#8 On To Europe (late June-July 2012)

"Ah, it's good to be back."
Welcoming Old Towns
"I feel more at ease here than in downtown Portland" was my comment to Bill as the thin soles of our newest minimalist shoes hit the cobblestones of Frankfurt's old town our first full day on the continent. Part of the ease came from the characteristically human scale typical of many European old towns combined with the pedestrianized streets and historic plazas. The plentiful and well-proportioned public spaces drew us and a broad cross section of the entire community into the center and invited all to mingle and linger.

The ethnic diversity that Germany cultivated to partially make amends after WWII added variety to faces and fashions seen on the streets and were curiously juxtaposed with the staunchly Germanic architecture and ambiance recreated from the post-war rubble. The numerous, wide public spaces in the core were criss-crossed with single-speed bikes, full-sized prams, and pedestrians that all had to maneuver around small clusters watching the latest innovation in street theater. In all, it was an energizing and welcoming scene that made it hard to feel like an outsider.

Jet-Lagger's Special: picnicking in Frankfurt's bustling old town.
No longer interested in the tourist sites in Frankfurt, we instead approached the city like frequent visitors while we rediscovered the budget Lidl food market down a side street; Bill's favorite bookstore for road maps and magazines for his ongoing language studies; and yet another bäckerei to provide heavy, hearty rolls for our brown bag lunch on the promenade. Intermittent canopies of fragrant lime trees and a lively bustle of tourists, shoppers, and neighborhood residents gave the center a deep-rooted quality that felt safe and nurturing while we ran our errands.

In Frankfurt's old town we can always select from a stream of picnicking options in the district made for strolling or when along the handsomely developed, nearby riverside. That's so different from Portland where finding a park with a bench or going to Pioneer Square "Portland's living room" for lunch means your are heading for a destination. We thought back to our recent 4 months in the US SW and realized it was easier to find a place to sit and admire the scenery in Frankfurt's old town than it had been when hiking or in the campgrounds. Stopping to rest or eat our lunch in the SW often meant "making do" instead of having a pleasing place to pause. Of course, we've visited dozens of European cities where seemingly the only way to sit down is to rent a chair in a restaurant but that's not the case in some cities like Frankfurt.

Lingering By Design
It was no accident that we were laying over in Frankfurt for 3 nights after touching down in Amsterdam. Making the 4 hour train trip from Amsterdam to Frankfurt on our arrival day in Europe deposited us in the heart of a city we knew and in a city we knew was easy to be in. It was one of 2 cities strategically chosen by Bill to ease our jet lag transition necessitated by the 10 hour flight and 9 hour time difference.

Being on the streets was our "job" for our first days in Europe. Getting the snappiest possible recovery from the worst of jet lag meant getting up early, doing an hour or so workout routine from our P90X DVD series, then spending the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon outdoors in the bright daylight to urge our bodies to accept the out-of-sync cues as the correct rhythms. Too sleepy to read and too brain-dead for anything requiring concentration, passively soaking up the sights, sounds, and spectacles of others for 2 days in Frankfurt was a good match with our abilities and needs.

There's no shady place to picnic in the formal main plaza of Bolzano's old town.
The next stop was Bolzano, Italy after an all day train trip south from Frankfurt. Bolzano has a small, pleasing old town though its people-watching entertainment quotient was far below that of Frankfurt's and it's primarily a 'pay to sit' place. But Bolzano is only a 90 minute bus ride from Selva di Val Gardena, our favorite hiking venue in the Dolomites, so it was the logical next lay-over point.

An unexpected pop-up of the temperature into the 90's meant we did some unscheduled heat acclimation while in Bolzano. The heat combined with humidity, often in the 75% range, meant it was challenging to make the hour+ walk to the old town from our hotel, but we pressed on regardless. We walked about 12 miles each of our 2 full days in Bolzano, managing a pace of more than 3 miles an hour for much of the time, which felt like a huge accomplishment. It was a mixed bag of walking along the lovely river greenway on the extensive system of bike and pedestrian paths and next to traffic in a light industrial area. Not exactly idyllic, but for 2 days we figured we could coax ourselves into a little endurance work while trying to trick our minds into thinking it was really the right time of day to be active.

A rude, rude surprise from the hours of walking on the flat asphalt in what was for us, extreme heat, was that I developed no less than 5 blisters on my feet, which is unheard of for me. Two were deep blisters on my soles, the other 3 were more superficial on my toes and the top of one foot. Previously I'd walked considerable distances in both pairs of shoes I wore those 2 days but assumed it was the high variety in rub patterns dished out on uneven trails that had prevented problems from developing before. The lessons learned for me were that when traveling always have a pair of back-up shoes and allow for irritation if the new terrain will be significantly different from one's norm, even if it is less challenging. (And indeed, once back on the mountain trails, I had no blister problems on hikes of similar distances in the same shoes.)

Sella Ronda Bike Day

During the windy, scenic, 90 minute bus ride to Selva from Bolzano Bill got increasingly more excited about being back in the mountains while I felt a sadness overcome me about what wouldn't be this year. As was often the case, the 4-passes Sella Ronda Bike Day would be held the day following our arrival in the mountains but for the very first time during a long Selva visit, we wouldn't be participating. The imprudence of riding in the huge event this year was yet another unhappy reminder of what we'd lost with the abrupt curtailment of our 9 month tours abroad.

For the first time in 12 years, we were arriving in the mountains after 9 months with little cycling. Normally when we arrived in late June we'd have been cyclotouring for the better part of 4 months and were altitude and heat acclimated as well as being fit. Last year we'd had a 6 month break from touring but had ridden our bikes most of the way from Vienna, where they had been stored for the winter, to Selva so we had regained some conditioning. But this year the bikes had been stashed in Selva and we were arriving in no condition to tackle a peak event.

Yet another loss from our bygone cyclotouring lifestyle was in my face and I didn't like it. Yes, if we made Sella Ronda a priority we could do it. It would however require training specifically for it for several months before departing for Europe and we weren't likely to do that. Not participating in the event was a potent symbol of change but it wasn't in and of itself that important. Part of the fun of the Sella Ronda was just showing up in town, ready to perform, without special preparation. Harrumph.

Among the peaks instead of on the passes on Sella Ronda Bike Day.
Fortunately my sadness quickly faded into the busyness of settling into our apartment shortly after we piled off the bus. We dragged our two, 50 lb trolley suitcases up the hill, reciprocated with a suitably enthusiastic greeting when met by the young Croatian housekeeper, took a gift and cash payment for the 2 weeks rental to the owner of the apartment at her other business, and then bought groceries and other supplies for our stay. We hurriedly assembled a simple picnic dinner to take with us for the walk up to the lovely Val Lunga before the sun set. And the next morning while the thousands of lean and fit cyclists headed out over the passes on roads closed to autos, we were oblivious to their departure as we aimed for other peaks and different stunning panoramas from a favorite hiking trail. It's hard to pout for very long in the Dolomites.

The State of Affairs
Several friends had expressed their concern for our safety when overseas this summer because of the increasing threat of civil unrest due to the European debt crisis. Given that we would be exclusively in central Europe, we had little concern. Austria was never mentioned in discussions about the financial melt down and we would be in an autonomous region of Italy, regions that are by design economically buffered from woes of the rest of the country. In addition, we knew that it was more southern and Mediterranean Europe that had long traditions of readily taking to the streets in protest but that that wasn't as frequent of an occurrence 'up north'.

Indeed, during our first week in Europe there were no signs of anything amiss as we deplaned at Amsterdam and then lingered in Frankfurt, Germany and Bolzano (Bozen), Italy each for 3 nights. There was a small, easily missed "Occupy" encampment in front of an EU building in Frankfurt, but that was the only sign of anything different from prior years. It appeared to be "business as usual" to us as tourists.

This year we encountered more cows than hikers on the wooded trails above Selva.
But once we arrived in Selva and had a chance to chat in English with both a business owner and the young Croatian housekeeper that we see each year, we learned what was beneath the surface. "Very bad" was the comment from Monika, the housekeeper. Business was down some in 2011 but it was markedly down this summer according to her. We were occupying one of only 2 apartments that were rented for the first two weeks of the season whereas last year it seemed that all of the 8 or so units were rented. High season, August, was not yet fully booked for the 4 star hotel or 3 star apartments though the owner of both assumed that "the Italians" would come through and reserve at the last minute.

Monika said that the all-important, recent ski season had been "good enough" in Selva, with the mainstay of guests for 3 of the 4 month season being from Poland and Russia instead of Germany and Italy as was usually the case. We noted that the Germans weren't present in as many numbers in the summer of 2011 in the Dolomites compared with prior years though were told that "the German's are starting to come back" in 2012, which made sense because of the substantial improvements in their economy.

Apparently the highly destructive spring earthquakes around Bologna and Modena were the last straw for the Italian contingent in the Dolomites for the summer of 2012: too much destruction, too much loss in even those highly affluent regions for them to book their usual summer holidays. And Monika, who had returned a few days prior from 3 months back home in Croatia, said that tourism was way down there too--a destination also favored by Germans and Italians.

We noted that the chronically overpriced markets in Selva had brought in more house brands this year for basic items like canned beans and paper towels--products that were half the prices of the name brands. We assumed that the down economy was forcing them to bend a bit in what felt like a habitual pattern of price gouging. But even so they were making it easy for the inattentive shopper to make up for their losses, with cans of ordinary looking tuna penciling out at $25 a pound compared with the product also packed in olive oil that we bought for $7 per pound. I noticed that a popular Selva gift shop was displaying more lower price-point items than in the past. And in Bolzano, 1 of the 2 sunscreen products I'd just purchased in Frankfurt was 30% more, making me again wonder if the Italian merchants weren't selectively pressing on the consumers where they thought they could without being noticed.

During our 2 week stay in Selva we sensed that the buzz on the streets was down from prior years and there wasn't the press of people in the shops or on the lower trails. The number of tourists wasn't down so much as to feel eery, but it was a notable change. There were only 2 apartments rented in our building for each of the 2 weeks we were there and when we departed the building would be empty for several days. We were leaving when the price increased about 40% on its march to high season rates and it looked like that scared a lot of people off this year. Our next host in Corvara had all 5 of his units filled but his apartments were priced at half of that of the Selva units, which is why we always make the move over the pass to the next valley when the prices in Selva go up.

We'd be watching for more clues as to the effect of the global economic woes on the local communities in many familiar regions in Italy and Austria though unlike Selva and Corvara, we didn't have established relationships with people there from which to get the lowdown.

"Go Thrash Yourself"
Those were the words spoken to Bill by the vascular surgeon with whom he had consulted 5 days before we boarded our flight to Europe and that's what we did when we arrived in Selva di Val Gardena a week after touch-down on the continent. We'd vowed to take it easy on our first hike in honor of our lack of specific conditioning and lack of altitude acclimation and yet we caved into the challenges of the favorite, short, steep trail that starts at about 5,000'. "Stevia" is our nickname for 'the cliff-face portion of the trail to Stevia Hütte from the Selva side" and it has become our gold standard for a fitness trail. Whether hiking in the US or abroad, we are always on the look-out for another trail that provides the efficient, delightful workout that Stevia dishes-out but have yet to find one.

The base of the Stevia trail is about a 15 minute walk from our Selva apartment and the trail itself is so steep that if we walk it at a running-level-of-effort, we can crest its 2,000' elevation gain over roughly a mile and a half in 45 minutes. The trail abruptly starts on a wickedly steep, grassy tractor path and then ducks into a conifer forest where it briefly levels off and reveals some great lower elevation views of the village of Selva and the surrounding mountain peaks.

Bill charging up our favorite fitness trail, "Stevia," above Selva.
The trail immediately gets steep again as it zigzags through the forest and around some house-sized boulders that were once up on the cliffs and grazes a string of impressive, needle-camouflaged ant hills. At almost the half way point the trail breaks through timberline and the rest of the route is almost a mountain-goat class trail that claws its way up the face of the cliff. The south exposure is usually hot all day from the sun and this is where overly ambitious hikers start seriously slowing down, competing for the few benches, and asking folks descending "How much farther?".

We've never followed through on satisfying our curiosity by actually timing the segments of varying trail conditions but it seems like half or more of the upper half of the trail is effectively stairs. Neither of us would have the determination to climb the equivalent of as many flights of indoor stairs that the rustic log and grit track throws at us, but the fresh air, the constantly changing footing challenges, and the great views with even better yet to come at the top keep us going every time.

Last year my conditioning when we arrived in Selva was enough better that I made it to the crest in 45 minutes whereas this year it took me 51 minutes (though Bill made it in 48) but my heart rate monitor told quite a story. My average heart rate for the entire 51 minute span was 157 beats per minute with the last 15 minutes spent consistently above that rate. I was feeling light headed with that level of exertion but the amount of distress was tolerable, so I pressed on at a steady pace. Once we were strong enough to do Stevia without resting, Stevia became an irresistible seductress. Neither of us can keep from pushing ourselves once on this trail, no matter how we feel.

Part of why we don't resist the temptation to push ourselves to the max on Stevia is that no other trail or fitness challenge makes it so easy to thrash ourselves. The constant changes in tempo, scenery, footing, and panoramas make us want to keep going. And being effortlessly motivated to successfully push through the internal resistance that we won't confront using will power alone feels so good. Our bodies feel like efficient, capable machines doing precisely what they were designed to do when on Stevia and it is totally exhilarating. We remember the feeling of being strangled by our own physiology when we weren't as well conditioned for its stresses and we see the same chaos reflected on the faces of others and yet we know we've left that all behind. Digging deep on Stevia is what the surgeon meant by "go thrash yourself" and no doubt he knew that Bill was already doing just that and that was exactly why he'd never see Bill in his office again.

Polar Bear Club with Fruit-Bob & a Movie
"I'm going to a Polar Bear Club meeting, do you want to come?" was my way of coaxing Bill into soaking his feet in icy cold water with me after a day on the trails a couple of years ago. We quickly discovered that the stresses of barefoot hiking or wearing thin, minimalist shoes on rocky trails could be completely neutralized with a 10-15 minute soak in a mountain creek or in a partially filled bathtub. Bill was always reluctant because the cold dip was more distressing to him than me so I tried to make a game of it. But the cold therapy is so deeply soothing to his feet that now he talks about the Polar Bear Club before we even get off the trails in the afternoon.

Polar Bear Club is welcome even after traversing snow in thin-soled, minimalist shoes.
For our first official 2012 'meeting,' which was after our first hike for the season on Stevia, I added the Fruit-Bob. We have occasionally savored a bountiful afternoon fruit plate on a terrace or balcony when overseas but on this day I too was impatient for the soothing cold on my feet that I made a compromise: six pieces of fruit were tossed into a kitchen pan which was filled with warm water and a few drops of detergent and placed next to the tub. The polar bears could bob for a piece of semi-washed fruit while their feet dangled in the cold water. The ready access to the tub faucet meant it was a snap to rinse each piece as it was ready to be eaten or to cleanse sticky fingers between servings.
The Fruit-Bob was an instant success and was repeated the second day when Bill added a movie to the Club meeting. He'd purchased a DVD lecture series on the major transitions in evolution just before we left home and he hauled the laptop into the bathroom so we could simultaneously recover from the long hike, soak our feet, eat our fruit, and expand our minds.

Polar Bear Club meetings were something we missed when hiking in the US SW this spring. There were no icy cold streams in to which to dip our feet in the deserts nor was the tap water at the campgrounds anywhere close to being chillingly cold. We do have a freezer in our camper but the compartment was always so stuffed with food that there wasn't any prospect of making sufficient ice to have a therapeutic cool-down for our feet. Unfortunately the winter of 2011/12 was another low snow year in the Italian Dolomites so our favorite dipping creeks were dry stream beds this summer. It looked like Polar Bear Club meetings would be a strictly indoor and summertime activity this year and only when we are lucky enough to have a tub and seriously cold water.

New Opportunities For 2012
Increasing Range
One of the benefits of 'thrashing ourselves' on steep trails like Stevia is boosting our fitness level enough higher so that we have greater endurance and can therefore go on longer hikes. Routes that are too long and via ferrata's that are too advanced for us limits the activities Bill can plan when in the mountains and that is an ongoing source of frustration for him. Bill was pleased this summer when he realized that we'd probably bumped up our fitness enough that he could make Rifugio Puez a destination from our Selva apartment.

At last, Rifugio Puez was within our range.
Fortunately he was correct and we breezed up the steep trails and effortlessly made the long traverse to the hut. It was a little over 13 miles round trip with respectable gain and we completed it in under 5 hours of moving time. The first half of the hike was on familiar territory but the second half was all new and delivered stunning views. We "ooo'ed' and 'ahhhed" much of the way back, thoroughly enjoying seeing the familiar deep valley and high peaks from the opposite ridge.

Bill was delighted to finally be able to take this route that he had eyed for years and our success with it immediately had him carving out more new territory for us. We weren't quite sure at the time what was behind this bump-up in performance, especially given I was hiking with 5 blisters on my feet, a bee sting on the bottom one foot, and persistent swelling in one knee, but we were quick to take advantage of our greater endurance.

Collecting More Data
Our performance increase over last year may have been in part due to intermittently using a shared heart rate monitor. As hoped, even casual use of the monitor spurred us to push when we might instead kick-back a little. And by chance, having paid attention to the usual differences in our heart rates proved to be important if not critical in safely getting Bill out of the Grand Canyon this spring when he had a case of acute mountain sickness. We didn't know what had sapped him at the time, but nonetheless pacing our ascent so his elevated heart rate didn't go through the roof had been a prudent strategy.

Convinced that monitoring our heart rates when exerting was both motivating and potentially life-saving, we decided to both always wear monitors when we knew we might be exerting hard, or for several hours, during our summer in Europe. Getting even more clear about our usual rates under the same conditions could aid us in spotting the onset of acute mountain sickness in Bill and allow us to intervene quickly. And perhaps with more attention to the numbers we'd be able to use recovery times and elevated resting rates as a way to watch for over training--something we hoped would be a problem but never was.

This spring Bill set out to do what he'd never done before, which was to plan our entire 3 month stay in Europe in advance. Part of the fun of our 9 month cyclotours was not planning and remaining open to the possibilities. Bill always had a rough plan for the current and following year, but the details were often only worked out a few days in advance. The downside of our old strategy was that we had to meticulously avoid popular areas during high season because of the high prices on lodging, the tendency for places to be fully booked, and the prevalence of requiring 3-7 day minimum stays.

So many choices, so many decisions to make, moment to moment, week to week.
But we discovered last year that being limited to 90 days in Europe meant that we were ahead to cover less territory per week and that made it harder to avoid crisscrossing high season rate areas. So this year Bill decided we'd dive into the heart of high season in less expensive Austria by booking in advance. The meticulous planning and making all the lodging reservations was a hair-tearing experience spread out over several months, but by the time we arrived in Europe he had booked a room for every night except our last 10 nights, which he intentionally left open.

As a consequence, Bill was freed of the burdens of route planning and making reservations as we traveled, which gave him more time to enjoy what we were actually doing. We also decided to break out of our DIY meals approach for one week and booked a hotel stay with 'half board,' which means breakfast and dinner are included. Half board is very popular in the resort hotels in the mountains but we scrupulously avoid it because of the expense and lack of control over our diet. But this big hotel is on tiny Lake Misurina high in the Dolomites where both the lodging and shopping opportunities are very limited. Bill spotted an internet special for this hotel this spring--something that is rare outside of the cities--so we decided to go for it. Hopefully we'll be satisfied with both the lodging and the food but at the very least we'll experience a proper, half-board European holiday for the first time.

A Home Base
Also for the first time in our 12 years of overseas travel, we had some semblance of a home base in Europe in 2012. Last fall our favorite hostess in the Dolomites guaranteed her standing by offering to store our bikes on her property for the 9 months that we were back in the US. Better yet, she would also store our luggage during the summer, which we could then swap-out with the bikes in the fall. Each year we had flown home with cheap luggage that we purchased at the last minute in Europe and hoped it would hold together well enough to also make the return trip back to Europe, at which point we discarded it.

Using 'disposable' luggage was always very stressful. It was hard finding inexpensive ($20-30/piece) luggage to buy and then haul it on our bikes to our departure hotel. We'd carry webbing and other repair items with us to patch the luggage together as we traveled home with it as it often started disintegrating in the first hours of use. Often 1 of the 2 pieces wasn't up to making the flight back to Europe 3 months later, so we'd look for inexpensive new or used luggage at home to replace the unusable piece. It was always a tense and time consuming process and of course the waste from ditching 2 pieces of luggage every year was annoying.

But this was the first year that we arrived in Europe with fret-free, durable luggage that we could reuse for the trip home in September. We didn't have to budget time to shop for luggage, we didn't have to guess if the sizes were right, and we didn't have to worry about it falling a part in our hands. In return for her generous offer of storing our bikes or luggage, we booked 2 weeks in her apartments in the early summer and a week at the end of the season in September. She seemed pleased to have the guaranteed business (especially this year) and we were thrilled to be simplifying our traveling lives.

Year of the Snake
In the Chinese zodiac, the next Year of the Snake isn't until 2013 but we seemed to have gotten a jump on it in 2012. In early April of this year Bill had his close encounter with the highly toxic Mojave Green, a type of diamondback rattlesnake, in Arizona. Three months later while in the Dolomites, an adult female European adder crossed our meadow path in Val Lunga, which is the scenic valley above Selva favored by toddlers and their parents.

Fortunately European adders are more timid and less toxic than diamondbacks, but an envenomation can be require a year to recover from and can cause disability, though is rarely fatal. These adders will hiss like a diamondback when cornered but typically only bite when stepped upon, which is fairly easy to do in a meadow. Unlike Mojave Green's, adders will climb into bushes looking for prey so we had to modify our 'scanning for snakes' technique a bit this summer.

"Vipera berus" in Latin, "la vipera" in Italian; commonly known in English as a "viper" or "adder".
Ironically, when confirming our reservations this spring with our Dolomites hostess I had commented that we were looking forward to being back in her region where we could hike without risking an encounter with a venomous snake. She wrote back clarifying that there were snakes in Val Lunga, but none were venomous. We'd never seen any snake anywhere in the Alps in our 10 years of visiting the region until this year and lo and behold, it was a venomous one. Just like the Mojave Green, this venomous snake wasn't supposed to be where we spotted it.

As best as we can recall, we had had 3 snake sightings in 11 years of overseas travel, though we weren't able to identify any of them so we don't know if they were venomous or not. In 3 months of 2012 we'd seen more than 3 snakes, 2 of which were confirmed venomous. Global warming? Low water year? Good luck? Bad luck? Coincidence? Who knows. What we have learned however is to snap a photo of any passing snake to improve the odds of knowing what we've seen--regardless of what the locals think is and isn't out there.

PS: About 6 weeks after seeing our first adder, we almost stepped on #2 in the Austrian Alps. Another distinctive brown female with black markings, though not as big as the one we photo'ed in Italy, crossed the trail in front of us. LIke with the first adder, we saw her from the tail end as she darted off, unlike the Mojave Green that characteristically stood its ground and stared at Bill. The next morning I reminded Bill to be alert for adders, which triggered a chuckle and "Sure, you go first…" reply and then an even smaller female adder darted in front of me. Amazingly, that was our 4th "in striking distance" encounter with a venomous snake in 5 months; fortunately only one of the encounters had actually been a confrontation.

Onto Other Corners in the Alps
Three nights in Frankfurt and 3 more in Bolzano had seen us through most of our jet lag recovery and our 2 weeks of hiking in Selva had given us some heat acclimation, some altitude acclimation, and some reconditioning. Three of our 13 weeks in Europe were suddenly behind us but we were ready to mount our reclaimed bikes and continue our hiking/biking tour of northern Italy and Austria.

Our first pedal strokes of the season would propel us and our heavily laden bikes over Passo Gardena to nearby Corvara for another week of hiking while based in a tourist apartment. Then it would be biking up steep grades to our half-board experience in tiny Misurina and a month of biking and hiking at new Austrian venues. The time was flying by too quickly but what a lovely region in which to have such a problem.