I have been pushing off this post for so long for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I feel like my pictures don’t do justice to the majesty of what we saw and secondly, there aren’t quite the right English words to describe this part of the trip, and thirdly, I’ve had some technical difficulties with WordPress. However, last night after thinking about our trip with awe and thankfulness, I discovered that I might have a few words for this part and the rest you’ll just have to imagine. 🙂
One of the technical difficulties I’m facing is the inability to download my photos from a file to this blog. I am able to access Marylou’s pictures and she has graciously let me use them on here. All but one of the pictures are hers and if you want to see even more stunning images and a more detailed summary, go check hers out.
So we left the crowds and the colorful concrete jungle that is Venice, and hit the open road, heading north. We were surprised at how quickly the flat coastlands gave way to rolling foothills, and I remember seeing our first set of baby Alps, and it was quite impressive!
You have to keep in mind that we’re from Georgia and well accustomed to the sea and to land at sea level, and so even baby mountains really wowed us!
These stunning views were just outside our van windows on our way to Fiè allo Sciliar, our destination in the Dolomites . The timing of this part of the trip was perfect, with the trees starting to change color, but with the brilliant October skies.
We kept stopping every couple of kilometers it seemed to oooh and ahhhh more adequately. You’d think a soul would run out of awe but the tank is bottomless, thanks to a good and kind God who not only created such beauty, but the capacity to enjoy it as well. Missing a road on our route took us within a few kilometers of the border of Austria but we didn’t have the time to keep going.
Because of some excellent research by Marylou, we came upon Rainbow Lake just as the sun was about to set. The crystal clear water made the perfect mirror for a set of craggy mountains in the background. You can’t really make stuff like this up, I promise, and to experience it is to leave you almost speechless, and that says a lot about a group of Hershberger ladies 🙂
We finally made it, after many stops and photos, and pleasurable sighs, to our destination, and it was one of two places where we only spent one night. In this part of northern Italy, there is a lot of Swiss influence and flavor, and our hostess for the night spoke fluent German, not Italian, and she helpfully pointed us to what was to become a highlight of the trip for me- the Alpe Di Suesi, an alpine meadow tucked in between some more wonderful, craggy mountains.
This meadow, along with other stunning villages we drove through, was relatively quiet due to the time of the year, but when skiing season starts, these places are crawling with people. We spent the morning here, and it felt as though we had wandered into Heidi’s book, and even ran into one of her goats! We split up and all headed separate ways for the morning. I followed a little road to the top of the mountain and was rewarded with more incredible views. Some cowhands were bringing a herd of brown and white Swiss cattle down the mountain and I stepped off the path to let them all pass, cowbells clanging, and hooves clomping. I also bought a little wooden spoon from a roadside stand, with an honor-based pay system. Those few hours were incredibly special, with the panorama of beauty and a heart full of worship. Clouds starting rolling in and were so low I felt as though I could nearly touch them, so I scampered back down the mountain and met up with the others who had wonderful experiences of their own to share.
Here we are with the goat. RuthAnne’s goals for the trip included petting all the animals so she got to add a goat to her list 🙂
Lois and Marylou drove Peppy (the van) down the mountain, and Kelly, RuthAnne and I took the cable car down.
We hit the road again, this time headed for Tirano, up near the Swiss border. As usual, we punched the address into the GPS and buzzed along. We had left enough margin in our timing for more photo stops, as we were wont to do by this point, but it was mid-afternoon when we finally really tried to actually drive more than a few kilometers without stopping. We were about to stumble upon the most unexpected, memorable part of our trip. I still can’t really think about it without shivering a little.
It started innocently enough, until we hit this spot:
Of course we HAD to stop and take a million pictures and pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t on a puzzle box. I mean those are glaciers up there in the right corner! We couldn’t even!!!! Eventually we settled ourselves back down and starting driving. Uphill. Very uphill, and there was no downhill in sight. Soon we were nearly eye level with the glaciers.
We were soon above the tree line and going around one hairpin curve after the other, winding up a road to who-knows-where. At one point we were about 25 miles from the moon, or so we imagined. The curves were so sharp that those of us in the back had to give the all-clear for the next right or left hand swing. The average gradient was 8%. The higher we got, the quieter we all got in the van. I’d venture to say that was the quietest, non-sleeping time of any part of our trip. We were all controlled and not outwardly freaking out, but you could almost feel the tension rising. It’s hard to describe how lonely and otherworldly it felt up there, above the trees and civilization. The occasional oncoming vehicles were reassuring that indeed, life was happening and possible, but it just felt incredibly lonely.
(the photo above is mine, and excuse the quality but notice the road!)
Forty-eight hair pin curves later (I’m not exaggerating), we made it to the top. At this point, we noticed on the GPS that we were almost in Switzerland so we made a turn and drove for just a bit down a side road to get into Switzerland and then came back.
Coming down was definitely easier, although Peppy’s brakes were running kind of hot, so we pulled over to let him have a break. Coming down the mountain and seeing the friendly lights of villages was one of the most beautiful moments of the trip 🙂
When we got to our place for the night, we looked up our route and discovered that we had successfully driven the Stelvio Pass, the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the Alps. The highest point is 9,088 feet but it seems a lot higher when you aren’t expecting anything of the sort and have no idea where you are!
We settled in for the night; Lois got a back massage for the incredible and difficult driving she mastered, and the rest of us cooked a yummy supper of vegetable stir fry, with groceries we picked up in the welcoming little town.
The following day we did a train-trip up into St. Moritz in Switzerland where we spent a few hours. The Bernina Express train does the same route but we found that taking the local train, with windows that we could open, was a good bit cheaper. Here is the local train station in Tirano:
The train trip was wonderful, but our experiences along the tops of mountains the day before was hard to beat! We sort of expected to see more Swiss country with towns and chalets but we really just saw a lot more mountains and glacier lakes, and lots of tunnels. Train travel is always relaxing in the country and this was no exception. We enjoyed walking around the glitzy resort town of St. Moritz, and it is definitely different from any Italian city we had been in. For one thing, everything was in francs and everything was expensive! Finding a burger meal for less than $25 was impossible so we opted for kebabs in a little shop off the beaten path. French fries, kebab meat and a special sauce made for a deliciously fattening meal. The dear little grandpa running the place charged me $.13 for my meal and about $300 (I think) for Lois’. The language barrier and credit card machine confused him a little but we got it all worked out. Visit Marylou’s page to see our take on some of the Gucci and other designer stores in this town 🙂
St. Moritz is beautifully set by a lake and is fun to explore for a bit but if you aren’t into fashion and glam and high-end living, you might not completely appreciate what it offers.
Friday morning we packed up and headed south, this time with no mountain pass on our route. I’m not sure we were emotionally ready for another pass 🙂 They have a great road system and the interstate was similar to American ones. All we saw of Milan was driving around the outside of the city on our way south. Our route also took us along Lake Como, so we stopped there for a bit, to eat our leftover stir fry, and to use the bathroom. The bathroom part is a long story but lets just say there were some desperately happy ladies who finally found a “banyo”and who consequently sang a few songs in four part harmony to the restaurant owner who let us in. We were just that thankful and relieved (pun kind of intended). I’ll probably never sing for a bathroom again 🙂
Stir-fry wasn’t really classic food for a Lake Como picnic but we were within 48 hours of flying home and were trying to eat up all of our food 🙂 We saved many $$$ by occasionally preparing simple one-dish meals and then eating leftovers on the road. Obviously we didn’t do it at the expense of trying and enjoying local foods, but it did help our pennies stretch further.
Lake Como is absolutely gorgeous and it’s easy to see why the rich and famous vacation here. Again, due to being off-season, many of the places were closed and it really felt like not much of a happening place but during peak season it is a lot more lively.
We then ended our driving back in Florence, where we dropped off the van and then got on a fast train back to Rome. We arrived in Rome in the early evening and ate our last dinner at one of the places they tell you not to eat: the places with the bright menu pictures and where the menus are in English and pushy waiters are out in the road trying to coax you in. Well, we just did anyway and turns out, Roman made-for-tourists- lasagna, though disavowed by the Romans, is quite delicious. Served up by a very flirtatious and charming waiter, and that was the final flourish to our Italian adventure! We spent the night in an ancient hotel with peeling paint and a rather sketchy looking elevator, but we all slept well. Our flight home was early afternoon the next day and we got to the airport just in time, and that was with taking an earlier train than we had originally planned. The airport is out of the city about 30 miles. Our flights home went well and we arrived home tired, but supremely happy and full of amazing memories.
I don’t think I’m done with Italy just yet. I’d love to visit the Amalfi Coast and spend more time at Lake Como, but overall, I’d say we experienced Italy about as fully as one can in three weeks time. However, there are many other lovely places on my to-experience list so we’ll see about a return trip to Italy 🙂
Definitely the most important ingredients of a great trip are good and thorough research, good and compatible travel companions, and an open mind and willingness to explore new cultures.
Italy is an ancient civilization and a proud one, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand it and unpack it in the short time I was there.
There is so much more that could be written about our trip, but it’s hard to know how many details are of general interest, or are dear little gems to just keep in my heart. If you are thinking of visiting Italy and want more specifics, shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to help.
Until next time,