10 August 2007
ROADTRIP DISTANCE CHECK: 7749 km + a bunch of nautical miles. As usual, the past many days have had its ups and downs; we’ve taken a ride on many an emotional roller coaster – one minute you’re happy as a pig in, umm, poop…and the next you’re in some weird, frustrating situation on the verge of panic. This is the beauty of traveling, never knowing what’s waiting for you around the corner.
We are currently on the French island of Corsica, after a four hour ferry ride, and camped near the beach in Bastia. The last week has flown by, and the range of things we’ve done and seen has been pretty eclectic. In Austria we visited the world’s oldest salt-mine in Hallstatt (which, by the way, is a beautiful lake town, one of the prettiest in the region). There is much hype for the visit, which is a mandatory guided tour, and, to say it politely, it was not worth the steep entry fee. What should have been a world class exhibit turned out to be very amateur.
The coolest part about the tour were the slides we went down to access lower parts of the caves (one of them had a speed clock – I made 28 km/h and Yvonne 22 km/h). In the small Hallstatt cemetery there is a little stone house called the Beinhaus. Because the graveyard is so small, in the past they would dig up the bones of decomposed bodies (every 10-20 years) and place the skulls and other remains in the Beinhaus. It cost us one euro each to enter. All the skulls are placed neatly in rows on one shelf and below them, from the floor up the bones are stacked like firewood. Before leaving Hallstatt we stopped and picked up a smoked fish from the local lake. It was excellent!
Next up for us was Zell am See, another lake town. We were lucky to have come on a festival day. During the day we watched some trick airplanes and acrobatic para-gliders twirling around in the sky; at night they entertained us with a fireworks display worthy of the Celebration of Light. The unique setting of being surrounded by mountains created a natural amphitheatre that bounced the loud explosions around and heightened the experience.
From there we moved on to Hollersbach where we made an eleven hour hike through a mountain valley, the Hollersbachtal. The first part of the hike was through a lush rain forest, where we sampled ripe, wild raspberries that grew every few feet. Once out of the woods we walked along a gravel path, along a raging river with mountains rising up on either side of us. There are so many waterfalls and cascades here; every turn we took brought us in view of spilling water – some from towering heights while others only trickles whose mist was carried away by the wind. After this gradual but steady ascent along the gravel road we clambered up switchbacks to finally reach a big lake and a hut. It was seven hours in, four hours out and we squeezed the last bits of sunlight out before making it back to the van. It was at this point that we decided to impose a four hour one-way limit on our day hikes!
On our way to Italy, we drove up and down mountain passes in the Dolemites range. The first one, Staller Sattel at 2052 m, acts as the boundary between Austria and Italy. On the Italian side much of the road is one-way since it is a tiny, winding thing, and they only allow motorists at the top the first fifteen minutes of each hour to begin the descent. After crapping our pants on the way down (and especially when the road became two-way and we had to deal with oncoming traffic), and only shortly after we’d hit the bottom we were faced with another climb to Passo Pordoi, this pass being at 2239 m.
We negotiated thirty-three hairpin turns to reach the summit, the last ten or so in the rain that began on our way up. At the top the rain got worse and the clouds covered the mountain so we pulled into a big parking lot along with other campers (and at least one motorcyclist) to wait it out. We waited and waited – then the rain turned to hail, so we waited more. It never did cease and the fog didn’t lift so we ended up sleeping at the top. We noticed in the morning that the lone motorcyclist ended up pitching a tent under the eaves of a restaurant roof. Poor guy!
We went from being at around five degrees (overnight on the mountain pass) to almost thirty degrees in one day. We continued on through the Italian Dolemites, a strange looking range of mountains – gray and rust-brown in color whose peaks create a surreal skyline. Our first stop in Italy was the town of Mantova (Mantua). The city, on the drive in, looked rather grungy, but after we parked and walked in to the center we were greeted with beautiful multi-colored houses, large squares, ancient churches and the Palazzo Ducale, at one point in history the largest building of its kind in Europe. Mantova is also surrounded by three large lakes to make it even more picturesque. We were completely shocked at how we could have missed this place on our tour of Italy last year. It quickly became one of our favourite Italian cities.
This brings us to yesterday morning. We left Mantova, only a few hours drive to Livorno, where we caught the ferry. We had decided to make a return trip to Lucca in Tuscany as it was on the way. We remembered the best pizza we ate there last year and quickly became fixated on it. It had become a mission to once again savour this pizza. The drive started out as normal but, due to a combination of a bad map and absent city signposts, we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, on tiny country roads, and driving into some mountains (we subjugated poor Freda to a 10% grade climb, mostly in first gear).
The three hour drive to Lucca turned into an all-day frustrating affair. All this and we weren’t even sure if one, the pizza place existed anymore, or two, if it would be open when we got there. We did eventually make it and were relieved to find it open (although, a sign on the door stated that they were closing for holidays on August 10th – the next day – for the entire month). We knew we ran the risk of ruining the pizza legend for ourselves, and it was one factor we debated on before we left for Lucca. In hindsight, there was no way that this pizza, or anything else, could have lived up to our expectations, especially with what we went through to get there! Nonetheless, it was still good (although now no longer the best pizza in Italy…dammit!). We also enjoyed Lucca once more and saw more of it that we missed last year.
Still with us? This brings us to last night. We arrived in Livorno around 8:30 at night and found the port. We parked in the holding area for the next morning’s departure, along with some other cars and campers. Over here, it’s very common for travelers to come a night early. Eye masks and ear plugs were in order to block out the constant light and noises of the busy port.
We felt sorry for the people in cars and on motorcycles. We woke the next morning to find the lot full and ready to board the ferry. Being early immediately paid off as we secured a scarce resource on board: deck chairs! Walking around later we were very thankful for our spot on the ferry. It was jam packed with people sitting and lying in all sorts of areas.
Many of the people who came the previous night most likely had little, if any, sleep so they used this opportunity to catch some Z’s, even in the middle of the ferry floor. Once close to the port of Bastia, we left our chairs to check out the view. We were stunned to see the colour of the water: a deep, almost unnatural looking blue, like someone had dumped a million bottles of food colouring in the ocean. After we docked we disembarked and joined the crazy drivers of Corsica; they rank right up there with the southern Italians in driving habits. If you don’t know what I mean, you don’t want to know!
We have the next eighteen days to explore the island and plan on doing some long distance walking as it is the best way to see the finest beaches that Corsica has to offer. Of course along the way we will sample the many local specialties (ewe’s cheese, wine, a beer called Pietra – made from chestnut flour – etc). It is hot here and it is busy, we couldn’t have picked a worse time to visit, but given our itinerary it was our only option, so we will just have to make do!
Hope all of you are doing well…feel free to drop us a personal line anytime…it’s always nice to hear from home!!