Saturday, October 27, 2007

1 August: Our Grand Driving Tour of the Alps

Today we set off on our much-anticipated driving tour through the Dolomites to Lake Como and the Berner Oberland of Switzerland. We had originally planned this trip for September or October, but with all of the uncertainty surrounding our departure from Germany, we decided not to take any chances. How often does one get the opportunity to drive some of Europe’s most famous mountain passes in a spiffy convertible sportscar, after all?

We got the idea for this trip from a story in the September 2005 issue of Car magazine titled “As Good as it Gets,” in which writer Ben Oliver and photographer Stuart Collins thrash Europe’s best mountain roads in a BMW M6. While we couldn’t fit all of their favorite drives into our seven-day trip, we did map out a rough itinerary through some of the best automotive terrain to be found in Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Conveniently, we would spend six of the seven days in German-speaking territory, because the region of northern Italy known as the Südtirol was historically German, and many of its inhabitants still prefer to speak German over Italian.

Over the last three weeks I scrambled to book hotels for the first week of August, which just happens to be the busiest travel month of the year in Europe because everyone here pretty much takes the whole month off. I was generally pleased with the hotels I managed to find (especially a night in a lakeview room in Bellagio on Lake Como), and, armed with a hefty spiral-bound atlas of the Alps that I picked up at Buchhaus Wittwer, we felt reasonably confident setting out into the mountains on our first major trip without our faithful navi Susie.

We set off after John got home from work on this Wednesday evening and had a bit of an adventure getting to our stopover for the night – Hall in Tirol, a small sleepy city just east of Innsbruck. We started off well enough, taking the A8 to Ulm and then the A7 south towards Austria. The Via Michelin directions I had downloaded sent us off the A7 onto the B310 for some reason, instead of continuing on the logical route to Füssen, and we blindly followed the printed directions without looking carefully at the map. We ended up taking a rather lengthy detour along the Deutsche Alpenstraße (one of the many sightseeing routes developed to encourage tourism after WWII), but it was a lovely drive through pretty alpine valleys under a clear evening sky. We crossed into Austria near Oberjoch, where we stopped for gas along with a whole ton of Germans who were filling up their spare gas cans – apparently gas is cheaper in Austria – then cut southeast on the 199 through the Tannheim Valley, past the Haldensee and some very impressive craggy mountains. We drove through the Gaichtpass, which was our first major pass of the trip, then hooked up with the 198 at Weißenbach, following the Lech River towards Reutte.

At Reutte I called the hotel to tell them we’d be arriving after 10, since it was already quarter to 9 and getting dark fast. John said I sounded really good speaking German on the phone. We hooked up with the 179 and continued through Heitewang and Bichlbach to Lermoos (don’t you just love these names?), than passed through the 3.2 km-long Lermoos Tunnel. (Just before Lermoos we had a glimpse of the Zugspitze, which at 9,718 feet is the highest point in Germany, right on the Austrian border.) Sadly we had no time to stop for pictures of any of the dramatic mountains, and it was really too dim for decent photography anyway.

We traversed the Fernpass (#2), spotting several castles along the way, to Nassereith and then finally hooked up with the A12 near Innsbruck, arriving in Hall at precisely 10 pm. Fortunately Gasthof Badl couldn’t be easier to find – it is situated just across the river from Hall, with ample parking out front. We were greeted warmly at the reception desk despite our late arrival (the lady had to scoot a fluffy cat off the counter to check us in). Our basic but cozy third-floor room with a balcony looking out towards the Inn River was a good deal at 78 Euro.

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