This was as close as I got to Venice before giving up.
Sarah had given me a kiss goodbye before rushing out to her taxi and leaving me sprawled and unconscious in the hotel bed. It was close to eleven before I surfaced and closer to twelve before I’d dispatched the packing, loading and was ready for setting off. The hotel owner, a stubby eccentric man with wild grey hair, wished me the best of luck for the rest of my trip. I smiled back, still exhausted from yesterdays late night marathon, then collapsed into my saddle with a sigh, patted the tank twice (look after me today Candy) and rode back to Venice along prostitute boulevard.
Primarily following a sense of duty I found myself at this wire fence. You couldn’t just pass by Venice, could you? Staring past metal screens, roadworks, tramways, coaches and heat rays burning off the tarmac I had convinced myself otherwise. It had been testing enough to find the city, I wasn’t convinced I had the patience left to bang shoulders with swarms of global coach trippers. After tranquil Slovenia it was a living nightmare. I stopped only as long as it took to finish my Fanta and coordinate a day-plan. No regrets.
Tonight I’d stay on the shores of Lake Garda, that much had been decided. To get there I’d negotiate terrain thick with history. First Padua, its 800 year old university playing host to Galileo, and Verona, boasting the balcony that inspired Shakespeare’s famous scene in Romeo and Juliet. Back on the A roads to save money I was tempted more than once to folly after the big names on these road signs. The closest I’d get to culture was a coffee break somewhere within Padua after my unreliable gps app fell back into its old tricks, leading me everywhere apart from where I wanted to go. At least the weather was good – encouraging me to use the sustenance productively, back on the bike. Much of the journey would be through built up and industrial sectors, not much reason to stop and take a break. Riding past Verona the sky turned dark. Huge grey clouds swamped the horizon and jets of hot purple lighting flew every ten seconds. There was my reason to stop… I looped into a coffee shop and waited out the worst of the torrent. It was only 3/4pm but the gloom gave the impression of lateness. I didn’t wish to delay any longer so I put up with skidding and the sliding and the slow progress west. Surely enough I hit the lake sure a while later and followed it North looking for a place to stay. Lake Garda was hyped for wind/water sports, so the prevalence of campsites skirting the road wasn’t surprising. After whatever long heading north I picked one at random and booked myself in. The site was crammed – I was only allocated a pitch on the grounds I asked a German family to move their car from the grass between them and the toilet block and septic tank. No substitute for service.
I hadn’t got enough Euros to cover the camping fee so took directions to the nearest cash machine. It was on the fringe of a small town so I took the opportunity to go exploring. It was quaint and colourful, with restaurants and cafes crowding the narrow streets and cobbled courtyards. I grabbed a coffee and wandered around in a daze.
I returned the the camp site by way of a long waterfront promenade and looked out the the lake. I dropped into an on-site water sports tent and discussed the possibility of doing something tomorrow – eventually pencilling in water skiing with the enthusiastic guide. Moping back to my tent it dawned on me that I was camping in a holiday resort. It felt like a rubbish limbo somewhere in between lively hostels and tranquil camping fields. Any spirit Bardolino had was buried under a thick blanket of pristine motor-homes and frolicking Aryan children. I shouldn’t have come here for the same reason I wouldn’t go to Malaga for a summer holiday. Too much of the same crowd.
I propped myself up against a tree and cooked as much pasta as I could stomach, having only eaten scraps throughout the day. I wasted the night half chatting to an Italian guy who was excited about Tonight’s England-Italy world cup match. I didn’t feel much like going, but drank his proffered can of beer and worked on my blog posts till I got drowsy. Trying to get to sleep my mind rolled over the options for tomorrow.
Sunday 15th June
I had to remember what this trip was primarily about – what had given me the most enjoyment so far. Motorcycling. So when morning came I packed up my tent and prepared to leave. A grandmother in the adjacent motorhome invited me over for a typical German breakfast of rye bread, meat, cheese, nutella and yoghurt. It was ace, but when it got a bit weird I made my excuses and left. She couldn’t speak English, my German wasn’t much better. She had her grandson explain how she liked my washboard stomach. Yeah..
I bailed on the water skiing and continued north contouring the lake. I’d found an Italian pass road which looked pretty spectacular. Passo del Stelvio was high on the agenda. It was pretty far away, so I took the motorway north through Trento to save time.
The GPS marked the next slip road for me and I was funnelled right into a traffic jam. I sat for a second to figure what was going on. People were out of their cars and walking around, the tell tale sign they’ve been waiting a while – or they were just being impatient (So what? They’re passionate people!). I decided to overtake them, pulling clearly into the oncoming traffic lane which was deserted and riding slowly. Just as I get to the head of the queue half a mile along the jam the fire-crews begin to wave the traffic through the tunnel up ahead. Looked like an accident and the car that had been pulled out of the tunnel was pretty devastated. I swerved quickly into a gap in the rolling traffic and followed the cars in front, who were all driving very carefully for Italians. Soon after I saw why. The tunnel lights glinted in a badly saw-dusted blood splatter further up. It crossed both lanes, emitting from a crumpled barrier on the right. Every now and again there are lay-byes for people to use in an emergency. But they aren’t graduated in, they’re just like little box sections – so the car had essentially hit a metal and concrete wall head on, carrying all of their speed. It was evident in the mess that the impact had caused them to burst all over the road. Grim. Duly humbled, I toned down the riding for the next fifteen minutes.
The scenery turned more and more beautiful and more and more rugged. Snow began to appear on the peaks in the distance, peaks I was heading directly towards. Alpine waterfalls cascaded on my right as the terrain dropped off to the left, the road jutting out into the air. Navigating past Ponte di Legno twists, turns and contortions started appearing in the tarmac. Before I knew it serpentines were carrying me higher and higher, closing in on the robust-looking clouds above my helmet. The road narrowed to a single lane, bordered on both sides by trees, progressively more exposed. The wind up here had thinned out the tree cover to nothing and the grass took on a scraggly moorland look to it. The valley behind me was obscured by the white wisps of low clouds moving in. I moved on, pressed between notably unsafe looking drops (no comfy railings to stop you going for a tumble) and steep zig zagging climbs into mountain territory. My back tire kicked gravel from the slim verges as we got too close too often – gluttonizing in the thrill of it all. This road was fucking bodacious.
How much higher could this road climb? Icy patches, first small then concerningly bigger, drew warmth out of the air and had took chunks out of the tarmac, in some places tantamount to gravel tracks. I worried about the altitude, having no indication how high this was or how high it would get. I only knew how quickly I’d ascended up here. And what about the bike? Bikes need oxygen too! Turning back wasn’t really an option so I pressed on faster (risk management) and only relaxed when closing in on a struggling people carrier. If people carriers use this road, I shouldn’t have a problem. My little fingers were well and truly anaesthetised from handlebar vibrations.
After a few short corners a plateau unfolded ahead. There were bikes, lots of them, a big pink building and a coffee shop. Unexpected coffee shops are the best.
I waited out a stubby hail storm for longer than I would have liked, chatting to a fellow biker hailing from Austria. During our intermission we noticed a couple of cyclists struggling towards men with stop-clocks, climbing slowly up the mountain side I was preparing to go down. It looked like they were time trialling – I guessed they were mental. I’d figure out just how mental on my long, steep descent.
I rolled into Bormio some time after leaving the refuge. I can’t be sure of any specifics other than my front brakes were hissing and I was thoroughly entertained. The road had regained it verdant alpine spirit quickly and log cabins and ski chalets dotted the forests in abundance. I seized the opportunity to grab a snack and refuel the bike. Fuel was, as always, a big worry when heading out into the unknown. The bike had a tendency to drink through the bottom half of the tank pretty quickly. I thanked my lucky stars I’d accidentally decided to get to Bormio, the starting point for the Stelvio pass run, via that superb mountain pass. Considering I’d set out intending to ride only one, mountain passes would become very much the theme of the day.
Stelvio pass was pretty sensational. A rattly old cattle van added to the ambience (I’m getting pretty whiz at operating a camera while riding) as we battled each other all the way up – me overtaking only to lose my hard fought position to take a few photos. The same altitude induced cold snap declared I was closing in on my goal, the summit of Stelvio.
I had no excuse to linger. The small cluster of shops and the cafe were shutting up shop as it was past 4 on a Sunday afternoon. With obligatory holiday snaps out the way I crushed my way back down the valley under the scowling glances of ‘Bikers Beware’ posters every three feet.
Back on terra vadum the sun was out and the afternoon was glorious. With my ever unfaithful aide I plotted the rest of my route. I’d got the idea in my head I’d like to end up in Innsbruck tonight so set my sights East to join the Brenner pass. As far as Merano Meran the riding was smooth and easy, through farms with tall crops (note sprinkler showers…) and small, pretty towns. It was at Merano Meran that I had to make a tough call. I’d been thinking about it since joining the SS38 way back west. Option one – carry on the 38 south-east to Bolzano Bozen, join the motorway and blast to the border with Austria. Option two – split north-east along the 44 and join the motorway at Vipiteno Sterzing, much closer to the border. Sounds like a no-brainer, but the 44 looked suspiciously like another mountain pass and light had begun to fade. Common sense or adventure?
A little before 6pm I turned north at Merano Meran – much to my own surprise. The road was taking me slowly up the valley floor to a headwall in the distance. It was beautiful, but I was a little preoccupied scanning ahead for petrol stations. I was on two bars and getting further and further away from the last petrol station. Soon enough I realised I couldn’t make it back what petrol I had left, only push forwards and hope for the best. Nothing showed up on the satnav software. What’s more a number of signs along the way seemed to suggest that the pass road would shut at 6. By the time I reached San Leonardo in Passiria, the small village nestled in underneath the pass road, my thoughts were a mess. I pinned hopes of success on finding a petrol station and the pass road being open. No petrol stations in sight, but the green traffic barriers were up and it was go. I pinned the throttle as the road took me through forested hairpin bends – thinking I’d reach a potential petrol station the other side sooner.
Jaufenpass passo Glovo was spectacular. At 2094m it was the smallest of the day but, after hundreds of corners and hair pins already, my technique was in. I leaned to the point the panniers were in danger of catching the tarmac. When I wasn’t leaning the bike I was leaning myself, hanging off in full race mode. The front wheel popped up nearly every time I rounded a particularly steep incline and my body was already in the right place to catch it. I only saw one other driver on the whole way up and they were busy tearing up the tarmac too. Like the cow wagon, we switched in and out of the lead when I stopped to take a photo. Being in the zone in such a stunning location gave me goosebumps.
The down was just as good, pitching steeply into fairy-glen woodlands enchantingly cast in purple evening light. Fast blasts of pure acceleration through windy sections punctuated by tight, technical hair pins. I was baked by the time I rumbled into a self-serve petrol station at the other side. After a quick break I joined the A road, not the motorway through Brenner pass, remembering that Austria has a pre-pay toll system that I’d been too frugal to buy. I watched the motorway speed off towards Innsbruck on stilts as the slow road I was on passed through town after town after town.
It was dark before long and pitch black after that. Closing in on Innsbruck it was clear I had stayed in the mountains so far. Steepness and prevalence of turn after turn after turn indicated we were descending down a mountain side. There were big patches of sand and gravel dumped over large sections of the road and I was skidding over them worryingly. A ghost man was illuminated by the headlights for a second, waving his hand to indicate danger. Miles of this riding later and the problem flashed out of the darkness, a leaking tanker. I didn’t stop to think what this would do to my tyres…
I was in Innsbruck and had no idea what to do. It felt different to Italy, no doubt about it. I resolved to hunt wifi and book a hostel, well – after I stop at this kebab shop for some eats. I’m starving.
Turns out there aren’t any hostels in Innsbruck – I used the friendly shop owners mobile internet to search something out. Nada. At his suggestion I left my bike there and went to search out hotels. I was sequentially denied access to all of them unless I forked out 70 euros. Balls. It was getting properly late for a Sunday. I didn’t hold much enthusiasm for the 2 hours spent faffing with accommodation and didn’t want to hound people who might be on couchsurfing. Tired I thanked the owner for his help and rode around aimlessly. I was back at the hill where I’d arrived in Innsbruck and all out of luck. I resigned to ride out of Innsbruck in whatever direction and see what happened.
At a little after 23:30 I slumped down in my tent, exhausted. Fortune favours the persistent. By not giving into hotel temptation I’d been forced out of Innsbruck centre and found a camp site 5 or so miles away. Following vague signs was supported by a 10 minute stint stealing a MacDonald wifi (back to my old tricks). I knew where I was going. The camp site reception had a wiry man with a moustache behind the locked doors. I knocked but he pointedly ignored me. Knocking again, then again he looked up angrily and shout waved me to just put my tent up and leave him alone. A true jackass. But now, finally in my sleeping bag and having accidentally rode three mountain pass roads instead of one, that didn’t matter much. I was out like a light.