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Published: September 1st 2009
Motorhome News from Europe 21.
Italy April 2005
From Dolomites to Lakes
OK, so you already know we like the mountains; but the Dolomites are something else. Previously, I could find them on a map of course, but I really had no idea what my expectations might be. Suffice to say, we have both been truly captivated by their charm.
We are in Italy of course, but the Austrian border is no more than an hours drive away and whilst the local language is Italian, many of the signs are in German. Every town here has at least two names, sometimes three, just to make travelling that bit more difficult.
Temptation struck last night when we saw a couple walking along the road sharing a bag of chips. We tracked down the source to a mobile burger and pizza bar in the centre of town. At the top of the list it said, ‘Pommes frites.’ Without further ado and, confident as ever, I placed our order. ‘Due pommes frites, per favore.’
The vendor responded with, ‘Zwei?’
‘Yes please,’ I replied without thinking. We had been in Italy for eight weeks and we’re still
...the going got tough at the snowline
trying to shake off the Spanish without all this. The chips were wonderful - cooked to order...... but three languages?
Overnight rain gave way to a bright sunny morning on Wednesday and we decided to delay our departure from the ski-resort of Canazai for a last hike in the midst of the mountains. Seven hours later we were back at Base-camp 1, exhilarated but extremely weary. Our path rose steeply from the town and continued upwards until lunchtime through woods of spruce, ancient pine and juniper, on good tracks with dappled sunlight on the forest floor. The going got tough at the snowline, knee deep at times, until, as we turned for home, it started to snow and our track descended at an alarming angle on slippery virgin snow with little more than overnight deer and fox prints to follow (or were they wolves?). Thank goodness for the walking poles; we would not have chanced it without them! There were black squirrels everywhere, with huge bushy tails, tufty ears and a flash of pure white under the belly. Nutcrackers made their first appearance for us on this walk, squawking overhead, and a buzzard circled over the valley below.
The vistas were fabulous; those jagged peaks so unique to the Dolomites, across to Mt Marmolada, spectacular in the sunlight at 11,000ft and mantled in snow. It was raining by the time we arrived back in town and somewhat soaked, we settled for hot chocolate and apfel strudel at the café in reward for our effort in the face of considerable hardship. Here in Italy the hot chocolate is precisely what it says; thick melted chocolate that sticks to your ribs! Yes, we’re happy here. Janice is always a happy bunny when there’s chocolate about!
The good book suggested that the road through Val Gardena should not be missed and we ventured forth up the 25 hairpin bends (tornantes), from Canazei to join the road stretching westwards towards Bolzano and our next stop in the National Park dello Stelvio. The skiers were already on the slopes enjoying the fresh snow and warm sunshine, queuing at the lifts and waltzing and gliding gracefully across the miles of downhill tracks still available here. The road dropped steadily into the valley, the grass turning green now on the pastures, responding to the warmer temperatures and trees were showing the welcome mist
of grey-green that heralds spring.
Spring suddenly arrived on the 31st March at the foot of the valley in Bolzano. The verges magically awoke to the bright yellow of forsythia, the pink and white of cherry blossom, the first flush of flowers on the magnolia and bright red quince. Here, along the narrow lanes and picture-card villages the beech woodlands sparkle with blue hepatica, and pale mauve crocuses carpet the meadows. The broad plain that runs up from Bolzano to Merano is one huge fruit bowl, 25km long and 3km wide between the hills, with fruit trees; mostly apple we suspect, neatly pruned in tidy rows on every spare metre of fertile soil. I have never noticed Italian apples on our supermarket shelves. Do they all go to the Italian market perhaps? How sensible. Why didn’t our supermarkets think of that instead of importing everything we eat?
Just south of Merano we followed the road-signs; all in German now, and turned southwest along the Val di Sole into the National Park for our next overnight ‘sosta’ stop by the Peio Terme (spa) ski-lift at the base of the magnificent 12,500ft Mt Cevedale. That night we were
...only for looking
surrounded by bears, high up in the Park on a rough track between the dense spruce and larch. (Please read that passage again in your best quiet David Attenborough voice). We tried so hard to find them, but we only saw Todd.
Morning brought low cloud and we turned towards the Swiss border through the high pass where the skiers were already out and we saw bus-loads of English school kids preparing to take on the slopes for the day. The skiing season is almost over now, though there was a fresh fall of snow overnight, exposed as the cloud lifted to display the mountain peaks at their best. The roads cleared by mid-morning as we passed through the beautiful hillside meadows, beach-woods and red tipped willow and birch on the hillsides near Aprica.
Now, I’m only the driver of this snail on wheels and I don’t get to see the map or the contours as we travel; that’s Janice’s domain. Imagine my surprise as we drove out of Aprica (where I thought we were at the bottom of the valley), to see yet another valley nearly 1000ft below us over a sheer drop! The mountains also changed
Dappled sunlight shone through the wayside woods of coppiced hazel, birch, sweet chestnut and hornbeam.
along this road, from the ragged dramatic peaks of the Dolomites clothed in trees and dotted with alpine chalets to the wide-open valleys and formal mountains bare above the tree-line and totally devoid of habitation. That’s the wonder of motorhome travel; there’s another surprise around every corner.
We were soon to be amongst more dramatic scenery, climbing up across the Italian-Swiss border, majestic fir dripping with cones clinging to the mountainsides and manicured meadows sweeping down to ice-blue rocky streams. That’s the magic of Switzerland.
But this was to be but a brief visit on Swiss soil on this occasion. We were heading for the Italian Lakes and tempted by the opportunity of a minor diversion to take a look at St Moritz and walk the route up to the glacier at Morteratsch. We parked Smiley at the beautiful Plauns campsite at Pontresina just before St Moritz, beside a crystal stream in full view of the mighty glacier in the early afternoon and trudged our way in glorious sunshine through heavy snow to the foot of the glacier; two steps forward and one back. We arrived back at Smiley in time for tea - utterly exhausted once
beautiful Lake Lugano
again. ‘No pain, no gain’, Janice reminded me - as she often does. We had not anticipated the snow and we forgot the walking poles - and the ‘Factor 25’. Big mistake. Were we red! The glacier has receded 1.3km since 1970 leaving a fascinating wide rocky moraine and narrow riverbed as natures’ historical record. Now, where has all that water gone?
At the exit of the Plauns campsite there is a sign saying ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Gute Fahrt.’ I understand the first part, but can anyone translate the second bit for me please? This lovely site is at 1870m (about 6,000ft), which can get a tad cold at night, but with the appropriate action we managed to avoid freezing our water supply, though the waste-water tap froze solid. We can let that out later! We drove the 10km into St Moritz, surprised to find it a commercial town meeting the demands of the wealthy tourist, with Armani shops and suchlike, and smart hotels along the main drag - and a Coop supermarket built like a five star hotel beside the frozen lake. There was no snow there any longer and the skiers had turned to hurling, leaving the
deep blue skies and bright sunshine for us to enjoy on our own.
Our route since passing Trento more than a week ago, has taken us through verdant valleys and high snow-bound passes, moving constantly from winter to spring and back, sometimes several times each day. High up in St Moritz the grass was still harvest gold awaiting the first warmth of spring; the muck-spreaders were busy on the meadows nurturing what nature provides to ensure good fodder for the sheep and cattle. The cattle were still shut in their dark sheds producing today’s milk and next year’s fertiliser until the hillsides turn green once more. Here the farmers’ wealth lies in the quality of his grass; there are no cereal crops in the mountains.
The first swallows of the year passed over Lago Piano the tiny lake between Como and Maggiore where we camped directly beside the tranquil lapping water, with courting grebe, coot and mallard as our neighbours. A pair of rough-legged buzzard soared overhead in the late evening. There were two ladies in charge of this site, Agata and her mother. They made us extremely welcome with hearty handshakes and cheerful smiles. Apart from us,
there was just one other couple, Germans, in a static caravan. It was two weeks since we last met any British motorhomers, our friends David and Cathy in Venice and before that in Palermo in Sicily at the end of February. Where are all the Brits? Perhaps they’re waiting for spring. Pansies!
I have passed through Lombardy before on business, but have never ‘stopped to smell the roses’. We set off to walk in the hills above the lake with the sun threatening to break the morning mist, along ancient mule tracks between dry-stone walls through tiny summer meadows alive with cowslips, violets, cyclamen and hellebores, wood anemones, hepatica and primroses, orchids and shrubby milkwort. Dappled sunlight shone through the wayside woods of coppiced hazel, birch, sweet chestnut and hornbeam; all draped in the delicate green lace of early spring. There were few birds; the summer visitors had still to arrive, but the resident great tits were calling - that sound of pumping up the bicycle tyres ready for a long summer, a red kite skirted the trees and green woodpeckers laughed at us from the valley below. How close to heaven can you get?
Skiers,waltzing and gliding gracefully across the miles of downhill tracks still available here
were out on Sunday as usual. When I was a lad (a long time ago) it was OK to wear a short-sleeved shirt, a pair of shorts and cycling shoes. Today, it appears, it’s not possible to ride a bike without outrageous coloured clinging Lycra carrying hordes of advertising. I presume they all get paid to wear it. The motorcyclists were haring around the corners as usual too; dressed in their multi-coloured leathers on their beautiful machines, Ducatis, Hondas, Triumphs and Harleys; all highly polished. Now, that’s real macho!
The voters were out on Sunday, too, trying to select their preferred candidate from the long list of contestants. The advertising hoardings have been covered - and uncovered by vandals or the opposition, with election posters for weeks throughout Italy. We will doubtless get news of the results in due course along with news of the Pope’s state of health. The local church bell rings on the hour and half hour every day of the week. Between 7am and 11pm they also ring a tune on the hour in addition to the hourly chime. Sadly, we can’t identify any of the tunes and some of the bells are surely cracked!
fit only for walking!
Sunday was a very sad day. I ran out of ginger wine for my whisky. But this is a good life. We have not seen TV for 12 weeks and haven’t missed it. We have read just two newspapers, the Telegraph each time, and I have not had a haircut for thirteen weeks. Just call me ‘Curly’. Who cares? My shoes will need a polish sometime next week.
Before moving on, we ventured briefly into Switzerland once more along the northern shores of Lake Lugano. The small lake has a special feel about it, steep mountains surround its still waters, blue and white boats bob in the breeze and pastel villages nestle close to the water’s edge. Lugano itself has a certain charm too. There is a different Bank on every corner, there are hundreds of fabulous fashion shops, desirable designer watch shops, delicious chocolate shops, exclusive jewellery shops, and scrumptious delicatessens. Not the place to let your wife loose with your credit card!
Monday morning brought the news that the Pope had died. We had noticed that the flags were all at half-mast and presumed that to be the case. Unusually though, there was no
other sign of grief in evidence amongst the population here, no specific church bell chimes or massed people around the churches. And all too soon it was time for us to head home to England with the coming of the sad news from Janice’s siter that their father, Len, had passed away peacefully on Sunday night.
David and Janice
The Grey Haired Nomads
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