Sunday, June 19, 2005

posted on 6/19/2005

Austria 2005

Graz, June 8th 2005

Arrival day in Austria. The highlight despite the pretty sights of Graz, must be the unscathed arrival of my brand new touring bike. Looking outside the airport windows before boarding the plane at Stansted I followed the progress of my neatly boxed jewel hoping it would be handled by the delicate hands of a china shop assistant! Good packing means lowsy unpacking, and it was not before 1 hour and a half that layers upon layers of bubble wrap and insulation foam were removed and I was riding on austrian soil. Graz was a pleasant surprise and there was no better way than to look at it from the heights of Schlossberg. A steep hill rising from the town centre and reached by a maze of winding alleys. Of the castle only the bell tower survives as a symbol of the capital of Styria. What could not be demolished is the grand views from the top terrasses. A 360 degrees display of the town below in an interminable sequence of hills like waves disappearing into the horizon. Cycling around the old town its rich past is evident in an array of tidy streets lined by palaces and churches in baroque and gothic style.

Graz-Bad Gleichenberg, 9th June 2005

After a hearty austrian breakfast I began the day visiting a bit more of Graz. I stopped first by the Landeszeughaus a stylish palace now hosting a harmoury museum. I limited my visit to the impressive facade of the building before visiting the Dom, Graz neo gothic cathedral. I then began riding along those panoramas that I had admired yesterday from the top of the Schlossberg. By lunchtime I reached Riegersburg a castle whose fame is due to the fact that it was never conquered during the frequent turkish invasions that lasted for centuries. In the 17th century the turkish empire border was only 20 km away. When they invaded the area the only safe escape route for local villagers was to retreat in the castle whose walls could give shelter to 10000 people. The sun had not appeared all day and it got worse when a light drizzle started to hinder my camping plans.

Bad Gleichenberg-Eisenwald, 10th June 2005

After visiting my teacher birthplace in the light of the morning as well as her primary school I began cycling along one of the many 'Weinstrasse' heading south in a borders bonanza; within 30 km east was Hungary, south was Slovenia, and south west Italy. The first half of the day was rather flat was it not for those sudden 20% steep ramps climbing hills in a sudden burst; it would have been nice to fit in a few switchbacks to make the all experience a bit gentler on my legs and much more enjoyable. The wind was also challenging my progress head on! At a certain stretch where gusts were reducing my pace to a slow motion slog only looking at a bird clumsily attempting to fly put a smile on my face. The tiny little thing was frantically flapping his wings trying to fly against the strong gusts of wind; as he was not moving an inch forward it seemed more an effort to stay put and cling to Austria rather than end up exiled in Slovenia or Hungary. Unlike me no effing sounds or complaints just flapping the hell out of his wings! The lanscape after St Veit became much more interesting with forests and higher hills breaking the monotonous plains. Lots of nice villages too like St Veit itself and Gomlitz. For a while I thought I was on a movie set too. I was sharing the road with little traffic all consisting of Vespa motorbikes of all vintage and sort converging in a raid in a village nearby. After 110 km after Eisenwald I spotted an ideal pitch for my tent in an open field.

Eisenwald-Velden, 11th June 2005

Today was a pretty hard cycling day repaid by glorious views and the first mountains to be climbed. The initial climb to 1350 metres seemed never ending probably more a reminder that I haven't climbed mountains since last October. What I thought would be a stroll took over two hours with some steep sections to tackle. I was hoping for some Vespa to hook into but it was not to be! Forests of pines extended as far as the eye could see. The uphill struggle ended with a very quick descent to Lavamund where an old local man I had stopped for directions started talking to me. Normally that is what I like about these cycling holidays but my german is a double edged sword. The few phrases I know pronounced with impeccable high school accent gave my new friend the impression that I would understand his passionate talk. Before I could do anything to stop him from wasting his german on me I was left with the only option, pretending I knew what he was talking about and being extremely interested in the topics discussed. Was he telling the way to Klagenfurt? Suddenly I was saved from embarrassment by a mighty loud siren shaking the little village from its torpor. I thought it might have been a third world war warning but my friend reassured me. It was twelve o'clock and the sirens were making sure everybody knew! Avoiding Klagenfurt traffic I took the pleasant road on the southern side of Worthersee where my far too many kilometres came to a sudden hald as I spotted a youth hostel on the outskirts of Velden.

Velden-Afritz am See, 12th June 2005

After a brief stop to visit Velden I followed the route to Villach that I left to reach Fakersee; an enjoyable ride that confirmed the obvious shortage of either tarmac or civil engineering skills in building mountain roads. The ascent to the lake as well as the following climb to Bad Bleiberg were far steeper than necessary! In Switzerland they would have built train lines going up, cable cars, mighty tunnels and countless switchbacks but this is Austria. Here a banzai no nonsense approach prevails and each mountain roads is a n old gingle: 'did you want to bring your bike up here? Now push!' I brushed along the italian border with strong winds but no stoic birds to be seen. The ride became very pleasant between Treffen and Afritz Am See where the road winds its way up an increasingly narrow valley. I reached the campsite on the lake shore just in time to pitch my tent before the rain started to fall, happy and still dry.

Afritz am See-Spittal, 13th June 2005

A beautiful day of riding where my planned route has been ditched due to unforseen bad weather conditions and mighty steeper than I can handle grades! I left Afritz and could really appreciate the splendor of this quiet mountain lake. The approach to the Nockberge National Park was rather flat but once I turned into the park itself the road began climbing with no mercy for my weary legs. Little did my map inform me that I would be climbing two cols just over 2000 metres. The ride with all the weight I was carrying was hard going but with the backdrop of nature at its best. Big mountains all around, brooks and great expanses of pines. Hard to forget such vistas in what is certainly the most scenic spot visited sofar. Half way up the first mountain I stopped for lunch and siesta and met Margit who was on her second day of a week solo trekking. She was having a hard time with her new shoes and old blisters on her feet. With my pain in the rear I suggested a swap to give eachother aching bits a rest. After the second col I was really not able to climb much more and seeing what lay ahead made me change my ill planned route. My map mentioned another 800 metres climb with grades reaching 21%! Sorry for all these rants but I would put all those engineers who planned these roads on a bike and let them pedal up their walls! This means that the Grosslockner will have to wait another tour maybe with an engine in the meantime the Dolomites will be enough a treat in the next few days.

Spittal-Lienz, 14th June 2005

Today I joined the crowds of middle aged bike tourers who flock to the Drauweg. This together with the famous Donauweg is a cycling route following the river Drau from its sources in Italy all the way through Austria and Slovenia. The 80 km between Spittal and Lienz were really entertaining and gentle. The path alternates tarmac to gravel following the river bed through quaint villages and pine forests. That is where all the cyclists I did not see in the last few days were and somehow I now understand why; no 20% grades here! The weather deteriorated and an hour before Lienz a fine drizzle started putting off my camping plans. I followed Lonely Planet suggestion instead finding a room in Haus Egger where the guide says 'you eat breakfast with the family and will be plied with food until you beg for mercy!' Bikers paradise. The old lady is extremely nice offering her help to dry my clothes with her spin dryier. Tomorrow forecast is not too good I will certainly pray they got this one wrong.

Lienz-Cortina, 15th June 2005

The day could not start better. At breakfast with Frau Egger I also met Greg and his girlfriend. They were a couple from Australia on a six months round the world tour. It revived my frustrated ambition for a long break doing the same! WE talked about their travelling and as they were heading towards the italian Dolomites I gave them some directions and tips for areas not to miss. I then joined the Drauweb once more to the italian border where rain started to fall. A roof could not have been better placed and it kept me dry for an hour of downpour. Despite the dark clouds looming ahead I was able to push on and bike all the way to Cortina passing through the mountain bliss that are the Dolomites. Riding through those towering rocky peaks was an unforgettable experience and for a while I thought I might not make it so many were the times I just had to stop to take one more snap shot of the unfolding beauties. To end a good day I raised my tent in the great setting of Cortina campsite spread around a forest of pines.

Cortina-Cavalese, 16th June 2005

As expected today was the most spectacular day. Despite once more gloomy forecast at the campsite I was blessed by a spot of clear blue sky who seem to follow me throughout the all day. Two famous climbs over 2000 lay ahead the Falzarego and 33 switchbacks ( can we donate some to Austria ) to the top of Pordoi. Both were tough climb with the weight I carried but incredibly beautiful. The Falzarego climb with the towering peak called 'Tofane' right in front of me for the entire route was breath-taking. Views impossible to describe. On top I could also keep up my japanese practice as a group of elderly japanese were gazing at those majestic scenes. The Pordoi ascent a riding legend in italian cycling was great fun as switchbacks and altititude were counted down and marked at each bend. Once you get to number 33 you are a short straight up the 2242 metre of the summit. I then descended following the constant flow of cycling enthusiasts, motor bikers and coaches into Canazei and followed the Fassa and Fiemme Valley reaching Cavalese pretty tired but with memories impossible to erase.