Part 5: Leaning Towers and Mountain Goats.

April 9, 2018 Austria, Italy, Landscape, Touring, Travel

I awoke early to a temperature of minus four (centigrade, for my American friends) after a restless night of worrying about my battery and cursing myself for not replacing it before I left. The conclusion I came to last night still held, there was nothing I could do about it now so I’d just have to deal with the outcome.

I pulled on suitable dining attire, not bike gear, and went downstairs for breakfast. Again I met the same very helpful waitress (possibly daughter of the owners) and was promised Eier und Speck. I was learning slowly over the last couple of days and now knew enough to know that I wanted eggs and bacon. Good start. What came out of the kitchen was something that having tasted it, I need to start making myself. A fine scrambled egg with diced bacon in it. Loaded with butter. Maybe I should just move to Austria? Nice people, breathtaking scenery, awesome mountain roads and the butteriest eggy bacon I’ve ever tasted. Hello arteries, I’ve got a surprise for you.

That was enough to take my mind of my next task for a little while. I was pretty much on my own for breakfast, seated in a great position to look out over the valley and see how far the snow line had descended down the hills overnight. Again, it was minus four and had been snowing overnight. I had two locations planned for today and I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to get to either.

After breakfast I had no other option but to face my destiny. I trudged outside to see a fully frozen over bike and my heart sank just a little bit more. I put the key in the thankfully (miraculously?) thawed ignition, but before turning it, paused to have a little chat. The kind of chat you’d have with a toddler that you thought was about to do something you wouldn’t entirely appreciate. A mix between that and a very subdued pep-talk. “You can start, I know you can. When we get back home, I’m going to buy you the fanciest and most powerful battery I can get my hands on.”

Already expecting defeat, as is my nature, I turned the key and the dashboard lit up to tell me that yes, it was still -4. One final muttered prayer to the God of biking and I pushed the starter button with the determination of an Olympic athlete going for gold.

No hesitation whatsoever. The engine kicked over and the bike roared into life as if to mock my earlier heartfelt motivational speech by saying “oh yeah? Well watch this!”

It ran for a few minutes and the engine temperature came up to something around normal before I was satisfied that it would start again in an hour or so when the other temperature had risen to something around normal.

I retreated back inside to sort out my gear for the day and to check where I was going. I had originally planned a long days riding out to the Grossglockner pass, but with the temperature and the time that I’d end up leaving (and the time I’d end up getting back) it was a no-go. Common sense won out. That was going to have to be left for another visit to the area. I was also quite a good way into the Tyrol valley. My only familiar way-point was Landeck, a town we stayed in back in 2012 and the point from where all my GPS routes began and ended. I was about 30/40 minutes ride beyond Landeck. In preparation for not being able to ride as far as Grossglockner, I borrowed some day trip routes from a local motorbike rental company. That’s one of the first things I ended up doing in my preparations for this trip. I had originally planned to fly into Munich, rent a car and drive to the hotel in Galtur. Then drive down to Ischgl for the next two or three mornings and take out a bike on the mountain roads. Then with the couple of days I’d have left over (because daily rental on motorbikes isn’t cheap), I’d take the car into the mountains, get some photos and do other touristy stuff.

Somewhere along the way, I just changed my mind and started booking ferries and preparing my own bike for the trip. Possibly to be able to bring back beer & wine. Oh, and to be able to make a stop in Brugge on the way back.

When I was all packed up with the stuff I needed for the day, I ventured out back to the bike and on firing it up, found that it was now a toasty -2 degrees. Practically shorts & t-shirt weather. I got rolling and then hit upon something I can’t imagine how I didn’t think of before, icy roads. Shit. The hotel was on top of a fairly decent hill and if the bike did start sliding, I was almost surely just going to have to perform an emergency bail out and sit on my ass on the frozen road, watching my bike slide down the hill in front of me. Lets call that the worst case scenario for now. Anything other than that is a good result.

I made it to the end of the hill unscathed. Then to the next bend in the road. Then to the next. Then a few bends more until I realized that Austria knows what it’s doing. Not only were the roads thawed, they were dry. It gave me further confidence when a few kilometers down the road, I met a few oncoming bikers that were riding as if it was the middle of summer. Austria really does know how to keep roads clear during crappy weather. Minor roads too.

Every few kilometers further down the road to Landeck, the temperature rose by a half a degree. Almost up to the point where I considered turning off the heated grips. Such a novelty. I got to Landeck and after a moderate amount of swearing at the GPS, figured out that I was following today’s route in reverse. Every couple of hundred meters, it’d tell me to make a u-turn or follow some Godforsaken dirt track to go back the way I’d just come. Even my frankly genius idea of hitting the ‘reverse route’ button ended in disaster. That seemed to completely flummox the hugely overpriced BMW branded Garmin Zumo. I resolved it by setting waypoints along the route, turning the route guidance off and finally by not really giving too much of a shit if I ended up lost or not.

But less of the technical problems for now. I was on the way to Lake Reisa, somewhere I’d never heard of before. But the sky was blue in that direction and the temperature appeared to keep rising, so I decided this was a good omen. On arrival at the lake, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was mid-July and not mid-September. Leisure boats were out on the lake, the car park was full of bikers (locals mind you, I was the only nutcase that traveled long distance to get here) and there was a queue at the coffee truck, then another queue to sit down and enjoy your coffee. It was almost as bizarre as the looks I got from the other bikers when they figured out my funny looking number plate was from so far away.

The tower that defied all photoshop straightening efforts. Couldn’t get the tower and the horizon straight. So screw it, it’s the leaning tower of Lake Reisa.

I took the opportunity to take a walk along the lake shore and after the chilly morning, get some sun on my face. That was a pleasant change after riding through biblical amounts of rain in Germany a couple of days before.

Lake Reisa seemed to attract a certain type of poseur. One too many Ferraris and Lambourghinis to be a coincidence. The spectacle was interesting however, as was the practice of hitting the accelerator just as they entered the tunnel just outside the car park. I do enjoy the sound of a well tuned engine, be that from a bike or a stupidly powerful car.

I only stayed a short time at the lake, there were so many roads to ride and so much to see to spend the day lollygagging around at the lake.  So I followed the supercars before me and headed into the tunnel and deeper into Italy.

I was between sights now. Lake Reisa behind me and Timmelsjoch ahead, so far ahead. I failed to correlate the couple of centimeters on the map to actual travel distance. At least it was bright and warm though, I’ve had worse.

I stopped for petrol, chocolate and water along the way. A usually mundane activity only notable in this case because of the curious character working at the petrol station. He must have been mid-way through the slowest work day of his life, it seemed to excite and mystify him beyond all comprehension that a foreign biker had stopped at his establishment. For petrol and snacks of all things. I almost thought he was going to pick up the phone to call his wife and tell her what crazy shit was going on at work. But she’d never believe it, it was too fantastic a tale. Then there would be an argument when he got home that evening which would ultimately lead to a divorce where he’d lose the petrol station and all the chocolate and refrigerated water within. I simply couldn’t have that.

After negotiating a sale where neither party knew the others language enough to ask or answer any questions, I made my way back outside at did all the usual packing up, getting ready, checking my pockets fifty times and then throwing my leg over the bike and starting it up. It was only then I noticed that the strange little man had followed me out of the shop and was standing about 10 feet to my side, watching my every move. He had only just noticed my Irish number plate and he had a look on his face like the mere sight of it and the realisation of where I’d come from had blown his mind clear out the back of his head and onto the cracked and crumbling wall behind him. As I was pulling away, he was smiling, waving and saying stuff in Italian. I can only assume it wasn’t “don’t ever come back here or I’ll stab you in the face”, so I waved back and said similar nice things in English. In some kind of momentary harmony with the Italian language, I believe I also said ‘grazie mille’ at one point. I’m practically a local. Of all the amazing sights I saw and then completely forgot during my 10 day trip, this is the one I’ll never forget.

I was back on the busy road that wound around small villages to either side and marveling at the quantity of apple trees. It was almost like being back in Switzerland, north of Lake Geneva and seeing all the grapevines. Then figuring out that Switzerland has a wine industry! Who knew? The Swiss I assume…

Apple trees and more apple trees, but not before too long I was back to basics, climbing mountain roads out of towns and villages and going back toward more desolate places. I was making my way up the start of the Timmelsjoch pass and amazingly, seemed to have large sections of the road entirely to myself. Maybe not too amazingly, given that it was now well beyond tourist season and this well worn biker road was reduced to the traffic generated by locals with too much time on their hands and idiots that don’t know any better.

These were not the snooker table smooth twists and turns of the other, more glamourous mountain passes. For quite a lot of this route, this was something different entirely. I was just getting into my stride, chucking the bike around hairpins and tight corners with impossibly steep drops when, on railing the bike around one corner, goats! Goats every-bastarding-place. Dozens of goats. There was breaking, swearing and rapid downshifting. Then more swearing. The goats, they care not for my antics. They milled about on the road for a few minutes, then buggered off back into the verge when an oncoming car showed little sign of stopping. That. That was ‘exciting’.

I pulled myself together, content that it was a once in a lifetime event and that I shouldn’t turn every corner expecting troops of militant goats. Or if not once in a lifetime, at least once in a holiday. I continued on, albeit at a more sedate pace, and got through several more hairpins and steep climbs without anything to write home about. Just as I was getting comfortable again, unpaved section. I should say ‘unpaved section’ right at the exit of a tunnel. This was also exciting. Not so much in a ‘goats up in your face’ kind of way though. I stopped at the above scenic spot for a square of chocolate and a quick drink. Possibly to steel myself for what was to come, the snow line. You can see in the photo that I was pretty much at the snow line already and I wasn’t entirely sure what the road condition or the temperature was going to be like once I got above it.

All morning at the hotel I had been glued to the webcam feed that was at the toll plaza at the top of the pass and I was basing my decision to travel on that. There were now quite a few more cars on the pass, but only one or two other bikers. Again, locals with too much time on their hands and idiots that don’t know any better.

Onward and most definitely upward. It surprised me how clear and passable the road was, especially given the fairly significant snowfall at this altitude in the past few days. As you can see, I came across another biker. Based on Google maps, I believe my bike is in Austria, while his is still in Italy. No matter which country you were in, it was bloody cold.

Cold and numb fingers notwithstanding, I took the time to complete someones lazy attempt at a stack of stones. You’re welcome, slackers.

Onward to the toll plaza to collect my sticker and my righteous sense of accomplishment. There is a museum at the top, and I’m sure it’s really interesting. But coffee. Coffee to make the fingers work again.

At the toll plaza, after coffee. Back below the snow line and it’s as if I dreamed the whole thing. Lush, green forest and beautiful blue sky once again.

As it always is after the fun part is over, the road back to the hotel was long and tiring. It was getting late into the afternoon and thoughts of another 5 course meal were dancing in my mind. Possibly because the only thing I’d eaten all day was breakfast and chocolate. I tend to do that when I’m on my own. I forget to get hungry until it’s too late. I was running on sugar and my supply was starting to get low. At least there was nobody around to fall victim to my intense h’anger.  So low on sugar and short on concentration was I that I did something silly on the way back to the hotel that I was actively trying to avoid while in Austria. I got on the motorway. I’m going to blame  the GPS, it told me to turn where there was no turn. For the unaware, Austria is one of the countries where motorway use is pay before you use. Failure to do this attracts high fines if/when you’re caught. I didn’t buy the vignette (pre-pay motorway pass) because I had no reason or want to use motorways while in Austria. Needless to say, I hoofed it along the section of motorway I found myself on and got off at the next exit. Funnily enough, the exit I got off at brought me back to a road I’d been on literally 500 yards before I took the wrong turn to get onto the motorway. How the hell does that happen? Anyway, I haven’t seen anything official from Austrian authorities yet and I hopefully never will.

I did finally get back to the hotel, tired but with a brain on fire from all the things I’d seen throughout the day. Just enough time to clean up, get dressed and retreat for a well earned beer or two with dinner. Watching the sun setting over the Silvretta and the resulting bright pink sky while I sipped my beer was the icing on the cake. I don’t particularly care what it looks like if I’m sitting/drinking alone and grinning like a lunatic out the window. Well I did at the time, if only because Julie wasn’t grinning out the window with me. As I believe I’ve commented on this before, I’ll leave it with ‘live and learn’.

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