After spending a couple of days in the beautiful town of Verona in northern Italy (where I unfortunately didn’t get to ride my bike), it was time to head north to Austria. Following the wonderfully blood-pressure raising time that I had in Rome (not to mention all the harassment from the Pope) it felt good to be in more bucolic settings again. Still, I was excited to be heading to greener pastures on the other side of the Alps in Innsbruck. Not that Verona was a bad place, quite the contrary – here’s 5 seconds exposure worth of digital data that sheds a little light on that subject (and also on the Castelvecchio Bridge over the Adige River).
Leaving Verona by train, we rolled via the Brenner Pass to Austria. Brenner may not be the most awe-inspiring alpine pass that you can travel by train but I couldn’t tear myself away from the window as the scenery slowly changed from vineyards to pasture, then from pasture to peaks as we climbed higher, then from peaks to introspection as we entered numerous tunnels in the higher terrain with my face staring back from the abyss of dark reflection in the window. The reality of the approaching end of our vacation had begun to sink in. Luckily the dark tunnels always came to an end.
Having in the past driven by car a few times over 3000 miles from one end of the US to the other and been confronted by the never-ending stripmall of homogenized chain store reality that is America, I find the continuum of culture in Europe fascinating. As the scenery and terrain changed outside my window the language being spoken within the train slipped from primarily Italian to mostly German with each stop. The towns we rolled through became perceptibly different, more “orderly” somehow. Like using many of the same ingredients but in different proportions to make a completely different dish, everything slowly changed.
Just after the final stop in Italy, a man who had been sleeping in the seat adjacent to us was woken rudely by a couple that had just embarked. It seemed they thought he was sitting in their assigned seat. He pointed at his ticket, then at the confusing numbering system of the Italian train. The seated man dug for his own ticket, then pointed at the number on it – an action that elicited a vigorous side to side shaking of the head and a loud “Nein!” from the new arrivals. The German speaker stood with his arms on his hips, not a trace of a smile or understanding on his stern face. The groggy man who had been wakened relinquished his seat and walked down the aisle, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he searched for his proper seat. The Italian woman seated across from us shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
At the top of the pass on the Italian/Austrian border the train stopped to switch locomotives (believe it or not, Austrian trains still run on a different electrical system than Italian ones). The pass narrowed as we rolled down the Brenner Pass into Innsbruck and as we neared our stop we began to gather our gear together. My bike suitcase had been buried by all the newer arrivals from the 8 stops the train had made so I had to dig a bit to get it free, and as I did one of the German speaking passengers (whose luggage was presumably piled on top of my bike) came to the end of the train and watched me like a hawk. Once I had my bag I made my way to the end of the train and waited for our stop.
A French woman who was also getting off in Innsbruck and had been seated close enough to see the grumpy Austrians in action smiled as the train came to a stop and summed up the experience perfectly in English with just a hint of a British accent:
“They are an uncompromising people”. We laughed with her as we left the train and stepped out into the impeccably clean train station that signaled the other end of the continuum from Italy.
As soon as we arrived I put my bike together as I wanted to spin the previous day’s relative inactivity out of my muscles. After a brusque check-in process with a cordial but curt hostess, I gingerly walked down the narrow staircase into the lobby of the gasthof holding my bike out to the side, being careful not to rub it up against the decor. Our room was on the 3rd floor in the newer addition to the 18th century structure. One of the workers ran after me.
“No! No! You mustn’t keep the bike in the room – the dirt…” he trailed off as he looked disapprovingly at the Italian dust that clung to my bike. “You need to put your bike in the storage room!”
Feeling like an idiot I muttered one of my few German phrases “I’m sorry” and soon forgot about my faux pas as I headed out into the uncompromising beauty of the the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck. The hills were alive with the sound of my spinning gears.
My short ride revealed that this area of Austria is laced with dirt paths and walking trails (as is the entire country, or so I gather). I was eager to head out again the next day as my short before dinner ride had whet my appetite, both for riding in the area and a good Austrian beer. It felt good to switch from the fermented grapes of Italy back to my preferred hops.
The next morning I rode an uncompromisingly steep dirt route out of the town of Mutters up to a ski station outside of town. It pays to get up early.
Screaming back down on the descent I was almost collected by a farm tractor on a blind corner. Luckily he compromised just enough by moving ever so slightly to the side to let me by and I lived to ride another day. The Austrians were beginning to show their softer side. Soon thereafter my rear tire showed its softer side as it unceremoniously exploded. The tube had melted from all the heat of braking on the steep roads.
As if to atone for the compassion of the farmer yielding with his tractor, the morning of my final ride in Europe arrived in a surly mood with spitting rain and fog. Unwilling to compromise, I went for the longest ride of the trip through some truly astounding scenery with the highlight being a wrong turn on one of the paths that lead me through a pasture and damn near into a barn where a farmer was milking his cows. He yelled something after me in German, but I could’ve sworn he smiled when he did it.
Riding through scenery like this followed by a hearty Austrian breakfast was a great way to finish the trip. I guess the uncompromising Austrian attitude pays off in the long run as the country is impeccably clean and orderly with easy access to many natural wonders. There is no trash beside the roads as is a huge problem in southern California. One just needs to learn to compromise a bit in order to get along, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
As I finished up my final ride and packed up my muddy bike in the parking lot outside our gasthof, the woman who had checked us in stepped outside to watch and ask questions about how it came apart to fit into the suitcase and where I had ridden the past few mornings. Before she went back to work she cheerfully wished me a good trip back home then said:
“I’m glad we reached a compromise where you could keep your bike in the storage room. You’re lucky to have seen part of our country by bike instead of car, you see so much!”
I couldn’t agree more.