Touring the South Tyrol
Switzerland - Italy - Austria - Liechtenstein  (June, 2009)
This story chronicles a six-day sojourn by two gentlemen in an aged convertible wandering the steep, twisting roadways
of the South Tyrol.  The South Tyrol is a broad region stretching across the Alps of northern Italy and western Austria.  At
one time, the entire area belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but today, as a result of shifting borders caused by
two world wars, most of it lies within Italy.  In northern Italy, a strong German cultural influence remains, evidenced by the
fact that road signs, store fronts, and cafe menus are displayed in Italian and German.  Most locals speak both languages.
Reinhard, a former neighbor from Germany, had been encouraging me to make this trip with him for more than a year; and,
finally, good weather and our schedules coincided.  I had wondered why Reinhard chose me, of all people, to accompany
him on this epic journey.  Eventually, it came to light that Reinhard had traveled these roads once before, in the summer of
1953, in a borrowed convertible.  Fifty-six years later, he hoped to duplicate the experience by retracing his original route.
To do that, he needed another open-air vehicle.  Yours truly happened to own a well-preserved fourteen-year-old rag top.
Everything in life is relative, so calling Reinhard old was simply a matter of perspective.  My teenaged niece thought me a
fossil at sixty-two; but, standing next to the eighty-six-year-old Reinhard, I considered him ancient.  He called me "Sonny."
Winging through the South Tyrol with an eighty-six-year-old navigator does result in some very special moments.  In six days,
we covered 1,050 kilometers, or about 650 miles.  Of that distance, at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) could be attributed to
wrong turns.  This bothered Reinhard, but not me.  While he struggled to remain on his original course of 1953, I marveled at
scenery I had never before witnessed; everything was new, and no matter what turn we took, the views were breathtaking.
Much had changed since 1953.  Where Reinhard recalled romantic tree-lined avenues, four-lane Autostradas now whisked
traffic along at 110 kilometers per hour.  Where once gently curving lanes had ascended small hills, grimy tunnels now bored
straight lines through the mountain base; and, time had also taken a toll on many hotels and cafes along the route, expanding
and renovating them beyond recognition or razing them altogether, leaving no trace except in Reinhard's distant memories.
Observing Reinhard over those six days, I'm not sure it's a such good idea to return after fifty-six years to a place that holds
such treasured recollections; better, perhaps, to leave our memories and the past just as they are.  For me, however, those
six days on the road provided a wonderful new experience to share with friends through the ethereal reach of the Internet.
On Wednesday, June 17, Reinhard arrived from Frankfurt, Germany, and spent the night at our place in Thalwil, Switzerland,
on the outskirts of Zürich.  After breakfast on Thursday morning, Irmi headed to work, and Reinhard and I packed my 1995
Audi convertible with provisions and drove up Swiss Autobahn A3 in the direction of Chur.  At the city of Landquart, we exited
the autobahn and followed a twisting, two-lane road up a valley past the renowned mountain villages of Klosters and Davos.
For eight months of each year, the road dead-ends at Davos; but, from June through September, enough snow usually melts
to allow traffic over the Flüela Pass.  By the time we arrived, the pass had been open for more than two weeks, but bright
orange poles, at least ten feet tall, still lined the roadway on both sides, marking the depth of the deepest winter snowfalls.
I took no photos of the Flüela Pass, because the terrain offered no place to park.  Reinhard, relaxing in the passenger seat,
could have snapped some shots from the moving car, but the thought didn't occur to him.  He was of a different generation.
The road up to the Flüela Pass ran steep, with switchbacks winding in one continuous ribbon up the mountainside.  Where
the asphalt roadway ended, the ground dropped off sharply.  Far above the tree line, the region lay covered in granite, worn
smooth by the ages, looking much like a great lava field.  Cold, windy, and desolate, it probably didn't merit a photo anyway.
Thursday  --  2:01 p.m.
This gravel area provided our first chance to stop and look around.  It is located just beyond
the village of Susch, within the Swiss National Park.  My car is pointing in the direction we
 will travel.  Leaving the park, we will continue to the summit of the Ofen Pass.  From that point,
it will be downhill for the rest of the day, through the town of Müstair and into Italy.  Once inside 
Italy, we will travel Highways 41 and 38, en route to Merano where we will spend the night.
Thursday  --  5:01 p.m.
This was the view from my hotel balcony, as we settled in for the night.  We were now on the
Mediterranean side of the Alps where the temperature on this day hovered near 100; hence
the slight haze in the distance.  We stayed in the town of Marling, just outside of Merano.  The
Etch River runs between Merano and Bolzano, creating the Etch Valley, a fertile basin filled
with fruit orchards in the flatlands and vineyards along the hillsides.
Friday  --  10:47 a.m.
The trip passed at a leisure pace.  Given the terrain, we averaged 100 miles per day, rising
at around 8:00 a.m. each morning and, after breakfast at the hotel, hitting the road around
10:30 or so and checking into our next hotel by approximately 3:00 p.m.  The photo above
was taken from the entrance of the Hotel Oberwirt where we spent our first night.  I had a
 few minutes to spare after breakfast on Friday morning (waiting on Reinhard) and took a
 short walk up the hill.  A small section of vineyard is visible between the two buildings.
Friday  --  1:05 p.m.
One of the "must see's" on Reinhard's list was the Reinhold Messner Mountain Museum,
 located in Castle Juval.  Messner is a legend among mountain climbers, having scaled the
highest peak on every continent.  We were required to park our car at the foot of the hill
and ride a small bus almost to the top.  When the bus could no longer navigate the narrow
road, we disembarked and walked the last kilometer up to the castle.  I took this shot from
the roadway, looking down, fascinated by the small secluded winery hidden in the valley.
Friday  --  1:22 p.m.
Approaching Castle Juval on foot.  The elk-like animal on the right is made of cast iron.  
The road we will walk back down to the bus meeting point is visible in the lower left.  
Friday  --  2:49 p.m.
Again, Friday was extremely warm, so this photo suffers in the distance.  This shot was taken
from Castle Juval, looking down the valley floor whence we came.  A "must" on Reinhard's list,
it turned out to be a bust, because the so-called museum offered nothing at all from Messner's
mountain climbing adventures; instead, we were given a tour of an eclectic collection of Tibetan
art work strewn about the castle: hokey and over-priced.  All was not lost, however, as we were
treated to hair-raising rides up and down the mountainside by a young Italian man at the wheel
of a twenty-passenger bus who had obviously driven the stretch many times, casually screeching
around sharp, precarious turns with mere millimeters separating the bus from sheer granite walls.
Saturday  --  8:16 a.m.
On Friday evening, we found rooms at a small Hotel-Garni (the three-star Hotel Katnau) in the
town of Schenna -- and were pleasantly surprised at a price of only 41 Euros for a single room
with breakfast.  (A hotel-garni is a small establishment offering a breakfast meal only with no
restaurant services.)  This photo was taken from our breakfast table on Saturday morning.
Saturday  --  11:23 a.m.
From Schenna, we drove to Bolzano and spent the morning wandering the narrow cobblestone
streets among small shops and stalls in the old town.  Bolzano is historically rich and beautiful,
but beauty can be difficult to find on a Saturday morning, as local residents on weekly shopping
errands stream into town, joining with tourists in a crush of humanity.  Reinhard bought a bag of
fresh fruit, and we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for a cup of coffee before hitting the road again.
Saturday  --  1:06 p.m.
Leaving Bolzano, we entered the Dolomiti Highway, a narrow two-lane road winding up into
the Dolomites, a section of the Alps.  For those who relish the growl of a high revving engine,
five-speed transmission, and the soft feel of calfskin driving gloves, this is where the tour really
begins.  Accelerating into the mountains, we stopped first at the Karersee (Lake Karer) which
lies at 1530 meters elevation.  The Latemar Range (2864 meters) lies opposite, but on this day
they are shrouded in low-lying clouds (photo above).  The lake is crystal clear with a cinder path
trail hugging the shoreline.  We grabbed the opportunity for a little exercise and circled the lake.
Saturday  --  1:31 p.m.
After walking around the lake, we headed back to the car.  As I turned to
leave the lake, the sun broke through, and I snapped this shot.  Hopefully,
it conveys some idea of just exactly how clear the water appeared.  Were
I an angler, I would consider this lake unsporting, as large trout abounded,
swimming lazily in the shallows, easily spotted from ten or twenty meters
away.  A simple flick of the wrist, and you could drop your fly right in the
fish's path.  No anglers appeared that day; hopefully, they are not allowed.
Saturday  --  2:45 p.m.
We stopped often to enjoy the scenery.  Small gravel turn-outs like this one appeared every
couple hundred meters, so whenever a particularly inviting vista presented itself, such as here,
 we were able to pull over within a reasonable distance, exit the car, and capture it on film.
On an unpleasant note, the weekend brought out the motorcycle crowd, mostly from Germany
but also many driving up from the larger cities of southern Italy.  These people, released from
the pressure of a weekly work grind, attacked the mountains en mass and with unusual gusto,
almost completely disregarding others on the road.  To be fair, some were quite polite; but most
treated the road as their personal race course, clad in black leather head to foot and sporting
futuristic helmets with shiny chrome face shields, leaning around blind corners at top speed and
roaring off at full throttle.  Several times, on-coming bikers rounded a bend and drifted into my
 lane, on a collision course, before glancing up and seeing me and correcting back onto their own
 side of the road.  Reckless driving wasn't the only problem.  Apparently, it is common practice to 
remove the baffles from motorcycle mufflers, so when a rider approaches from behind and roars
on past, the increased decibel levels cause significant discomfort to any gentlemanly convertible
 driver tooling along with the top down at vacation speed.  From that point on, if I saw even one
motorcyclist in my rear-view mirror, I pulled over into the next cut-out and allowed him to pass.
Saturday  --  3:07 p.m.
Another scenic turnout, this one necessitated by an urgent call from Nature.
(A German-speaking man might call this a "pink-el pow-zah.")
Saturday  --  5:36 p.m.
This was the view from my balcony at the Hotel La Perla in Canazei.  We got settled in a little
later than usual that day, having made a wrong turn and driven all the way up to Passo Fedaia
(Fedaia Pass, 2,057 meters), then turning around and back-tracking forty minutes to Canazei
where we had turned right instead of left.  The road to Passo Fedaia looked just fine to me, but
it wasn't on Reinhard's original itinerary, and he insisted on staying true to history by traversing
Passo Pordoi (2,239 meters), which we would now attempt the next morning.  In the meantime,
I treated myself to a double-schnitzle dinner with a large salad and heaping plate of "pommes
frites" (french fries) washed down with a nearly half-liter glass of spätzi (a cold drink containing
a mixture of Coca Cola and carbonated lemonade).  A good meal can solve just about any crisis.
Sunday  --  10:18 a.m.
Having departed the town of Canazei (and having turned left this time), we are headed toward
 Passo Pordoi and the town of Cortina.  The range of mountains in the background is called
Sellagruppe in German and Gruppo Del Sella in Italian (3152 meters).
Sunday  --  10:44 a.m.
This scene is very representative of serpentine roads in the area. In addition to motorcyclists,
 we also shared the pavement with a hardy breed of bicyclists.  The extreme stamina and mental
discipline required to scale these peaks on two wheels defies description, and these men and
women have my deepest respect.  I gave each of them a wide berth and a friendly wave.
Sunday  --  10:55 a.m.
The landscape varied from one bend in the road to the next and from one minute to the next.
Sunday  --  11:15 a.m.
Having cleared Passo Pordoi summit, we are preparing to descend the other side, following
the narrow ribbon of road down the middle of the valley on to the next ridge of mountains in the
distance.  The white streaks on the hillsides to the right are snow remnants.  (It's late June!)
Sunday  --  11:24 a.m.
Slightly farther down the same valley as in previous photo.   Town of Cortina lies ahead.
Sunday  --  11:31 a.m.
A gorgeous stretch of wide open road.  Note the wild flowers in foreground -- typical of the area.
Sunday  --  12:50 p.m.
In the town of Cortina, we stopped at a small outdoor cafe for a sandwich and a cup
of coffee, surrounded by a thousand motorcyclists.  (Well, it seemed like that many.)
Sunday  --  1:14 p.m.
Stopped at another roadside cut-out, we were attracted by the velvety texture
of the grassy hillside opposite -- and the haphazard arrangement of the buildings.
Sunday  --  1:48 p.m.
With the passing days, the weather turned cooler, and driving with the top down became an
issue.  At higher elevations, the winds increased, and the temperature dropped.  Reinhard, at
his age, caught cold easily, so he asked me now and then to close the windows and raise the
top.  Invariably, after acceding to his wishes, another convertible soon drove by in the opposite
direction, cockpit open to the  skies, and we got "The Glare." I slumped in my seat and cringed,
with a pretty good guess as to what that other driver must have been thinking:  Why on earth do
 you own a convertible, if you choose to drive it in this paradise with the top up?  It's an unwritten
 rule of the road; if you own a convertible, you must drive it with the top down, baring rain or snow.
Rolling the windows up in order to cut down on wind noise is permissible, but the top stays down.
 Whenever possible from that point onward, we dropped the top and bundled up against the cold,
 me in my baseball cap and Gortex jacket; Reinhard sporting a stylish parka, floppy hat and scarf.
Sunday  --  1:53 p.m.
Five minutes have  passed since the last photo, and look at the change in scenery.  Amazing!
Sunday  --  1:55 p.m.
We have reached the summit of Passo Falzarego (2145 meters).
  Leaving this point, we will drive away to the right, in the direction of the arrows on the signpost.
Sunday  --  1:57 p.m.
Leaving Passo Falzarego, preparing to descend into the valley, toward San Cassiano where we
will spend the night.  See the road at the middle right?  The white patch at lower right is snow.
Sunday  --  2:59 p.m.
This view awaited at the window of my room in the Hotel Armentarola in Cassiano.  Obviously,
 Reinhard no longer possessed the hand-eye coordination, reaction time, depth-perception, or
 any other physical attribute that would have allowed him to share any driving time on the steep
 narrow roads of the Dolomites, so yours truly had been forced to do it all, and the strain began
 to mount.  To my extreme delight, this hotel room had a full-size Jacuzzi whirlpool bathtub, and
I wallowed in that baby for an hour, water jets turned up to full blast, bubbles everywhere.  Ah!
Monday  --  10:29 a.m.
Having left our hotel in Cassiano, we drove a few kilometers and entered the town of La Villa.
Monday  --  10:30 a.m.
A minute later, I turned 180 degrees and snapped this photo of the terrain we had just
 traveled.  The road bends to the right and skirts around the mountains in the background. 
Monday  --  10:51 a.m.
This is the town of Corvara (1558 meters).  We stopped to replenish our water supply and
walked from one end of town to the other looking for a market.  In every small town we had
visited thus far, stores were closed from noon until 4:00 p.m., so we felt lucky to have arrived
earlier on this day.  The impressive peak in background is the Sassongher (2,665 meters).
Monday  --  11:31 a.m.
Looking back toward Corvara, climbing again, this time en route to the town of Arabba-Reba.
It's a good long hike from anywhere to reach this bench; but the view is certainly worth it.
Monday  --  11:57 a.m.
We spent quite a while at this spot.  It actually hailed for a few minutes when we first arrived,
then winds blew that away, and we waited for the clouds to move, so we could photograph
the peaks opposite, called Rosengartengruppe (German) or Gruppo del Catinaccio (Italian).
Monday  --  12:01 p.m.
Standing in the same spot as previous photo, I swung my lens to the right and took this shot.
The road curves right and runs along the juncture of grass and dark trees rising up the hill.
Monday  --  2:23 p.m.
This is the town of Sterzing.  Reinhard insisted on stopping here so he
could purchase a special brand of schnapps, available only in this region
-- at a special price.  While he wandered off in search of his prize, I sat
at the first outdoor cafe on the left and ate an apple strudel with coffee.
Tuesday  --  9:34 a.m.
This is the tiny "dorf" of Ratchings where we spent Monday night -- in a small pension on
a farm behind the second white building in the distance.  The Hotel Sonklarhof, located five
hundred meters to the rear of this photo, where we had hoped to find rooms, was booked out.
In the end, that turned out to our advantage, because at the small pension Residence Rainer,
we were each given a fully furnished apartment for only 38 Euros the night, breakfast included.
As a bonus, the polite and smiling young lady who checked us in and served our breakfast the
next morning introduced herself as Miss Katja Haller, a member of the Italian National Biathlon
 Team.  She announced that it had rained all night.  Note the fresh dusting of snow in the hills.
Tuesday  --  9:35 a.m.
This is 180 degrees from the previous photo -- the final day and the road home.
No photos were attempted from this point onward.  A mile or so down the highway, the rains came and continued all the way
back to Switzerland.  In accordance with the official convertible owners manual, we were now allowed to put the top up and
zip tight.  After driving a half hour, we reached the Brenner Pass (1,375 meters) and crossed into Austria.  Forty kilometers
(twenty-four miles) beyond the pass, we reached the outskirts of Innsbruck, gassed up and bought an Autobahn (toll) sticker
for the windshield.  Once on the Autobahn, I shifted up into fifth gear and set the speedometer needle at 130 kilometers per
hour (81 mph) and kept it there.  While Reinhard snored contentedly in the passenger seat, I popped a CD into the radio and
mellowed out with Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Harry Connick, Jr.  An hour and thirty minutes later, we approached
the border between Austria and Liechtenstein.  Actually, there is no border, per se; a sign posted at the midpoint of a bridge
crossing the Rhine River serves as the demarcation line.  Liechtenstein is a principality with no police force or standing army,
and they use the Swiss Franc as their currency of exchange.  A mutual friend of ours owned a vacation home in Vaduz, the
major population center of Liechtenstein, and she had insisted that we stop by on our trip.  I relished the chance for a break
from driving, so we dropped in on Constanze and shared a pleasant two hours of coffee, cookies and conversation.  Back on
the road again by 4:00 p.m., we shot down Autobahn 13 to the town of Sargans, merged onto Autobahn A3, and cruised into
Thalwil and home at 5:30 p.m., Reinhard snoring peacefully in the passenger seat.  My pleasure, Reinhard.  Don't mention it.

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