#6 Val d'Gardena in the Dolomites: July 7 - 21, 2007
Settling-in In Selva
"I just love this place" rolled off Bill's lips almost daily as we settled into our vacation apartment the Italian Alps. The Dolomites are always a little bit of heaven for us: stunning scenery in every direction, (usually) clean air, endless walking and hiking tracks, a lively energy on the streets, and welcoming people in the hospitality industry.
We were instantly immersed in the mountain resort culture buzz as we arrived in the first and largest village in Val d'Gardena, Ortesei. The lively bustle was an abrupt shift from the isolated and self-contained feeling of making the long, hard climb from the nearby city of Bolzano. In contrast, Ortesei's pedestrian strip felt like a carnival. Few hands in the throngs of people were free as most were busy pushing prams; reining in toddlers or dogs; or occupied with the universal European symbol of free time: the ice cream cone.
Hiking boots and walking sticks were definitely fashion statements in the village, with entire families slowly promenading in their spotless new boots, including the preschoolers in the flock. We especially admired the charming new sun hats on the tipsy toddlers in tow--hats like grandmas love to buy.
The valley's family orientation was underscored by events like "Bambini Week" with daily activities for children, including street theatre in the square and an abundance of balloons. The exasperation of a few dads under-involved with childrearing was conspicuous on the sidewalks--no doubt brought out by the hours-on-end of contact that they only have with their toddlers while on vacation.
It was only shoulder season and we wondered how the holiday buzz in the Val d'Gardena ski resort
villages could be more intense. From the bunchy crowds on the streets to the spruced-up
mountain chalet styled lodging, it looked like it was the height of the season. Some hotels
and apartments had beckoning green lawns with fresh lounge chairs and outdoor ping
pong tables; others without grounds settled for catching our eyes with their lush geraniums
spilling out of window boxes that were carefully covered when it rained. Woodcraft is an old tradition in the mountains and
endless woodshops prominently displayed their wares, from larger-than-life figures of golfers
down to elaborate, miniature nativity scenes.
But this year, throbbing Ortesei would only be a one night stand for us. The next morning we headed out for quieter Selva, the third in the string of villages, where we would stay for 2 weeks. It was a ridiculously short ride of only 5 miles to Selva d'Gardena---hardly what most would schedule for a day's effort. But we'd made the trek before and Bill knew exactly what he was doing. In that 5 miles we accumulated over 1,200' in elevation gain, which came on the heels of an exhausting ride from Bolzano.
And we always seem to do that leg from Ortesei to Selva in blazing sun, so we were chugging water like it had been a desert crossing by the time we arrived. We didn't make our daily target of at least 2 hours of exercise whether traveling or at home, but decided we were entitled to extra credit for the extremely intense cardio-vascular workout. And as planned, the truncated ride gave us plenty of time to secure our apartment and load up on extra supplies at the market.
We easily occupied ourselves with a scenic picnic lunch until the official 2 pm check-in time and held our breath as we were shown our apartment. As we headed down to the daylight basement level I was silently gasping "No, no, no......we were promised a balcony." But the downstairs journey was only to show us where the bikes would stay. Then, as we headed upstairs and I saw rooms facing the hillside and not the grand valley, it was "No, no, no......we were counting on a to-die-for panorama" but indeed, ours was on the panorama side. Making a sight-unseen commitment to an abode for 2 weeks had been nerve wracking for us, as we usually look before we buy and we look especially carefully if it will be for more than a single night.
The apartment was as advertised online and more. It was a spacious and well arranged, 2-room, furnished apartment with an unexpected bathtub--always welcome when we are working hard. The balcony was big with a fine view and the very quiet neighborhood made it even more pleasurable. The kitchen was equipped and though not quite in keeping with the rest of the space, proved to be very serviceable. And that big supply of dishes made the little dishwasher worth the purchase of special detergent. We'd planned to take a closer look at the other apartments from our online search but were so satisfied with our choice that we decided not to bother--we'd happily stay again.
Warm Hearts & Welcoming Smiles
Part of what deterred us from looking for a different apartment next year was the very nice family operating the residence we had settled on. The active owner/manager was an energetic, middle-aged woman who enthusiastically greeted us every time we saw her. Her 80-something mother, Rrrossssa, also spoke wonderful English and was both charming and an inspiration.
We bought-up a bit with the apartment because of the long
stay and hoped it would pay-off. Before we started traveling, I
assumed you got more freebies at the expensive places, but our experience had
been the opposite: it's more often the 2 star, not the 3 star places, that throw
in free wifi and don't tack on charges when using their phone with a phone card.
But fortunately, buying up this time did get us pleasant extras.
Our hostess allowed apartment guests to visit her nearby 4-star hotel to use the indoor swimming pool and the free wifi in the lobby. And because of a minor bit of online confusion, she dropped the weekly charge for towels that we asked to rent. Like my obsolete model of getting more for more, we actually did here and it won us over. The welcoming owners and staff at the apartment added to the pleasure of our Dolomites stay, though nice people seemed to have been easier to come by for us this entire touring season than most years.
Six weeks earlier we were overwhelmed by the welcoming demeanor of the French in Lorraine and in hindsight, wondered if it wasn't in part because of the cultural alliance they had established with their counterparts in adjoining Germany and Luxembourg. The cultural union of these people with historical bonds was promoted in the tourism literature and displayed in the collaborative events and seemed to be seeping into the attitude of the locals. Whatever the cause, we didn't find the aversion to speaking German or English in this border region of France as we so often found elsewhere.
And when we crossed the political line back into Germany, we received the expected hearty welcome from the Bavarians--the Germans that are considered a bit too smiley and silly for the more Prussian, northern Germans. And it is the Austrians that the southern Germans consider too smiley and silly, so we were warmly received there too. Part of what brings us back to the Dolomites and northern Italy is that it has what we consider the perfect blend of the German sense of orderliness and good maintenance combined with the Italian warmth and liveliness. And some of these ski resort areas of the Italian Dolomites that become hiking Mecca's in the summer are the epitome of a welcoming culture.
Time to Chat
In St. Cristina, the village poised between steep climbs from Ortesei to Selva, I paused on a shady bench while Bill did some quick price shopping at a sporting goods store. The older woman planted on the same bench that had just arrived for her annual 3 week vacation with her brother was more than happy to let me practice my caveman Italian. She politely assisted with my pronunciation and patiently waited while I learned a new line from my phrase book to advance our conversation. I was pleased to correctly offer the infinitive for the verb "to steal" when her conjugated form whizzed by me--she had been asking if we'd had anything stolen while in Italy. We always say that no word is a waste of time to learn and "to steal" had been an as-of-yet unspoken word I had acquired 2 days earlier.
The haltingness of my Italian was quickly detected causing most Dolomite clerks to instantly assume I was a polite German and so they'd switch languages in a flash. That switch was flustering as I wanted to practice Italian not German, but it was a joy to know we'd always be able to communicate in this area, with exchanges often concluding in English. People in Val d'Gardena learn Italian, German, English and their ancient regional language, Ladin and bounce between languages mid-sentence.
Our fellow tourists however were more available for longer discussions and it was they that gave us the most help with our Italian. One motoring couple who paused at an alpine turnout as we were doing the same were happy to chat despite standing in the increasing rain. He was quite conversant in English and though she was more at the comprehension rather than the conversational stage, most of the interchange was in English. They indulged me as I tossed in the relevant Italian words for knees and gears; saddles and butts; helmets and visors; and the similar sounding words for headlights and brakes. They managed to confirm our pronunciation and add a few new words without slowing their stream of questions about our travels. I was thrilled with the mini-Italian lesson and they were happy to get some tips as they'd just purchased new bikes.
Most Dolomite clerks were eager to move on to the next customer and rarely had time to chat, but it was different at the "Don't touch the produce" corner of the local supermarket in Selva. Buying produce is always a slow process as the customer eyes the product, decides on a quantity, and the clerk fetches a bag and methodically fills the order. Once the multi-lingual young clerk understood I was serious about learning Italian, he began offering new shopping phrases he thought I should know and wanted to check my spelling as I jotted them down. Nothing is better than snaring those everyday phrases that people actually use. Bill gets strange looks at times with his stuffy "High German" that some Germans never master, so we especially value getting the sidewalk vocabulary for our self-directed Italian studies.
These conversations were a double bonus: they advanced our language skills and they slowed the tempo so we had more extended interchanges with the local and regional people. And this holiday area was especially good for that as people are in a strolling and savoring-the-moment mood. Even the Italians that drove from the lowland cities for an annual biking event were ready to visit.
A couple of cyclists who photographed our decidedly out-of-place, Clydesdale-class bikes, took time to chat in English. It didn't take a second look for them to figure out that we were doing something different, even though we were only weighted down with what we consider essential day-riding equipment. And they were universally kind even though we were breaking the strict dress code by wearing sun-sensible street clothes instead of logo-Lycra. All the cyclists we spoke with that day commended us for our journey and were quick with comments like "You are the best riders on the mountains today" which was far from the truth but a very inclusive sentiment.
The strolling pace on the congested village sidewalks made it easy to listen for the languages spoken. The official languages of the semi-autonomous region, Italian and German, were the dominant tongues, with Italian clearly being #1. The few conversations we participated in suggested that most of the Italians were tourists from the cities in the surrounding valleys and not locals.
The demeanor of the German speakers lead us to believe that they were
from Germany and not the region, especially the ones that scolded us on trails
for wearing sandals and not boots on routes we considered "tennis shoe trails".
(And besides, our sandals had the
revered "Veebrim" soles.) The occasional Dutch or French speaker
could be heard in the din of Italian and German and car license plates reminded
us that this was also a popular destination for Czechs, Poles, and Slovaks. The
folks conspicuous in their absence in Val d'Gardena were the bus loads of Asian tourists.
Curiously, we generally only caught American voices while in the grocery stores. Perhaps they, like us, weren't as skilled as spending hours strolling the few village streets and shops. And they, like us, looked a little out of place with our more utilitarian outdoor wear. The proper sporting look for Americans is that of the wizened-warrior, the look that says "I've been there." Instead of spotless new boots, scuffed and slightly curled old favorites were being worn. Bulky, multi-functional jackets lacking the new look predominated with the Americans, rather than the right mix of fresh Tyrolean sweaters, multi-pocketed vests, and flimsy wind breakers.
In contrast to the stylized American outdoor look, the glamour of the winter ski culture infiltrates the European summer hiking scene in the Dolomites with the "I've just arrived, look at all my new stuff" being the preferred statement. Like kids going off to their first day of the new school year, Italian tourists wear their new mountain attire with pride.
The "new boot thing" is especially interesting to us as we are learning to abandon the shopping wisdom we grew up with, which was "buy your boots in the big city weeks or months in advance". That isn't done in the Dolomites by the masses, as they do their shopping in the villages after they arrive.
Our boot shopping expedition last year taught us the lesson the Italians already knew: that the best deals on outdoor gear weren't in the big city stores near the Alps, but at the site, in the mountain villages. One still has to price shop, but the prices and selection are often better in the little village shops than in the cities. That of course leaves no time for breaking in those new boots for the big adventure, but I suspect many pairs purchased in the Dolomites have most of their utility as souvenirs rather than expedition equipment.
Ill Tempered "Il Tempo" (The Weather)
An Unusually Wet Summer
As our sweat-soaked clothes slowly dried in the hot mountain air the day we exhausted ourselves riding 5 miles from Ortesei to Selva, we could hardly believe our ears as we were informed that this was the first "good day" the high valley had had in 7 weeks. Apparently the storms that blasted England and delivered their coldest June on record had been sweeping across continental Europe and blanketing the Alps as well. We'd been riding at lower elevations in the frayed edges of the storms for weeks and learned that we'd had better weather than these mountain villages. Our previous June and early July visits to the Dolomites had been nothing short of stunning, so we were shocked. Yes, there'd been some thunderstorms in the past, but the overall fine weather kept drawing us back again and again.
We'd planned on purchasing 2 weeks of 7-day passes for unlimited use of the buses and cable cars into the hiking areas, but opted to buy only 1 week pass and 'pay as you go' for the remaining time. That proved to be a prudent decision.
After our glorious arrival day on Saturday, we had a nice day
on Sunday, but it ended in thunderstorms. It was at the close of the annual Sella Ronda Bike Day in which the roads were closed to traffic for 5 hours
when the weather turned bad. Still pooped
from our arrival in the mountains, our late start limited us to doing 2 of the 4
passes and had us finishing in our rain gear as the one and a half day break in
the weather ended abruptly. The rain hardly dampened our spirits however, as we
were thrilled to be there and to have had 3 hours of traffic-free riding on the
narrow, windy roads.
Off-and-on thunderstorms the next day had us cancelling plans for doing a big hike and we settled for a long, brisk walk on a lovely path between the ski resort villages. The following day we headed out for another lower-elevation hike in our rain gear but it quickly turned into an intermittently warm day. We had a fine time, but longed to be doing the high ridges though the icy winds reminded us that we'd made a good choice in deciding to stay lower.
And despite the online forecasts of approaching 100° temperatures in nearby Bolzano, it snowed on our third night in Selva. At bedtime we'd stepped out on to our balcony and I'd commented to Bill that the hazy fog made it easy imagine it being wet snow rather than rain coming down and in hindsight, it probably was.
We were slowing counting down
the remaining days of our precious 2 week stay by doing safe, low-elevation
hikes. Bill was getting increasingly antsy to be on the Via Ferrata trails with our new
harnesses and carabineer systems. After awakening to snow just a little higher
than our village, I found myself loading my backpack with more "just in case"
items, considering the worst case scenario as being stuck overnight in the
Fortunately, no weather disaster struck on our next hike and we were only pelted with hail on our return. However, folks who had ventured to the level of the passes that we crested on our bikes a few days earlier finished their hikes in a snow flurry.
Finally on Thursday, our 5th full day in Selva, we considered it safe to take a cable car up to the 7500' level to begin a hike that would include some Via Ferrata, or marginal trails with steel cables installed on which we would attach our harnesses. At last: an outing with no rain, no hail, no snow--not even a thunderstorm. Though we did keep our multiple layers of warm clothes on all day as when the sun was blocked by a cloud, the winds made it feel like we were enveloped by a glacier, not just feeling like the winds were coming off a glacier. We'd felt the threats embedded in that same chill the on the previous 2 hiking days, even at lower elevations.
Regardless of the Weather
Amazingly, the almost week-long streak of less than sterling weather hadn't kept us from pushing our bodies to the limit. We'd rented a more expensive apartment just incase the weather didn't improve, as it gave us access to the companion hotel's indoor swimming pool and an indoor ping pong table in our building. We'd picked up bus schedules and museum ads for cities within about an hour and a half range as we were determined to have a memorable stay regardless of the weather. But it is such a stunning area that we wanted to be out in it, despite the crummy weather.
I was sore on Day 2 from our Sunday Sella Ronda bike ride the day before even though our climbs up 2 passes were on unloaded bikes. The steepness of Day 2's fitness walk to the next village was enough to remind me of the new muscles used. Then the following day's even steeper hike had me heading for the swimming pool in hopes of coaxing the many challenged muscles into something short of a collective spasm. Of course, the half hour of rarely-done swimming then had my shoulder muscles in revolt the next evening.
By the time the weather improved, my hip and buttock muscles were fatigued from the continuous isometric contractions needed for the hours of stabilizing on the uneven terrain; my calf muscles screaming from trudging up 20+% grades; and my quads were buffed but seizing from the demands of the barely controlled descents down those grades on ball-bearing like gravel.
I gave up on the swimming and quickly settled in to a routine of stretching morning and night,
long sessions of self massage, and some massages from Bill to keep myself mobile. Memories came flooding
back of years ago when my knees would be so painful that I walked
backwards down the street to our house as the downhill pressure on them was just
too much. So, despite the aches and pains, still being able to go downhill
facing the proper way was my reassurance for pressing on.
On Friday, Day 6 of our 13 days for hiking, the weather finally turned decidedly better and we would no longer need those long johns all day, but we were now too pooped for a big event. Bill selected a hiking route that was still in the 6-8 mile range, and still in the 1600'-2400' elevation gain league but without so much extreme steepness. And critical for me: it was mostly uphill.
My strong suit is definitely going uphill where the big muscles groups in my legs can power me up in a similar motion to cycling. Cycling does nothing to condition us for descents and so we both struggle on the downhill segment of hikes, though that is especially taxing for my anatomically imperfect knees.
Though even Friday's outing was what sports physicians call a "relative rest" day, part of the rest came not from decreasing the miles walked or elevation gained, but in carrying less weight in our packs. We were left to guess what our day packs tipped on a scale, but they surely must have been over 20 lbs on the most burdened days. The half gallon of water we each carried would barely be enough if the promised heat wave hit while we were in the peaks, but the recurring chilly winds meant that we carried most of it both up and down the mountain faces. The "just in case" rain wear and emergency gear added more weight, as did the increasing amount of food we had to carry because we were working so hard.
"Fame de Lupo" (Hunger of the Wolf)
Amazingly, we needed more food on these hiking days in the mountains than we did on most mountain riding days. Perhaps it was the inefficiency due to the less routine activity, but our calorie deficit was greater each day. Bill was still focused on shedding the last of the extra pounds he put on in Portland while his back stabilized, but he finally had to give-in to eating more to maintain his mental clarity.
By Thursday, near the end of our first week, our standard diet had to be supplemented both on the trail and off to keep us going. The additional hardy roll with cheese 2 hours after lunch hadn't been enough, despite the sugary snack Bill needed to tide him over to the lunch stop. That meant that the cheese and roll had to be supplemented with an extra ration of chocolate.
An hour after the extra chocolate bar as we were walking from our cable car to our apartment, I could tell that I was going to need some serious extra calories despite sharing in Bill's hefty lunch supplements. After considering the 'drop in the bucket' quality of healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables, I set my sights on a portion of that wonderful looking apple strudel I'd seen in the morning.
I can easily do a 10-month tour without indulging in desserts, but that day strudel was sounding like an essential food group. An hour later after each having a heavy treat from the bakery, Bill was making a mammoth bowl of fresh fruit salad, which we chowed down before dinner. All of that and we still went to bed a little hungry, just like we do most nights. Yes, the "fa-me de lupo", Italian for "hunger of a wolf" was a sure sign that we were pushing out our edge with all the new demands on our bodies.
At Last, The High Country
The grand weather we'd come to expect in the Dolomites finally settled in and we made it to the high passes for a string of stunning hikes, including those with Via Ferrata cables. Last year we had our first taste of the joys of mountain climbing without the skill normally required as these hiking routes with steel cables, ladders, and sometimes swinging bridges safely assist one through more treacherous areas. Using our new harnesses and carabineer sets allowed us to venture along routes that would otherwise be too dangerous.
Like last year, we did a mix of guided and self-guided routes. Our 1 guided Via Ferrata route this year wasn't pleasant but it sure upped our tempo. Stefan, our rather belligerent guide lead us on a forced march where we and our two 30-something companions often had to trot on steep, rocky trails to keep up. Though I was the only one who spoke up about being hampered by painful knees, everyone had knee pain in the last hours. The German man who spoke no English didn't verbalize his knee pain but it resonated with Bill's as the man's shoulders reflexively clutched with each downhill step.
We grumbled the entire day at Stefan's demands as he manufactured a day that was a painful blur instead of a delightful memory. But the next day we discovered that his harsh training was perfectly timed with our self-imposed rigorous schedule. It was that next day when we discovered that we really had mastered the skill of zooming up the steep slopes and were doing a little better on the descents. (And unfortunately speed is important on these routes so as to make it back to the cable cars before they close for the day.) We had to admit that, as unwelcome as it was, Stefan had given us a swift kick in the rear at just the right time. That realization added significantly to the meager endorsement that he gave us at the end of our day when he declared "You are fit."
Once on the trails that dropped the baby strollers being muscled up rough gravel paths, the new duds of the resort costumes faded into the background and a more functional array of gear predominated. The utilitarian American costume no longer looked so out of place and on some of the harder trails, it was "anything goes" for hiking attire.
The hardier gray-haired hikers in their 60's and 70's were among the most aggressive at time slicing their trekking with sunbathing. Ample older women in bikini tops and older men and women with their shorts rolled up at the thigh and down at the waist trudged on the trails with their boots and packs. While we huddled in scant shade under a boulder that had paused in its descent down the slopes, these darkened sun worshippers would equally carefully position themselves in the direct sun, close their eyes and tilt their heads for the maximum exposure to their faces and necks.
And sunning in the thin air is a well-supported activity in the Dolomites. All but the smallest of rifugio's or mountain huts that we happened upon offered free use of folding lounge chairs for sunning. They were especially popular at the restaurants at the top of the lifts where some folks appeared to ride up solely for sunbathing, but those chairs were coveted everywhere we saw them.
In addition to a range in looks, there was a huge range of ambition on display on the trails. A group of 6 about our age with just-out-of-the-wrapper packs and boots looked like they were limiting their effort to the 10 minute walk from the top of the cable car to the first 'rifugio'. In a way they looked a little silly in setting their sights so low in an area that has so much to offer and yet they may have been headed for a marvelous adventure. That night in the mountain hut instead of a well-appointed hotel may have been enough excitement and a good match for their level of conditioning. We hoped that they would spend 2 nights at the hut, going out for a pleasant out-and-back hike in the next day but were left only to guess as to their plans.
At the other end of the spectrum were the hardened hikers and climbers walking for days on the trails and carrying supplies for unsupported camping. The in-between crowds were the overnighters on multiple day trips that would sleep indoors at isolated rifugio's or day hikers like us, some hauling the extra helmets and harnesses required for the Via Ferrata routes. Just like the wide ranging infrastructure in the villages supported a huge range of ambition, the trails supported a range of ability and interests.
We marvel at how these ski resorts-turned summer playground villages accommodate all ages and abilities. That sense of acceptance makes it all the more appealing as it feels like a well-rounded community. There are unusually smooth and even strolling paths through and between some villages and inviting playgrounds sprinkled around. The more accessible mountain huts have playground equipment and I imagine families with small children divide their time between the play areas and the walks between them. And the activities in the area range from short strolls to the next bench with a grand view to extreme sports, with intermediate-difficulty hiking being the major activity.
Even the cable cars range from being completely wheelchair friendly to a high-adventure sport. Some of the cable cars are the size of rooms and one glides from the platform into the car with no level change and the tiniest of gap between the surfaces. The doorways are huge and Bill pointed out that the cars detach from the continuously moving cable so as to dramatically slow the speed of the compartment.
At the other end of the spectrum, was the throw-back
Telecabina at Rifiigio d'Sella from the 1960's near Selva. Just watching other
people load into the telephone-booth sized cars was worth the price of a ticket.
The 2 assistants had already worked up a sweat when we arrived an hour after
opening, and there was little wondering as to why.
The cars barely accommodate 2 average-sized adults with day packs in a rigid standing position. Couples split up on the loading platform, with the woman positioned to load first. We were corrected because our feet weren't perfectly inside the painted slots and we didn't have our packs on our backs--the kind of attention to detail that one doesn't usually encounter in Italy. But my rebellious side quickly quieted and I literally stepped into line as I better understood the urgency of the situation when being next to load.
The cars don't detach, so they don't slow down at all for loading. When the attendant signals, the woman runs out behind the passing car just at the attendant swings the door open. She then grabs the side rails with each hand and lunges into the car with a calculated shove from the attendant. The second rider, usually a man, then performs the same maneuver, running in behind the passing car, lunging up with an even stronger shove from the attendant as the car is now tilting and farther off the ground. If the second passenger is lucky, his companion will have learned by watching to give him a lurching grab to help more securely draw him into the cramped space. The attendant barely has time to latch the door closed after a last shove to tuck lingering bits of the second rider or his gear in the car.
There was no wiggle room at all once inside what felt like a
coffin for 1. In preparation
for exiting at the top, we immediately began coordinating our movements so we
could each make the needed 180°
turn so as to be facing the door when it opened. Only 1 person could possibly move at a
time, and only with the cooperation of the other to reallocate the scant bit of
open space. We were in giggles most of the ride up because of the amazing
process. It's the kind of ride that made me think they should have fitness
standards posted and that the whole affair would be quickly litigated out of
existence if in the US.
Wrapping It Up
The call of the wild--well, semi-wild--around Selva had us on the go every day. The rainy day activities of bus rides to city museums, ping pong games, and reading those bulky books in the bottom of our panniers dropped by the wayside. The almost week of less than stellar weather didn't keep us indoors as we expected. Joining in on the annual biking event one day and hikes all other days kept us on the move. With multiple hiking trails literally steps from our door and several handy cable cars to higher starting points nearby, we just couldn't pass them up.
And besides, Selva and its companion villages are just irresistible. Even if too many or too few years of recouping from an injury keep you 'on a short leash,' there are plenty fairly flat paved village paths to playgrounds and strategically placed benches for watching the world go by. From there, the sky is literally the limit in the challenges you can indulge in, from hiking and mountaineering to aerial sports. The draw of being outdoors, even when the weather is unkind, is just too compelling to resist.
Though our days were full of outdoor activities, staying planted for 2 weeks did give us welcome changes in our routines. Kitchen duties with real dishes and pots and pans displaced the daily rituals of packing up to move on. The ample bath tub and CNN on the television had us lingering in ways often not available to us. And free use of a tiny washing machine had infrequently laundered items like gloves and wooly caps getting freshened up, as well as heavier garments that are harder to wash by hand.
And completely unpacking our panniers--something we rarely do--nudged us to do sensible chores that otherwise are ignored. Getting to the bottom of the panniers triggered a newer practice of tucking our heads just inside the panniers while standing outdoors in bright light to inspect for pin-prick holes, of which I discovered 2. That meant Bill had to dig a little deeper into his stash to find the Seam Seal to again make my pannier watertight. In turn, I had to dig for the matchbook-sized sewing kit we created so we could both do some non-urgent mending.
And other little chores that would keep our life in good order were tended too while stationary, like completely draining and then washing the Nalgene olive oil bottle before refilling instead of just topping it up. The downside of this complete unpacking was that when we finally shoved off from Selva that our gear would barely fit in our bags. It would take a few days of 'settling' on the road to compact it but in the meantime we'd have the satisfaction of launching with our gear clean and in good order.
Our Pinnacle of Improvisation in the Peaks
One of the amusing games of cyclotouring is fitting every thing you need on the bike and still being able to propel it. Cyclotourists draw the line in different places, with the sparest of the long distance riders qualifying as survivalist with less than we carry on a day ride. We are definitely in the comfort-class, liking our bodies to be comfy and our minds to be stimulated. We consider this our life style, not a vacation, so items like electric toothbrushes and nutritional supplements make the cut when they wouldn't even be considered by many travelers.
Years of cyclotouring had refined our biking gear but taking up more serious day hiking presented us with a new challenge, especially with day pack selection. We coveted the $100-150, highly engineered day packs with padded backs that promote air flow; special compartments for water bags and outlets for their tubes; external lacing systems for stowing extra gear; special storage systems for trekking poles; and lots of spaces and compartments for other specialty items.
Though it's possible we could have parted with the money for one of these lovely packs, the shear bulk of them was prohibitive. A dozen or 2 hiking outings in a year would be a lot for us, and all the other days of the touring year we'd be stuck with the excessive bulk of all the extras on these packs.
We'd been working on our answer to these specialized
bags and in 2007 we introduced our own, light-weight, chameleon models. Last year when in the
mountains, we shopped hard for bottom-end packs--packs with good capacity and
padded straps and nothing else. We shipped these home with our boots at the end
of the hiking season and at home, re-stitched every seam on our sewing
machine. Ripping out at the seams is the main problem with cheap backpacks and
applying a second row of stitching beefs them up sufficiently for our purposes.
Our fortified, feather-weight backpacks then moved from the Sewing Room to the Notions Department for the application of their do-dads. We discovered that our own biking water bags with extra long tubes could be flopped in the bottom of the packs and worked just fine. The high-end bags have special vertical compartments to hold the bag against the hikers back, but being in the bottom was functional enough.
Threading the bag's drink tube out a gap in the zipper closure instead of a custom hole had only 1 problem, which was that the zipper tended to work open while walking and deposit the pack contents on the ground behind us. We discovered that 2-part key rings designed to snap together and apart gave us a readily available, easy to use closure to solve the zipper-creep problem.
Bill fashioned a simple pole carrying arrangement for his pack out of a bit of bungee and a cord lock device and I discovered that plastic buckles from our sewing stash quickly turned the excess length on our pack straps into very welcome chest straps. The bonus chest strap turned out to be the real hit as it unexpectedly took some of the strain off of my hip and low back muscles that struggle to stabilize my torso with the extra weight of a pack. The chest straps also worked well for their intended function, which was to keep our packs secure while we skidded ungraciously downhill on loose rocks.
And the last bit of envy, the extra external storage space that we desperately needed, was solved mostly with odds and ends at home. I hadn't been able to part with the old stretchy cargo net squares I buy each year to hold our grocery bag on the back of my rack and these still-functional bungee nets were the perfect size to strap on the outside of our packs. A pair of swivel hooks from our notions stash was enough to secure them at each corner at the bottom of the pack and the carabineer I use at the top of the pack to hold my hat gave a secure, third point of attachment. We'd bought whisper-thin fabric shopping bags for $3 each in New Zealand, and they became the bag to contain extra clothes or a pair of boots in the external "roo" (for kangaroo) bag of cargo netting.
The only thing we hadn't been able to replicate from the high-end packs was an air flow system between our backs and packs, but we haven't given up finding a solution for that too--maybe on the 2008 models. So, for mere ounces and a few dollars we succeeded in modifying our light duty backpacks into gear with high-end features--without the weight or bulk penalty. And what I love even more is that all of the added features can be removed and reattached to another backpack while on the road. Should one of our bottom-line bags burst mid tour (as one did last year), we can pick-up a cheap replacement on the road and in minutes transfer the roo bag set-up, the chest strap hardware, the pole containment system, and the closure device on the zipper that accommodates our water tube. We will of course be nervous about not having reinforced the stitching on the bag, but a mid-year replacement should survive without the extra reinforcement.
Of course, our flimsy bag packs give people all the more to stare at on the trail. I already look terribly out-of-place with my sensible and prim-looking, wide brimmed sun hat and my new paddlers gloves for sun protection on my hands adds to the queenly look. Donning a cycling helmet instead of a mountaineering helmet when on the Via Ferratas doesn't help much either, as it still isn't the proper costume for the event. At least our trekking poles were correct, but we should each have our own pair instead of sharing one pair. But hey, we look like what we are, which is novices and I shore up my self-consciousness as needed by chanting to myself the unspoken retort "Our primary sport is cycling."
Where We Are Now, September 4, 2007: The Croatian
We arrived in northern Croatia 5 days ago expecting to do a fairly quick ride south along its beautiful Mediterranean coast. We'd seen most of the historical highlights in our first visit in 2001, though it had been in the depths of winter. This return visit was intended to see Croatia in its glory as a summer resort destination. Heat waves and forest fires delayed our arrival in the country but now we are sitting-out a second impressive rain event--the current one at an interior national park, without our bikes.
The bikes and most of our gear are north in the coast resort town of Opatija. It was there that Bill discovered that the literally immobilizing problem with my exotic "Phil Wood" rear hub couldn't be fixed with his careful maintenance work but that its innards needed to be gutted and replaced.
After a flurry of late night activity, we decided to receive new parts and a special tool from the States rather than have yet another wheel built in Europe. While waiting the 10-14 days for the parts, we opted to embark on a bus tour of interior Croatian sights that are hard to access by bike. Unfortunately, we are only 3 days into that adventure and are discovering that there aren't 2 weeks of such sights to see. The good news it that this itinerary is giving us the needed down time to get the webpage caught up. We'll keep you posted on our progress as it looks like we'll time to get another overdue update out of limbo very soon.