I beg to differ. Italy’s answer to the Alps was certainly high enough for our group of twelve friends.
For one week we trudged kilometers up ever-ascending trails full of twists and whip-lash turns. We descended into lush, green valleys and walked in wonder through ancient forests, past lakes and pristine pastures. We took refuge (and apple strudel) in isolated alpine huts and tidy rifugi. And at the lofty top of each mountain, we gazed in awe at the sheer magnificence of the 360-degree, sky-high views.
Si, the mighty Dolomites were most definitely high enough! Spread out before us were never-ending peaks of spectacular, jagged rock. The otherworldly formations - spires, towers, pinnacles and vertical walls of stone – were not just distinctive, but rose so suddenly from grassy meadows perfectly manicured by munching cows, the contrast was confounding. No wonder these mountains have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Both the mountain range and its rock take their name from French geologist, Dolomieu, the first to study the unique geology of the region. It wasn’t until I saw a boulder containing a still recognizable fossil of a seashell, that I could envision their true origins: before the Dolomites were mountains, they were an enormous coral reef in a primordial sea. Over many millennia, the coral fossilized and when the earth’s tectonic plates slammed together, at the point of impact the fossilized rocks soared skyward.
While the Dolomites are situated in north-eastern Italy, they hug a border with Austria. When we first arrived, I thought I’d landed by accident on the Austrian side. The Heidi quotient was so high, I’m still not convinced I was in Italy. Fairytale villages, quaint chalets, homey restaurants adorned with antlers, and red gingham tablecloths, dumplings and apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and plenty of German, which is apparently spoken by 62% of the population.
It all started to make sense when we learned that less than a century ago, the Dolomites were in fact part of Austria. After that country came out on the losing side of World War I, the long-Austrian region became Italian. Who can blame the locals for struggling with their identities?
Over time, the Germanic culture seems to have mingled with the Italian (think: grappa, pasta and gelato). The result is an intriguing blend of Austrian tidiness mixed with the wild, Italian fun factor. Imagine “la dolce vita”, but perfectly organized!
In addition to German and Italian, Ladin, an ancient dialect that apparently hails from the Etruscans is spoken in tucked-away enclaves throughout the region. The road signs, which often include all three languages, are a nightmare.
During World War I, the front line between the Italian and Austrian forces ran through the Dolomites. The scars and traces of the fierce fighting are still apparent. Most fascinating to me were the network of metal rungs, cables and ladders installed back then as supply routes to haul military gear, men and food up the mountains.
After the war, mountaineers appropriated them as fixed climbing routes, creating what’s known as the Via Ferrata (or “Iron Way”). These routes are not just accessible to experienced rock climbers and mountaineers. With the permanent installations in place, anyone (without a fear of heights) can gain access to stunning summits oozing with history of the high-altitude battles fought there.
As a hiker and history nut, I was intrigued. Artifacts from the Great War litter the peaks. Trenches, wartime suspension bridges, tunnels through mountains, there’s even the remains of an Italian field hospital, but you may have to navigate a nerve-rackingly exposed traverse of vertical rock wall to see them.
Our mountain odyssey was arranged by our amazing Swiss guide, Ella, one of the sweetest, fittest, most accommodating and organized persons I’ve ever met. We stayed in lovely alpine villages in exquisite lodges and hotels, with luggage transfers to our next destination. It was such a treat to carry only what we needed for the day in our backpacks. We were unequivocally NOT roughing it!
We started our trek in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the chic ski resort that hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics. This gorgeous town is a favourite international ski destination of movie stars and other jet-setting rich and famous. Some of the glittering boutiques we wandered through could have provided Lady Gaga with her most Gaga looks ever. In fact, she’s probably the only person who could afford to shop in them.
Our first hike took us on a circuit around the iconic Tre Cime di Lavaredo (the Three Chimneys), a famous group of three peaks, with ultra-panoramic, ever-changing views. It was raining, quite busy and I feared both were foreshadowing what was to come. I was completely wrong. Tre Cime, a victim of its own beauty and accessibility, was our last day of crowds and, although we did get a few more smatterings of rain, for the most part our weather was great.
After Cortina, my recollections of the little mountain villages and the days of spectacular hiking blur. In general terms, here’s a day in our lives as Dolomite hikers:
We arose early to a buffet breakfast at our hotel. We were then transported by two minivans to the trailhead or to a cable car or gondola which would take us to the start of our hike for the day. I was astounded by the number of lifts in even the tiniest of villages providing easy access to the alpine.
While driving away one day, a wolf whistle pierced the air. We looked at each other and exclaimed in unison, “Where’s Jim?”. We’d all assumed he was in the other van when, in fact, he was in neither. We’d forgotten him back at the hotel and he was trying to catch up to us on foot. Good thing he could whistle or he’d still be up there!
Halfway through our day was lunch. At times it was a mountaintop picnic. Laid out on a tablecloth amid all that alpine gorgeousness, we’d feast on whatever local delicacies Ella had managed to source the day before. Olives, cheeses, nuts, crusty loves of bread, sausage, speck (German ham) and, of course, chocolate tasted that much better in the fresh mountain air.
Other times, rifugi (cozy, traditional mountain huts, sprinkled across the slopes of the Dolomites) served up our mid-day meal - traditional and hearty ethnic dishes meant to fortify our bodies...plus espresso, cake and beer to fuel our souls!
These remote places also provided (basic, mostly dorm-style) accommodations for hikers and I wish Canada would take a page from that book. Frankly, the infrastructure in the Dolomites for the outdoor enthusiast blew me away.
We hiked on average fourteen to sixteen kilometers each day, with lots of elevation changes. Ella’s expression, “Now, vee go just a little bit up!” became infamous, as we scaled pass, after mountain pass! Often we were in such remote areas that bathroom opportunities were non-existent - nary a Happy Bush could be found to crouch under in some of the desolate, high-alpine landscapes.
Late one afternoon, we were navigating a steep descent down an old military road with cliffs on either side, when one of our party – who shall remain nameless – got the call! But there was (literally) no place to go! No problem – her hubby and two of us gals formed a human curtain to hide her from the rest of our group on a switchback below. It was a great plan, except we neglected to take into consideration the uphill mountain-bike traffic. When a group of bikers slalomed down the hill past her, she leaped up from a low squat in mid-stream. Fortunately for her it was a warm day. Her shorts were almost dry by the time we reached valley bottom.
At the end of each day, we could be found nursing our sore muscles in the pool, saunas and steam rooms (if the hotel happened to have a spa). Then it was Happy Hour, which often featured lederhosen-clad musicians playing music Ella appropriately described as “yodel-doodle”. Dinner, an extended affair with antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti and dolce, was consumed with countless bottles of Italian wine and was always delizioso! Dear God, my waistline! Every night, we’d fall into bed - exhausted, full and a little tipsy.
The next day, we’d do it all again!
Exploring the rooftop of Italy was epic, an experience I will carry with me always and one I’d highly recommend. Grazie mille to Ella for facilitating this trip of a lifetime and to Keith Wagner for capturing the dramatic landscapes in his beautiful photographs, a few of which I’ve posted. The stunning images are Keith’s, the little less-stunning ones are mine!
Will I go back to the Dolomites? Absolutely, the Via Ferrata Lagazuoi, with its extensive network of World War I tunnels, has my name on it!
I must bid you ciao for now, dear friends! Until next time...
If you are looking for an experienced guide for your next skiing or hiking adventure, consider Ella! You won’t be disappointed. Her specialities are the Alps, the Patagonian Andes and the Dolomites. Check her out at: http://patagoniatiptop.ch/