An occasional journal of the Life of Reilly

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Oberammergau

The clouds parted briefly in the morning of our third day in Achensee, and we took advantage of it to make our escape from Austria. We followed the river channel downstream from Sylvensteinsee, a flood control reservoir just north of the German-Austria border. From what we experienced, excessive water is a common occurence in these parts. After kilometers of gradual downhill we camped just east of the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Known for ski jumping, hosting the 1936 Winter Olympics, and a ski lift on Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, we stayed and extra day to walk around and explore. We walked up the Partnachklamm, a narrow gorge with a trail that goes alongside the churning river. Not a wilderness experience -- a biergarten at the entrance found hikers hydrating for the hike with half-liter glasses of local beer at 11am.

With the weather holding for another day, we biked up to the town of Oberammergau. It was a short day, and we arrived soon enough to do some internet business in the afternoon. The town is most famous for the Passion Play, a religious play put on every 10 years (next showing 2010). The town was small and quaint and set up for busloads of tourists, but we found it charming. And a good place to wait out rain, rain, and more rain. It began to rain the evening of our arrival, and continued for the next two days. The campground was a haven -- the tent area had a small shelter where we could keep our bikes next to the tent, and the bathroom area had a nice lobby with a couch and a kitchen with hot plate for cooking. We made ourselves at home.

Linderhof, one of King Ludwg II´s palaces, was a short bus ride away, and we spent the morning walking the grounds in the relentless drizzle.

Oberammergau is known for the local craft of wood carving. Shops all over town have window displays bursting with religous carvings, whimsical toys, and nativity scenes. Additionally, beautiful frescoes decorate many buildings. The one shown above is a series of panels with the story of Hansel and Gretel. Below is a detail of the evil witch being put in the oven to be made into gingerbread.


Once again, the rain stopped and we made a break to continue on our ride through the countryside. We had seen throughout the region wooden crosses stacked neatly on the edge of pastures. We finally figured out what they were for -- stacking hay to dry in the sun, when it finally does shine.

Also unique to the area were stacks of perfectly trimmed wood stacked neatly adjacent to barns and homes. Although we were in a heavily forested area, wood of any type is valued and not wasted. We saw stacks that were obviously created over a period of years, with the oldest pieces gray and weathered at the bottom, and transitioning to fresh pieces on top. The pile against this barn left just enough for the cows to be able to peek out the window.

We made a count, and we had rain every day for the last two weeks since we entered Austria. Some days it was all day, some just in the afternoon as the thunderclouds built up. The lush landscape comes at a price for those of us traveling by bicycle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Achensee

We followed the Inntal Radweg along the Inn River. This is just a route, and some sections are dedicated to bikes, other sections follow the main road, and others are detoured because of construction. There are little yellow signs pointing the direction at key intersections, and it was like a scavenger hunt to find them. We didn´t obtain a detailed map of the route until we were nearly off it. But we had several "angels" along the way that helped us...the two cyclists we met on the bridge (above) that told us of a trail closure ahead that saved us from backtracking uphill...the elderly gentleman on a bike outside Innsbruck that we stopped to ask for directions, and instead of trying to describe the way, headed off and lead us a couple of kilometers through an industrial area to a crucial bridge crossing...another gentleman that noticed we took a wrong turn and shouted out to us and pointed to the right path as he went by.

We had stellar weather, level to slight downhill grade, and peaks all around us...what more could a bike tourist want.

Well...maybe peace and quiet. We pulled into the campground just east of Innsbruck tired and hungry. We checked in, but could not help notice the campground was packed, vans adorned with national flags of Sweden, Spain, and Russia, and groups of young men sitting around hoisting beers or kicking soccer balls, music blaring. We managed to time our visit to Innsbruck coincident with the opening day of EURO 2008, the European soccer championships. The event is being held in various cities in Austria and Switzerland this year, and the fans have made news in the past for their heated nationalistic loyalties.

We set up our tent in a corner of the campground, shielded from the chaos by a row of motorhomes and escaped for the evening at the restaurant in the hotel across the street (an excellent Austrian meal of fish and chicken with wine was a good consolation). The party raged on all night, and we were awakened several times despite the use of earplugs. We tried to get out of there the next morning as soon as we could, but not before a tent full of Swedes awoke and started singing their national anthem.

We wheeled our bikes through the old part of Innsbruck before heading east of the city. Blue skies with a view of the Olympic village in Innsbruck with unobscured peaks in the background was a scenic parting.
At the town of Jenbach we headed north up a steep grade. The road had only two very long switchbacks, ending at a panoramic viewpoint looking down into the valley. Within minutes of arriving, the skies let loose, and we hung out an hour waiting for it to let up enough for us to cycle the last five kilometers to camp.
It rained all evening, and the next day, and the next day, too. But we were sheltered, cozy warm in a little one-room Austrian hut that was available at the campground on the shores of Achensee. We spent our days touring by bus to other local towns in the area, and returning to cook our dinner on our little table and sleep like babies under soft duvets and on down pillows.


And on our last night the clouds parted and rewarded us with a double rainbow.

Reschen Pass

After two days of waiting out the rain, we made a move to get over the Alps. We followed the route of the Via Claudia Augusta, the ancient Roman road build by Augustus with his own funds to create a route over the Alps. But our road was a path dedicated only for bikes, separated from highway traffic, winding through kilometers and kilometers of apple orchards and vineyards.


We traveled for two days through the fertile Adige river valley. Every turn had some interesting sight, like the castle built seemingly as part of the bedrock, and covered bridges built just for us cyclists. It was a steady, even grade, and we literally saw droves of bike tourists heading down in the opposite direction. Many had just a couple small panniers, and we assume they were cycling and staying in hotels along the way.

Clouds built up every afternoon, and we had rain each evening just as we pulled into camp. In the campground in Murano, we just managed to set up the tent before it started pouring. Cooking in the tent was not a realistic possibility, so we set up our stove in the common dish washing area that every campground in Europe seems to have. A nice German couple took pity on us, and invited us into their motorhome to eat our dinner. We had a great time -- between their partial English and my rusty German (lubricated by some wine), we shared stories and parted as friends. It was a blessing to have a place to hide out of the rain.

Day three took us over Reschen Pass. It was a good steep climb in sections...I confess to pushing my bike up a couple of them. It was a Sunday, always a tricky day in Italy -- we found it to be virtually impossible, except in the larger cities, to find an open grocery store on a Sunday. Normally we carry only a days worth of food, and shop along the way to resupply. But our pass day was Sunday, so in addition to dealing with the climb, we were also carrying the weight of a jar of pasta sauce, melon, and bananas!

We were a bit delayed when one of the small towns along the way was holding a foot race for the youth in the area. They closed the bike trail and the main thoroughfare in town, and told us we had to backtrack several kilometers around the lake! We did a little begging, saying we had far to go that day, and they delayed the start of a race just long enough for us to pass through.

At the summit the clouds were building once again, it was noticeably cooler and windy. But the view was awesome, and with every uphill is a downhill. As we crossed the border into Austria, we sailed down the trail with green grass and wildflowers all around us.

We made a short detour into Switzerland for about two kilometers (above). We crossed the Inn River, which we will follow east into Innsbruck and a bit beyond before heading north to Germany. We are sorry to leave Italy, but happy to have scaled the Alps and ready to begin the next phase of our trip through Austria and Germany.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Trent



Within just a single day of cycling we were away from the flat and humid countryside around Venice. We spent the night at a campground on a lake near the community of Revine Lago. Within just fifty miles of the metropolitan center of Venice, it was amazing to once again be the odd American tourist in rural Italy.

Chief navigator John selected a route that would eventually bring us to the base of the Alps near Trent. But between here and there was a pass called San Boldo. We knew nothing about it, other than it had a symbol on our map of a panoramic view from the top. As we headed up, the grade got steeper, and we passed a sign saying there were a total of 17 switchbacks. We were soon passed by road cyclists who encouraged us on by calling "Bravi! Bravi!". At each switchback there was a sign counting down how many switchbacks were left, up until the last five which were in a tunnel (above). Traffic lights controlled passage of up and downhill traffic, and we were truly huffing it at the end. But at the end of every uphill is a downhill, and we savored the view before descending down into the valley of the Piave River.


From the valley we had our first view of the Alps. Looming ahead of us were the peaks of the Italian Dolomites.

What started out as a clear, sunny day ended in rain. Just five kilometers short of our destination campground at Lago del Carlo the skies blackened, thunder rumbled, and lightning lit up the sky. We ducked into an industrial park, all deserted since it was an national holiday, and found shelter under the narrow eaves of a concrete building. We waited as rain literally poured out of the sky, looking up periodically to see the clouds boil and gradually move to the south.

The intensity of the rain subsided, but did not stop completely. It was getting close to dinnertime, so we decided to make a break for it. Bundled in all the rain resistant clothing we had, we cruised the last few kilometers into the campground. Unable to face the prospect of setting up our tent in soggy grass, we rented a bungalow for the night -- a small travel trailer with a canvas porch, so typical of what we have seen all over Italy. We had a stove, canopy, table and chairs, mattress, and a warm shelter that protected from rain that continued into the night.

The next morning required passage through a three kilometer-long tunnel. We exited into a whole new geographic setting, the valley of the Brenta River. Here we found the established bike route, which we followed almost the entire way to Trent. We crossed through a narrow canyon, with the lush vegetated walls jutting up, the mountain tops shrouded in fog.

We managed to stay dry the rest of the way through Trent to a campground just north of town. Situated behind a hotel/restaurant and directly next to the train tracks, and needless to say, it was not the most tranquil place. The commuter trains were not too bad, but all conversation ceased when the freight trains went by. But it was just a short walk to the train stop (notice the motorhomes in the backgroud in the above photo). It rained for two straight days, and we spent the time visiting the Castle of Buonconsiglio in Trent, the Folkways museum in San Michele, and the Iceman in the archeology museum in Bolzen.

Only about 50 miles separates Trent and Bozen, but when we got off the train in Bolzen, it was like we were already in Austria. Located in the Sudtriol region of Italy, it is officially bilingual, but German is the primary language. I now could speak with the locals in more than my usual 10 words of Italian, and use the rusty German stored deep in the recesses of my brain. Ahead of us is still the crest of the Alps to cross to get into Austria, but it seems like we have already crossed the border.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Venice

We approached Venice from the south along a non-traditional route. It took us three ferry rides and a cycle trip along the barrier island offshore to get to the city. We boarded the ferry at the town of Chioggia, and up the narrow strand of island to Lido di Venezia. From there we boarded the auto ferry that took us to the central dock of the island of Venice. Our destination was a campground in Fusina on the mainland. When we learned that no ferry goes from Vencie to there with bikes, we decided to cycle it instead.

There is a bridge that connects Venice to the mainland, and it is the main artery bringing people to the island. We found a transit employee that spoke good English. He said the speed limit is 90 kilometers per hour on the bridge, and he would not feel safe doing it, but that he has seen bikes on it. Once we heard that, we were off. We had biked in Rome after all. As it turns out there was a bike lane the entire length of the bridge, separating us from four lanes of traffic on one side, and electric train tracks on the other. We ditched trying to get to Fusina, and went to a campground at the end of the bridge in the town of Mestra instead. From there we took the bus into the city for the three days we visited Venice.

Venice is a city that is kept afloat for tourists. Even though everything we experience was cliche -- the canals, the shops, the restrauants -- we found it to be an enchanting city. The only way to get around the city is by foot or boat. Passenger ferries take you to almost anywhere you want to go. Walking amongst the maze of narrow streets is a calm experience, without the stress of a normal city looking for cars or scooters at each intersection. We visited all the typical sights -- St Marks Cathedral, The Doge Palace, and many churches. We took one ferry ride all around the island just for fun.

Near the Rialto Bridge is a daily vegetable and fish market. All deliveries to the vendors come by boat.

The fruit and vegetables, beautifully arranged, were some of the freshest we have seen so far in Italy. We made it a daily stop for our lunch provisions. We stopped there first thing in the morning, and the place was bustling with shoppers. We went by later in the afternoon, and like magic all the produce was packed up and the place was empty. Just a few pigeons picking at stray fruit left behind.
We ate dinner one evening at a piazza looking towards Venice's own version of the leaning tower. We enjoyed a regional meal of calamari and squid in the golden light of the setting sun. Cliche, yes, but a very nice experience indeed.




Loreo


The Po is a mighty river. The Po is a muddy river. The Po floodplain is very flat. These facts became apparent to us as we left Ravenna and headed north along the west shore of the great Valli de Comacchio, the delta formed by the exit of the Po River into the Adriatic Sea. We cycled for several miles along bike trails passing through rich agricultural land and protected wetlands. Canals were everywhere, and fisherman line the banks with some of the biggest fishing poles I have ever seen.

We stopped for an afternoon in the town of Comacchio. Just a small town located on the coast, it was a discount version of Vencie, with canals passiing through town. Famous for its pickled eel and the Trepponti Bridge, which spans the intersection of five canals. It was a warm day, and we parked ourselves under a canopy in some plastic chairs while we waited for the museum of a Roman ship discovered in the silt of one of the canals nearby to open. We did not know it was the afternoon hangout place for the town's retired gentleman. They sat down by us, and with our limited Italian we had a good exchange, they being most fascinated by our bikes and how it was possible that John could ride with any comfort on that bike saddle.

The next day we pushed on to the inland town of Ferrara, and we spent an extra day getting to know the town. The main historical focal point is the Castel Estense, with a real moat. It took us a couple of hours to tour the museum inside, mostly due to the highly detailed placards in each room.
North of Ferrara we followed bike trails along the Po River. Flat and lush, it is perfect country for farming. Along this stretch we followed the route described in our guidebook, and our goal by noon was a ferry crossing to take us to the north side of the river. When we arrived there, we were disappointed to find out it was not operating. So an extra 20 kilometers to get to the next bridge caused us not to reach our destination that night. So late in the afternoon, after finding groceries in the small town of Loreo, we pulled into a farm that had a sign advertising "agricamping". It took us a good half hour to locate anyone, but soon we were greeted by the head farmer himself. He was not open for camping, but taking pity on two sweaty cyclists he let us stay anyway. He led us over to an open grassy area, and worked for another half hour lighting the water heater and getting the water and electricty working. We had the place to ourselves, and the stiff breeze kept the smell of cow manure at a minimum.

Our only neighbors were the two horses penned nearby. As we set up our tent and cooked dinner, we saw our host working tirelessly until the last light in his fields nearby. He was up again at dawn, working his tractor as we left for our next day of travel. We had nothing but appreciation that he took time from his other demands to make a place for us.

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