Lakes, Mountains & Cable Cars

26th -30 July 2017             Health Warning : this is a long blog!!!

We left the lovely Appenines behind and entered the wide Po river valley, heading for Milan where we tracked down the satnav support agent in a large industrial estate on the outskirts. It took a couple of hours for the update to load which set us back and meant we had to contend with the joys of Milan rush-hour. which is notorious. Horrible. We didn’t get off the Autostrada until 6pm.

We had scouted out a place on the shores of Lake Iseo and phoned ahead – their English wasn’t good but they had a space and told us to turn up. We were soon back in ‘wow’ mode as it was quite beautiful. Steep mountains on 3 sides of the lake and signs for campsites everywhere.

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After being turned away at the now full place we had phoned we tried a lot of campsites – the fact that every single one we tried was completely full belied Iseo’’s label ‘least known of the Italian lakes’. Clearly a lot of people know it and at the campsites it was apparent that Italians have no objection to being packed in like sardines – up close and personal. In the end we found a lovely quiet carpark set back from the road around Pilzone and made it our own for the night.

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After a surprisingly quiet and peaceful sleep we set off for Desansazo del Garda at the foot of Lake Garda, which we were curious to see having heard about it from friends and family. On route we passed huge vineyards, different to those of France & Spain as the vines have longer stems and are trained completely differently.

Desanzano town – which was way bigger than either of us had expected – was busy and having failed to find a parking space we headed on to Peschiera del Garda 10 miles away and it’s camping ‘superstore’, which was not as big as its name suggests but crammed with enough to keep us happy for an hour. We had lunch in their car park (an excellent rotisserie chicken) then set our satnav for Trento via the Garda lakeshore road with a vague idea of staying overnight along there, although we hope to return in September when it’s quieter. It was as pretty as its reputation with villages crammed between mountains andshore from the southern tip to the north, including Bardolino but unfortunately we had no time for a tasting of its famous wine. We particularly liked Lazise and Garda. As we went through Malcesine we spotted a sosta with large vans like ours and turned around to try it, but the lakeside car park was packed – no room for us.

We continued on and near the head of the lake we left Lombardy and entered Trentino-Alto Adige. Given that all the campsites were full we tried sostas (aires) at Torbole and Riva del Garda at the head of the lake – both packed so we gave up, left the Lakes and headed north up the valley towards Trento. The flat valley floor was filled with apples and pears but not in orchards as we know them. These were densely packed lines of espaliered trees – they looked no taller than 6’, trained along wires and heavy with fruit. Some sections were covered with nets protecting the plums and apricots underneath. Unusually the river had some water in it – not the dry riverbed or mere trickle we were now used to.

We were aware of a sosta at Vezzana just before Trento and thought we would try it even though it only had 10 places. To our surprise this small grassy field on a hillside had space and we installed ourselves below an imposing cliff, with woods either side. There was a small chalet that served as a toilet/shower block (a single loo and shower), pizzeria, and vendor of wine! All we needed.

With Kate at the wheel next day we headed off and were soon at Trento, capital of the Trentino part of Trentino-Alto Adige, a sprawling, modern-looking city (apparently it has a nice old centre) in a fantastic setting. It is in a wide glacial valley floor known as the Adige valley, just south of the Dolomites. Note : the Adige is the 2nd longest river in Italy, and we’d never heard of it. The valley is surrounded by 7000ft mountains with dramatic cliffs, the flat floor covered with espaliered trees growing apples, pears, plums and apricots, as well as vines.

After leaving Trento we started climbing up the side of one of the mountains through a series of tight hairpins but the roads were a good surface and width which was just as well as there was a constant stream of HGV’s coming in the opposite direction. There were fabulous views down to the valley below which led Danny to be concerned that Kate may not be giving her full attention to the road! Then we got our first views of the Dolomites. Difficult to describe in all their glory but easy to see why so many people visit them. Spectacular.

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Reading up on the area we discovered that Alto Adige was only annexed to Italy at the end of World War 1 as a reward for co-operating with the Allies and is also known as South Tyrol. German is still the dominant language and road signs are bi-lingual with German at the top. Austria gave up its claim to the region in 1946 on condition the Italians removed the many repressive measures agains German speakers and their culture imposed under Mussolini, and the area now has a lot if independence as well as one of the highest standards of living in Italy. It’s Austrian heritage explained the Tyrolean style architecture of wooden chalets and onion-domed churches.

We got our first taste of how busy the Dolomites are at Cavalese, a pretty town with cobbled streets and heaving with coach tours. Slightly further on at Moena we entered the Val di Fassa, the valley of the Avisio river in the Catinaccio range of the Dolomites and started seeing the signs that we were in a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. This range is the one that appears in lots of brochures and guides, as its bare rock pinnacles are so striking and dramatic, the stone changing colour with the light. We naively thought we were heading into a wilderness, not appreciating that this is the Italian version of the Lake District – in summer it is a magnet for walkers and bikers alike, particularly Italians and Germans. We have never seen so many motorhomes, all funnelled along the only road through the valley. We also started to see cable cars accessing some of the towering pillars, and the hang-gliders/para-gliders who are insane enough to launch themselves from these heights.

We entered the busy town of Canazei which has its own police to ensure the safety of the many pedestrians from the constant stream of cars, motorcyles, motorhomes, coaches and racer bikes. The road is lined with Tyrolean style chalets, their window-boxes spilling over with bright geraniums and petunias.

At the far end of the town our campsite, Camping Marmolada, had great views of the highest mountain in the range, Marmolada. It also had something we had never seen before – caravan extensions! There were loads of them – what a great idea…..

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We wandered round the town,  checked out the Spar, had a a rather weird currywurst with fries (Danny) and a hotdog (Kate) and a quick German beer at a nearby cafe and reflected that this was not a cheap place. The temperatures up in the mountains are lovely – it was 28℃ when arrived but with a cool breeze and the temperature drops quickly at night which is great for sleeping. In case we haven’t mentioned it, we don’t miss the irony in the fact that we spent April chasing the sun and heat, and July trying to escape it. For now we appear to have the balance right between warm daytime temperatures and comfortable overnight ones.

The good news of the day was that our nephew Jack had won the Belfast Boat Club U.18’s doubles tournament (tennis, obviously). Well done Jack.

In the morning the jagged peaks were swathed in cloud so we decided on a bike ride. We went first to a bicycle shop to see about the gears on Danny’s bike and they said if we left it at the end of the day they’d get it done next day. The place was heaving with mountain bikers and a lot of the shops do bike hire in summer and ski-hire in winter.

From the village there is a great cycle-path that runs the length of the Val di Fassa. We cycled along woodland trail then proper tarmac cycle path for 10 miles downstream before turning back just before Moena for the uphill return. At first the trail was very busy but after a mile or so it thinned out nicely. The views were amazing all the way, steep conifer forests, sheer cliffs, jagged peaks, the glacial blue of the fast flowing river – almost white in places but clear as a bell – and the green of the now-mown hay meadows terraced into the hillside and dotted with wooden huts to store the hay.

The sun dodged behind clouds now and again but generally it remained sunny and the peaks were showing by mid-day except for the tallest. We stopped for lunch at Pozza di Fassa and ate outside at a small but busy cafe that specialised in panini. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see them before we ordered. Danny ordered a hot dog and Kate a mozzarella, crudo & tomato. When they came our jaws dropped – they were cut in half but whole must have been 12” long and 5” wide. Danny’s hot dog had 4 big frankfurters on it!

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Both delicious but even after the exercise neither of us could eat much more than half.

We came up off the cycle track at the village before Canazei so that we could come in via the Spar shop and so had our first experience of cycling on Italian roads – they come a bit close and cut things fine doing the same crazy overtakes they do with cars and lorries. Just before the Spar Danny went up on the pavement and Kate went to follow him but kerbed her front wheel and went flying (fortunately onto the pavement) along with her bike. Not very elegant and she acquired her first gravel-rash since she was 10. She dusted herself down, looked over to the Spar and pointed out that it was closed. Oh dear. Back at camp a large Birra Moretti made her feel better.

Overnight the threatened thunderstorm arrived and it rained heavily. Kate brought in the chairs and battened down the hatches whist Danny put his earplugs in.

On Sunday we had spectacularly good day. We started late to give the cloud on the tops time to clear, walked over the road and bought the cable car tickets. Danny bravely put his misgivings to one side and climbed into the small cable car that we shared it with an elderly local man who chatted on his mobile while we quickly and smoothly climbed above the hillside to Pecol at 6529ft.

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Danny coped really well and at the top we swapped to a big cable car with a capacity for 80 people or 5.8 tonnes –  more than our van! There were about 15 mountain-bikers in it, with their bikes, and probably 25 other people. The big car climbed higher above the ground and swayed a bit more but gave fantastic views down the valley and across to the surrounding peaks and bluffs. We got out at Col di Rossi (7815ft) and just tried to absorb the views.

This was officially the highest we had ever been without being in a plane. On one side were green grassy ski-slopes, their chair-lifts silent, and on the other were views down the valley and across to the opposite peaks. The mountain bikers took off with delight – all downhill from here!

We walked uphill at first where to our surprise the 3 ‘mountain refuges’ turned out to also be very nice bar-restaurants.

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Then we walked steeply down to Pordoi Pass with its scattering of cafe’s and large car-park full of motorhomes and motorcyclists. We went straight to the cable car which runs every 10 minutes and had a few minutes to look up at the towering walls and chiselled cliffs of Sas de Pordoi, at 9678 feet this high point was still wreathed in clouds.

Then we were off, quickly developing a significant distance between the car and the ground, not knowing which way to look for the best views but very aware of the rapidly approaching cliff face. Danny was enthralled and is now completely over his fear of cable cars. When we docked, we went straight to the bar and bought a celebratory local Trentino red wine each and took  it out onto the sunny terrace to sit in awe of our surroundings. Only one direction was shrouded in cloud – the rest in view and difficult to do justice to with words. Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

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IMG_2258Using our binoculars we were able to see the brave individuals- a surprising number of them – who had climbed up steep fields of scree and were walking across the rocky plateau to the summit. Not our cup of tea, but we admired them nonetheless. We stayed there just soaking it all up for a good while before heading back down to in the cable car past some insane rock climbers on pinnacles near the summit.

At the pass was a WWI museum so we paid the €5 per person fee and spent 20 minutes wandering round the photographic exhibits, reconstructions of barracks and trenches, lots of memorabilia all from the surrounding area. The photographs really made you think about what the individuals went through – they may have been on the ‘other side’ as part of Austria, but the pictures really humanised their difficult existence

After that we headed back uphill. Near the 3 refuges/bar-restaurants we were assailed by noise – one had a live jazz band going and the other appeared to be playing something too modern for us to identify. We stopped and had our lunch a good distance away looking down the Pass Pordoi and its 27 hairpins that we would be driving next day. The slopes around were dotted with chair-lifts and chalet-style bar-restaurants to cater for the skiers. Then we started along the Viel dal Pan footpath towards Fedaia at the head of the Val di Fassa, where an aquamarine blue reservoir holds back the headstream of the Avisio river.

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On this path we were largely alone as we walked just below the ridge with Marmolada to our right. The glaciers on the mountainside were small but we were still impressed. The sun was shining, there were stunning views and a decent – though sometimes very narrow – path. Heaven. The wildflowers throughout the whole walk were amazing – white bladder campion, achillea and mountain avens, purple geraniums and field scabious, blue harebells, yellow dandelions, buttercups, trefoils and many others flowers that we still have to learn. All small but perfectly formed.

And our first sightings of Alpine swifts and Alpine choughs- good job we took our binoculars.  As we traversed the slope, we saw, near the top, strange shapes like steel horns pointing down and worked out that these must be avalanche control systems. Later Googling told us they explode a mixture of propane and oxygen so the resulting shockwave triggers avalanches in a controlled way before too much build up.

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Lower down we heard a dog barking followed by the classic sound of an alpine cowbell – only in this case goats bell – as a mixed flock of sheep and goats was grazing on the hillside. The dogs belonged to the goatherd who looked about 70 and had a long white beard (the song from Sound of Music was given voice by Kate much to Danny’s amusement) but was clearly a lot fitter than us. Above us a big billy goat was locking horns with a rival which kept us watching for a while.

Two hours after leaving the top we made it the end of the path – and the bus stop – at Fedaia. Good timing as only 10 minutes later the last bus came along and took us down the valley back to Canazei depositing outside the cable-car office, opposite the campsite. Couldn’t have planned it better, although in truth we didn’t have any idea whether buses ran at all on a Sunday.

We picked up Danny’s now mended bike, made some calls and sat outside watching the new arrivals put up tents. We chatted with a couple from Yorkshire who stopped to admire our garage organisation (happy Danny). They looked about 45 and are road cyclists (proper ones), mountain climbers and scuba divers which made us feel very inadequate and lazy. We swapped motorhome stories and Italian driver stories. Not long after came the first flashes of lightning then inevitably the thunder. We sat out watching the sky for a while then heard the distant sound of pouring rain heading our way and very quickly put everything away, got inside and closed up just before the torrents of rain hit. Listening to the storm we thought of all the people in tents – definitely something for the young!