2009/10/24: Spittal, Austria 95 km (Two passes, three countries)
The road from Bovec climbed gently at first, then more steeply to the Italian border. We saw quite a few mountain bikers using the road and side trails. There’s been a culture of outdoor sports more and more in evidence as we move north in Eastern Europe: rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and hiking.
The area is full of old First World War fortifications and trenching, because the Austro-Hungarian front line met the Italian line of defense here at the Isonzo Front. There are military monuments from Napoleon’s time as well. We crossed into Italy through an unmanned border checkpoint and without need to pause. It was very strange to think that this was once the border between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Western Europe, and therefore a part of the Iron Curtain, although here the line was never as rigidly held as it was further north. Now both Slovenia and Italy are within the Schengen Zone, and the border post is obsolete.
We descended into the northeastern corner of Italy for coffee, and were happy when our magical GPS track took us along smoothly paved off-road cycle paths on the valley bottom. After entering Austria, we began to climb another pass. Nine months, and 15,000 km in 18 countries, and we had yet to see roads built at an 18% gradient! We thought the previous maximum of 12% was tough enough. What on earth are these Austrians thinking? With loaded bikes we could continue upwards only if we stood on our pedals, gasping for air at each pedal thrust. We needed to stop for breaks, and our legs soon turned to putty. I tried an upward slalom technique, but gave it up for safety reasons. There’s not much traffic, but some of it consists of gleaming Porsches or BMWs driven at high speeds. We walked some sections.
At the summit, we had our first Austrian coffee stop. We ordered cake, and our eyes popped at the enormous size of the slices when they arrived. Chris cheerfully began to draw a comparison between the portion sizes and the size of the local women, until I gave him a good kick. Living in his uni-lingual bubble, he assumes that since he cannot understand anyone else, nobody else can understand him. This may have been a reasonable assumption in rural China, but not so here. He’s since learned to enjoy his strudel or other delicious sweets more discreetly, but with no less appreciation.
We found lodgings in Spittal. Sleeping indoors is getting pricier as we travel north, but the nights are cold and long and we’re spoiling ourselves in this homestretch. Wireless is much harder to find here, but McDonald’s has filled that void, so we had our first McDonald’s meal of the journey.
2009/10/25: Treng 65 km
At our morning coffee stop, we began a conversation with a man in a smart traditional jacket. As we heard a brass band outside, he left us to stand at attention outside the coffee establishment, and seemed to receive some sort of traditional salute as the impeccably attired band halted before him. I suspect he was the mayor or similar dignitary. Our rag-tag-gypsy bicycles were parked right where this community event was taking place – nobody had warned us! We learned that it was something to do with the local church. There was something akin to a harvest festival going on, this weekend, and we saw more people in handsome traditional dress.
The coffee helped us face another climb at 18%, this one much longer. Descending to a valley, we saw a “Campingplatz” occupied by caravans, and thought of staying. It had a ski gear room in the toilet block, and we discussed sleeping discreetly there rather than having to pack a frosted tent next morning, but our nervousness of being found there during the night (rules are rules in Austria, and we were sure we’d have been breaking at least one) caused us to move on. We arrived at dusk in the last village before the next pass, and found a room.
2009/10/26: Taxenbach 82 km
The gradient of the long climb to the Obertauern ski area was civilized, and at 1,739 m there was quite a lot of early season snow. The area wasn’t yet open, but a few downhill skiers were donning boots in one of the parking lots, and we waved to cross-country skate skiers in action. The road was clear as we descended, but we were careful on the dark wet patches of pavement, never quite sure whether or when we’d hit ice. This was the highest pass on our planned route. The scenery was post card gorgeous: tidy chalets and pristine forests, and me trying to remember the words of Edelweiss on the descent. We were glad to be through this range before it gets any colder.
We had good cycling to late lunch in St. Johann I.P. in the valley. After a couple of long and scary tunnels with too much bank holiday traffic, we found our way onto the quiet old road and eventually onto another long distance cycle trail. I’m sure there’s a map somewhere that shows all these trails, but we don’t have it. We were no longer following a GPS track, because we’re aiming specifically for St. Johann in Tirol where Chris’s cousin and her husband live. We’re looking forward to a sociable rest day there.