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Italy Week 2: The Dolomites

We took trains to get from the western Italian coast to the Italian Alps in the East.  I found myself unable to stay awake and drooling as the trains rocked and hummed through fields of corn and vineyards of grapes.

What a magnificent place, the Dolomites of Italy. When Anita and I talked about where we wanted to go, we knew that we wanted to be in the Alps somewhere.  At first, I wanted to go to the Swiss Alps, which I still think would be amazing, but we decided to go to the Dolomites when we couldn’t find an open reservation for the Swiss Alps.  We took several trains and a bus to reach Cortina in northern Italy.  I did not know that northern Italy was once Austria and much of the cultural influences come from that history.  Nornthern Italy came under Italian control during WWI.  Many historic sites including tunnel systems and the Via Ferrata are in the Dolomites from WWI.  We booked a self-guided hike through the company Dolomite Mountains.  We were not disappointed. They booked all of our taxis, nights at the hotel in Cortina, stays and meals at the rifugios, and our guide on the Via Ferrata. Cristina, our informant for the trip, met us our hotel the night before the start of our hiking.  She had a map with the course for each of our five days clearly marked, each rifugio (mountain refuge) we were to stay at, and any voutures we needed for food.  Tent camping is actually illegal in the mountains surrounding the Cortina area.  Instead, backpackers book rooms at a refugio where warm beds, hot showers, and amazing home-cooked meals are provided.  All we had to carry was our clothes, sleep sack, snacks, and water. It’s the most posh backpacking I’ve ever done.

Our first day we started a Lake Braies.  We hiked about 8 miles and climbed around 5000 feet of elevation, taking lunch at a refugio half-way through our hike. Feeling fresh on the first day after our lunch, we summited an additional peak and had some incredible views of the lake where we started. The views from the top were amazing, but I was most captivated by the bells we could hear throughout the valleys. All the cows where them, and when they eat, the bells ring, and when all the cows are eating it creates a soft, wind-chime like effect that enchants the valley. We listened a bit, ate some Nutella, and then hiked on to Refugio Fedaro, where we ate and slept our first night.  We also encountered a famous German talk show host, though we didn’t know it, who let me borrow his 3-day-old carbon fiber mountain bike for a quick ride in the mountains. I can’t tell you how excited I was to ride!  We kept up this schedule for the next few days: breakfast at the refugio, hiking to a lunch refugio, eating lunch, hiking to our evening dinner and rest refugio, shower, eat, sleep, repeat.

It sounds a bit monotonous, but the scenery of our hikes removed the monotony and made it absolutely amazing.  Because I live in Colorado and hike frequently at elevations over 10,000 feet, I thought the 7,000 – 8,000 foot elevations of the Dolomites would be easy.  I was incredibly wrong.  The Rockies, though difficult, have saddles connecting many of the peaks. I have a post from September 2014 describing my 100-mile hike along the Colorado trail.  It was tough.  The Dolomites, even though at a lower elevation, are much more rugged. They have more steep ups and downs. Most of our hike was along the Alta Via #1 hiking system.  It was very well-marked and traveled. So, we felt safe the entire time.  On the second day, we hiked through an amazing green valley along a river where domestic horses grazed. Another hiker gave us some sugar cubes to feed them as we took pictures.  After that wide, easy valley, the trail started to climb steeply, and we found ourselves in a series of constant, short switchbacks that led to a pass that was only 10 – 20 feet wide and virtually impassible before 2014. As soon as we reached the top, we began sharply descending between two high rock walls.  Fog sat over us, and we could hear the echo of our voices among the rocks. It was an earily beautiful and surreal experence.  At the end of the descent, we went slightly off-course to eat our packed lunch at a pond.  Because it was cloudy, it was too cold to swim, but we put our feet in the water and watched as the little fish gave our feet pedicures in the mountain pond.  After lunch we continued hiking up to the highest refugio in the area, Laguazoi. It rested at the top of an historic tunnel system used by the Austrian soldiers in WWI.  They do reenactments on a daily basis with people in full dress.  At the top, we stopped for a snack and a beer and met a family from Norway having one last vacation with their daughter before she went for a foreign exchange year with another family in Idaho. We rode the tram down with them, and they gave us a ride to the next tram we were to ride to our next refugio. We were already exhausted from a full day of tough hiking.  We ended up missing the lift by two minutes and had to hike a very steep hill to Scolliatoli (squirrel), a refugio that had beautiful views and access to Chinque Tori, the five towers.  At dinner we met a photographer with a couple that he had taken on a photo tour of the Dolomites. The views from this location were stunning.  The final day we hiked on seeing more beautiful valleys and views.  We ended our hiking at a restaurant where we waited for a cab to transport us back to Cortina.  We had one beer, and then the two people we met at the bar insisted we have another. Ok. We stayed at Hotel Panda that night and ate at a pizza placed owned by a guy who went to school at Denver University. We shared grappa in honor of Denver.

My final day in the Dolomites (Anita stayed a few more), we hiked and climbed on the Via Ferrata (the Iron Way), exploring the rope system paths and tunnels that the soldiers of WWI used. It was a very cool lesson in the history of the area. That night we ate a four-course Italian meal, and I had my now favorite melon and parma ham as well as fresh pasta with mushroom sauce, and of course, wine.

The last day we meandered a bit and then I caught a train to Milano (Milan) to fly back to the States the following day. I stayed at an AirBnB where Marina, the hostess, had decorated the place with famous jazz musicians that she photographed while playing. She recommended a restaurant with delicious Italian food, and I was set to eat and wander through Milan to see what it had to offer in the dark. I didn’t have enought time to do more, but it was enought to get a taste of the city, it’s history, and it’s sense of fashion.