Postcard from Austria/Italian border: beware of Route 110

Austrian Alps tram

Austria offers the most beautiful scenery. We stopped and took a tram up the mountain for a great view. Lana Rodlie photo

Austrian tram 7

Little farms dot the hillsides. Lana Rodlie photo

Austrian tram 10

A scene right out of Sound of Music. Lana Rodlie photo

Italy mountains

Route 110 may look like a regular road on the map; but don’t go there unless you are really accustomed to driving in Europe. Lana Rodlie photo

Austrian countryside 20

The scenery was breath-taking, if you could take your eyes off the road. Lana Rodlie photo

Italian mountains 4

This was likely the last car we saw as we ventured on towards Tolmezzo. Lana Rodlie photo

This really should be titled: If you’re not going to take my advice, don’t ask.

By Lana Rodlie

“You’ll want to take the road to Villach,” the Tyrolean attendant at the gas station told me when we stopped to fill up at Lienz near the Austrian-Italian border. The GPS in the Ford Fiasco we rented in Frankfurt was no help – it only spoke German.

“But what about this road down here through Tolmezzo?” I asked, pointing at Route 110 through Kotschach-Mauthen. It seemed shorter and closer to the place in the Province of Udine, where my cousins lived.

 “You’ll want to take the road to Villach,” the Tyrolean repeated. “My English no good and so no explain why. Just take road to Villach.”

Since we’d been through Villach on our last visit, we wanted to take a different route – different scenery.

“Oh, what the hell,” my husband said. “Let’s take this Route 110. The map says the road is paved. So how bad could it be?”

I should stop right here and point out that it was ME who insisted on asking for directions. And it was my husband’s decision not to follow the Tyrolean’s advice.

As we ventured onward and upward into the Italian Alps, the lack of other vehicles on the road should have been our first clue that the Tyrolean may have known what he was talking about. But the road seemed fine, at first. My husband had learned to drive on Norwegian roads and we’d driven over Trollstigen a number of times. Trollstigen is a treacherous piece of highway in Norway’s fjord district that hasn’t improved much since the Vikings.

Anyway, the map indicated Tolmezzo was only about 80 miles so we figured we’d just take it easy and enjoy the Alps. As we climbed, we were mesmerized by the stark white peaks, the little farms, the lush green daisy-spotted valleys; expecting Julie Andrews to pop out any second and burst into “the hills are alive . . .”

It was so pleasant; we didn’t even notice that the road was getting narrower, the incline steeper and the quaint little homesteads becoming fewer and farther between.

Italian border

The “Italian border” – Lana Rodlie photo

At one point, we passed a war-battered shack above the road. My husband shot “That must be the Italian border.”

Knowing this was a disparaging remark about my heritage, I said I didn’t think that was funny. We trudged along; the road twisting and turning through numerous tunnels  along the edge of a solid rock face. On the opposite side was a sheer bottomless canyon. Beyond “the border,” it became so narrow; one would be hard-pressed to pass a bicycle let alone another car. I wasn’t sure if I should worry more about the lack of traffic or that we’d meet another vehicle. At one point, I took my eyes off the road to pull out the map just as my husband hit the brakes, causing me to do a near face-plant into the dash.

“What the ?”      

A boulder about the size of a Volkswagen rolled across the road right in front of us and tumbled into the mist-covered chasm below.

I pulled out my cellphone.

“Who do you think you can call from here?” my husband asked.

“I’m not calling anybody,” I replied. “I’m sending an emergency text to let our kids know where to find our bodies.”

We sat there in the middle of the road for a good 10 minutes wondering what to do next. Going forward seemed impossible, yet there was no place to turn around. Besides, we must be more than half-way to Tolmezzo by then.

We inched on; finally reaching what appeared to be the summit and a thankful steady descent into the mist below. As we got further down the canyon, the fog thickened. Visibility wafted somewhere between sheer whiteout and blind haze. Occasionally, there were actual clear patches; and through one of them, we got a glimpse of some kind of vehicle heading up the canyon towards us. What was it? A car? A truck? A moped?

A bus!

Not knowing where to turn, we stopped dead once again. At least if the bus ran us off the road there, the bus driver would report it.

We waited for what seemed like half an hour, but the bus didn’t come. Slowly, we edged forward.

Still no bus. Had we imagined it?

We crept along for what seemed like hours, but was really only a few more minutes. Then, we emerged from the fog of the canyon.

Up popped a house on the edge of the road; then another one; and a road off to the side, where the bus must have gone.

Tolmezzo – a tiny ancient conglomerate of stone houses clinging to the walls of a narrow gulch.

Venzone 20

This is Venzone. I didn’t get a shot of Tolmezzo as it was too dark by then. But each little Italian village in those parts looks like any other. Lana Rodlie photo

As we squeezed through the base of the canyon and were welcomed by the plains of Udine, we journeyed unchallenged the rest of the way along the Tagliamento River and arrived at my cousin’s place in the small town of Codroipo.

“How was your journey?’ we were asked.

We described our trip through the hairy mountain pass, the rock that almost crushed us, the invisible bus and the fog.

My cousin looked at us with horror and said, “You should have taken the road to Villach.”