Before we begin, each post has an author, visible above. Although travelling together, our experiences, impressions and emotions are unique and independent of one another, and we hope to reflect this in our blog.
Gertrude’s socks and Splügen Pass
Joey and I made a quick detour back to Australia for 12 days for a wedding, to see our families, cuddle my friends new born baby, have some emergency dental work, help out with some cattle work in Bombala, and to attend a funeral.
We flew back to Frankfurt and were reunited with our bikes, safely cared for by our Aussie friends Gretel and Matt in Karlsruhe. After a couple of days to recover from the jet lag, we began heading south towards the Alps. We stopped in Strasbourg, Frieburg and Titisee courtesy of some lovely Warm Showers hosts before arriving into the warm yet firm embrace of 86 year old Gertrude.
For the past 4 years I have been hearing all about Joey’s dear family friend Gertrude, who has been keeping his toes warm from Germany by hand knitting him socks. She speaks very little english, lives alone on the top floor of her house in Spaichingen, quite literally runs up and down the stairs and during the summer she swims 1km a day at the local pool. Gertrude greeted us with a huge smile and a strong hug, lifting our heavy bikes without hesitation and helping us unpack.
She gave us the grand tour of her house, in german of course, then treated us to a feast of cheese, bread, cured meats and wine. No sooner had we sat down at the dinner table, and Gertrude is on her feet again and disappeared into another room. She returned with an arm full of hand knitted socks that she had prepared for our arrival, in two different sizes to fit us both. Our adopted German Oma.
We spent 2 nights with Gertrude, before a tearful farewell. She was itching to join us on the journey, and I was surprised she didn’t jump on her bike to escort us out of town. She filled our stomachs with food, our bags with homemade plum jam, our hearts with love and thanks to Gertrude, our toes were a hell of a lot warmer as we headed towards the Alps.
To tell an honest tale, I will openly voice that I was dreading crossing the Alps. The cold and my level of fitness being my biggest fears as we headed directly towards Splügen Pass. The alpine pass connects the Swiss Hinterrhein Valley with Valle San Giacomo, Italy, and was essential for us to continue on our journey south. Splügen Pass was originally used by the Romans for trade, and later described by author Mary Shelley in her travel narrative ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’ – 1884.
“A few years ago, there was no path except across this mountain, which being very exposed, and difficult even to danger, the Splügen was only traversed by shepherds and travellers of the country on mules or on foot. But now, a new and most marvellous road has been constructed – the mountain in question is, to the extent of several miles, cleft from the summit to the base, and a sheer precipice of 4000 feet rises on either side… It may be imagined how singular and sublime this pass is, in its naked simplicity. After proceeding about a mile, you look back and see the country you had left, through the narrow opening of the gigantic crags, set like a painting in this cloud-reaching frame.”
Closely watching the weather forecast, it seemed we had a narrowing window of time to cross before the snow hit, and the pass was closed for the winter. Honestly, I was hoping the weather would change, the road would be closed and we would be forced to catch the train.
We began the climb on leaving Chur Switzerland, already surrounded by the snow capped Swiss mountain peaks looking down on us. The air was icy cold but the sun was out, and we were lucky to have a perfectly clear blue sky. With a slow constant incline all day, the only thing that stayed cold was my toes. After a day of uphill, 1690m elevation gain, we pulled into Splügen village at 4:30pm and bought some extortionately priced sausages for dinner from the local butcher. The night was set to drop to -6, and we bailed on our initial plans to camp, instead opting for the warm bunk beds inside at the campsite. Joey was wanting to test the limits of our sleeping bags in the cold but gave in and enjoyed a night of comfort.
We woke up to a frost, a temp of -4 degrees, blue skies and sunshine. After a brief moment of panic, we confirmed with the lady at reception that the pass was definitely open. We packed up all our gear and charged straight out of Splügen village and into the first set of hair pin turns. Steep but thankfully with minimal traffic and initially no wind, only cold air and sunshine. At the top of the first set of switchbacks, we could see the snowy pass in the distance, waiting for us.
The wind began to pick up and the temperature dropped the further we climbed. My hands were so cold, I ended up wearing my winter gloves, wrapped in plastic bags and topped off with some of Gertrude’s knitted socks over the top. The water bottles on our bikes froze, and we saw early season ski tourers head into the snow. We were met with either blank stares or thumbs up and cheers of encouragement from the passing cars.
We made the final push to the top of the pass by 12pm, -11’C with windchill, reaching 2114m of altitude and crossing over into Italy. Looking behind us down into Switzerland, a single zig zag road, framed by a perfect valley, leading the eye to the snowy mountain in the distance.
And looking forward into Italy, snow clouds in the distance, and lake Montespluga. We began the descent into Italy, stopping to defrost with some unexpected cappuccinos. The view looking down at Valle San Giacomo made it extremely hard to concentrate on the road.
We were winding around endless steep, tight corners, snaking down into the valley, through tunnels and it was difficult to keep our eyes on the road. Icicle frosted trees, cold blue lakes, light cloud misting the horizon, and epic mountains surrounding you at every corner, tiny little villages, decrepit stone farm houses with their windows boarded up, waterfalls and snow capped mountains. After a 2010m descent, we finally arrived at Chiavenna with cold aching hands from clutching the brakes.
We pushed our bikes up a cobbled lane behind the train station to find a grandiose yellow 4 storey building housing our hostel. We had the most heavenly hot shower, traditional cheesy pizzoccheri for dinner, and slept for a solid 10 hours.
I’ll admit I’m glad I didn’t chicken out and catch the train over the Alps. Challenging, but so damn rewarding.