Updated: Jun 20
Varna to Verona, 387km; total 4,554km
Wedged between two massive dolomite slabs, hands gripping with all their 12-year-old strength, little legs starting to feel gelatinous, Sitka wasn’t sure of his next move.
Glancing to his left, he took in the majesty of the vertical face of the massif he was presently scaling. To the right, nothing but air and a faraway alpine range - the jagged Italian Dolomites he’d been dreaming about for months. Upward was the next peak he was aiming for - surely another false summit with more craggly cliff to climb beyond. If he dared look down, he may have seen the meagre edge of the last rocky platform he had stood at, but mostly the dense tops of spruce trees in the gulch 500 metres straight below. And his big brother and dad panting in the foreground trying to keep up.
But looking back ain’t how our pre-teen rolls. He’s always face-forward seeking the next fun thing - noticing the awesome in even the toughest of moments. He was more than 2km above sea level atop Ifinger Mountain in the Italian Alps, and he was in heaven.
But he was also a tad exhausted from climbing this “Via Ferrata” - a hybrid of hiking and rock climbing first concocted by European mountaineers seeking a safer route up otherwise unreachable peaks. A series of steel cables and rebar rungs are affixed into the rockface - affording more options for grips and footholds - with periodic anchor pegs for clipping in one’s safety harness. During World War I, the Italian military used this strategy to gain the higher ground on their Austrian enemies. Today, there are more than 2,000 around the world, mostly in Europe - ideal adventures for ambitious climbers without superhuman forearms, keen for the rush but less stoked about the mortal danger.
To wit, Sitka - our intrepid yet cautious daredevil, who actively seeks out crazy new endeavours (often in disregard of his slender frame still awaiting an early-teen growth spurt), then carefully assesses the plan for guaranteed safety. On this medium-difficulty Via Ferrara, his next foothold would often be at eye level, but he was undaunted. Plus, he had a bergführer.
And so, as he pondered his next step, Sitka felt a gentle tug in his harness, and he rose ever so slightly until he heard the click of his carabeeners grasping the anchor above. Tomas, our mountain guide, held Sitka’s straps so his young charge could concentrate on his grip to the rock. Once or twice, he offered a little boost.
“This part is a bit hard for die kinder,” he smiled with calm reassurance.
(Later, Sitka would confess, “It was maybe a bit above my level. But I LOVED it!”)
Ed and Heron were on their own - left with an exhilarating mix of pure adrenaline rush and fill-your-drawers fear. We were awed by nature’s magnificent creation, by the views we thought we’d only ever see in movies, by the physical challenge of scrambling nearly straight up a stone behemoth, and mostly by how Sitka was bounding up the same path with legs half the length of ours.
As for Joce, a debilitating fear of batshit-crazy heights prompted a rare beer-and-a-book in a vineyard in beautiful Schenna, our Alpine home for a few days off our bikes and onto different modes of adventure.
Yeah, we all love our bikes and the incomparable thrill of seeing the world at 20km/hr, outside and moving our muscles. But cycle touring isn’t just the ends - it’s also our means of accessing countless experiences in between. In a recent podcast interview, Joce called it “Biking from one fun thing to the next.” And that’s the best way to describe what we’re really up to.
Nearing the halfway mark of our Europe Epic, we decided to settle somewhere spectacular and do some of the other things we each love to do. We spontaneously shifted our route a bit further east toward Italy’s Dolomites, which Sitka discovered a year ago while researching our summer ride through the Canadian Rockies. His Number Two favourite family activity is mountain trekking.
But the Dolomites are still too snowed in for hiking in May, so we arranged the next-best week off, in neighbouring South Tyrol. Deep up into the wide, flat Adige River valley we rode, with vineyards and apfel orchards coating the entire plain and spreading way up into the sub-alpine spruce forest. Patches of light green are shaven out of the mountain sides for cow and sheep pastures, with dots of cottagey villages on tiny plateaus that seem impossible to reach by road. Our cozy apartment in Schenna overlooked the epicentre town of Meran below - with an outdoor pool amidst the orchards and idyllic views up, down and all around of all the places we could explore on foot.
In this part of the Alps, Italy is on the flag but German is on the tongue - affording us another week to master our numbers above five (Sitka is zwölf and Heron is virzehn, but Ed still gets antsy calling to reserve campgrounds) and other basics of this very satisfying language to speak. On our Via Ferrata with Tomas, we added the words for hand and foot, left and right, WATCH OUT! and “very important.”
On our other days, we found slightly less harrowing yet equally stunning trails thanks to Meran’s network of cable cars (Joce’s Number Two is alpine hiking, ideally beginning in the alpine instead of scaling cliffs to it). On one trip up, we switched to a one-person chairlift that felt closer to a rollercoaster, but the destination was well worth it. We met herds of mountain goats, still-melting snow and surprising numbers of retired Germans with fitness levels we now dream of having when our time for endless free-time comes. The slower pace allowed us to have full family conversations and begin plotting next stages for this trip and future ones, too.
This isn’t to say lazy days: our bike-hardened legs wobbled after trekking a few measly hours up to the Ifinger saddle on the first day, then again after cresting into a series of alpine lakes up from Dorf Tiro for an impromptu swim (Ed’s Number Two is plunging briefly into glacial waters, ideally with bits of ice still floating on top). A nationwide transit strike threatened our final dayhike, but we dusted off our bikes and pedaled up to Verans for homemade apfelstrudel in an alpine hut (Heron’s Number Two may well be flash-learning languages after ordering in full sentences and a German accent that had our server bragging to his colleagues about “the Canadian kid who speaks better German than the Europeans that come here”).
Some fun things can come by bike, too, like the rugged ride up (and screaming return down) the Sentiero del Ponale along the steep mountainside dominating the northwest edge of Italy’s largest lake, Lago di Garda. Of course we also cooled off from the latest European heatwave in the popular holiday lake, coated with windsurfers and packed with German vacationers enjoying a national long weekend - well worth the 25km round-trip detour over the modest 287m San Giovanni Pass.
Ed got a bonus Number Two this week, when the family agreed to stop by Bolzan’s archeology museum renowned for housing Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old ice mummy discovered in the 1990s not far from Schenna. Beyond the occasion to flex his history-teacher chops, he (and Sitka who toured the exhibit just as deliberately) left bedazzled by the ingenuity of humankind - of prehistoric civilizations to engineer tools and even a primitive backpack within the confines of their technology, and of modern minds to parse so many details about Ötzi’s life from such slender artefacts.
We had a few more world-schooling opportunities this week, after leaving Schenna and riding back down the Adige’s incredibly well-maintained and well-used paved bike path (a tourist destination itself) to Trento - whose fabulous medieval plaza hosted the 16th-century Catholic Council plotting a response to the Protestant Reformation - then out of the Alps into fair Verona, where Joce let loose her inner literature aficionado with an afternoon crash-course on Shakespearen quotes that ended with a visit to the famed balcony at La casa de Guilietta. We camped in the courtyard of the Castelo San Pietro with a view over the old city that could have been clipped from a travel brochure.
We’re often asked in Europe about how the boys can skip out on school so easily in Canada - then come understanding nods when we explain all the rich learning that comes outside a school’s walls (and this coming from a classroom teacher Dad). In addition to Ed’s regular tangents about history and politics, the boys devour details about the places we see (Sitka often has to be dragged away from every info board or sign he sees) and often are the ones leading the “Wikipedia” tour of a landmark or town. They each read obsessively like some other kids might “game” - Heron is into Dan Brown novels set in the cities we’re visiting and steeped in topics of intellectual interest; Sitka pores through Greek and Roman mythology and is beyond psyched to deliver the lessons to the rest of us in Athens and Rome. And they still keep the family budget, letting us adults know our average spending and when we can afford to splurge on the next fun thing.
Learning on the road is practical learning that doesn’t feel like work or school in the same way it does back in the four walls of the classroom. They may even tell you they haven’t learned a thing - but they order dessert in five languages, understand how archeologists know whether a frozen corpse was lactose-intolerant, and now use Shakespeare quotes in everyday conversation.
Alas, despite his language skills and his parents’ educational tendencies, Heron’s Number Two activity remains surfing. And mountain biking. So he’s now tasked with finding days off in Croatia and Sweden to fill his bucket. Sitka is looking into snorkeling in Greece, and Joce is keen on kayaking a Norwegian fjord. So many fun things to do, so far apart with so little time.
Thankfully, we have our bikes to get us there.