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January 24, 2011

Italy and Switzerland: To Val Müstair and Bormio


Inside the Benedictine Convent at Müstair (HDR)

On our summer European road trip, the Kangoo would next come to rest in Bormio, Italy.  Bormio sits at the base of Passo dello Stelvio a legendary road cycling climb.  We had a date in the coming days with this suffer fest of a bike climb.

Our route from Cortina d’Ampezzo through Bolzano gave us a preview of the other classic cycling climbs in the area.  Road bikers frequent the beautiful alpine roads that wind past green pastures and up over the numerous high passes.  But none of these climbs were of the magnitude of Passo dello Stelvio; few routes can compare to this monster.  Still there is plenty of challenging riding in this region of Italy.

Looking towards from Umbrail Pass from Italy on a clear day

In one valley we literally passed through an ongoing road cycling event.  We worked the Kangoo past an endless mass of bicyclists on the road.  I’ve never seen so many cyclists out riding at one time.  Driving through the swarm jam of bikes was slow.  We’d have been much happier if we were riding also.

The cycling waned when we dropped down to Bolzano.  During the trip’s route planning we had studied the UNESCO World Heritage List.  The Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair was near our route, just across the border in an obscure corner of the Romansh speaking region of Switzerland.  With a slight detour we’d made a visit.

The Convent of St. John in Müstair

Around 780 the Bishop of Chur, at the behest of Charlemagne, founded the Convent of St. John in Müstair.  The convent is simple and small.  It is distinct from the grand religious structures that we typically visit when we travel through Europe.  Val Müstair is quiet and pastoral.  The church is a refuge and peaceful.  It makes for a pleasant visit.  Besides, where else can you see written Romansh?

This stay in Switzerland was short, just across the border and back.  When we planned the trip, Google Maps was insistent that we’d have to back track out of Switzerland the way we entered and climb the eastern side of Passo dello Stelvio to reach Bormio.  Our Michelin road map showed another way and Homer, our GPS, agreed with the paper atlas.  I’m not sure why it is so scary to go against Google’s route, but it always is.  Google’s position as the final arbiter on debates seems incontrovertible.  Nevertheless, just this time, we chose Homer’s back road route and off we went.

Homer’s route started with a steep switch-backing climb out of the green Mustair valley.  It seemed that this route would be another great punishing road bike climb.  Above the tress, the turns became less tight and the terrain blends into the alpine.  Signs of civilization are gone.  We might have been seriously concerned that we were in the midst of another one of Homer’s extra special phantom routes if it wasn’t for the occasional cyclist and motorcycle on the road.  With the bikes, the route must go somewhere.

Looking down the road to Passo dello Stelvio towards Bormio (panorama)

After climbing thousands of feet, the pavement turned to gravel.  We were close to the clouds now and the drizzly overcast obscured the peaks.  Our already shaky confidence in Homer had us questioning whether we were going in the right direction, but we had little choice but to roll on.  Narrow one-lane bridges crossed the rock strewn mountain streams that rushed down the now barren alpine valley.  But we were in Switzerland.  Even a gravel road was decent enough for the bikes and motorcycles to continue.  And so it was easy enough for us to cross the Umbrail Pass into Italy in the Kangoo.  Just over the border into Italy we returned to pavement and joined the main road to Bormio just below Passo dello Stelvio.

Inside the convent

(“Cycling Challenge” has more information about road biking this route.)

With the heavy overcast and rain, we didn’t realize that we had joined the main road so close to Passo dello Stelvio.  Later, when we climbed on the bikes from Bormio, we’d figure out that the road intersection was about 3 kilometers from the pass.  Above 8,000 feet this last short section was pure steep torture.  It was a good thing we didn’t get a preview in the car.  Indeed, the endless 4,000+ foot descent into Bormio with its 29 switchbacks discouraged our cycling enough.  We might have marveled at the civil engineering of the road if weren’t fixated what it would be like to cycle up this hellacious hill.  Add in the wet and cold on this day and the few cyclists working their ways up the hill looked completely miserable.  Was it a surprise that Becky was reluctant to do the ride in the coming days?

The grounds at the convent

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair (Switzerland, 2010) [...]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — January 24, 2011 @ 7:02 pm


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