I learned long ago not to get my hopes up. I knew that few experiences live up to expectations, so I should have realized that I was setting myself up for disappointment. I had read up on the region and was looking forward to a profound historical experience. After all, the Brennerpass is one of the most ancient pathways between northern and southern Europe. It’s been in use since prehistoric times, and the Romans, who controlled the area until the fifth century, built the first road over it 300 years before that. That’s over 1,800 years ago! As I bounced along in the bus, I conjured up visions of Roman Legions marching over this same ground on their way to quell an uprising of the Germanic tribes of the far north.
At around 4,500 feet above sea level, it’s the lowest and most coveted of the trans-European Alpine passes. It has been under the rule of the Romans, the Austrians and Italians. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met there to celebrate their Pact of Steel. With all the important things that had happened there, I was sure that the town of Brenner, at the top, would be a historical treasure trove and I planned to spend some time immersing myself in its rich heritage. Boy, was I mistaken! Instead of ancient ruins and museums, I found an eclectic mix of modern businesses where you can get anything from souvenir lederhosen to a pizza. There’s even an outlet store. There are a few traditional buildings, but I saw nothing that looked older than a few decades. What a letdown!
But what the town itself lacks, the setting more than makes up for. Wooded mountains rise from the narrow valley, and the freeway plunges suddenly down on the Italian side. I’d read about the beautiful bicycle trail that winds its way down through the Italian Alps and I was excited to give it a try.
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The bus let me off in the center of town. There was one other cyclist onboard and he turned out to be an American. We got to talking, and I found that Bob was from the San Francisco Bay Area and was in Italy for a two-week tour. He was about my age and traveling as light as I was heavy. Since the town turned out to be a bust, I decided to join Bob and head down the pass right away.
The bike trail took us on a winding, high-speed descent into Italy. We rode beside tumbling streams, through wooded glens and past steep, hillside fields where workers raked hay by hand. The path rocketed down out of the Alps. It seemed to be following a course that intentionally provided the steepest descents and tightest corners. Covered in ice, it would have made a good bobsled course.
Bob was in front and I watched as he drifted around a tight, right-hand sidewinder and out of sight. I braked for the turn and leaned into the hill, then let it run on the straightaway. As the bike went faster and faster I got that oh-boy-here-we-go sensation in the pit of my stomach. I was afraid to take my eyes off the trail long enough to look at my speedometer.