Beautiful places have problems. Even the most exotic of paradises suffer from their popularity in some way; in Innsbruck its the smog. Its not that bad; it’s hardly even noticeable most of the time. The problem is that Innsbruck, or the Inn valley to be precise, is one of the busiest corridors in Europe. The beautiful limestone lined valley of ski areas, mountain streams and saw-toothed peaks is also the home of the main railway from Germany to Italy, and the most direct motorway route too. There’s lots of traffic in this valley. When you’re here, living, you hardly even notice it. It passes by, on the way to somewhere else. Munich, Verona, further afield. I can ride 10 minutes from the city and ride singletrack for the next 2 hours without seeing a soul on the paths, but the cars leave their mark in the faint haze hanging over the city.
I had the good fortune to ‘virtually’ bump into an American recently. Virtually in its cyber-sense that is. Tracy is a friend of Christoph, my only other riding partner here in Austria, and after an online introduction, we quickly agreed to saddle up and ride some trails.
Race time. It’s a familiar feeling; one that my body has been craving for too long. I have neglected the competitive addiction, one that must be sated for everything to seem right in the world. The internal feelings are unmistakable; restless legs, concern for every unit of energy spent, and food constantly consumed. The external environment is new though. I hadn’t organised a lift with a friend, there was no pick up time, no packing of cars, or friendly albeit nervous banter on the drive to the race. We didn’t pull up to the car park in our own clique, and go through the motions of preparation with the support and backup of close friends.
So what’s Austria like? Its about time for my first Innsbruck update. I’m sitting here looking up at the mountains, drinking a cup of tea. The same thing I’ve done almost every day for the last three years. Different mountain range, though, and very different perspective of life on this continent. I’ve been here in the Alps for about three weeks, and I’m gradually settling into the Austrian way of living. It’s been a little bit of a shock; after a lovely couple months off, I’m back in the lab at the Institute for Pharmacology, Medical University of Innsbruck.
I’m still getting a feel for the city, but from what I’ve seen so far its a pretty nice place to live. Not without its downsides, but I wasn’t expecting utopia after all. I’m living in the city centre, roughly here:
The city is in the middle of the Inn valley, at the confluence of the Inn and the Sill rivers. Its 45 minutes from Italy and just over an hour to Germany. And it feels like it. The city is a mess of cultures converging on a very small space. Like Boulder, its choked with students, and I’m not sure I’ve heard a conversation yet that has stayed within the confines of one language.
Catholicism is a defining feature of Austria, and it can be seen in the architecture and lifestyle that most people lead. Churches adorn the corners of every fourth street, and the low and serious knell of bells is a regular sound.
Arriving in February was a difficult move for a crazed cyclist. The cycling scene here really wasn’t happening, and unlike the front range of Colorado, where you can get away with pretending that winter doesn’t happen, here the seasons seem much more pronounced. I went into the local bike shop to be greeted with friendly and helpful faces, and the offer of a beer, but also concern as to why I was attempting to ride my bike when there exists four ski areas within a 10 minute bus ride. Either way, I ignored all advice and decided to go riding anyway, and found some excellent empty roads.
Unsurprisingly, the cycling around here is excellent, even within the confines of the valley. The best thing about Sundays in Austria is the total lack of people on the roads. Completely empty stretches of lovely tarmac that were surprisingly dry. I rode up to Achensee, a lake about 45 km from Innsbruck. I was the only cyclist that I saw in 3.5 hours of riding.
I’m really looking forward to the snow melting, the sun gaining some warmth and finding a couple of equally dumb people to join along. In the mean time, my legs are hating the fact that I’ve decided running to be a good idea. I find that exploring the outer reaches of the city is perhaps the best way to get a feel for the place. The small alleys and paths that snake out of the valley are much easier to run up than ride, and turning around on foot is also much less demoralising. I’ve found some excellent potential single-track hiding just 5 minutes from my house, and now I know my way around without venturing onto the main roads, I’m really excited to get back on the MTB. Longer days are also going to help, as the current work schedule is not leaving too many daylight hours for riding.
Every so often, I find myself deep inside a map. I’ll be splayed across the floor with the map pulled out in front of me, dreaming of the places I need to go. Google maps is no better; I search the name of a town, and five minutes later I’m on the other side of the continent, panning the map across acres of imaginary contours rising out of my screen. I dream of stepped paths climbing into the mountains out of eastern European towns. I dream of pedalling along the coast of Northern California among gargantuan trees, and hitching a ride up the eastern coast of Vietnam. I can escape anywhere with a map. The kind of escapism that really allows me to find myself.
This post is simply a reminder to me. A note in digital time to remember the places I’ve searched. All too often, I dream these big dreams just for them to fade away into the ether, and to be forgotten; replaced by the next whim of cartographic wandering.
I’m fascinated by the non-countries: mainly in continental Europe, but elsewhere too. I first thought about them in more detail after living in the US, and trying to explain what Wales is. Country? State? Nation? Region? Principality? It’s really hard to define, and that’s one of the clearer examples. I’ve been to Wales, experienced the mind bending language so far removed from other European lexicon that it hurts to think about. I’ve seen the huge hills, and felt the strange vibe from the locals when you tell them you’re English. Almost every European country has at least one of these kinds of semi-autonomous regions. Breakaways, territories, enclaves. Call them what you will, they are a staunch rebuff of nationalism, let alone globalism. They often march towards progress whilst holding dearly to customs on the edge of extinction; languages spoken by just dozens of Children, whose heritage may only forge one more generation ahead.
In the Iberian Peninsula, there are multiple examples. I’m sure most minds jump directly to Andorra, but this tiny country is well established, even more so than Wales. I’m thinking of Llivia; an exclave of Spain trapped in the foothills of the southern French Pyrenees. Its only town has a rich history; once the capital city of a country that no longer exists on modern maps. Its independence from surrounding France now a tradition that will likely never change.
What about the Basque country? The rugged northern Spanish region is well known to cyclists for their vociferous fans and bright orange apparel, but its status as just another region of Spain has been fought hard. ETA have bombed and burnt, killed and tortured in the name of publicity for their cause. What’s missing from the headlines is the beauty of the coastline, the empty wonder of hills that abut the shores. The small towns 15 km up winding roads that go nowhere else, but somehow have full service restaurants just waiting to serve you amazing food. Similar in location, but equally independent is Asturias. I spent a week cycling through the Picos de Europa when I was 16 years old, and have been firmly in love with mountains ever since. I would love to go back. Love to see the things I missed the first time around, and love to go to the places that we skipped past on the last visit. Ski resorts that no one’s heard of, endless untouched single-track in the summer and powder snow in the winter. Ripping curls of surf breaking cleanly against the deep blue of a cold Atlantic sea. Don’t go here and expect to speak Spanish, no matter how good your tongue is. These people have an identity which will persist no matter what the formal status of their homeland is. Their persistence of character is one of the biggest reasons to go visit.
Let’s move from Iberia to Tirol. Most often thought of as a region of Austria, the identity of Tyrolean’s is much different. Many generations have considered it a country in its own right, but now it falls equally between Austria and Italy. The mountainous and isolated region spans some of the highest peaks in the Eastern Alps, with few passes traversing all the way between the Italian and the Austrian ruled areas. Masters of either German or Italian will not succeed in communicating with most people. The strong and muddled German dialect is often specific to each town and valley, and in a few places, not accepted at all. Ladin, an entirely untraceable language is also spoken, and with a history separate from modern languages of the region, not be understood by any outsiders.
From the Alps back west; to Alsace. More commonly known for its canine namesake, Alsatian is a German dialect with half a million speakers all within this small department. The regions name derived from the Germanic for ‘foreign domain’, it sits at the border of central Europe, skirting France, Germany and Switzerland. In just 75 years, it exchanged nationality four times. It’s now French, with the distinctive laissez-faire language floating away from the towns. Those towns, though, have distinct German architecture and restaurants more likely to serve schnitzel than moulles frites.
These few examples of overlooked cultures are an inspiration for me to find more. To travel with an open mind of what will be found when I arrive. I don’t want pre formulated ideas to cloud the culture I have travelled to see, I don’t want my own inept language skills to separate me from communicating with local people. And I don’t want those local people to be afraid of telling me their identity. Belonging to a region, rather than a country, should be celebrated rather than laughed at. Being Devonian, or Tyrolean, or Coloradan should be announced with honour and pride – it reveals more about you than the name of a country could.