Playing Amongst the Clouds

Apologies before you start reading this dear Blogonaughts; I’m still having trouble loading pictures, so until I can make the technology work, please read on, enjoy and by all means comment or message me. – Dookes

There are times when I find it quite difficult to articulate exactly what I think without reverting to boring superlatives, or even worse, tedious exclamations.

Tonight, I’m enjoying dinner at my hotel which is located in Ritten, just North of Bolzano, Northern Italy.

Well, that’s the first problem.

Look on the map and yes, indeed, we are in Italy. Speak to the local people and you’ll find out that we are in the South Tirol. The predominant language is German and certainly in the restaurant tonight, that’s all I can hear. The food, is pretty Germanic too, some rather nice Schnitzel.

It’s one of those unfortunate situations that history has bestowed on the world. In this case until the early 20th Century the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then along came war. The fighting in the Alps and Dolomites during World War One was vicious and protracted, men fought at altitude in trenches dug in rock and snow. The casualty rate was incredibly high and a considerable number from the weather conditions and malnutrition. It became known as “The White War.”

After hostilities ceased, Italy claimed large tracts of the region as war reparations. Then twenty years later along came World War Two and Mussolini tried a further land grab. Once everything had settled down in 1945 new lines were drawn on the map, but unfortunately no-one spoke to the local people…I believe that you can colour a map, but not people’s hearts. The end result is a fascinating bubble of Austrian-ness nestling at the very top of Italy’s boot.

To the credit of the government in Rome, they have recognised that there is a difference and Bolzano is now recognised as an “Autonomous Region.” Travel around the area and you will see many more Austrian flags hanging from houses than the Italian Tricolore. I consider myself lucky to have had a very interesting conversation with a couple of local folk earlier today about both their history and identity. There will be more of that in a future post, but today I rode around their truly beautiful region.

The weather accurately lived up to forecast, changeable. We are in high mountains after all and what we missed from time to time in panoramas, we gained by playing in the swirling clouds and enjoying tantalising glimpses of wonderful limestone crags.

In many ways the lack of distracting views was a bit of a benefit, we rode literally hundreds of hairpins today. If I was rusty on them before, I’m an old hand now!

At the start of the South West climb to Passo di Giau, 2236m/7336ft was a sign, 34 Tornante, 34 Hairpins…after riding 22 I found myself screaming, “No, there’s only another 12!”

It was heavenly, in a totally indulgent two-wheeled petrol-head sort of way!

I am so glad that I brought Harls with me; I really wouldn’t have enjoyed it, or probably even attempted where we rode today, on Big Baby Blue. The more I got into the swing of things, the better my Harls responded, her exhaust seemed to spit contempt at the gradient as she conquered each climb and bend. Yes, she’s a bit of a handful going downhill; the rear brake has a delightful habit of fading as it gets hot or wet, fortunately her engine braking helps out a lot, but hey I’m sort of used to it and wouldn’t have her any other way.

At the top of Passo di Giau is a delightful “Refugio,” sort of cross between a bar, restaurant and hotel. This being the South Tyrol, I went native and enjoyed an “Apfel Strudel und Kaffee” for lunch and very good it was too.

Overall today we topped the following Passes:
Costalungo 1745m
Fedaia 2075m
Di Giau 2230m
Tre Croci 1809m
Falzarego 2105m
Valparolo 2197m
Campolongo 1875m
Gardena 2121m
Sella 2240m
Pordoi 2239m

Not bad for an Old Geezer on a getting on a bit Harley Softail!
Favourites, by a country mile, Di Giau and Pordoi, hairpin heaven.

Was it a good day? You bet is was!

“My uniform is leather
And my power is my age!”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Passo del Tonale

It’s the 30th of November, happy St Andrew’s Day everyone!

Outside a Westerly gale is howling in off the North Atlantic, winds are gusting at 55knots, that’s over 60 miles per hour, the rain swirls horizontally hardly touching the ground, but soaking everything that dares to be vertical, definitely not motorcycling weather!

Inside Dookes H.Q. the kitchen log fire is oozing warmth and comfort, which is greatly appreciated by Deltic, my old gun-dog, who firmly refuses to budge from his chosen cozy spot in front of the dancing flames, who can blame him! He’s like me now, retired and content, I hate to think of how many muddy wet miles he’s trotted alongside me, patiently waiting to pick up a pheasant, partridge or pigeon, he’s earned his time in front of the fire.

Deltic's favourite spot.

Deltic’s favourite spot.

The espresso pot hisses as it produces a brew of strong, almost black, Italian coffee and my mind is transported back to sunnier days in Italy riding from Bolzano to Milan. I had to slightly rearrange my planned route on account of bad weather over the Stelvio Pass so I consulted the map for another way to go without too much Autostrada riding.

Hmm, Passo del Tonale with an elevation of 1883m/6178ft, that would fit the bill!

I wander into the lounge and settle in front of the other log-burner as my dear old dog won’t let me near the one in the kitchen. Hmm, thinking of Italy let’s have a Grappa to accompany the espresso! Ah yes, the ride. . .

Leaving Bolzano to we followed the wide Adige valley to San Michele, where we hung a right and crossed the pale green river.P1040419

The SS43 road soon began to climb up through vineyards and it became quite a pleasant day.
P1040430
The scenery got more alpine as we approached Passo del Tonale, very pleasant indeed.P1040434
The thing about Tonale today is that it’s one of Italy’s biggest ski stations and unfortunately has been blighted with a whole bunch of, frankly, ugly apartment blocks! I’m sure that when there is snow everywhere and the place is buzzing with ‘Apres Ski’ activity, it must be quite pleasant, but it looked pretty grim to me as we rolled in. It didn’t smell too good either, the verdant ski slopes were well populated with goats doing a great job at keeping the grass nice and short and the air was full of their distinctive odour. Oh yes, I nearly forgot, their “calling cards” were all over the road as well!

One reason why I wanted to visit Tonale was because of its significance during World War One, when the whole of what is now Northern Italy, stretching from Switzerland to Slovenia, became known as “The Italian Front.”

Battles were sporadically fought here between 1915 and 1918, but mostly it was a cold, bloody, stalemate.

Italy had entered the war in order to annex parts of Austria, including the regions of present day Trentino and South Tyrol. The Italians had hoped to gain the initiative with a surprise offensive, but the front soon bogged down into trench warfare. This was grimly similar to the Western Front fought in France, but at high altitude. The fighting here was at times savage, but in reality the most deadly enemy was the weather. Both armies also suffered from poor logistical supply networks, meaning that not only ammunition, but more importantly food and fuel, was constantly in dreadfully short supply.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

Autumn 1917 on the front line.

The soldiers had to contend with snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures and soon it was dubbed “The White War”. The civilian population was forced to evacuate and many thousands died in Italian and Austrian refugee camps from malnutrition and illness. The really sad thing about the war here, apart from the 1.2 million lost lives, was that the area has always been and still remains, somewhat autonomous, walk into a shop and you will be as likely to be greeted in German as Italian, the locals had always rubbed along just fine.

The front line passed directly through Passo del Tonale. Today a memorial stands in what was once No-Mans Land.P1040435
Built in 1936 on the instructions of Benito Mussolini and designed by architect Pietro Del Fabbro, it is dedicated to the soldiers of all countries who died fighting in the surrounding mountains during WW1.

Actually, its much more than just a monument, it’s also an ossuary, where the wall niches hold the remains of 847 soldiers.

I parked Baby and walked past the heavy wood and bronze doors into the Stygian gloom of a large square crypt. The atmosphere was oppressive and cold. A rack of votive candles flickered before a small altar, the light from their tear shaped flames fell onto a large marble statue of the risen Christ in the center of the room.

I paused for a moment taking in the scene and then lit a candle myself. I’m not big into religion these days, but it seemed the right thing to do as I stood there, being the only living one of the 848 of us who were present.

Walking around the crypt I paused frequently in front of the niches. Some were marked as “Unknown Italian Soldier” or “Unknown Austrian Soldier.” Some had names and others held fading photographs of the occupants, sometimes in uniform and sometimes in civilian dress. Some niches held multiple remains.

I only did one tour around the room before I had to leave, it was just too oppressive and hauntingly sad.

Outside, steps curve to a semicircular terrace above the crypt where I was able to sit in the warm sunlight and ponder the room beneath me. I was honestly glad to get out of there. P1040437

Today in the surrounding mountains, as snow and glaciers melt with climate change, further corpses and remains are being uncovered. Modern generations are still honouring the memory of these newly discovered soldiers of a hundred years ago, but thankfully the mountains are now playgrounds, not battlegrounds.P1040438

Playgrounds for people like me, free to play on a wonderful Harley Davidson.

Most of all, just grateful to be Free.

“‘Till the next time we say goodbye, I’ll be thinking of you.”

Catch you all soon.

Dookes