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Arriving to the flat parts of Veneto region, Italy. We descended from the Alps to Longarone, a small town near Belluno, in North-Eastern Italy. The high peaks of the Dolomites gave way to lower, grass-covered mountains, then hills, and finally to the flatlands of the Veneto region. The route followed small roads and tractor tracks through vineyeards, corn fields, fruit gardens and small villages. On the way, we had a few wonderful stays with CouchSurfing hosts.

In Longarone we were welcomed by Gigi, Francesca and their family, who had heard about CouchSurfing from an Italian TV program. We were their first guests. They were first a bit puzzled what they could show us as mountains were the most popular attraction in the area and we had just been hiking for almost three weeks. However, we didn't need much sightseeing — a tour in the garden, chatting, relaxing and family dinners including their own vegetables, local cheese and wine were just perfect. We also got good hints which route to take during the following two days.

From Longarone we climbed once more up to 1700 meters and descended to Tarzo. There we stayed two nights with Helio and Lori, a warm and funny Brazilian-Italian couple. With them and their friends we had a tour in nearby Vittorio Veneto old town, followed by more than excellent ice cream in a local gelateria and the most entertaining wine tasting ever hosted by Lori's father, also called Gigi. Helio and Lori didn't speak much English but it didn't stop us communicating in a mix of about five different languages, while enjoying delicious Brazilian food and the friendly atmosphere in their home.

One full day walk later in Spresiano we met Francesco, a guy of about same age than us who had recently come back from a 6 month tour around the world. We all had one thing in common: quitting our jobs to travel at least once in our lives. So it was no wonder we had a lot to talk about. :) Francesco had a lot of ideas about how to change his life and be happy. We might meet him again one day in his small cocktail bar on a quiet beach, where he will mix a drink for us.

After Spresiano we didn't have any more CS hosts and were relying on hotels and guesthouses instead. We also considered sleeping outside, but without a tent or a mosquito net it would have been a bit tricky. In a few places the personnel immediately guessed which trail we were on, probably thinking "Again two of those crazy Germans walking to Venice".

On the flat parts we could have taken exactly the same route by bicycle so it was a good opportunity to compare these two ways of travel. By walking we saw a few more details in the gardens of the houses and it was a bit easier to talk to each other. On the other hand we were limited to about 25 km per day while by bicycle we could have easily covered three times that, without missing much in the scenery or opportunities to communicate with locals. So we sometimes felt a bit silly walking along the roads, but nevertheless decided to go on for the couple of remaining days.

After a total of 26 days of walking (including two rest days) we arrived in Lido di Jesolo, a beach resort located about 20 km from Venice. It was a big contrast to all the other places we had been to on the trip. There were hundreds of hotels and restaurants on a few kilometers of shoreline, and of course thousands of tourists on a beach holiday. On the beach there were sections of sunshades and chairs reserved to each hotel, but fortunately the waterline was freely accessible for all. We walked to the waterfront and took photos in our hiking outfit in front of the surprised beach-goers.

From Lido di Jesolo it was only a one day walk to Punta Sabbione and a half an hour water bus ride to Venice, our final destination. We spent a couple of days exploring the alleys and canals, photographing the colourful houses of Burano and relaxing on the beach before returning home. There was a good feeling about completing the tour, but it was of course not as important than the experiences during the trip.

Overall, walking for four weeks was an interesting experience. The first two and half weeks on the Alps (see parts one and two) were beautiful and the mountains started to feel like home in way I had never felt on shorter hikes. I would do it again, although perhaps carrying a tent and choosing my own route instead of following a book. On the other hand, I don't think it'll be my ambition to walk hundreds of kilometers along roads as some people do. On roads I prefer the bicycle or some other kind of vehicle, depending on the trip.

On the München-Venedig trail, part 2: The Dolomites

Posted: 2010-09-27 17:40:34, Categories: Travel, Italy, Hiking, 636 words (permalink)

A view of the Dolomites from Wasserscharte pass. The Dolomites looked quite different from the German and Austrian Alps. The rocks had sharper shapes, slopes were steeper and overall there was much less vegetation. Different layers of stone and rock often had their own colors — "European Arizona" as Sandra called it.

We still had a couple of cloudy and rainy days, but were mostly enjoying quite sunny weather, especially in the mornings. Our daily schedule gradually shifted to earlier hours. It became easier to get up in the mornings, and we were not any more the last ones to leave from the huts. During the first week it had always been Sandra waking me up, but it changed so that I was just as often the one who was getting up first — which was a surprise for both of us.

I also got better into the flow in walking. We descended to a valley and climbed up, over highlands, sometimes over a mountain passes and then down to a valley again. The days merged to each other so that it was hard to remember which date or day of the week it was. There was a feeling of traveling as scenery changed slowly but surely. We didn't go very far on any single day, but the events and views of the first days of the trip were already far behind.

Huts were more full than they had been during the beginning of the trip. We couldn't count on having a bed without making a reservation beforehand — something which we both dislike. Of course the huts would usually find some emergency space outside the normal sleeping areas instead of leaving hikers out in the cold, but it would have been extra hassle both for us and them. We took the habit of calling 1-3 days in advance, and canceling the reservations as early as possible when we changed our plans.

Already on our second day of the trip we had met other hikers who were also on the way to Venice. Some of them were faster than us and some slower, but about half a dozen were traveling more or less the same speed. We didn't walk in a group and occasionally would also make different choices of which hut to stay in, but then suddenly meet again a day or two later. As time passed a kind of companionship developed. During the day we were often guessing where our friends would be, and looking forward to seeing them again, sitting together at the dinner table and comparing experiences.

Our last day in the Dolomites was perhaps the most memorable. We stayed in Rifugio Pramperet and set our record by being on the trail at 6:46, a whole hour earlier than any of the mornings before — and without using alarm clock. The morning sun was casting a beautiful light on the mountains as we were climbing uphill. Up on the ridge there were a group of chamois, a kind of goat-antilopes. They ran away well before we reached them, but we were close enough to see well how elegantly they walked up and down on the steep slopes.

We reached the peak of Cime di Citta Sud (2450 m) at around 8:30 am. It wasn't the highest mountain in the area, but the view was gorgeous in all directions. It was also one of the only times we actually climbed on a peak. We cooked a second breakfast near the top before starting our long descent along Val del Ross. The open grasslands changed to forest, the trail followed a river, then there was a road, a few houses, then a small village. Late in the afternoon we reached the town of Longarone, bought two large ice creams and a big bag of fresh fruit, and called our CouchSurfing hosts. That's the beginning of part 3.

On the München-Venedig trail, part 1: The Austrian Alps

Posted: 2010-09-27 17:39:21, Categories: Travel, Austria, Italy, Hiking, 621 words (permalink)

A hole in the clouds on Grafmartspitze, Austria. One of Sandra's dreams was to go for a long walk one day. Like her, I had been on many short hiking trips, lasting up to one week, but never longer than that. So we decided to spend four weeks of our summer holiday by walking over the Alps.

Our route was mostly following the München-Venedig trail, a 550 km hiking route from Munich, Germany to Venice, Italy. Apparently a few hundred people walk at least a part of the trail every year. The route is described with minor differences in at least three books, all in German. We were carrying two of them with us.

We skipped the first 150 km and started near Innsbruck in Austria. The first day was easy: a bus to Tulfes and a ski lift up to 2000 meters left only a few kilometers of distance and 600 meters of altitude to climb up to Glungezer hut, our first place to stay. This time we didn't carry a tent, but our backpacks were loaded with a camping cooker, food, clothes and other equipment needed for the trip.

Second day showed us the reality of the mountains: sunshine had turned into snow and clouds with almost zero visibility. We chose a route which stayed most of the time on a ridge above 2500 m, trusting the forecast which suggested weather to clear up by noon. Well, it didn't and we spent a full day doing our best to find safe steps on the slippery rocks. It was almost dark when we arrived at the next hut.

On the following day the weather was better again and we got used to the already familiar Alpine scenery: snow-capped peaks, rocky ridges, mountain lakes and grass-covered highlands where cows and sheep were grazing between the mountain flowers. A new companion we hadn't so often seen before were marmots, who were squeaking and standing on two feet besides their holes, looking at us.

The trail never climbed over 3000 meters but rarely descended below 1500 meters. The weather varied rapidly from 25°C sunshine to cold rain, with temperature occasionally falling down to 0°C and rain turning into sleet. Once we had to change our planned route: Friesenbergscharte was not passable due to too much snow and clouds. We hiked about 10 km west and crossed the ridge at Alpeinerscharte, knee deep in the fresh snow. On the way we stayed one night at Geraerhütte, which turned out to be one of the most charming huts of the whole trip.

I had usually traveled with a tent so hiking from hut to hut was something new for me. Huts in the Alps are quite well equipped, even luxurious: most have nowadays electricity, hot showers, water closets and a fully equipped restaurant. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, they are still considerably cheaper than hotels and guesthouses in the valleys, at least for Alpine club members. A bed in the dormitory costs 8-10 euros for members (about double from non-members) and meal prices are similar to simple restaurants down in the valleys.

Where the huts differ between each other is the atmosphere. Some are friendly and cozy family businesses where the hosts have time to talk with every guest personally, while others are more busy hostel and restaurant establishments. Small huts far away from roads and cable cars are usually the best. Our favourites on this hike were Geraerhütte (Austria), Kreuzwiesen Alm (Italy) and Rifugio Pisciadu (Italy).

Actually we were in Austria only the first five days before arriving in Italy. However, the main local language was German still for a week and both the mountains and architecture of houses remained similar to Austria. It took a few more days to reach the Dolomites, which looked quite different. More about them in part 2.

How to "do Venice" in two hours

Posted: 2008-07-16 14:51:01, Categories: Travel, Italy, 512 words (permalink)

A pigeon on top of a girl's head on San Marco square, Venice. I, my mother and two brothers had been walking along the streets of Murano island for a couple of hours, looking at pretty glass objects. We had also recently finished a three course lunch and shopped some fruit and wine in a supermarket to bring back home. It was half past five and about the time to leave. My mother thought it would be still nice to see the San Marco square, probably the most famous spot in Venice. Oh, it was going to be a bit tight but we would still have time to do it.

We hopped on the 17:42 waterbus towards the main island of Venice and got off at Fondamente Nove. From there we started walking towards the square, of course faster than most other people were walking. We stopped at a local bakery to buy five pieces of chocolate cake and packed them in my backpack on the way. We also took pictures on the Rialto bridge, which presented the essential Venetian atmosphere in about one minute.

When reaching the San Marco square we heard the chime of the church bells, saw the facade of the famous Basilica and watched pigeons eating breadcrumbs on a girls head. Everything was naturally recorded in photos. While rushing towards the west end of the square we even enjoyed a few tunes of the orchestra playing on the stage.

Our hotel was located quite far in the south-western corner of Venice, so we had to speed up our steps a bit. Nevertheless we saw the Accademia bridge and took a photo of a nice flower arrangement in front of a window by the canalside. When approaching the hotel to pick up our luggage we started already to laugh at the whole last minute sightseeing tour, suggesting each other more targets "to do".

But it was not the time to laugh yet. While others used the hotel bathroom, I downloaded photos from the camera to the laptop (which was going to go back to Finland along with the camera, my mother and brothers on the evening flight) and further to a mobile hard disk so that there would be a picture to add to this blog entry. Then we picked up our bags and suitcases and started running towards Piazzale Roma, where a bus was to leave towards the airport at 19:35.

When we arrived at 19:34, the bus was not there. And it didn't arrive in the next three minutes either. Taxi would have been the easy choice, but a quick search revealed that a local non-direct bus was also heading towards the airport, leaving at 19:40. I helped my mother and brothers to take in the luggage and waved good bye just as the doors closed. As an additional bonus, their waterbus tickets were also valid for the bus.

That was the end of the first part of my summer 2008 Balkans tour. The second part started still the same evening by taking a train to Udine, a town in North-Eastern Italy not far from Slovenian border. But that belongs already to the next story.

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