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Crossing the Alps:
A short ride from Italy to Germany

By Catherine McCammon (


1367 km in 13 days with a vertical height gain of 11,165 m with two "rest" days in the middle on a cycling trip from Elba to Glashuetten


The trip nearly ended before it began at the Goods Depot of the Pisa Centrale railway station. I had sent Mackenzie (my touring bicycle) by freight train from Bayreuth, Germany two weeks before, but it still had not arrived. I haunted the Depot at spare moments during the week long conference, but was always greeted with those devastating words "non è arrivato". It was the eve of my departure from Pisa - I was in a blue funk and considering the alternatives. In a passionate speech to the lady at the desk I exhausted the better part of my Italian vocabulary as I explained my situation, but was told not to worry, my bicycle would be there in the evening. I was sceptical, but lo and behold, there was Mackenzie sitting in the warehouse. I will never know: did he arrive that afternoon? or was he there all the time just waiting for the paperwork.

After the conference there was an informal field excursion to Elba which seemed an appropriate starting point for the ride home. There was one train to Campiglia that allowed bicycles, but the trains ran on a chaotic schedule that bore little relation to the printed one, and indeed I saw my train arrive 20 min late but the guard said no bicycles allowed. With a heavy heart I watched it leave, and with it my chances of getting to Elba that night. But there was a fast train to Roma waiting on the next track and after I stumbled through an explanation, the guard let me on the train. There was nowhere to put the bicycle, of course, so I left it in the corridor at the front of the train. I was getting to like Italy very much - such flagrant defiance of the rules would be nearly impossible in Germany. It was thrilling to set off in the dark after arriving in Campiglia, and adrenaline kept me moving along the 15 km stretch to Piombino in time to catch the last ferry of the day just minutes before it left. After the hour long ferry ride there was still a 16 km ride over the backbone of the island, and I began to wonder as I huffed and puffed my way up the hills if I would make it over the Alps at all. Progress was slow, particularly on the hairpin turns going down, but I arrived safely at Marina di Campo and finally got into my tent after 2 am.

The dash through the night was worth all the effort as the weekend field excursion was great - wonderful companions, good food, great scenery, and we even managed to see a bit of geology along the way.

12 Sept (112 km, 1245 m height gain) Marina di Campo - Rosia

Marina di Campo is a small community on the southern shore of Elba, the island of exile where Napoleon plotted what turned out to be his Waterloo. Geographically the island consists of steep vegetated slopes, leading to the highest point, Monte Capanne, at 1018 m above sea level. Retracing my tracks to Portoferrario was pure joy, as different to the previous time as ... well as different as night and day! With no dynamo-driven lights to slow me down I covered the distance in half the time and with what felt like half the effort. I stood on the ferry deck, the sea spray washing over my face, and savoured the last sensations of the ocean before setting off for landlocked Bayern.

The Touring Club Italiano 1:200,000 maps are excellent for cyclists, and show everything from the forbidden autostrada to small farm tracks. After consulting the Toscana sheet I followed a route from Piombino along Strada Statale (SS) 398 to continue on smaller roads to Massa Marittima, an impressive walled town perched on a hill. From Piombino the narrow strip of coastal plain was quickly left behind as I climbed up the richly forested slopes of the Metallifere Hills. Traffic was extremely light - one car per hour - but the serrated terrain and steep ascents (>20%) eventually led me to the gentler gradients of SS 441 and 73 to finish the day close to Siena. The region is sparsely populated and it was challenging to find places to refill my water bottles. I pedalled through siesta time when more sensible members of the population were sheltered from the burning sun in the relative cool of dark buildings. Although the dominant colour of the landscape was green, everything seemed tinged with a deep shade of brown that recalled colours such as burnt siena and burnt umber from one of my childhood crayon boxes. The physical drain from the heat combined with the mental challenge of long steep hills on the first day of the tour was sufficiently shattering that I abandoned the idea of sleeping in the bush, and instead opted for a cool shower and a lovely night between fresh sheets.

13 Sept (119 km, 1015 m) Rosia - Prato (near Firenze)

The route north from Siena winds through the Chianti Hills, some of Tuscany's most beautiful countryside, but perhaps better known for the wine. Instead of following the obvious route along SS 2, I backtracked through Rosia to the junction of SS 541 and was rewarded with a pleasant ride up the Elsa river valley, a lush countryside of wheat and vines. The mist of the early morning burned off to another cloudless day, but I learned from yesterday and took frequent breaks in the heat of the day for short naps in the shade by the side of the road. In contrast to Germany where towns are generally nestled in the valleys, most major towns in Tuscany seemed to be perched on the tops of hills. The road climbed steeply out of the valley to San Casciano, only to be followed by a steep descent into the same valley further on. I got lost in Montelupo! It seemed so simple - follow the main road until the river Arno, then turn right. I did this, but wondered as I pedalled along why all the signs to Firenze were pointing the other way. Out came the compass, but this was more confusing as the sun was in the wrong place. With great effort I convinced myself what I thought was north was really south, and that somehow I had made a 180 degree error in navigation. It was nearly an hour of cycling and much compass work before I got myself onto the right road, and even now, weeks after, I get a headache trying to think where I went wrong. The final 30 km of the day went by quickly in comparison, and I decided to stay in Prato at the foot of the Appenines.

14 Sept (99 km, 900 m) Prato - Bologna

Any frustration caused by puncture #1 and a half-hour detour from missing a sign and ending on the road to Firenze (oops) was quickly compensated by the spectacular scenery throughout the day. The route along SS 325 over the Appenines follows the Bizensio river valley to the crest near Castiglione dei Pepoli, and then winds down the Setta river valley to Bologna. As I ascended the valley narrowed to a steep gorge and further bits of road could be seen on the steep slopes above. Ominous dark clouds gave the landscape a sinister appearance and debris blown along the road by the gradually strengthening wind produced an autumn melancholy. The small villages along the way seemed untouched by the thoroughfare passing through the heart of their communities, and I had many opportunities to practice my Italian as I stopped to ask for water and to buy provisions along the way. One charming elderly woman said I had "molto coraggio" to do such a trip on my own. As I reached the crest and the terrain levelled off briefly before plunging down the other side, the wind velocity increased to a roar, branches were flying around and I had to stop occasionally to brace myself against the wind gusts. Rain started soon after but was appreciated as it kept my rims cool during the long descent. Multiple forks of lightning lit up the inky black afternoon sky and I thought about the electrical conductivity of mounted cyclists. But the weather enhanced rather than diminished my appreciation of the scenery, and I was sad to reach the flat plains and Bologna in the late afternoon.

15 Sept (128 km, 0 m) Bologna-Padova

The main road goes through Bologna like a river; I was carried along by rush hour traffic in the strong current and spit out the other side with no navigational errors. I enjoyed the flexible approach of motorists to road use, where aberrations like cyclists were not only tolerated but were given road priority when required to keep traffic flowing. Timidity was disastrous, but aggressiveness was not mandatory for making progress. Yesterday's storm gave way to cloudless skies, but the intensity of the sun was only a shadow of its former self, hinting at the coming autumn. Fortunately, because the way to the Alps from Bologna is very flat, with few features to captivate the cyclist's attention. I could have covered the distance by train, but such weakness was prevented by my philosophy that the bicycle is a serious mode of transportation as well as a vehicle for recreation. I chose a route along SS 64 to Ferrara, then along SS 16 to Padova. A long, straight, flat road - not much to say.

16 Sept (121 km, 400 m) Padova-Belluno

After a pleasant breakfast with Austrian and Czech cyclists at a neighbouring campsite, I was off to navigate my way through the centre of Padova. Unlike Bologna there were many eddies and back currents in the traffic flow, and more than one pedestrian looked on with curiosity at the loaded touring cyclist taking a compass bearing in the centre of town. SS 307 is not recommended as a route north from Padova, being narrow, busy and full of trucks. Still, I was impressed at how little the bicycle disturbed the traffic flow; motorists overtook with little hesitation or frustration, and rarely impeded the oncoming traffic flow. Views became more appealing after reaching SS 348 and the Piave river as the size of the hills grew and closed in to make a narrow valley. The mountains to the north faded tantalisingly in and out of the mist, but became obliterated entirely as the clouds closed in and for the second time on the trip, rain came pouring down in torrents. I abandoned the idea of camping (crawling between two pieces of wet nylon didn't appeal at the time), and savoured the luxury of a warm, dry bed in Belluno.

17 Sept (78 km, 1220 m) Belluno-Cortina d'Ampezzo

From Belluno SS 51 climbs gradually along the Piave and Boite valleys in what is probably the most mellow route to reach Cortina d'Ampezzo. The road is relatively wide and well travelled, but traffic came in intense bursts, leaving many moments when all was quiet as I pedalled up the valley. Spectacular views awaited around each corner, where steep rock faces rose up to snow and sharp peaks. The tunnel just below Tai di Cadore was narrow, and the roar of the jet turbines that kept the air flowing kept my adrenaline flowing as well. A bridge just after spans the valley with spectacular drops on either side. Along the entire route the gradient is barely noticeable, and the stretch between Tai di Cadore and Cortina seemed to be more downhill than up, despite the nearly 400 m height gain. The approach to Cortina is not to be missed, passing by the ski jump from the 1956 Olympic Games as the Boite valley opens to a 360 degree panorama of mountains. The torrential overnight rain had given way to morning drizzle, a few breaks in the clouds, and finally in the afternoon, shadows! The mountains played hide and seek with the clouds, tantalising all with a glimpse of what things could look like in fine weather. I pitched the tent in the deserted Olympia campground (highly recommended) beside the Boite river with the 1000 m high cliffs of the Pomagagnon towering above.

18-19 Sept ("rest" days)

Tom, a colleague of mine, had made an arrangement to meet Richard in Cortina on the 18th, so I thought I'd surprise them both by showing up as well. The day dawned cold and overcast, but with rain forecast for the evening I decided to make the most of the day with an excursion to a few of the passes. What a difference with no luggage! Mackenzie positively leapt forward when I pedalled and I had to restrain myself at first not to go too fast. I chose a route along SS 48 to Falzarego Pass, but was barely underway when puncture #2 occurred, caused by a large hole in the rear tyre. I mended tyre and tube with rubber patches and a prayer, and hoped that both would last until Bayreuth. The road rose quickly with hairpin turns, passing through the small community of Pocol and then to scenery that became more wild as the valley receded in the distance. The air got colder and the clouds got thicker, until at ca. 1900 m it started snowing! I was wearing all my gear, but barely generated enough heat during the climb to keep violent shivering at bay. At the top of Falzarego Pass (2105 m) there was snow everywhere and it looked like winter. Too many people, though. I stopped at the cafe at the top of the pass for a soul warming cappuccino, pressed on in the blizzard to Valparola Pass (2192 m) and was rewarded with a lonely panorama of snow covered mountains as far as the eyes could see. I stopped to take a photograph on the way down, and was surprised to see that the solid rock standing behind me was hollow with a roughly cut staircase leading into it. I cautiously ventured through the narrow opening, followed the stairs as they wound in spirals through the bowels of the rock, to reach a window high above where I exclaimed aloud as I looked down onto the hairpin turns of the road below. I remembered tales of passages cut during the war to defend the mountain routes, and guessed that this might be one. The snowstorm curbed my enthusiasm for the return route over the Giau Pass with another 1000 m of climbing, so I retraced my route down through Pocol and the relative warmth of Cortina.

In the evening I surprised Richard by appearing at the time and place appointed for meeting Tom, his climbing partner. The cold was quickly forgotten in the cocoon of warmth within our tent, a welcome change to having only my panniers for company.

It was lovely to lie in, cuddled in warmth by Richard and his wonderful down sleeping bag. After a slow start the lads set off for a day of rock climbing while Melanie and I left under heavily overcast skies to retrace my route of yesterday, this time with that wonder of modern technology, the motorcar. The benefits of the bicycle were apparent as the rapid ascent through the hairpin turns made me feel slightly ill, and I was glad to get out at the top for some hiking in the direction of the Hexenstein. Although the snow from yesterday had been scraped clean from the roads by the snowplough, it remained in deep carpets on the landscape, deceiving the brain and giving the impression that winter had arrived. After an invigorating walk among the peaks, a gentle reminder of muscles other than those used for cycling, as a treat for me we completed the aborted route from yesterday along SS 638 over Giau Pass (2233 m) in the fading afternoon light.

20 Sept (91 km, 815 m) Cortina d'Ampezzo - Lienz

The day dawned crisp, clear and cold with a thick layer of ice on the cars and not a cloud in the sky. It was the sort of day that made you leap out of the tent in an exhilaration of joy and celebration of how good life could be. I waved goodbye with a heavy heart and set off along SS 48 in the direction of Tre Croci Pass, at 1805 m a mere 600 m above the valley floor. The warmth of the sun joined with the soothing caress of a light breeze to produce a euphoric state that invoked a feeling more of impending spring than of early autumn. The mountain backdrop was imposing, but not as spectacular as yesterday. I took lunch and a siesta at Lake Misurina amidst the tour buses and tourists with twitchy shutter fingers. What comments will accompany the photographs taken of me dozing beside Mackenzie on the grass? The route to Dobbiaco (Toblach) along SS 51 was enriched by the emerald green lakes and tantalising glimpses of Tre Cime di Laveredo (2999 m) passed on the way, and enlivened by my stuttering failure to produce any German after speaking Italian for so many days. Fortunately the language returned in time to cross the border to Austria for the final 30 km into Lienz. I bid a sad farewell to Italy with its childhood pleasures of eating pizza every night, the cappuccino bars, the friendly people and stunning scenery. A pleasant surprise awaited in the form of an asphalt bike track from Thal to Lienz, a welcome respite from the constant whoosh of overtaking traffic. I retired the Touring Club Italiano maps to my panniers and started on my set of 1:200,000 Austrian maps (Radtourenkarte Oesterreich).

21 Sept (40 km, 1000 m) Lienz - Heiligenblut

The day dawned cloudy but with plenty of sun nonetheless. Lienz sits in a confluence of valleys surrounded by ice capped mountains, where every direction except one leads up. I followed the up direction leading along Bundesstrasse (B) 107 northeast to the Iselsbergpass (1204 m), a pleasant and gradual climb never exceeding 12% with wonderful views back to the south and the Lienzer Dolomiten. I saw the first other loaded touring cyclist of the trip, and longed to talk with him. Unfortunately he was coming up and I was going down at 60+ km/hr and was long past before the idea registered properly in my brain. Decision time came at Winklern, on the other side of the pass. Was I going to haul myself and all my gear over Grossglocknerstrasse, at 2504 m the highest pass in Austria, or was I going to take the easier route and the train-tunnel at Mallnitz into the Gasteiner Tal? I had been oscillating between the two possibilities during the entire trip, imagining the thermal hot springs in Bad Gastein just as vividly as the snow at Hochtor on Grossglocknerstrasse. The time of decision had come, but there was no melodramatic wavering to be followed by a last minute decision - I realised as I turned decisively onto the road to Heiligenblut and Grossglocknerstrasse that I had unconsciously made the decision long ago, that if I could still pedal after all those days of cycling that I would somehow get myself to the top. The ride up the Moelltal was leisurely and pleasant, and I barely noticed the final climb to Heiligenblut. It was still early, but I stopped for the day and spent a pleasant afternoon and evening strolling around the town.

22 Sept (79 km, 1510 m) Heiligenblut - Mittersill

The road to Grossglockner Hochalpinstrasse was wonderfully quiet in the morning; I shared the road with only a handful of cars and no tour buses. First were the warning signs about the sharp turns, slippery roads, steep gradients and wandering cows, and then a few km later, the toll gates. It warmed my Scottish blood to see that although motorists had to pay 350 OeS per vehicle, cyclists could use the road for free. The hairpin turns were numbered, but in reverse so the first turn that I encountered was nr. 27. Some of them had curious names like Hexenkueche (witches' kitchen). The clouds of yesterday had lifted above the valley and the sun burnt some of them through - I could see Grossglockner itself, at 3798 m the highest mountain in Austria. Clouds still clung to the sides of the mountains, and as the road ascended I was enveloped by the mist. The gradient was steady, although never more than 12%, and cycling was pleasant until the last few km before the pass when I decided that walking was more comfortable. Above the tree line the landscape looked bleak and empty, particularly after reaching the snow. It lay in large patches rather than the thick carpets of the Dolomites, but gave a feeling of winter just the same. I met two cyclists from Utah at the top of the pass who said the roads in Europe were "just awesome". Through a short tunnel to the other side of the pass and the north slopes of the Alps, the landscape looked even more desolate, and the road an unusual sight among the snow, rock and ice. The road dropped 300 m before rising again almost to the same elevation at Fuscher Toerl, where a side road to Edelweissspitze leads motorists or cyclists (no buses or caravans allowed) up the highest road in Austria to a panorama that includes 37 peaks higher than 3000 m and 19 glaciers, provided the day is clear, of course. I passed up the view and started the descent into the Fuscher Tal down the remaining 14 hairpin turns. Progress was nearly as slow going down because of hot wheel rims; I could only descend 1-2 turns before stopping to let them cool down. I wonder where the temperature limit lies - the point just before catastrophic failure. I stopped when the rims were too hot to touch, which was evidently on the safe side, but I still wonder if I could have gone in ignorance yet safety the entire way down without stopping. After reaching the valley bottom at Zell am See I covered the remaining 30 km to Mittersill along B 168 in good time. The late afternoon light on the green fields cast shadows that conjured up images of green velvet laid in carpets on the valley bottom. With the spectacular scenery, the high peaks and passes, alpine meadows and deep valleys, the Hohe Tauern region is definitely on my list for a return visit.

23 Sept (95 km, 975 m) Mittersill - Wiesing

Another unbelievable day - sunny, warm, no clouds, and the Dolomite snowstorm only a distant memory. More of the wonderful Hohe Tauern scenery rolled by, and it was truly heartwarming to see the flag "Radfahrer wilkommen" (cyclists welcome) flying at the entrance to each little village. Krimml was chock a block with tourist buses and tourists, but did provide one charming episode. After rounding a 360 degree hairpin turn on the way to Gerloss pass (1507 m) I stopped at the overlook above the tunnel below only to be surrounded by elderly tourists who were fascinated by the solitary female cyclist. They were charmed by my story and my accent (including the grammatical mistakes), and it was only at great length and with help from the bus driver (who announced it was time to go) that I extracted myself. The hairpin turns were mellow, although it was at times disheartening to see bits of road far above me. The nearly constant view of Krimml Falls was a unfailing antidote to creeping tiredness in the legs, however. I passed by the emerald green Durlassboden Reservoir and its backdrop of the Reichenspitze (3303 m) that hung like a curtain behind, before dropping down the long descent into the Zillertal. The cyclists' map paid for itself by indicating a cycle route down the eastern side of the valley, providing a restful journey down one of Austria's more famous mountain valleys. I had planned my arrival in the Zillertal to coincide with a music evening given by my favourite music group, Die Zillertaler Jodlertrio, but unfortunately (for me, not for them) they had cancelled, being called out of town for an appearance on German television, so I sadly continued on my way. I had planned to reach Achensee, but after crossing the autobahn I found that my legs weren't working properly going up hills, so decided to camp in Wiesing, just across from the Zillertal. Crossing the autobahn was one of the most exciting episodes of the day - the roads twisted around in a Gordian knot of intersections and at one point I thought I had accidentally entered the autobahn via one of the entrance ramps.

24 Sept (138 km, 700 m) Wiesing - Freising

I was away early to get up the hill to Achensee before it got too busy with traffic. The original plan was to go from Jenbach and up the exciting 26% gradient, but somehow I missed the road and ended up on the hairpin turns along B 181 instead. It was another stunning day, and spectacular watching the sun rise through the mist in the Inntal. Achensee was a deep blue with rocky peaks rising almost directly out of the water. Although there was little development along the lake shore, an asphalt cycle track extending along most of the eastern shore was most appreciated. Back on B 181 it was apparent that most of the traffic on this fine Saturday was coming the other way, all with German number plates. The volume of oncoming traffic increased dramatically after Achenpass (941 m, the Germany/Austria border and the last pass of the trip) to the point where it was completely stopped past Tegernsee. Most drivers returned my friendly smiles with sour looks as I cycled past the 16 km long queue, and I wondered if any would think about going by bicycle next time. The 1:150,000 ADFC Radtourenkarten were invaluable for choosing sensible cycle routes, and I worked my way along small roads and cycle tracks to finish the day near the new Muenchen airport at Freising.

25 Sept (160 km, 530 m) Freising - Neumarkt i. d. Oberpfalz

All roads lead to the airport, a fact which became evident as I continued north. It was good practice (I thought as I pedalled past the jumbo jets) in case I ever decided to shun the wonderful S-Bahn service (they allow bicycles) and cycle there instead. Heavy morning mist had burned off to reveal yet another nice day, and I revelled in the opportunity to explore what was effectively my own backyard. I crossed from the flat plains of Oberbayern into Niederbayern and the hills of the Frankenalb, then later into the Oberpfalz. Motorists were generally more hostile to cyclists than in Italy and more nervous about overtaking, so I used bicycle tracks wherever possible. It is the law, in fact, that cyclists may not use the road if there is an accompanying cycle track. I reached the bicycle-friendly Altmuehltal, and was pleased to see that a cycle track had been constructed along the new Main-Donau Canal. I found it so pleasant cycling along in the warm afternoon sun (excluding the repair of puncture #3) that it was only too late that I realised the sun was in my face and I was going west, not north as intended and as marked on my map. Oops. But there was plenty of daylight remaining to accommodate the detour and still reach Neumarkt before the sun went down.

26 Sept (107 km, 965 m) Neumarkt - Glashuetten (home!)

The last day of the tour, and I had to start by getting lost in Neumarkt. Oops (again). But cycling up the dirt track beside the Ludwig- Donau-Main Canal under the overhanging canopy of trees in the first stage of their autumn colour easily made up for any frustration caused by my deteriorating navigational abilities. Shortly after regaining the road I was surprised to see a motorist waving vigorously at me, who then turned and followed me into the next town. Turns out she had seen me the day before on the canal cycle path and was consumed with curiosity about who I was and where I was going (with the volume of gear I had on Mackenzie I suppose it looked like I was cycling around the world). We talked for awhile - nice to meet a kindred spirit! - exchanged addresses, and eventually went our separate ways. I followed the Pegnitz river to Neuhaus, a route I've seen often from the train window. But it might as well have been only television, so pale is the experience compared to actually being there. It was the image of Germany from my childhood - a deep green valley with half-timbered houses dotted with limestone towers rising from the forest. The leaves were changing colour and the autumn hues were reflected in the dark waters of the Pegnitz river.

I heartily recommend finishing long tours on the bicycle itself, if this is possible. The feeling of inner peace generated by the bicycle tour is not disrupted by the rigours of travel connections, and the state of euphoria that grows and grows as familiar landmarks come into view is not to be missed. First there were the Bayreuth number plates, then the signs for the Fraenkische Schweiz. I realised as I pedalled past the limestone towers and castles how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful area. From Pottenstein it was only 18 km, but still time enough for puncture #4 caused by the patch finally wearing through. The excitement grew as I trundled up the 15% climb from Volsbach, through the Glashuettener Forest, and then! our doorstep. It was a wondrously happy reunion - Richard had only returned the day before from his climbing trip. The worst part after getting back was trying to resume normal life after the magical days of bicycle touring.