Fabio Barboni takes us through the Alpe Adria cycle path, in the Austria of Mozart and fairy-tale landscapes.
Text and photos by Fabio Barboni
Some trips are dreamed of for years, others for months, all meticulously prepared in every detail. Then there are those, like this one I’m going to tell, that arise from a phone call made by chance, one day before departure, and we’re not talking about a simple overnight in the mountains but a 3-day trip across the border a thousand kilometers from home confirming that in the end what matters is setting off on an adventure.
It’s Wednesday morning, I’ve organized family and work commitments and can afford a little bike ride. While I was waiting for my riding partner, scrolling through my Facebook feed, a “memory” of the previous year appeared when I went to the Jeroboam 300 with my friend Andrea. Too bad, I tell myself, I won’t be able to participate this year. From there, thoughts travel fast, and I reflect that it’s been almost a year since I heard from Andrea (we had seen each other in passing at the BAM, and he was just passing through without a bike); I scroll through my contact list and call him without overthinking. Andrea is one of those friends I like because he always replies.
I open the conversation like this: “My friend, what are we doing this year!? no September tour?” and he replies: “Next weekend I have organized myself to go to Austria and do the Alpe Adria cycle path, it is 400 km from Salzburg to Grado, and I have a day off”. I remain silent for half a second, but then I tell him I’m in! The same evening everything was organized, even if, in the end, home – Salzburg is only 900 km!
Thursday evening, after work, I load the bike and the bags. The appointment is for 18:00 in Ancona. At 1:00 on Friday, we are in Udine, and to sleep, we have the very comfortable unpadded wooden table resting on the rear seats, with which Andrea claims to have “camped” his Traffic. At 6:00 in the morning on Saturday, after barely two hours of sleep, we are at the Udine station, we take advantage of the McCaffè to have breakfast, and immediately afterward, we are on our way to Salzburg.
Having to buy special tickets at the station given a change in Villach with Austrian trains, they tell us that we can get them on the train and we discover that this is not the case, while in Austria they explain to us that we should have booked. This is because, being there are so many cyclists, without a reservation, transport of the bike is not guaranteed, and there is a risk of having got off the train. With a lot of amazement, both in the station in Udine and then in Villach, I notice a lot of touring bikes. In fact, numerous Germans and Austrians are returning home after their trip from Germany to Italy, above all with the now e-bike, which, beyond the Alps, has almost supplanted the traditional bike. On the train, we meet a lovely bicycle traveler from Udine with the revolutionary name Fidel, who smilingly explains to us the active political commitment of his parents to justify his name. We exchange a few words, and he gives us some ideas for a future trip to Slovenia, where he is headed. We say goodbye to Villach.
From Villach to Salzburg, the journey continues in the middle of the splendid valleys of Carinthia first and then of the Salzburg region. On the Italian route, our bikes were piled up in a sort of cattle wagon, and on the Austrian one, they were placed in a dedicated wagon with a rack complete with spring seats for those who wanted to keep an eye on their ride during the journey. The arrival in Salzburg is set for 12.40, and we will be at the station at 12.40 (since the train is Austrian). We quickly exit and head towards the center. We only have 48 hours to complete the cycle path. In total, there is 405 km with 2,600 meters difference in height (about 3,000 in the opposite direction) in a mixed route of 45% asphalted cycle paths, 35% gravel, and 20% secondary roads.
Il The train ticket on a sunny September day alone is worth the spectacle of the panoramas that can be observed and already make you anticipate the journey on two wheels.
Our bikes were piled up in something like a cattle wagon on the Italian route, and on the Austrian one, they were placed in a dedicated carriage with a rack and spring seats for those who wanted to stay with their bike for the journey. The arrival in Salzburg is set for 12.40, so punctual, at 12.40 (since the train is Austrian), we are at the station. We quickly go out and head towards the center. We have only 48 hours to complete the cycle path, comprised of 405 km with 2,600 meters in altitude (about 3,000 in the opposite direction) in a mixed route of 45% asphalted cycle paths, 35% gravel, and 20 % of secondary roads.
We travel pretty light, and our bikes, two Specialized Diverges, are fitted with 38mm Pathfinder and 42mm Sawthoot tires, respectively. They are loaded with a tent, sleeping bag, a change for the night, rain gear, inner tubes, and repair kits. In any case, don’t worry. Along the way, you will find a bike shop every five/ten km, especially in Austria. Even if you should travel by e-bike, there are various charging points and refreshment points along the cycle path, boasting around 10,000 visitors a year.
Returning to the trip, after a very short tour in the center of Salzburg for a selfie in front of Mozart’s house, the purchase of two magnets for the wife at home, and tasting two Mozart balls, we eat two mega Pretzels for lunch and at 1.30 pm we are already pedaling fast on the cycle path that runs along the Salzach river which will accompany us on our right up to the town of Golling.
At Golling, we cross the Salzach and leave the river valley and the plain to head towards the gorge that leads to Bad Gastein, where the first section climbs very gently up to the village of Bichosofhen for about 80 km. From there, the real slopes begin, which in some sections become very steep but all in a fairy-tale setting. In these 20/30 km that separate Bichosohen from Bad Gastein, a large part of the total altitude difference is concentrated (about 1000 meters). In fact, the real tough nut to crack on the tour (but for experienced cyclists, certainly not impossible) remains the last stretch just before Bad Gastein, our destination for the day, where we arrive in the evening after about 100 km, tackling a steep climb with a 400-meter difference in altitude to do all in one go. Once in the town center, we are enraptured by the waterfall in the center of the town, built around it as if to embrace it, all perched in the middle of the rocky gorge.
From Bad Gastein, we are about to reach the small town of Bockstein a little higher, where the only way to continue is the railway station from which a single train leaves which travels through a tunnel of about 15 km up to Manlitz and allows you to cross the mountains that separate the Salzburg region from Carinthia.
In Blockstein, we have dinner in a restaurant, the only one here (stop in Bad Gastain if you can), it is the first proper meal after breakfast in the morning, and the Pretzel for lunch, we are hungry. We need help understanding the German menu, and the owner’s English could be better. I order chicken schnitzel and fries, but half a fried chicken arrives with boiled potatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce without dressing but accompanied by currant jam. Given the hunger, I also cleaned the vegetables from Andrea’s dish, who had yet to appreciate the cucumber mix, and after having paid, we reached the station for the last train at 10.00 pm, which would take us on our way.
After about 15 minutes by train, we arrive in Manlitz and realize it is really cold. The waiting room at the station is a bikepacker's dream: deserted, silent, equipped with a table and spotlessly clean bathrooms.
With Hohe Tauern National Park behind us, we could descend quickly to the valley. A few minutes later, speeding along a stupendous alpine pass that is asleep in the middle of the fog of the valley, we reach the village of Obervallach, where, according to our intuitions, we would have enjoyed a lovely and nutritious breakfast.
Unfortunately, the idea of having an excellent breakfast at 6 in the morning, as in every Italian city, is immediately broken, as well as that of having breakfast at seven and eight. So following the cycle path along the river Moll around 8:30, after 50 km and a few stolen apples in the countryside, hungry like two Siberian wolves in winter, we go to the first and only valuable place for finding food before 9 in the morning: a BILLA (supermarket).
We continue fast, leaving behind the Moll valley and following the Drava valley up to Villach, where we arrive for lunchtime, we are also famished. Still, the border is close, and despite about 100km traveled, we resign to the fact that it is not wise to spend more euros on Austrian food but to return to the homeland and eat a decent meal. Either way, we don’t skimp on snacking on the only real meal worth crossing the Austrian border for: Apple strudel with ice cream; we find a genuinely excellent one that manages to make the not-excellent accompanying cappuccino pleasant.
Villach deserves a longer visit, but we are pressed for time. We leave it behind and enter one of the most beautiful sections of the cycle path, a well-beaten dirt road that runs along the Gail river in the middle of a coniferous forest. From here on, we meet more and more cyclists. The landscape that awaits us outside the city is much wilder than the previous one, reminiscent of North America, with suspension bridges crossing the Gail River which flows ferociously and rushes to our left. From a distance, we see the Wunzerpass, which marks the border with Italy, a border that we cross at about 2.00 pm after a short stretch of main road and confusion. When we head towards the abandoned customs, with a bit of difficulty, we find the Italian stretch of the cycle path, which unexpectedly appears immediately really well built.
We find a well-placed strip of asphalt with a center line to regulate the two-way traffic, entirely bike-friendly, for this stretch up to Resiutta on the old Habsburg railway (other kilometers up to Venzone still being completed ). In Tarvisio, we take the opportunity for lunch and eat an excellent Neapolitan pizza; after more than 100 km and the bad breakfast in the morning seems even better, we continue quickly on the cycle path in one of the most panoramic and amazing stretches of the whole route. From here on, it’s all a succession of LED-lit tunnels, suspension bridges, old railway bridges, waterfalls, and a series of former train stations transformed into bars and B&Bs for cycle tourists (we found very nice ones in Ugovizza and one in Chiusaforte). During this stretch, the passage to Pontebba is worthy of note, where until 1918, there was the old border with Austria and where the border stock still stands today. Pushing on the pedals a little harder and regaining ground, we arrive in the evening in the beautiful village of Venzone with its splendid walls and stone buildings. We take a short break as our stop should have been at Km 300 of the cycle path and Km 200 of the day. However, we still had light and decided to add another 10 km towards Braulins, which is slightly off track, but where we can finally dine in a pizzeria, it had been recommended to us by locals, and rest behind a nearby petrol station in peace. Even this evening, we are lucky. We find a pocket of grass sheltered on three sides with a drinking fountain and a bathroom nearby, practically a free campsite. Everything would have been perfect if it weren’t for the bell tower that kept us awake all night with its tolling every half hour. We get up at precisely 5 in the morning, prepare the bikes, and with the first light of dawn, we cross the Tagliamento towards Udine. The Venzone – Udine stretch is the most monotonous; it is not the best in the middle of fields and with towns close together. It must also be said that in any case, the surface is always pleasant both on asphalt and in the gravel sections, some problems begin with the road indications, as in Udine, the signs installed by the province clash with our GPS track, and we get lost several times, both entering and leaving the city.
Fortunately, as we leave the city while we are intent on tinkering with GPS and Smartphones, a man approaches with a bike identical to ours and who had been studying us for a few minutes. He’s from Udine, and his name is Michele, and he’s back from a long social evening. He tells us that he had just gone out to run his legs a few kilometers before lunch, and from then on, he will be the third companion of the day. First, he makes himself available to put us back on track as far as Palmanova, then having paid for the first beer of the day, he decides to accompany us up to Grado.
The cycle path is interesting from Udine to Grado, the last 50 km we cross in order: Palmanova fortress city with its characteristic star shape, Aquileia and its Roman ruins, to finally arrive in sight of the lagoon and cross the long bridge between the waters which leads us up to Grado.
We get off the bikes at noon, just for lunchtime, and despite the stops and the pace not exactly cyclo tourism imposed by Michele in the morning, we finish the 405 km in just 47 hours. Michele is now with us, and since we are in Grado and it is noon, he joins us for a good refreshment and rightly remains our guest. The journey would seem complete even if it were necessary to return 10 km and take a train to Udine. Still, nevertheless, I convince Andrea to return first to Aquileia and then to Palmanova, to retake an aerial photo. It is four in the afternoon, and we have covered over 460 km in just over 48 hours. All we have to do is pack our bags and go back home, with images of the beautiful cycle path in my mind, a mix of regret for having done everything too quickly, a new friend to tick on the social profile, and a story to tell. The return journey is long, but quoting Kerouack, “we had to go far, but who cares? The road is life!”