Reaching great heights by going round in circles

After 3 massive rides in 3 days – Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia (total climbing of over 4,000m) – the talk at breakfast on Tuesday centred around the possibility of a “recovery day”… perhaps just a bit of an easier ride, not, you understand, a day lying in the hot pools at the wellness centre up the road!

I too was looking for an easier walk, and having exhausted the options in the nearby vicinity, I hopped on a train.  Not just any train, but the World Heritage Bernina Express, in my case travelling from Tirano (a 40 minute drive down the road) to St Moritz!

 

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This little red train, with panoramic views through wrap over windows, is a masterpiece of engineering, climbing from Tirano at 426m to Ospizio Bernina at 2,253m, gaining 70m in elevation per km travelled – a massive feat for a train!  This is achieved by lots of looping round and round through tunnels and along mountainsides, amidst some of the most spectacular mountain scenery (even mostly without the snow at this time of year).

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Literally getting to great heights by going round and round in circles.  I put that in a tweet, and the Rhaetian Railway company sent me a message asking if they could use my quote in their marketing!

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For my engineering friends, the train is electric, direct current at 1000volts.

Technicalities aside, I was especially fascinated by how it just takes over the main road in some of the villages we passed through, literally stopping traffic, and also by the long distances that the track runs alongside the road, with nothing more than a painted white line dividing it from the traffic!  Clearly no health & safety police here!

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Just after the highest point at Bernina, you see two lakes – creatively named black lake and white lake.  Maybe a New Zealander was involved in the naming?  Perhaps the same guy who gave us North Island and South Island?  What makes these lakes special is that the point between them marks the watershed between the run-off to the Adriatic Sea from White lake (which is fed by the glacier above it) and the run-off to the Black Sea, from Black lake.

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St Moritz, for those who haven’t seen it before (and I had not) is just as I imagined it – straight out of a chocolate box;  and to be honest, I wasn’t planning to walk at all.  I had a 3 hour stopover, and was planning a long lunch – the jugged hare with spaetzle nearly dragged me in – overlooking the lake.  But the day was so glorious, the lake so sparkling, and the path around it looked just doable in a few hours – so I parked the lunch idea, bought a filled roll and a bottle of water, and set off on a brisk walk in the sunshine.

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And it was good!

And when I got back, the boys had had their “recovery ride” which was just as well, because although I’d been telling them we still had one more day in Bormio, I was completely wrong!  And the route to our next destination goes – you guessed it – back up the Stelvio again and down the other side!

Too much of a good thing

Mother Nature dealt us a dramatic change of season on Monday, with temperatures down, and an icy blast from who knows where heralding the start of autumn here in the northern hemisphere.

Being the intrepid bunch that we are, we did not let that deter us from our plans for the day.

Peter, taking a rest day from cycling, offered to do vehicle duty on Garvia, the only ride that needed a car with the cyclists to shepherd them through a quite long and slightly climbing ride through an unlit tunnel.  We certainly didn’t want a repeat Gary and Alistair’s adventure the previous day when they accidentally strayed into one of the dozens of tunnels on the motorway – in their words, a cyclist in a tunnel is like an insect just waiting to be splattered on the windscreen of a spending car.

So the first challenge of the day was fitting four men and three bicycles into one rental car (admittedly a station wagon, but no mean feat nevertheless).

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Non cyclist lesson for the day – every climb has a right way and a wrong way up.  It seemed perfectly normal for them to be during over the top of Garvia and down the other side so that they could do it the right way – howling icy headwind notwithstanding.

Some of the craziness must be wearing off, because I too donned my windbreaker over thermals and set off on the second “easy” 2 hour walk on the guide map.  This one more of a hike through the woods than a stroll by the stream… First hike up up up into the forest (and my Woofs&Wine walking group know just how much I love up!).  

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

Next slip and slide your way down a steep scoria incline, into a small village with NO COFFEE!  Just a 13th century church, with the oldest bell in the region (cast in 1217!) and the main road raring through, with no sidewalks at all!

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And guess what? The next part of the walk was cross the road (carefully) and head back up the hills on the other side!  So with the sounds of “climb every mountain” ringing in my head, I gave up on the idea of following the main road home (whizzing as it was with cars, trucks, motorcycles and plenty of crazy cyclists), pulled on my big girl pants and headed up, up and up again.

The high road home

The high road home

Yes the view were spectacular, and yes the track down was just as steep – this time cobblestones down through the oldest part of the town – and yes, I felt a major sense of achievement as I flopped into my by now usual seat at Cafe Reiza for my post-walk coffee… But oh my goodness, were my ankles sore for the rest of the day. 

Grand plan for the afternoon – Alistair needs to return his rental car to Bolzano, a mere 126km away.  Fancy an afternoon drive?  An opportunity for me to see Stelvio first hand, we’ll meet Alistair at Bolzano airport, dump his car and all drive back together.  Excellent plan!  Apart from the roads, the traffic and a minor incident where Peter refused to believe the Navman and took matters into his own hands, resulting in a half hour roundabout to get back on track!  

There is an upside to everything – in this case, the discovery for me that hell will freeze over before I drive the car and luggage over the Stelvio on Wednesday (the recommended route as we relocate to Lana!  In fact, it was so bad, with 36 switchbacks going up and 41 switchbacks going down that I was having an anxiety attack just being a passenger.  Peter got a blister on his driving heel, from the continual breaking and accelerating, all the while dodging weaving cyclists trying desperately to climb the impossible climb at 4km an hour, roaring motorcycle groups hanging over on the wrong side of the road as they accelerate into the bends, and best of all, a couple of camper and who clearly didn’t get the memo that this is in facet close to a single lane road with traffic in both directions!  It was a relief, at least for me, when we ended up behind a bus halfway down – what the hell was a bus doing on that road?  He had to do a 3 point turn round many of the bends!

Suffice to say, after taking 3 hours to do 126km, we decided to take the long way back – the one we originally rejected because Navman said it would take 3 hours!  But thanks to missing the toll road entrance, a major detour, and a questionable decision to ignore the gps and follow the sign to Bormio – taking us along little more than a farm track in the dark, we finally arrived back at the hotel SEVEN HOURS later!  Peter was exhausted from all the driving, we were all three weary, and hungry, and dinner was long over.

but highlight of the day – our lovely hosts, having sent the kitchen staff home – had set out a feast of cold meats, cheeses and salads for us, with creme caramel to follow, and were standing ready with the winelist when we staggered through the doors at 9.45pm.  This is truly the most hospitable hotel we’ve ever stayed in!L

And wow, did we sleep well that night!

 

 

 

 

 

Food, glorious food

Skipping breakfast year day morning was a very wise choice!

At the time, it was prompted mostly by being too idle to get out of bed to start my day with the cycle boys (and, if I am honest, being on a bit of a roll with Candycrush).  But 12 hours later, faced with a simple but delicious 5 courses of yummy goodness, there was a great deal of post-rationalisation going on.

A bit of fresh, fragrant mush melon wrapped generously in wafer thin ham to start, home made pasta shells with the lightest touch of bolognase sauce, lamb chops top cooked to perfection (even though our maitre’d was a little anxious about serving lamb to kiwis), a skerrick of Gorgonzola with honey and fat walnuts….   All topped off with a silky smooth tiramisu…. Heavenly!  And all this part of our half-board room rate at what has turned out to be the most perfect cycling hotel ever.

Not only is there a car park for the rental cars (by no means a given in this part of the world), but also a secure bike room, with cleaning bay and plenty of racking to store the precious two wheelers.  Best of all (at least from my perspective) is the fact that you get a mesh laundry bag each day for your sports gear which is taken away at 6pm and returned freshly laundered the next day, all part of the service.  Yay, no more smelly hotel rooms, bathrooms draped with dripping cycle gear, having been stomped clean in the shower with the help of the hotel shampoo!  This is all so very civilised!

And let me hasten to add, not costing us an arm and a leg either.  Just a lovely, family run establishment, with warm and friendly hosts who understand the value of attracting groups of crazy-mad cyclists, and seem to enjoy meeting their special needs.  Ten stars for Hotel Larice Bianco, I say!

On the cycling front, yesterday was Mortirole – by all accounts a truly brutal climb.  Perhaps a little optimistic the day after Stelvio?  Peter still recovering from his pleurisy, and Don pretty exhausted after a hard riding week, called it quits part way up the mountain – though probably both with a bigger ride under their belts than they get on an average Auckland day.   Gary and Alistair (Don’s son, who has joined us for part of the trip), slogged it out to the top, then down the other side, where they had a rather alarming unplanned excursion through an unlit 1.5km tunnel with cars whizzing in both directions at breakneck speeds.

if cyclists are crazy, Italian drivers even more so!  More about the tunnels and the drivers another time.

Some very tired people last night.  Mind you, didn’t stop us having a very robust conversation over dinner about the state of NZ politics, and the fat German.  I have to say, I wish I could have Gary’s faith in the electorate doing the right thing!

I have to say, following the commentaries online from a place where it’s easier to see the wider world view, I am losing the will to vote!  Anything you think I should see before Election Day, please feel free to pass on!

Until then, I will continue to enjoy my little bubble away from the world, filled with mountain air, daily helpings of gelato, five course dinners, enough (but not too much) sultry red wine – Nebbiolo in this part of the world, and some good long walks to make it all okay!

My morning walk

My morning walk

Not a bad place for a Sunday morning stroll

Not a bad place for a Sunday morning stroll

 

 

To wait, or not to wait? That is the question.

Cyclists are funny creatures!

Saturday morning dawned here in Bormio, after a night of heavy rain.  Not just any Saturday – this is the ONE DAY all year when Stelvio is closed to motor traffic, reserved specifically for cyclists (and, apparently runners too).  A 21km climb of nearly 2000 feet – a 2 1/2 hour ride for the likes of Don and Gary, both just coming off their high of competing at worlds (where Gary came 2nd in his age group, and Don put in a creditable 18th place in his first ever outing there).

But is Stelvio in the rain with no cars better or worse than Stelvio in the sunshine with cars?  Peter says the latter – channelling past woes of his worst day riding ever, some 10 years ago when he nearly froze to death on the downward return in wet clothes in freezing temps.

Six different weather forecast sites gave six different views of the weather – none of them perfect.  In the end, having waited for Don to assemble his bike, they finally set off around 9am, with a supply of dry clothes wrapped in plastic bags in Gary’s backpack – he at 75 being deemed the fittest of the crew, and most able to deal with the extra weight!  Peter did offer to take the pack….

Setting off for Stelvio

Setting off for Stelvio

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Long story short…  3/4 of the way up, Peter stopped to tighten up a loose saddle, the others having got well ahead of him, was struck by a fit of coughing, and decided it was sensible to turn around and head for home.  But, the big worry… What if the others were waiting for him at the top?

Lunch interspersed with “I just hope they’re not waiting” uttered more than a few times.  A text to Don was apparently by no means reliable, given that Don hardly ever looks at his phone, or may not even have it with him – now doesn’t that sound familiar?

Much relief to find three tired and happy cyclists back at the hotel sometime later – of course they didn’t wait; in fact it seems they separated as well, and Gary, dry clothes for all still in his backpack, headed back down without any of them!  Sensible man…

I, meanwhile, had a peaceful morning wandering in town, resisting the amazing aromas of Nutella crepes wafting down the alleyways.  Having finally tracked down a shop that sells postcards – I swear the only one in town – I discovered why they are so scarce when I bought the stamps.  At 2.50 euro, nearly NZ$5 postage  per card, it has to be the most expensive form of communication in the world on a cost per word basis!  Hope the kids appreciate the cards!

So with Peter snoring gently beside me – afternoon naps being very much the done thing here, in anticipation of another 5 course dinner, I will leave you with the view from our balcony, and get back to my book and my knitting.  Aaaah, holidays…

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The other side of the world

It’s stating the obvious to say that New Zealand is a long long way from everywhere – but every time we load up Peter’s bicycle and head for the hills (this time the Dolomites in Italy – some quite high hills), I get a renewed sense of distance, the benefits and the costs of geographic isolation.

From a New Zealand mired in political debate and increasingly nasty politics-that I suspect will all have faded away by the time we return – 36 hours of mind-numbing travel brought us to this lovely little village on the shores of Lake Como, where the biggest care in the world seems to be ensuring you sweep your front entrance at dusk – as we saw several people out on the road doing as we ambled up and down.

A few red wines, local, of course, and far too much yummy food set us up for an 8 hour sleep despite the jet lag and time difference!

The view from my bed

The view from my bed

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Peter perusing the wine list

Peter perusing the wine list

If I wasn’t such a sceptic, I’d say the 1Above ‘inflight hydration drink’ made the difference – it’s one of the startups that we didn’t invest in – but we buy their product anyway, now that it’s available as a
pack of soluble tablets – the promise of “fly well, arrive ready” seems to have worked this time – or maybe it was just the lovely dinner with the fabulous view.

Today we head further into the mountains to ‘base’ in Bormio for the next week, where we will meet up with Gary and Don, hopefully basking in the glory of great results from their foray to the world age group cycling champs (both competing in the 75-79 year age group!).  I might even hire a bike!

From Italy, ciao for now.