Regretfully, I just finished Tom Robbins’ time-warping opus, Jitterbug Perfume. I never, ever wanted it to end but it’s kind of book-shaped lesson. Why? My time in Italy also nears a close and the final chapter is bittersweet. This summer has quite possibly been one of the most freeing, creative, fertile and magical times of my life. The evolutions will, in fact, continue up until the very morning when I board a plane to fly back “home.” But where is home anyway these days? It often feels like Italy. Which is why (of course) I simply must return. Again. 🙂
In the meantime, I’m going to follow Robbins’ advice, which is the that of the stout, nutritious, earthy beet, which plays a pivotal role in Robbins’ novel. The resilient beet, Robbins says “departs the body the same color as it went in.” So, “…hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.” I derive from this the beet is able to be what it always was meant to be–and I intend to follow suit wherever this life continues to take me.And it’s taken me places recently, to be sure. Specifically, the Dolomites and the other bits of the Italian Alps in Friuli and Veneto with my sorella from another fella, Lisa. Let’s pick up the trail in Faenza, where Lisa, Sylva, four panniers, one handlebar bag, one tent and two bikes (Wanda and the Musing/Abusing) are expected to change trains three times before reaching Belluno, nestled in a sunny spot near the green gate to the Dolomites…
Day One: Faenza-Belluno-Domegge di Cadore
In Belluno, it was necessary to: stop for a coffee and a pastry and circle the downtown enthusiastically like a school teacher correcting a particularly erroneous essay to find a small backpack for later hikes (we forgot ours). We each bought a collapsible pack; somehow mine, by trip’s end, looked like somebody fed it through a wood chipper and then ran it over with each of the four trains we rode to Belluno. But that’s getting a bit ahead.
Days before, on the insufferable heels of the heat wave that stomped around Italy for a couple of weeks, intense storms rampaged through the zone between ritzy Cortina and the picturesque town of Sappada. A tornado actually touched down and extensive landslides got the best of many areas, including Tre Croce pass, which we’d hoped to traverse. And I had a Musing, which meant I’d be putting myself through the wood chipper and running myself over repeatedly with those same trains… but I didn’t know that yet.Sated by sugar and caffeine, we enjoyed a pleasant, multi-hour ride on a mix of bike paths and quiet roads accompanied by the turquoise waters of the Piave river. On a deserted section of road, nestled between steep slopes, we stopped for water from a fountain built in 1913.We also passed by Diga di Vajont, a now disused dam that tragically burst at 10:39 p.m. on October 9, 1963 killing at least 1910 people. The disaster occurred during initial filling of the dam, after numerous warnings and reports describing the geological instability of Monte Toc on the basin’s southern edge. The towns of Longarone, Fae, Pirago, Rivalta and Villanova were lost completely.
One climb broke up the remainder of the ride, but it wasn’t the soul-crushing variety. On the way up, I chatted with a young English guy named Jack who was walking his bike. I had to hand it to him though, he’d never ridden a touring bike before he decided to up and ride one from England to Northern Europe and back. Cheers mate!Arriving at Domegge di Cadore, we passed a horse and carriage whose drivers greeted us with genuine smiles. We bombed down into the gorgeous valley and toward our campground located on the other side of a glassy lake. The mountains around us seeped into my shiny, sweaty skin and filled me with the contendness only mountains can.
At our campsite, we deployed Lisa’s portable castle (the orange Northface), showered and beelined for the restaurant, where we destroyed a couple pizzas under the stars. During the night, I heard the steady drumming of rain, which would become a “thing.” But we didn’t necessarily know that yet, either.
Day Two: Domegge di Cadore-Lago di Misurina
Departing camp, we paused to take postcard pictures. Jumping fish sent ripples across the otherworldly blue surface as ripples of excitement simultaneously thundered through my body: we were on a bike tour! It’s such a free feeling, getting from here to there on two wheels, outside all day, come what may…
We climbed up from the lake, confronted by an insanely busy main road. From nowhere, an older man on a bike surfaced; we referred to him henceforth as the “Bike Angel” because he set us on a different course. “Where are you going?” he said, and without waiting for much of an answer, “Don’t take this road, it’s awful. There’s a dirt road…”
Thus began–via the pasticceria nearby where we grabbed breakfast and another on the way which would provide lunch–our dirt adventures. Today would birth several themes which matured throughout our trip: first, have gravel, will travel. I’m still convinced we need to design a t-shirt.
Back down to the lake we went, asking people along the way where we could pick up the trail to Auronzo, hoping it wouldn’t be too gnarly for two loaded bikes sans suspension. After an ovary-busting section of pavement, we talked to a very tan, very curious shirtless man with a belly as well-rounded as a trilingual Princeton graduate with a guitar minor and a well-worn passport. He would enact the second theme of the trip: males, often well into the second half of life, armed enough curiosity about two single girls on loaded bikes to sink a ship with it, if curiosity carried weight.
After a beyond interesting conversation with Mr. Well-Rounded that involved… shall we say… the benefits of biking in regards to a lack of boyfriends… we found our dirt trail. We followed it nearly all the way to touristy Auronzo on tracks that snaked through fields, past churches and painstakingly stacked woodpiles, in and out of the woods. We bounced happily along, to the delight of numerous (male) mountain bikers…After a bike path at the lake in Auronzo and artichoke pizza slices from the second pastry shop, we proceeded to climb up to Lago di Misurina. Misurina is home to the famous Tre Cime area of the Dolomites. And impossibly steep Lavaredo Pass (the route to Tre Cime) might be, at least to cyclists, even more infamous: legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx claimed a stage victory there during the 1968 Giro d’Italia.
Early on, we found an unpaved bike path (have gravel, will travel!) until it turned a bit too steep for our loaded steeds. Technically we had three routes to Misurina to choose from: Tre Croce (still closed), another from the north from Dobbiaco (our next stop) and our route. Turns out, it was the hardest way. Especially on a f*cking Musing. But I love bike touring. Really.
Says Italiaoutdoors.com: The third route is coming from Auronzo. This is the hardest route where you start at 863 meters [2831 feet] in Auronzo and ride about 20 km [12 miles] to get up the climb.
What ye ol’ Italian Outdoors website deigns to mention is that Lago di Misurina is at 1754 meters (5755 feet), the first few miles are disconcertingly mellow and the final four miles (if you believe the numerous other web sites I just devoured) average an 11% grade that often tips its sweaty hat at 14-15%. At the end of the day, we rode only 30 miles (48 km), but we climbed 4430 feet (1350 meters). That’s why, when we arrived in Lago di Misurina and ransacked the crowded Despar grocery store (henceforth referenced to as The Despair), our table outside looked like this:
And then we moved on to what was most certainly a refugee camp for first world, non-refugees… It appeared to be hastily set up in someone’s field next to the attractive remainders of a fire camp bathroom, but the situation was saved by:
- Lisa’s fabulous tarp (which has an unmentionable name…) and an excess of time to lay on it, drink wine and observe the clouds.
- Canederli for dinner (rich, hearty dumplings cooked in broth and often filled with spinach or the region’s infamous Speck).
- Showers with hot water and ample pressure.
- Human antics, like when we exited hot water heaven later to find a girl straightening her hair in the midst of a torrential downpour. I should mention the refugee bathroom was open air, beyond Spartan and included a roofless gap between the ladies shower trailer (still on wheels) and the open air sinks with plugs where the girl was ironing her hair. Mere centimeters separated girl with iron plugged into outlet from heavy rain. Darwin award waiting to happen?
- The setting, of course!
As soon as night fell, we gave up on looking at the stars through the thick fabric of clouds hiding them like the contents of a rather thick, ominous-looking stocking. Leisurely, we brushed our teeth and got ready for bed. The exact moment we unzipped our respective tent doors, kicked off our shoes and plopped on top of our sleeping bags, the skies opened up like an opera singer’s mouth if arias were clouds and notes were big, fat raindrops. I became giddy like a child–as I always do–as wind shook the tent with a firm handshake, signing a hurried contract with buckets of rain before thunder and lightning arrived hotly.
This, it turns out would be our third theme: managing–with a fascinating combination of luck and ninja skills–to escape being drenched by mere fractions of seconds.
Day Three: Camp-Tre Cime-Camp
Perhaps, when we saw the gray clouds gathering around the peaks like curious Italian window shoppers around the latest sales, we may have thought twice about venturing to higher ground. But it’s Lisa and I. What are we gonna do, rest?
As a compromise, we decided to only ride to the fee station on Lavaredo Pass, at the top of which was Rifugio Auronzo and the three, proud heads of the Tre Cime. Then we’d hike our stiff selves up to the top of the pass instead of riding up. Except there’s a nasty little section of 14%+ grade where I may or may not have karate kicked the Musing into the side of the road for running out of gears before I wanted it to. Nasty trick, that.
After locking up the one unruly steed and the other cooperative one, we proceeded to hike straight up hill for at least an hour…
We gained the ridge and took sufficient time to wolf down two bananas that were as crushed as my spirit after deciding to take a Musing into the Dolomites.The rifugio parking lot was bursting at the streams with cars and humans. As soon as one of us placed a hand on the worn handle of the rifugio’s door, the sky began bleeding rain like a stuck pig. Inside, with everyone else putting the “refuge” in the rifugio, we decided to use the stuck pig to our advantage. We got in line and were soon devouring thick, juicy ribs while casting dubious glances at the massive raindrops squished against the window like so many adolescent faces on the new copy machine at dad’s office.
After a bit, as storms do in the high mountains the world round, the clouds parted and the blue sky climbed out, looked around and motioned to the sun. We took that as our cue to keep on pressing our luck.Despite the crowds, the views of the dramatic Dolomites were stunning, with the sheer faces of the Tre Cime above, still shaking off drops of rain. After passing a flock of German hikers with more poles than a Titanic full of magnets and in more colors than a Skittle factory, we spotted another smaller Rifugio in the distance.As soon as we passed it, hungry for the ridge and the views beyond, the blue skies were sucked into a vacuum of rolling gray. Retreat!Sure enough, we made it into the sweaty, stuffy innards of the second rifugio seconds before another storm raged outside, showing off with bolts of lightning and angry winds. But, as these things do, it soon gave up the ghost into the hands of many a capable hiker and clueless tourist.
Back behind Rifugio Auronzo, another band of gray clouds shuffled about in the shadows, like middle school youth trying to decide whether or not girls still had cooties. So, we hustled up the ridge, our hands on the luck button. On the ridge, the Tre Cime raised an eyebrow, daring us to continue not via the touristy route (which was a bit longer and required lots of luck pressing) but by a thin ribbon of a path that wound underneath. And, unlike the path more traveled, it was completely deserted.We looked at each other… dare we? Here’s your answer:The skies managed to hold off telling us exactly what we were in for until well after we’d crossed countless scree fields…… found me a possible back country skiing route when I more or less live in Italy someday……taken way too many photos, including another set where most of the time only one of us looks normal…
…located a different route down which we’d passed earlier, smiling at an older couple resting at the crossroads…… and made it back down to the lower reaches of Lavaredo. We hitched a ride from the same older couple we’d seen at the top who, faces awash with surprise, said “How did you get here?”
When we unlocked the steeds, raindrops began to tap us on the shoulders, reminding us we probably should’ve also brought our rain pants. Still, the grumbling clouds withheld their soaking secrets until we’d fully arrived in camp.Running across the refugee camp towards the shower house on wheels, the swimming pool above finally emptied onto our sweaty heads again. This time, the storm wasn’t just passing the time, wandering in to see what was on TV with a G&T in its watery hand. No; this time it had its feet up, a movie was on and the bottle of gin was parked on the coffee table for easy refills. And this–ladies and gentlemen–is exactly when that flipping girl decided to start straight-ironing her hair…
Well after dinner, the skies parted again to allow us a lovely walk along the lake.
Day Four: Lago di Misurina-Dobbiaco
In the tenacious partial sunshine, we had a leisurely breakfast and packed up our panniers under the amused glances of our neighbors, who had been exactly five feet away two evenings before while Lisa and I were elbows deep in push-ups. Why, you might wonder, are we doing push-ups after already biking and hiking like champs? Good question–and one I still routinely ponder–but it’s all Lisa’s fault. She found a 100 push-ups in six weeks plan on the Internets and if she’s gonna spend three days a week sweating and cursing and collapsing in an exhausted pile, f*ck it, I am too.
Anyway, as soon as we started to close up our panniers up walked Rain with its buddy, Decently-Sized Hail. We ran for cover under a skimpy wooden awning at the entrance, where the grumpy proprietor lady took our payment.
As Rain and Decently-Sized Hail threw themselves a picnic in the middle of First World Refugee land, we hid out in the restaurant. When Rain and Decently-Sized Hail finally had their fill and moved on, we did too. Bundled up, we roared downhill all the way to Dobbiaco. On the way, we passed the towering remains of a slightly tidied up landslide which at one point definitely dwarfed the road.
At the bustling, three-star lakefront campsite, we approached the shiny glass doors of reception with more than a little trepidation. Inside, smiling, polo shirt-clad receptionists smiled behind a small army of computers, ready to tell us almost everything was full except “The Field.” Did we want to check it out? No, but we probably should’ve…
When we arrived and splayed out across the four winds like usual, petitioning the sun to dry our still-wet tent and shedding our clothing layers like dogs on the cusp of summer, The Field was largely empty. Except for a modest band of tents along the fringe of a splintery fence, we had the rest of The Field to ourselves. After pitching the portable castle and sequestering a picnic table for Gypsy Business, we made a quick trip to the (expensive) camp store for Camponara (carbonara made in camp) fixings. If anyone would like to replicate this delectable meal, here are the required ingredients:
1 package of organic, artisan penne (or whatever variety from your three-star campground store)
2 eggs, beaten
Plain yogurt (because who wants cream?)
Local Speck, sliced and cubed
The neighbor’s salt
Way more water than you think you’ll need–approximately three times as much, if the wind blows the stove over twice, giving Lisa an extra shower and starting the grass on fire, to the amusement of your neighbors from whom you borrowed the salt.
After I snuffed out the potential forest fire with a Croc sandal, we took naps and showers while the breeze flitted about. So relaxing! As evening tiptoed up and asked to borrow Lisa’s cellphone, we had to tell it no because someone called us on it… a friend, who just happened to be nearby in his new conversion van. Who is this mysterious addition to our haphazard adventures?
I cannot reveal this sensitive information until the next installment–BUT I will say this is what happens when you can’t exactly find The Despair for a while and you’re a tourist in fresh milk country: I am also willing to reveal the inordinate amount of groceries we eventually bought to celebrate the newest arrival to our gypsy camp:And I suppose I can unearth the fourth uncanny theme of the trip, which all three of us experienced that evening: if you grill out, it WILL absolutely rain.
Until next time (alla prossima)!