Cycling through South Tyrol and the Dolomites

Cycling through South Tyrol and the Dolomites

In 2020, the internet is full of excellent bike touring blogs. I knew that for my blog to be interesting, it would need to be personal. But I was also discovering that blogging takes time, and sometimes I would rather be on the bike than polishing my latest post on the tiny screen of my phone. With blogging, as with photography, and many other things in life, there is this duality: one can live an experience, or capture it. But it is impossible to do both at the same time.

Blogging mornings and apple afternoons

So rather than exploring the town of Mals, I locked myself down in the hotel room to work on photos while I had a power outlet. I had many photos from the Alps, and was barely done reworking them when it was time to check out. After leaving the hotel, I tried to do the writing on my phone, but then discovered that with this many images in a post, the WordPress app was becoming really slow. So I pushed it back for another time and had lunch instead, since it was already mid-day.

The worst of the rain had passed, but the mountaintops were covered in clouds and a few drops fell every now and again. The province of South Tyrol had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the First World War when it was annexed by Italy. Most people spoke a dialect of German, but they were clues that I had changed country. Above all, I felt people had more time. This included cycle tourists. My fellow bike travellers were less ultra-light, their clothes less ultra-tight, and in general less ultra-hurried. So I felt more comfortable approaching others.

South Tyrol has the best cycle roads I’ve ever seen. The bike paths are not only well marked, they are nearly always on dedicated roads, and extra signs indicate restaurants, accommodation and drinking water on the side of the road. But best of all, the cycle paths were live. They were used by families and road cyclists alike. There were restaurantinos and ice cafés and on the side of the roads, and businesses and villages were themed with old painted bikes. For a day and a half I was cycling through the apple yard of Europe. From Mals to Bozen, every piece of cultivated land was covered by apple trees.

I stayed in a campsite “in nature”, which is to be understood as “in apples” in Lana, close to Meran. In the evening, I tried to write but fell asleep. The next morning was cloudy and I finally finished writing the post on the Swiss Alps. When I started cycling, it was again noon, and the weather was getting hot. Blogging in the mornings felt like a poor strategy for hot weather. Shortly before approaching Bozen I had my first view on the Dolomites and directly understood the global fascination for these mountains. The Dolomites had a very special colour. This colour, combined with the hardness of the rock, formed great yellow walls of stone in the distance.

The town of Bozen, or should I write Bolzano, felt more Italian than the rest of South Tyrol. I stopped to get a map of the eastwards cycling roads at the tourist information centre, but did not dare to leave my bike in the busy streets for shopping. Then I left the Etsch (Adige) River and began cycling up the Eisack. The valley was steep and narrow, but accommodates heavy traffic with a busy motorway, a busy road and major railway, that all lead to Austria and Germany through the Brenner Pass. I was amazed that there remained enough space for a continuous and independent cycle path, mostly following the old railroad.

Dolomiti dolce vita

Soon I realised that it was time for siesta, and most small businesses and restaurants were closed. It was mid-afternoon when I finally bumped into “Radstation Bios Ristoro”, a old railroad building renovated into a small organic restaurant by the side of the cycle path in Atzwang. I had a plate of pasta and a salad. The pasta was homemade, and the vegetables grown in the yard behind the house, and full of taste. I can only recommend a stop if you cycle by.

There were other cycle tourists at the restaurant but we did not talk until I ran again into them shortly before the village of Klausen. Glauco and Julia on their bikes, and young Piero in a trailer. We decided to eat dinner together in town after finding our respective accommodation, the campsite for me, a hotel room for them because, “with a tent (and a young child) it would become a full-time job.” Julia and Glauco had done a lot of bike touring before Piero was born, only recently they had traded their tent for a child, a trailer, and a careful selection of toys. Among other places they had toured in Japan. So I explained I had lived there for one year, and we exchanged our experiences. Apparently theirs had been much more chaotic. Knowing some Japanese language and culture had helped me a lot.

While cycling back to the campsite, there was a young musician, Nina Duschek, playing guitar and interpreting blues songs in the street. It had been a while since listened to music, so I stopped and had another glass of wine. Her interpretations were personal, her voice incredible, powerful yet highly accurate. I was stunned, wanted to tell her so but she was busy with friends. I hope her music career will survive the summer 2020.

The next morning I caught up on photos and wrote a bit in the tent while the laundry was drying. I hit the road at 10, made a stop in Brixen. I was getting better organised. Shortly before noon I ran again into Glauco, Julia, and Piero, who thought I was already far ahead. We had a picnic together at the entrance of Pustertal near Brixen. Glauco had mounted a special large-diameter cassette on his bike for the uphills. Cycling next to him and Piero made me feel my bike was lightweight. It was Saturday evening and accommodations were busy, so eventually I cycled ahead to the next camping in St. Lorenzen, while they slept in a hotel a few kilometres down-valley.

On the following day, I met the whole family again less than a kilometre from the campsite entrance. They were again shocked how late I started cycling, so I explained that for some reason since I arrived in Italy I was cycling slower, shorter days. And to be fair I enjoyed it. We cycled together most of the day and they recommended I stay with them in a hostel in Toblach. While approaching the village, the valley became broader. Pine forests were encased in steep walls of yellow rocks. Finally, we were seeing the Dolomites from closer up. We were stunned when we discovered the Grand Hotel actually was the youth hostel we looked for. I booked two nights so I could enjoy more of the mountains on the next day.

Tre Cime e una cometa

I said goodbye to Julia, Glauco, and Piero, who would continue cycling south towards Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Po Plain, and began cycling up into the mountains. I had forgotten how different a bike without luggage feels. I was cycling uphill at 20 km/h, overtaking everyone instead of being overtaken by everyone. I passed by several beautiful lakes filled with mirror images of the steep mountains surrounding.

I left the cycle path to Cortina where my new friends were probably, slowly slowly making their way up somewhere behind, and took the road to Lake Misurina. It was busy with cars, but again cycling without bags was a real advantage as I was faster, less tired, and did not need to pull so hard on the handlebars, so in better control of the bike. There was a long line of cars waiting at the crossroads with the road to the Tre Cime, where a sign indicated that the parking at the top was full. That was a positive point for me as traffic was filtered, but then the road also became really steep. I was using the lowest gear and my touring bike almost felt an advantage over the race bikers who struggled with higher gears.

I was exhausted when I reached the top of the road at Rifugio Aurunzo, where there was a huge and indeed full parking lot, but I still managed to walk a bit on the crowded but easy trail and to find a quiet picnic spot. A laid-back German hiker was kind enough to let me share a tiny bit of shade with her. She was here for her eleventh time and advised that I go on at least to the other side of the pass where I could get a view on the iconic north face of the peaks. I followed her advice and was rewarded by a gorgeous view, but I also spent half the rest of the hike feeling stupid that I did not even ask for her name. The other half I tried hard to convince myself there will be other pretty laid-back German hikers down the road…

I thought I had more than enough photos for the day, but then there was an additional bonus at night, when I realised that I could see the comet Neowise from my hostel room’s window. I had been looking for it for a few days now, but the northern skies were usually cloudy or obstructed by mountains, and I had been to lazy to wake up in the early morning. An apotheosis ending to a gorgeous day in the Dolomites.

The route (5 days, 287 km)


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