25 July 2012: Day 7 – Cortina to Sauris di Sopra via Tre Croci and Sella Ciampigotto Passes

78.03 km/48.77 mi

Waking up in Cortina is one of life’s blessings that you only hope you can repeat someday.  Despite our hotel room facing a “busy” working street such that we could hear delivery trucks and cars passing below our window in the wee hours of the morning, we were nevertheless struck by the pure divinity of this town snuggled in a Dolomitian Valley as we lazily woke from a less-than-restful sleep.  Note: Italian beds are hard.  Very hard.  They seemed to get harder as we rode south…

I won’t lie…waking up after the two previous long mountain rides was not an easy feat.  Looking back, we should have enjoyed a full day in Cortina and spent two nights there.  It would have been a fun adventure trying to tackle a hike through the Dolomites.  I guess there always has to be a reason to return, right?  As we enjoyed a *very* full breakfast and helped ourselves to yogurts and crackers for snacks later in the day, we pored over the map to determine our day’s route.  We had suspected during our delicious descent into Cortina the day before that what goes down into a valley must go up to get out again, so it was a given that we had at least one major climb to tackle.  So, which pass should we ride and what was our destination?  As mentioned previously, I had my heart set on riding through the Carnic Mountains and seeing some of the Carnia towns (Sauris de Soto, Sauris De Sopra, Gemona, Venzone, Tolmezzo).  After some reading about the Sauris towns on the iPod (using some verrrry slow hotel WiFi), we decided our mission was to discover the next “Cinque Terre” in the Carnia area before all the other tourists got there first.  Sauris was our end goal…but if you saw the map as we did, it was not going to be an easy feat…

Our first task of the morning, before even approaching Passo No. 1 was to hit the Panificio next door to our hotel.  It’s our tradition to find a special “treat” to carry us through the day (usually until mid-morning) wherever we stay.  We figure that we’re cycling all day so we deserve a little boost, right?  While in said Panificio, Kovas encountered a fellow American.  This was the rather sad exchange they had:

Other Guy: “Hey, you speak English.”

Kovas: “Yeah!  Where are you from?”

Other Guy: “Colorado.”

Kovas: “No way!  I’m from Denver!”

Other Guy: “Well, I’m from Aspen.”

And he walked away…  ?!?!?!

Moving on with our day, it was getting to be lat-ish morning and we knew that while the mileage wasn’t going to be all that high, the roads would be, so we needed to get going.  Map in hand, we headed toward Tre Croci Pass…but after about 3 km we realized we were following a road that was taking us in the complete opposite direction (I kept thinking the road would turn and the compass would change directions…), so we backtracked through Cortina’s downtown and found a remote road through a residential area that wasted no time in gaining altitude.  Seriously, a little warm-up with some rolling hills would have been nice.

After Valparola Pass, we imagined any other pass would be like riding through (flat) daisy pastures.  However, never underestimate the sense of humor of Italian Alps road-builders.  Tre Croci Pass was, in a word, steep.  We didn’t need the 12% grade sign to inform us of the steepness, but at least we have it documented.

The road wound its way from the northeast side of Cortina up towards three very ominous-looking peaks (which we assumed were the Tre Croci).  Along the way we passed two ski “resorts” that were less ski resort and more ski area.  These must be among the several ski areas for which Cortina is famous!  It’s hard to imagine what a ski area is like during the summer since it’s just a clutter of dangling chairlifts and shuttered-up ticket offices engulfed in a ghostly quiet.  Nevertheless, we found there to be profound differences between the concept of ski resorts back in Colorado and those in Italy, which did not appear to have towns attached at the mountain bases, but, like Cortina, the towns were in the valleys and skiers rode shuttles to various ski areas above the towns.  We were definitely interested in checking this out some winter…when we could afford to stay in Gucci Town or the like.  For now, we still had some climbing to do…

Tre Croci Pass is one of those infuriating passes that has multiple false summits.  Just as you’re rounding the last switchback and you see it start to flatten out…another switchback and up you go again.  And then, when you’ve pitifully realized that you’re stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario, doomed to repeat that same switchback over and over and over and over again and never reach the top (like trying to touch the horizon)…the summit at last!  A devilishly long and tedious pass, but happily it was our morning workout on fresh legs.  The next 30ish km were all downhill, and I’m not talking about easy flat-road-slightly-downhill, I mean downhill, where pedaling is ornamental (a way to keep your legs from stiffening up) and braking is required (a way to keep yourself alive).

The town at the base of this long and lovely downhill was Auronzo, and it was there that it started to rain and rain and rain and rain (see photo…).  We huddled under the eaves of a ramshackle abandoned hut on the outskirts of town, hoping with each passing minute that the rain was letting up, just a little.  But it didn’t.  45 minutes like this passed by and at last we realized that unless we wanted to spend the night in this sad little town (it was indeed not a very exciting place), we needed to get moving, rain and all.  It was nearing 4pm and we had another pass to tackle…  (how is it we manage to get ourselves into these predicaments at such late afternoon hours???)

As we sloshed our way down the road, freezing underneath damp raincoats and leg warmers, we decided it was time to head out of the mountains and into summer.  I suppose the grass is always greener…  Thankfully, by the time we reached our crossroads where we had to make our final go/no-go decision about trying to reach Sauris via Sella Ciampigotto Pass or go a more conventional (read: easy) road, the rain was letting up.  We looked at each other and, thinking telepathically, determined this was our one and only chance to see this Italian mountain secret.  So we made the turn at Vigo di Cadore and headed up…

Again, we had no way of knowing what was in store for us in the climb up Sella Ciampigotto, except this time we understood from our map that there were several areas of double arrows (up and down), about 17.5 km (~10.9 mi) of climbing, and an elevation gain of approximately 1,065 meters (~3500 feet).  The sun started peaking out from behind the clouds though it was still raining steadily, but not heavily.  You can only imagine the rainbows that glimmered between the raindrops, arcing over the valleys as we climbed the narrow, seldom-used road up the pass, dodging potholes and other tire-hating obstacles.  It seemed as though we were climbing into Heaven.  The towns of Vigo di Cadore and Laggio di Cadore (above Vigo) are quaint towns with residential homes scattered on the mountainside.  We would have liked to stay and explore those towns had the timing been different.  They appeared to be untouched by the likes of tourists and foreigners.

We were keeping tabs on the elevation gain as a way to gauge our progress up Sella Ciampigotto because the road was so spaghetti-windy that there was no way to tell which way it would turn next, let alone which way was the pass summit (plus, we had forgotten to check our odometers to know when to start counting kilometers).  The mountains along this pass are incredibly lush, and as the rain began to subside, we realized we were more soaked underneath our rain gear than outside it due to the humidity and general clamminess of the air.

I remember the point when Kovas announced we had climbed around 950 meters!  After at least two hours of climbing, it was welcome news and certainly gave me that bit of third wind I was needing to push to the top.  Right about that same time we passed a sign that read “15% grade” and up ahead we glimpsed a series of steep switchbacks crawling up the mountainside and curling and disappearing around a ridge.  No way  we only had 100 meters of climbing left.  No way.  It was then that we knew Kovas’ watch altimeter couldn’t be trusted.  Now we had no idea how much climbing we had left, and as the clock ticked 6pm and later, the clouds started to lower and soon we were engulfed in an eerie, surreal mist.  Were we climbing into Heaven…or someplace else?

However many more kilometers and meters elevation we had left, I have no idea, but the next dozen switchbacks or so felt like an eternity.  Of course we were tired and hungry, but with the clouds as low as they were, visibility was, in a word, bad, and all we could do was pray that passing cars and motorcycles would have enough sense to slow down around the blind curves.  Thankfully this was a very remote road, and the only motorbikes and cars that did pass us were just as cautious with the poor visibility as we were.  And then, as we made one more turn the sign ahead peeked out from behind the mist and read, “Sella Ciampigotto, 1790m).  We made it!  We were at the top, and the views were staggering.  I imagine on a clear day it is a beautiful sight, but there was something about being above the clouds and seeing the Dolomites all around us, their rocky faces rising high above the finger-like puffs of white.  It was magic.  In Kovas’ words, “Where are the Hobbits?”

We lingered as long as we could, soaking in the magnificence, catching our breath, and reveling in our two-passes-in-one-day success.  Finally, though, the chilly evening air and our grumbling stomachs got the best of us.  Mostly, we were panicked that we would arrive too late for dinner in Sauris and THEN what would we do?

There is nothing as sweet as a long descent after a long climb, as we’d learned with the three passes before this one.  But the road into Sauris is not only a good long descent, but it also passes through some of the most beautifully rustic landscape I have ever seen.  Trust me, the Carnic Mountains are not to be missed.  As we sped downhill, we passed a warning sign that read, “18% Grade,” and all I could think was, “Ha!  Thank goodness we decided to ride in this direction.”  Not two seconds after the thought leapt into my head, we flew past a group of cyclists, fully loaded, struggling up the 18% grade.  Yikes.  And now it was 7pm…  where were they headed?

Sauris is actually two sister towns: Sauris di Sopra and Sauris di Sotto.  Sauris di Sopra is the first of the two along the road, so guess where we stopped?  As we rode into town, and it is a very very small town, we realized we had no idea where to stay or if there even was a place to stay.  We rode to the first albergo we saw, “Albergo Neider” and Kovas went in to ask for a room.  Surprisingly, it was totally booked, but he reported the Albergo’s restaurant looked amazing and that we absolutely had to return for dinner.  They closed at 9pm, so we had 1 hour to find a room, shower up, and get ourselves to dinner.  The owner pointed us to the local Agriturismo down the street, and thus began our love affair with Italian Agriturismos.  The Innkeeper was an older German-speaking woman whose daughter helped run the place.  Not expecting too much, we followed as she showed us to our room (after requesting in German that we remove our shoes and wear the slippers provided).  We couldn’t have dreamed up a more wonderful bed and breakfast.  It was absolutely perfect in every way: homey and comfortable, spectacularly clean, a view of the valley below and the Carnic Mountains surrounding, and complete with towel warmers in the modernized bathroom (which are essential for drying hand-washed bike shorts).  Cold, hungry, damp, and exhausted, I’ve never had a better shower.  It was all I could do to pull myself out of there so Kovas could have a turn and we could stumble down to dinner.

If Sauris is a town in Heaven, Albergo Neider is the dining room of the angels.  Maybe it was because we were so hungry…but regardless, it was the perfect resting place for trying real homemade Sudtirolean/Northern Italian food.  No menus at this restaurant, just a description of what’s available that evening.  We opted for the full 3-course meal and carafe of house wine, beginning with a massive platter (shaped like a rabbit, oddly enough) of Sauris prosciutto.  We learned that Sauris is famous for its prosciutto and for good reason.  Next came tomato soup for me and some kind of tagliatelle with potatoes and sausage for Kovas.  Third was a huge plate of, you guessed it, goulash!!!  This goulash came complete with polenta (And had decidedly less paprika.  We were getting to be quite the connoisseurs).

Ahhhh…pure happiness.

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