#9 Hiking & Biking in Two Tyrol's: Italy & Austria (July & August 2012)

Being Seasonal Cyclotourists
The Confrontations
Like last year, which was the first year our 9 month cyclotouring season in Europe was reduced to 90 days, we wondered if using the bikes overseas was worth the effort for such a short time. The overhead of the extra planning and all the necessary specialized gear bordered on being absurd, especially for 2012 in which my ongoing knee challenges left us wondering if I'd be able to ride the passes at all. But our first day on the bikes at the end of our third week in Europe promptly answered the question with a resounding "Yes!" Our #1 goal with cyclotouring had been to make regular, vigorous exercise compelling and we were again reminded that no venue was as compelling for us as the Dolomites and the best way to experience them was on a bike.

A public bus on the less precipitous, Corvara side of Passo Gardena.
Each year when we leave our rented Selva, Italy tourist apartment in "Sud Tyrol" after a 2 week stay of all hiking and no cycling I am always anxious about my ability to make it to the top of Passo Gardena on our way to Corvara in the next valley. At the outset I often wonder "If this will be the day that I die", which is a frequent thought when on a bike in difficult traffic. The relentlessly windy road is little more than a lane and a half wide and we always encounter a dozen or more full-sized buses in the intermittent stream of 2-way traffic. A little tap by a too-close passing car at the wrong place could knock me over the edge and down a steep cliff. Even my own unsteadiness from climbing for hours at 3-4 mph could result in a quick trip to the valley floor. Steering my 100 lb loaded bike up steep grades demands every ounce of my upper body strength and all of my concentration and always I wonder if I can hold it together again after the long break from riding.

Every year I am flooded with the same self-doubt though most years the 2 week cyclotouring hiatus follows months of loaded touring; this year the break from touring had been 9 months. This year my nervousness was heightened by mounting my overloaded bike with new handlebars, new brakes, and a new drive train (the chain and gears) and wondering if it would be like breaking in a wild horse while on the grades. Luckily, Bill's fine tuning after the Bolzano mechanic hurriedly completed the major work 2 days prior quickly eased my fears and a little inevitable clunky shifting was all that would need taming.

As we aimed towards a gritty pedestrian path that would shortly dump us onto the main road, a path that would be our only relatively flat stretch for the day, I next confronted my bulging left knee. Persistent swelling that had occurred late in the course of my 6 month malady still limited my range of motion and I winched at the sensation of compressing the fullness with each stroke. "The new normal" I reminded myself in response to the unpleasantness. It wasn't pain but it was a strong signal that all was not well though my doctor had recommended cycling over hiking and underscored "No restrictions" to my activities.

But too quickly my time was up for evaluating the significance of the feedback from my newly configured bike and my chronically unhappy knee because the shoulder-less main road was in sight. Now 100% of my attention had to be on staying alive. I could stop to rest dozens of times on the way to the pass as along as I strategically picked spots where I could restart easily, like on a banked curve that would let me capture a little downward momentum. I reminded myself that my top priority was to keep my bike upright and as steady as possible so cars could safely avoid me, which meant carefully reading pavement cracks and dips, anticipating shifting winds, and maintaining sufficient speed on the grades. It was too dangerous for me to ride on the absolute edge of the pavement but I'd honor the driver's needs by being highly predictable, even if I was taking up too much of the narrow road.

And The Triumphs
It took hours for the last of my anxiety to fully dissipate but it only took minutes in traffic to recognize that I was going to do fine, in fact, I was probably going to have my most successful loaded ascent of Passo Gardena ever and I could immediately feel why: it was the increased strength of my core, my torso. I've had powerful legs for more than a decade and I am always working on my shoulder/arm strength, but I've also always felt that the strength of those 2 areas wasn't well linked but this year they were. I immediately felt that stomping on the pedals and clamping down on the handlebars resulted in all of the expended energy propelling my bike uphill whereas in the past some of the energy oozed out sideways from my torso. In the past I'd tried to contain the power within my core but couldn't ever quite corral it.

Bill immediately noticed the improvement in my hill starts on this, our first biking day. Even though I only stopped if I could readily restart, my hill starts were often a near thing and I'm sure he frequently held his breath wondering "Will she/won't she get it going again." But not on this day: start after start was executed smartly. And just as quickly as I could get underway, I knew what had made the difference: it was those P90X workouts we had done for the previous 6 weeks. Like last year, we understood that the DVD living room workouts were actually superior conditioning for cyclotouring than unloaded cycling. Of course it made all the difference that we had years of soft tissue adaptation for cycling behind us. (Read more about what we've learned in "Core Strength" under "Fitness Focus".)

It didn't take long for my nervousness to be blunted by the sense of exhilaration I experienced on this ride over Passo Gardena, which was a good reminder of why cyclotouring overseas is worth the considerable trouble it involves. For one, muscling those heavy bikes over passes is the most physically demanding thing we do in a year and it often takes being on one's edge to learn new lessons. It had taken the extremeness of loaded touring for us to fully appreciate the conditioning benefits we were getting from the P90X workouts, both in 2011 and 2012. We could tell when we were doing the workouts that we are a little stronger each week but it took performing at our absolute limit on the loaded bikes on sustained steep grades to clearly see the potency of the intense exercise program. There is nothing like succeeding at something difficult to boost one's confidence along with their understanding. And there is nothing like the success we'd experienced with our increased core strength to motivate us to keep including the DVD workouts in our off-season conditioning program and to keep coming back to the Dolomites to measure our progress.

The white dolomite nicely framed the mountain flowers.
Passo Gardena
In addition to the elation from transforming the personal challenges of clawing my way up the pass into triumphs, I always feel like I am a part of a moving festival when we top Passo Gardena from Selva on our way to Corvara. The reservation rituals of the Dolomite apartments dictate the we make the journey on a Saturday and the weekends draw more visitors to the mountains than the weekdays, so we are always in a cheery crowd on the passes.

Every year there are one or more touring clubs driving the serpentine Dolomite passes when we are there and this year it was a fleet of about 30 vintage Moto Guzzi motorcycles, some with old-styled license plates from Rome; a VW Beetle club; and a small group of assorted-brand convertibles with German plates that created the spectacle. Whoever the clubs represent is hard to miss because they make a point to drive the tight curves as a pack. And some, like the Moto Guzzi's, hang a sign on their vehicles with the name of their club or displaying their route. I always imagine how pleased they all must be with themselves to be out in their favorite rigs turning so many heads because they are part of a big group in a glorious setting and we do our part to honor their fun by staring and smiling.

In addition to the motorized packs, there are always clusters of feather-weight bikes mounted by sleek riders wearing matching lycra outfits, many with support cars. I assume most are riding multiple passes that day in contrast to our single pass with loaded bikes. And every year a least a few people stop to chat with us, often at our picnic spot at the false summit and at the major junction where we always take a longer break before the tightly linked switchbacks begin. This year one grinning cyclist commented that he did his post-doc in Bethesda, Maryland in the 1980's and a German driver playfully chided us for carrying too much gear.

Looking down into Alta Badia from a favorite hike up "Val di Mezdi".
Every year there is something new to briefly contemplate on the traverse between the mountain villages: one year it was ice on the road near the top; this year it was seeing cows and horses grazing within temporary electrified fences inside the switchbacks on our descent. We always enjoy the wild flowers carpeting some banks and the pretty, eye-level array of blooms along one extensive retaining wall. The views of the many surrounding and distant peaks are reliably grand, views that mercifully hadn't been obscured this day because the forecasted downpours hadn't materialized. As many times as we've biked this pass both loaded and unloaded, we still stop frequently for long looks at the peaks and panoramas on what has become my favorite pass.

Corvara in Alta Badia (valley)
It didn't take many visits to the Italian Dolomites for us to get the hang of high season. The entire summer season in the Dolomites is only about 2 months long and in some valleys high season prices are in effect the entire summer, like in and around Cortina. In contrast, high season only runs about 4 weeks in the valley in which Selva is located and in Corvara's valley, the peak prices are in force for 2 weeks or less. So our annual rhythm has been to generally let the approaching high season prices, which can be double the lowest prices, chase us from one valley to the next. Corvara's hiking isn't as grand as Selva's, but on the day we arrive in Corvara we are paying half of the rate we'd have paid in Selva had we stayed on.

Almost eye-level with a Dolomite peak on an 8 hour hike above Corvara.
Though Corvara is definitely second best, we've come to look forward to being there for a week in mid-July. But as we approached our usual apartment as the delayed rains started to release their first sprinkles, Bill noticed that the cables to the gondola were missing. The gondola and then chair lift up to the base of the peak known as Piz Boè were the launching pads for most of our hikes from Corvara, but not this year, the year for renovations to the hardware. Fortunately Bill wasn't as derailed by the loss as I was and he had no trouble generating a "thrash yourself" string of itineraries while we were based in Corvara.

From Corvara it was a couple of short, steep riding days to Cortina and beyond, to Lake Misurina and the Drei Zinnen peaks. Some may remember our last visit to Drei Zinnen several years ago in which we circumvented the peaks at their base in fresh snow aided by a self-appointed German Shepherd escort we named "Hütte Hund" (German for 'hut dog') because he joined our small pack when we walked by one of the mountain huts.

Half-Board at the Grand Hotel
"Half-board" was a new term for us when we began our education as overseas travelers in 2001and we quickly came to loathe the concept which means "bed & breakfast with dinner." Especially in high season, it is often the only option for renting a room in some tourist areas, which is one of the reasons we try to avoid the most popular spots at their peak. We can prepare our own dinners in our room with abundant produce for $3-5, which is a fraction of the price of dinner for 2 at half board prices. Plus, we get the type of food we want, when we want it, and can time-slice food preparation with bathing and doing our laundry when we make it ourselves. But an internet special for shoulder season at a desirable but isolated location had us caving-in and reserving our first half-board accommodations--for a full week.

Picturesque Lake Misurina attracts tourists by the bus load.
The little village of Misurina nestled at the base of the Drei Zinnen peaks above Cortina, Italy hosted our half-board deal at the Grand Hotel. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the rooms weren't cramped and decrepit and that the food would be digestible. In addition to allowing us to stay a full week in a village with 1 regrettable market, it would give us the cultural experience of a more typical European vacation in the mountains rather than our well-practiced, do-it-yourself approach to travel.

Fortunately, our stay at the Grand Hotel turned out well though we got off to a rough start with a hotel minder that didn't like the looks of us as soon as he saw our bikes. The front desk staff graciously invited us to put our expensive bikes in our room but the minder intervened and said they must go in the garage because the were "bigger than normal bikes" (??) and too big for the room. He wanted them in the garage, in the bike rack but the bike rack was the type that would put the spokes of our heavy bikes at risk of being bent. I countered with locking them to the metal stairwell in the back of the garbage but was told "No, in the rack." I waited in the garage with the bikes while Bill went to inspect the room, which turned out to be huge. Further negotiation with the front desk manager and the bikes went in the room, I'm sure to the chagrin of the minder.

Drei Zinnen & the other end of little Lake Misurina.
Internet special rooms can be the 'dogs' of the establishment but we considered ourselves lucky. Our large room with an additional fold-out couch and oversized foot stool/bed was designed to sleep 5 and we reveled in the extra floor space for the elbow room and for doing our morning exercises. The darkness of being under the eves was partly countered by 2 large windows. No lake view, no balcony but we were thrilled not to be in one of the rooms that was a fraction of the size of ours or that fronted immediately onto an exterior wall. The mini-frig was an unexpected bonus as was CNN on the tube that allowed us to follow the events in Syria and learn about the boorish comments of "MItt the Twit" (as the British press dubbed him) regarding London's preparation for the Olympics.

The unfamiliar half-board rituals kept us on our toes the first few nights. Asking protocol questions consistently yielded conflicting answers so we settled upon scrutinizing other guests to sort out that the first course was a self-serve, all-you-can-eat buffet and the 2nd course and dessert were ordered by writing in the menu placed on our assigned table. There was a set of flatware for each of the 2 first courses on the table and flatware for dessert came with it. The price of coffee and tea was included in the price of breakfast but any beverage, including water, incurred an extra charge at dinner, which we declined.

This WWI memorial to avalanche victims was one of many reminders of the darker days in the mountains.
Aside from the bit of tension surrounding protocol and sometimes long delays in actually being served by the overworked staff, we were initially delighted with the food. Folks accustomed to a half pound or pound steak would have left hungry, but the approximately 2 oz portions of fish that we chose each night from the possible 3 entrees was fine for us. Splitting a dessert meant about 2 bites each, which gave us a taste without loading us down with sugar. Early in the week the first course buffet was largely grilled vegetables and pasta, so we were in heaven. We loaded our plates with grilled onions and eggplant, stuffed or grilled zucchini, and unfamiliar mixes of other grilled vegetables.

But the extravaganza of grilled veggies peaked mid-week and was the high point of the culinary experience for us. After that, 2 to 3 day-old left-overs began appearing on the buffet table each night and sometimes the mix of entrees to choose from were decidedly un-mixed. I horrified table-mates by using my best dissection techniques to release fish from deep-fried breading that seemed unavoidable. Half way through our stay, we both stopped eating what appeared to be yogurt at breakfast because of low-grade, ongoing indigestion that our lactase tablets couldn't prevent. By the time the week was over Bill was saying "It was a nice experiment but I'm looking forward to eating our own food."

Our last look at Drei Zinnen as we swooshed downhill towards Austria.
It's a toss-up as to whether we'll stay at the Grand Hotel again. The great location gave us ready access to the bus that took us to the base of the Drei Zinnen peaks for days of exceptional hiking but we also discovered that the lone "Ding-Dong and Ho-Ho" market in town had upgraded to including 'real food' since our prior visit, making the half-board option less compelling in the future. And the chance of ending up in one of the cramped corner rooms facing a wall was a little unnerving too.

More "Go Thrash Yourself"
Crossing the Border
We took our last looks at the impressive Drei Zinnen peaks while whizzing down the road from Misurina towards Austria, which would be our hiking venue for the better part of August. There we'd be spending 4-5 nights each at a string of tourist apartments near ski lifts at less international destinations. The first stop would be a village or "dorf" above Lienz and then the villages of Kals, Tropolach, and Obertilliach would be our hosts, with overnight stays at other communities connecting the dots along the way.

None were world-class hiking venues but all met the criteria of providing an assortment of steep hikes from chair lifts or cable cars to keep our daily fitness activities vigorous and varied. When the views weren't Dolomite-class we be reminding ourselves that the priority was high-quality exercise with a good mix of sensory pleasure and it didn't have to be to-die-for to count as a success. This year's Euro-tour was weighted towards hiking, with short, hard riding days linking the trail events.

There was no charming bike path art for us on the Austrian ski resort roads.
Hiking and biking in the Austrian Alps are always distinctly different than being in the Italian Dolomites across the border. Literally in 20 miles, the entire character of the experience changes. The type of rock changes, the distance between the peaks increases, there is more green than gray in the panorama, and the chance of slogging through mud skyrockets. And more compelling, "steep, narrow, and treacherous" are what come to mind when I think of Austria, whether biking or hiking.

Both this summer and last we biked up some wickedly difficult roads to get to Austrian ski resorts for hiking. It's a combination of factors that made the rides so hard. A 10% grade can be made easier or harder by the distance between curves, switchbacks, or other easy stop/start places. If the opportunities to rest for a minute or 2 are frequent enough, I can pedal up almost any paved road but if they are few and far between, I may be pushing my bike. Passo Gardena in Italy is relatively easy because of the preponderance of closely spaced switchbacks. But put lengths of narrow, straight, steep road between the curves like is common in Austria and I quickly become depleted. If on a road like the one into Kals, Austria, you mix in a strong headwind and an unprotected cliff on the edge of the narrow road with few stopping points, the 9% grade experience is both physically and mentally exhausting.

Biking to Obertilliach, our last Austrian hiking venue, was the only difficult route that was rated as "Never again". We'd ridden the road up the pass and down/up/down/up/down the other side a number of years ago and said "Never again" but assumed it would be more merciful this year going the opposite direction--it wasn't. Bill broke this year's assault into 2 days, with the 2nd day being a mere 12 miles versus about 30 miles the first day. But the repeated 13-15% grades on both days in 90˚ heat laced with high humidity wore us down. Our improved core strength workouts had made up for the lack of bike specific conditioning for 10% grades on other routes but our non-sport training fell short of what we needed for the steeper challenges. We were out on the road (including lunch) for 7 hours the 1st day and the 2nd day we spent almost 3 hours in the saddle and were wiped out. We' didn't know how we would have managed if the next day had been a biking instead of hiking day.

At first Bill balked at taking this narrow ridge trail on Blauspitz.
Biking the challenging mountain roads in Austria requires special physical training and likewise, hiking the Austrian trails requires conditioning mentally for the distinctive hazards. "Steep" is again the watchword and as on the roads, the engineers seem unconcerned when designing routes with perilous drop-offs. Trails just wide enough for 2 shoes with a steep slope that descends for thousands of feet on one or both sides frequently get rated as "Easy" in Austria. If you miss-step or the trail gives way in the Dolomites, you are likely to go for a long ride down a slope in rolling scree, perhaps on your feet; in Austria if you slip you are likely to be in free fall for a frightfully long distance. We were thankful every day for our sleek, minimalist shoes on Austrian trails and couldn't imagine how the folks in stiff, clunky boots managed.

On Austrian trails we frequently invoked the "no talking" and the "no multitasking" rules. The cessation of conversation occurred when traversing a particularly scary bit of trail so we'd have our full attention on the task. The "no multi-tasking" was generally in place on Austrian trails, which meant no looking around while the feet were in motion because it was too dangerous. If one of us wanted to admire the view or examine a detail, you announced you were stopping, stopped, and then looked around. After hiking a week or so in Austria we've usually re-calibrated our technic and nerves to match the terrain and are more comfortable on the trails though we still focus on our feet.

"Go-Go, Keep Running"
Before we left for Europe in late June I was politely advised "Running is not your friend right now" because of my knee problem. I'd been dabbling with running the last year but it wasn't hard to say "Got it" to the advise. I was confident, perhaps alone in that confidence, that the knee would be fit for running again some day and I'd give it the time it needed. But weather and other challenges frequently had us running, or moving our feet as fast as the terrain would allow, on multiple hikes this summer. Luckily we'd adopted the policy early in the season of maintaining our tempo near the end of hikes instead of letting our pace slow as we'd done in the past so at least we had the endurance we needed for the fast pace--and fortunately and my knee tolerated the premature pressure.

It was hard to pick up much speed on this rocky Austrian trail when the storm hit.
One of this year's earliest and most memorable running-level-of-effort intervals on a hike was from Misurina, Italy when we were going around the Drei Zinnen peaks. A hail storm with lightning let loose and we initially sat on the ground, using our ponchos as tents until the worst subsided. Then we scampered as fast as we could down the scree trail to get farther below the summit hoping not to be the object of a lightning strike. The storm passed, we walked on, then stopped for lunch. We hadn't quite gotten to the chocolate course when another tempest rolled through, even more ferocious than the one before.

Running as best we could uphill, on a broken rock trail, being pelted by hail in a torrent of rain blown sideways by strong winds with lightning all around us, we kept going until we reached the shelter of a tiny mountain chapel where the early arrivals invited us in. After 20 minutes or so, the skies cleared and we headed out again. The buses back down to Misurina ran every 1-2 hours and we realized that if we pushed hard, we might just catch an earlier bus. HIghly motivated, we ran when we could over the course of about 45 minutes and made the bus with 1 minute to spare. We were thrilled not to have to linger for the next bus and possibly risk being out in another storm.

Once we crossed the nearby border into Austria, unintended running intervals became a part of our hikes more frequently, starting with our first stop near Lienz. Judging the difficulty and our speed on Austrian trails was very challenging and too often we found ourselves needing to push to catch the last lift down off the mountain for the night. We were amazed to be caught in the same trap over and over again for seemingly slightly different reasons on different trails but still needing to run to make it.

We never really get lost when hiking in Europe but in Austria we often have a lot more difficulty finding our trail than when in Italy. On our first hike above Tropolach we could see where we wanted to go and we encountered plenty of trails but we still had a hard time getting back to the lift. There were dozens of unmarked, crisscrossing trails and only 1 sign post over the course of a 4 hour hike. At one point we were on our hands and knees crawling under scrub pine branches hoping the human-turned-animal trail would lead us out of the thicket. It didn't. We had to backtrack, take a chance on yet another trail, and then run as fast as we could when we finally escaped the scrub barrier to make the lift. GPS and paper maps were useless in navigating the maze in this area and we were grateful for the stamina to pour it on going uphill at the end of the day.

The vintage homes were lovely to look at but we preferred staying next door in a brighter, more modern building.
I'd playfully set September as the month my left knee would be well enough to run again but after all of our sustained mad-dashes to make the bus or lift in July and August, it became irrelevant--I was running. I did decide however to only run for short intervals at a time and only on trails, which are softer with less-repetitive stresses than roads until my knee was fully recovered, and then some.

Austrian Apartments
Bill's spring project of primarily pre-booking our summer lodging in cheery, well-appointed tourist apartments in mountain villages with cable cars or chair lifts that would take us to multiple hiking trails was a success. As hoped, all the Austrian apartments were within a 5 to 10 minute walk of the lifts and as researched, there was at least some sort of food market in each village, and all abodes had balconies. Apartments give us a welcome kitchen and more living space than hotels and pensions and often at half the price. Our best deal was in Obertilliach, which was 36€/night or about $45 at the current exchange rate; the most we paid was around $60/night for our Austrian apartments. Bill carefully selected for newer places with a high probably of being quiet and he succeeded.

One of the unexpected challenges of the apartments this year was managing the recycling. Often in Italy we lament the total lack of recycling but setting up our kitchen to facilitate the recycling compliance expected in Austrian was a bit of a chore and was different at each place. The usual sorting of paper, metal, and glass was a snap; plastics were a bit trickier as in some areas even plastic bags were thrown into the the mix; but it was the "Bio" ("bee-oh" for "biologic") however that was the real challenge.

The rabbit lived in the small hutch (top left); the pig was in the barn behind the hutch; & we were in the apartment above the tractor garage.
Our apartment owner in Kals provided a large bucket for all of the organic waste, which quickly got a bit gross to have in the apartment. At the next place in Tropolach, I relegated a ceramic bowl for the "Bio" and trotted it down to the garden compost heap on a daily basis to keep the odor down. But the apartment hostess in Obertilliach had a more involved "Bio" system: dried bread, but only if it was completely dried out, was for the rabbit, though there was no obvious place to put it near the rabbit hutch; genuine food items that we didn't consume, like our cabbage core and carrot ends, were for the "Schwein" or the pig and were to go in a bucket to be put at the bottom of our outdoor stairs near the urban barn; and compostable, non-food like our peach pits were the 3rd "Bio" category that went in a big, smelly garbage can in the garage. Not so hard really, but being described to us in German when we were brain-dead from cycling uphill in the heat made it seem overwhelming, as did getting it efficiently organized in our small kitchen for a 5 night stay. Our hostess was nice enough to praise us for our recycling prowess when we departed.

Towards the end of August we crossed the border from Austria back into Italy and endured high season prices for the better part of a week before arriving back in Selva. We had arrived in Selva when our hostess opened her apartments for the summer at the beginning of July and we'd spend 1 more week there during her 1-week long low season in September. Last fall she had kindly offered to stash our bikes for the 9 months we were out of Europe and it was her schedule that was driving our 6 week long biking/hiking loop. Being boxed in by her calendar was a small price to pay for not having to fly with the bikes in June and September.

Next was Bressanone, Italy were we enjoyed an apartment in the center of old town and took a bus to the cable car for hiking. Then it was on to Selva for a week and then a week at Solda, Italy for a new, highly acclaimed hiking venue before making our way back to Amsterdam by train for a September 20th flight home.