Monday, 17 September 2007

Verona, Bolzano and the Alpi de Siusi (Seiser Alm)

This post covers our journey from Lake Garda to the Dolomites with tales of military zones, full campsites and dodgy car parks.

On Monday 10 September we checked out of our campsite at Lake Garda and drove half an hour to the city of Verona. Along the way we saw a couple of scantily cald women along the highway which we thought was strange… until we saw about half a dozen more and realised the highway between Lake Garda and Verona is a popular daytime hangout for prostitutes! Parking in Verona was relatively straightforward and we walked around the city for an hour admiring the Roman ampitheatre and several attractive piazzas. We bought a large cup of chopped up fruit – mostly pineapple and melon with some kiwis, strawberries and blackberries thrown in too.

Above: Alpine Cow, Alpi de Siusi
Left: Are you sure we're still in Itlay?

We headed back to Ace and drove north towards the Alps. Along the way we passed dozens of vineyards with rows of vines cascading down the terraced hills. Being September, the grapes were being picked and old men were tipping baskets full of plump purple grapes into trailers on the back of small tractors. Several times we overtook these tractors driving along the highway. It can be frustrating driving on non-toll roads in Italy, they are not as good as the French non-toll roads, it takes forever to get anywhere!

We passed a couple of aire de service type places for motorhomes, one in particular was very busy but was right on the motorway, too noisy I told Sarah! About 6pm we found a car park at the side of the road where one motorhome had stopped for the night, but as it was noisy too I convinced Sarah we should keep going, there was a campsite 20 minutes away. We had noticed the road signs were now bilingual in this part of Italy, not only in Italian, but also German. We arrived in the small town of Ora which looked like it had been transported here out of Bavaria! Of course, the campsite was full, so we drove to another nearby campsite which didn’t look very nice yet they wanted €23 to spend the night, ha!

The next town had 5 motorhomes parked up in an area which was clearly labelled “Zona militaria”. We both had visions of us driving over a landmine or Ace being crushed by a tank in the middle of the night so we decided to give that town a miss. The next town had dozens of motorhomes parked up at a sports complex, hurrah! We went to drive in and were told it was a private rally. We passed a campsite here but kept going.

On we drove to a parking lot in the city of Bolzano where there was a borne (where you take on fresh water and empty your waste water). There were 3 old crappy motorhomes parked up there so we decided to join them, out of sheer desperation! There was a elevated train line above the parking lot and every time a train rolled in it was like the Apollo 13 taking off on a launch pad next to us!

Above: Alpine cottage
Below: Sarah near the Gondola station

We tried to cook dinner but there was a problem with our gas, none of the hobs would stay on very high which meant cooking was difficult! We decided to head back to the last campsite we’d seen but all they could offer us was a very small place next to the toilet blocks and a restraurant for €20! Thieves! Back we headed to the parking lot. Sarah fell asleep straight away but I remained awake listening to the odd drunken cries of a homeless person or the blaring stereo of some bloke picking up his bird from the train station.

At 5.40am we heard an announcement from the station over the PA system. Shortly afterwards the first train of the day thundered along the platform above us. Amazingly, we stayed in bed until 8.30am trying to ignore the noise of the railway and the delivery vans pulling into the car park. Eventually we got up and drove to the nearby supermarket. There were 2.9 metre barriers on the entrance, the exact height of Ace. In a reckless mood I drove straight through them and parked up across 4 or 5 several car park spaces. There wasn’t a great range of products inside, but I did manage to grab some steak, foccacia and some fruit. We then drove into Bolzano and tried to find a car park, an impossibility as all the car parks were underground. We decided to cut our losses and head towards our campsite, about 15 kilometres east of Bolzano up a steep, twisting mountain road. We did have several scary moments on the way up (like when a bus almost plowed into us on a bend says Sarah) but nothing too bad.

This region of Italy is quite a peculiararity - it looks like Switzerland and everyone speaks German. In fact, until 1918 this area used to be in Austria. This is why we saw signs promoting the annual strudel festival, men in lederhosen playing alpine horns and the onion-shaped Tirolean domes of churches dotted along the countryside.
Above left: Me relaxing at the top of the mountain
Below: Camping Seiser Alm

Camping Seiser Alm is located at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains, the setting is quite spectacular. When I reserved over the phone from Lake Garda I said we only wanted to stay one night which I confirmed again on arrival. The other Italian campsites we’d been to don’t want to know how many nights you want to stay, they only want to know when you’re actually checking out. A friendly young guy checked us in and told me all about the gondola ride up the Seiser Alm and the free bus which takes you to the gondola station. I later asked him if we could stay another night and he said he’d see what he could do, come back tomorrow morning.

We set ourselves up on a nice pitch near the facilities block with a great view of the mountains. The air in the mountains was certainly cooler so we put our fleeces on, but when you were out in the sun things got pretty warm! I walked down to a nearby church, Saint Konstantin to take some photos while Sarah rested.

Below: Saint Konstantin
On the way back I checked out the facilities block. The toilets and showers here were exceptional. Spotlessly clean, they were similar to a 5 star hotel we had stayed at in London! There were torches on the wall which lit up when you walked along and classical music played softly in the background. The washing up room was fantastic with these pressure hose kind of things you see in restaurant kitchens. There was a great looking kids bathroom Sarah and I had a peak in and even a room for washing your pooch!

After lunch we walked up the hill to the main road and caught the bus to the Seiser Alm gondola station and for €12 each we bought return tickets up the mountain. The blue gondolas can take a maximum of 16 people but Sarah and I had one to ourselves for the 15 minute journey. The gondola sailed high over the hills, up and up over farms and hotels. The view at the top of the plateau was fantastic. Green alpine meadows, rolling hills dotted with farms and chalets, and of course, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites.

We both put ourr fleeces on at this point and all of a sudden I wished I’d not worn shorts! We walked a few hundred metres into the village of Compatsch where we had a caffe latte and then walked on to a chairlift station. For €5.50 each we were whisked even higher up into the hills where we got an even better view of the surrounding mountains. We took some photos, said hello to the sheep and goats and then caught the chairlift back down. It had just gone 4pm and the journey back down was freezing! Sarah’s lips went blue and she was in need of some ear muffs and an extra jumper. We got the gondola and bus back to the campsite where we both had a nice hot shower before dinner.

The next morning at 5am it was absolutely freezing in Ace, I put the heating on and slowly the van warmed up. The sun only appears over the mountain tops about 9.30am, so until then it’s very cold.

Above left: View from the Seiser Alm Bahn
Below: View from one of the chairlifts

After this time it warms up quickly, so much so that by 11am many people are outside sunbathing! At 10am I went to reception to see if we could stay again. This time I ran into the woman who runs the site who was most annoyed by the fact we wanted to stay a 2nd night. “We asked you the maximal number of nights you want to stay and you said one!” Geez, it may be Italy but the Germanic attitude was in full swing here… In the end after much apologising and grovelling from me we were allowed to stay another night. Phew!

At lunchtime we walked down to Saint Konstantin church (for Sarah to meet the cows) then we caught the bus up to the gondola station again. I had enjoyed the scenery so much I wanted to go up again! This time we caught a bus a few kilometres from Compatsch to Saltria where there was another longer chairlift up into the mountains. This time it was €9 each for a 15 minute journey. The chairlift whisked us over hundreds of pine trees, some still sprinkelled with snow. Others were so close we could almost reach out and touch the pine cones! At the top we had a hot drink outside in the sun enjoying the panoramic view. The bus back to Compatsch was choc-a-bloc full of hikers, mostly older Germans. After the journey back on the gondola we had a quick look around the town of Seis and then headed back to the campsite. As we were leaving the next day I told Sarah that I loved this area so much that one day we will be back!

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