The Road to Thessaloniki – Part III : apple trees and rollercoasters

From the quintessential ‘Sound of Music’ scenes of the Austrian Alps, we cross the border into Italy over the Reschen pass. I expect a sudden culture shift, all pizze, paste and cappuccini. And yet the only noticeable change is the sudden decline in road quality and increase in aggressive driving. Everything else feels very much like we’re still in Austria. German seems to be the lingua franca here in South Tyrol, featuring on road signs and spoken in shops and restaurants. The usual troops of German, Austrian and Dutch camper vans can be seen in abundance on the roads.

After a few kilometres of bumpy ground and pothole dodging we chance upon a cycle route sign and decide to follow it. It’s as if we’d hopped on a cycle super highway rollercoaster, and for the next half hour or so we are treated to some white knuckle ride ‘free’ kilometres, zooming down a long and twisting gravelly path which switches to asphalt and then back to gravel every few kilometres. 

It has been a long day in the saddle, with the computer boasting 100km by the time we hop off the cycle highway, and our daylight hours are drawing to a close. The usual early evening discussions ensue: shall we try to camp in the next place we see? Is it best to push on to get a few more kilometres under the belt? Is it about to start raining? Was that thunder I just heard? Shall we stop now and pitch the tent before it starts raining? Are we likely to go past a shop in the next 5km or will we have to eat ham and cheese again tonight? James shows me the profile of the next 20km on his bike computer. If we keep going for another hour the gradual downhill will reach a crescendo where we seem to drop off the hill. It’s just too tempting, and in spite of the messages from our weary legs and the fading light, we opt to keep riding, just to reach the pot of gold where the downhill ends.

It’s times like these, perhaps somewhat hallucinatory through a mixture of tiredness, hunger and mild euphoria, that remain etched in your memory. Writing this several weeks on, I can still feel the effects of the adrenaline from the epic rollercoaster ride along the cycle path, the warmth of the setting sun on my back, and I can see the beautiful apple tree orchards that line our path as we whizz downhill. After a while we start to worry that the daylight will abandon us and that our bodies will give in to the tiredness that is urging us to stop. We keep pushing on, stopping only to hastily shove the remainder of LIDL’s ‘exotic fruit and nut’ mix down our throats and to pee amongst the apple trees.

We often get to a stage in the day like this, where suddenly it feels like a bit of a battle to survive and we switch to ultra efficiency mode. Heads go down and conversation draws to a close as one hops on the other’s wheel. I admit, I am more often than not the benefactor of the slipstream, enjoying the effortless progress. I also do my bit, and speed ahead occasionally, pretending to be a domestique from the pro cycling peloton, much to James’s constant bemusement. Soon we reach civilisation and decide to rest our heads in a hotel, along with several friendly German motorbikers, a regular sight on our route. We devour a South Tyrollean feast before collapsing into bed.

Given the bad weather we’ve had, we keep a close watch on the forecasts. The following day promises a starter of clouds and sunshine with a main course and dessert of rain, rain and more rain. The thought of another day of soggy bottoms and damp feet fills me with dread and I insist that we depart early at all costs in order to beat the clouds and remain in dry kit for as long as possible. Within five minutes of our departure I realise that I should really be more zen (like James) about these things, as our idyllic cycle route in the sunshine takes us through a network of apple trees enjoying a morning hydration under over zealous water sprinklers. We emerge with soggy bottoms and damp feet, and a belly full of giggles.

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