Thursday, September 2, 2010

La Dolce Vita– Travels in Germany and Italy, Part II.

Alpine vista

Alpine valley, Austria

Having reached the end of the Germany portion of our trip (as detailed in this previous post), we met up with our newlywed friends in southern Bavaria, and set out across Austria to Italy. Four adults, luggage and climbing gear[i] was a tight fit, but a good time was had by all.

Alpine Castle

Alpine Castle, Austria

We ventured out of Germany and into Austria and the Alps. The sense of scale was nothing short of outstanding…we were tiny specks in a towering landscape. The combination of massive primeval forests and historic architecture gave a sense of a real world equivalent of the generic “storybook” settings of fairy tales. Numerous castles speckled the mountainside as we went through mountain passes and down into lush alpine valleys.

Alpine forestflower boxes everywhere

In order: Alpine forest, omnipresent flower boxes.

Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to stop and stay in Austria itself, as we were making for northern Italy. However, language barriers aside, I can easily see myself coming back. The sense of place is so overwhelming; it completely transcends television views of the Alps.


Austrian Alps

We finally broke through into northern Italy, and began to make our way down to the Lake Garda area. We stopped along the way in the quaint[ii] Italian town of Bolzano, for lunch and a quick walking tour[iii]. The pace of life seemed very inviting, and even the City itself didn’t seem to want to let us go, as demonstrated by what seemed a remarkable ability of whatever alley or street we took to abruptly narrow as if to impede any more forward progress.

Lanterns at Italian Restaurant Italian streetscape

Italian streetscape Locks on Bridge - Tradition

Meat! Narrow Alley

In order from top: Lanterns, Italian Streetscape, Italian Plaza Vista, Love Padlocks, Meat!, Narrow Alley.

We continued our trek through Northern Italy, making our way down to the Lake Garda region. Lake Garda is an enormously popular vacation spot, especially for Germans[iv]. The Lake is surrounded by the trailing end of the Alps, but the valley walls and peaks were more than impressive to me.

Lake Garda landscape

Left side of the Lake Garda valley, looking southeast at the western valley wall

While the majority of the development on this end of the lake clustered in the valley and beaches on its northern end, a few intrepid souls had managed to carve a harrowingly narrow set of roads and switchbacks up into the mountain walls on its flanks. That’s where we were headed. [v]


View of Tremosine, looking south along the western wall of Lake Garda. Photo from Piccolo Italia hotel website, at

We made our way slowly up the treacherous mountain roads, where we were introduced to the quaint[vi] tradition of honking one’s horn as one neared switchback corners. I am thoroughly convinced that no one has yet informed the native Italians of the area that their cars are equipped with breaks, given the speed at which they navigated these roadways. We finally pulled into our hotel, Piccola Italia, high in the western mountain wall, near Pieve di Tremosine.

Alpine view form hotelLake Garda landscape

Lake Garda landscapeLake Garda at night

From top, view from Hotel room, View from Hotel of Tremosine and Lake Garda, View from Hotel, Lake Garda view at night

We spent the next few days enjoying the local flavor, including trips down to nearby Tremosine for a fantastic pizza dinner[vii], and views of the Lake at night.

Church at NightLake Garda landscapePizza!convertible smartcarItalian cottage above Lake Garda

From top, Tremosine church at night, View of Lake Garda from the cliffs of Tremosine, Pizza!, smartcar convertible, old cottage on Tremosine outskirts.

On a few days we gambled with death on the trip down to Riva del Garda, the popular tourist Mecca on the north shore of the Lake. The valley just north of the Lake is split in two by a massive stone formation that stands out like an unexplainable[viii] hill that would dominate the landscape if it wasn’t for the towering Alpine walls that flank it. We explored some ruins to the north, and had nice sojourns into town for gelato[ix] and a little beach time. Windsurfing is a popular pastime in Lake Garda, and Riva seems to be an epicenter. [x]

Italian BicycleRiva del Garda landscapeView from Castello di Arco ruins Castello di Arco ruins (antiqued)Castello di Arco ruins

From Top, Bicycle and Architecture, Riva Del Garda vista looking south toward Lake Garda, Castello di Arco ruins, Castello di Arco ruins, Ruins again.

View from Castello di Arco RuinsGelato! Riva del Garda streetscape Riva del Garda beach Riva del Garda windsurfers Mountain pass

From Top, View of valley of Lake Garda looking north, Gelato!, Riva streetscape, Beach, windsurfers, Lone windsurfer dwarfed by western valley wall.

While my wife and I are outdoors type people, neither of us have done serious mountaineering, Alpine style. We have hiked up mountains in the Adirondacks, and trudged through rugged cliffs and a volcano in Northern Spain, and even descended into the caldera of a shield volcano on Maui. However, trails were usually involved. When our hosts, who are avid mountaineers[xi], had hinted at doing some climbing, we, in our naiveté[xii], said “sure, sounds like fun”. It became rapidly apparent, as they withdrew climbing helmets, carabineers, and harnesses, that their idea of some light climbing was drastically different than ours. But, needing to represent our country even if it meant a tumbling fall to certain death, we set out to climb an Alp. I should preface this by saying we were not free-climbing, but technical climbing[xiii]. Still, from what we had seen of the surrounding peaks, any type of climbing that did not involve jet propulsion seemed daunting.

Alps in last light of day I climbed that.

Alpine vineyards Large unidentified lizard (Italian alps, Lake Garda area)

View from Alp while climbing Alpine trail markers

From Top: Alps in afternoon sun, Starting point, Vineyards, large Green Lizard, View from ¼ the way Up, Trail marker at technical climb

To be fair, we started the hike already at a high altitude, so we did not make the ascent from the valley floor. The trail began in a small town that ringed the base of the peak, complete with vineyard and wildlife. We hiked several kilometers up a trail before we reached the point at which the technical climb began. We mounted up in harnesses and helmets, and started the ascent.[xiv] It was challenging in spots, but the notion of being belayed onto a solid steel cable took away a bit of the fear, although vertigo was a constant companion. We reached the peak some time later, and the view of Lake Garda and Riva Del Garda was nothing short of amazing. The scale is more evident if you recognize that each of the tiny white dots is either a large windsurfing rig or boat. Once I had taken the obligatory picture with the Italian flag at the top, I was somewhat dismayed[xv] to learn that there was not an easy descent back down. We actually had to shimmy across a cliff sideways, and make some steep descents before we were back onto the trail. Regardless, it was an adventure.

The Mountaineer Summiting an Alp Lake Garda Vista from Mountain

From Top: The Mountaineer, Summit flag, Rive del Garda and Lake Garda from alpine summit.

We spent the rest of our vacation in less strenuous pursuits, including an intimate balcony dinner overlooking the alps with a variety of local market foods[xvi]. We topped the week off with a fantastic dinner in a restaurant tucked into a fold in the mountainside along a stream cutting down the slope. With a nice glass of grappa to top it off, it was a satisfying end to an epic vacation. We took a train to Milan the next day to catch our flight back to the states.

I can’t thank our hosts/tour guides/compatriots/culinary experts/adventure leaders/friends Hellmut and Doris for the fantastic time we had! We packed several vacations worth into one trip, and yet it never felt rushed.

Eating Gelato

[i] Foreshadowing!

[ii] Quaint is a word that means many things. “Picturesque” and “unchanged” may be perfectly acceptable synonyms. Unfortunately, so are “impossible to navigate” and “not really built for cars”.

[iii] One of the more memorable moments was, while crossing a bridge that lead to a massive and imposingly ugly neoclassical arch, we encountered “love padlocks”. The juxtaposition of fascist-esque architecture and populist folk tradition was interesting.

[iv] Germans love to go vacationing, and August is prime time. It was somewhat hard to tell, to paraphrase Ian Malcolm a la dinosaurs, whether they ever intended to have Italians in their Italian City. However, as Germans are pretty cool in general, we were okay with this.

[v] Have I mentioned I have this thing with heights? Not really a fear, more of a vertigo thing. Yeah. So, Alpine vacation? Brilliant.

[vi] Remember those synonyms for quaint from before? Please add “seemingly funny, but actually totally necessary to avoid high speed flaming death”

[vii] The place we went was a packed little traditional pizza place with real, old school pizza ovens and about 400 different pizzas to choose from. Unfortunately, they did not have English menus, so a lot of our decision making relied on Germans interpreting Italian into English. Much to our America amazement, this was taken in stride. Even though I had an odd pizza combination, it was pretty damn amazing pizza.

[viii] Shush, geologists. I know perfectly well it’s explainable. I’m referring to its visual impact not its geologic origins. I don’t really think it’s some sort of cryptogeologic phenomenon…It’s obviously the result of magic dwarves.

[ix] The Riva del Garda diet seems to revolve strongly around pizza, seafood in rich sauces, German style meats and cheeses, and gelato. I think this would make me the happiest man on earth, at least until my heart exploded at 40.

[x] I did not windsurf, regrettably.

[xi] I’m fairly sure German children are issued hiking boots, ice hammers and pitons at birth, and are not allowed to their 6th birthday party until they have summitted a peak or two. To give you an idea of the depth to which this seems to run, part of the wedding reception involved a guessing game in which the newlyweds had to identify mountain peaks that they had previously climbed. I have no idea what was said, but it certainly seemed like a test of worthiness to me.

[xii] I blame 8 years on the Gulf Coast, to whose resident flatlanders, the mildly rolling hills of the Austin area are towering peaks worth of being called “the Hill country”. Texas is a whole lot of flat.

[xiii] Up unto this point, my experience with technical climbing was limited to belaying on and off wires at high ropes courses, and climbing in the Texas hill country (which is not REALLY climbing, just “technically” climbing.)

[xiv] For our German friends, this was the equivalent of a bunny slope. Actually probably even less…probably a bunny slope, if they made slopes for the skiing needs of ACTUAL bunnies. For us, however, just donning the gear made it seem like an ascent up Everest, but without the plucky sherpas.

[xv] Ok, not literally dismayed, just the same sort of shock you get when you ascend to what you think is the top, only to see the real summit towering above you.

[xvi] Did you know they make sausage out of donkeys? Or to be fair, sausage containing such an appreciable quantity of donkey that it feels the necessity to call itself donkey sausage? I am always happy to add a new entry to my “animals I have eaten and thus feel evolutionarily superior to” list. For the record, donkey was delicious. But not much ISN’T delicious in sausage form.

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