by Karen Davies | Sep 21, 2018 | Featured Post, Italy, Travel Blog
Stelvio Pass, Italy – are you game for the ride of your life that gets your heart pumping, your legs wobbling and your eyes bulging with all the incredible scenery? A ride that takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of fear – and back again.
We had the Stelvio Pass in our sights from the outset of our ‘life on the road’, as we were driven by living beyond our fear. Although for all sorts of reasons, it didn’t happen. Then we had the chance to drive the Transfagarasan Pass, which was soon followed up by the outstanding TransAlpin Route, both in Romania. And what a thrill they both were. So what could beat that experience, especially when the Transfag has been voted ‘the best’ by UK’s ultimate petrol-heads from the Top Gear team?
After crossing through Austria and having to by-pass the Großglockner route because of the threat of 15cm of white stuff, we found ourselves in the Dolomites in Italy. We’ve seen these majestic peaks, with their angular spikes towering over the Venetian region, many a time, so to actually be driving within them was just magical. With scenery looking akin to a Canadian tourist brochure, we were totally wowed by the whole region. Although yet again the weather dampened our spirits, quite literally – low cloud and drizzle meant that any exploration had to be in our dreams – for now it just wasn’t meant to be.
That was until we woke up to clear blue skies after a fabulous wild spot at Cinque Torri cable car, (46.51894, 12.03837). In a flash we had changed our plans and in a fit of child-like giddiness, decided to hit the road and head to Stelvio Pass. It was only four hours away after all! A piece of cake.
Click on the image below to see some of our favourite pictures…
After plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s around every corner, we wondered how on earth we could beat this drive on the Falzarego and Gardena Passes. Although Stelvio is one of those Bucket List places, especially if you seek memorable and adrenalin pumping experience. So onward we drove, past Bolzano – famous for its capital status of the southern Tyrol region and home to the infamous ‘Iceman’ Ötzi – a Neolithic mummy. Heading north, the valley transforms; its angular construction morphs into a more undulating spectacle, with the mountains crocheted with acres of vineyards and patchwork apple orchards. In September to see the fruit literally dripping from the tiny trees is almost as iconic as the Tuscan grape vineyards further south. Every 100m we found a road-side seller enticing us to stop and take the ‘red apple’. Tempting as it was, it was not food we craved – it was the secret hidden within the heart of those towering giants who beckoned us.
Within only 90 minutes and around 50 miles from Bolzano we soon started to see the famous brown signs that told us all we needed to know – Stelvio was coming!
With thirty thousand devices at the ready to record our adventure, we entered the Stelvio Park. At first we were greeted by pine clad forests, sweeping roads and alpine villages that perch over the ice-blue river, which courses its way from the upper glaciers. Little did we know what lay ahead. Slowly we climbed and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves – until the wiggles began. They were gentle at first and then they became steeper, tighter and more heart-pumping. 48 switchback bends awaited us for our uphill trek and for the first 10 or so it was exhilarating. Yet soon they became more challenging and our strings became tighter and the air a little more blue as expletives of disbelief became common-place. Our fear, for now was being silenced by the adrenaline rush of the adventure.
The picture-postcard perfection filled our windscreen – snow capped mountains looming large in front of us, so close we could almost touch them and feel their chill. For a moment the Dolomites became a distant memory as we became hypnotised by Stelvio’s beauty. At bend 31 (which at the time we hadn’t actually clocked meant there were still another 30 to go) we stopped for some lunch. With legs a little like jelly after navigating 19, 180 degree bends, we took a breather and enjoyed the scenery. This spot would have made a fantastic place to overnight with our camper and whilst the view was seriously winning the battle to make us stay, Myles was keen to get towards the top – which, after all was only 5 miles away. What could possibly go wrong?
One thing that motivated us to continue was a German outfit that parked up next to us whilst we were having lunch. A guy poised with his camera stood as if in wait for someone or something – and of all the things we could have anticipated – UNICYCLES would not have been one of them. Really? Yes seriously, two guys were in training and cycled all the way up the top of the Stelvio Pass, all 50 odd switch backs on UNICYCLES. Are they mad? I couldn’t imagine doing that on a bicycle let alone a Unicycle. All praise to them.
With just a bit of fuel inside our bellies we carried on and it didn’t take very many more bends to reveal the truth behind the mere 5 mile challenge. The stark realisation was that the snake-like bends ahead of us formed the vertical route we HAD to drive up. For a second we did think about turning around, as we had already had a little scrape on the back skirt, although we had come this far – we were not about to stop.
One bend at a time. Me craning my neck to see descending traffic and Myles, with the strength of an ox and steely determination, driving wide; first gear, slowly does it, pathway clear, gentle acceleration – another bend successfully completed.
I’ll be honest, at this point, our experiences of Romania’s Transfagarasan Pass seemed like child’s play – this was so much more of a stretching and challenging drive. Not that we like to compare, although this road was more technical. So, sorry Top Gear boys – we think Stelvio beats Transfag hands down for pure driving skill.
Whilst neither of us said it out loud, I think our fear took over our excitement at this point and whilst it was thrilling, the switchbacks are relentless and they test you as driver and a navigator. I think above all it is the traffic that causes as much of an issue as anything; cyclists, buses, sports cars, motorbikes all buzzing around you and with a rig that is 7.5m long, our need to take a wide course was imperative. Still we did it and we would not have missed the experience – it really made us feel alive.
Reaching our summit spot for the night was both a relief and a highlight as we gazed in disbelief down the valley to see the path we travelled. It is a vision that made me feel proud; proud of Myles’ skill, proud of my calmness, and proud of sticking with it. It was one of our greatest accomplishments since we took to the road. And the reward was heart-filling. With glaciers at eye-line level, chunky marmots playing in the late afternoon sun and choughs flying past our window, we forgave ourselves for feeling just a little smug. It took an hour or so to calm down, although with a ‘home’ like this we soon relaxed into it.
Check out our video footage of this crazy experience by clicking the video below….
Given the ascent, we knew we still had to get down! Would that be as hairy we wondered? To be on the safe side, we decided to head out early, yet despite this there was still plenty of traffic around. I had read that the ‘other side’ was grey and boring in comparison – well take it from me – do not listen to that crazy notion. It is different that is for sure although boring, NO WAY.
The roads are more sweeping and the bends much easier to handle with plenty of places to stop for pictures. As we flirted with the Swiss border, we did, for a moment consider turning right into the Swiss National Park, although we wanted to say that we had ‘done’ Stelvio, in all its glory. We were treated to the most amazing waterfalls, the sight of marmots up close and tunnels that were, at times, just a little challenging. We loved the trip down and for us both it was a much more relaxed affair, where we could enjoy the scenery without such an intense feeling. After an hour we found ourselves in Bormio and we were soon on our way towards to the Italian lakes. And whilst our experience of Stelvio was now officially complete, the van was intact, as were our nerves, I felt just a little sad. I was sad because Stelvio is an onslaught of the senses and with 60 or so switchbacks, often our need to concentrate overtook our ability to absorb our surroundings. So I would love to do it again to really soak up the experience. Still we have done it – I’m so thrilled that we did it and would definitely recommend it.
Here are some facts and tips for making your Stelvio memorable, for all the right reasons.
Did you know…
- The Stelvio Pass is almost 200 years old?
- It was constructed by an Austrian Emperor who wanted to join the valley to his homeland.
- It is pretty much unchanged since that time.
- It reaches over 2,700m high and is 31 miles long – 49km.
- There are around 60 hairpin bends and 6 tunnels (although we lost count of the switchbacks after 20 as we were concentrating too much.)
- For 2 days at the end of August/beginning of September the route is closed to the public, allowing only cyclist to use the road. Do check the exact dates before heading this way.
- Even Sterling Moss, the greatest driver in the world, got into difficulties’ whilst travelling Stelvio.
- Stelvio may not be the most dangerous, although it is the highest paved road in the Eastern Alps.
- Unlike the Großglockner Pass in Austria’s Tyrol mountains, there is no toll road fee. Enjoy it free of charge – except for the energy you will expend in concentration and the petrol you will consume!
Tips for making your own Bucket List trip…
- We suggest to be kind to your breaks that you do the route from the northern edge from Balzano south to Bormio. It is far easier to navigate the switchbacks uphill.
- Whilst the route is open from May to September, always check the weather before undertaking the journey as unseasonal conditions can affect the area.
- The 31 miles will take you around 3 hours to negotiate, so time it right if you need to do it in one day.
- We recommend if travelling with a camper that you take two days and find one of the amazing wild spots to stay overnight. The light of the sunset and sunrise is magical.
- Avoid the road during the high season; July and August, especially the weekends as the volume of traffic will undoubtedly impact on the whole experience.
- Travel early or late if you want to minimise the traffic element of your drive. Whilst there are still plenty of people on the road, we certainly encountered less buses in the morning run.
- For more information check this website out.
- It might sound strange, although it is worth checking your brake pads especially if you are travelling in a camper and intend to go south to north from Bormio. No harm in checking all is well. You do not want to be half way down and finding your pads are thinning.
- If you are taking a camper whilst small buses do bomb up and down, we agreed that anything over 8m would be more of a stretch on this road and if you have a trailer, we suggest finding a campsite and leaving it behind.
We totally loved this road, as we look back. Whilst we were in the moment it was one of the most difficult drives we have ever done, the thrill and aliveness you feel whilst doing it make it completely worth it. Safe travels for your bucket list ride.
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by Karen Davies | Sep 6, 2018 | Austria, Featured Post, Personal Insights
Camping Mauterndorf – Gets a Five Star review from us! And it’s not often we can say that. As you know we love to wild camp and be in the heart of what Mother Nature gifted to us. Although from time to time we need some campsite love so we can catch up with all our domestic chores. And as we pass through Austria after our road-trip through Poland and Slovakia we spotted the Großglockener Pass, which is something we’ve wanted to do since we hit the road in March 2016. A half way point happened to be Camping Mauterndorf.
And boy what a treat. It is an ACSI site so out of season you pay just €19 per night plus tourist tax. And for that you get the pleasure of top quality facilities, cheap washing machines for €3, a Wellness Suite with sauna, steam-room, solarium and special showers. The pitches are a great size and totally surrounded by mountains from all angles and the staff here too are helpful and efficient. There is nothing that is too much trouble.
One of the greatest benefits of this site though is that for the duration of your stay you get a LungauCard which entitles you to a series of free and discounted activities within the area. So we took the Großeckbahn Cable Car, which normal price would set you back €16 per person for a return journey – with your card you get a one-time free trip. Panoramic views await you at the top with hikes galore and Austrian hospitality at its best.
This is a fabulous place to stay and we can’t recommend it highly enough. Vielen dank Camping Mauterndorf. You can check them out by clicking on their website here. Camping Mauterndorf. Their co-ordinates are 47.14289, 13.6646.
Check out our video of the campsite and the mountain area, which is free to explore….
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by Karen Davies | Jan 17, 2017 | Popular Posts, Spain, Travel Blog
We’re not great fans of cities and built up areas – and in truth we already knew this about ourselves before we embarked on our nomadic journey. Although nothing reminded us more of our appreciation of the natural world versus suburbia than Spain’s Costa Blanca. Although we chose to by-pass the area completely last year, we have come to embrace the fact that everything should be experienced just once – allowing you to make your own mind up as you travel amidst the maze of reviews from fellow journeymen.
So when my mum came to stay in Albir in between Altea and Benidorm for two weeks, it was an ideal opportunity to check out whether these areas had a piece of magic that would send us away with our tails between our legs. Keep open minded to the possibilities, I kept telling myself.
Alas, as we drove from Dénia to pick her up, my fears had been realised. Tower block hotels, wall to wall shops and buildings, main roads, motorways and traffic. All the things we hate most about urban life’s suffocating energy. Still, perhaps there would be something around the corner to change our minds. After tauntingly missing our junction for Albir, as if to prove a point, the N332 took us all the way to Benidorm – ‘That’ll teach you’ it whispered in tune with Scoobie’s tyre tracks. The high rises that took charge of the horizon, creating their own concrete landscape reached out to us like monsters in a nightmare and we struggled for twenty minutes to get out of the area and back on track to Albir.
Now Albir certainly wasn’t quite as bad as its partying neighbour, although there was just something about the whole coastline that made us feel hemmed in and breathless. We saw the same landmarks in Calpe, that we thought would be a quaint fishing village. Disappointment certainly visited us that day. So you can imagine our relief when we took refuge for the night in the mountains a short drive from the tawdry coastline. As we moved mile by mile towards the mountain metropolis we knew our souls would be reset very soon.
The higher we climbed, the more Mother Nature’s high rises drew us into her raw magnetism. Our destination was El Castell de Guadalest, not more than 30 minutes away on the CV70, that had been recommended by a friend. My mum had also been there the week before on an excursion with the hotel and had enjoyed it, so it was a must for us. We were not disappointed, aided by the fact that we arrived after the crowds had long since gone.
We found a Motorhome dedicated parking spot, that for €4 for the night, gave us a peaceful and beautiful spot to rest our heads. And the views were to die for! Now this was far more ‘us’ and we felt like we’d come home.
Because of the area’s historical popularity, coaches arrive in their droves, winding up the mountain roadway to reach this little oasis of gorgeousness. So having been there overnight, we had a head start and, pretty much the place to ourselves. Whilst there are the expected tourist shops and photo-capturing entrepreneurs looking to sell you unwelcome images as you enter the castle walls, beyond these there is a real authentic air to the place.
Perched up high in what looks like a sanctuary protected by three different mountain ranges, bizarrely Guadalest shows plenty of military scars from Moorish battles dating back to 700AD, the earthquake of 1644 and a mine explosion. Yet this small mountain settlement stands firm and resilient against human and natural tragedies. It is a testimony to how people work together to keep their communities in tact.
Today the ‘Grand House’ built after the earthquake, the castle remnants, the clock tower and white-washed village of quaint homes, all offer the visitor a welcome sense of reality, history and substance. The views down to the coast are the only reminder of the concrete seaside conurbation, as this Eagle’s Nest spectacular gives you a taste of real Spain and the struggles that gave the country its character and charm.
The Guadalest Reservoir nestled far below the village’s lofty strong-hold is an emerald green gem that has every form of photographic tool clicking away to capture the artist palette of colours.
The reservoir is worthy of the short drive, so you can take in the scene from a completely different perspective. Looking up towards the village you get a real sense of its dominant position whilst feeling in the heart of a haven of beauty. The mountains tower above you and the chalky curves of the lake’s edges entice you to wander its perimeter and share lunch on its shores. And here there are no tourists; certainly out of season you will have this place to yourselves, capturing your heart as you try to imagine the history that has been carved here.
Guadalest is such an incredible oasis of beauty that must be seen. Don’t drive past on the motorway in pursuit of quieter shores without stopping to marvel at its magic. It cries out to be loved, admired and valued and, in return you will be treated to a natural piece of heaven away from the vibrations of Europe’s party capital.
by Karen Davies | Mar 12, 2016 | Spain, Travel Blog
Star date 12 March 2016
Where has the last week gone? Who stole it? We don’t want it back, as there’s great fun to be had ahead, although just like to know who’s nabbed it. It’s just flown by. Who would have thought that in one week we would have locked up our furniture, said goodbye to our temporary home, said ‘au revoir’ to our friends, been to Cornwall for a meal at Rick’s place and sailed over to Spain. We’re now sitting about half way down the country, in Monfrague National Park, Entremadura Region.
Now, for those of you who are familiar with my blogs from our NZ Road-Trip, you will know how much I love my superlatives. For those of you new to my colourful and poetic travel summaries, let’s see if I can inspire, inform and entertain – just a little.
As I reflect on what we’ve achieved in the last six months, let alone the last week, I am amazed and proud of all that we have navigated. We’ve said good bye to the Matrix and set off on an adventure which we hope will be not so much life-changing, as life-enhancing.
So let’s begin….
The week, as I reflect back has been a cultural invasion for us country folk. Although we must admit to being just a little bit surprised by the weather. Now I know that the weather is unpredictable at the best of times in UK, although we had this preconceived idea that Spain would be sunny. Well what a baptism of fire that has been. Thunder storms, gale-force winds, hail, snow and piercingly cold temperatures have all been in the mix and apparently that’s normal for this part of the country. We made a conscious decision not to chase the sun as the weather is not a major driver for our experiences – although Myles does love the heat. Yet the idea of by-passing some of Spain’s most incredible cities was just too preposterous to imagine. So wrapped in our traditional English finery; thick coats, hats and gloves, we ventured towards the culture that we knew would expand our minds if not tan our bodies.
Research showed me, that Castile y Leon offered a huge amount of history and architecture, and yet one thing we learnt in NZ was that you can’t see everything, even with the freedom that we’re blessed with on this trip. So we selected a route – please enter; Burgos, Segovia and Salamanca. We so want to leave more than tyre tracks and leave behind just a little bit of our hearts in the places we visit, although perhaps that will be a little easier to do when it’s warmer, as sitting in one of the many Plaza’s with a beer, people-watching is great when you have 18 degrees of sunshine.
All three cities we’ve been privileged to explore, have blown our minds and it’s really difficult to set them apart, so I’m not even going to try, as to compare would be disrespectful. Each one is a UNESCO site and unique in its style, vibe and layout. Burgos was our first visit and wow, even as non-Church goers, that Cathedral was something else. And the river cycle ride was quite gorgeous on their purpose-built bicycle tracks – even if a tad chilly. Now Segovia, was in another class altogether. Romanesque aqueducts, Princess castles straight out of a Disney film and a Cathedral with a network of crooked Spanish streets offering the visitor delights of everyday Spanish living. We felt incredibly humbled to be part of this city and could have spent so much more time winding around its imposing city walls. And then came Salamanca; we worried that we’d be a bit overdone with churches and imposing religious artefacts. Although how could you not be impressed by the towering giants of intricate edifices, gargoyles and padres. Salamanca blew our minds as in one square mile, there were more churches, cathedrals and religious structures than the previous two cities we’d visited. We kept walking around in complete awe and we don’t do cities.
In amongst all of our exploring, we have also had to balance our work. It’s been tricky because the travelling and magnetic draw to see these incredible sights has, quite honestly, distracted us. With beautiful, road-less-travelled routes offering so much secret beauty with richly coloured houses of gold, greens and aubergines, snow capped mountains, Black Vultures, Storks nesting on electricity pylons, red Squirrels and Red Kites, who could blame us for not engaging with our work. What lovely distractions they are too. Although engage we must. So we’ve settled into a routine that allows us to travel, work, rest and explore, although having a couple of days to park up and just be, feels like the right thing to do as we enter the next Spanish region, Entremadura. Now out in the countryside, amidst the mountains, swallows, oh and a little bit of ‘need to put our shorts on’ weather, will provide an ample base for a bit of catch up.
We’ve adjusted to our new way of life, quite nicely, although it has to be said, yesterday’s domestic duties did not inspire me. I had to give myself a reality check though, as of course, this is life and chores need doing whether in four walls or in a motorhome. So I soon got over myself. We do, if I’m honest, still feel like we’re on holiday and I had a poignant moment this morning when asked, ‘where do you come from?’ I didn’t quite know how to answer this very simple of questions. I came to the conclusion, after spluttering out a half-baked response, that my home is where I plant my feet and where Scoobie parks up his tyres. How blessed are we to be living this reality.
So until next week – adios!
Archos Santa Maria – Burgos
Segovia’s Disney Castle
Salamanca’s many beauties
Segovia’s hidden street gems
Our over nighter at Segovia’s Bullring!