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Trip Report A Taste of Summer in the Depths of Winter: Our Grand Driving Tour of the Alps

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Based upon the recent interest in Alpine driving tours, I have finally gotten motivated to post the report from our mountain tour taken last August. DH and I originally planned this trip for September or October, but with some 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 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 7-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, as the Südtirol region of northern Italy was historically part of the Austrian Empire, and many of its inhabitants still prefer to speak German over Italian.

I spent the last three weeks of July scrambling to book hotels for the first week of August, which just happens to be the busiest travel month of the year in Europe because most everyone takes the month off. I was generally pretty happy with the hotels I found and, armed with a hefty spiral-bound atlas of the Alps that I picked up at Buchhaus Wittwer in Stuttgart, we felt reasonably confident setting out into the mountains on our first major trip without our faithful navi, Susie.

This is a driving-oriented trip, so I should probably tell you a little about our wheels: a 2007 Mercedes SLK 200 convertible with manual transmission. This was my car for our last year in Germany and, although it was woefully underpowered, it handled well and was quite fun to drive, especially with the top down. In our opinion the best car to drive in the Alps has a short wheelbase, excellent handling, a powerful engine, and a convertible top to enjoy those awesome views. A Mini Cooper S would probably be ideal.

This trip will sound rushed to most of you, but we had to squeeze it into the time we had available. It could easily be extended into a more relaxed two-week (or longer) trip by adding nights in each location or adding stops in between. We did pass through many gorgeous towns and terrain that we would have loved to explore further; I'll point out some of these as I go along.

Here’s the itinerary for our trip. We spent 1 night in Hall, 2 nights in Ortisei, 1 night in Bellagio, and 3 nights in Kandersteg.

Day 1 (evening departure): Stuttgart to Hall in Tirol, Austria via Gaichtpass
Day 2: Hall to Ortisei, Italy via Jaufenpass
Day 3: Tour round the Sella Gruppe (multiple passes)
Day 4: Ortisei to Bellagio via Stelvio, Umbrail, Ofen, and Maloja passes
Day 5: Bellagio to Kandersteg, Switzerland via Lucomagno, Oberalp, Furka, and Grimsel passes
Day 6: Train trip from Lauterbrunnen to the Jungfraujoch
Day 7: Hike to the Früdenhütte (above Kandersteg)
Day 8: Kandersteg to Stuttgart via Susten and Klausen passes

Coming Next: Let the driving begin!

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    Sorry, I should have clarified - we lived in Stuttgart from September 2005 to December 2007, so we took this trip from our home in Stuttgart. The "departure from Germany" that I mentioned was our move home to the USA, which we fortunately were able to postpone until December.

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    Oh, thank you so much! I can't wait to read more.

    I'd love to get my hands on a copy of that article, too.

    I'm actually buying a BMW through their European delivery program, hence the start/end in Munich.

    I mapped out some of my plan last night based on all the wonderful tips in my thread, and I also got another email from the Eremo Gaudio this morning re: reservations. Based on their availability I am going to have to move my dates slightly, but that's ok, I think I might be footloose on many of the hotel/B&B reservations since I suspect late Spring isn't a hard time to just show up and find rooms in many places.

    Thanks again!

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    hausfrau, you are famous ! Trip report spotlight in the Fodor's newsletter. Unfortunately they have it as your grand *Diving* tour of the Alps - I was fascinated to see that ! But your driving trip report is very interesting too :-)

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    Hmmm....diving...well, I suppose there were a couple of lakes I could have gone diving in...but they looked a little chilly!

    deladeb, I agree that flying into Munich would put you the closest to the start and end point of this tour.

    And now, on with the show...

    DAY 1: LET THE DRIVING BEGIN! (STUTTGART TO HALL IN TIROL)

    We set off after DH 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 town just east of Innsbruck. We started off well enough, taking the A8 to Ulm and then the A7 south towards Austria. Then my ViaMichelin directions 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, 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 ton of Germans who were filling up their spare gas cans – apparently gas is a lot cheaper in Austria – then cut southeast on route 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 route 198 at Weißenbach, following the Lech River towards Reutte.

    At Reutte I called the hotel to tell them we’d be arriving after 10 pm, since it was already quarter to 9 and getting dark fast. DH said my German sounded really good on the phone; I was so pleased. We hooked up with route 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 (pass #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 (www.badl.at) 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.

    Next: Into the Dolomites

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    DAY 2: INTO THE DOLOMITI (HALL TO ORTISEI)
    We had an 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 am 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 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 my requisite souvenir magnet! We went inside the Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, the town’s largest church, 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 looked 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 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, 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, called Ladin, which evolved from Latin after the area became part of the Roman Empire in 15 BC. 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 excellent (although the road was quite narrow!), the weather was beautiful (we had the top down), 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 who moseyed up the hill to check us out (I call all of the mousey-brown cows with big fuzzy ears “Swiss” cows, even if we aren’t in Switzerland). We stopped again at the top of the pass and climbed a short ways up a rocky hillside to a stone cairn for an awesome 360-degree view. We had a snack of country bread topped with cheese and tomato 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 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 crazy hairpins marked by signs that read “kehr tornante” which I think means “take care – sharp turn.” At the lovely resort town of St. Leonard we headed south through the Passeiertal to Merano. Just before Merano the landscape began a spectacular 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. We ended up on route 242d instead of 242, so we got a little confused en route to 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 headed 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, but much smaller than Ortisei, and the surrounding landscape is not nearly as spectacular. We took a narrow, winding road just outside of Ortisei to the tiny hamlet of Pufels and the idyllic Hotel Uhrerhof (www.uhrerhof.com). 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, chocolates on the pillows, and a large flower-fringed balcony with an incredible view across the valley and down into Ortisei. 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 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. 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. 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!

    Photos from today:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157602758287632/

    Coming Next: Mountain Majesty (A Tour Round the Sella Gruppe)

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    Lovely photos, Hausfrau!

    In all my Dolomites trips I still haven't managed the Jaufenpass. Next time, perhaps ...

    Looking forward to reading about your day around the Sella - my favourite Dolomites drive :). Hope you had good visibility for that one ...

    Hotel Uhrerhof looks lovely - I'm almost tempted.

    Diving in the Dolomites?
    Hmmm - how about paragliding instead ;)
    Still hoping to pluck up the courage ... one day.

    Steve

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    DAY 3: MOUNTAIN MAJESTY (TOUR OF THE SELLA GRUPPE)

    We woke up to a steady drizzle and a valley obscured by clouds, which put a bit of a damper (pun intended) on our plans to take a scenic drive around the Sella Gruppe. We had a relaxing breakfast in the Uhrerhof’s dining room, feasting on the typical buffet of cold cuts and cheese, croissants and rolls with homemade jams, hard-boiled eggs, and canned fruits.

    We decided to wait out the rain by driving down into Ortisei and doing a little shopping. We parked in a garage in the middle of town and came out in the midst of a lively street market. We made our way to the main shopping district and visited the town’s main church, the interior of which is a wonder of apricot and mint-green tones accented with gold gilt. Ortisei is famous for its woodcarving, and the town is crammed with shops selling carved items of every religious and secular theme imaginable – from crucifixes and crèches to wildlife and toys. We stopped at a nice little gift shop and bought two cow bells on leather straps. I am in the market for authentic Alpine cow bells and haven’t found the “real thing” yet, but these were far better than the tacky fakes you find in most tourist shops. It was getting on towards lunch time so we stopped at a café for pizza while we waited for the sun to come out. The clouds were definitely breaking up and we finally got our first glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the Sella Gruppe rising dramatically in the distance.

    We headed back to the parking garage but ended up waiting over twenty minutes to get out because some guy had gotten his ticket stuck in the machine at the exit gate. A man eventually showed up with some tools, looking very annoyed. He started prying open the machine and then suddenly threw his pliers on the ground and yelled “Impossible!” (you have to imagine it with the Italian accent, of course) three or four times, accompanied by violent hand gestures. He finally got the gate to go up but he was still standing there, fuming at the now-mangled machine, as we drove out.

    We left Ortisei around 2 pm and set our sights on the Sella Gruppe. More and more of the mountains slowly emerged out of the clouds as we pressed onwards and upwards through lush green valleys. We had chosen a counterclockwise route to take around the mountain group, heading first over the Passo di Sella (pass #5), which afforded us spectacular vistas around every curve. DH was driving and he reported that the SLK was a little gutless but handled the curves pretty well; we certainly wouldn’t want to drive those crazy narrow roads in a larger car.

    It took us an hour (with a couple of photo stops) to get from Ortisei to the top of Passo di Pordoi (pass #6) where we geared up in hiking boots and our warmest clothes and bought tickets for the cable car ride (24 Euro round-trip for 2) up to Sass Pordoi at a lofty 2,900 meters. The top was shrouded in clouds and we just hoped that we would be able to see something up there. We got some amazing views of the surrounding mountain landscape before our cable car was engulfed in a cloud as thick as pea soup. We walked out of the terminal into a lunar landscape – nothing but jagged shards of rock as far as the eye could see. The remains of a recent snow clung to the ground and a biting wind chilled us to the bone. We took lots of photos and then decided to follow the only obvious hiking trail, which took us past a small rifugio (a warming hut like the hüttes of Switzerland and Germany where you can buy light refreshments). The trail climbed slowly upwards as we traversed the side of a barren valley punctuated by dramatic dropoffs and watched a long line of hikers disappearing into the clouds on a ridge high above us. We think they must have been hiking up Piz Boè, the highest peak of the Sella Gruppe at 3,151 meters. We can only assume that they were going to spend the night up there, since they could not possibly get back down the mountain before dark. As for us, we had no such ambitions and decided to veer off the main trail to hike up to a stone cairn, from which we looked out into the dramatic abyss on either side of the Pordoi Pass. The misty, swiftly-moving clouds broke up just enough for us to catch enticing glimpses of endless mountain ridges disappearing into the distance; we could only imagine how spectacular the view would be on a clear day! After taking our fill of photos, we retraced our route and returned to the cable car terminal at 4:15, which gave us another half-hour to roam around before the second-to-last departure of the day. We found a natural arch in the rock and looked down through the hole at the crazy twists and turns of the road far below.

    Thank goodness for long summer days, as once we had returned to the bottom we had plenty of daylight left to continue our circumnavigation of the Sella Gruppe. Now it was my turn to drive, down the other side of the Passo di Pordoi and onwards over the Passo di Campolongo (#7) and Passo di Gardena (#8). We were amazed by the number of ski lifts and trams that dotted the slopes above us – this area must be absolutely amazing in the winter, but I’m not sure how you would decide where to ski, as there seem to be unlimited options available. It is impossible to describe the majesty of the Dolomites, so you’ll just have to look at the pictures. The driving was very challenging – lots of first-gear hairpin turns – but thrilling. We ran into some traffic towards the end as we headed back towards Ortisei, so we didn’t get back to the hotel until 6:45 – just in time for dinner, which is served promptly at 7:00.

    Dinner was a repeat of the salad buffet followed by tomato & mozzarella salad, a simple chicken broth soup, a fabulous meat & cheese lasagne, classic Wienerschnitzel with creamy potatoes, and apple streudel with whipped cream. I think the Südtirol might just be my favorite region of Europe, as it seems to combine the best of Germany and Italy – dramatic landscapes, friendly people (who all speak German so I can actually communicate), and delicious food!

    The only problem we had with the Hotel Uhrerhof is that we were seated in a dining room with two families whose kids were constantly out of their seats, so the atmosphere was somewhat less than romantic. I wonder why they didn’t seat us in other dining room, which was much quieter. We probably should have asked to move. After our streudel we quickly retired to our room and planned out tomorrow’s route to Lake Como.

    Today's pictures:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157602761199541/

    Coming Next: An amazing drive to Lake Como!

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    Oh good, I have some readers!

    Steve, my husband still remembers the Jaufenpass as one of his favorites - perhaps because of the lack of traffic!

    I did think of skydiving when I saw that misprint. There certainly are tons of paragliders and hangliders in the Dolomites and Berner Oberland. I think I would try one of those before I did skydiving... ;-)

    enzian, the Fründenhütte hike was definitely quite an experience - you'll hear why soon!

    caroline, flygirl - glad you're on board and enjoying the report!







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    Well - your description of the Sella tour bought back lots of memories, Hausfrau :). I'm hoping to do it again next month ... if the snow's gone.

    I'm sorry you didn't get a sunny day for it :(
    You'll have to go back ;)

    I've enjoyed looking at your photos too. Your unnamed mountain town is Arabba, I believe - at the foot of the Pordoi Pass.

    Looking forward to the next installment ...

    Steve

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    Steve, I figure we were pretty lucky with the weather - the day could have been completely ruined and I still managed to get some great photos! We will definitely be going back. Thanks for the ID of Arabba. I try to pay attention to these things but sometimes a few slip through the cracks.

    This next post is really long - but we covered a LOT of ground!

    DAY 4: ONE DAY, TWO COUNTRIES & FOUR GREAT MOUNTAIN PASSES (DOLOMITES TO LAKE COMO)

    We had another tasty breakfast at the Hotel Uhrerhof and I had a nice chat with Frau Zemmer in German before we left. It was difficult to say goodbye to this idyllic spot after such a brief stay. Of all of our European travels over the past two years, this hotel, and the Dolomites in general, are very close to the top of the list of destinations I would like to return to for a longer visit.

    From Ortisei we struck out on route 242 west to the autostrada, hooking up with the A22 near Bolzano. We messed up (okay, perhaps I briefly neglected my navigation duties because I was slightly distracted by the amazing castle perched on a hill above the highway) and went too far south on the A22. We ended up going about 20 kilometers out of our way AND wound up in a traffic jam AND had to pay two tolls before we could get off and turn around. Finally we got on track again and headed north back to Merano, the way we had come on Thursday. We took route 38 west through Naturno and Silandro, passing through a lovely valley lined with more espaliered apple trees bursting with fruit. At Spodigna, we continued on the 38 south towards the Stelvio Pass (#9), one of the most famous roads in the Alps. You can see a pretty amazing image of the pass from across the valley here: http://www.weltderberge.de/alpen/pics/bbe15649.jpg. At 2758 meters, the Paso dello Stelvio is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest paved pass in the Alps overall, second only to the Col de l’Iseran in France at 2770 meters.

    Located about 75 kilometers west of Bolzano, very close to the Swiss border, one of the peaks above the Stelvio Pass is named Dreisprachenspitze, or "Three Languages Peak," because this is where the historically Italian, German and Romansch-speaking regions all come together. The original road was built by the Austrian Empire in the 1820s to connect the former Austrian province of Lombardia with the rest of Austria. The route has changed very little since then, comprising a grand total of 60 hairpin turns, 48 of which are on the northern side of the pass. The pass was strategically important during World War I, as it formed the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. A portion of Swiss territory jutted between Austria and Italy and the three nations had to reach an agreement not to fire over the Swiss area. Today, the pass is busy not with gunfire but tourists – it is generally open from June to September and has become a favorite route for motorists and motorcyclists, as well as hard-core bicyclists.

    As we approached the pass, the rolling forested hills gave little indication of the dramatic scenery that was about to unfold above us. Just below the bottom of the pass, we stopped at the side of the road for a pit stop. We took this opportunity to put the top down on the SLK, which ended up being a wise choice, as it is much easier to see out of a car with no roof.

    I suppose if we had had a little more time to plan this trip, we might have considered the possibility that driving one of the most famous roads in Europe on a Saturday afternoon in August was perhaps NOT the most brilliant idea. As we started up the first few switchbacks, we realized that this was going to be more about avoiding the swarms of bicyclists, weaving motorcyclists, and monstrous slow-moving RVs and tour buses than it was about enjoying the drive. Unfortunately, the fame of the Stelvio Pass has reached far beyond motoring enthusiasts and it has now become an attraction even for those who have no idea how to drive. On the bright side, our slow pace allowed us (well, me, at least) to enjoy the dramatic view of snow-capped peaks around us.

    We were about a quarter of the way up the pass, following an Audi A6, when a large bus suddenly bore down on us around a particularly tight hairpin turn. The Audi stopped dead in its tracks to let the bus swing around the bend, but that was still not enough room for the bus, and the Audi started backing up – without bothering to notice that we were a few feet behind him! DH had to honk at the guy and I am pretty sure he only missed hitting us by a few inches. Another time, a big touring motorcycle could not make it around a turn and the rider put his foot down, stopping suddenly right in front of us. Avoiding the bicyclists was the worst – they seem to think they own the road. I found myself craning my neck to look around each switchback to let DH know if the way ahead was clear, so he wouldn’t have to worry about taking out a bicyclist if he swung out a little bit into the opposite lane. We took a break about halfway up, near the ruins of a burnt-out hotel. We looked further up the pass and marveled at the engineering of the road, which is cantilevered out over the mountainside in some places. Near the top we stopped again to soak in the view, looking directly down on the road snaking up the mountainside.

    In a nutshell, the Stelvio Pass is far too narrow to be enjoyed in anything but the smallest of sportscars, and on this day at least, was too crowded to be much enjoyed at all. Even the SLK felt huge as DH lugged it around those tight hairpins. I would strongly advise against driving the pass on a summer weekend, and if you are going to make the trek to Stelvio, be sure to tour some of the other great passes in the region, which are lesser known but make for far better driving experiences.

    We ran a gauntlet of parked motorcycles at the top of the pass, an area thronged with hordes of bicyclists and tourists, all swarming around a cluster of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The crowds disappeared as we descended the other side into a desolate expanse of jagged mountains. After a few kilometers we reached the turnoff for the Umbrailpass (pass #10, a.k.a. Giogo di Santa Maria), which was marked by a gate and sign (written only in Italian) that says the road is open from 6 in the morning until 10:00 at night. The Umbrail is one of the only unpaved mountain passes left in the Alps and, at 2500 meters, is the highest pass traversable by car in Switzerland. We crossed the Swiss border (marked only by a deserted customs station) just a few hundred meters down the road, then continued our descent through a barren valley on a challenging road with no guardrails. Apparently far fewer vehicles come over this pass and we enjoyed it a lot more than the Stelvio. The road turned to gravel partway down, but it was only unpaved for a few kilometers, perhaps one-third of the total 13.4-kilometer stretch. We were followed by a Land Rover Defender most of the way down – he had no trouble keeping up with us in the gravel – but otherwise we saw more motorcycles than cars on the Umbrail.

    We reached the postcard-perfect town of Santa Maria at the bottom of the Umbrail, where we turned left onto the Ofenpassstraße (only in German can one justify the use of the triple-s!). This took us on a gorgeous route through the Val Müstair, a landscape of dry conifer forests and broad golden meadows that reminded us of western Montana. We stopped at a little restaurant at the top of the Ofenpass (#11, 2149 meters) to buy sodas and candy bars, then hiked a short ways up a rocky trail to sit on a bench, eat our snacks, and enjoy the view. I took the wheel at this point and drove down the other side of the Ofenpass. The road was perfect – long sweeping bends and minimal traffic. The route took us through a portion of the Swiss National Park and the road was lined with trailheads. (In July 2006, a brown bear was spotted in the park – the first wild bear sighting in Switzerland in over one hundred years.)

    At Zernez we turned southwest and took route 27 along the River Inn to the lakeside resort of St. Moritz, where we stopped for gas. We had now entered the region of Switzerland known as the Engadin, which means “garden of the Inn” in the local Romansch language. We traversed the Oberengadin from Zernez to Maloja, an area marked by a chain of beautiful blue lakes dotted with sailboats and ringed by cheerful hotels. From here we descended the precipitous Malojapass (pass #12, 1815 meters), our final pass of the day, which would take us back into Italy. This was another very crowded road; we followed a string of cars and motorcycles down an impossibly steep series of switchbacks through thick conifer forest. About 22 kilometers later and 1100 meters lower, we crossed into Italy at Castasegna. We noticed a pronounced shift in the local architecture that coincided dramatically with the elevation change: from quaint Tirolean chalets with overhanging eaves and window boxes bursting with to rambling stucco-walled, tile-roofed villas in every imaginable shade of yellow and orange.

    From Chiavenna, just inside the Italian border, it was only a short drive south to the shores of Lake Como, where the road suddenly became a busy four-lane highway. The lake was hidden from view most of the way along the eastern shore, as it passes through a series of long and slightly claustrophobic tunnels. Because Lake Como is a very long, narrow lake, we realized that we would have to go ridiculously far out of our way to reach Bellagio by land and it made far more sense to take the ferry from Varenna. We found the turnoff for Varenna and wound our way slowly down to the lakeshore, following the signs to the ferry. I managed to maneuver the car into what I assumed was the line for the ferry while DH went off to scout out tickets. He returned triumphant with a ticket (11,60 Euro for the car and passengers) for the next departure, leaving in about twenty minutes. We walked around near the ferry dock while we waited. Varenna looked beautiful – lovely pastel-hued villas tumbling down the hill to the water’s edge.

    A ferry arrived a few minutes later and unloaded; we were about to drive onto it but the man taking the tickets kindly told us it was the wrong one (I think it was the ferry to Menaggio) and ours would be arriving a few minutes later. Finally we got on the right boat and boarded for the fifteen-minute ride across the lake. It was an incredible evening – only a few wisps of clouds in an otherwise brilliant blue sky, and we marveled at the views. I didn’t have a good image in my mind of Lake Como (other than ritzy villas and resorts, of which it boasts a fair few) before we arrived and I was somewhat surprised by the dramatic mountain slopes of the Parco delle Grigne rising sharply from the east side of the lake. But there was also more development than I expected – the lake is ringed by small towns and the hillsides are dotted with houses. Bellagio, however, was a pleasant surprise – much smaller than I had imagined and, dare I say, a bit sleepy even on this gorgeous warm evening at the height of the tourist season.

    Bellagio sits on a point of land that juts into the lake from the south and thus commands some of the most spectacular views in the area. We spotted our hotel, the Metropole, even before we reached the ferry dock, and I knew we were in for a treat. The Metropole is located right on the waterfront and the balconies literally hang over the water (as opposed to some of the other lakefront hotels that have a street in front of them). We drove off the ferry and tried to find parking in a nearby lot but it was totally full and, since it was dinnertime, we didn’t expect any spaces to open up soon. We drove a short ways down the road and found another lot with three cars in line waiting to get in. The guy at the gate waved me away but I stayed put and gave him the sweetest look that I could muster. A car left the lot a minute later and the man gestured that I could stay. He came up to my window and said something indecipherable in Italian, but switched to English in response to my blank expression. I told him I wanted to park overnight and he showed me to a spot. It cost 10 Euro, which we figured was fair. We unloaded our bags and hoofed it back to the hotel, which wasn’t too difficult because the SLK’s miniscule trunk (which is even smaller with the top down) has forced us to travel very light. We walked down a gorgeous flower-bedecked esplanade that was simply magical in the evening light.

    Our reception at the Metropole was polite if not overly friendly; we climbed the stairs to our tiny double room on the first floor. The bed took up most of the space but the room was tidy and the gray tile bathroom was clean and serviceable. Our view was exactly as advertised – floor-to-ceiling French doors opening onto a tiny balcony with just enough room for two chairs (although ours had only one) and an absolutely stunning 180-degree view of the lake. Honestly, this was the bargain of our trip at 144 Euro. We arrived just in time to watch the sun disappear over the mountains to the west, casting long golden rays across the lake. A little later we strolled along the waterfront looking at menus and decided that the Hotel Florence looked the most promising – it had the most interesting menu and the prettiest terrace overlooking the water, framed by a lovely trellis dripping with wisteria. We had to wait for a while for a table but the waiter we spoke to suggested that we have drinks at their bar across the street. We ordered G&Ts and sat outside, watching the lights come on across the lake.

    We were seated at a table right on the water and enjoyed an absolutely lovely meal. DH had risotto with smoked salmon and caviar followed by roast duck with mushrooms in a balsamic sauce. I started with fresh pasta with pesto, pine nuts, and zucchini flowers followed by carpaccio with smoked ricotta and shaved truffle. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plate of carpaccio I didn’t like, but this was a very nice twist on the classic. For dessert we both had peach and white chocolate mousse with a creamy sauce flavored with cognac and almonds. We teetered back to the hotel (thank goodness it was only a few hundred yards away) and fell into bed.

    Today's pictures:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157602870675228/

    Coming Next: Another amazing drive (Lake Como to Berner Oberland)

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    You only drove for a couple hours through the Engadin? Oh you poor folks, you missed the best ...

    Thanks for the detailed report. I agree on the Jaufenpass, it's very scenic. I don't care that much for the Dolomites, though. Lack of glaciers, I guess.

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    Ingo, I guess it's different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes. We just passed through the Engadin because it was never a target destination for us. It was pretty, but for us it was no match to the dramatic scenery of the Dolomites or Berner Oberland.

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    DAY 5: SWITZERLAND’S FINEST (LAKE COMO TO KANDERSTEG)

    Morning dawned to reveal bright blue skies and a gorgeous view of Lake Como from our balcony. We wanted to take a stroll around town before checking out, so we were among the first guests down to breakfast in the Metropole’s lakefront dining room. We made our selections from the simple buffet, then set out to explore. It was Sunday so the town was very quiet. Bellagio is full of pretty cobblestone streets that stair-step down the steep hill to the lake. I couldn’t get enough of the warm-toned villas with their wrought-iron balconies overflowing with flowers and vines. We wandered into the piazza in front of the church just as everyone was arriving for services, then walked back along the waterfront and took in the view across the lake to Varenna.

    After making a big loop around town, we returned to the hotel to check out. DH waited with the luggage while I retrieved our car. We caught the 10:15 ferry to Cadenábbia, on the western shore of Lake Como. (I have to remark that the ferry system on Lake Como seemed highly efficient and using it was a breeze. It would be quite easy to spend a few days zipping around the lake without need for a car.) I took the wheel to drive us out of Cadenábbia, past more tile-roofed villas clinging to the steep slopes, with magnificent views out over the lake. We headed northwest on route 340, which winds along the north shore of Lake Lugano. It was a crystal-clear morning and the lakeside villages of Porlezza and Albogasio looked like especially nice places to spend a few relaxing days.

    We soon crossed back into the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and descended into Lugano, a large resort town nestled along the lake. It was too big for our liking, with lots of high-rise apartment buildings, but we figured we could at least find a gas station here where we could buy a Swiss highway vignette – the toll sticker that you have to place on your windshield. Since it was Sunday, several of the gas stations we passed were closed. The first one we found that was open did not sell the vignettes, and we were starting to get a little desperate as we approached the autostrada. Finally, at the very last gas station before the freeway entrance, we were able to buy the vignette, which set us back a whopping 40 Swiss francs (about $35). It’s valid for a year – too bad we would only be in Switzerland for three days!

    We hooked up with the A2 and headed north through Bellinzona. At Biasca we got off the A2 and continued north on the Strada del Lucomagno – a smooth, wide, two-lane road – which tooks us over the Passo del Lucomagno (pass #13, 1914 meters). On the ascent we wound up through a dramatic green valley dotted with slate-roofed cottages. At the top we passed a small reservoir held back by an enormous concrete dam, and then we traversed a long, broad, high-mountain meadow called the Val Medel. This area seems to be a very popular destination for Sunday picnickers, who were out in full force, camped out on the sandy riverbanks.

    At Disentis / Mustér we headed west on route 19, towards the Oberalppass (pass #14, 2044 meters) to Andermatt. This was an awesome stretch of road and I think DH was beginning to regret his insistence on driving the Stelvio Pass, because I seemed to be getting all the best roads. Unfortunately I was waylaid by some slow-moving traffic on the ascent of the Oberalp, but it wasn’t nearly as busy as Stelvio and I was able to pass a few cars on the straightaways. We stopped at the top of the Oberalp for lunch (most of the passes are marked by a cluster of hotels and restaurants and we figured we should have the experience of eating at one of these places at least once). We had spent most of our Swiss francs already on the vignette and the restaurant didn’t take credit cards, but fortunately they accepted Euros. It was sunny and warm enough to sit outside on the terrace and enjoy the view, including the endless parade of motorcycles roaring by. DH had Rösti (a classic Swiss dish of chopped potatoes pan-fried with onions, ham, and cheese) and I had Käseschnitte – an open-faced grilled-cheese sandwich with ham and pickled onions. Delicious!

    DH took over driving after lunch and we continued down the other side of the Oberalp to Andermatt, a popular ski resort town. We continued on route 19 up the Furkapass (pass #15, our highest pass of the day at 2431 meters), distinguishable by the razor-edged peaks towering above the road. From the top of the Furkapass you can see the Rhônegletscher (Rhône Glacier), the source of the Rhône River. We stopped just over the top to take in the view down the other side of the Furkapass and across the valley to the Grimselpass (pass #16, 2165 meters), which we would be tackling next. We stopped again on the way down to get as close as we could to the lip of the glacier. Just above us, a gush of water tumbled out of the dirty blue ice and cascaded down a wall of rocks into the valley below. Just imagine – this thin trickle of a stream meandering down a narrow valley in Switzerland eventually becomes the mighty Rhône.

    The road down the other side of the Furkapass was a masterpiece of asphalt – a long descent of switchbacks and straightaways to the valley floor, across the river, and then we began the equally impressive ascent of the Grimselpass. Now that we have driven sixteen of the highest mountain passes in Europe, we are quite in awe of the labor and engineering required to construct these routes – many of which have been in existence for more than a hundred years. Just over the top of the Grimselpass the road curved around a series of small reservoirs colored a milky green from the glacial silt. We dropped steeply into a canyon carved by the Aare River – a Yosemite-esque landscape of great curving slabs of granite and thick conifer forests. We continued northwest through Meiringen and then hooked up with the two-lane highway that parallels the Brienzer See to Interlaken – and finally entered familiar territory, as we had been here last fall with my parents.

    We ran into a huge traffic jam along the Thuner See just west of Interlaken – apparently everyone else was returning from their Sunday outings at the same time that we were trying to make our way to Kandersteg. We had the top down so we were baking in the sun as we crept along the lake for nearly an hour (a distance we should have been able to cover in about ten minutes). Finally we reached the turnoff for Kandersteg and made the now-familiar trek up the dead-end valley to the Hotel Adler, our home for the next three nights. We arrived around 7 pm and checked into our large room on the second floor. We had a couch and a lounge chair this time, and a big private balcony looking out the back of the hotel toward the mountains. Our bathroom was a bit odd – it looked like they had covered it over with sheets of white fiberglass, which were bolted to the walls, almost like they had taken a stopgap measure to cover up some sort of terrible problem – but at least it was clean. We had dinner at the Adler’s restaurant – I had the classic Rösti and DH had pasta with chicken and lemon chive sauce. After traversing four of Switzerland’s finest mountain passes, we were thoroughly exhausted but exhilarated by the day’s thrilling drive!

    Today’s photos:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603093021239/

    Coming Next: We park the car for a day and go up the Jungfraujoch

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    OK, OK.

    Love Hotel Adler---it sounds like you have stayed there before? We generally stay up at the lake, at Hotel Oeschinensee, but often end up eating a meal or two at the Adler.

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    This was my third stay at the Adler - the first time was over 15 years ago. We have friends that stay there just about every year. I have to say we were a bit disappointed by the bathroom this time around.

    It must be great to stay up at the lake - I've always wondered, do they let guests drive up there or do you have to take the chairlift?

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    Hausfrau

    I just emailed Uhrerhof. I am sure we would stay there May 28 and 29. May 27 is our "Grossglockner" day and I don't know if we can leave Heiligenblut (the end) and still make it to Pufels before dark. What are your thoughts?

    I know that Ingo said there are many fine views in between Heiligenblut and Ortisei, perhaps if we reach Pufels Tuesday night, we can spend Wednesday backtracking.

    Staying in one spot would be ideal, with day trips - unless of course it's just a lot of ground to cover in which case we could just stay somewhere b/w Heiligenblut and Pufels.

    Vielen Dank!

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    Hausfrau--you have to take the chairlift up there, or walk. We've done both. Generally we leave luggage in lockers in the train station, and just go up with what we need for a few days in daypacks. One year we actually took our luggage up, walking up the path. (The teen girls could not imagine leaving anything behind; they were adamant about that). So we trekked up with our roller bags. We are now famous for that---apparently the people we encountered on the way (who were hiking down) still talk about it. . .

    It is really lovely to spend the night up there, and the food is terrific.

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    Hey, we already heard back from the hotel - room 101 is ours! Either for two nights or three nights.

    Now I just have to figure out if plowing through the day we finish the Grossglockner, all the way to Pufels, is a good idea. We'd do the "touring" from that as a base...

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    flygirl, I can't believe you got our room! That's terrific. I really hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

    As for pushing all the way to Pufels that day you are coming from Grossglockner...I am not familiar with the route, so I can't say for sure. I mapped it and it's about 175 km from Heiligenblut to Pufels, with a driving time of 3:15. Of course that doesn't include stopping to take in the views. I'm not sure I would want to go all the way to Pufels only to backtrack to see what I missed along the way - there's going to be so much for you to see around the Sella Gruppe as it is! Maybe others can chime in on what would be a good stopping point in between.

    enzian, I can't help laughing, picturing your family pulling roller bags up to Oeschinensee! When you hear the story of our day at Oeschinensee, you will understand. Speaking of which, I'd better get back to work on this report!

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    DAY 6: THE MAGNIFICENT JUNGFRAUJOCH

    The mountain panorama from our balcony was spectacular this morning – not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was downright balmy. The Hotel Adler posts a weather forecast in the lobby so we knew that today was our best chance for sunshine and clear skies; thus we planned to take the train up to the Jungfraujoch, the rocky saddle between two of the highest mountains in the Berner Oberland, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. At 3454 meters, the Jungfraujoch boasts the highest train station in Europe and visiting it was one of the primary reasons why we returned to Kandersteg on this trip. I’d been wanting to go up there since my first visit to the region about 15 years ago, and DH was enamored by the idea when we went up to Kleine Scheidegg with my parents last year.

    We got going around 10 am and I drove us to Lauterbrunnen, where we bought tickets for the 11:30 train to Kleine Scheidegg. (Warning: it is extremely expensive to go all the way up to the Jungfraujoch – it cost us 265 Euro for two round-trip tickets from Lauterbrunnen - so don’t do it unless you know you will have good weather at the top!) We settled into our compartment on the cog train for the 45-minute ride up from Lauterbrunnen and through Wengen. The train was quite full; we sat across from a couple of British guys and an American family with two teenagers. The mountains were totally clear on the way up and we agreed that it could not have been a more perfect day for this journey. We saw a few of my favorite Swiss cows along the way. We had a short wait at Kleine Scheidegg so we went into a gift shop and bought some magnets (I started collecting magnets from all of the countries we visited while living in Germany, so I had to catch up and buy two from Switzerland, one for each trip we’ve made here). For some inexplicable reason, a small herd of goats had camped out right in the middle of the train station and were eliciting lots of attention from the Japanese tourists.

    We boarded our train around 1:00 and started the long, slow ascent up to the Jungfraujoch. After the first stop, we entered the 7.3-kilometer long tunnel that traverses the massive wall of the Eiger. The train stopped twice on the way up, each time for about five minutes, so we could walk out to the viewing platforms and look straight down the wall of ice, all the way to the green valley of Grindelwald far below. En route, a video played on board the train explaining the history of the tunnel and the construction of the station at the top. The tunnel was the brainchild of a man named Adolf Guyer-Zeller, who originally planned for the train to climb all the way to the topmost lookout platform, now known as the Sphinx. The project began in 1896 and took 16 years to complete; unfortunately the tunnel’s construction was plagued by budget shortfalls, inclement weather, and numerous accidents. In the end the tunnel stopped at the base of the Jungfraujoch saddle, but it still represents a monumental achievement in engineering.

    The Jungfraujoch station is an enormous multi-level complex, most of which is built inside the rock itself. (Here is a good picture of the complex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Siteoverview.jpg) We stepped off the train into what felt like a cross between a subway station and an amusement park, with an array of colored arrows pointing the way to the various attractions. We first walked through the Ice Palace, which is a network of ice tunnels and caves filled with imaginative sculptures. This is worth a look, especially if you’ve never been in an ice cave before. The whole place has an eerie green glow and it’s fun to slide around on the smooth-as-glass floor. Next we went to one of the two outdoor viewing areas, where you can walk around in the snow, take in views of the jagged peaks of the Jungfrau and Mönch rearing dramatically into the sky, and have your picture taken in front of the proudly waving Swiss flag. Then we took the high-speed elevator up to the Sphinx (it climbs over 100 feet in a matter of seconds), where you can walk around outside on a circular viewing platform. From here we got incredible panoramic views of the mountains and the awesome Aletsch Glacier, which, at 120 square kilometers, is the largest glacier in the Alps. We watched a glider soaring in lazy circles just off the side of the Mönch and we could see a string of mountain climbers starting their hike up the Jungfrau.

    We opted not to eat lunch at the station (the “nice” restaurant was far too expensive and the “casual” restaurant was a glorified cafeteria), and instead decided to make the short hike across the glacier to the Mönchsjochütte, a typical Swiss hiker’s lodge. The 45-minute trek across a gently rising slope covered in fresh snow was a lot harder than it looked – at 11,300 feet, we were gasping for air! It was definitely worth the effort, as the crowds dispersed as soon as we got a few hundred feet away from the station. (You can rent sleds and even ski equipment up here, but the ski slope is pretty pathetic.) Signs warned us to stay on the groomed trail, because if you head off into untouched snow you just might fall into a hidden crevasse in the ice. Walking across the blinding white snow under impossibly blue skies, with views of craggy peaks and the vast glacier spreading out before us, was simply mind-boggling. Finally the hütte came into view – a rugged-looking structure on stilts, clinging to the “hip” of the Mönch. Below us we could see a snug circle of dome tents clustered in a not-so-sheltered hollow and agreed that we would leave snow camping to the die-hard mountain climbers.

    We were starving when we finally arrived at the hütte, so we decided to share a plate of bratwurst and potato salad along with a couple bottles of Apfelschörle (that’s German for sparkling apple juice). We sat at a window looking out beyond the Mönch to a wide expanse of rock and ice. While we were sitting there, DH just happened to see a sign on the wall with the train schedule and he realized that the next train was leaving at 4:45, and then there wasn’t another departure until the last train of the day at 6:05. It was already 4:15, which gave us exactly 30 minutes to get back down to the train station. We literally ran, slipping and sliding through the snow, all the way back, and arrived at the station at 4:40. Clouds were starting to move in over the Jungfrau and the Sphinx was nearly hidden from view as we approached the station. The 4:45 train was already full and there was a line of about two hundred people waiting for the next one. Fortunately another train came at 5:05 and we squeezed onto it, taking the last jump-seats in our compartment. The train was absolutely packed – people were standing and sitting in the aisles. Riding through a long tunnel in an overcrowded train is not so much fun, but we struck up a conversation with a nice guy from Ohio who was there with his Swiss wife, who works for Nestlé (sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?). At Kleine Scheidegg we only had a couple of minutes to change trains for our ride down to Lauterbrunnen, so we didn’t end up spending any time there today. We were glad we had explored the area well last fall. The Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau were totally obscured by clouds as we headed down and we thanked our lucky stars that the good weather had held out long enough for our visit. Some people find the trip to the Jungfraujoch overpriced and too touristy, but we really enjoyed it, especially the view from the Sphinx and the hike to the Mönchsjochhütte.

    We arrived back in Lauterbrunnen at 7:30 and then made the 45-minute drive back to Kandersteg without incident. We had dinner at the Hotel Victoria across the street from the Adler, where we were served by a very nice waitress from Berlin who spoke perfect English but obliged us by speaking German. We had a very good meal – I started with a house salad, then a delicious Schweinesteak on a bed of steamed spinach with a fabulous gravy, topped with shavings of a hard, salty local cheese (I wish I could remember the name – it was delicious!). DH had salmon prepared three ways with a horseradish relish followed by a meat dish that we can’t remember – things are starting to blur together and I didn’t take good notes. We headed off to bed thinking gloomy thoughts about tomorrow, which was supposed to be our hiking day, because the forecast was calling for rain!

    Today’s photos:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603282245227/

    Coming Next: We buy real cow bells and have a hiking adventure above Oeschinensee

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    Hausfrau - More lovely photos :) I'd love to do that ride!

    Flygirl - There are other routes to Bulla/Pufels without going via Cortina. From Dobbiaco you could take a shorter route - with some fabulous detours on the way - e.g Lake Braies (- the most beautiful lake in Italy ;) ) and Prato Piazza

    That way you wouldn't be rushing - and you could save the glorious Sellaronda passes for your full-day tour the next day.

    You could decide at Dobbiaco on the day, depending on weather and time available. That's what I'd do ...

    Steve

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    Here it is, enzian - in lengthy detail!

    DAY 7: OUR SEARCH FOR REAL COW BELLS & A VERY WET HIKE TO THE FRÜNDENHÜTTE

    The Swiss weather forecasters were, sadly, quite accurate: it started raining overnight and it was drizzling when we got up this morning. The mountains were invisible and it looked like our plans to hike to the Fründenhütte were going to be literally washed away. (The Fründenhütte is another traditional hiker’s hut perched on a ridge about 1000 feet above the shores of Oeschinensee, a gorgeous glacial lake nestled in a cupped valley above Kandersteg.) We were sorely disappointed since we had added a day to our trip for the express purpose of attempting the hike to the Fründenhütte. We decided to look around Kandersteg in the morning and wait to see if the weather might clear up a bit. We stopped at the cheese shop a block from our hotel, where they have a gigantic cow bell hanging in the window, and I decided to inquire there about where I might find my very own authentic Swiss cow bell. I was tired of the silly tourist-variety bells with their faux-leather straps and rainbow-colored fringe; I wanted an honest-to-goodness bell that was made to be worn by a real cow. Three people were working in the shop at the time (all of whom spoke some English, fortunately), and they gave me three different (and rather emphatic, might I add) opinions on where I could find my cow bell. The first suggestion was a shop in Reichenbach, a little ways down the valley, where they make bells; the second was an antique store near Frütingen, also just down the road; and the third was a retired farmer in Kandersteg who just happened to have a barn full of cow bells that he wasn’t using anymore. The directions for the latter were a bit vague and one look at DH’s face told me that wandering down a country lane in search of an elderly farmer who might sell us his bells was not the sort of wild goose chase he was willing to go on this morning – chance at authentic cow bells notwithstanding – so we opted to try the first two options.

    We headed down to Reichenbach and drove up and down the main street a couple of times; the only shop we found that looked like it might sell cow bells was a hardware store, but they were closed for their autumn holiday. A few bells were hanging on a rack in front of the door, taunting me. The antique store was relatively easy to find, but it too was closed. I walked up to the window and pressed my face to the glass: lo and behold, there was a beautiful antique cow bell just sitting there, a few feet inside the door! At that very moment a car pulled into the driveway. An older woman stuck her head out the window and called out that the shop was closed. I asked if she spoke English; she said no. I asked her in German when the shop would be open. She asked if I was looking for something in particular and I told her yes – Kuhglocken! She nodded and indicated that she could open up the shop. She unlocked the door, then disappeared behind a curtain leading to a back room. A few seconds later a 5-month-old Berner puppy bounded through the doorway. In his excitement he piddled on the floor right in front of me, narrowly missing my shoe.

    The shop was amazing – a cavernous space full of gorgeous wooden furniture, farm implements, and the usual knickknacks. Of course I was oblivious to everything except for the two long beams spanning the room that were lined with – glory hallelujah! – dozens of beautiful cow bells in every size imaginable, hanging from thick leather collars fastened with heavy buckles. I was in bell heaven. The lovely bell I had spotted in the window was apparently a rare French model from Chamonix that cost a whopping 400 Swiss Francs, but I was certain the others would be more affordable. After much looking and discussion we picked out three bells – one full-size one and two smaller calf’s bells, one of which looked brand new. The lady had to call the shop owner for the prices. She came down on the price of the new bell, bringing the total to 310 ChF. Of course they didn’t take credit cards or EC cards, and I had only withdrawn 200 ChF from the ATM in Kandersteg and so had a grand total of 274 ChF plus change in my wallet. I showed the lady my empty wallet and offered her an additional 10 Euro to help make up the difference, but she refused it. She mentioned something about a bank down the road, but we made it clear that we had no intention of coming back. She finally accepted the Francs, muttering, “Es ist mein Kopf!” (It’s my head!), but she seemed pretty amiable about it. As we were leaving DH told her, “Jetz brauchen wir drei Kuhe.” (Now we need three cows.)

    Very satisfied with our cow bell venture, we headed back up the valley to Kandersteg. It was about 1 pm now and still drizzling, but we decided to give the hike a shot anyway – what did we have to lose, other than getting a little wet? We stopped at the hotel to pile on what would pass for our rain gear and walked up the road to the Sesselbahn (chairlift). We bought two round-trip tickets and were grateful for the thick wool blanket the attendant laid across our laps as we headed up into the clouds. From the top of the lift it was a 20-minute walk to the shores of Oeschinensee, which was nearly invisible in the low-hanging fog. We snacked on organic cheeseburgers and Cokes at the lakeshore restaurant and then set off on the trail to the Fründenhütte at precisely 2:15 pm. The sign at the trailhead said it would take 2 ½ hours to reach the hut. That would leave us only an hour and fifteen minutes to get back down to the chairlift, which closes at 6:00, but we decided to give it our best shot.

    We headed up the narrow, rocky trail in a steady drizzle, crossing several dry streambeds and cutting through a stunted conifer forest. The trail skirted the edge of the lake for a while, then began climbing steadily upwards. We scrambled over slippery rocks and roots, past low flowering bushes that appeared to be tiny wild azaleas, then emerged into a barren rocky landscape peppered with clumps of straggly grasses. We crossed three wooden footbridges over rushing streams that came cascading off the cliff high above our heads and tumbled downwards to the lake, now far below us. We continued up, up, up, through an endless series of switchbacks. The vegetation all but disappeared and the landscape transitioned to rain-streaked shards of black shale. At one point the clouds thinned enough to give us a glimpse of a huge cliff looming above us, and we knew that somehow the trail would take us up there. We couldn’t see much in any direction, so we lost all sense of scale or height. We could no longer make out the ultramarine blue of the lake below and the Fründenhütte perched on its rocky ridge was lost somewhere in the clouds far above. Several sections of the trail took us up nearly sheer cliff faces, with stone steps gouged into the rock and metal cables to guide our way.

    Our original turnaround time of 4:00 came and went, but we knew we must be getting close. Finally we passed a large plastic water tank labeled Fründenhütte and we knew we must be very close. The trail wound up and around one last rocky outcropping and suddenly the squat stone face of the hut with its cheerful red-and-white striped shutters appeared out of the gloom. We turned around and glimpsed a brief splash of blue-green waters through the swirling mist far below. Directly across from us we could make out the vague forms of the high peaks on the other side of the lake. The view must be absolutely magnificent on a clear day! All around the hut, rock-strewn slopes swept upwards into jagged peaks crowned with ice sheets. It was 4:30 and we had made the 1000-foot climb in exactly two hours and fifteen minutes. A light glowed dimly through the hut’s lace curtains but there was no other sign of life as we walked slowly around the building. There wasn’t even an overhang where we could sit and rest for a few minutes. We had paused momentarily to look at the inscription over the door when the upper half of the split-door opened and a young man peered out. I said, “Hello there!” and he said hello back, giving us an odd look. I’m sure he was wondering what sort of crazy people had decided to make the hike up to the hut on this sort of day (we hadn’t encountered another soul on the trail). He had a dog with him – a scrawny, wary-eyed shepherd – but apparently he was the only person staying at the hut at the moment. We asked him to take our picture and he kindly obliged. We would have liked to linger and chat, but we had a timetable to keep. We said goodbye and turned back down the trail, leaving the young man to stare rather quizzically after us.

    By this point we were soaked through and the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. We couldn’t see a thing below us, which was perhaps fortunate, since I imagine the view is rather virtiginous when the weather is clear. We kept up a hard pace on the way down, but the going was very difficult – cold, wet, slippery, and tough on the knees. I stopped to snap a few pictures (I was using our point-and-shoot Canon because I didn’t want to risk soaking my SLR, which I was nevertheless lugging around in my backpack) but DH, ever safety-conscious, kept urging me on because he was worried about the streams. (Once again we found ourselves on a steep mountain trail, late in the day, with no emergency supplies, and no one knew where we were.) Sure enough, about a thousand small streams had appeared since we had made our way up the mountain, and water was now cascading from cliffs where there had been none before. As we approached each of the three major stream crossings, we wondered if the footbridges would be underwater. Fortunately none of them was, but the water was much higher than it had been on the way up, boiling violently through the narrow channels only a few inches under our feet. We were fairly relieved when we crossed the third bridge, but we still had a ways to go. The once-dry streambeds had turned into raging torrents, and by the time we arrived back at the shore of Oeschinensee, my boots had turned into sodden sponges. It was 5:45 and we knew we had virtually no chance of making it to the chairlift before 6:00, since the walk to the lake had taken us twenty minutes – downhill and before we were exhausted from a long hike.

    We decided that fate had deemed for us to walk all the way back to Kandersteg – a descent of another 1000 feet – in the rain. I had made this trek once before, fifteen years ago, and I knew it was going to be hard on my knees. We decided to take the dirt trail instead of the paved road since it would be a little less jarring. We passed a small herd of rain-bedraggled cows on the way down, their bells (which, I noted with immense satisfaction, looked just like the ones we had purchased this morning) clanging mournfully in the mist. It took us another hour to reach the valley floor, by which point my knees had turned to jelly and I could barely walk in a straight line. The route wasn’t well-marked and we ended up hiking cross-country down a ski slope part of the way. Finally we reached the raging river and followed it back into town.

    By the time we stumbled through the welcoming door of the Hotel Adler it was 7:15. A hot shower never felt so good! We rewarded ourselves with a huge pot of fondue and a bottle of Riesling in the Adler’s dining room. We even ordered extra bread, and wiped the pot clean. I can’t remember fondue ever tasting so good.

    Today’s photos:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603796053441/

    Coming Next: The long road home

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    Ohhhhh . . . my . . . . gosh!

    I can't believe you did that hike in the rain! To those reading this----those photos do not do justice to the cliffy sections, with cables to protect you (barely) from falling off the narrow ledges. Some places it must be 1000 feet straight down the rock. And here's Hausfrau, skipping and dancing up (and down) those wet and slippery rocks, balancing on ledges and probably singing "The Hills are Alive. . ."

    Ausgezeichnet!!!

    The last 2 times we have been to Switzerland, we have gone and stayed up at Oeschinensee, just so we could hike to Fründenhütte again. And each time, it has been raining, so we wimped out and skipped it.

    And then you had to walk all the way back down (it's actually a good bit more than 1000 feet; just about exactly 400 meters is about 1300 feet.) Good choice to go down the path, though; the road is very steep and slippery!

    You definitely earned your fondue and Riesling that night. I'm glad you made it back safely. Thanks for the lovely photos and gripping story! (Love the little black newt---did he stay perfectly still?)

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    enzian, I'm so glad someone out there can appreciate what we went through to get up (and down) from there! It really was worth it despite the weather - we felt like we had truly accomplished something - but I'm not sure we would have done it in retrospect, knowing how slippery and exposed it would be. Nevertheless, it was our last opportunity (for the forseeable future) to try it and I had been waiting 15 years to do it!

    The newt was motionless - he looked like a rubber toy. I saw newts similar to that one in the woods around Stuttgart and the first time I saw one I had to nudge it to make sure it was real!






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    We came across one walking from Grutschalp to Mürren is it was also motionless, as if frozen (it was very cold out that day). "Rubber toy" was exactly how I would describe it. And like you, I finally nudged it to see if it was alive (it was).

    And yes, I definitely appreciate your accomplishment in hiking up to the hut in that weather. We did it on a gorgeous sunny day, but I remember thinking---"this is not something I would do in bad weather with wet rocks!" Which is why I haven't been able to do it since. Maybe next time. . . whenver that will be.

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    Hausfrau,

    Thank you for the report and pictures.

    We were thinking of taking the Stelvio Pass in the other direction. We will be in Varenna on Lake Como, and will want to go to the Dolomites. We will be traveling that streatch on a Tuesday in early July.

    Is there another route you would take?

    I think I see what you did...you went north from the SP to the SS41 and then over to St. Moritz? Would you recommend that vs coming up the SS38 from Lake Como through Sondrio(which seems more direct)?

    Thanks!

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    Hi CltLwyr,
    The route we took was definitely not direct, but we wanted to drive the Ofenpass, which we really enjoyed. It was a nice break after the Stelvio and the Swiss National Park was gorgeous. It would indeed be more direct to go through Sondrio as you describe, if you wanted to get to the Stelvio more quickly. It looks like that route follows the river most of the way so it would be a flatter, valley-bottom kind of drive.

    I won't discourage you from driving the Stelvio - I do think it would be more fun coming down than going up and I think you will be better off driving it on a weekday in July. It's certainly quite an experience, I just wouldn't pick the Stelvio over some of the other passes if given the choice.

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    And the final (brief) installment...

    DAY 8: THE LONG ROAD HOME

    The last day of our Alpine journey dawned cloudy and rainy, but we decided to continue with our original plan to traverse the final two passes on our itinerary – the 2224-meter Sustenpass and the 1948-meter Klausenpass – on our way back to Bregenz. The former was identified as Car Magazine’s favorite of all the great mountain passes of the Alps, so we had to give it a try. Unfortunately the weather did not improve and our seven-hour drive through the mountains was completely socked in. We can only imagine the magnificent vistas of snow-capped peaks and verdant valleys that were hidden from view today! DH had a heck of a time just staying on the road and I had to satisfy my photographic cravings by taking pointless but amusing pictures out the window of the bottomless white abyss. It was a long day of driving through endless clouds, but we made it safely home to Stuttgart in good time.

    What a magnificent journey (despite a few dips in the weather)…we are already fantasizing about running an auto touring operation in the Alps. We would provide the cars (we’ve decided Mini Coopers would be just about perfect), mechanical support, guides, driving routes, and hotel reservations, and our clients would get to explore the best scenic roads of the Alps! One of DH’s colleagues has already volunteered to be one of our guides. Now if only we had about a million dollars in start-up funds…

    Today’s (very limited) photos:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hausfrau/sets/72157603812729513/

    I hope this report helps those of you planning a driving trip through the Alps. I know technical high-altitude driving is not for everyone, but for those who love narrow winding roads and gorgeous scenery, you just can't beat the Alps!

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    How long did it take you, in total, to get from Ortisie to Varenna?

    I was thinking that it might take a long time, and was even considering spending a night in Glurns to break up that section. Would you think that is necessary?

    Thanks again for the advice.

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    I can't say exactly, but I figure we probably left Ortisei around 10 am (our usual starting time) and arrived in Varenna around 5 pm. We lost at least half an hour with our little mistake on the A22 near Bolzano. I didn't mention it but we also got stuck in traffic between Merano and Spodigna. We didn't make a full lunch stop but stopped many times for photos and a snack. It wasn't a bad day for us but we enjoy long days in the car (obviously). If you took the Sondrio route that would probably cut the time down because you would be driving at higher speeds. I guess it really depends on how much you like driving and how long you can stand to be in the car.

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    Hausfrau, this is great, thank you so much!

    I'm going to print it out and map it out too. Good to know that the trip from Ortisei to Varenna is about 7 hours if we chose to do it in one stretch versus stop and stay somewhere.. how many times did you stop on that day to take photos, get out and stretch, etc?

    Thanks again, I really enjoyed it.

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    Gruezi Hausfrau,

    Excellent trip report. Thanks for posting.

    You travelled like a motorcyclist. Taking the alps with a full throttle and enjoying the scenery and curves.

    Stelvio (Stilfserjoch) is indeed not that beautiful but it's an adventure. Kind of like climbing the highest mountain because it's there.

    Ofenpass is also very beautiful and would recommend it highly. The towns are OK but the countryside is fantastic. Especially in the National Park.

    On the other side of the Ofenpass is the Unterengadin with Scuol, Sent and Guardia. This area is also beautiful, mainly because of it's architecture and "quaintness" of the towns. The landscape is more striking in the Nationalpark.

    We had a rainy/cloudy day during our round trip Dolomite drive too. It was frustrating because we knew that if those nasty clouds would lift, we would see the most amazing mountains.

    We are hoping to stay in Sent/Scuol again next fall and do some more touring of the area.

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    flygirl, let's see...we made a pit stop on the way to Stelvio, then stopped twice on the way up Stelvio, once on the way down Umbrail, a longer stop for snacks and a little walk at the top of Ofen, a gas/pit stop in St. Moritz, and once by a lake in the Engadin. So that's about 7 stops...hmm, that averages to 1 per hour, which seems pretty sensible. We also split the driving - DH drove Stelvio and Umbrail and I drove Ofen and Maloja.

    schuler, danke schoen! It really was a memorable trip and a great introduction to the region. I hope we can make it back there sometime in the not-to-distant future, although we'll have to do it in a rental car!

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    Hausfrau, thank you, that helps. It's not so long of a day then, really. Even if we stretched it and it took until 8 PM that isn't bad.

    I meant to mention - I second the idea of an Alps Touring Company! Wouldn't that be fun?

    In trying to research this trip I found that there are few guidebooks written in English that exclusively are written for the Alps. It seems that you can find chapters about the Alps in specific country guidebooks, but they are usually fairly short and not as detailed as I was hoping to find. It actually made me consider such a thing as a long-term project.

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    You're right, the guidebooks aren't great. All we had was Fodor's Italy - we didn't even have a guidebook for Switzerland, but we pretty much knew what we wanted to do there. We also have friends who have been to the Dolomites several times so they gave us some suggestions about where to stay and what to do.

    Which reminds me, the one thing you will really need is a very good road atlas. I don't know if you've found a good one yet, but you might consider picking one up once you get to Germany. All major bookstores should have a good selection. We got one that was specifically for the Alps at 1 cm = 3 km scale and it worked really well for us.

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    Another thank you for a fascinating report - and I can't even drive ! It is refreshingly different from anything I've read about before. I'm not sure it's something I'd ever want to do myself (not that keen on walking either :-) or rain) but it was really interesting to hear about such a different holiday from the types I take.

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    hausfrau,

    Would you mind if I attempted to map your trip? Here's a sample of the first day. http://theshadedside.com/maps/maps.htm
    Your details are great!
    This is a site we used when we picked our trips. http://www.alpineroads.com/
    We've done Grossglockner Hochalpenstraße twice and the Timmelsjoch and Jaufenpaß once.

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    Caroline, glad you enjoyed it!

    norrisken, sorry for the delay, I missed your message. You are welcome to try mapping our route. The first day looks pretty good. I actually have most of our route highlighted in our atlas so I can check the details.

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    I am in the early stages of planning such a trip as yours so this entire thread was a joy to read. The details you provide are wonderful and inspiring.

    I took it upon myself to contact Car Magazine to see if an archive copy of their September 2005 edition is still available; and it is. By e-mail they provided me a number to call in the UK. So I phoned today from my home in California and they say I should have the copy in 2 weeks. For delivery outside the UK it costs about 7 pounds.

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    If you want to pay by check or some kind of foreign draft(??) you can send 7 pounds, thirty (??) with details of your request to:

    DHL Global Mail (UK) Ltd
    Mills Road, Quarry Wood
    Aylesford
    Kent
    ME20 7WZ

    If you want to pay by credit card you can phone their direct line 0845 1214000. If you are calling from the US you dial:
    011-44-845-1214000

    They'll take your credit card details and send it by mail. They are open Mon-Fri 9-1 and 2-5.

    As I said, as of today, I have only called and ordered the magazine, I have yet to receive it and other than hausfrau's original post stating this is the magazine she used I was not able to verify (by phone) the article is actually in this edition. I would be happy to post a follow-up when I receive the magazine.

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    You'll have to do a lot of research, one by one, to see which of these passes (if any) are still open at that time. Here's a good start, it shows the current conditions, but it also lists many dates for those routes that have predetermined closure date (many close according to conditions, so you'll have to check at the last minute):

    www.alpenpaesse.co

    Cross-check with this one, it's aimed at motor bikes but will still be useful:

    http://alpenrouten.de/alpenpaesse-verkehrsinfos-wintersperren.html

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