Alpine Adventures: Ski, cycle, swim.
Alpine Adventures: Ski, cycle, swim.
Days on the road: 46
Kilometres cycled: 2165
Countries visited: 7
Since we last spoke, we’ve cycled through two more countries, got really wet and cold, climbed some bloody big hills, got even wetter and colder, been skiing, swimming, sunbathing, drinking, dancing, laughing and generally loving life. Here is the story of our journey from Munich, Germany to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Hope you enjoy.
So, there we were in Munich, the rain was pouring and the clouds were never ending. Despite our longing to get back on our bikes, the last thing we wanted to do was set off towards Salzburg and attempt to pass the unenticing mountains that lay ahead of us. Nevertheless, we loaded our bikes and hit the road, heading to our sixth country, Austria, and in doing so we would arrive in one of it’s most picturesque and history filled cities, Salzburg. The cycle there was typical of Southern Germany: hilly, scenic and well sign posted. Cycling down a hill on a cycle path at around 45km/h I noticed Tom In front of me. Clearly lost in his music and relishing the prospect of crossing another border, he failed to see the end of the cycle path, the beginning of the road, and the giant kerb that connected the two. The result of this combination of events was the both of us almost having a high-speed crash: Tom, through sheer shock and lack of control, and me through hysterical laughter. For the next 3 or 4 kilometres I looked like the personification of a Jack in the box as I continued cycling and laughing down the hill; needless to say the locals gave me more than a few weird looks.
Once again, our arrival into a city was a late one, but this time we had booked ahead and had made sure there was room at the hostel. We spent two days in the home of ‘The Sound of Music’, but unlike it’s cinematographic history suggests, there was a serious lack of musical activity, resulting in us spending the majority of time catching up on admin and Skyping with loved ones.
In the daytime we walked the city, taking in the sights and listening to the one set of buskers we stumbled across. More of a large town then a city it didn’t take too long, but it’s historical beauty more than makes up for it’s lack in size. Every corner we turned presented us with a photo opportunity, unfortunately however, the weather came and ruined it. Consequently, with the help of a fantastic book shop assistant, we spent our time planning our route through the Austrian Alps into Slovenia. We soon discovered that we would have to tackle three relatively high mountains, the highest peak a ski resort, standing at a daunting 1800m, the snow line sitting at a delightful 900m; we knew it was going to hurt, we knew it would be cold and we knew there was a possibility we wouldn’t get through. But we had planned, we were confident and we were ready. The Alps whispered our names. We loaded our bikes and took on our biggest challenge to date.
We had a rough idea about the lie of the land thanks to the elevation chart we created for our journey, however, our reliance and trust in this was limited due to our previous misdemeanours with Google maps. Our aim on the first day was to cycle around 80km to a town located at the bottom of our first pass; luckily it was a pretty flat ride, the sun was casting it’s rays on to us and we were blessed with our first Alpine valley. With the day going well, we were almost waiting for something to go wrong, but when we cycled through Huttau, our good luck continued. To our right stood a large marquee, to our left, around fifty Austrians dressed in traditional clobber, holding various brass instruments. On inspection of the marquee, Tom’s reaction could be likened to that of a child getting a sneak peak at their Christmas presents. He turned to me with a smile and uttered these words:
I knew what was in there, but I had to check. Inside the tent, rows of tables were clad with kegs of beer; at the back was a space for a full orchestra and to the left of that, a stage for a three-piece band. The reasons for the festivities? A celebration of the first day of spring. Consequently, all the local shops were closed and the whole town were off work, ready to party the night away. This is something we did not want to miss out on. Although, with no obvious wild camping spot and no campsites near the town we were a bit stuck as to where to sleep and stow our valuables. Once again, lady luck shone her light on us, her rays presenting themself as a slightly eccentric Austrian, who allowed us to sleep in his front garden, 100m away from the marquee. Perfect.
The evening kicked off with the orchestra being marched into the marquee. Accompanied by a huge applause from the audience and an armed guard, they ambled to their allocated space and began proceedings. Orchestrated by a flamboyant conductor, they played a selection of traditional Austrian tunes for over three hours, without a single break. We sat down, got some food and let the night unravel in front of us. Of course, beer was involved and a short period later, some young Austrians who were on a stag party joined and starting buying us drinks. We love the kindness of strangers.
Soon, a three-piece band hit the stage; trumpets, trombones and many other brace instruments were handed between the apparently inebriated Austrians as they performed an eclectic mix of songs, from classical to modern rock. Everyone on their feet dancing, most standing on the tables, some resultantly lying on the floor, and everyone else on the dance floor. Tomorrow, our biggest climb through the Alps was awaiting us, but still we carried joining in the festivities, when in Rome and all that jazz…
Sleep came and went in the wink of an eye, and soon we were packing away our tent standing next to a pile of snow and getting soaked by the freezing rain; the signs were not good! With no shops open, breakfast was not an option we could choose, so we cycled to the next town and stopped for some lunch in attempt to rid our hangover and fuel our mountain pass. We also hoped that magically we would fall asleep and wake up on the other side of the mountain…no such luck. The rain worsened, it got colder and 100m above, the mountain was being painted a cold shade of white. Feeling rather precious and in need of a warm shower, we decided to call it a day early and leave the pass for the following morning. The search for accommodation started and after finding a cheap hostel we felt our luck was changing, in fact there was a whole road of accommodation just around the corner, so we could pick and choose which one was best suited.
That was the plan. Apparently though, Austrians that live in the Alps never, ever, work. Not one bed-sit, hostel, hotel or campsite was open, we were stuck and both feeling like death had paid us an early visit. Our soaking wet feet dragged us to a café where we attempted to warm up and hatch a plan. Looking and smelling like tramps I was surprised that anyone wanted to talk to us at all, but soon enough we were the talk of the town (5 people in the café). A weird, drunk and middle aged man offered us his sofa for 25 euros, although the offer was tempting, there was something dodgy about it all so we politely declined and contemplated our final option: climbing the mountain. We checked with the waitress if hotels and hostels would be open at the top:
“Excuse me waitress are hotels and hostels open at the top?”
“Yes, there are definitely hotels and hostels open at the top of the mountain.”
This was met with nods of approval from the other 4 people in our presence. We also concluded that as the mountain was still open for skiing, there MUST be places open. In fact, we envisaged pulling up on our steeds, arriving at a buzzing après bar and celebrating our first climb with a well-deserved beer. Mood lightened by this vision, we hit the road as quickly as possible and were excited about reaching our make belief land of wonder.
Hell is not a hot place. The devil doesn’t reside in an eternal inferno. He lives and operates on a mountain in Austria, taking no pity on hung-over cyclists attempted to make it through his humble abode. Every 20m we had to stop and prepare ourselves for the next short round with the 15-20% gradient. The climb lasted for around 3-4 hours, was relentless and unforgiving and our inability to buy snack supplies only served to make it even more atrocious. Still, every time we looked at one another we had a rueful, slightly insane and definitely sadistic smile on our face. Embracing the challenge, we carried on through the snow line, driven on by our need for food, drink and bed. Eventually we hit the welcome sign and our first site of a ski lift. We were there. We had done it and we were proud. Now the easy part was upon us, choosing the best value hotel and enjoying the reward of beer and pizza. However, this would have to wait. The ski resort of Obertauern was like a glass snowball that hadn’t been shook in years. Every door we knocked on echoed with emptiness, the silence was deafening and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was almost in tears when I contemplated the thought of wild camping in the snow, with no food or water. We carried on cycling through the town, no words were exchanged between our glum selves and we persisted in trying to find some accommodation. Thankfully, we finally struck gold, we managed to find the one hotel that was open in the whole resort and it so happened to be a 4* spa. Taking pity on us they offered us a discounted room, including a six-course meal and access to the swimming pool, sauna, hot tub and other amenities. Like pigs in poo we settled into our room before destroying the all you can eat salad bar and dusting off the remaining 5 courses. Beer had never tasted sweeter and bed had never been comfier. We were asleep before we hit the pillow.
Morning came and with it we were blessed with blue skies and fresh snow. There was only one thing for it. We decided to forget our budget for a day, hire some equipment and hit the slopes. There was no way that we could cycle to an open ski resort and not hit the powder. Although the slopes were limited, the experience was more than worth it and neither of us could believe what we had actually done; our beaming smiles a reflection of the pride and happiness we were feeling. Another 6-course meal awaited us and the excitement of the impending down hill that lay ahead made for a near perfect day.
Waking to clouds and snow is not good for cyclists. But it would be ok as we were going downhill, really downhill. Oh no, wait, we had another headwind, actually no, it was more of a head-gale, thanks weather! We should have been burning down the mountain; concerned at the dizzying speeds we were reaching and smelling the burning rubber of our brake pads. Instead, we ambled down, freezing and wet, not needing to break due to the strength of the wind. We hit the valley and had to cycle in low gears in order to keep moving; the smiles were no longer on our faces. Headwinds are the worst thing for a cyclist; no downhill reward, but all the effort of a tough hill climb.
Eventually we made it to our next stop at the bottom of our second climb, one that would be steeper and shorter, and also one that would prove to be more enjoyable and less eventful, once we eventually started it. It was the day of my Mum’s 50th birthday; homesickness was only heightened by the horrendous down pour and the fact that we had nowhere to stay and a huge climb ahead of us. Neither of us wanted to go up in the sleet and cold. Luckily, the owner of the restaurant we had taken shelter in, had a Grandmother who could put us up for the evening. A kind Austrian Granny who looked after us well and took a particular shining to my poor attempts at speaking German to her.
We had an appointed with our third and final climb and with it, our seventh country, Slovenia. With that big yellow ball beaming on our backs, the cycling was more enjoyable, despite the increase in gradient; it’s truly amazing how much difference the sun makes to your mood and this is only more true when you are outdoors every day. At the bottom of the mountain was a signpost for Wurzenpass with a big red line through it, clearly indicating that we couldn’t go that way. However, we took the risk and started the climb, determined to get through to our next country that day. A couple of hours later we were slightly worried; not a single Slovenia car had come past. We started to contemplate the possibility that the border crossing may be closed for some reason; did we need visas for Slovenia? Surely not…regardless, we were getting through that day, even if we had to cross through the forest. Soon after summiting we found the reason why cars weren’t passing over from Slovenia…the road was closed for road works. No problem, we will just stroll through the dug up road and ignore the builders labouring away. Unbelievably, that is exactly what we did, with no questions asked. Clearly the red tape surrounding English construction sites does not exist in Slovenia. The downhill began and it was one that we could enjoy, no rain and plenty of sun.
Originally, we were concerned that we wouldn’t get through the Alps in two weeks; with loved ones visiting us in Italy, we had a deadline to make. Our concerns were unnecessary; we crossed them in less than a week, allowing us plenty of time to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of Slovenia. A full cricket orchestra now accompanied the bird song, the sun pleasantly warmed our backs and even the air smelt different. We kissed goodbye to the cold and snow of Austria and let our excitement about what Slovenia had planned for us grow. Cycle over the Alps…tick (well…nearly).
Slovenia: the only country with Love in its name, and it has certainly been kind to us so far; we couldn’t recommend it more as holiday destination. It has everything; towering mountains, rolling hills, numerous rivers, dense forest, shimmering lakes, snow, sea, caves and genuinely friendly people.
Our first night was incredible; we found the most secluded wild camping spot, by a flowing river, with views of the green and white peaks and not a single scrap of human existence visible. Dinner was followed by a naked plunge in the freezing river, one that was much needed after three days without a wash. A huge fire then kept us company for the evening as we watched the sun set and the stars rise. This is what we had dreamt of, we lay there falling asleep, the sound of the river gently soothing us into our dreams.
Awoken by the sound of the river and the warmth of the sun, we turned to one another with smiles on our faces. With no plans, we pulled out the map and pointed to the nearest lake, one that Tom had previously researched. Meandering down beautiful cycle paths we headed to Lake Bled, already relishing the thought of swimming in it, regardless of it’s relatively low temperature. Prior to our arrival however, we had to embark on an adventure of a different kind and a definite highlight of the trip so far. The cycle path soon turned into a mud path, then into rocks and then into a field. We had taken a wrong turn, but we don’t like to go back on ourselves. To our left was the river, and to the left of that was the road we needed to be on. So, in true Alexander Supertramp style (if you haven’t seen ‘Into the Wild’ you must watch it), we picked our bikes up, rolled up our shorts and tackled the logistical nightmare head on. This was the adventure Tom and I signed up for, tops off, crossing rivers and heading to wherever we wanted to go. Back on the bikes with a short cycle ahead of us, we stopped for lunch and discovered another one of the countries highlights, pizza! They are tasty and unbelievably huge, perfect for two calorie burning peddlers.
Four o’clock and we arrive at Lake Bled. It takes our breath away; in the middle of the 2km long lake is a Monastery, and opposite that, a castle. People are strolling around it, laughing and joking and the smell of hot pine trees fills the air. Our senses are in overload and the beauty around us is doubled by the perfect reflection shimmering on the lake’s surface. In the distance, snow capped mountains set the scene perfectly, their snow melting and flowing down its rivers, keeping the lake level as the sun relentlessly evaporates the water. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I challenge anyone to go there and not be completely and utterly blown away by this place.
We spent two nights at a campsite on Lake Bled, eating every meal on the waterfront, casually sipping away at some beers and shocking the locals by constantly jumping in and out the water like two naughty children. In the whole two days we were there, only two other people went swimming, purely down to the fact it was absolutely freezing! In spite of this, we still managed to go for a midnight dip and that was an experience I will never forget, it was seriously cold.
From there, we travelled to another bigger, and even more impressive lake, this one had a sensational waterfall feeding it. Again, we took another wrong turn on the way and ended up doing a bit of rock climbing with our bikes, footage of which will be shown on of the upcoming videos. We spent two nights there, the first was a chilled one, but the second was extremely eventful. We spent most of the day chilling out, reading books and visiting the waterfall. In the early evening we started a huge fire and decided to have our first spit-roast of the trip. Something we had been equally excited and worried about, and I’m not sure on Mum’s would approve… a whole chicken takes a long time to cook, but it was an overwhelming success and we surprised ourselves with how tasty it was. As a side to the chicken we had pasta and veg, this was cooked on our little stove and almost resulted in our first hospital trip. The water was boiling away and things were going swimmingly. All of a sudden we hear a burst and look down. The pressurised fuel tank had set on fire. In our drunken state many people may have expected us to panic and run away. But we calmly wet a tea towel and extinguished the inferno. Luckily no damage was done, but it wasn’t until after the event that we realised how dangerous it could have been. The bottom of the canister was facing our tent, and if it had exploded it would have set our little home on fire and destroyed everything, let alone the damage it could have done to our bodies. A seriously close shave!
We drank with some Polish people who fed us homemade 80% Vodka, nicknamed Justin Bieber; the only reason I can think for this peculiarity is that the damage the drink does to your insides is equal to the damage the annoying pop brat does to your ears! Eventually we hit the sack, completely unaware of the day that was waiting for us.
By cycling to the second lake, we had to enter a valley, there were only two ways out; one was going back on ourselves, and the other was a big mountain climb through the Julian Alps. Our desire to not backtrack was being tested by our hung-over state and our lack of motivation to climb yet another mountain. After much deliberation we decided to climb, and what a decision it was. Our hangovers soon dissipated and with near perfect weather we climbed at a good rate, our fitness having vastly improved thanks to the other three passes. We passed another ski resort and from there on it was downhill; this time, there was no headwind, no clouds and hardly any cars. We hit 68km/h whilst cycling along roads that ran alongside multi-coloured mountains, we saw our first snake (much to Tom’s dismay) and we received thumbs up from passers by. Our unexpected mountain pass had resulted in the best day cycling we have had so far and within no time at all we had cycled 80km and arrived in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. We stopped at an internet café to find a hostel and stumbled across Lonely Planet’s number 1 hostel in Europe, Hostel Cellica; a converted prison in the middle of an ex-military base. If you do ever come to Slovenia, this is a must, its quirkiness and value for money are second to none, and the city itself is awesome. It’s made up of cobbled streets, boutique shops and appropriately placed graffiti. And that’s where we are now, next stop is Italy and then along the Croatian coastline for a few weeks before we head to Istanbul, Turkey. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot of friends and family in Turkey, so if you are interested in joining, please let us know.
Thanks for reading.
Lots of love
Phil and Tom xx
Posted on May 3, 2012, in General and tagged Around the world by bicycle, Cycle around the World, Cycle the world, Daring Dynamos, Festivals for All, H4TH, Hats for the Hill, Kerven Bros, Kerven Brothers, NUCO, NUCO Travel, OnePiece, Phil Saunders, Spotify, Tom Nelson, VADO, War Child, War Child UK. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.