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The Many Faces of Slovenia

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The Many Faces of Slovenia

Slovenia is a country of green hills, thick forests, rugged mountains, emerald rivers and turquoise lakes. I spent a week in Triglav, the country’s only national park. All of Triglav was an extra detour off my route towards Bled, so I did plenty of hitchhiking when faced with long ascents. (It’s not cheating if it’s a bonus detour!) Otherwise I doubt I would’ve bothered to climb to 1600m three times and 2000m once, in +30C August weather.

I expected Triglav's wild nature to be the focus of this update. The nature and landscapes were indeed beautiful, but the people I met there left even more of an impression. The young easy-going Dutch couple on their first day of a van trip who gave me a ride up the mountain, the camping ground owner who let me shower for free, and an unkempt local guy tending to a traditional coal-making fire pit for two months:

“9000 kilometres? Do you want a beer?” Besides those two questions he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, despite looking like he’d already had a dozen of those beers himself by 11am. Tending to a fire that lasts all summer must be a boring job.

This random small waterfall on the way to a much bigger waterfall turned out to be more photogenic.

To provide some change in his life, I let him tend to my bike instead while hiking to a nearby waterfall. I met a lovely lady out with her granddaughter, then hitchhiked back up the mountain with the help of two American pastors. The word “spreadsheet” was mentioned so often in their conversation that I figured it must be one of the most important aspects about running a church.

While looking for a suitable tent spot on the banks of the Soča river, I ran into a cute Czech cyclist called Anna with similar plans. (Also looking for a place to camp, that is - not plans to start a church.) By coincidence I had already met her briefly a week or two earlier in Austria, on her way to Italy. This time she was bound for home. I was in need of company, and it felt great to share a campsite with someone. We were out talking long after the stars came out. In the morning we went our separate ways, which is usually the sad reality of meeting other bicycle tourers. They’re always going in the other direction.

Another beautiful morning by the many rivers of Slovenia.

I needed two car rides to get up to Mangart, the highest road in Slovenia at above 2000m. First a young guy who already had another two hitchhikers with him stopped, and we just about managed to fit everything in the car by removing the front wheel and using a bit of force. Then the rest of the way was offered by a nice Austrian family with enough space in the van for several touring bicycles.

Mangart happened to be one of the checkpoints for the crazy Transcontinental Bike Race. About 300 cyclists racing to cross Europe self-supported. Some told me they were braving the challenge with so little sleep that they even hallucinated on their bikes. The race had started from Belgium on the previous Sunday. I received laughs when I said I had also come through Belgium… in November. Despite the exhaustion, the racers seemed to exude joy and life.

Sunset at Mangart.

On Mangart I realised I was starting conversations with strangers like they were already friends. This is really a huge deal for someone as previously introverted as me. Even if this were the only skill I learn from a year’s cycling, it would all be worth it.

I suggested a sunset-watching spot to another happy Dutch couple, and was rewarded by a bag of delicious liquorice candy (salmiakki), which I didn’t know existed outside Finland. In the night Jiri, a tired Czech racer arrived up the mountain and we chatted in the light of our headlamps before finding places to sleep. I saw him again in the morning, but by that time I wasn’t quite as social and talkative anymore. No amount of cycling is going to cure my morning grumpiness.

The view towards Lake Fusine and Austria from Mangart at night,

The ride down the mountain destroyed what was left of my brakes. The screws to change the pads were busted, so I needed to open the brakes to access the pads. I ran around Bovec asking people and in random shops for tools. I saw Marc, a German bicycle tourer having a snack by the side of the street. He also didn’t have a T30 Torx tool, but what he did have was decades of biking experience and a calming presence.

He didn’t use smart phones, because he preferred to live fully in the moment. And even though I agree completely that people’s need to constantly stave off the slightest suggestion of boredom by seeking for distraction on the phone is a terrible habit, I still do it myself. Honestly, I spend too much time looking at screens, even during the bike trip. Perhaps I need to learn to put the devices away more often and just.. be.

Some friendly laundromat workers offered me tools, a shelter in a garage from a deafening thunderstorm while I worked, a band-aid to fix the finger I damaged in the process, and finally a cup of coffee and conversation before I continued out of town.

These footbridges over the turquoise water were fun to cross.

Two nice Belgian hikers hadn’t been as lucky with shelter. They crossed a footbridge over the river in wet clothes as I was cooking dinner. Being outside for a lightning storm like that must’ve been scary. We had a brief chat, and later I got a surprise message from them via my website. They had gotten curious about my 5-year plans and had found my blog without me even mentioning it.

Next day on my way out of the national park, I had a tough time in the heat trying to hitchhike up the same mountain for the third time. But once again good people came to the rescue. First I took a break to talk with Darren from UK, driving with three teenagers to their holidays with a huge caravan. He seemed to consider changing his direction just to give me a ride, but the car would’ve been dangerously big for the steep and narrow hairpins of Vršič Pass.

With lifted spirits I tried to hitchhike again, but still no success. Eventually I resigned and started heading back to take a completely different road around the mountain instead. Until I came across a French couple with a toddler on a month-long van trip from Montpellier. They were on their way up and were happy to take me there. Remy and Flora seemed to be good parents, letting the baby play in the (very shallow) river without being overprotective.

Foggy river Soca.

The people I’ve met along my journey have been pretty amazing overall, but the first days in Slovenia were exceptionally friendly and social. (The above was not even close to everyone I met or spoke to during this time, but this blog might be the longest one yet, as it is.) This kind of thing will probably only increase as I had head closer to the friendly and hospitable lands of the Middle East. It made me realise how very wrong my attitude was in the Dolomites. Solitude can be nice, but when it’s unavailable, I should just talk to people and make friends instead of complaining.

Of course, I won’t just stop being an introvert entirely. And after all this, I chose to spend three days camping by the Sava river, enjoying some quiet time for a change.

Sunset before arriving in Slovenia.

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High Season at the Dolomites

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High Season at the Dolomites

The Dolomites are a special mountain range and UNESCO site in the Alps of northeast Italy. They have a lighter colour from the rest of the Alps, due to their limestone mineral composition. The peaks formed under the sea, as evidenced by the many ancient ocean fossils found there now. A fact which really baffled scientists until about the 1800s.

I had been considering spending all summer in the “Pale Mountains". Mostly to enjoy the cooler air of higher altitudes, and only continue eastwards after the summer’s temperatures became more tolerable. Some friends I’d met along the way had told me that Dolomites were the most beautiful mountains in the world. So my expectations were high, which is often a mistake.

The peaks are in the somewhere.

The first couple days were rough. Soaking rain, fog blocking all views, camping in a heavy lightning storm, and a strange situation that required the assistance of local police. But that's a story for later - more on this (kind of) in the next post.

I could’ve taken the easy way from Bolzano via Bruneck along the dedicated bike path without many climbs. Instead I chose the scenic route. Via the alpine village Selva, crossing the barren Passo del Sella, over a windy Passo Pordoi, stopping for a shower at Passo Campolongo at a fancy hotel spa, camping on the top of Passo Valparola. Climb after climb.

Next to my campsite on Passo Valparola.

By the time I got to Cortina d’Ampezzo, I was in the mood for something different. I went to the ski lifts to find out if they accepted bicycles. The man looked at all my luggage and said I could go up, but the way down was along the ski slope, which in the summer was a steep gravel road that would be a challenge to come down on without a mountain bike. Not really recommended. I explained that my trip isn’t really about the ride per se, as much as experiencing beautiful places. I was happy just walking the bike down if need be.

His recommendation changed. “In that case, go. It’s amazing up there, just go.” He asked a ton of curious questions about my trip. He was one of those cool people whose eyes light up with visible excitement when I say how long I’ve been on the road and where I plan to go. Almost always such people have been dreaming of something similar but haven’t found the time, so they are full of admiration for adventurers doing what they do.

Every mountain should have ski lifts for bicycles!

So after a ski lift ride up one mountain, a 400m descent (where I did indeed come close to falling down on loose gravel a couple times), and another ski lift ride, I was on Monte Cristallo. It was the most peaceful place I had found in the Dolomites so far. I settled down to shoot some time-lapse of the sunset by a little pond, showering under a tree, and enjoying the night. He was right. It was amazing. I laid out only the sleeping bag for the night, and woke up soaked in morning dew.

This little pond was my favourite thing in the Dolomites.

Ultimately I had to change my plans of staying in the Alps for a month or two. The desire to rest and the fear of heat were overcome by a need to keep moving and my dwindling bank account balance. The Alps were expensive, so it was better to cycle towards cheaper countries in the east before I’d get myself into financial trouble.

Plus most of the beautiful places people recommended to me were full of people. As you should know by now, I’m not a fan of crowds or the high season, so it would be a challenge to find places I could enjoy fully in August. I was on my way to Lago di Braies, “the most beautiful lake in the Dolomites”, as I’d been told. But then I read closer recommendations that said it was a great place for photography, but you better get there before sunrise, before the literal busloads of tourists arrive. When I hear that, I lose interest. I’m sure it’s pleasing to look at, but the rush of people everywhere is a such a turn-off.

I would rather take a less impressive photo in a place where I feel at peace and connected with the landscape, than my best photo ever while surrounded by the chaos of mass tourism.

I miss the wilderness of Lapland. I think I need to go find some quieter countries now.

Here they are, the majestic Dolomites.

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Switzerland and Other Detours

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Switzerland and Other Detours

After four days on the mountain, I needed some rest and time for working. I rode down Stelvio’s hairpins to the camping ground down the valley. Before I even put up my tent I met my neighbour Ruben, a Dutch road cyclist travelling by van. His plan was to drive to some famous alpine mountains and then conquer them by bicycle. He was about to switch from a student to working life, so this was the last chance for adventures in a while.

Ruben was a very polite sweet young man, and we ended up hanging out for a couple days. It was nice to have some company after many days alone in the mountains. Afterwards he was headed towards Gavia so I got a ride in the van back up to Stelvio. I also took the below photo of him climbing the road to Stelvio, which he wanted on his wall, so I added it to my print shop at Curioos.

Which reminds me: If there’s ever a specific photo in my blog that you would like to purchase as a print, let me know and I’ll make it available.

Ruben in the clear lead on Stelvio Pass.

This time I didn’t stay on Stelvio, but descended a little bit down the western side and took the Umbrailpass exit into Switzerland. It’s a very expensive country, so I took enough food from Italy to last me a few days. It’s also not a part of the EU, so I couldn’t even use cell phone data freely for the first time in the trip. I enjoyed a break from being online. Sometimes I get too distracted by checking messages or world events, so maybe putting my phone on airplane mode should be a regular thing.

I didn’t plan to spend any money during my Swiss visit, except for a postcard to my little niece, to whom I send a card from every country I stay in. But while climbing up a mountain on the second day, I found a 20 franc note by the side of the road. With no idea of the exchange rate, I hoped it would cover the postage. Turns out it was also enough for a campsite shower (in a bathroom that looked like it belonged to a fancy hotel) and some sausages, eggs and butter. Which is presumably about 50 euros total - or $170 USD, or 2 million Lao Kip. I think.

Couldn't get a better view of the rainbow.

Switzerland has the oldest national park in the Alps, founded over 100 years ago. It was short-sightedly just called the "Swiss National Park”, which may be why they haven’t been able to add any other ones. I was there during the noon sun, so didn’t really take photos, but the views were quite nice. A pine forest left in its natural state for a very long time is a beautiful thing to experience. It reminded me of the amazing forests in North Finland where the journey began, causing a pang of homesickness.

Unfortunately camping in the national park was strictly forbidden (and any fines would probably be in the billions of Lao Kip), so I couldn’t stay. Instead I cycled for three days through Alpine villages, circling mountain ranges and following pure turquoise rivers flowing in the valleys. Everything was very clean and bike path signs were impeccable. People mostly kept to themselves, though.

I passed a customs area by a tunnel to Italy, where I stopped to ask for water. After a brief chat with the officers I noticed they had an industrial sized scale, and asked if I could weigh my bags. Everybody always asks how much my gear weighs, and I’m getting tired of answering I don’t know. So here you go, 30kg with a pretty normal amount of food. The bike with its two water bottles is probably another 10kg, and I weigh 75, so that’s 115kg total.

With the helmet, it's easily another 100g. Maybe I should stop using a helmet?

After three days I arrived at the border of Austria, facing a 400m climb up to Martinsbruck. I took hours pushing the bike up the hill in the darkness. Then I set the camera to take a time-lapse of the Milky Way, and fell asleep exhausted on a picnic table. A life of true luxury.

Someone may have noticed I mentioned the Dolomites before, and might be wondering what happened to that plan. I was still heading there, it was just that people kept recommending detours. From Riva del Garda I was going to Bolzano (2-3 days at my pace). First a man in a bar said I should go to Madonna di Campiglio. Then a fellow tourer on Facebook said I should visit Stelvio Pass. And on the way there my Warmshowers hosts said I should visit Switzerland.

So almost four weeks later, I was still 2-3 days away from Bolzano. The ability and freedom to make such route changes is a beautiful part of travelling like this.

But now, I was finally ready to see the Dolomites next.

Churches in the area were particularly pointy.
Switzerland in a nutshell.

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Inspired at Stelvio Pass

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Inspired at Stelvio Pass

When I finally came down from Gavia to Bormio, there were cyclists everywhere. Over three thousand of them, in fact. I had showed up at the date of the annual ReStelvio bike race. A fully loaded touring bicycle near the start line caused some laughter and wide-eyed looks, until I reassured everyone I would not be taking part in the race. I had been planning to hitchhike again. And again the road was closed for non-cyclists.

Should I just get in the queue?

I hung around in Bormio for most of the day and loaded up on a ton of food so I would have time for photography up the mountain again. Then I started the climb, just to realise I was too tired from lack of sleep to push the heavy bike. I’d been staying up at Gavia to take photos until midnight, and when the sun rises at 5:30, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for sleeping in. Sometimes that almost makes me miss the longer nights of winter.

The race was already over and cars allowed on the road again, so I took turns hitchhiking and pushing for an hour, making very little headway, until a nice local couple stopped and took me to the famous Stelvio. The road from Bormio was not nearly as beautiful as Gavia, so I don’t feel like I missed much. The legendary Stelvio Pass view is on the east side, with its four dozen hairpins. That’s the better direction to come from, and also looked very fun to go down.

That lone cyclist is Georg from Ukraine, who I spoke to before he returned to his hidden campsite for his luggage.

The top of the pass at an altitude of 2750m was also not what I expected. Several hotels, lots of restaurants, small shops, a ski lift, and a whole lot of motorcycles and people around. This road was so famous that everyone wanted to visit. The result was a bit of a circus.

But the views were nice. I went about my business with the camera. Soon I met a very enthusiastic German couple. Upon hearing about my cycling and camping plans up on the cold mountain, the man insisted on giving me beer money. I don’t drink beer, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I promised to pay for a hot chocolate with it in the morning after sleeping somewhere in the zero degree weather.

A lot of the hotels looked old and worn. In fact, the entire place had a strange 80’s patina to it, from the buildings to the post card design. But there was one nice restaurant called Tibet a little to the side from everything else. It had the best view as well, so I decided to take a long exposure of cars on the road from there.

It's not quite what I hoped for, but other attempts were even less successful.

I spoke to a Romanian waiter on his cigarette break, asking for tips on camping. The mountain was a national park, so restrictions were in place. To my surprise he hooked me up with an empty open garage to sleep in! Night temperatures at that altitude went down to freezing point, so it was cold, but safe from rain and wind. I slept in the garage for three nights. Every morning I had a nice warming hot chocolate at the restaurant, sending a quiet “danke schön” to the happy Germans.

After the initial shock of all the hotels and hubbub, Stelvio grew on me. There were many surrounding peaks to hike to, and an interesting history from various wars between the Swiss, Astro-Hungarians [1] and Italy. 100 barracks were built in the mountains, with an incredible amount of food rations, building materials, weapons, and all sorts of supplies that had to be carried up by sheer manpower. I pondered this fact, while being too lazy to even push up one bicycle with wheels on a paved road.

***

[1] No, that's not how you spell that, but I'm going to leave this typo in. Just because of the mental image of the Swiss and Italian armies with their 1800s technology fighting off Space Hungarians in an equal battle.

Sunset at the Stelvio mountains, with restaurant Tibet in the background.

I hadn’t been entirely satisfied with the amount or the quality of my photography work in a while. However, now that I was finally in some photogenic locations with plenty of time, I was shooting and writing again. Even taking time-lapses in a way I hadn’t attempted before. Rough ideas for the next video started popping up. So far, my time-lapse process has been far too much of “that looks pretty, so I’ll point my camera at it for half an hour”, and then editing random clips together in a way I consider pleasing. It can be nice to look at, but the end result is mostly meaningless. My next project some day might have a little more story to it.

So it appears that my creativity is making a comeback. That’s something I can feel pretty happy about.

Hotel something something on the west side. They had a Finnish flag outside, so this is my tribute to that.
Sun seeping through a narrow gap between the mountains and clouds.
Stelvio at night.

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A Few Days at Passo Gavia

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A Few Days at Passo Gavia

I knew nothing about Passo Gavia beforehands. I thought it was just another mountain pass I had to cross to get to my real destination, Stelvio Pass. That’s why I preferred to hitchhike. On the way up my driver Augustin told me it was a legendary Giro d’Italia climb. When the route goes through Gavia, it’s usually the highest point of the race.

As the van climbed the narrow road to above the treeline, I gasped at the views. Near the top the landscape was a combination of grey rock and green moss and grass. Nothing else growed there. It reminded me a lot of the mountain above Geiranger. At the top I took my bike out of the van and went to explore the foggy evening. Almost right away a mountain goat appeared, casually crossing the road.

Why did the ibex cross the road?

I didn’t know camping wasn’t allowed, so I put my tent near a mountain biking path behind the beautiful Lake Nero, 220 meters down from the top. No one else was around, I had the entire mountain to myself. For the first time in a long, long time I felt the peace and freedom that only seems available in places like these. I had almost forgotten just how important this kind of wilderness is to me. Why do I spend so little time in locations that feed my imagination? Cycling through all those densely populated areas in Europe seemed like a bad idea in retrospect.

This is the kind of place where I should've spent most of the last year.

The next morning I met an Austrian hiker called Andi. He had previously done a long bike trip in South America, and spoke highly of Patagonia. There’s another place I would love to spend a lot of time in. We shared similar views on trekking and life, and ended up talking for some time. Later after a lunch I pushed my bike back onto the road, and Andi appeared with his car. He offered to take my bags up to the bar on Gavia so I could cycle the tough last hairpins with a lighter load. I agreed gladly.

At the bar I got quite a welcome from the staff. “Finlandia! Around the world bicycle! Five years!” My new friend had told everyone I was coming. The owner took a photo of me for Facebook and even went to fetch his old mother to see me. I just laughed somewhat uncomfortably, as I tend to do when faced with too much sudden attention.

A thunderstorm engulfed the mountain as soon as I arrived, with very heavy rain that morphed into hail. Without Andi’s help I would’ve been stuck outside during the worst of it. Lucky again!

I think I'll wait a bit more.

I spent another night at Gavia, then freewheeled all the way down to restock and rest in a camping ground for a night. When I tried to come back up from Ponte di Legno, I discovered that it was the first day ever that the mountain was closed for motor traffic! So much for hitchhiking. This time I had to get up on my own. I cycled maybe 10% of the way and pushed the rest. Passing road cyclists showed a lot of respect for someone crazy enough to attempt the climb with so much luggage. Yet probably every single one of them was in better shape than me.

It took all day, but at 2620 meters there was a great sense of achievement. I learned I was capable of more than I thought. This was good to know, and useful practice for future climbs. The Pamir Highway goes up to 4500m for example, if I end up going that way.

I had time to sit and watch sunsets with the camera.

After three days on Gavia, I finally went over to the north side of the pass. I descended a few hundred meters to an Agriturismo (a kind of farmhouse B&B), where I asked for a place to camp without high hopes. But the family running the place was extremely friendly. Furthermore, they had plenty of private land that wasn’t a part of the national park, so I finally had a safe and legal place to sleep.

I stayed another two nights just enjoying the mountain views and doing a little bit of hiking.  This is another way in which I’m incredibly lucky. To have so much free time and the ability to spend it in locations like this. That is something I should never forget to be grateful for.

PS: There's a few more photos in my article about Gavia for bicycle tourers.

I wish I hadn't screwed up this photo.

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Light at the End of the Cave

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Light at the End of the Cave

Every journey has its ups and downs. Now it was turn for some “ups” again. My obscenely good luck made a comeback.

After a good night’s sleep since the previous post’s events, I rolled downhill to Pinzolo and bought a new phone. Madonna di Campiglio was at an altitude of 1520 meters, which was easily the highest point of the trip so far, so I didn’t want to climb the same hill twice. I decided to take a ride. At the bus stop a couple locals told me I was at the wrong stop. The correct one was 5 minutes away, but the next bicycle-friendly bus would leave in 3 minutes. No problem, one of them simply called the driver and told him to wait for me. That’s pretty good service. So I got to Campiglio without problems.

I still felt like I needed to recover from recent troubles, so near Dimaro I stayed at Warmshowers hosts Anna and Pasqui. They were a very nice couple who gave me a lot of advice and help. Sleeping in a bed made me feel almost normal again. And they even gave me a good tip for a campsite behind the Ossana Botanical Garden where Pasqui worked. Since I had permission to camp (which is rare in Italy) and it was weekend (which is less rare) I was able to stay for two nights in peace to get some more much needed rest.

Forte Strino. It doesn't look like much from this angle.

After I left the gardens I visited Forte Strino, a 19th century fortress - now a museum. On the way I saw a cave by a footpath, and decided right away I was going to sleep there. Felix, the nice man in the museum’s office hesitantly gave me permission. He seemed to think it was a bit of a weird request. But if life gives you an opportunity to sleep in a cave in the Alps, I say you go for it. I was out of water, but a tour bus operator at the parking lot shared some of theirs.

Admittedly sleeping in a cave wasn’t that comfortable in the end. The rocky floor was tough for my thin mattress, the spiders were large and plentiful, and I spent half the night imagining the roof caving in. But it was an interesting new experience, which is what counts.

I know it looks super comfortable and nice, but looks can be deceiving.

In the morning I climbed the rest of the way to Passo del Tonale, which was at 1870 meters - another record. It was a ski resort, so not particularly pretty if you ask me. The landscape in such places tends to be dominated by hotels, the unnaturally open hillside, and a network of ski lifts. But in the camper area I got a lucky free shower. Someone had left their access card in the departure gate, and it still had money in it. I found another card too, and passed on both to some German campers who arrived while I was drying my laundry.

In the tourist information the woman behind the counter said I could take my bike into the ski lift and down to the next village, if I wanted. “Lady, I just spent two days climbing up here. Going downhill is the best part, so I’m not gonna skip my reward by paying for a lift.” Tsk.

I mean, ski lifts are fine if you're going up, but completely pointless when facing a downhill.

However, after the thrilling descent, I was down at Ponte di Legno, facing another long climb to Passo Gavia. That one rose up to 2650m. This time I chose to hitchhike. While trying to find a good place to do it, the sky opened up into increasingly heavy rain. I cycled on and soon found a picnic table with a cover. I haven’t seen a picnic table with a cover in months, but here was one just when I needed it.

A couple nice cyclists were also taking shelter from the rain, and said it would be impossible to get a ride to the mountain in bad weather so late in the afternoon. I said "we’ll see". People tend to call all kinds things impossible for no reason. I cooked some pasta, and the rain stopped after I finished eating.

As soon as I pushed the bike back onto the road, I saw a white van approaching and raised my thumb. It stopped! A French guy called Augustin was organising an Alpine tour for motorcyclists and driving the support van up the mountain. And it just so happened to have enough room in the back for my stuff.

Yep. Sometimes I can be pretty lucky too.

One Tree Hill.
There are hundreds of motorcycles on these Alpine roads passing me every day.

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Frazzled

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Frazzled

Even slowing down in the Alps didn’t really do wonders for my mood. The whole thing with Isabelle has left me a little unravelled. Compared to any challenges that bicycle touring across Europe for a year can throw at me, relationship and friendship woes are 100 times more difficult to deal with.

Plus I seem to have picked up some of her bad habits. Very unlike her, I’ve kind of prided myself with never losing or breaking things, because I tend to be careful with my stuff. For example, there’s this little black plastic thing that I need to cover my camera’s viewfinder with when shooting time-lapse. I just keep it in my right pocket, where it’s free to fall out when I’m sleeping, or while taking various other items from my pocket a dozen times a day.

So I’ve told myself that if I haven’t even lost that little piece of plastic, I’ll never lose anything.

Random valley between the mountains.

Well, in Carisolo I was packing my bags after eating dinner, and noticed that my towel wasn’t in the pannier it’s normally in. I mentally traced my steps back to the shower I’d had the previous afternoon at a camping ground, but I was sure I took it with me from there. Afterwards I’d dried it on the back of a picnic table chair while eating, which is where I must’ve left it. A quick calculation of the odds of it still being there the following day, the amount of uphill required to check, as well as the price of towels, made me give up on seeing it again.

Weird, though. I never lose anything. Let alone a big fluffy highly visible towel on a picnic chair.

The next morning I continued from a forest camping spot to discover a campground called Fae 100 meters away from my tent. I nonchalantly rolled in to bargain for another shower, except with paper towels for drying this time. The receptionist said showers are only for overnight guests, but had a change of heart when he saw me walk out with the heavy steps of a man who had suffered losses and had really been looking forward to being clean again. Four euros would cover the use of the facilities, after all.

When I was handwashing my laundry, I noticed something in the bottom of my foldable sink. Oh yep, that's my phone.

Crap.

I didn’t even bother taking it out of the water right away. The screen had cracked a few weeks earlier to the point where it had huge gaping holes in it, so I knew the entire device was already full of soapy water. So much for being careful with my stuff. The price of the shower shot up another couple hundred euros.

But never mind. I had 700 meters of climbing to Madonna di Campiglio, where I could maybe buy a new phone. With all my gear and no muscles it took most of the day. The sun was shining, but at least past 1000m the temperature wasn’t too hot. I still stopped what felt like every 50-100 meters to catch my breath. And I’m not talking about vertical meters. Countless passing road cyclists with their carbon bikes and spandex either waved encouragingly, or tried not to laugh at my struggles.

Easy does it.

I got to Campiglio eventually. There was one shop with a selection of four phones, all of them mysteriously in the same price range. I used a bar’s wifi to research the options, and none of them seemed worth buying. Which meant that the next day I would have to go back down almost 1000m to Pinzolo, where there were more phone shops. That’s too much unnecessary up and down with the bike, but I could take a bus. And a bike rental mechanic promised to watch over my stuff the next day while I was gone. Great. It was time to find a campsite.

Except I realized I didn't have my glasses with me. Fucking hell, I lost those too? Yes, of course. I vividly recalled putting them on the windowsill of the bathroom of Fae camping to put on my contact lenses. I even remembered thinking “better not forget them there”.

Ossana looking disapproving.

What the hell was happening to me? My mind was completely non-functional, it seemed. My vision is -4.00, and the contacts are dailies, so there was not much choice but to roll back down the mountain I just spent all day climbing. Which took about 10 minutes in the other direction. At least my glasses were still there on the windowsill.

I ended up back in the same forest spot where I stayed the previous night. No progress was made, and I was minus one phone.

This was not a good day.

This is pretty much what everything looks like in the Alps.

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At the Foot of the Alps

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At the Foot of the Alps

So I spent a few days cycling at night with the plan to stop when I reached an interesting area. My hopes were high for Lake Garda, which people had recommended. When I got there, I was severely disappointed.

Perhaps for Italian standards it’s a nice nature holiday destination, but what I experienced was a purgatory of excessive tourism. Almost the entire lake was surrounded by nothing but shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, ice-cream shops, bakeries, night clubs, hotels, trinket stalls, and all the things that tourism attracts. Finding a nice quiet beach for a swim was hopeless. And high season hadn't even begun yet.

The lake itself was quite nice (except for the water smelling bad), and the surrounding mountains were pretty (except for the air pollution that blocked visibility). Once upon a time it must’ve been a great area to visit. Now however, I found very little I liked. Even the 140km “floating bicycle path” above the lake that I had been hearing about didn’t exist yet. “Partially finished” apparently referred to one 200m stretch, with another 1km about to be opened next month.

Overall, the whole place really served as a warning for what happens when construction and development is left unchecked. I shuddered at the thought of Finnish Lapland being equally ruined some day. Even if tourism brings jobs and economic benefits, it might end up destroying everything that’s beautiful on the planet.

At least on the hillier northwest side there was still a bit of nature left. The ground was so uneven I still had to sleep on the old road that had been blocked from cars when they built a new tunnel through the hill.

I do like these old roads, and how calm they are compared to the traffic and noise going through the mountain.

On the north side of the lake there were a couple positive experiences. Outside the grocery store I chatted with a nice lady who had the kind of smile that instantly tells you this is someone with a kind heart and warm attitude. And in Torbole I stopped in a bar and got advice from a friendly local who convinced me to change my route away from Trento. He said a detour further west would be much more beautiful. No problem, I have time. With the lake behind me and some nice mountains and bicycle paths ahead, I wanted to slow down anyway and actually enjoy the views.

This is more like it.

The next day started with a disaster. In a town called Dro I went to get a pizza for breakfast. It was a small bakery with no place to sit, so I started off to look for a bench to eat on. But just as I left I was almost floored by a huge crash a couple meters behind me. A car that had just passed me drove into a stone gate and fell over!

A very confused-looking old man was at the wheel, trying to sit sideways among shattered glass. The pizza maker came in, calmed down the driver and told him to turn off the engine and stay where he is, called 112, made sure none of the gathering crowd would try to do anything stupid like tilt the car back on their own, and then went back to make pizza. Almost like he had to deal with this kind of thing every week.

The fateful pizza.

The ambulance and fire truck were there within minutes to do their thing. The old man seemed outwardly okay as they dug him out, but of course that’s no guarantee that serious injuries were avoided.

I felt vaguely guilty afterwards. The alley was plenty wide for both of us, but maybe my presence as an interesting bicycle traveller was enough to cause a distraction. When everything was over, I ducked into a nearby church just to have a dark quiet place to relax for a moment.

What will be in store next?

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