Saying goodbye to the money-spinning face of Mozart in Salzburg, we decided it was time to face the fear that had been looming over us for over a week- the Alps. The first two days of Austrian cycling were actually easy enough, following cycle paths through valleys, usually along the riverside. (Austria is like the red carpet for cyclists- well signed cycle paths that make it pretty impossible to get lost, as we frequently did in Germany, and mountain passes on minor roads, meaning we hardly came face to face with cars the whole time we were in the country). I fell in love with the alpine houses, with their wooden exteriors and triangular roofs with wooden icicles built into the guttering (I always wondered how the icicles shaped so perfectly and evenly off the roofs in the snow- I didn’t realise they cheated)!
We spent our second evening with a fellow pair of cycle tourers in the town of Schladming- Christian and Andrea. They own a really lovely cafe there called Artisan, and invited us into their home for a delicious meal and evening of good company. I had fun playing with their baby girl, Antonia, but unfortunately she was too scared of Joe’s new beard to go anywhere near him.
It was good to have a bed to sleep in so we could gather our strength for the tough section of the Alps, beginning with the Solkpass- 1788m high, 1000m climb over a 20k distance. Sounds easy really- just persistence, until you take into consideration the steep switchbacks at the end (my ‘mountain’ playlist on the iPod really helped to keep my legs going). It really was awe inspiring to see the snow capped mountains getting closer and closer, until there were actually patches of snow around us as we cycled. The scenery became more and more surreal- so quiet, with icy streams in all directions and walls of rock and ice everywhere. Eventually our road was lined with walls of snow as we began the switchback climb. It was definitely worth the pain, although the twenty minute descent made a mockery of the three and a half hour climb.
Snow looming ever closer
Finally at at the top
Full-on snow! (First chance to model the beard-warmer- a handy going away present from my friends Emma and James).
Our next day incorporated another pass, but only 1,400m this time, and definitely not as steep, so we managed to make it all the way to Lake Ossiach. We assumed the final day would be easy- the Wurzenpass leading to the Slovenian border crossing was only 1000m altitude…surely our legs were up to the challenge?
It turned out to be the hardest day of the Alps so far. Although not as high, the climb only lasted about 5k. It was hard enough in the blazing sun until we turned a corner and were faced with a sign warning us of an 18% incline. The sight of this in real terms was horrifying. It looked physically impossible. Joe decided on pushing, but I thought pushing was probably harder as my arms are even weaker than my legs, so managed to pedal it by stopping every 10m or so for a long, panting rest. I think we only survived thanks to Joe’s genius idea of soaking our headscarves (or ‘buffs’ if you want to use the official term) in a cold stream so they dripped cool water onto our heads. Austria definitely doesn’t want you to leave. Never have we had to work so hard for a border crossing…
The descent made it all worthwhile. Or first few hours of Slovenia were breathtaking, with Razor (best named Alp so far) looming over us the whole way down. A brilliant cycle path led us all the way along the valley, beside a bright blue alpine stream and through forests. We thought it was too good to be true. Turns out it was- Slovenia is still in the process of building it’s cycle network and the path went as far as Dovie, where we camped that night. The minor roads can be pretty good though, although inconsistent- tarmac one minute and potholed and stony the next. We really noticed the difference the next day in a village where they had decided to dig up the road, presumably to improve it. Rather than digging up half and leaving the other half for use, and then switching, they decided it would be a much better option to dig up the entire road and let people drive across the piles of stones and potholes as they work on it…makes sense…? No surprises that Joe had his first puncture on day two of Slovenia.
We decided we needed a break after our Alpine mission and had an evening and a long morning relaxing by Lake Bled. What better start to a day than swimming in the bright blue water, with the Julian alps looming overhead, out to Bled island and it’s 15th century church with steps leading right down to the lake’s surface? (Unfortunately we were too scantily clad in our swimwear to attempt to go inside). The lake itself seems completely unspoilt, with no motorboats allowed; only rowing boats going to and from the island.
Eventually we forced ourselves to leave and pedalled away into the late afternoon sun and into the rolling hills of Slovenia. Heading south through this country has been, for me, some of the most relaxing cycling yet. Still extremely hilly, although the panoramic views make every climb worthwhile. For example, this was the view that greeted us the next morning after wild camping in a forest on the top of a very long hill:
What could be more relaxing than meandering between quiet villages, each with its own church on a hill, with red carnations decorating every house window?
We’ve developed a new method for cycling now, as it’s finally stopped being rainy and cold and is all of a sudden boiling sun everyday. Now we make sure we rest out of the sun between midday and two pm to avoid the heat as it’s really difficult to cycle in (Joe uses the time to snooze, of course, and I read) and then we cycle later into the evening when it’s cooler. It’s also really easy to wild camp in Slovenia, as there is so much space, so we’ve managed quite a few successive free nights in forests, which is satisfying.
Yesterday we crossed the border into Croatia, after stopping first thing for an iced coffee after our forest camp, to refresh us ready for the day of climbing ahead. What we didn’t realise was the coffee was laced with a strong alcohol, which we discovered only after getting to the end! When we asked the cafe owner, he proudly declared it was a mixture of not only rum but a local schnapps as well! What better drink could you choose at 9.30 in the morning before cycling up a very large hill in the heat? Oops.
It didn’t seem to do us any harm however and we made it to Croatia in one piece, saying goodbye to the Euro as we passed through the (policed) checkpoint. Things are noticeably cheaper here (at least in the north, before we hit the tourist-populated coast) and thanks to a well timed storm at the top of a mountain, we decided to treat ourselves to the first apartment we’ve been able to afford. Works out as the equivalent of £12 between us for basically a whole flat with kitchen, bathroom, living room etc, free internet, free tea(!)..cheaper than most campsites we’ve come across in the other European countries! Feeling a bit giddy with luxury this evening- it really is nice to have shower after three nights of forest camping and washing in icy cold streams!
Now we head for the coast, and summer!