For the Columbus Day Weekend, I took a drive past Mnchen
(Munich is the Anglicized name) through Bayern (Bavaria) into Tirol in
sterreich (Austria). Most of this write-up was composed on the evenings
following my days travels. I start with Friday, 9 October.
I got done with work EARLY on Thursday... being released to start my weekend about 1:30pm. It was a golden opportunity to get a VERY early start to my vacation. Instead, I ran a couple errands and went to bed relatively early. I decided it was better to get myself well rested before the start of my trip. All of my travel partners had bailed out on me already (again! surprise, surprise), so I was able to set the schedule entirely on my own.
Friday I got up at a little past 7:30am. It was good to sleep in. I got myself packed, and off to the BFV gas station by 8:30. Topped off, and stocked on essentials (water etc.) I was driving off post at 9:00 exactly. It was raining heavily throughout the region, and it had snarled traffic in many places. From directly off post along the route I would normally take an accident had led to a lengthy parking lot. I decided to take myself on a detour almost from the word go. Instead of taking A-6 south to the junction with A-5, I crossed the 15km to A-5 directly from post. There's also a continuous stau (traffic jam) on A-5 south of the A-5/A-6 junction. Rather than tangle with at 9:30 on a Friday morning, I endured the construction zone on A-6 en-route to Heilbronn. From there, I took A-81 south to Stuttgart (opposite direction of that which I took last Saturday, when I went North to Wrtzburg).
True to expectation, there was significant construction around Stuttgart, but I hit it in the late morning, so traffic was not bad. By 11, I had cleared Stuttgart and the rain, and was well on my way along A-8 to Ulm. By Noon, I had not only cleared Ulm, but was actually inside Mnchen (Munich), trying to find my way through the local roads from where A-5 dumped me off in the City to where I could join A-95 en-route to Garmisch and the Austrian border.
I stopped at an Autobahn rest station about 12:30, and got myself a sandwich and some "Reise proviant" (Travel provisions - snacks) and quickly resumed my drive for the Alps. It was a bit hazy, but I caught my first glimpse of the first jagged ridge of the Alps about 12:45. I took a pause at Mittenwald (A small town between the Bavarian Resort towns of Garmisch-Partinkirchen and the Austrian border) to fuel up at what I thought was the last Esso station before the border. Turns out, there is one literally ON the border (which I would take advantage of a couple days later).
Topped off on fuel, and no longer fighting hunger, I crossed the border into the Republic of Austria. Almost immediately, I was greeted by a building that is very typically Austrian (unfortunately due to traffic, I was unable to stop and get a picture - I did stop for a picture of it eventually). I made a few detours, and got some really good pictures of that first ridge-line of the Alps with the sun behind me, instead of behind the Alps. The whole gamut was visible - from the flat pastures of the valleys , to the dense pine trees on the flanks, to the high-grass above the tree-line to the bare rock of the peaks. Almost no snow was visible (the exception of a Glacier in what looked very much like a caldera). I suspected the weather of this weekend might change that - Rain had infiltrated the whole region by the time I finished dinner on Friday. Were I to make this trip in another month, I would expect to see more snow on the heights.
I made my way into the Tirolean valley, and Innsbruck. I had to stop to figure out where to get, and how to get the Autobahn Toll Pass for my stay. I then plotted my goal for the remainder of the day. Although at that point there was not a cloud in the sky, I knew the rain I had escaped in Stuttgart would be in the area by Saturday. I decided to try to get as much outdoor touring done as possible. With this in mind, I pressed on to the Alpbachtal - a quaint alpine valley off the beaten path. Most of the way up the valley, I found myself a gasthof for the night. By 3pm, I was back out and exploring up in the valley. By sunset, the clouds had started to roll in. As I closed out the evening, I found a fantastically decorated church interior. Alas, with the waning light of evening, I was unable to get much in the way of good pictures. I figured I could hit that in the morning, as the interior is a good place for a rainy day.
I returned to my gasthof in Innenalpenbach for dinner - where I encountered what is perhaps the best beer I have ever tasted. For those who appreciate Beer, this will almost sound like a heresy, but the best beer isn't German, it's Austrian: "Kaiser Dopel Maltz" a dark beer brewed in Linz, Austria. Dinner was a local Alpbach cheese soup, and a Spatzli, ham, and cream sauce hauptgerichte. I managed to stave off the desire for desert for the evening.
Saturday.... I should probably start at the beginning. I woke up in the morning a little sore from too-soft a pillow overnight. Oh well, can't complain too much - it wasn't my barracks and you'd be hard pressed to beat the view. The rain had been heavy overnight - a thunderstorm or two even woke me up during the night. Odd thing, seeing lightning in the mountains like that.
Breakfast was continental, but hearty and very good. I checked out about 8:30. It wasn't raining, but that (it turned out) had more to do with my elevation than anything else. As I descended to the Inn valley, the rain picked up. Unfortunately for me, the Church in Alpbach was closed that morning. As I worked my way up the Inn valley towards the Vorarlberg and the tztal, the clouds started to break up, and the rain went with them (as if the rain could stick around without the clouds). By the time I reached the Brenner Pass interchange, it was a bright sunny morning.
Reaching the base of the tztal, I started up the valley. Just beyond the ridge-line to the north west a fresh set of rain clouds started to become visible trying to pour over the mountains. I learned on the weather that morning that the system of rain was actually the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne - now chasing me pell-mell through the Tirolean Alps.
I stopped at the village of Umhausen to tour some waterfalls and the tzi-Dorf. For those of you who aren't Paleohistorians, about 10 years ago they found a frozen body high up in this very valley. It had obviously been there for some time. Forensics determined that it was a homicide. There were some odd things about the corpse however. He was dressed in odd clothing. Further analysis led them to do a more in-depth dating of the remains, and determined that this tztaler Man - tzi for short - was over 5,000 years old. This tzi-Dorf is a recreation of what they believe his village would have been like. The price of admission was FAR too steep for me, so I skipped the village and took in the waterfalls.
It was quite a hike up the rapids to the falls themselves, and there was a path I could have taken most of the way up to the ridge-line above. I passed on that, seeing the clouds moving in from the NW. It was some good exercise on the climb up, and likewise on the jog I took back to the parking lot.
I pressed on up the valley, keeping just ahead of the inbound weather, to the dorf known as Au. I had been there before of course, but my last trip through was about 18 years ago. It has changed significantly. I was able to find the hotel I used to stay in, but I wasn't hungry yet, and figured I'd eat on the Timmelsjoch pass into Italy.
Lngenfeld is the main town of the middle tztal. The church in town dates to the 1600s. Inside is very ornamented, as are most churches of the region that passed through the 1800s. Again, I didn't stay long as the weather was moving in.
Slden is a ski-resort town near the top of the valley. In season, it is a bustling, almost crowded place. Today it was a ghost town. I had my choice of parking - gratis. However, there was a good reason for this: nothing was open. No imbiss, no gasthaus, backerei, restaurant. Nothing. Apparently they roll up the streets in this town about the time the snow on the heights melts. The entire upper end of the tztal needed a sign out: "Closed for Renovation." Odd thing is, with the luck I've had so far in visiting places throughout Europe and finding them undergoing renovation, I had half expected to find the Alps "Closed for Renovation" on this trip. I guess I was more than half-right.
Obergurgel is billed as the highest village in Austria, a bit under 2km elevation. It is right about at the tree-line. There wasn't so much grass as a heavy moss and occasional ferns. Far up one draw a glacier could be seen beneath one of the mountain peaks. Again, not a place was open. About 200m elevation above Obergurgel is Hochgurgel - not so much a village as a collection of hotels and restaurants to serve the immediately neighboring ski-slopes. One of the ski-lifts was actually running despite the absence of snow. Even so, it was painfully obvious that everything was undergoing renovation. At 2200m elevation, there is relatively little of the year free of ice and snow to do what repairs and construction may be needed.
Another 60m higher and I reached the Timmelsjoch Toll booth. Proceeding beyond towards the pass itself, I left any pretext of a tree-line behind, and quickly found myself in a fog-bank pouring over the pass from Italy. At the top of the pass, 2505m, the fog was so thick I could not see much beyond the front of my car. I stopped in what I hoped was a parking lot, and fumbled my way through the fog to a Rasthaus astride the pass.
Following a small lunch, I proceeded down the Italian side of the pass. 18 years ago, I had been a passenger. Now I was the driver, and remembered feeling white-knuckled as a passenger. As a driver I had a near death-grip on the steering wheel today. The Austrian side of the pass is relatively shallow. I had climbed from about 800m elev. of the Inn valley to 2500m of the pass over the length of the valley - some 60km. The Italian side of the pass however is almost a cliff. It is a sustained series of hairpin turns at a 10% or greater slope. Looking back at the pictures I took of one series of hair-pin turns, the mountain itself descends at about a 45 angle (starting in the upper left corner of my picture, and ending in the lower right, with the road zig-zagging its way along the face). Also, the Italian side is not anywhere near as well maintained (or designed) as the Austrian side. I saw several places where the road had been undermined or covered over by rock-slides - resulting in only one narrow lane passage in points. Tunnels in most of the world are dug out of mountains and ridges, with concrete or tiles and lighting inside. In Italy, tunnels are holes cut into mountains, that may or may not have a once-upon-a-time paved road passing through them - there are no lights or anything you would expect from a conventional tunnel. Added to this mix was the unbearable fog. I had to descend almost 800m to clear the worst of the fog - and even then it never got "clear" for my entire time in Italy today - even as far south as Bolzano.
I can now understand why my great grandfather Guiseppi Morello left this country for the United States in the late 1800s. What I don't understand is why an even greater grandfather wasn't pushing Christiphoro Columbo to sail earlier than 1492 - like 1200 or something. Italy may have great culture and food... and maybe even great scenery - I saw none of it that day. What I saw was Italian Driving and attempts at Road signs. Not pleasant, to say the least. Italian Driving is legendary in the world - and I only saw the extreme northern Italians (the most sane and moderate). After spending some 3 hours lost in Northern Italy (and all of it with my Radio trying desperately to tune something in - unsuccessfully) I spotted a sign for something I knew: Brenner. Grasping at the one thing I recognized, I fled for the Brenner Pass back into Austria. Shortly before reaching the border, my Radio finally locked onto something other than static.
I had planned to overnight in Italy, and then cross into Switzerland. Now, with evening falling, fuel low, hungry, and tired, I was looking for a place to stay the night. I found a place a little bit above Innsbruck. A pleasant dinner (Austrian dish, not Italian - but then I am back in Austria), and a comfortable room for the night. Not quite the ambiance of the place I stayed the previous night, but a bed was a bed at that point.
The following morning I had a pleasant breakfast, and set out. My fuel situation was becoming critical, so I passed through Innsbruck, and returned to the Esso station on the Austrian/German border. Along the way, I broke out of the drizzle and clouds to get some good pictures outside of Seefeld - complete with the fog and mist rising out of deep mountain valleys.
Topped off with fuel, I returned to the Inn valley, and started for the Vorarlberg. Starting in Landeck, I went to tour the castle. It was closed. But, in the same parking lot I discovered a sign denoting the Via Claudio Augusta - the Road of Claudius Augustus. After many years in the U.S. studying Roman History, here I was, standing on an a real Roman Road. It was paved, and wound its way up the mountain, and down into the town of Landeck. I explored a piece of this road until the rain increased enough to send me back to the cover of my car. I made a wrong-turn heading out of Landeck - I was following my signs for St. Mortiz (in Switerland) instead of Bregenz on lake Constance (just north of Liechtenstein, and on the border with Switzerland and Germany). I stopped at another point of the Via Claudio Augusto, and a memorial to the Tirolean defeat of the Bavarians several centuries prior.
I passed through a few scenic Tirolean towns with appropriate music (Yodeling and the like) on the radio. I was so enthralled by the music and scenery, it took me until I had passed through the Customs Control point into the Customs Free Zone that I realized I had hit the wrong border. Turning around, I retraced my steps back to Landeck, and from there headed up to Arlberg.
St. Anton am Arlberg was very nearly as bad as the tztal - a ski-resort town that was closed for the season. There was one restaurant open, where I enjoyed a nice lunch. On the top of the Arlbergpass I picked up some Tirolean sausage (the specialty of the region - how could I leave without getting at least some?), and then headed down the other side through thick and heavy fog and rain.
It was still raining heavily when I got to Feldkirch, though I did stop and tour the castle there - complete with the medieval armaments and period rooms in the museum. The day had grown late, and the weather wasn't letting up. I pushed on to Liechtenstein - just a bit to the south of Feldkirch. Crossing the border, I picked up my 3rd country in 3 days. I knew Vaduz was the capital, and I had the intention of staying the night near there.
I followed my signs for Vaduz until the signs started pointing back the way I had come. Strange I never left the town I had started in I thought. But I turned myself around and headed back - only to discover that I had passed right through Vaduz without realizing it. I knew Liechtenstein was small (it was not my first time ever in the country) but I had forgotten how small it was. I started looking for a place to stay - only to discover a choice between If you have to ask, you can't afford it, We don't take your kind here, and We couldn't be bothered to answer. Very friendly people. A few more tries, and I fled across the border into Switzerland - 4th country in 3 days.
In the waning hours of sunlight, I flipped a coin, and took the Autobahn to Chur. That was a mistake - Chur is an industrial city, and light on hotels. However, while I was in Chur, I got to take some pictures of my favorite Rail Line - the Rtische Bahn - with its narrow-gauge red engines and cars, and got to watch as this northern end of the Bernina Express departed for Italy. Someday before I leave, I will have to take that train again. Also while I was there, a narrow-gauge green steam-engine came into the station under its own power. I got some good shots of it as well, before it left for parts north - though as with the steam engine in Sinshiem, it had a diesel-electric providing the power when it left.
With the sun setting, and the rain not letting up, I decided to push for lake Constance. Certainly the resorts around the lake would be open. It was well past sunset when I arrived - and I couldn't find a hotel for love or money. All I found was industry and closed-for-the-season hotels. About 7:30pm, I gave up looking and headed for Ulm and an Esso station. Somewhere between the German Border and Ulm, I drove out of the rain, and discovered that the Speed Demons come out at night. I was going at a healthy cruising speed for the Autobahn (between 150kph and 170kph - thats about 95-105mph) but I was getting passed like I was standing still. I topped off my tank in Ulm with the last of my fuel coupons, and pressed on for home.
Hopefully the next time I'm in the Alps, I'll get to see more of them, and less rain. All in all though, it was a good and memorable trip. Next weeks will be a shorter one - my trip to Bad Wimpfen.