24 July 2012: Day 6 – Colle Isarco to Cortina D’Ampezzo via Valparola Pass…The Dolomites!

119.71 km/74.82 mi

Waking up in the Italian Alps is a magical thing.  Crisp, clear, and beautiful for as far as the eye can see.  I could get used to this!

We had our usual hearty breakfast and were curious about the individually-wrapped croissants when everything else was unwrapped, but I had read somewhere about some law in Italy that requires certain food items to be packaged at B&Bs.  Not quite sure what it all was about, though.

So, we didn’t really have a clue where we wanted to go at this point in our trip.  All we knew is that we had five days to make it all the way east to Trieste.  Other than that, we had no plans and no guide book.  I had read about the Carnia towns and the Carnic Mountains before we had left and knew that I wanted to ride through those, but it would take a few days to get there.  The Carnic Mountains were on our way east, so at least we had a general direction.  Our basic method of determining next stopping point is to look at the map, find a town that looks close enough, and then count up the kilometers.  If it seems doable, then we go for it.  Cortina D’Ampezzo looked like a good goal – perhaps a little farther than we intended after the long day yesterday, but definitely within reach.  I had read that Cortina D’Ampezzo was a wonderful ski town and a favorite to celebrities throughout the ages, including Audrey Hepburn.  Plus, some scenes from one of the Bond movies was filmed there.  If it’s good enough for Audrey and 007, then we definitely wanted to check it out.

Something to note about our maps that I learned on this particular day was how much detail they provide.  I wasn’t paying too much attention at first, but because we had bought the larger-scale maps (we were carrying Italia Nord and Italia Centro), we could see a lot of detail, including brakets ( ][ ) for mountain passes and little arrows showing the direction of up (so you know which way is the up side).  The more arrows (> vs >>) the steeper the road.  I didn’t notice those arrows until after today, however.  Sigh.  Finally, the map shows just how many twists and turns a road will make through the mountains.  The more a road resembles intestines, the more twisty and turny it is, and probably the more difficult the riding is.  So we chose our route to Cortina based on how intestiney the roads looked without taking the largest, main road to our destination.  We wanted a challenge of course, but we didn’t want to kill ourselves on our fourth day of riding.  We had three weeks left!  That said, we chose a route that would take us southeast toward Bressanone and then east toward Brunico.  Before hitting Brunico, we chose the option to go due south at San Lorenzo, which was a secondary route all the way over Valparola Pass and into Cortina.  Looking at the map, the road looked pretty straightforward.  We failed to notice all the double arrows (>>) going against our direction of travel, however.  Only after arriving in Cortina and looking at the map again did we visualize what we had gotten ourselves into!

We started our day with a good belly laugh when we rode past the sign that read, “Thank you for visiting Colle Isarco.”  Colle Isarco?  What?  This whole time we’d been calling the town Vipiteno, thinking we had made it there the night before.  Oops.  So we had spent the night in a tiny little place and never even knew where we were.  Then, when we rode that blissfully downhill bike path into the rather large city of Vipiteno, we realized we never could have missed it, no matter how late it would have been.  No matter, we loved Colle Isarco and prefer the smaller mountain towns anyway.

Vipiteno certainly looked nice as we rode through – another ski town, though we didn’t actually see where the skiing itself was.  It looked like it might be a pretty touristy place in the wintertime, and there was an abundance of hotels and restaurants to cater to every income and interest.  We did see a bike path off to our right and at first we resisted because memories of our indirect route to Innsbruck made our bums sore at the thought of all those extra kilometers.  Soon, though, the road narrowed through the mountains and the bike path looked so calm and inviting that we could no longer ignore it.  Amazing!  This bike path took us to Bressanone and then all the way to our turn off before Brunico.  It was clean, superiorly maintained, and beautiful.  We rode through corn fields, farmland, forests, along rivers, over bridges, past castles, through villages, and over gorges.  We saw it all!  Along the way we also caught glimpses of what we later learned are the famous apple orchards of Alto Adige.  Italy itself is remarkable with the quality of its local produce and meats.  In this area, apples and polenta were not to be missed.

At last we reached our turn off at San Lorenzo, some 67.5 km (42 mi) from Colle Isarco.  This was a secondary road, so our bike path ended.  At first glance, the road looked like it simply dissolved into the side of a mountain.  It was pretty daunting to say the least.

As we climbed out of San Lorenzo, we realized our true Italian Alps experience was beginning.  In fact, there were no downhills until we descended into Cortina some 50+ km (31 mi) later.  For anyone planning to follow this route into Cortina, be warned that there are at least five tunnels to pass.  Note: riding through tunnels in Italy (and probably most places) is a big no-no.  The Italian government was nice enough, for the first four tunnels, to leave the old roads that used to go around the mountains where now there are tunnels so that cyclists can pass without some serious hike-a-bike over the mountainside, Von Trapp Family style.  These roads are by no means drivable and are barely rideable, but they worked well enough once we let ourselves through the red-and-white striped gate arms.  Thankfully most of those were unlocked because bicycles with panniers don’t squeeze between cement posts all too easily (see photos).

We passed a sign stating that we were entering the Dolomite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it was a bit of buzz kill because we were still riding up a winding road through thick forest and heavy rain (yes, it rained and rained and rained as we passed through our final tunnel).  No views, no mountains, just up up up and rain rain rain.  It’s times like these when it’s nice to have a riding companion like Kovas to keep your spirits up.

And suddenly we crested the top of this mini-pass and there they were: massive mountains of solid dolomite rock rising up from the green rolling landscape.  They were barren of trees, grasses, shrubs…anything really.  Jagged fingertips of stone grazed the sky and cast intimidating shadows on the earth below.  There are no words to describe the Dolomites and their majesty.  And now that I have had the great opportunity to bicycle through them, I believe there is no better way to witness their domineering superiority.  It is with utmost humility that a cyclist should approach the Dolomites; otherwise, one’s pride will surely be beaten out of him (or her).

From this point until the town of Armentarola, we rode through ski town after ski town in the shadow of the Dolomites towering above.  Each town we passed was cuter than the one before despite the constant climbing.  It was along this route that we learned how similar Italian mountain roads are to pasta.  They are curvy, loopy, and stringy even when you might think a straight road would have sufficed to get one from A to B.  I suppose we would have lost some of the esthetics for the sake of bum soreness.

In Armentarola we noted with glee a sign that read, “Cortina D’Ampezzo – 22 km (17 mi).”  22 km?  No sweat!  It was only a kilometer or so later that we saw the next sign, “Valparola Pass – Aperto (open).”  What pass?  Open?  Like as in it’s high enough to be closed in the winter?  Just where is this pass?  How high is it exactly?  Knowing you’re just 22 km from your destination and that you’ve just ridden uphill for the better part of five hours and that it was now 4pm and we still had a mountain pass to ride over was, well, cause for some grumbling on my part.  But it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Couldn’t be until we saw the mountains looming ahead of us and caught sight of our road that twisted and turned over what looked to be, at first glance, an actual Dolomite, but a second glance showed that it was indeed the pass because it was slightly lower than the mountains surrounding.  Either way, it was high, it was steep, and it would be a long ride to get there.  Only later did we learn that Valparola Pass Road is considered one of the 100 highest mountain roads in Europe, and it deserves to be in that group.

I won’t lie, as we started up this monstrosity, I was fading.  The day had been fun but tough and the day before had been long and tough as well.  It was late afternoon, we had skipped lunch again, and the pass itself was about 10 kilometers of 5-7 km/hour inching (according to our bike computers).  Yes, it took about 2 hours to ride 10 km to the top of the pass, and at one point it was about all I (and Kovas) could do to keep me from packing it in and throwing my bicycle over the side of the mountain.  So I had a little bit of a low point…but can I just say that riding that last grueling switchback to the top of Valparola Pass made all the pain and doubting disappear into the most unparalleled views I have ever seen?  We tried to capture it with photos, but that feeling can never be bottled and recreated.  Exhaustion mixed with exhilaration mixed with disbelief mixed with absolute awe and wonder.  As we stood at the top and gazed at the panorama around us, we noted how many massive glaciers we could see.  There were just so many!  We simply do not have that in the Colorado Rockies despite their elevation.

The road down Valparola into Cortina is a triple size gelato dessert if the uphill side is the pasta carbonara entree.  It was fast, steep, windy, long, and oh so sweet!  We flew 10.5 km or so into Cortina sometime around 7pm, found a place to stay, and spent the evening wallowing in Gucci-town.  Oh yes, handbags for 500 euro, more fur coat stores than you can count, an absolutely delicious meal of pizza and a goulash starter (er, the goulash wasn’t actually supposed to be an appetizer/first course…but we made it one), and, of course, a carafe of wine.

After dinner we window-shopped, enjoying Cortina and all of its class and style.  And oh my, does it ever have both!  Surprisingly, many of the restaurants were entirely reasonably priced, but it ended there.  We just had to share some of the styles (and the prices) that we encountered (see photos).  We did notice that orange was quite a popular color with the mannequins, and since Europe – particularly France and Italy – tends to lead the way we figured Colorado would see the color orange in about 6 months or so.  Hmm, if I plan ahead, for once I might actually be on top of the trend!

All in all Cortina was a wonderful surprise.  We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, but really, could we have been disappointed with any town nestled at the base of the Dolomites?  Our only regret is that we decided to push on the next day instead of spend one more day and night in Cortina.  A hike into the Dolomites surrounding Cortina would have been an adventure worth exploring.  I suppose, again, we had to have a reason to come back someday!

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