A guest blog from Peter on the cycling part of the trip

A quick debrief – particularly for those who have been here before.

Fantastic weather through out.

And the cycling is all I remembered it to be. One of the finest locations in Europe. World famous climbs and fantastic scenery.

But firstly Don and Gary. They arrived in Bormio fresh from the world age group championships. Gary 2nd again. This time to a Frenchman. Gary, the Frenchman and the Frenchman’s mate broke away from the pelaton on a hill climb 3 km from the start. The pelaton never saw them again. Won by the Frenchman in a sprint finish after a race of constant attacking with the two Frenchmen working together against Gary. Gary disappointed with 2nd – but an awesome effort. He comes home with a giant cup we had to lug all through Italy!

Don came in 18th. Same time as the fellow who took 6th place. Well done to Don who has only ever done fun rides! He was worried about coming last. Also awesome. He is proud of his cup but even more so of a photo of him getting it from a famous cyclist who’s name I cannot remember….

First day in Bormio was up Stelvio. A special treat. One day a year they close Stelvio to all vehicles. Some 10,000 cyclists descend on the surrounding villages and give it a go. A really fun day if you can accept all these super young super fit lycra warriors passing you effortlessly doing 20 km per hour up 10-12% gradients……. men and women…..

Good riding conditions. 16 degrees in the valley. 2 degrees at the top. COLD. No snow. And the signs counting the bends lie. They have removed the final steep ascent to stelvio replacing it with an extra switchback. And they have not renumbered. A typical sly Italian trick. You think you are on the home straight but no….

Gary some 2 hrs. And Don claims to have beaten Kevin’s time… (I look forward to hearing the debate).

No rest for the wicked. The next day was Mortirolo. A classic Giro climb – usually a finish but not always. Neither Don or I made it. Tough. Very tough. Lance Armstrong (when he was still a hero) famously described it as the toughest ride he has done. Still more unfinished cycling business and a good reason to come back.

Still no rest for the wicked. The next day is Gavia from the traditional side. Trip to the start by car. Then up and over and down to Bormio. A 100 meters or so lower than Stelvio. Similar gradients but for me a nicer ride. On the exposed upper reaches a head wind on alternate switches – which means you get blown up the alternate ones.

After three hard days the group opted for a rest day of only 1000 meters of climbing. I decided to do part of Gavia from the Bormio side. A nice quiet day at my own pace.

Accomodation was excellent. A hotel run by a cyclist. 5th generation in the family. Bike room equipped with workshop and bike cleaning bay with stand, running water, brushes etc. And best of all a laundry service for cycling gear done at no extra charge. Deliver by 6, back by 7 the next day. No spin drying. Wonderful. No more washing gear in the shower and draping it around the room trying to get it dry.

Excellent cycling friendly food with great wine. On has to keep life in balance….

But good things come to an end. In this case replaced by even better things.

Back up Stelvio. Down through the legendary 48 bends. Half way down the maybe 25km is a sign saying take care – winding road for the next 3km!!!.
At the bottom lunch. I joined the group for the 70 km trip to Lana. Bike path all the way – alternating river edge and winding through the apple orchards. Magic.

From Lana to Selva Gardena via Bolzano. Bike path from Lana all the way into Bolzano. Bolzano still sucks. We made the mistake of leaving the bike path to look for coffee. Landed in an industrial area. Eventually found the coffee. Hot footed it back to the bike path. Some 40 km of old railway line converted to bike path to the base of the Selva Gardena road. Our own bike tunnels all with their lighting. The Selva Gardena road was some 25km of 4-5% gradient. Once again good riding. But tired riders towards the end.

From Selva Gardina to Cortina. A short ride of 3 passes and 2000 meters of climbing. No one was interested in my offer of 6 passes and 3,500 meters of climbing to get to Cortina. Kevin, Paul and Greg know the latter route well. If I recall correctly it was so tough Kevin and Greg had to stop on pass 5 and fortify themselves with a few sips of Cognac before tackling the final pass. They only got in at 7.00 that night. Only one cognac?

5 days in Cortina. Mountain magic this time. Probably one of the most beautiful sets of mountains in the world. Pink cliffs that soar from the road and touch the sky. Sun rise and sun set the best times to bring out the color. And a huge number of fantastic riding options.

One day Gary decided to head up an unsealed bike path. Excellent condition. Some 30 km later close to Dobbiaco (sp ?) At the top of the pass we switched to the main road. A pleasant ride repeated by Debra the next day on a mountain bike.

The riding – some hard – some easy.
Never boring. And the Gaiu is still there – as hard as it was the first time.

Accomodation was once again excellent. Again 5th generation family. Proprietor who is a cycling fanatic. A huge source of information and recommendations. Laundry service. Food not so good which meant we ate out more.

A revelation I did noy fully appreciate. The mountains are criss crossed by ‘white roads’. 100’s of km of roads and tracks built by the Austrians in the first world was now converted to mountain bike tracks. Enough to make me want to take up mountain biking.

And thanks to Debra for providing car support when needed. Warm clothing at the top of cols etc.

From Cortina we now start wending our way home via Africa. And the rain started today!

For pictures have a look at Debra’s blog…
https://rugbymother.com/2014/09/12/farewell-to-the-cycle-buddies/

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Unexpected connections

On this our last full day in Italy, we were, frankly, just not that keen on more “culture”. A brief foray into the local cathedral in Modena, where there was a service in progress, drove us back out into the sunshine, much as we were impressed by the ancient construction.

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Some of the stuff in this building going back to the 11th century!

Fleeting consideration of a trip to the Ferrari museum… Enzo’s house and all. But really, are we that interested in cars? And anyway, tomorrow the 100 years of Maserati exhibition is coming “live” to the town square, which one assumes means a convoy of really vintage cars! So we’ll stop by the square before we leave.  Maybe more car photos tomorrow?

A few things remain vaguely interesting. The local wine – Lambrusco – a light and sparkling light reddish wine that we tried with dinner; the whole balsamic vinegar thing, and the Parmigiano Reggiano that are all very much part of the local food scene.

A discussion at tourist information secured us an afternoon appointment at one of the vinegaries… Is there such a word? “Acetaia” a “house of vinegar” I think it is.

Cheese tours are only available twice a year… But we pottered down to the fabulous local fresh market and bought ourselves a hunk of 24 month aged Parmesan to nibble on through the day. Tomorrow we will get the 36 month one to sustain us on the journey to Milan airport!  The market is full of the most wonderful fresh sights and smells…

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On a whim we decided to break the car out of its privileged parking position in the LTZ (low traffic zone) with the historic precinct of the city, and armed with our map, found ourselves a morning tour of a wine museum and winery that has been in production since 1794.

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Although we’re arriving unannounced, the nice young man escorted us around the museum – the boss collects stuff, he says… A lot of stuff! Ranging from wine related curiosities, through a range of vehicles (the Mickey Mouse Fiat from the 30s, as well as early (but not that early) Maserati and Ferrari… Plus the bike that Pantini rode before he was famous – he was sponsored originally by the family Giacobazzi, as was Gilles Villeneuve who drove for Ferrari… A whole pile of F1 memorabilia…

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Over a few glasses of the sponsor’s product, we shared travel experiences. Our host had just returned from holiday – a road trip of over 5,000 miles around what he termed “Eastern Europe”, from Istanbul, through Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, etc etc.

Where are we heading to… Rwanda, you know, in Central Africa, the gorillas, big monkeys…. Oh yes, he says, I lived in the Congo for two years, just got back in January… And now my boss sends me to Africa to represent our product a lot. Recently been to Angola, and off to South African next month…. Wow, not bad for an Italian lad in a tiny village outside Modena! We felt we should buy some wine… A lovely light dry refreshing and really RED Lambrusco of the house…. €3.45! Wow!

So then on to Villa San Donnino, one of the balsamic houses of Modena, an industry that is just as, if not more, strongly controlled and restricted a the French wine production. Yet, on the other hand, a genuine cottage industry.

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In the attic of the house – always the attic, to aid the fermentation – a room full of barrels, with a simple but elegant process of topping up from one barrel to the next, just once a year, until the production is skimmed off the smaller barrel in each set, but only from a minimum of 12 years after the line was started, for the “traditional” (or 25 years for the extra vecchio).

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And then the production can only be bottled if the five expert tasters of the co-operative agree that it is up to standard! And then only in specified bottles, 100ml each… At cellar door prices of €40 for the 12+ year, €70 for the 25+ year! and at this house! a special bottling of just a few bottles each year of a 100+ year line! discovered when the current family bought the estate in 1947, it having been occupied by Nazi forces during the war.

The tradition originally was that the family started a new set each time a daughter was born, and that the barrels (and contents) became her dowry. There are two private sets in this attic… One for Emma Isabel, a special baby born to the family in 2010 and the other for Oliver, the grandson of a Norwegian visitor who persuaded (and paid) the owner to set up a line for him. He visits each year with the estate owner to do the topping up of the barrels together.

This is “story food” at its finest! I take a special photo of Emma Isabel’s barrels… Thinking of my own special Isabel Emma, counting the days until Ouma and Peter get home. Love you, Izzy!

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Our experience ends with a tasting… A range of products, sadly not the precious 100+ year option. The tastes are astonishing. I will never look at balsamic in the same way again. The “cheap” 6 year option – not endorsed by the cooperative, but finding favour with chefs, served on vanilla ice cream – now that’s coming home with me!

So the “tastes of Modena” experience has been further expanded today… All that remains is to return to the fabulous little trattoria we can see out of our room window, for another final tasting of their fabulous tortelloni, stuffed with spinach and ricotta and drizzled with balsamic, which today we shall appreciate all the more!

we get the car back to its privileged position… Thankful for Peter’s fine driving skills through these streets not designed for cars at all… this the view through the (dirty) windscreen as we near our lodgings….

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And on a completely unrelated but really “must share” note, this is Modena’s version of Postman Pat!  I did chuckle…

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I have been trying to come up with an Italian equivalent name for a postie in a bumblebee car!  Will keep you “posted” on that one.

An excessively excessive lunch!

Billed as the culinary highlight of our trip, Osteria Francescana did not disappoint.

Your first impression is the army of young men standing ready to guide you to one of just 11 tables spread across three rooms, all impeccably and inconspicuously clad in dark suits, white shirts and black ties… Fulfilling also a secondary function of repelling any interlopers thinking they might just swan in for a meal unannounced (our booking having been made in June!)

An aperitif perhaps? Why not? A glass of 2005 Spumante… Nothing like any similar named beverage tried before.

The trifold menus… Large enough to take shelter behind…. Offering two pages of a la carte options, plus two degustation choices, one the experimental menu (undeclared – just take what the chef happens to be playing with today); the other (Peter’s choice for us) the traditional tastes of the region, in many parts… Let’s see if I remember them all….

First, and before the actual menu starts, a few things to get your appetite going… Home made sour dough bread, with olive oil from their own press; a pink piped pile of mortadella (meat mousse, I can hear Howard saying), with some crisp bread and a touch of truffle oil on the side (dubbed “memory of a mortadella sandwich”) to be followed by a Parmesan wafer topped with lard and truffle shavings… Yum!

And so to the actual menu… Now accompanied by house made grissini, and a basket of savoury whole meal mini-croissants and tiny white sourdough rolls.

1. Eel swimming up the Po River… A small slab of eel, perfectly cooked in the must of aged balsamic, with a pale swipe of polenta down one side of the plate, representing the corn fields to the south and a bright green swipe of extremely tart apple something on the other side, the apples of the north.

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Peter reminds me that the evening before a local British expat, albeit clearly impressed by our reason for being in Modena, rather cynically told us that the chef here only became famous when he married an American marketer. Clearly she’s read the book on the value of story telling. But the food is delicious, and soon gone!  As is the artisan beer that accompanies it as the “wine” match… A working men’s match, Peter called it. Eel and beer.

2. My least favourite – something about the tastes of Modena. A rusk like biscuit topped with extremely rich sausagey meat of some sort, covered with an even more rich zabaglione made with the local sparkling red wine, with splashes of balsamic vinegar… Did I mention Modena is the home of balsamic vinegar?  In fact, we may well go on a tasting with a difference tomorrow.

Meanwhile, this course was honestly too rich for me, though thankfully off set by the cuttingly dry white wine.  At this point, Peter stops commenting on the teeny tiny portions, we’re definitely not going to need a Big Mac on the way home!

The solo diner at the next table strikes up a conversation with us… He’s a sommelier from a restaurant in Colorado, on. Business trip to Italy to learn more about their wine. Quite knowledgeable we discover, and also a part time cyclist. We maintain polite occasional conversation…. He’s having the experimental menu, and is photographic all the wine matches.

3. Caesar salad – described by the waiter as “our take on the traditional dish, with 25 ingredients”… Most of these, it should be said, schmoooshed up in the dressing that intersperses the leaves along with crispy shards of bacon and Parmesan crisps.

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Served, after the richness of the previous dish, with a rather strange drink… Aquavit, just a splash, diluted with lots of water. Waiter says it is to clean the palate. Peter unimpressed says it’s like drinking canal water – I hope he didn’t actually taste the canal water in Venice! I don’t mind it, it certainly clears the palate, as promised.

4. Parmigiano Reggiano 5 ways
One of the real highlights – different renditions of Parmesan cheese, ranging in age from 3 to 50 months, the melted “soup”, the mousse, the foam, the crisp, all different bu fantastically complementary. Definitely worth the trip!

imageParmesan is second thing they do here in Modena (the third is Ferraris – Enzo’s place, and the factory, is just up the road apparently. But there are no cars in our current samplings!)

5. Tagliatelle with meat ragu – a swirled pile of beautiful pasta, with a chopped (not ground!) meat sauce… Delicious as a meal on its own… By now I’m feeling I might need a little jog around the block! But wait, there’s more….

6. Veal not flame grilled… Actually a wonderfully rare slab of beef fillet, encrusted with ash and artfully placed amidst a modern-art-like swirling picture of different coloured sauces… With finally a red wine match.

We are slowly, very slowly, learning just a little about the dozens of unfamiliar grape varieties that make wine here in Italy. Today we seem to have had more than a few from the south – Sicily and Sardinia – but so far my favourites are definitely the Nebbiolo from our first stop (none of that on today’s menu matchings) and this Nero d’Avolo similar to the one we drank last night, and are now seeing featured to match our beef.

7. Surely dessert? The bread sticks and basket are removed, the tablecloth expertly swept of crumbs. A small Popsicle on a stick arrives… But no, this is the famous foie gras popsicle, dipped in 50 year old balsamic and crusted with chopped almonds. Wow!

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8. Finally, a small, but perfectly formed dessert. Three plump red cherries on a bed of chocolate and coffee crumble… Not real cherries, says our waiter… Great chocolate globes, filled with coffee and cherry juice – don’t eat the stick! he cautions, and use your spoon. They explode in the mouth, a fantastic accompaniment to the slightly weird final “wine” match of sour cherry juice!

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And so to coffee.. Of course! With a selection of bite size chocolates and sweet treats that we somehow found place for!

And so, three hours later, we waddled ‘home’, heavier of body and much much lighter of wallet… Our American dining companion stands and introduces himself as we are leaving, Austin is my name (I think, but not from Texas). He invites us to dine at his restaurant in Colorado if we’re even up that way. I invite him to come try some NZ wines… he knows a few, Waiheke Ironclad on the winelist at his place!

In a throwback to the days of olde, in this Italian restaurant, they still have a lady’s menu, with no prices! This despite all communications relating to the booking having been done by ME, the emails, the phone calls, everything… Peter gets the menu with prices, and of course, the bill at the end! I should not complain (and I don’t)… Just commenting, I say. He says: It’s only right, the way it should be! Everyone in their place!

So what an amazing experience! Definitely living on bread and water for the rest of Italy! Or so I thought…

But blow me down, at 8pm Peter was up and off again to find a wee bite for dinner!

Sinking, or shrinking?

Or maybe both!

No matter how much you’ve read about Venice sinking, there’s nothing quite like rounding the corner through the vast mass of people to find yourself in St Marks Square, ankle deep in water!

St Marks Square, under water

Suddenly you realise that those brightly coloured “shoe covers” you’ve been seeing on the occasional fellow tourist are not, in fact, a new trend, but rather the hawkers’ inventive approach to getting another €10 from you to protect your shoes from the floodwaters.

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Though quite what this man was thinking as he dragged the rest of his (and probably her) luggage through the water, his own shoes admittedly protected, remains a mystery!

Finally, an advantage in clumping round Europe in my African tramping boots … These boots have seen plenty of water before!

Mind you, I had been lulled into a false sense of security by our lovely tour guide on the tour of the synagogues of Venice… five of them in all… who was adamant that the main problem for Venice is “shrinking not sinking”. And not just the Jewish community, down to just 450 people, all extremely orthodox hailing from the Ashkenazic or Sephardic migrations. The tiny group of Hasidic Jews from New York, who own and run the kosher Gam Gam restaurant just round the corner from our rooms, are not, in our guide’s view, part of the local community, because they come and go back to New York!

In fact, the whole Venetian population is shrinking, down from 60,000 justo few years ago, to the current 56,000, as in our guide’s view, people move to the mainland where “life is easier and cheaper”.  Even for locals, living in Venice is, she says, about 60% more expensive than elsewhere in Italy.  And after two weeks of €1 coffees – maybe €1.50 if you want milk – the €4 to €6 coffees here are, shall we say, a natural barrier to excessive caffiene consumption!

But back to the ghetto.  Who knew I would come to Venice to enhance my knowledge of Judaism! At the kosher restaurant tonight I discovered that you can’t have Parmesan on your pasta, and that you can’t bring your own wine because if it’s not kosher, you will contaminate the glasses. Came a bit unstuck trying to explain “kosher” to Jenna! Hope she looks up the more accurate version when she gets home!

Where we are staying is the original origin of the term “ghetto”… An island which was originally a foundry “gietto”, where the Jews were allowed to live, provided they wore yellow hats when they went into other parts of the city, and returned by nightfall before the gates on the three bridges into this Island were locked, and patrolled by Christian watchmen.

This a “Venetian skyscraper” …. 8 storeys in the height of a ‘normal’ 5 storey building, the very low ceilings designed to fit in more and more people as the tiny island became overcrowded.

Venetian skyscraper

The synagogues are incredible, dating in some instances back more than 400 years.  There are two currently in use – the Spanish one in summer and the German one in winter (it has heating), with the bonus that the one not in use can be used for tourist visits in the “off season”.

The "Spanish" synagogueThe Spanish one (above), and the German one….
And the German one...

And an added bonus this morning when I discovered that the “Christian” bakers are on light duties on Sunday…. My favourite crusty breakfast rolls were thankfully fresh on offer at the kosher bakery around the corner!

The plus… and the minus … of our location is that we are literally miles away from the major tourist things, means LOTS – and I do mean LOTS of walking. According to Rob’s GPS on his phone, which thankfully navigated us through the alleyways for the past two days, we did close to 13km yesterday, much of it battling the hordes of tourists who are no doubt adding to the sinkage!

Highlight of the visit was the Vivaldi concert – including the full “four seasons” played in the Church of San Vidal by the world renowned Interpreti Veniziani. There is something about classical music played live and very very well, that simply fills you up  with wonder – wonderful, in the true meaning of the word. And a huge relief to SIT in wonderment for 90 minutes, having almost been late for the 9pm start after what was an almost as wonderful dinner of tagliatelle with lobster, mussels and clams… The half lobster with great big meaty claw framing a pile of freshly made pasta that was something to linger over. Not to mention Peter’s excessive wine selection… Well, it was a belated celebration of Rob’s birthday, after all!

So now it’s off to Modena for the next 3 days, with a vague intent to fast tomorrow to make room for the lunch on Tuesday. I guess it’s just as well we’re doing so much walking, and of course, while you’re walking, you do see some interesting sights….

… like the man walking his dogs in a baby stroller…

imageThe leaning tower, even though we are definitely NOT in Pisa!

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Old love, and young love…. (the latter complete with a “selfie stick” so you can both be in every photo you take)!

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imageThe child suddenly discovering her mother IS actually walking away….

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…and the dog trying just so desperately to keep up with his owner, and much younger lady bulldog!

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Farewell to the cycle buddies…

A holiday in three parts.

Part 1 – bicycles, men in Lycra, good company, interesting debates and LOTS of good food and wine – after all, cycling is all about eating enough to keep your legs going round (or so a friend once told me).

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Alistair left first. An early morning drive on Sunday to deliver him to Venice Airport. Having extended his leave pass from his wife and two daughters, adding some ‘father-son bonding’ time with Don to what was originally a business trip to a cycling trade show, he was probably stretching it to even stay with us as long as he did. The young one of the group – a mere babe in his forties – he added a sense on wonder at just to how these two old blokes (his dad Don and mate Gary), both in their mid 70s, could even climb these high mountains, sometimes even beating him to the top.

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I really enjoyed watching his admiration of his dad, tempering the ever present frustration with some of Don’s annoying foibles…

That need to constantly revisit his obsession with investing in gold to hedge against world economic collapse, that drives Peter crazy, and the difficulty both Don and Gary have with “technology” – though we should all admire their willingness to persevere with iPads and cellphones, nevertheless.

Having travelled with Don before, I know only too well his fearless disregard for road rules. Many’s the time the group would return with hair-raising tales of Don shooting red lights or hanging over onto the “other” side of the road on the bends.

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Don was next to go – his Wellington lady friend awaiting his arrival in Bolzano for dinner on Tuesday. We drove him through to Dobbiaco and literally PUT him on the train, juggling his bicycle bag, a large suitcase (Annemarie said he needed lots of posh clothes) and a backpack! No ticket, but there was nowhere on the station to buy one – suggested he find a ticket seller on the train! Presumably he got there…

Bonus discovery… A latteria (dairy, where they actually make the cheese!) in Dobbiaco!  Peter and I stopped in for a wee tasting – of course – accompanied by glasses of milk, and a very salty buttermilk that Peter loved so much he had a second glass.  Note the bus tour in the background – a day trip from a local retirement village perhaps?  I can tell you that 50 old deaf people all yelling at each other in German made for a conversation-free zone!

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And then there is Gary. The wise old man of cycling, and what a genuine all round nice guy. I did smile at his deep frustration with Peter. Peter could be really great, you know – he has that latent talent and strength, just needs to train properly. Gary is just so keen to coach him… World age group champs beckon. But Peter is unmoving – doesn’t need to prove anything, he says. Gary sighs… the wasted talent causing him almost physical pain.

The thing I enjoyed most about Gary is how much he clearly relishes every single day. Whether it’s a good ride, a fabulous meal, wonderful scenery, his glass is ever not just half full, but full full. He reminds me of my great Uncle Jan, who having survived being a prisoner of war, seemed to count every extra day as a bonus. I did wonder whether Gary had some similar escape in his past.

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A mix up in all our dates meant that Gary needed to be in Venice the day before us to catch his plane home…. Another 2 hour drive to Venice! By now, we were getting to know the road really well…. And then there were two!

So together the five of us shared nearly two weeks together – we solved the world’s problems (not really, but we did thrash them out a lot), bemoaned deeply the state of NZ politics, becoming ever more bizarre by the day, and shared life stories. Don’t ever say that men don’t talk about the stuff that matters… maybe it’s something about cycling that generates sharing, but this is genuine friendship in action, and spanning several generations.

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It was good.

And so on to part 2. The in-between bit between the cycling and the gorillas. Rob and Jenna join us tonight in Venice for a weekend of rugby (on TV), classical music (in real life) and relaxing catchup. Then it’s on to Modena for what I hope will be the culinary highlight of the trip – Osteria Francescana – currently number 3 on the world’s best restaurants list, with just 11 tables! Can’t wait!

The air up there

Wow!

Cables to the first station

Cables to the first station

After five days of watching the cable cars glide their way up the mountain – part of the much featured view from our bedroom window – we grabbed a few hours on Tuesday morning to take the ride.

And what a ride it was. Three separate stages on your way up to Cima Tofana di Mezzo, an oxygen sapping, lung depriving 3,244m above sea level, and site of that hole in the rock I noticed from down below a few days ago.

See the devil's hole in the rock?

See the devil’s hole in the rock?

From your final landing point in what looks like a moonscape, there is a set of somewhat rust metal steps leading up to the very top. Peter, still suffering reduced lung capacity from his bout of pleurisy, took one step towards the top before heading for the coffee counter indoors. I made it about half way up – serious flashbacks to Kilimanjaro!

I will let the views speak for themselves. Wow!

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And of course it wouldn’t be an adventure without, well, the adventure part! Having listened to our driver on the way up telling a couple of his American compatriots that he always goes up prepared (with food, drink and plenty of warm clothes) because you never know when you might get stuck up there….

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There we were, sailing downwards, noticing the men working on the pylons supporting the cables, when crash, BANG THUMP! Then silence….

Driver presses all the buttons available to him. Nothing. Phone rings – much talking (in Italian, damn!). Meanwhile, Peter, I and two young American lads wander around the car (big enough for 30 people), quite pleased we are not in the car we just passed, now swinging in mid air with about 25 people on board. What are the odds that someone in that car is panicking?

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We remain calm.

This is our "calm" pose... Just hanging out admiring the view...

This is our “calm” pose… Just hanging out admiring the view…

We speculate about whether we could prop the ladder attached to the roof across the open space to the pylon, and climb down. It is extremely far down! We watch with interest as it transpires there are two men working on the pylon above us. One climbs down to our level to peer in at the control panel through the window (maybe not believing the driver that it is dead). Driver sees him looking and presses all the dead buttons again. Nothing.

Are you sure it's dead?

Are you sure it’s dead?

Now there’s someone walking on the roof of our cable car. “Adjusting the clamps” says our driver. “Possibly not the best time to be adjusting the clamps” says Peter. Time passes… Then very slowly we start edging down again (along the cable, thankfully not straight down!). We speed up a little as the final base station comes into sight…. Our driver takes out his climbing harness and starts putting it on. We wonder should we panic now, or maybe adopt the recommended brace position?

We land uneventfully… But our driver rushes round to the other side and starts climbing up onto the roof. Perhaps we should have panicked after all?

More objects of desire, amusement and interest

Dogs are big, here in Italy… I don’t mean big as in size, although there are some pretty huge ones… Just big as in trendy, everyone seems to have one (or more)!DSC_0765-1.JPG
Unsurprising then that I’ve seen about six of these for every one actual rubbish bin – clearly you can take your litter home with you, but doggy doos need to be dealt with on the spot. Handy bag dispenser too.
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I still haven’t succumbed to the urge to shop – in large part because I have discovered that my body clock apparently has a preferred shopping time around lunchtime and mid afternoon… Which is exactly when the shops in this part of the world close for an extended lunch break from noon (or 12.30 if you’re lucky) until 3 or 4pm. So plenty of window shopping, but no actual buying.

I am however wondering if Isabel and Matthew need some Alpine outfits… Maybe some lederhosen for the little man?
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And yes, normal people do actually wear this stuff around here! Mind you, to be fair, I didn’t personally check how “normal” this guy actually is…

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However, judging from the lack of reaction of the thronging shoppers, it is apparently perfectly normal for the bride to be (I assume she is a bride to be) to be wandering around the shopping precinct in the middle of the day with a big pink penis on her head…

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And finally on the subject of weddings, this parked in the local church car park, where the arriving friends and family were almost all dressed in very fancy long evening gowns for a midday wedding… A long long wedding celebration coming up perhaps, but how the hell was the bride going to get her dress into this?

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Cycling contagion

Cycling, apparently, is contagious.

After just over a week with my quartet of men in lycra, it took surprisingly little effort on Peter’s part to persuade me that I would see a lot more from a bike than on foot. So walking plans went out the window as I saddled up on one of the hotel mountain bikes and took to the disused rail trail that runs up into the hills above Cortina.

Actually, I discovered later that it runs all the way to Dobbiaco to the north of us, but 29km was a tad too ambitious for me. In fact, just a few km in, I was seriously missing the “lady saddle” I have on my bike back home… And today I have bruises to show that a “racing saddle” on a mountain bike is definitely not for me.

The scenery was indeed spectacular, and of course I did get a lot further up the path than I would have walked!

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The trail is full of history, interspersed with myths and legends. This hole in the rock up above is said the be the hole through which the devil escaped the valley when Christianity arrived!

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But more recently, and certainly more factually, this is the area of the shifting frontier between the Italian and Austrian forces in WW1. A lot of 100 year memorials going on around the towns and villages too. The hiking map I’m using has all the frontiers marked out in coloured barbed wire! On my ride, there’s a bridge… One of those relocatable feats of engineering – I heard Sid in my ear saying “we call it a Bailey bridge”. Unfortunately very well ‘protected’ from stupid tourists who might be tempted to throw something (or themselves) down down into the gorge below, so what would have been spectacular photographs remain uncaptured.

I crept tentatively down the side, off the path, to get this one…

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Along with the story of how it was destroyed by the retreating Italians only to be rebuilt by the advancing Austrians! There must be easier terrains than this on which to wage a war!

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“Only a few hours of careful work”!!

And while we are on the subject of engineering, it would not be Italy if there wasn’t a tunnel along the way, preferably more than one. The highways and byways of Northern Italy are comprehensively punctuated with tunnels of all shapes and varieties, well constructed and lit (or not). Clearly in Italy road builders live by the old bear hunt mantra… Can’t go over it, won’t go round it, must go THROUGH! And even on this lowly cycling / walking trail, at least a couple of tunnels for good measure!

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Inside, wet and cold and eerily silent. And scarey! Even the lights in this one didn’t in any way mean you could see the roadway. You just cycle along, hoping like hell you’re not heading for a major pothole or crevasse!

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And the next one even darker – unlit presumably because it’s shorter so you can almost see one end from the other (if you could see around bends of course!

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But outside the world remains beautiful! If was only when I turned for ‘home’ at around the 8km mark – my butt being simply too sore to continue – that I realised I’d been riding relentlessly uphill for all that time. Great gearing on this bike! The whizz downhill, and the fantastic vista before me, tempted me to continue flying down the hill all the way into the village (another 2km), where I settled into a comfy outdoor chair for a bit of refreshment. Coffee with a view!

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All in all, a very worthwhile 20km – a drop in the bucket compared to the 100km plus days the boys have been riding, but satisfying nevertheless. Today, I’m back to walking – fewer views, but easier on the body!

Just when I think I can’t possibly take another photo of the scenery, it serves up something like this – sunrise from our bedroom balcony! This is the pinky pinkness of the Dolomites…

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The man in the information centre was right. There really isn’t anything much to do here, apart from walk, hike, ride and climb – but if you’re not into the hiking, tiding or climbing, it makes for a pretty relaxing, and inspiring, break from the real world.

Objects of desire, interest and amusement

As we wander around the world, there are things I see that I really, really want to bring home, things that teach me something I never knew, and things that just make me smile, plain and simple.  These are the things that make travel exciting.

oh yes!  In a world of unlimited luggage allowances, I’d have definitely brought this home as my new Christmas tree.  Every home should have one ( yes, it’s made from deer antlers!)image

Then there was this this… Outdoor seating with a difference!

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And if you happen to build your house down a steep slope, why not build a stylish lift lobby entrance up on the roadway, all encased in glass so the world can enjoy the view too!

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Going to an effort to keep everything – even the rubbish bins – visually “sensitive” to the gorgeous surrounds…

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… But then allowing this strange juxtaposition of competing architecture up in the slopes above!  And yes, they are two separate buildings.

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And finally for today, from the whatever next files… Nutritional labelling on fresh fruit!  At least grapes have a handy hook for hanging the label on!

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When words won’t do

Three days of traversing the Dolomites has quite literally left me speechless.
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Day 1 Bormio to Lana The road down from the top of Stelvio. Peter drove over the pass and then joined the cyclists for a leisurely 70km along the bike paths through the apple orchards (more about apples later). I got quite lost – really need to update the Navman – not helped by the fact that here in the South Tirol, roads (and everything else have a split personality, Italian one day, German the next!

The man in the hotel in Lana, when asked if he needed the details of the car I’d left in his car park, pulled up his nose and said “no, I saw it, it’s the Italian one”. I was left wondering how on earth a Skoda station wagon is “Italian” until I realised most of the others in the car park had German number plates! He expanded on his views when Peter checked in a couple of hours later… This area, the Italian “just TOOK it, just like that” snaps his fingers… “Just like Putin just TOOK Crimea, they just took it”. Okay then. Anyway, I’m much more comfortable in my broken German than in broken Italian.

Meals that night were outrageously gigantic in the restaurant / pub down the road. Apparently wine is a foreign concept… All menu items came with a beer match suggestion, but we had a choice of only 2 types of red wine – we sampled both and were sad to have left Nebbiolo country behind us (but fortunately a few bottled stashed back in the room for emergencies).

Day 2 From Lana to Selve di Val Gardena (full name specially for you, Willy Sussman) I was on driving duty. For the cyclists, a long slow ride through the valleys and then up up up into what is a ski resort (where I’d managed to find a hotel that was so far up the ski slopes that there was a somewhat unnecessary climb at the end of the ride. Rewarded by this view from the hotel room window of the glorious pink Dolomites.

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With the day pretty much to myself, I unpacked ALL of the luggage into our room, set up a little birthday surprise for Don…

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…and then headed down into the town for a leisurely lunch with a view. Have to say, the cheese balls weren’t at all what I expected – should have picked the gnocchi!

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Have to say I had a wee chuckle at this sculpture – make me think of Matthew!

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The restaurant across the road from from our lodgings was the perfect place to celebrate Don’s 76th birthday, which we did with style. For me smoked duck prosciutto (rivalling my other new culinary discovery – swordfish carpaccio, from the hotel in Bormio), followed by gnocchi with Gorgonzola… I didn’t join the boys in dessert (though the warm fresh raspberries with ice cream smelled scrumptious). Best of all, the perfect waiter… One of those wonderful Europeans for whom serving in a restaurant is a career, and one he is very very good at. Great wine and food advice, just enough banter but not too much, indulging our bad German and Italian before gently revealing that actually his English is pretty good, humouring Don’s sometimes unconnected questions or remarks… All in al, a great night out.

Day 4: Gardena to Cortina. Maybe it was the big dinner, or the altitude, or the biggish ride the previous day. Having waved the cyclists goodbye – all four of them – I was no sooner round the first of what was to be an unexpectedly large number of hairpin bends than I was waved down by a forlorn Peter sheltering under a sign at the side of the road. Seems the lungs are still not quite up to riding 3 days in a row.

Plus was that I got to sit ogling the scenery from the passenger seat, while he drove (with regular stops to allow the others to don their warm gear for the downhills, and shed it again for the next climb.

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I think this last pic is one of my best scenic photos ever!

A very weary bunch of riders arrived in Cortina mid afternoon, and by 5.30pm we were desperately seeking dinner – not an easy ask in a town where at that time mostly all that is on offer is cakes, ice cream and beer! A small, quite basic and very expensive pizzeria rescued us from a rush of low blood sugar grumpiness… And by 730pm all were back in their rooms (Alistair having decided he was no longer sharing with Don) and some, I believe snoring soundly by 8!

So finally, back to the apples, and back to the very first day of our journey. From the moment we left Lake Como, and all the way through the Gardena, the valleys are awash with the yellow and red of fresh ripe apples waiting to be harvested. The volumes are overwhelming… One packhouse we passed was as large as a small village! I could not help but wonder at the fact that New Zealand actually exports apples to Europe, and quite successfully so. Yes, we fill their “off season” – but unless you’re an apple aficionado, you will probably be quite happy with the local ones kept in cool stores for a year round supply. The importance of our pip fruit innovation programme… Constantly developing new varieties to meet and to generate new tastes – it’s absolutely critical. I was again pleased to have played a small part, through one of my best research projects ever, in helping to shape the development priorities for that programme.

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Because honestly, beautiful as they look, these apples are, to eat, not a patch on our fantastic Pacific Rose, Lemonade, Jazz and other varieties, not to mention my very favourite bite sized Rocket apples!

So here I am in Cortina for the next six days. A town completely dedicated to VERY fit and active pursuits. If you’re not here to ride (road or mountain bikes), hike or rock climb, the man in the information centre is pretty much at a loss as to what to suggest. Fortunately I am perfectly happy to wander, with my book, my note pad and my knitting; and of course my shiny new camera that I am getting to know a little better each day.