Cycling across the alps from Munich

Cycling across the Alps. The first time

It has to be a good year for a post Oktoberfest cycle to Italy from Munich and in 2009 I definitely had luck on my side. Taking a few hours off I stumbled towards the local bookshop one afternoon and picked up their one guide to crossing the Alps. Bike repairs aside this purchase was enough to plan the trip for me. “Radreiseführer München-Verona” by Paul Bickelbacher.

Even to someone pretty devoted to cycling, ‘Alps’ seems like a big word. Of course, crossing the Alps by bike does involve some sustained hours long crawls in top gear, but this aside, the challenge was not as great as I had expected. Particularly because much of the climb was pretty gentle with only one obligatory big accent as I came out of Innsbruck towards the Brenner pass.

Getting to Austria is relatively a cruise with the first day out of Munich spent in a steady gentle climb up the Isar and round, past an abandoned checkpoint to Achensee. Had lunch in the beautiful Bad Tölz and then pushed on up through increasingly forested territory to complete a solid 70 odd mile first days cycling. Alps on either side, I set up camp in the gloom and made my way to the local Gasthoff to be serenaded by some holidaying Hamburgers on the Accordion and spoons (‘Achensee clearly now the rain has gone’ and more).

Achensee is a very scenic spot and I was sorry to have to plunge down the other side of this first mountain chain the next morning and roll into the Inn valley. Past Schloss Tratzberg (well worth a visit as I discovered on a subsequent cycle) and into Innsbruck for lunchtime. As ever, little time for sightseeing and I was off after a kebab and coffee in the main square and a cursory cruise round the old town.

As previously mentioned this first part out of Innsbruck was perhaps the toughest and I was at least two hours in a slow crawl up the mountainside. When it finally levelled out the views were fantastic but galling as it was clear the motorists had a much easier time, with the autobahn stretched out several hundred feet below me. Still, at least my road (the pre-autobahn route) was car free and very scenic. What’s more, most of the climbing was done. The rest of the day was fairly pleasant till I rolled into Gries a little after nightfall and found myself a damp room for the night.

Not a town that has seen much action since they built the autobahn on huge stilts at least a hundred feet above it (it starts low and then gets gradually higher). I felt lucky to find a hotel at all or even anyone alive. The place looked so desolate and cold in its narrow dark valley. Climbing over the border and into the sunshine the next day it was evident that Gries had the raw deal, with its Italian neighbour (Brenner) spread out across a big sunny plateau, views in every direction, and locals all smiles.

Part two. Cycling Italia

The only rain of the trip fell on my head in Gries and I was relieved to find bright sunshine beaming down on me once I had climbed the final 300 metres into Brenner. The Pass is dramatic not just for its geography but for the way three transport arteries wind round one another at the top. The stunning motorway on stilts that had towered over me for much of the previous day actually passing underneath my B road with the train line alongside it. All but the inter-cities swap locomotives at the border, so there is a big station in the town. Several hundred metres below they are tunnelling out a new route which should help reduce times to Italy which are still relatively slow (7 hours Munich to Milan for example).

Rolling out of Brenner it felt like it was all over and the road twisted away below me. I made easy progress through an immediately different landscape. Much more browns and yellows in the scenery than in the Germanic blue green and white Alps, and the very occasional dilapidated house (presumably the ‘Italian’ minority at work in this largely Germanic part of Italy).

First Italian stop was at Franzensfeste fortress that sits so commandingly across the gorge it guards that the motorway has to go over it (still on stilts) and the trains right through the middle of it. Hosting a big contemporary art exhibition about the Tyrol it had been renamed ‘The Freedom Labyrinth’ for the duration. “Freedom is unobtainable. We can only approach this goal, no more. No-one can tell where the search for freedom will lead us – just like in a maze.” The opening blurb left me sniggering as, out of cash I had snuck in one the many unguarded entrances, to enjoy a deserted but entertainingly sprawling exhibit of local trinkets and images. It was an enjoyably surreal stop, freedom (cycling) having led me to a dilapidated fort in the middle of a very scenic but uninhabited ravine, full of video installations, funny sounds (an enduringly successful contemporary art gimmick) and random objects, with the occasional freight train rumbling through making the entire building shake like it was about to collapse. It was only hunger that brought me away after an hour or so and wearily back onto the bike, past the fort café and back rolling down the hill hoping it wouldn’t be too far to a cash point and sustenance.

Luckily it was not and tea in Brixen was a delight. A very pretty medieval town, right in the heart of the Tyrol. A great base for a little walking holiday I thought, though unfortunately not blessed with a campsite and hence, not encouraged by my one hotel stop thus far and anyway reluctant to pay the money, I was compelled to continue a little further and overnight in Klausen right underneath that motorway on stilts, ever present. An amazingly quiet and pleasant stop considering, the reception chalet full of photos of campers through the ages from about the 1920s. Proof that camping sites and in particular motorised homes have got drabber and drabber. The gay, friendly colours of the sixties and seventies replaced with utterly formless whitewash mega vans that make camping look like a pursuit only for the elderly and suburban. A bungalow from bungalow.

A full day out walking followed and having taken some advice from a very friendly couple in the neighbouring mega van (the contrast with my tiny green tent almost forcing them to invite me in for the night) I headed of for the nearest peak, changing buses half way up I came across a high altitude wine festival. The usual tables in rows, umpa band and sausage stalls only 1000 metres up on an Alpine meadow on the top of a round hillock that oversaw stunning views in three directions. I was tempted to have a proper day off but knew it would be a regretted decision, a solo outing to a wine festival unlikely to sustain me even until the next bus arrived back down.

So I pressed on with the help of a further local bus and pretty soon had left the other day hikers behind me as I determined on retracing my steps over a ridge, down the other side and round back to the wine fest for a final bevy. The sun was hot and the scenery the most dramatic of any Alpine landscape I have seen, with grey craggy peaks and lifeless dry rubble terrain, black and dead on one side of the ridge, amber and gleaming on the other. The valley below was full of autumn colours in the crisp afternoon. I felt very energetic, the cycling of the previous day having been fairly light and the night under the autostrada having been very restful, and I kept quite a pace up, only starting to tire as I neared the summit, where I stopped and sat down for only the second time during the whole ascent.

However, with my tiring, so nerves had started to creep in and by the time I stopped I was in a state of some agitation. It had been several hours since I had seen anyone, my tourist information map suggested (and this is as strong a word as could be used given the quality of the map) that I still had further to go than I had already come, it was four o’clock, I had set off at 12 and at 8 my last bus home left the wine festival, by which time it would be well-established pitch black. So it was that far from savouring the achievement or my cold sausages bought at the wine festival, I was all of a rush to eat my lunch and get on as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, my body failed to respond to the call. Quite the opposite, I suddenly felt dog tired, had to force myself back up, my limbs felt heavy and ached and I immediately started to half stumble in my progress, feeling all the while more anxious and lonely on this inhospitable and really rather remote mountain.

Descending from the peak on the other side I was quickly faced with a thirty-foot ladder, below which the mountain fell away in a sheer drop right to the valley floor. In a more temperate mood, I would have found this scary but eminently manageable. In my state at that moment, the climb down seemed like a very serious undertaking. I spent at least five minutes collecting myself and finished off my water, before very carefully and slowly lowering myself onto the first rung. I have climbed down ladders before and it is not an especially difficult thing to do, yet a fall here and it would be quite some time before anybody knew what had happened to me. Unhelpfully, my whole body shook during the entire descent, several pauses to collect myself failing to settle me at all.

This obstacle overcome, it did start to get easier and soon I was descending on a broad easy path the forest fast approaching. I even had enough humour to enjoy the totally stunning sunset of golds and browns across the valley below, my wine festival already audible. Deceptively as it turned out and it was long gone 8 before I stumbled into a rather high-class Gasthof, sat trembling at the bar and falteringly procured a beer from a very reluctant member of staff who consulted her manager before serving the jabbering wreck in the corner; the wine festival long over.

Morning brought fresh enthusiasm and a huge 3 hour non stop crawl up the last peak and then steep fast descent into Bozen, the first properly Italian looking city and while still well within the political boundaries of the Tyrol, feeling much more Mediterranean, relaxed and seedy. From this point, the cycling was almost entirely level along a broad gorge running well over 100 miles and out onto the plain of Lombardy, barely an incline all the way to Bologna. Although still surrounded by mountains, the alpine atmosphere was gone with plenty of industry and habitation along the flat river bed. Even the air was quickly different, losing its dry crispness and becoming hazy and humid. Definitely a less charming part of the ride and forced again by a lack of campsites to sleep not far out of Bozen at all I resolved to try to get all the way to lake Gaza the following day.

The route was almost all along a smooth cycle path alongside canals or the river itself, totally flat and monotonous. I put my head own, did 19 miles in the first hour, 17 in the second and 15 in the third before reducing my pace even further as the day became a long slog for the end. I only stopped to eat when I became sick with exhaustion and crawled, typically disheveled into a pizzeria for a huge late lunch. After which I had just about enough puff to roll own hill the final five miles to Lake Garda and even felt, as the food started to settle in my stomach, revived enough to start circumnavigating the lake, eschewing the closer campsites and determined to spent the night near the town of Garda, which I did. 103 miles on the clock for that day an unenjoyable achievement.

Lake Garda was a disappointment, partly due to bad weather, and the haziness of the sky that meant I couldn’t see across it for most of the stay. It has a romantic reputation and is very famous, but lacks all the charms of the alpine lakes I am more familiar with. Rather than cold and clean, I found it full of rubbish and smelly. I took a swim off the jetty in Garda more because I thought I should than because I wanted to and felt immediately like I had dived into a sewer. When I clambered out my body was covered with a greasy slime like I had just used a moisturised shower gel, except a lot smellier.

Fortunately, the day picked up when I finally found my way to Verona and the end of this leg of the journey. An instantly appealing city whose medieval centre is surrounded by a big loop of the Adige (like Wasserburg on a bigger scale) and which is a very manageable size, but full of life, history and amazing old buildings and fortifications. Best of all, the campsite being closed I spent the night in the youth hostel that was housed in a crumbling 17th-century palace on the hill just above the city and met another gentleman who had just crossed the alps via a different route. 

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