Leaving idyllic Slovenia and onwards through Austria
Looking at the terrain ahead of me filled me with a kind of started realisation that the next ten days would be perhaps be the most challenging of the trip thus far. This was another reason for my prolonged stay in Ljubljana; I just didn’t want to move!
So, let's go and begin this challenge! Cycling over the Alps
Once I had cycled out past the endless industrial and superstore filled suburbs north of the city, I saw a sign proclaiming that the road wasn’t open to bicycles at all. Not because of the speed limit mind but simply because it was a main gateway to the border with Austria and far too narrow to have bicycles on anyway. With my map being hopelessly inadequate for the job of finding something smaller, I ploughed on in the hope things would be okay.
The traffic was light in most places and so I cycled on without any problems, glancing in my mirror quite often and turning off the road when something large and unyielding came up behind me.
When I arrived in the first large town after Ljubljana, I found there were indeed lots of signs saying cycling from here on out was explicitly forbidden. Fortunately, I spied some rural roads going off to the right and which followed the direction of the highway in a somewhat erratic way. The problem was that I simply couldn’t find the start . My map indicated that it should veer off from the highway right in the village centre but this just was not the case. I followed one road for perhaps 3km’s, but as this began to turn back south, I gave up and cycled back into town. I then crossed over the highway and tried to find an alternative route. I again headed back towards town where I found three guys along the way. They pointed me back onto the main highway and assured me that the road I needed was another 2km’s north. Bloody maps!
The mountains grew larger with every passing moment and I knew that by the day’s end, I would have some seriously challenging times ahead. It was a very sobering thought.
The craggy peaks now loomed large ahead whilst the weather was turning decidedly dire for my liking. I knew I was going to get soaked with rain and sweat in equal measure. It’s a strange choice you have when cycling uphill and it’s raining. On the one hand, you can ride with just a t-shirt and get soaked through by rain or you can ride with a coat on and so get thoroughly drenched in sweat and so you have no option but to get soaked either way. I love it…..
I cycled on and on towards the last town worthy of a name before the border, always gaining altitude but forever going up and down at the same time. I stopped here for an hour or so hoping the rain would cease. It didn't.
The road began to climb ever more steeply through the mist and although I did think it was kind of odd that it was so narrow at times, I put this down to the mountainous landscape in which I now found myself. I ploughed on ever deeper into the jagged peaks. I peddled, heaved and pushed my bike up at times for that was often the only way I could do it. The one unquestionably positive thing about cycling in this kind of taxing terrain is that that water is plentiful everywhere you go; waterfalls brush the side of the road with the road itself often following the course of a nice sparkling river and so you’re at least never short of it.
When I reached a small village set in a very narrow valley, I found that the road at the end forked off. With no signs to guide me, I shouted over to three people walking towards me, “which way to Austria”? Their riposte scared the bejesus out of me. They said it about 5 km’s back the way I had come. I had apparently missed the turn off in the last town I had gone though. Well I’ll be damned. How could it be? How could it have happened? Now it all made sense. The traffic had been non-existent, the road so narrow that only a single car could pass through and the actual state of the roads too were terrible. It all added up to a small rural road going to, well nowhere in particular. Obviously, I now realized you don’t get these things on a major road connecting two western European countries. I found an answer.
With this new information, I turned around and went back the way I had come, now downhill thank the lord. All of that effort, sweat and toil, all the huffing and puffing was wasted and I was livid with myself.
I decided to call it a day soon after when the rain became too much. I pushed my back up a steep track that led into the surrounding forest and found the tiniest space in which to pitch my tent. Oh how I love to camp in the rain.
Waking up the following morning, I realized quickly that I had gotten what I wanted many times in the previous months, namely very wet weather. The bottom part of my tent had flooded and with it my trousers and t shirt too. Happily everything else was dry apart from my coat which was still soaked from the day before. A good thing I had two coats!
Beginning to climb the Slovenian Alps
When I eventually set off again, I made my way back down to the last town that marked the correct turn off for the road and found it easily now that I was paying attention. I made my way up some steep switchbacks until I at last came to the slip road that joined a road not unlike a motorway to be honest. Sign’s once again indicated that bicycles weren’t allowed and it really did have all the hallmarks of a motorway; concrete barriers, huge steel signs that hung overhead giving directions and four lanes too. Having said that, the speed limit was 90 and after talking to a couple of people at the service station, decided it was worth the risk. I just hoped this wasn’t going to be the first time I would encounter the Slovenian police.
The gradient wasn’t so steep at first and so I plodded along with my usual gusto and with my singing accompanying my every pedal stroke. The rain carried on pummelling down though and as the gradient began to increase, so the amount of sweat I secreted increased too.
After breakfast, the real challenge reared its ugly head in the form of ascent after ascent so stomach churningly difficult as to send waves of anguish rushing over me and inviting pitying looks from the drivers whom slid past. After a couple of hours of torture I made it to the last climb and as I neared the top, spotted a long tunnel that I knew marked the border and a nice bright blue sign that welcomed me to Austria. I was over the moon!
Sometime later, I gathered up my things and set off again, this time downhill in almost comical fashion as the gradients were often nearing 20%. My brakes were working overtime to say the very least and I was thinking that if one thing goes wrong, then I would be saying hello to a hospital pretty soon. As it was, nothing like that happened but then again, I did descend rather cautiously as it was scarily steep at times.
After an hour, I eventually started to pass through my first Austrian villages but looked distinctly Slovenian in their appearance. The two countries, I began to feel, were more related than I had first supposed. No wonder that the band playing back in Ljubljana were also singing in German.
I scanned the area and the mountains just rose up in such a foreboding manner that it was difficult to tell in which way I had come. They seemed momentous. I could see from my map that I needed to take a left turn when I came to a large junction and so this is what I did.
My explanation for this is rather complex but as I was now coming to the end of the trip, I really wanted to finish it with a bang and what better way to do this than to cross the highest pass in the Austrian Alps. At 2500 metres (that’s about 8200 feet just to make it seem even higher), It’s also one of the highest roads in Europe. It seemed like a sterling idea.
I would be following a river for the majority of the way, at least to Spittal. Rivers usually run in a fairly level manner and so, the outlook was good, at least until Spittal.
And so it was that I found myself eventually cycling west along the course of the river Ferlacher. The scenery was jaw-dropingly beautiful what with the mountains that ran along the border on my left shrouded in this kind of ghostly mist. It was magical. It still rained of course.
By six, and with the rain showing no signs of abating, I gave up and thoroughly exhausted, had to push my bike up and over the last few hills until I reached some wooded areas by the side of the road in which to camp. My tent, mattress, myself and all my clothes were completely drenched and so it was fun climbing in for the evening.
The weather was still kind of miserable the following morning, but as I cycled the last 10km’s into the town of Villach, I spotted a hint of blue sky in the distance and my hopes for the day improved. If only it could stay dry and perhaps sunny long enough to dry out my tent and clothes’ I’d be a happy man.
I had a very odd and rather peculiar encounter later on. I was ‘parked’ behind a car, just happily waiting like everyone else for the light’s to turn green, when a lady in front got out and briskly walked over to me. After asking me where I had come from, as if to confirm that I deserved her generosity, she thrust ten euro’s into my hand, and just as quickly as she had gotten out of her car, climbed right back in again. I was left dumbstruck and a little embarrassed too.
Odd things like that seem to happen quite often and are not even confined to the poorer countries like one might expect.
I continued on along the road heading west again and onto the small town of Spittal an der Drau.
By five I arrived in Spittal and walked around town to see what it was like; very wealthy, very orderly and full to the brim of sweaty hikers. I quite enjoyed not being the only dirty person walking around for a change.
Back on the road later on, I took a turning that went north west. I and this eventually to the final road that and the beginning of the pass some sixty or so km’s away.
As I was cycling along here, the mountains began to rise up on both sides and it soon became clear I was travelling in a valley, a valley of monumental proportions. Villages were perched alongside the road and crept up into the hill in an increasingly steep manner. I followed the river on the valley floor for perhaps the next 35 km’s until it got later and later and my legs could take no more.
As the day drew to a close and the road climbed ever higher into the Alps, I began to fear that I may actually have to use an official site but then at last I saw something that required a small slap to my face. In the midst of this beautiful valley where space was clearly at a premium, I spotted a work site/quarry on the opposite side of the road and dashed over to investigate. I pushed my bike under the barrier and then had a walk around just to see if it was a site that was used daily. It really didn’t look like it to my eyes but there was nowhere really hidden in which to camp either. Saying that, my decision was already made; my legs needed rest and it was getting late. I pushed my bike other to the furthest spot and being a huge mound of gravel and set up. I just hoped I didn’t have the sound of trucks and workmen in the morning.
On reflection the following morning, I hadn’t timed it all very well at all. I didn’t know how high I was at the moment but I did know that I needed to camp as close as possible to the start. This would give me a full days’ worth of energy reserved solely for the mountains that were edging closer and closer.
After packing everything up, I wheeled my bike carefully out from where I had camped and peered round into the expanse of the quarry and saw no one.. I was mightily pleased as you can imagine and so made my way back to the entrance. So easy, so unbelievably easy.
As I was wheeling my bike out, my tooth was giving me some pain, enough at least that I had to munch on some codeine to relieve it. I had wanted to get it sorted in Slovenia or Croatia but since it had been giving me no trouble I opted to wait until back in the UK which would only be less than two weeks away now.
Cycle touring and trying to stay healthy
As I cycled on though, the pain grew to such a point where it was not only difficult to cycle but exhausting just to listen to music. It throbbed and throbbed until my head could take it no more. When I came to the last large town before the turn off a half hour later, I located a pharmacy and bought the strongest painkillers I could find, hoping that they would do the trick. I hoped and prayed and set off again towards Winklern and the turn off for the pass.
I cycled on and on through the morning past small villages and along the valley floor forever gaining altitude. The pain in my tooth was increasing with every passing moment. The pain killers weren’t working as intended and by the time I finally made it to Winklern and the turn off, I realised I needed to do something drastic about it. I couldn't take it any longer and I could hardly speak such was the agony I was in.
I asked around and to my delight, even though it was a very small town indeed, there was actually a small dentist. I made my way over but to my quiet agony, found that she was on vacation until two days’ time. Doh! I was not amused. There were no more towns around and so I found a café, sat down and thought about my predicament.
I realised that Lienz lay but 16 km’s away to the west but another huge pass lay between here and there, something that I wasn’t even going to contemplate in my present condition. I then had a look at accommodation in Lienz but found that anything under 100 euros was laughable. There was a campsite but that would involve taking my bike on a bus and I wasn’t even sure that was allowed. The man in the café insisted I could leave my bike locked up in behind the building but then I might be stuck in Lienz for two day’s and I certainly wasn’t prepared to pay the kind of money the hoteliers were asking, in addition to whatever a dentist my charge me for their services. I was in a pickle.
The pain had subsided ever so slightly now and whilst looking at hotels in Lienz, I looked also at the hotels that lay along the road north from here too, just out of curiosity more than anything. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I came upon about four or five guesthouses/cabins for a very reasonable 35 euro’s per night; a double room all to myself! The deal was sealed.
I thanked the owner of the café and set off along the road north. It wasn’t too steep to be honest and instead climbed very steadily throughout the next hour. The scenery was ludicrously beautiful and it was taking me much longer than usual simply because of my constant stopping. After a couple of hours and as I was nearing the town of Heiligneblut, I began some really tough ascents up the valley. This coupled with my throbbing tooth made the cycling almost unbearable. Just to make it a little more difficult, it was raining too. Oh how I envy my life right now.
The hotel looked very plush indeed. When I entered, there was no one at the reception but a lady did come out of the dining room to see this sweaty and rain sodden Englishman standing there. She did eye me with a little apprehension at first but this swiftly disappeared as I told her I didn’t want to speak much as my tooth was giving me pain. She asked if I was wanted some ice or something warm and then quickly said “ahh no, I think brandy is better”. As she raced off back to the dining room, I thought this was a little bit much for 35 euros. I then saw four star’s on the reception and, to my alarm on the door too. I thought this really can’t be right. Four star hotels just don’t offer rooms for 35 euros. I then thought that maybe I had the wrong hotel or something and so I frantically searched the foyer area for a name but couldn’t find it anywhere. When she came back with an extremely large measure of brandy, she just asked me to write down my name and address on a form before guiding me to my room. She didn’t even ask for a passport. It was now beginning to dawn on me that maybe I really did have the wrong hotel but in any case, I was in too much pain to even ask.
She brought me to my room and when she left, I fell down onto the bed and thought I’d found heaven.