We headed up the coast and stayed near La Spezia. The next day we rode to Genova through beautiful coastal mountains, where in ancient times villages were built high atop steep mountains for safety. Some of these are no longer practical and stand as ghost towns to make a strange picture against the landscape of sparse vegetation and olive trees. At the top of our first pass, the Braco at 680m along the rugged Italian Riviera, we met Steve Smith who missed the start, took the train ahead and backtracked. In Genova we found inexpensive lodging in the old city.
The next morning, after rain that fell during the night, we rode along the waterfront where I fell on wet railroad tracks in the middle of commute traffic but without incident. The whole scene got more expensive as we got farther west. San Remo is a fancy resort but we found reasonable lodging for L615-620. We tried to get a room at L400 to L600 and a meal at around L200. In Monaco we rode around the auto race course and harbor and after taking a picture from the fortress overlooking the harbor we headed toward Nice. Near Villafranche I rear ended a car that stopped suddenly, bending my Cinelli frame enough so it could not be ridden until I straightened the steer tube by pulling the fork forward, with my feet against the bottom bracket.
In Nice I looked up the Urago bicycle factory where the frame builder said he could replace the downtube and repair the forks in a day, so we stayed in town till the next noon when the repair was finished. A rudimentary paintjob covered the injury and we headed north into the mountains along the Var river on the N202. We turned north to Valberg through the Gorges du Cains, a dark deep and long narrow crevasse where the road is cut into the rock next to the river and from which we couldn't see the sky.
From Valberg, a pleasant ski town and the name of the mountain pass at 1700m, we could see the real mountains to the north with their glaciers and snow capped peaks and scattered clouds of thunder showers. After a fine French lunch with many courses we rode up and out of the forests at St Martine d'Etraunes to the snowfields of the Col de Cayolle at 2327m. It was our first encounter with real mountains and we felt good. We descended to Barcelonnette on the Ubey river and stayed in Jausiers, looking forward to the next day and the big climbs.
From Jausiers we rode over the Vars and Izoard passes of Tour de France fame that took us to Briancon. We were amazed how every pass had its own special character and surprises of glaciers, rivers, sheer rock walls, or other peculiar features. The old part of Briancon is fortified with massive high walls on a mountainside almost the same as it was hundreds of years ago. It lies high above the valley surrounded by double walls behind which it once survived a three months siege. Its two principal and fairly steep streets are swept clean by a central flumes of swiftly running water that carry debris to a trash pile far below the city walls. As we walked up the street, vegetable trimmings and clippings from a barber shop went whizzing by on their way to the dump.
We stayed in an ancient building that seemed more like a series of tunnels than a structure. It had stone walls more than a meter thick with some of the rooms cut into natural rock. In the morning we ate breakfast sitting on the edge of the wall overlooking the valley, before riding up the flat side of the Lauteret pass in bright sunshine and a brisk wind. At the summit we stopped for a snack at the coffee shop enjoying the view of mountains with their spectacular glaciers as bits of clouds raced by.
From the summit of the Lauteret at 2058m, we headed up the pleasant climb up to the Galibier pass and its one lane summit tunnel at 2555m. Just below the summit, a large sandstone column, about two meters in diameter with a map of France in stone, honors Henri des Grange, the originator of the Tour de France. We were surprised by a dark sky on the other side of the tunnel, and the first wet weather of the trip.
We descended in a drizzle to Valloire from where the road climbs to avoid an impassable gorge, rising to the Telegraph, an ancient visual relay station that has a line of sight to, what seems to be, all the way to the sea. After Valloire the rain got heavy and having no experience in rain Dan and Steve got into the back of a small three wheeled truck as I rode down the Telegraph to St. Michel su Maurienne where we stopped for the day and dried out while it rained.
The next morning the skies cleared as we rode up the valley through Modane where the railroad enters the Traforo di Frejus (tunnel) to Torino. Farther up, in Lanslebourg, the main road heads south over the Col du Mont Cenis while we turned north over a short climb over the Madeleine to a high Arc river valley that ends at Bonneval sur Arc, where the main climb of the Iseran begins.
With more glaciers becoming visible we climbed up the wall to the first high valley that ends in a cascading waterfall. We rode with a young Frenchman with whom we communicated in rudimentary bits of speech. After a photo stop, as we climbed to the next higher valley, I noticed that he left his sun glasses on my saddlebag. With his heavy baggage, he had dropped far behind, so we carved his name in a snow bank and stuck the glasses into the wall where he ought to find them and rode on to the summit between walls of snow. We posed for a photo on the huge concrete summit sign with an elevation of 2770m.
Although high, the summit is still dwarfed by the surrounding glacier capped mountains. On the descent we found a convenient snowfield where I took a picture of Steve and Dan sitting on the snow bench with our bikes standing in the snow behind them. We stopped again at a scenic overlook with a bronze plate in stone identifying the various landmarks. We could look almost straight down into the village of Val d'Isere under a clear dark blue sky.
As we coasted through town, we got up enough speed to roll up and into to the tunnel at the end of town. To my surprise it was long and unlit so that I was unable to see anything except some reflected light from the wet rocks that suggested where the walls were. It was one of those situations that if you slow down you lose orientation and seem sure to crash, and at the same time you don't quite know where you are. It got light just in time.
We descended briskly to Seez, just above Bourg-St Maurice, where we found three pleasant hotels. We ate magnificently and got a good night's sleep. The next day we started right up the mild grade to the Petite St Bernard at 2642m from whose gloomy looking monastery the famous dogs are said to have saved lives. At the summit we got a good view of Monte Bianco and proceeded to blast down to the warm valley and to Aosta as my front wheel complained noisily from the rainy descent of the Telegraph. I found a bike shop where I infused the hub with a clean set of bearing balls and oil.
After lunch we rode up the Grand St Bernard that is showing signs at the 1000m level of the tunnel that will open next year. We stayed on the old narrow road climbing the two false summits that break into beautiful high valleys. At the top at 2472m it was cold and appeared ready to snow. The lake was still partly frozen as the monastery literally choked the gap looking more like formidable fortress with a statue of its namesake standing vigil. We put on our sweaters and, as we emerged from between the buildings, found that the Swiss approach was not like the paved road from Aosta. It was a one lane dirt road and shrouded in clouds so we couldn't even appreciate the view.
After descending the rocky road to the north portal of the tunnel, the road got better, and we came out of the clouds as we headed toward Martigny at the southwest corner of the Rhone valley. Near Martigny we saw the new La Forclaz pass with wide turns and gentle grades heading off toward Chamonix, a big change from the days when we first saw it from our old Lincoln Zephyr in 1949. We rode into a stiff headwind the last kilometers to town, but because I knew the winds almost always blow up the valleys, I convinced the others, even though it was late, to go on and take advantage of the wind that would surely be in our favor. As we left Martigny the wind began to turn and the air got silent as we picked up speed. We cruised at nearly 25mph up the Rhone valley to Sion.
After a night in a large youth hostel, we headed up the valley toward Brig. Dan turned at Visp up the Matter-Visp valley by train to Zermatt where he went to visit some acquaintances while Steve and I rode on and watched the scene in Brig, the castle with golden onion domes and the north portal of the Simplon railway tunnel. I didn't recover the four part interwoven ring that I left in a hotel there in 1949. Steve was amazed that most of the salespeople on the main street spoke three or four languages, and wondered why they didn't get better jobs. It wasn't obvious that the country has four languages of its own, and English is where the tourist sales are.
That afternoon we rode up the yet unpaved Simplon, with its steep sections, before the long flat that goes to an old Roman bridge at the back of a valley half way up. At the top at 2001m we looked back at the central Bernese Alps with Jungfrau, Moench, and Eiger to the west and the Finsteraarhorn to the east with the Aletsch Glacier just visible in the foreground. The south side of the Simplon descends through smooth granite walls reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley except that here there was no valley floor.
The road is one of the fastest descents, with its continuous grade and sweeping curves that dive through many tunnels. At the south portal of the Simplon railway tunnel, at Iselle, the dates 1887-1921 remind us of this enormous project that was completed by pick and explosives before the advent of compressed air tools. We continued to Crevoladossola, just above Domodossola, where we turned off on a cutoff to the Valle Vigezzo and Centovalli that cut over to Locarno.
We stayed in a small hotel in Masera, and started up the Valle Vigezzo to Druogno at the top of the divide. The road parallels the Centovalli Railway and passes through interesting towns like Re with its huge basilica in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. We rolled down the little traveled dirt road through this beautiful valley to Locarno and on past Bellinzona, as we headed up the Val Mesolcina along the Moesa to Mesocco. This is one of those post card scenes where the small road follows the river and waterfalls from green walls fall to the valley floor turning to mist on their descent. The RhB meter gauge electric railway runs up the valley from Bellinzona to Mesocco where we stayed for the night.
In the morning we climbed to Pian San Giacomo, the first plateau, then up to San Bernardino with its beautiful lake and summer resort. From there the road winds gradually through desolate high tundra past crystal clear waterfalls and traces of the road that crossed here in Roman times. The weather at the summit looked like a travel promotion poster as we crossed into Graubuenden, the largest Swiss canton with the most unpaved roads. We rolled down into the remote Hinterrhein Valley and on to the the Via Mala gorge. The Via Mala is a narrows where the Rhein river has cut a one meter wide slot 70m below the level of the road in a canyon of sheer granite. The road cuts from one tunnel to the next as it spans the abyss on a stone bridge.
In Thusis, at the mouth of the narrows, we headed south toward Tiefencastel along the gorge of the Albula river. This unpaved one lane road clings to the cliffs as it passes through a series of small bare rock tunnels. The firm road surface looked like wet cement and sand. Finally, before crossing a small ridge to Tiefencastel, the road and railway cross the Albula river on spectacularly high bridges.
Approaching Filisur we saw the famous stone arch Landwasser Viaduct on which the RhB Albula Railway curves high above the river into a vertical granite wall. As we climbed the Albula, the railway crossed the valley on looping bridges and passed through spiral tunnels to gain altitude on the way to St. Moritz. After crossing the broad rocky summit we descended to La Punt Chamues-Ch a truly Buendner town to complete the day.
The next day we rode out from under the dark skies of the Inn valley to the Bernina pass and sunny Italy. We stopped at the famous Montebello curve of the railway to view the Morteratsch glacier on the slopes of Piz Bernina and Piz Palu. After the summit, with its azure lakes of glacier milk, came the long descent to Poschiavo and the Lago di Poschiavo at La Prese. After the lake it's a fast swoop to Brusio and the Italian border at Campocologno after which the railway shared the road into Madonna di Tirano.
A couple of kilometers down the valley, we crossed the Adda river to Stazzona, and a cutoff to the Aprica pass. The climb exposes a great view of the Adda valley before rounding the mountain at Aprica. From there it's a long gradual descent to Edolo on a narrow winding road on the north side of the canyon. We took a day off in Edolo and got some sleep before climbing the Gavia and Stelvio. We started early in the morning up past Ponte di Legno toward the Gavia Pass, a small and unimportant road except for its scenic beauty. It is an unpaved one lane road that climbs a steep box canyon with up to 16% grades and so narrow only passenger cars are allowed. Special passing places are provided in the longer one lane sections. The walls of this grassy valley are so steep that going over the edge, would assure a tumble to the valley floor, crossing the road several times on the way.
Three kilometers below the summit the road offers a spectacular view as it rounds a curve, notched into a cliff. After a few more steep curves the road reverts to a moderate grade that seems level after the steep parts. The Gavia at 2631m was the hardest climbs we had seen, yet it was part of the Giro d'Italia this year in which the racers rode between 15 foot snow walls. We descended to Santa Caterina from where the road is again paved as it heads down to Bormio at 1250m.
After a hearty, lunch we left pavement behind as we headed up the Stelvio through the desolate Val del Braulio, through crooked wet tunnels, avalanche covers, and many serpentines to the high valley just below the Umbrail Pass 2501m that descends north to Switzerland. From the junction it's three km's to the top at 2760m. Where the road drops off along the nearly vertical canyon walls with 48 hairpin turns down to Prato at 911m over 19km beneath the shadow of the Ortler 3899m. Skiing was in full swing on the slopes of the glacier above the pass. After descending the paved road into south Tirol, we stopped in Laas in the same place where I stayed the year before in the Gasthaus Traube.
In the morning we rode down the val Venosta along the Adige (Etsch), river after which the region is named Alto Adige. In Merano we visited the street market where the finest fruit of the region is sold at prices geared for the visitor from the wealthy north. From Merano we headed north up the Passeiertal to St Leonhard and up the Passo Giovo. Form there it's all downhill to Sterzing, the town at the south ramp of the Brenner pass. It was amazing how all traffic funneled through the narrow stone portal at the upper end of town.
Sterzing (Vipiteno in Italian), as most of the towns from the foot of the Stelvio, is more Austrian then Italian, and German is the more often used language. We headed south from Sterzing, down the Eisack to the Franzensfeste, a large and ancient fortress that blocks the entire valley. Here a railway line branches off toward Bruneck through the fortress through which it carefully tunnels without disrupting the architecture. We turned eastward and began our climb into the Dolomites to end the day in Bruneck where we stayed in an old wirtshaus with a good kitchen.
We headed up the val di Bedina into the Dolomites that are truly white as chalk in many parts. Corvara is at the foot of the Gardena and Campolongo passes and has a spectacular view of the Dolomites of white and orange stone spires. From here the roads are not paved and the white Dolomite gravel of the road is dazzling white even through my sun glasses. Last year without glasses I had problems with the glare.
After the Gardena, the Sella pass was our last one and one of the most beautiful of the trip with jagged white peaks rising on all sides in the bright sunlight. After descending to Canazei we headed toward the Eisack valley through Predazzo, Cavalese and Auer next to one of the many meter gauge rural railways that didn't survive the war. We ended a long day as we found a place for the night in Trento.
From Trento we cut over to Arco di Trento at the top of the Lago di Garda and took the west shore with its endless tunnels at which the map only hints. Both shores, but especially the west shore, are mountain ridges whose rock cliffs drop vertically to the water, with the road in a series of galleria as tunnels are called in Italian. Lago di Garda is clear and blue as most mountain lakes in contrast to rivers and lakes in more urban areas. At the south end of the lake Dan, who had lagged behind during the whole tour, went west to Brescia to catch a train to Firenze while Steve and I rode east to Verona.
We rode around Verona and looked at the city with its unearthed ruins of buildings and aqueducts from the Romans. That evening we dropped in at the US Army base posing as officers on leave, did some shopping at the PX and got some rest in the visitors BOQ. Next morning we hopped a train to Milano to visit Cinelli's and re-equipped ourselves in sportswear, such as riding shorts with bottoms, as ours were nearly gone. We got other essentials such as tubulars and a bottom bracket.
We visited a few museums, the famous but in poor condition "Last supper", and the Duomo with its millions of Madonna tipped spires and gargoyles. We rode our bikes through the arcade to the La Scala Opera house and got a feel for this impressive city. We took a train to Firenze and biked up the "wall" to Bivigliano on the hills behind Pratolino north of town. Today I rode with Steve south to Arezzo, giving him a send off on his trip to Perugia and south, and returned to Firenze. Arezzo has some famous mosaic works and an extensive wall around most of the medieval city.
Right now I'm a little tired having ridden 220km over rough roads and rolling hills all day. Fear not, I have visited the Ponte Vecchio, the huge green and white marble Duomo, the city hall and the quaint shops on the narrow streets. We attended "Two gentlemen from Verona" (Shakespeare) in the Roman amphitheater in Fiesole just above Firenze. I truly am soaking up local culture. Those Commie riots you read about are in a nearby town in Borgo Lorenzo.
By the way three Pedale Alpini riders made the Olympic cycling team and will be here shortly. On the 20th I will ride in my first and, most likely, last European bike race in the Coppa di Camaiore, near Lucca. The trouble is that over here races usually average over 25mph and not on flat ground. I am not that fast but I can't leave Italy and never have raced. Next we will go to Roma to the Olympics and on 1 October I must be in Stuttgart 07:30 to start work at Porsche. Mrs. Streicher in Weil-im-Dorf is looking for a room for me and I think things will work out fine. If I like my work and pay next May, I will probably stay. Otherwise I will be on my way home.