Climbing to Austria (Days 26 – 29, 19 – 22 June 2015)

Friday 19 June

In Meran I seem to have left behind the last of the immigrants – everyone has been white and mostly German-speaking since I left that city for the smaller towns between here and the border.

The climb is now more discernible but still, mostly – but by no mean always – gentle. From Naturns to Laas I follow the narrowing and increasingly torrid river. Cycleway-side cafes advertise Forst Beer, pretzels and sausages. And yet all around me – Italians, whether they like it or not.

Late in the day I stop for a coffee and fantastic apple strudel (Guten Tag German-speaking bakers … so nice to see you.) There I meet a woman from Darwin. In nearly four weeks of travel I’ve met few Australians – few foreigners at all – a testament to how travelling by bicycle is to travel amongst locals.

The woman from Darwin is here celebrating her 60th – she had begun with a yoga retreat in Bali before flying to Milan, spending time with a friend in Tuscany, and coming to this area for a few days riding before joining a cycling tour from Verona to Venice. For the day itself friends and family are coming to Italy to join her in celebration. Well played.

A couple of Dutch cyclists arrive at the campground in Laas just after I do. Jill and Aart Jan are riding from Holland to Australia over three years and are travelling with comfort in mind – they have very light chairs and a big tent with an anteroom – for the chairs, in bad weather. It’s all light for its size. I envy their chairs.

It’s Friday. I’ve cooked for myself a few days running. I want trout. I wander into town – it’s all so German or – I guess, really, Austrian. The architecture is Austrian. The look of the shops and what they sell is Austrian. The fonts of the signs are Austrian. The people are all speaking German and do not look Italian at all. I find my trout and it is good.

Back at the campsite Peter has arrived. He’s from Brisbane (two Australians in one day!) but originally a Pom – which I can hear and the Dutch couple cannot. He’s riding with the lightest kit imaginable – including some homemade super lightweight panniers – if you can call them that. He’s shaved down every excess for he is crossing the Stelvio Pass – the most famous/notorious of passes in Italian cycling. It’s a funny pairing – the Dutch with their roomy, homelike tent and Peter with his polymer bags and one change of clothes.

Saturday 20 June

The church across the river from the campground awakens me to the clamorous noise of the striking of seven o’clock. Another difference in German-speaking Italy – on the hour four clangs than a different tone tolls the hours, at a quarter past a single dong, at half past – two, and three-quarters past – three. In Italian speaking Italy they just do the hour itself.

The morning is rainy, windy  – just uninviting so I take my time getting started. When I pedal away the sun has come out but it remains cool and windy. This day’s riding is, finally, genuinely hard. I climb all day – steadily and at a tolerable gradient but, still – all day.

Along the way I see my very first cycling road sign pointing toward international borders and I pass my 1000 km mark – which includes 435 kms cycled in Australia. Both are pretty exciting moments for me and that sort of excitement helps me drag myself up into the Alps. There is pushing – that is walking and pushing my bicycle. And even then there is stopping to catch my breath.

I arrive in Burgeis – a place where cows live in town. It seems dairy farmers lead their cows to paddocks on the outskirts of town during the day, bring them for milking in town, then shed them beneath their houses.

The tourist information office has closed for the day. I ring the bells at a couple of hotels without response. So I hop on line on my phone, find Hotel Maraias on booking.com and secure a room for the night. I arrive at reception at the same time as my booking.

I am wrecked. Shattered. Happy to agree to spend an extra €13 for half-board (breakfast and dinner). I shower. I drink a beer. I marvel at the view.

The dinner is exceptional and utterly enormous. How these holidaymakers who are not riding their bicycles over the Alps consume this much food is a wonder. Here’s what is served: there is a salad bar and heaped basket of bread; first I’m brought cheesy-spinach dumplings in a butter sauce, then tomato soup with a dollop of cream, the main is beef goulash served with mashed potatoes, and for dessert a crème caramel.

I retire to my room – exhausted, stuffed like Thanksgiving, and having decided to spend another night. I turn on the television and find a mystery show – it feels like a telethon or variety show where people ring in. Everyone is wearing traditional Tyrolean attire (performers and audience) and there is music. Truly weird. I liked the mystery. I fell asleep thinking of Austria.

Monday 22 June

I spent Sunday writing, cleaning my bicycle, relaxing and recovering. I took a walk around town and ate another huge dinner at Hotel Maraias.

I wake to an overcast Monday morning ready to push over the top of Reschen Pass and into Austria, Switzerland and Austria again.

So much of the day is exceptional.

The mountains and scenery continue to be too beautiful. I have a few moments of outright giddiness and teary happiness. First when I finally get a downhill run cruising toward Lake St Valentin. It is icy blue. The mountains before me are ragged, dark grey granite peppered with pine green. Behind me – far behind me – more majestic mountains, iconic, snow-capped and cloud kissed. Around me are wild flowers – white clusters, red poppies, little blue things in fields of pale but vibrant green. In other fields freshly cut hay is being raked into piles by farmers. There is the persistent but not pungent smell of cow dung and the occasional clank-clank of the bells they wear while pasturing higher up the hills. Regularly I pass rushing rivulets of water pouring from everywhere and draining toward the lake and into the Adige to retrace my route and beyond to Venice.

I pass the last Italian town on my map and I’m freewheeling through a meadow into Austria. AUSTRIA. I have ridden my bicycle to Austria.

I feel … wonderful. I feel like I’ve really achieved something. Like this ride is a metaphor for life more generally: just keep pedalling, 20 metres at a time if you have to, you’ll get there. Sometimes you might get a little lost – like I did in Nauders – the first Austrian town I passed through. But eventually I found my way and was soon riding my brakes down 11 switchbacks to meet the crystalline blue River Inn and the Swiss border. I barely put a foot on the ground in that country as I pedalled about 15 kilometres and back into Austria where I find a campsite and call it a day.

I’ve reached my first big riding goal of the trip – I’ve crossed an Alpine pass and reached another country – I have plans to meet a friend in Paris in 11 days and no idea how I’m going to get there. I have some decisions to make.

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