites
Scariest Moment: Backing down a hairpin on the Furkapass in the fog
Most joyous moment: Hiking with Dad on the Piz Boe
Nicest acquaintance made: Dirk at La Fontana
Quaintest town: Andermatt
Place I most want to return to: Corvara in Badia

6/29 Pfaffenhausen

Today was the last true vacation day of the trip with a few final sights to see as well as trying to make some mileage back to Heidelberg. We awoke to another beautiful day and had maybe the best breakfast of the trip at the Eibsee Hotel. This was some kind of spread with a plethora of different kinds of breads, wonderful teas and French toast to boot. Dad and I ate and he told me stories of traveling with Mom in Germany some 40 years ago.

After breakfast we walked up to the Zugspitze tram station and I fully expected to be taking the trip alone, but the weather was totally clear and it was quite warm. The tram was not to open till 9 but they were going to let us on at 8:30 with the supplies going up to the restaurant. It was a great opportunity and Dad relented and took the ride. Once again we were treated to one of the most memorable experiences of the trip and the ride up was exhilarating and the mountain views we had at the top went on forever.

Dad did really, really well. He never complained once and only sat down on the floor of the tram on the way up. Once up top he never got right to the edge of the railing but got very close for some fantastic candid pictures. It was really quite amazing being up there. No doubt it was the highest up we had been on the trip and I think the Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany so you are well above all the other surrounding peaks. There are three trams that come to the top which in total covers a space not bigger than a football field. There are restaurants and viewing platforms and inside are souvenir shops and bathrooms and it is all very modern and safe. How they ever built the structure and poured all the concrete is beyond me. I will never, ever, forget my ride up the Zugspitze.

We left the Eibsee and headed towards Neuschwanstein Castel near Fussen in Bavaria. We had to travel for about 30k thru Austria and I must admit I found this area of the country much more pleasant. It reminded me quite a bit of Montana with deep river cut valleys flanked by forested mountains rising steeply from the water and every so often a giant rocky peak would show itself around a corner.  Once back in Germany it was not long before we turned on the access road to the castle and quickly found ourselves in the center of a tourist nightmare.

Neuschwanstein is the castle that the Disney princess castle is modeled after. It was built by Ludwig II in the 1860’s roughly and he died “mysteriously” in a lake near Munich before it was completed. Considering these were the only crowds we had seen in three weeks and this was a decidedly touristy thing to do I made a conscious effort to take it all in stride and enjoy the experience.

We took the bus up to the drop off point above the castle and first walked to the bridge that Dad remembered being so scared on many years ago. He told me the last time here was here it was just he and Mom and their two friends and he could barely walk across. Now the bridge was crammed full of tourists from all over the world taking photos and generally being a mass of bodies. Dad made it over the bridge no problem, partly due, I am sure to the fact that there we so many people on it he likely never got a perspective of the actual height. We climbed up a steep ridge and took some photos. I went up above Dad and really scared myself as the ridge got narrower and the drop farther down. I was careful not to ever put myself in danger and was always 5-10 feet back from the edge, but still, it got my heart pumping. I made a quick video and was too nervous to take out my photo camera and made my way back down very slowly and carefully.

We took a break for a soda and pretzel as we had an hour to wait for our tour. My feet ware also killing me because I was in my black leather motorcycle boots and it was very hot and sweaty. I was certain I was getting blisters on my toes as there is a lot of hilly walking to and from the castle. Our tour was short but very interesting. As the castle is only a few years older than the Biltmore Estate, most all the open rooms were in wonderful shape and the craftsmanship of the woodcarvings and paintings was incredible. King Ludwig had one of the first telephones in Europe which I found fascinating and unlike other Kings, he was very specific not to have any imagery of himself around the castle. There was only one family crest in the whole place that would tell you who the owner was.

Because my feet could not handle the walk down the hill we took the bus and got back on the bikes heading for and undetermined destination. We figured we’d get somewhere closer to Heidelberg and assumed we’d find a hotel along the way.
We ended up in the small town of Pfaffenhausen in a very small Gasthaus where Dad and I essentially are sharing a bed. We went to dinner at a Bier garden down the street and had pizza and some dunkles (dark beer) that were outstanding. I asked the waiter (originally from Kosovo) if the beer was local and he pointed to what I thought was a garden light with some advertising for Storchen Brau. After dinner we took a walk around town and Dad said he thought he saw a local brewery and I realized the waiter was not pointing to the light but rather thru the Bier Garden bushes to the brewery. We walked up to the location and ended up meeting the Bier Master who was watering the plants. We had a great conversation with him, telling him about our trip and how much we enjoyed his beer and he seemed quite grateful. This stop in Pfaffenhausen was one of the more locally colored experiences on our trip. We were obviously the only foreigners in the town and as we walked up and down the blocks the people we passed would greet us kindly with a wave or nod or German accented “Hallo”. The homes were in a simple architectural style and there was no sense that anything was done with tourists in mind. The innkeeper did not speak a word of English although she would talk to me at length as if I understood every word. I feel very comfortable in Pfaffenhausen.

Back now in our tiny room which is very hot and going to try and get some sleep before the final push to Heidelberg tomorrow. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

6/28/2010 Living the High Life in Eibsee

I knew that McKenzie and I would get into a little adult trouble yesterday and indeed we did. He arrived about 4 in the afternoon with Carlyn and a student friend of theirs named Brian. Dad and I met them at the front door of the La Fontana and immediately sat down and had drinks. It was just another common, beautiful cloudless Corvara day. It was wonderful seeing Mac but I must say I spent the bulk of the evening getting to know Carlyn and it was my impression we hit it off well. I am sure Mac had warned her I have a flair for the dramatic so there were probably no surprises.

After a wonderful, conversation full dinner we asked our server where to go for drinks in town and were told about a bar called the Underground. It wasn’t anything special. Just a ski town bar, and we honestly did not do what I’d call heavy drinking. After all I had a long day on the bike ahead. On the way home however, as we approached the hotel, we all realized none of us had our room keys. The La Fontana really closes down after dinner. No front desk or personnel on staff throughout the night. It was stupid of us to leave our keys, but we had become accustomed to it being the European way and we just didn’t think about it when we left. Confusion set in quickly as we tried to open doors around the building. I noticed my room windows were wide open (no screens) and with a boost from Mac I was certain I could climb up the roof which is just what I did, scraping and bloodying my hands and forearms along the way. Once in my room I went to the door and quickly remembered that you need your key to get out as well as in. So now I was in my room and the other three were downstairs. I missed the next 45 minutes as Mac told me to stay there was no sense in me coming back down. When Mac finally came and opened my door he took me downstairs and reenacted what had happened…

Carlyn had found a door to the basement open and was able to get into the hallway to her room but still none of them could get to the wall where the keys hung. Mac called the hotel about 10 times and no one answered. I guess you are on your own in any kind of emergency. They called the Cabinari (police) who said they’d come and stand around but could not get them in the hotel. Mac went to talk to the bartender across the street who, again, could not really help but gave them a big bottle of wine as a consolation so they were all a drunker than I when I was released from my room. What finally happened was Mac found a key in the kitchen which unlocked the doors, including the door to the hotel bar, so when I came downstairs Carlyn was pouring herself a shot which she felt the hotel owed her for not having any staff around to help. Granted we all shouldn’t have left our keys, but that doesn’t mean we should have to sleep in the street. We all got a good laugh out of it and I hit the hay as I had to get up early.

Dad and I had our last breakfast in Corvara this morning, packed and were ready to go at 9am. Mac, Carlyn and Brian came to say their farewells. We took a number of pictures and were back in the saddle heading up over the Passo Del Gardena one last time. Today’s ride was really the most boring of the entire trip. It was just a pure travel day as our final destination was about 250 miles away in Eibsee, Germany near Garmish. We rode the autostrada for a while and tried to ride the Timeljoch Pass but it was closed for a bicycle race (on a Monday). That may have been best as I was not hung-over by any means but was a bit foggy from being up late and having consumed more beers in one sitting than I had so far on this trip. We rode over the Brenner Pass, which isn’t much of a pass at all, but Dad told me that Mom had crossed this pass many times as a young girl. The Brenner took us into Austria, which I was really looking forward to visiting but was sort of disappointed. The areas we rode in were kind of dirty and very industrial. We did ride thru the outskirts of Innsbruck, which seemed like a nice city but it was difficult to get a feel for it.

Roads and slow traffic all day today with not much to mention. Austria did put us back in the Alps which are incredibly beautiful and I’ve realized it's unfair to make comparisons to the Dolomites as each range has it’s own unique beauties. The end of our day brought us through Garmish which is an American base town and onto Eibsee and the Zugspitze. The reasons Dad wanted me to come to Eibsee were twofold. First it is a place my mother vacationed at as a girl living in Germany and it meant a lot to me to be in a place that she has such fond memories of. Second, it is the home of the famous Zugspitze tram which rises from the lake at Eibsee straight up to the top of the mountain. I plan to ride it in the morning but try and imagine two giant tram towers (like huge electrical towers) down near the base and then nothing but tramline literally 1500ft straight up to the top of this extremely rocky, totally exposed peak. My father is very afraid of heights and I don’t think he will be joining me but he feels it is an important experience for me to have and I honestly can’t wait.

We are staying at the Eibsee Hotel which is a four star hotel that after WWII was exclusively used for American military and State Department personnel which is why my mom used to come here with her folks. The grand old hotel sits on the edge of the most beautiful crystal clear mountain lake with views right up the Zugspitze. I went for a very brief, very cold swim off the dock which was incredibly refreshing but gave me a bit if a headache it was so cold. Dad and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner on the deck of the hotel surrounded by German and American hoitoi and felt very high society. We concluded dinner with a short walk around park of the lake to get views of the Zugspitze in the sunset and as the darkness begins to set in over the lake and mountain I am sitting on the dock writing this. I can hear the guests finishing their dinner and all around me are the splashes of fish coming up to the surface for a dinner of their own.

Even though the ride was not one to remember, this wonderful evening and moment of absolute tranquility is one you cannot really experience sitting on a motorcycle. Another wonderful day. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

6/27/10 Hiking around the Piz Boe

It’s 2 in the afternoon on another beautiful cloudless Corvara day. I am sitting in my room with the window wide open and my shoes and socks off to let my sore feet air out. Dad and I just got back from hiking down the mountain from the Franz Kostner Hutte on the Piz Boe. I wanted to make sure and write a blog post in the afternoon as I am thrilled to say my dear friend Mckenzie Lewis got in touch with Amanda last night and told her to let me know he is driving up from Rome with his recently married bride Carlyn to come for a one night visit. I know we will likely do some adult socializing this evening and chances are I may not get to writing.

I woke to a text from Amanda letting me know Mac was coming and after breakfast I gave him a call and he told me he hoped to arrive about 3pm and for us to do whatever we had planned to do. Dad and I decided to take the Boe gondola up the mountain and have a hike as, although the motorcycling has been more than excellent, people around here take hiking very seriously and it would be a shame if we did not share in the experience while we were here.

After breakfast I went outside to get some video of the Sellaronda Bike Day that was happening all throughout this area. From 8:30am to 3:30pm they were closing all the major passes out of Corvara to motorized traffic for bicyclists to enjoy a car, bus and motorcycle free day. Dirk had told us that some 10,000 or so cyclists would descend upon the area and he was not kidding. It was amazing. By 8:30 when we were leaving to hike I had already seen 1000’s of cyclists ride past on the way up to the Passo Campolongo and as we got higher up on the mountain we could begin to grasp the sheer numbers. It is now 2:30 and there is still and hour left and throngs of cyclists are still passing by the La Fontana. One of the best parts of the day is that it is so quiet in town and especially up on the mountain. Only the sound of the breeze and birds to be heard. I am sure if the motorcyclists were out we’d be able to hear their engines way up on the hill so it was the most perfect day to pick for a hike.

At the top of the gondola we paused briefly for some views before getting on the double Vallon lift which took us about midway up the Piz Boe. The Piz Boe is a typical Dolomite mountain in that it is simply massive and rises alone out of the valley floor. From the top of the lift most hiking would require crampons in the snow or technical climbing gear and skills. The area was similar to the boulder field yesterday only flatter where we were and easier to move around in. It was a complete moonscape surrounded by snow, giant boulders and high peaks with views that seemed to stretch forever. I felt very small. The next time my mother says “get up in the airplane” to remind me how insignificant my problems can be I will translate that to say “get up on the Piz Boe.” As Dad said, it was a religious experience being there.

We hiked to the small Franz Kostner Hutte and signed the guestbook and took a couple of silly pictures. There were a number of other hikers there of all different ages and nationalities. I saw a large jutting knoll about 10 minutes away and we made the hike over to it for dramatic views. This was where I would build a rock cairn in memory of my brother. It was a very nice moment.

Dad and I did not take the easy or trail oriented route down. This area was so exposed you could sort of make your own way down and that is just what we did, climbing up and down boulders and rock outcroppings, all the while enjoying the miraculous views and pausing ever so often to admire the high mountain wildflowers. When we got to the ski run under the lift things got steeper and the only footing was over loose shale. We clung to the safety netting for part of the way down, and then shale schussed the rest of the way. It was thrilling.

The area we chose for lunch may have been the best yet. It was a beautiful pond in the bottom of a large cirque with crystal clear deep blue water and thick ice still in the middle. We sat on a grassy ridge just above the pond and made sandwiches with the bread, meat and cheese we bought in town before the gondola ride. It was incredibly relaxing and peaceful.

Although Dad had purchased round trip tickets on the gondola (not knowing what it would be like up there) we decided to hike down the mountain into town. My feet were already hurting as I only had my low hiking boots with me and the shale schussing had done a number on my feet, but it was only an hour walk down about 800 vertical feet along what seemed to be the most wonderful ski trail. I’ve said it before, I must come back here and ski. It simply has to be amazing.

Below the Gondola, you drop back into the tree line and the walk down was green and filled with yellow and purple wild flowers.  I took a risk and filled my water bottle from a mountain stream but the water was so cold and clear I just couldn’t resist. When we hit the bottom we were only a very short walk back to the La Fontana and here I now sit, writing this and thinking about a nap before Mac arrives. It is still extremely quiet out my window with only the sound of bicycle gears shifting and wheels spinning. What a perfect day.

6/26 Castle Andrez/ Passo Falzarego/ Cortina/ Passo Tre Croci

I think we are due for a day off. After another wonderful day on the bikes doing a 90mile or so loop out of Corvara, Dad and I are both admittedly tired and ready to take a bit of a break. We will see what tomorrow brings, but we are talking about taking a gondola up one of the mountains and taking a high country hike thru the Dolomites.

Dad mentioned this evening as we were walking around town that, in some respects the trip has been a little bit overwhelming. We have seen a lot of country and have put in many hours in the saddle. The views we have taken in, the endless tight turns we have cornered and the incredible passes we have crested have finally caught up with us. It’s time to let the bikes and our butts take a rest.

When I woke and looked out my window this morning I was surprised to see a mountain bike race taking place on the road below. It did not looked like it would impede our travel plans at all, but it was very cool to see all the bikers coming in large packs up the road. Tomorrow is also the Sellaronda Bike Day here in the Corvara area and according to Dirk some 10,000 road cyclists will be out on the roads, so they close 4 or 5 of the major passes for 6 hours to motorized traffic. Another excuse to take a hike.

We took a right immediately out of the La Fontana which puts you on the Passo Campolongo which I can see the bends of from my hotel room window. This was a very mellow pass which winds up thru high valley fields which are ski runs in the winter. We were stopped near the top for the bike race to pass thru and continued down towards Arraba. It seemed like there were thousands of cyclists on the road and there may in fact have been. In Arraba we were stopped one last time for the race and then left a lot of both the bicycle and motorcycle traffic behind us. Dad thought we were on the “Dolomite Road” (it sounds better in Italian) which is kind of like a Blue Ridge Parkway thru the mountains. As we headed up a forested pass, we could see the remains of a very old castle to our left. Fortunately we found the access road and were able to go right down to it. It was very excited as this was a “smelling of the roses” moment my Mother really wanted us to have.

It was the ruins of the Castle Andrez which was believed to date back to 1000AD. For close to 400 years it was a major defense outpost and area of political significance. What was so fascinating about the structure was that it was literally built on top of and around a natural rock outcropping. This added to the castle’s strength and it was apparently only overtaken once in a long siege after supplies inside had been depleted. It had been rebuilt after a few fires and eventually abandoned in the 1600’s as the area became less important politically. Castle Andrez has been undergoing more recent renovations with the hope of turning it into a museum but unfortunately many of the gates to take you inside the structure were locked. We were able to walk around the grounds and some of the more exposed parts of the infrastructure but were unable to see the inside. It was still very cool.

Just a few miles up we ascended the Passo Falzerego which we had come by the other day. We backtracked that direction about a mile as I wanted to take some pictures of the amazing boulder field at the top of the pass. Imagine if it had rained Hummer sized white boulders on a steep green hillside and you will get some impression of what this area looked like. It was something out of Lord of the Rings. Dad stayed with the bikes and I climbed up just a bit for a better perspective. It was incredibly steep and the scree was very sharp and in all my bike gear I was soon completely out of breath and could not go as far as I had hoped I'd be able to. I was still afforded an incredible view of the boulder field and somewhere behind me I could hear voices in the far distance. I turned around to face the huge vertical rock of the Lagazuio peak and noticed rock climbers a quarter of the way up. As I panned the rock face I realized there were climbers all over the face at different levels. This was a mammoth rock and it was mesmerizing to see them way up, as small as ants climbing ever higher.

We rode on thru the beautiful valley city of Cortina which was once host to an Olympic winter games. Although a large city, it seemed very pleasant and I would like to come back and visit sometime. We had lunch on top of the Passo Tre Croci which had a small lake and some old hotels. There were busses everywhere and lots of tourists, but the sandwich was cheap and bread delicious.

Down the other side of the Tre Croci we found ourselves in a deep canyon and eventually spilled out into the widest valley I had seen since coming off of the Stelvio. There was farmland and a much more urban feeling which brought with it traffic. I think this valley is one of the major access arteries around the Dolomites for people coming and going and it was good to finally leave it behind.

We ascended one final pass, the Passo Furcia which was barely a two lane road but with zero traffic. The down side took us through steep hillside farms where people were hand rakeing giant fields of hay. They still do it the old fashioned way in this part of the world.

Back in Corvara fairly early, we went to get gas and Dad had to put some oil in his bike as it was extremely low. We shopped for a bit in town and rested up before dinner. As the internet café was closed, after dinner I went to the expensive Hotel Posta Zirma and asked if I could access their wireless in the lobby. They couldn’t have been nicer and allowed me to use it for free so I was able to have a fantastic talk with Amanda and post last nights blog.

Once again I am sitting in my lovely little room and the moon has just risen over the top of the Passo Campolongo. My window is wide open and I am listening/watching the USA about to lose to Ghana in the second round of the World Cup. I can hear the cows on the hill above and the church bell in town ring. I look forward to hiking tomorrow and moving on back towards Germany and Heidelberg. I will miss the Dolomites a lot however and make a promise to return, with my wife, in the future. I really want to share this amazing area with her.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

6/25/10 Giau Pass

Ok, so call me a liar. I know that with each post I have said that the mountains get more beautiful, or that “this place” or “that place” is my favorite, but all of that was before I came to the Dolomites. The landscape and scenery in this area is more spectacular than anything I have ever seen in my life. All day I have been baffled by how to make a proper comparison to other places I have been and I have yet to come up with anything.  If the Alps are the perfect mountains, the sort I drew in grade school by just making a series of ever larger upside down V’s, than the Dolomites are the complete antithesis of that.  They are solid rock giants that look as if they were the remains of a great war between the Gods. Never do they seem to rest in an orderly range, but rather stand alone as craggy individual monoliths. It is that they are so not what I expected that makes them so glorious.

After another long day on the bike yesterday, I slept like a rock in my very comfortable room at the Pension La Fontana in Corvara. The bed provided a lot more space, but the typical European bathroom could use a little American super-sizing. Once again we woke to a beautiful, cloudless day and were up early and ready to ride. It was also quite warm at 9am so it was nice not only to not have to layer, but also to not have to worry about packing lots of extra gear in case the weather turned.

We left about 9:30am and headed up over the Passo Gardena, which rises right out of town. This pass was not anywhere near as imposing as what we had ridden the past few days. It had nicely banked turns that, although tight, were not the sort of 1st gear hairpins we were used to. Corvara seems to be the main town in a huge network of towns connecting a gigantic ski area known as Alta Badia. There are lifts, gondolas and bahns everywhere you look and I think you could easily visit for a week and never ride the same chair twice. It’s massive.

There was a surprising amount of traffic up and down this pass from cars to motorcycles and busses. It really felt like GSMNP in the middle of the summer with an endless line of vehicles. I have learned to pass like a European on my motorcycle, which would never fly in the USA and I will really have to check myself when I get back home. People expect the bikes to pass them here and cars will often pull over to let you by. Dad and I would often pull over to let much faster sportbikes and supermotards pass us, often thanked with the right foot kickout. I look quite frequently in my side mirrors, but sometimes these crotchrockets will scream past in groups of 4 or 6 and you never knew they were there.

In the first 25k since leaving the hotel, we covered three passes and saw amazing views but never really got out of the traffic. The roads were also a little more the worse for wear and had lots of potholes and frost heaves. Finally, in Canazei we turned left and put most of the heavy traffic behind. We rode up to the Passo di Fedaia, where, at the very top in a long tunnel, a group of sport bikes came up fast behind us. The sound of their bikes in the tunnel was deafening even with my earplugs in and I thought they were coming to mow me down. At the far end of the tunnel we stopped for lunch and had pizza and cokes looking up to the massive Marmolada which at 3342M (over 10K feet) still had lots of snow on it and there were many hikers, small as ants, way up in the snowfields. We could also see where people had made ski turns and as we were about to leave we watched a guy come down.

Riding thru ever more beautiful scenery and continuing to go up and down pass after pass, we finally began the ascent of the Passo Di Giau. This was a very steep pass with hairpins like we had seen yesterday but near the top the road mellowed out into wide sweeping turns and we were able to begin to take in the view that would hands down be the most amazing sight my eyes have ever seen. At the crest of the pass is a restaurant and large parking area and there were hundreds of motorcycles of every make and type sitting up there. The view alone from the lot was great but there was a trail to a knoll maybe a 10-minute walk up that I could tell would provide panoramic views. I don’t understand why Dad and I were the only ones to make this easy trek as the short hike provided quite literally endless views of these most magnificent and commanding mountains. This is the longest Dad and I had stopped for scenery. I don’t think either of us wanted to come down. It was simply too beautiful.

We finally relented and got back on the bikes. I set up my helmet cam and told Dad I saw a spot just down a bit where I could stop and film him. According to Dad, as we set up the helmet cameras and our bike2bike communication devices, there were a number of other bikers who were staring at our equipment and pointing and talking in German and Italian. I hope they thought it was pretty cool. My impression is all of these guys would love to see themselves take a corner at the speeds they carry. We followed a threesome of sportbikes down the east side of the Giau and a female was leading the pack. It seemed that the guys behind her were “letting her lead” as they would occasionally sit a bit farther back in a turn in order to race around it. Her pace was perfect, if not a bit fast for Dad and I and it was kind of fun being part of a pack, racing down this road with excellent banked turns and solid road conditions. I honestly felt the best on the bike that I have felt all trip.

At the bottom of the Giau we saw the sign to go left with 30k back to Corvara. The female’s friends had given her the chance to lead and now flew past her and were out of sight. Dad and I stayed behind her for a bit as our skill level was similar but she was much more apprehensive about making passes and when we got behind a bus, Dad overtook, her, me and the bus on the inside of a hairpin turn. Now I am the first to criticize what I think is a stupid pass but Dad rode this thing like a pro. You could see way up the hill to know that there was no oncoming traffic and the turn was wide enough that Dad was able to dip far down below the bus. It was the most impressive thing I have ever seen Dad do on a motorcycle and would no doubt score him many points with these European riders.

Close to Corvara we rode up behind Harley Dog. He was a little Springer Spaniel who was riding in a metal box on the back of his owners Harley. It was so awesome and so silly at the same time, but Harley Dog looked like he was enjoying the ride. Back at the La Fontana, Dirk came out to meet us and told us that he had just ordered a round of beers and to meet him in the bar. We had a nice drink and more excellent conversation and promised to meet for dinner once again. We also talked about Belgian beers, which are a bit of a hobby for Dirk and he promised to send us some. I must say, Dirk embodies everything that I love about Europeans; good people in general… a great sense of humor, a thirst for knowledge, and most important a strong interest in who he is talking too and what we are talking about. I hope we will stay in touch.

Skyped Amanda at the local internet café, (I miss her terribly) and had another great dinner where I had a plate of local cheese for my main course. Now to bed. I don’t know if it’s possible to top today but there is every indication that it is possible. We will see what tomorrow will bring.

Friday, June 25, 2010

6/24/2010 Just when you think it couldn’t get any better…

Today happens!!!

I’m not even sure where to begin exactly. Dad and I just had the most wonderful dinner at the Pension La Fontana in Corvara in Badia, our home for the next few days in the Dolomites of Northern Italy. The food was outstanding but what made it even more pleasurable was the great conversation with our new Belgian friend Dirk who we met at the bar before dinner. He struck up conversation with us about motorcycles and Dad asked him if he would like to join us and eat together. He is here alone for a week riding his bicycle and could not have been a more interesting and nicer fellow. I would say he is a little bit older than me, married with 8 and 12 year old boys. We talked about cycling, motorbikes, banking (his job), acting, Americans and Europe, and the list goes on. Our dinner lasted nearly 2½  hours and could have lasted another two if not for the fact that we were all so tired. He from peddling, Dad and I from another long day on the bikes. I look forward to seeing him tomorrow evening.

I did not sleep so well last night. Dad and I shared a room in our small hotel in Valdidentro and my bed I think was precisely 6’4” long which just happens to be my exact height. The sheets were also tucked so tight that when I tried to pull them loose a bit I ripped one corner of the top sheet and then gave up so I was quite literally confined to one sleep position. Thankfully I was so tired from a long day that I eventually got some shuteye.

We woke to the most beautiful cloudless skies imaginable and the first thing I did was go out on our small balcony for a view of the Cima Piazzi which dominated the entire horizon. That is not a view I would easily tire of.

We were on the bikes at 9am, which was the earliest we had saddled up so far this trip. We knew we had a long exciting day ahead starting with climbing up to the Passo Del Stelvio. We had come down the pass last night and both knew what we were in for and I can tell you that Dad was decidedly nervous. There were tunnels on this road that were little and dark and you would really not want to meet any oncoming traffic. The hairpins were also stacked on top of one another like the Grimsel Pass but the road was much narrower with shorter straights so every time you came out of a turn it felt as if you were going back into another.

We made it up to the top of the Stelvio without incident and this had to have been the best 66th birthday present my Dad could have asked for. Here we were, on top of one of the most famous roads in the world on a perfect bluebird day and we had arrived early enough that we avoided the circus that I am certain that place becomes by lunch.

After taking our required photos next to the pass sign, Dad and I both went in different directions for unique pictorial perspectives. He went up to a restaurant called Tibet that is perched on a rock outcropping overlooking the southern section of the pass which we had yet to descend. I went the other way, taking a small, very steep hike up to a knoll just above the souvenir shops. I was able to get an almost 360* view and the mountains just went on forever. I could see the road just descend into what seemed like an endlessly deep valley. I got down first and wanted to try and get Dad a few souvenirs for his birthday. It was the very least I could do in appreciation for this once in a lifetime experience he had provided us. It is a blessing that I have the kind of relationship with my father that we are able to have an adventure like this and enjoy each others company and share the same passions. Truly a blessing indeed.

I found one souvenir shop, maybe not the most polished, but one that accepted Swiss Franc’s which is all I had and the woman who ran it, who I later found out was named Cristina, spoke a good bit of English and was extremely friendly. I bought Dad a keychain, a sticker, and a sew-on patch. I also got two postcards, a sticker for myself, and two Swiss cowbell Christmas tree ornaments for Amanda and my mother. All for the paltry sum of 78fr or nearly $80!!! There must be a mountain top tax because you can’t get these things anywhere else. Anyways, it was all worth it, and although small, I think Dad was very appreciative of his gifts, which I handed him in the bag I got them in. We spoke with Cristina for a bit longer and she told me very briefly of the history of this area. How it was once the border of Austria, Switzerland and Italy before WWI but afterwards Austria lost it and it became part of Italy. It is still very much a German speaking area. Neat.

After a delicious street vendor brat on some fresh focaccia bread, we suited up and prepared for our descent down the side of the Stelvio for which it is most famous. I had up to this point thought that what was so impressive about it was that you could see so much of the road and switchbacks without anything blocking the view. After all, it did not look very different that other passes we had done. Once actually on the road however I realized that what makes it so famous is not only the severity of the hairpin turns but also the steepness with which the road descends between then. Drop and turn, drop and turn. Add to that the fact that 100’s of motorcycles and a few cars we coming up the other direction and everyone is taking the turns wide to make the hairpins without having to downshift. This means that as I turn wide left around a hairpin (guardrail and 1000 foot drop on my right) there are often bikes and cars IN MY LANE as I go down, and when I swing right I need to go wide to make the turn and hope and pray no one is coming up. The experience lies in the actual driving itself, not in the views necessarily, although those were not too shabby, you just have no time to look at them.

Many minutes and what seemed like 1000’s of turns later we found ourselves at the very bottom in a long wide valley where apples were the abundant crop and the valley floor as well as the steep hillsides were filled with such farms. There was also immense traffic. It was a very busy two-lane road with shipping trucks, farm equipment and crazy Italian drivers. Everything they say about Italian drivers is true. To Americans they seem reckless, and maybe they are, but I think the deal is they trust that if you are ahead of them and they want to pass, that you will not alter your course. Essentially they are counting on you being consistent. This was never more true than watching them ride scooters in the fairly large city of Muren where they would scream thru the roundabouts without a care. One guy on a scooter passed Dad in a roundabout. It was amazing.

We stopped for lunch as a small rest area right at the border of the towns of Tirol and Kuens. We had a nice chat with a Brit named Mark who was on his fourth week of traveling alone by motorcycle. He must have some money saved up somewhere because the prices alone of gas in Europe would easily drain my bank account. He told us the pass we were headed up would be gorgeous and he was not lying. After a bit more traffic we dropped everyone behind us and began to ascend the Jaufenpass. This I think I can say without question is my favorite pass to date. While still in the tree line, everything was just so green. Occasionally you would break out of the forest to go thru small towns that seemed to cling to the sides of the mountain. The pass ascended steeply and the bikes on this road seemed more serous than others we had encountered. We were often lit up by crotchrockets around the scariest of turns. Dad and I were both tired and so just took it easy and waved lots of people by, although I don’t think many of them needed much waving. I do like it when you allow a biker to pass you, they kick out their right foot like a wave. As we got out of the tree line the views were never ending and the completely cloudless blue skies made it all the more dramatic. I am running out of adjectives to describe these mountains. Trust me, they’re pretty.

At the top of the pass Dad and I took a small hike and got some breathtaking photos and video footage and got back on the bikes for the final leg to Corvara. We hit some major traffic and construction on some fairly major roads we were forced to take but finally turned off for the last 30k. The sign said we were heading towards a pass and honestly I thought my head would explode if I had to make another hairpin, but fortunately Corvara is a bit before the pass gets steep. We have our first taste of the Dolomites, which, I know you won’t believe me, are more spectacular than anything I have seen thus far, but I am going to save that adjective laden post for tomorrow as I am the most wiped I have been since we started.

I am sitting here in my hotel room, looking at the moon rise over the ski lifts and I bid you a warm goodnight.