July 10, 2017—While waiting for a package to arrive at Don and Sabine’s (which never arrived, don’t get us started but do note that Austrian post is horrendously lengthy), Dave and I decided to do a loop tour that would start and end in Wildalpen, and would traverse five countries in a week-long 1500+ km (900+ mi) ride. We both wanted to see the Dolomites in Italy and maybe a piece of the Mediterranean somewhere along the way. Of the five countries—Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and Switzerland—three could be added to our list as new, thus bringing our country count to 33 since we began our trip in Sept. 2015.
Leaving Wildalpen on June 20, we rode to Ptuj, Slovenia and stayed the night in a huge campground right in the city. We hadn’t left Wildalpen until well after noon, so this was a day of riding well into the evening for us before we found our home for the night. Nothing really exciting happened this day so moving on…
The next day we rode into Croatia. Dave has a good friend, Pred, who was born here but we weren’t able to get a hold of him to ask his advice on where to go. We were only in his country for a day anyway. Sorry Pred. On this day, in fact, we rode from Slovenia into Croatia, then back into Slovenia by evening. European countries can be much smaller than many states and provinces in North America, so it’s easy to get across quickly. Croatia, however, was the only country in Europe so far where we had to stop at an official border crossing and get stamped in and out of the country. It was very fast, though, and we got our passports stamped while still sitting on our bikes, like going through a toll booth.
One thing we wanted to make note of while in Croatia was one of our lunch stops. We found a building that had some umbrellas out on a patio. Inside was a few little stalls selling food we couldn’t translate so I went into the grocery store next door to buy some stuff to make sandwiches. In the line-up I had a green pepper and the cashier didn’t know the code to weigh it. There was a lady behind me wearing a uniform similar to other people working in the food court. She ran over to the produce isle and called out the number. When she came back I smiled, gestured a thank you, and she put a motherly hand on my arm, smiling back.
When I brought everything to the table where Dave was sitting, she came over and gave us menus. We thought it meant we couldn’t sit there without eating something from the restaurant so we ordered cold drinks, which she brought over right away. Then she took our green pepper and left. We wondered if she’d stolen our pepper. We started laughing but soon she came back with the pepper. It was washed and she had a cutting board and a knife for us. Then she felt our water bottle, which was as hot as tea from being on the bikes, and came back with a huge bowl of ice. It’s great when you don’t need language to communicate. Although it’s not considered a tipping culture here we left her something extra after paying our bill as she had clearly gone over and above.
Back in Slovenia for the evening, we found a campground online that looked great as it was right on the harbour. But we were a little disappointed once we found it as it was another monstrous place packing in as many people as possible with no definition of where one campsite started and the other ended. Everyone wanted to be near the beach, which didn’t look too inviting anyway, with its floating, overly-tanned European bodies lying leathery-belly up and no small amount of garbage drifting around. This side of the campground was more expensive because of its proximity to the beach but Dave and I happily chose the less-expensive, more desirable real estate in the shady trees farther away.
The days had been very hot, around 38-40°C (100-105°F). Although the water didn’t appeal, the patio from the campground’s bar did, and we spent the evening there having a beer and eating food we were allowed to bring in from our own stash, watching the evening turn into night and the lights across the harbour light up.
On the morning of June 22, we rode into Italy. The day was a scorcher and we thought it was funny how many days in southern Europe were much hotter than almost any of our days in Africa. Even entering into the Dolomites didn’t cool things down.
This day’s ride included San Boldo Pass, a very exciting pass where each switchback is a tunnel drilled up the inside of the cavernous belly of a mountain like a cork-screw. Traffic can only go in one direction at a time, so you have to wait at either entry for a light. The tunnel is extremely tight, barely wide enough for a mid-sized car, and very steep. It would be somewhat of a catastrophe to slide off your bike inside this tunnel as everyone’s waiting for you to get out, which could take a while if your friends don’t see you go down and no one’s behind you. Even worse as the traffic light is on a timer and figures you’ve had enough time to get through so starts the oncoming traffic!
We found another crowded campground for the night but this time on a very nice lake great for swimming and watching kite surfers, which we did while eating dinner on the shore.
The next day was Stelvio Pass, located in northern Italy at an elevation of 9,045 ft (2,757 m). There are 48 switchbacks running up the north face of this highest paved pass in the eastern Alps.
Halfway up is a nice lodge located at the base of some mountains. Dave and I were tired by this point and looking up from here we could see several more switchbacks waiting for us, so we called it a day and, using some of his birthday money from my parents, bought ourselves a night at the hotel with breakfast and dinner included. Dinner, by the way, was a four-course fancy meal. We appreciate a splurge every now and again, thanks mom and dad!
After breakfast the next day we rode up to the summit of the pass with about one thousand of our closest friends (it was a weekend) only to discover it was barricaded off because of a cycling race, so we couldn’t roll down the other side. I tried to ask around but nobody spoke English until one guy figured out to hold up a sign for me to read which said 8:30-2:00, so we had to come back if we wanted to continue down the other side into Switzerland.
We rode back down to the hotel, cranking our fully-loaded big bikes around the 90-degree corners avoiding head-ons with fancy race cars, motorcycles and cyclists coming up. The weather was gorgeous, so Dave and I went for a little hike then used the opportunity to do some computer work in the hotel before heading back up at 2:30.
The pass was now open and there was no small amount of farkling on the road while everyone tried to get around each other to continue their trip down the other side of the pass, which is far less steep and hair-raising but also very beautiful.
After three times up and down Stelvio Pass, we were getting slightly better at taking the curves a little faster but couldn’t outrun the race bikes that sped past us like bees and hornets most of the way.
That evening we found a more peaceful campground in Austria and learned we could do a via ferrata the next day as they rented gear. We were excited to do this but when we woke up the next morning, June 25, it was pouring rain. It was very hard to get motivated. Had we been in a hotel, we likely wouldn’t have left in such conditions but when you’re in a tent, what’s worse? Staying in its damp dome-like squalor or getting on your bike and immediately having the wet-diaper feeling? (Not even Gore-Tex works in this kind of wet.)
We rode all day in the rain until the evening when we found yet another campsite. Although we were only about an hour from Wildalpen, we were now in a beautiful national park and wanted to at least spend the night now that the sun was out.
On June 26, we rode back into Wildalpen, had lunch with Don and Sabine, whittled our gear down to the bare minimum and left the rest there for them to send home in a big box for us. Dave got rid of 12 kgs of camera gear and I’m now down to one pair of pants, one t-shirt and one sundress for hot days. We wanted our bikes as light as possible for our ride across Russia, the beginning of which was only a week or so away now.
Next up: eastern Europe!
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