26 July 2012: Day 8 – Sauris to Gemona via Pura Pass

73.1 km (45.4 miles)

This morning we woke with a feeling that was simply bittersweet.  Bitter because we would be riding out of the mountains today, but sweet because we were beginning the next stage of our grand journey.  Morning in Sauris di Sopra is quiet and brisk.  The air is so fresh and crisp that you wonder if this is the same air our ancestors breathed before the industrial revolution spewed pollution and smog into our lungs.  Our little agriturismo outdid itself with a breakfast for kings: mueslis, cereals, sweet and grainy breads, fresh jams and local meats…was there anything this little town did NOT do well?  (I was especially delighted when I saw all of the community gardens as we were riding out of town because I realized just how local our meals had actually been).  While we were deciding our day’s route over breakfast, our fellow breakfaster at the table next to ours struck up conversation in broken English and German.  He was an Italian motorcyclist on a multi-day journey through northern Italy before he had to head home to Verona.  At first he was excited because he thought we were fellow motorcyclists until we demonstrated with a combination of charades and German words that we were actually on foot-powered bicycles.  His face changed into an expression of disbelief and “what are you, crazy?” when he understood our ultimate destination was Rome.  We gathered that his parting words to us were, “Good luck and watch out for Italian drivers.”

We finally decided to ride to another Carnia town, Gemona.  Knowing absolutely nothing about this place, we liked that it wasn’t a terribly long ride and that it was medium-sized compared to the obviously larger (and probably more touristy) Tolmezzo.  The route itself looked fairly simple once we passed over Pura Pass, which would bring us out of the Sauris Valley once we descended to the bottom.  And again, nothing seems too daunting first thing in the morning.

It was a blessed descent out of Sauris – cold and very steep.  We enjoyed about 7.5 km (4.7 mi) of downhill, passing through the twin town of Sauris di Sotto before arriving at Lago di Sauris, a huge reservoir/lake with a dam at one end.  Looking down into that dam (see photos) was exhilarating if not a tiny bit terrifying.  The reservoir marked the bottom of our descent and the beginning of our final mountain pass of the trip: Passo di Pura, just 6.5 km (4 mi) that reached an elevation of 1428m (4685 ft), but starting at 977m (3205 ft).  But first, we had to pass through “The Tunnel of Doom.”  We called it “The Tunnel of Doom” because when we arrived at its dark and dingy mouth, we felt as though we were passing through the Jaws of Death in an effort to reach The Other Side of the Moon.  Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but imagine an abandoned tunnel that twists through a mountain, where no light indicating the “end” is visible.  The walls and ceilings are dripping water and every couple dozen feet are 1ft x 2 ft rectangular openings in the rock wall that allow ventilation, a little bit of light, and certain death down into the dam ravine if one should attempt to jump out.  The alternative route was the modern road that passed through multiple tunnels over Passo di Buso, but was too much of a main route (and too many tunnels) for us.

Despite all the drama, we rode through The Tunnel of Doom with no great excitement except for one car that passed us (causing us to scramble into one of the ventilation alcoves) on its way to some kind of recreation area near the reservoir at the base of Pura Pass.  Once exiting The Tunnel of Doom, Pura Pass starts up up up pretty dramatically.  The next 4 miles/6.5 km are pretty much what you’d expect: a lot of elevation gain, a ton of switch backs, and a couple of false summits.  Where this pass really differed from all the others we’d overcome, though, was that the temperature was significantly warmer, even hot.  Yes, we were headed south and it was getting towards the end of July.  Interestingly, while the pass summit was a sweet triumph of course, it wasn’t the summit that boasted the incredible views.  It was the ride down that took our breath away.

The valley below Pura Pass on the other side of the Carnic Mountains is so very different from where we had come.  It was just so green!  In the photos you can see just how lush the area is, where ferns, trees, and plants cover the mountainsides.  It was suddenly very warm and very humid – it was as though we had entered a new ecosystem.  The Adriatic Sea really isn’t all that far away, and we were now understanding the full extent of this region called Friuli Venezia Giulia, whose capital is Trieste, but which includes the Carnia area.  This region is geographically diverse, spanning a wide variety of climates and landscapes (from mountains to vineyards and coastal plains).  It amazed me that climate and terrain could change so dramatically from one day to the next.  By the time we reached Gemona, we had arrived in yet another very different geographical landscape!

Once we started our descent from Pura Pass, we had about 15.5 km (9.6 mi) of downhill through Ampezzo, a lovely town that had a market where we indulged in local produce – grapes, bananas, peaches.  Ampezzo was the first Italian town we rode through that finally screamed, “I am Italian” in a way that we imagined it would.  People spoke Italian more than German, and the architecture had morphed into a more decidedly Mediterranean style from Tyrolean.

It was an uneventful and fairly flat ride into Gemona.  The area was noticeably more population-dense and with it came more billboards, roadside advertisements, and, of course, cars.  The other most noticeable aspect of the ride, however, was just how drought-ridden this region was.  We passed rode along several rivers that were now dry riverbeds with a trickle of water struggling down the middle.  It was sobering.

Once we passed Tolmezzo, a fairly large Carnia town that looked like it was worth a stop had we had more time, there were only about 30km (18.7 mi) left to Gemona.  The real adventure actually started when we finally rode up into “old town” Gemona.  As you ride into the town outskirts it looks very suburban with roadside restaurants and businesses.  We followed the signs to Centro and began climbing up twisty, narrow roads that made no modern urban organizational sense.  At last we saw the Duomo (Cathedral), what appeared to be the main drag, and the all-important “i” symbol.  It was just about 3pm, right smack in the middle of siesta, so not a single business was open, except for the “i,” thank goodness.  Even that was a surprise.  Since we had no knowledge of this town and didn’t see any signs for B&Bs or any other lodging, Kovas ventured into the “i” to inquire about places to stay.  He was in there for what seemed like an eternity, and when he finally emerged, his face bore an expression of frustration, relief, and incredulity.  I couldn’t wait to hear his story…

In Kovas’ words:  “Erika, that was just flat-out insane.  I asked about bed and breakfasts and they told me there were only two.  One was more a dormitory with no breakfast (how is this a B&B?) and the other is new and down at the base of the town if we didn’t mind riding back there.  I said it sounded great and so one of the women called the place to get us a room.  She was on the phone speaking with the innkeeper for about 10 minutes, and I was thinking, ‘Yes, we have a place to stay.’  Then she gets of the phone, looks at me and says, ‘They’re full.’  So I asked what else was available, and she replied that there was nowhere else in the town to stay, so we should consider the next town, Venzone.  With a huge sigh I was preparing the courage to tell you we had another 17 km of uphill riding to the next town when this woman’s colleague sitting next to her behind the desk grabs a post-it note off the countertop that had a few numbers written on it and said, ‘Wait.  There’s this place.’  I asked him where it was and he replied, ‘Oh, just around the corner, but he doesn’t speak English.’  Well, we certainly don’t care about that and it hasn’t been an issue yet on this trip, but he’s only telling me this now?  So they rang the guy up and he has a room.”

The info center employee kindly walked us to this B&B, which truly was literally around the corner.  It certainly didn’t look like a B&B and it had “Enoteca” written outside, meaning it was some kind of restaurant.  Our gracious guide rang the bell and we waited for a good 5 or so minutes, wondering if this was some kind of joke.  The guide looked embarrassed and pretty concerned as he kept checking the address and a note he was holding.  At last a man of about 50 or so opened the door and the two exchanged a few words.  Then our guide turned to us and said, “This is your place.  Good night,” and he took off.  It looked like he sprinted away to me, but I tried not to think much of it.

Our host looked at us and our bicycles and gestured to us to go towards a large door near the stairs.  A few minutes later we heard a creaking sound and the door cracked open.  The man motioned for us to enter with the bicycles and pointed where we should park them.  I pulled out my water bottles and placed them on a piece of furniture next to the wall where our bikes were so that I could pull of my panniers.  Our host made a sudden cry that was a cross between a squeal and a yelp and he rushed over, grabbing the bottles.  He looked at me and Kovas and said, “No wasser!  Very old.”  Oops.  I gathered it was an antique and that water would ruin the finish.  I felt terribly.

After all that our host led us upstairs to a main room that looked like a dining area with huge, long tables set with fancy place settings, wine glasses, and nice napkins.  He chatted with us in Italian the whole time, and I really wished we could have understood even a few words because I imagine he was telling us about his place.  At the bar we paid for the room (pretty cheap – I think it was around 50 euro for the two of us).  This dining/bar area had one section that was filled by an enormous fireplace of some sort (see photo).  We couldn’t figure out what it was or what it’s purpose was as there was nothing around it.  Perhaps it was for cooking?  We eventually decided it had some antique value since almost everything else in the B&B was that way.  Finally our host he took us up a few flights of stairs.  We passed a landing that had a little outdoor veranda and the man stopped there.  “No cats,” he said, and turned away to walk up the next flight.  Kovas and I looked at each other, not comprehending, until Kovas finally said, “Oh!  I think he means we can’t let the cats in!”  I then noticed the dozen or so cats lounging about on this veranda.

Finally we arrived at our room, noticing just how empty and quiet the whole apartment was.  It had many rooms that appeared to be guest rooms, but not one was occupied.  It felt like the backdrop for some kind of horror or sci-fi film. Inside, the room was clean and neat with a nice view of the garden.  Our host explained that we needed to wait for the hot water for the shower (he pressed a button and said something about 10 minutes) and then he pointed to every single piece of furniture in the room, including bed, dresser, and night stands.  Each time he said, “No wasser.  Very old.”  Then he grabbed a towel from the bathroom, laid it on the bed and said, “No wasser.  Very old.”  Got it.  Antiques.  Don’t be a moronic American like you were downstairs and place your darn water bottles and wet towels on my antique furniture!

At this point we were throughly terrified of touching anything, as though we were 5-year-old boys in a glass shop.  Hands in pockets, please!  When he finally left our room, Kovas and I burst out laughing at how hilariously strange this whole turn of events was.  Even the most normal thing turns out to be the biggest adventure.

After solid showering and cleaning up, we were excited to explore this mystery town.  Was it as strange as the people who lived there?  It was refreshing to walk outside in late afternoon/early evening and have it still be warm, so we didn’t have to bundle up in multiple layers.  Ah, summer at last!  As we began our explorations, we encountered a series of wall-sized photographs of Gemona’s old town (see photos) and learned that Gemona was a medieval town full of ancient history.  In 1976, however, a massive earthquake leveled the town so that only rubble remained.  Reconstruction began that same year and today looks almost identical to the medieval original, with some modern conveniences of course.  It was absolutely incredible how well the town is reconstructed, and with good reason, Gemonans are proud of their town, their history, and their strife.  We absolutely adored this town and recommend all to visit.  It was a very non-touristy place with Italian charm, delicious pizza, gelato, and mortadella, and of course, that narrow-street medieval feel.  Another must-see in this Carnia region…just be open-minded about places to stay!

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