2005 Dolomite Ride
My Amsterdam based friend Ram sounded rather depressed over the line: "I am really pissed! Now that I've got my new Hornet (that's a Honda 599 in the US), I am starting to realize that there's not much anywhere to ride to in these flatlands".
After a long and painful separation from his loved -- but limited in range -- Yamaha SRX6, Ram bought more proper tackle for touring and scratching. But, as it turns out, "I have to ride 120 miles for decent turns and better forget about mountains in proper". Well, in Amsterdam you might be able to legally obtain some interesting stuff, but none of the right stuff if you're a sporting rider.
So then, 'why don't you move your sorry bottom over to Italy for some twisties?' says I. "Oh, yeah? Ha! That's only 700 miles just to get there, but listen, we could meet somewhere in the middle or at least nearer no?" Okay then, ever been to the Dolomites? "Well, it's not really midway, but I've heard about this train that crosses Europe north to south on which you can take your bike and it lands in Bolzano, smack in the mid-Dolomites". Brilliant idea, a deal!
A month later, on a sunny and balmy mid July morning I find myself standing next to the unloading ramp in Bolzano's station. The long convey enters the station tail first and within minutes dozens of bikes, classic scoots, cars and whatever's got wheels on, flows out in a colorful stream. German plates abound, but there is a nice mix from all over north Europe. Dutch, Brits, Swedes, Danes. After a 12-hour ride in a night train you land in the hearth of one the most amazing riding areas in Europe without having to deal with the boring drone over endless German autobahns. MOridians might recall that some two years ago I did already a story on riding in the Dolomites, so how come are we here again? Well, although the Stelvio, Gavia and other passes that stared in that story are all a must see, must ride for European tourers, they reside at the very west end of the Dolomites range. These passes are indeed renown for their sheer and breathtaking heights but from various recommendations I've read, it turns out that if your after breathtaking vistas rather than setting height records, the central part of the Dolomites, east and north of Bolzano is the place you should spend some time on. If you are more into natural sculpting in rock, lakes with Technicolor shades and hidden waterfalls, try the "Pale Mountains", as they are affectively known.
After picking up my friend we head up back to the hotel where my girlfriend and I spent the night in, on the slopes of a mountain overlooking Bolzano form east. Ram is in a bit of culture shock. In only three minutes he's done already more leaning that he'd do in Holland in a whole year. As the three of us enter the dinning room for a kick-off breakfast, the smells coming from the kitchen aren't Italian at all. Eggs with fried bacon and there are even sausages if you're really hungry. Might sound normal to Anglo-Saxons but most Italians make do with just a brioche and cappuccino to start their day. The culinary mystery will be explained later.
The magic central Dolomites range has many gateways but there seems to be no better one to put you in the mood than the SS241 that branches off the Trento - Bolzano A22 Autostrada. Within minutes you are thrown in at the deep end of surrealistic and thrilling road that is buried inside a 100-200 ft deep canyon. It's really a tight fit and you better watch your head while cornering, the canyon walls are that close. Soon enough Ooohoos and Ahaas are muttered under helmets, the experience is engulfing. In fact, better to decide early on what kind of riding you want to do. As Keith Code says, put your $10 bills worth of attention on the endless twists and you'll be left with little brainpower to enjoy the vistas. We opt for full-on touring mode. Two super sporting riders with leathers pass us at crazy speed, zigzagging in the traffic, hanging it all out.
Not that I have something against healthy lunacy but it just looks out of place in this setting.
After such a nice welcoming we are all warmed up. We pass picturesque Nova Levante, a village that's surrounded by mountains that threaten to swallow it, and start climbing up to 5,000' levels. The character of the road changes completely and we are transported to a classic Alpine setting. At Canazei, a village that sits like a belly button in the creases between the peaks of Marmolada, Sasso Lungo and Sella, we are also reminded that this is pure motorcycle country. The Café's parking lots are crammed with bikes and we are compelled to stop for a caffeine recharge . Within this multitude of scooters, it's not surprising to find license plates from far away Finland and Norway. After Canazei, we must decide on our direction. It's possible to circle the mountains of the Sella range from south or west. We opt for the first in order to scout over the Marmolada's peak, the highest in the central Dolomites area with its 10,000' summit. If you have time on your hands, make sure to visit the "Ice City" by taking the ski lift. There's an amazing museum up there that documents the life of the soldiers in the network of trenches carved into the glacier by the Austro-Hungarian army in WW I. It doesn't seem like it was a particular pleasant army base to be stationed in but in those times you'd get a bullet in your head for refusing commands, no questions asked.
After the tight and gnarly Pordoi pass that takes us up to 6,700 ft. we find out that the riding in the Dolomites isn't just about 35 mph roads with countless hairpins. In the valleys that extend between the high passes you'll find fast and sweeping curves that let you forget about right hand restrain. A GSXR 1100 loaded with girlfriend and hard luggage (mine) and a Hornet 600 with a lightweight rider and soft luggage (Ram's) turn out to be interesting pair. I've got the power, he's got the agility and it turns out quite even overall. Relatively speaking, our "group" is somehow homogenous. It's not rare to spot a group made out of say, a BMW R80, GSXR750, Intruder 1400 and a Honda CB500F classic at the tail end, it being pretty obvious that they are out together for the ride. It's possible to have fun here with whatever the scoot. It ain't just the tool, you know? Before Cortina d'Ampezzo we discover the first magic lakes that hide between the mountains. It'd be pretty hard to describe the depth of the green-blue hues of their waters or the mystery that surrounds them. The pinkish mountains reflect on the quiet waters in deep shades of purple and colorful little fish give an interesting accent to the visual feast.
We stop for lunch at Passo Falzerego. Officially we are in Italy and indeed, you'll find Polenta on the menu, a typical Northern Italy plate, but there are also plenty of decidedly non-Italian offerings such as Wurstell mit Krout or pasta with Speck (Austrian bacon). So what's the reason for the split personality that we also noted in our breakfast? A hint can be found in the road signs. Bellow the Italian names you can always find the German version. Turns out that we are in some sort of "conquered territories". Till WW I, huge chunks of Northern Italy were actually Austrian territory. After the fall of Franz Josef's empire and the signing of the humilating surrender accords, these territories and their inhabitants were passed over to Italian rule as some sort of compensation for war damages. So it shouldn't be surprising to hear even the youngsters here speak Italian with a very heavy German accent and to this date, the area maintains a sort of political independence within Italy. The population is quite keen on maintaining their cultural identity through language, food and architecture, the last much more ornate and kitschy than that of Italy.
We press on towards Cortina d'Ampezzo, the area's biggest city that's located inside a wide and calm valley, but we are going to save our visit to the center for our return trip, as we intend to reach Austria before the day ends. We climb up Passo Tre Croci, by-passing giant Monte Cristalo from the south and then head north towards the Pusteria valley that separates the Dolomites from the Austrian Alps. We stop at San Candido for one last cup of Italian espresso, soon we'll enter Austria and the coffee quality is bound to suck. We sit to soak in the sun's rays in the city's central Piazza, right in front of a church with a pear shaped bell tower, a typical architectural style of the area. Soon after hitting the road again we cross the Austrian border. The intensity of the views calms down a bit and although the road is fast and flowing, it crosses through many villages with the accompanying 35 mph limit signs. The Austrian police seems quite aware of the popularity of the area amongst riders and every now and then, a trooper's car parked by the wayside reminds you that we are not in Italy and tolerance to speeding is nil. At the end of such an intense day, the relaxed ride imposed on us is not such a bad thing. After a few hours of breathtaking views, the flat green pastures are a welcome change.
We have almost reached our hotel for the night but at Kostach, another break is imposed on us. There is a huge parade on the village's main road and a cop has blocked all traffic. Dozens of riders have already taken their helmets off and chill out on the green grass just in front of the city hall. The parade itself turns out to be an interesting showcase of local culture. All the musicians and dancers wear costumes with bird feathers being used as hat decorations. After about half an hour of listening to Austria's Greatest Country Hits live, we're allowed to continue and end up in our beautiful hotel, The Gailtaler Hof. At the Hotel's entrance there's an East German two stroke on a stand, some kind of environmental sculpture while the roofed parking in the back is crammed with bikes. We haven't arrived here by chance. A German friend recommended checking the http://www.moho.at/ site before the trip. A few hotel owners in the area that are particularly bike friendly created it. The hoteliers of the moho web ring will welcome riders with particular care, can offer some discounts and make you feel good about actually not coming with a car. Even though I was a bit apprehensive about Austrian cuisine, especially when compared to Italian cuisine, our dinner in the hotel turns out to be excellent, ditto for the local wine while the strudel dessert was simply divine. Yep, these guys know a thing or two about apple pies.
Our detour north towards Austria is not motivated by an academic study in comparative cuisine science though. North of Lienz, there is another famous alpine road, famous at least with German speaking riders, the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (The Alpine high road of the great Glockner, simple no?). The said Glockner is a huge glacier that resides in a valley which was totally inaccessible for many years. In an effort to supply some work to the war hit area during the 20's economical crisis, the Austrian government decided to build a road in order to attract motoring tourists. After a few years of hard digging in the rock and ice, the road was opened and now provides easy access to one of Europe's biggest glaciers. The investment paid off because nowadays, the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse attracts hundreds of thousands tourists per year who also pay a considerable toll to enter the road.
If you are staying in any of the moho hotels, don't forget to ask for the toll discount voucher. Although the ride in the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse turned out to be quite interesting, I must say that at the main scouting spot over the glacier, the setting was too touristy for my taste. Too many cars, too many crybabies, too many dogs looking for a convenient parked bike for a pee post. If you want to experience the area in peace, it's worth continuing further north on the road towards Edelweiss (guess that's where the Famous tour organizers got the name from). We are not so keen to continue all the way up for a simple reason. It's Sunday, there's a MOTO GP round and there's not much of a chance that any Austrian bar owner will put the race on the telly. So we must reach Italy by midday, because the Italians have much more appreciation for Valentino's antics. We head back south, cross the border back into Italy and start a mad search for a bar with a TV set.
After a few tries we conquer the lobby of a small hotel and watch the race while lunching on sandwiches and shouting obscenities at Gibernau. Back on the road, after Dobbiaco we head back south again, towards Cortina d'Ampezzo. The small road that leads to town is beautiful in its quietness and as we hit the outskirts of town we start searching for a hotel. After a few tries we find a nice and quiet place and set out to enjoy the pearl of the Dolomites. Cortina is indeed one beautiful town, you'll have to try very hard to find even one balcony that is not spilling over with colorful Geraniums in full bloom. The city's center is in full swing, plenty of posh shops geared towards rich skiers offer all the high-end labels. There are also beautiful pubs with quality beer and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Very nice.
Our last day takes us west to Bolzano through the SS51, but instead of backtracking on our previous route, in Arabba, another big bikers hang out, we take the road towards Passo Gardena, encircling the Gruppo Sella mountains from north. Can't come up with to many complaints about the roads till now, but the descent from Passo Gardena towards the village of Selva, leaves me awe struck. The turns are completely three dimensional, flowing perfectly and the feeling is of piloting a glider towards a landing in the valley's basin with wide and slow zig-zags. What a nice desert. The Gardena valley takes us west, back to the A22 autostrada, right from where we came. That's it, it's almost over. In the valley the temperatures start to rise, making us miss the comforting coolness of the high passes. By the time we join the A22 we are sweating under too much insulation. A nice swim in a lake wont hurt us.
In Lago di Garda, Italy's largest lake, we leave the Venezia-Milano highway at the Sermione exit. The amazing beautiful medieval castle-city of Sermione sits on a long tongue that projects into the lake, at some points no wider than 100 yards. We find a nice beach and jump into the water with our underwear. Sorry, we didn't think we'd need any swimsuits in the Dolomites, that's my excuses to all the old Italian ladies we offended with our bad taste. We'll try to remember next time around.