It was Saturday and it was the transition day of our trip. We had been touring in Austria for the past week and did several really nice hikes. Tomorrow we would start a weeklong organized trip in the Italian Dolomites. We had the whole day to get from Lienz in Austria to San Candido/Innichen in Italy. Since the two towns are only twenty five miles apart it would be a leisurely travel day. We would have plenty of time to get settled in.
After breakfast we were all packed up. It was about a mile and a half to the train station, part of it on a road with no sidewalk. We didn't want to walk on the highway with all our luggage. As we checked out, we asked if we could get a ride or if we needed to call a taxi. They told us that absolutely, certainly they could give us a ride. Probably. Maybe. Another couple was going to the train station and they weren't sure if we would all fit. It took a long time for the driver to show up, for the other couple to show up, for us to squeeze all of our luggage into the tiny car, and then finally to squeeze all of us into the tiny car. It was a good thing it was a short ride.
It didn't matter when we got to the station. There was a train to San Candido every hour. Since it was the next sizeable town up the Drava valley, just about every train from Lienz went there. The trains were interesting. All of the cars had a large open area in the middle of the car with no seats. At first I thought it was for freight but it turned out it was for bikes. There is a dedicated bike path all the way from San Candido to Lienz. It's a nice distance for a bike ride. It's very scenic. The valley is a lush green with traditional Tyrolean villages against a backdrop of mountains. And it is slightly downhill all the way, the path dropping about 1600 feet over the twenty five miles. That makes San Candido to Lienz the preferred direction, and most people take the train the other direction.
In fact, we were about the only people on the train that morning who were actual travelers. You could tell because we had luggage. And the fact that we weren't wearing cycling jerseys was really a dead giveaway. It was a Saturday afternoon with perfect weather so the train was filled with people and bikes. Just in case you didn't have your own bike, you could rent one at the train station in San Candido, ride the bike to Lienz, and return it at the train station there. I wish our rental car arrangements had been that easy.
We were at the Post Hotel in San Candido by eleven oclock - awfully early to check in. They gave us a glass of wine (hey, it wasn't that early) and told us to wait while they checked to see if there was a room ready. While we were waiting a tall, very thin man came in with a backpack. He spoke to the lady at the desk in Italian and then came over and asked if we were with CustomWalks. It was Marco, one of the two trip leaders. He had just finished a weeklong hut-to-hut hiking trip in the Dolomites. We chatted for a few minutes but then figured that we better let him enjoy his day off. It was the only time between his two trips that he didn't have to cater to clients. Just then we were told that they did have a room ready for us, a pleasant surprise, so we told Marco that we would see him tomorrow morning after breakfast for the official meeting to start the trip.
After dropping our luggage off in the hotel room we headed out to grab some lunch and check out the shops. Sandy was on a mission. She had bought a nice pair of hiking shorts in Lienz. She really liked the blue color but unfortunately they didn't have any tops that matched. She was determined to find something to complete her outfit in San Candido.
We didn't have to go far to find a place that sold outdoor equipment and clothes. There was a small but nice shop just across the street from the hotel. They had a ladies hiking shirt that I thought matched her new shorts really well but Sandy wasn't so sure. She decided to keep looking and see what else she could find. We headed out to explore San Candido.
The main square was only a few doors down from our hotel. There was a large store with groceries in the basement and department store stuff on the upper floors. It was like being right next door to a Fred Meyer store. Very convenient. We could get just about anything that we needed there.
The main shopping street led off from the square. It was only a few blocks long but it had several outdoor shops, although Sandy didn't see anything that matched her new shorts. We only had time for a quick scan as everything closed down for lunch from noon till two. That was fine with us. We were ready to eat.
We found a pizza restaurant with outside patio seating. Unfortunately the only open table was in the sun and it was really hot again. We looked at other restaurants but kept coming back and checking on the pizza place. Finally someone stood up to leave from a shady table and we swooped in and grabbed their chairs and sat down before they had even left. Maybe it was a little rude but by now we were really hungy and we had endured enough heat and sun on this trip already. We took our time since the shops were all closed and had a nice lunch. We felt superior to the poor people who came after us and were stuck sitting at tables in the hot sun.
There was a strange pair at the table next to us. One lady was in her fifties or sixties dressed in regular slacks and just a bra on top. I guess it was really hot. Sandy and I thought it was hot too but we weren't walking around town in our underwear. Maybe we should have.
She was with an elderly lady, probably her mother, and the entire time we were there she was yelling at the older lady. It was in Italian so we didn't know what she was so upset about. She definitely wasn't nice though. I guess hot weather can bring out the worst in people.
After lunch we had to resume our shopping. We went back to the hotel and picked up Sandy's new shorts so that she could take them along to compare to the top that she was considering. I told her to ask the lady in the store and she agreed it was a good match. She wasn't really an objective observer since she wanted to make a sale, but I convinced Sandy that since she was Italian, we should trust her fashion judgement.
Afterwards we celebrated Sandy's purchases with a delicious gelato bought from a cart on the main street. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking beside the river enjoying views of the mountains that rose up just outside of town.
The next morning was the official start of our trip. There was one other couple signed up. We didn't know anything about them other than that they were Americans. When we were at breakfast I noticed a guy about my age wearing a Baltimore marathon tshirt. He was by himself but he was the only obvious American at breakfast.
After breakfast we had our official group meeting. We met the other couple, Randy and Regina, who were about our age. Sure enough, Randy was who I had spotted at breakfast. There were also two trip leaders, Iris and Marco. We barely had time to say hello and then we were off for our first hike. We would be spending a lot of time together over the next week and would get to know each other well. But for now it was just a brief hello and then we hit the trail.
We walked about six blocks to the main bus stop. It was right at the bottom of a small chairlift that operated even in the summer. It didn't really go up high enough to provide access to good hiking. In fact, one of it's main attractions was the Fun Bob, a kiddie car that you rode down on a rail that was billed as a summer tobaggan run. The whole time that we were in San Candido we all talked about doing the Fun Bob. But it was always late in the day when we got back from our hikes and the lift closed early (and we were tired after hiking, but we won't mention that). So no one ever did get around to doing it.
Unlike the week before when we always drove to the start of our hikes, today we took the bus. It wasn't far and only took about half an hour, but we did have to change buses. I actually like taking public transportation but it would have been tough for Sandy and I to figure out on our own. Now we had the advantage of a local person who spoke the language in our group. That's why we were paying them the big bucks.
We got off the bus in the town of Moos (no we didn't somehow end up in Canada) and took a cable car to get up into the high country quickly. It took us to the Prati di Croda Rossa at 1950 meters. It's a large plateau on the side of the peak of Croda Rossa di Sesto - not to be confused with Croda Rossa d'Ampezzo, which is another peak in the Dolomites. Names are confusing here even without the multiple languages.
We couldn't ask for a better day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the view from the top of the cable car was spectacular. But it was just the beginning and we started hiking uphill right away, although at a slow, comfortable pace. Trips like this typically start out gradually because the operators never know for sure whether the participants are strong hikers or not. The trip leaders would be watching to see how we did as we started to climb.
Our morning hike was about a three hour loop. There are two via ferratas, protected climbing/scramble paths, that go to the summit of the Croda Rossa. We hiked up to the start of one of the via ferratas then took another trail back down to the upper cable car terminal.
All the way we had fantastic views across the Val Fuscalina to spectauclar peaks of the Sesto Dolomites: the Cima Una, Punta dei Tre Scarperi, Cima di Sesto and Monte Casella di Dentro. I don't know the mountains in this area very well so the peaks and the names were all new to me. It was made more confusing because all the peaks have both Italian and German names. I settled on using the Italian names since I always think of the Dolomites as Italian. Whatever you called them, they were some spectacular mountains.
In the distance we could just barely see the Refugio Tre Cime, which we would hike to in two days. We also saw ruins of some WWI bunkers. Incredibly, the front line ran through these mountains and battles were actually fought over mountain peaks like the Croda Rosso. We would see ruins from the fighting during the Great War all week. Many of the via ferratas in the Dolomites began as routes used by soldiers in World War I. I'll cover more of the history in another post.
Because it was a beautiful day on a weekend, the restaurant at the refugio was very crowded. Lots of people had come up on the cable car. But Marco and Iris talked to people and somehow we got a table. It pays to have connections.
Lunch was excellent. I had spagehetti. "Just give me pasta" would be my mantra for the entire week. Randy turned out to be a kindred soul and was always happy to eat pasta too. The others tried different dishes but everyone enjoyed their lunch. We would have excellent food all week, but we were in Italy after all.
After eating the discussion turned to the plan for the afternoon. CustomWalks had cleverly designed the first day so that it could be easy or hard, depending on what we were up for. After lunch we were right at the upper cable car station, so one option was to ride the cable car down and head back to spend an afternoon in town. The other option was to hike out, a long, mostly descending (but definitely with a lot of ups and downs) hike out to the Paso de Montecroce where the trail reached the road and we could catch a bus back to San Candido.
So we could be hard core hikers and do another serious hike after lunch. Or we could be lightweights and ride the cable car down and go back to town. It took Randy and I about two seconds to vote for the hike, and Sandy and Regina were right behind us. It was good news that Sandy and I seemed to be well matched to the other couple in hiking ability and ambition and that would prove to the case all week. That isn't always the case on a commercial trip.
As we were leaving the restaurant we all took the opportunity for toilet breaks. The hiking may be hard core, but frequent rest room stops is always a characteristic of trips with older folks. Coming out I noticed that they had tshirts with the hut name and logo. I thought that a tshirt would be awesome but my experience in Europe is that tshirts are poor quality and usually two sizes too small. I had to make a snap decision since the tshirt was in a plastic bag and I couldn't see the size. I went for it. It's not like I could pick it up the next time I came to the hut.
Later in the hotel it turned out that my two sizes too small rule pretty much held in this case, but hey, now I have incentive to loose weight.
The afternoon hike was spectacular, contouring along a ridge, mostly above timberline. It gradually descended toward the pass, but with many ups and downs along the way. All along the way we walked below impressive rocky peaks along the ridgetop. Across the valley were milder mountains but the views were still expansive.
We passed some bunkers built by Mussolini to fortify the border with Austria in the 1930's. This was before the Anschluss when Austria became part of Germany and therefore an ally of Italy in WWII. These were big bunkers that were well preserved and Randy and I ventured inside. The walls were concrete about eight feet thick - serious stuff. They were never actually used as there was no fighting in this area during the Second World War.
It took us about five hours but we finally were approaching the pass. I would have expected the road to be at the lowest point of the saddle between the two valleys but it wasn't. And of course that meant we had to drop down and then climb back up to the road. Climbs are never welcome at the end of a long hike. Our group had slowed down near the end of a long day but Sandy speeded up. I usually put on a burst of speed when I am climbing to a summit. Sandy puts on a burst of speed when she is getting close to the end of a hike. So we were out ahead and reached the hotel on the road before the rest of the group.
But they weren't far behind. We had set our packs down to rest and were just about to look into buying a cold drink at the hotel when we heard Marco yell something and point down the road. The bus was visible, coming up the road to the pass. Since it only came about once an hour, we wanted to catch it. But for some strange reason the bus stop wasn't at the hotel. It was about two hundred yards down the road.
Sandy and I grabbed our packs and were running, racing to beat the bus. The rest of our group was running as well. All the way I was thinking "I'm too old for this shit!" but we all made in time to catch the bus. I was huffing and puffing when I took my seat but it was better than walking back to town.
Back at the hotel we had time to get cleaned up and dressed for dinner before heading to the roof of the hotel for the manager's welcome party. It was a nice evening and we had views of the mountains all around San Candido while we enjoyed a glass of Prosecco and a selection of appetizers. That night we ate at the hotel in the restaurant, which has a story all its own. I'll tell that one in the next post.
It had been a wonderful day and a great start to our Dolomites trip.