Friday, 25 September 2009

Bends, Bikers Bars, Borders & Balls

Italy had arrived; my arse didn’t hurt, I’d had no punctures, not got lost and been enjoying literally minute. Time to crank up the challenge; add mountain passes, one charming yet inexperienced cyclist, sprinkle with burly bikers, garnish with unchartered territories and serve.

Cortina was truly spectacular; imposing mountains surrounding a bowl-shaped valley which soaks up the sun. Vivi and the family Moretti showed me their customary hospitality; chatting, drinking, and eating handsomely for a blissful couple of days.

Bends

The day to pedal on arrived. Vivi, a somewhat novice cyclist by her own judgement, waited nervously as I updated my blog and cruelly faffed about. Faffing complete and bags packed it was time to roll, quite literally, down the mountain. It’s hard to imagine a better cycle path; freshly paved, jaw-dropping views and downhill all the way.

The afternoon ride went without a hitch and we’d made a start up the ominous Passo Mauria when we found a spot camp. This was not just any spot, this was picture perfect. We’d found flat mown ground on the mountain-side, views of the valley, nice dry wood on hand for a camp fire, all under the soft purpley hues of the setting sun. For Vivi’s first night camping ever this was a five star experience.

On waking the prospect of the remaining 600m climb loomed large. If my mountain experiences to date had taught me anything it was to take it slow and steady, and that we did. The quiet weaving road was dappled with light and extraordinary views, as we appreciated it the ascent crept by.

Then we were there; the top, the summit, the most daunting leg of the ride complete - cue photos, video and any other means available to capture the achievement and elation of the moment.

Biker Bars

The downhill was most satisfying, accompanied by yet more impressive vistas. We followed the valley through the afternoon to our intended camping site – some 80+km away.

By nightfall however we were still on the road. Vivi completely unfazed by it all pushed on until we’d reached our destination… only to find no campsite existed, had ever existed or was even nearby. The messengers of this information were some burly blokes at a biker bar. The messengers became our saviours when they offered us a spot to camp in their beer garden; that’ll do nicely!

Lesson: despite tough exteriors, bikers seem quite as friendly as everyone else - see anecdotes about books and their covers. (Now I’ve taken to giving the biker bands a big thumbs up with a response rate I’d previously have baulked at)

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The following morning we fixed the flat tyre Vivi had picked up and pushed on up the valley. We climbed slowly for the best part of four hours, tough work on the legs after the previous day; without the glory of a pass to set sights on. One proper stretch later we were feeling grand while a peering granny watching lost an eyebrow to her hairline.

We neared the Slovenia border by Tarvisio (another biker haven), and used the opportunity to stock up on carbs and provisions. On leaving the town we stumbled upon an innocuous cycle path which turned out to be a real beauty, following an old railway line, straddled by mini waterfalls, valley views and tall pines.

Borders

We passed into Slovenia, through the now redundant border post. The sun was setting behind us and bathed the still magnificent valleys in an idyllic light. Not rusting the map alone we had a quick encounter with some friendly locals which sent us off in the right direction of the campsite. The wonderful cycle path (D2) continued and we were a couple of highly contented cyclists.

The following day we peddled to the picture postcard town of Bled; just 30km away. An ancient church sits amid the lake on a small island, making for a pretty stunning centrepiece to the already impressive mountain backdrop.

After pitching our tent in a superb campsite right on the lake, we gave the bikes a rest and rented a boat. We both took the oars around and to the island and back; it was great fun. The water was fresh but not freezing, so we went for a dip and I took on the newly christened ‘Bled Challenge’ swimming out to the island and back.

The final day’s cycle a mere 65km took us through lush landscapes; before satisfyingly reaching Ljubljana. Vivi had completed her leg, and what a triumph it had been. We had both admitted our trepidation about how she’d cope with the ride and the Passo Mauria; as it turned out we needn’t have worried.

Lesson: if you can take your time, riding is rarely strenuous; if you’re feeling tired, take a break… you’ll get there - so get out there!

Balls

Central Ljubljana was a fitting tribute to our efforts. The city, particularly along the river is welcoming, vibrant, and cosmopolitan. It is a well preserved and charming nest of the Bavarian regency and well worth a visit.

We moseyed round, took in the sights and ate well, particularly the ‘gelatos’; supreme ice-cream to vie Italy for its mantle. Our last supper was at a traditional Slovenian restaurant. The menu translations revealed an ‘exotic’ local delicacy; I was inexorably drawn to trying.

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Lesson: if eating a dish of origin you wouldn’t normally touch or even go near, remove from your mind what it is that’s going in your mouth from the taste; especially when eating bulls testicles!