Saturday, October 27, 2007

2 August: Into the Dolomites

We had a minimal but adequate breakfast at Gasthof Badl of sliced cheese and ham, hard rolls, watery orange juice, and strong coffee. On our way out we had to maneuver around a large, elderly Bernese mountain dog who had commandeered a position at the top of the stairs. We checked out at 10 a.m. and left our car at the hotel while we explored Hall. We crossed over the river Inn on a covered wooden footbridge and found the town to be quite charming – very homey and non-touristy, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, centered around an irregularly-shaped market square (photo, right) with winding cobblestone streets lined with leaning houses. It was such a low-key place that I couldn’t even find a tourist shop to buy a souvenir magnet! We went inside the Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, the town’s largest church (also in photo, right), which has a unique off-center nave – it almost looks like they ran into some rocks when they were building the church and had to work around them. The interior is a mixture of gothic and baroque styles, with a heavily frescoed ceiling and a large collection of what look to be bishops’ crowns and skulls.

We returned to the car about an hour later by way of the main bridge, which gave us nice views of the town’s church spires (photo, right) and the landmark Münzeturm, or “coin tower” of the 14th-century Burg Hasegg, which housed Hall’s silver mint from 1477 to 1806. By 11:00 we were on the road again, heading west through Innsbruck, which is set against a dramatic backdrop of steep mountains. We headed south on route 182, which parallels the A13, through the Brennerpass (pass #3 of the trip – not too thrilling as far as driving goes, but more scenic than slogging up the Autobahn with all of its truck traffic).

We crossed into the Südtirol region of Italy at the town of Brenner. The landscape was still very Tirolean in character but now all of the signs (including the town names) were in Italian, German, and sometimes a third local dialect. At Sterzing / Vipiteno we headed southeast on route 44 through the Jaufenpass (pass #4), our first really famous route on the trip, which traverses some 40 kilometers through thick forest and golden grassy slopes to a height of 2,094 meters. The driving was great (although the road was quite narrow!), the weather was beautiful (we had the top down on the SLK), and we enjoyed gorgeous views of Tirolean chalets and dramatic barren peaks on all sides. We stopped part-way up to admire the views and I made friends with a Swiss cow (I call all of the mousey-brown cows with the big fuzzy ears “Swiss” cows, even if we aren’t in Switzerland), who moseyed up the hill to check us out. We stopped again at the top of the pass and climbed a short way up a rocky hillside to a stone cairn for an awesome 360-degree view (photo, right). We had a snack of country bread topped with cheese and tomato slices at the Edelweisshütte, obviously a popular stopping point for the throngs of motorcyclists out for a summer ride.

We were getting baked by the summer sun so we put the SLK’s top up on the way down the other side of the pass. There was a lot of traffic coming down and we had to navigate some pretty hairy turns marked by signs that read “kehr tornante” which I think means “caution hairpin turn”. At the lovely resort town of St. Leonard we headed south through the Passeiertal to Merano. Just before Merano the landscape took on a spectactular transformation – imagine Tirolean chalets and conifer forests colliding with Renaissance villas, espaliered apple orchards, and neatly tended vineyards! We were stuck on the streets of Merano for a while due to a car accident, so we had some time to admire this very pretty Mediterranean-influenced city. The Palace Hotel, surrounded by lush gardens, looked particularly inviting.

We continued south on the Autostrade (A38) to Bolzano, a mid-sized city whose biggest claim to fame is Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old mummified “Iceman.” We didn’t stop to visit him, as we needed to press onwards to our destination for the next two nights: Sankt Ulrich / Ortisei in the Dolomites. We went a bit too far north on the A22 because we couldn’t find an exit for the A12, and had to turn around at Klausen / Chiusa, but we got to see an amazing sprawling castle perched on top of a hill in the middle of the valley (photo, right). (I still haven’t properly identified this place, but it definitely looks worth visiting!) We ended up on route 242d instead of 242, so we got a little confused on our way to Sankt Ulrich / Ortisei, but we eventually found our way into the famed Val Gardena, where we got our first hazy glimpses of the craggy peaks of the Dolomites off in the distance.

Ortisei (that’s the Italian version) is a good-sized resort town nestled in a broad green valley surrounded by dramatic peaks. We head up a side valley to the village of Kastelruth / Castelrotto, which I wanted to see because lots of people seem to prefer it to Ortisei. It looked pleasant enough, although the surrounding landscape was not quite as spectacular as Ortisei. We headed up a narrow, winding road just outside of Ortisei to the tiny hamlet of Pufels and the idyllic Hotel Uhrerhof. This place was pure magic – it was so quiet in the narrow valley that you could hear the wind whispering in the trees and the faint tinkling of sheep bells floating up from the green meadows below the hotel. We were greeted by the lady of the house, Frau Zemmer, who speaks fluent Italian, German and English. Our room (#101) was huge and by far the nicest room we’ve had on the continent. It was all done in traditional Tirolean light wood, complete with a tiny wood-burning stove, a gorgeous modern bathroom stuffed with luxurious amenities, fluffy robes, chocolates on the pillows, and a large flower-fringed balcony with an incredible view across the valley and down into Ortisei (photo, right). I was already in love with this region and we’d only just arrived!

I sat out on our balcony for a while, soaking it all in and writing in my journal, and listened to the church bells in Pufels chime 6:00. We had reserved half-board at the Uhrerhof to avoid driving down into town for dinner. We enjoyed a five-course meal in the quaint, cozy dining room, which reminded us of the Maiensee in Austria. We partook of the ample salad buffet, followed by smoked goose with cabbage salad, puff pastry “pizza” smothered in cheese, mushrooms, and tomato sauce, tender veal with green beans and steamed potatoes, and a simple fruit cocktail for dessert. To drink we had a Südtirol Blauburgunder, which is similar to Pinot Noir. The food was traditional home cooking, nothing too fancy, but quite tasty.

A storm moved in this evening and we had heavy rain overnight – we just hope it clears up by tomorrow!

More photos from today:

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