Fancying a short break to Europe myself and Vanessa decided to combine 3 days in The Dolomites with 3 days in Venice (more on this in a future blog). I had travelled to Italy many times before to the popular tourist spots of Rome, Venice and Florence but did not know much about The Italian Dolomites so it was an exciting step into the somewhat unknown. We travelled in September to avoid the high summer costs on flights and hotels and to take advantage of the weather still being fairly warm, on the valley floor at least.
The area falls within the autonomous South Tyrol region (Alto Adige in Italian), that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, and the influence continues today with German still widely spoken.
We flew into Marco Polo Airport outside of Venice where we collected our hire car. From here it was a surprisingly scenic 2 hour drive as we progressed from the lagoons of Venice to the foothills of the Alps. We based ourselves in Cortina D’Ampezzo, known locally as Cortina, staying in the 4-Star Savoia Palace Hotel. Primarily a ski resort (Cortina hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956), in the summer months it becomes a popular destination for other outdoor pursuits like rock climbing, mountaineerng and hiking.
On our first full day we drove up the valley towards Passo Falzarego. It wasn’t until we got higher up and away from Cortina we realised how stunning the mountains in this part of the Alps are. The rock is very exposed and there is little in the way of trees except at the lowest levels, giving the mountains a bare splendour. We planned a walk after seeking some advice from our hotel receptionst. The trail Number 441 took us from the car park at Passo Falzarego to Refugio Averau. This 7km round trip took about 4 hours and was fairly difficult in parts. This was a fantastic introduction to walking in the Dolomites, taking in spectacular views across the valley, when not marred by the incoming clouds. The trails were extremely well signed even on the steeper more rugged sections, something that is useful when you don’t have your trusted Ordnance Survey map!
We returned to the car-park and simply had to cross the road to get a cable car up to Refugio Lagazuoi. Here despite the snow falling quite heavily we visited the outdoor ‘Gallerie di Punta Berrino’ museum This was the Austro-Hungarian front during World War I. At this point there were hundreds of tunnels and trenches dug into and around the mountain. Gun turrets were positioned to shoot over the valley to Italian Front stationed around the symbolic Tre Cime.
This war history came as a surprise to me as I had no idea there was such extensive battlegrounds at this altitude. One remnant of the war is Via Ferrata. Initially set up to help the soldiers navigate the high terrain it has now become an exicting and nerve-wrecking high altiude way of climbing up and around the mountain. The snow was falling quite heavily now and this unfortunately meant we could not get across a precarious ridge to a tunnel that leads down through the mountain 1km to the bottom. The engineering in these mountains continued to astound.
On our second full day we drove to the famous Tre Cime (3 Chimneys). There are several trails around the peaks but all give great views across the valley. I will let the pictures below do the talking but safe to say it was one of the best walks I have ever done.
Later that day we drove to the equally iconic Cinque Torri (5 Towers). We were able to get on one of the few chair lifts that operate in the later part of the summer before taking a leisurely stroll around the base of these impressive protruding rocks. Here we met an older Canadian couple who were on their way to a Refugio further up the mountain side where they planned to stay the night. Adventurous as this sounded we were looking forward to warming up in the sauna at the hotel. We drove back via the Giau Pass (2236m), a spectacular mountain pass that forms the finale to a daunting stage on the Tour D’Italia.
We had 3 days in The Dolomites and could easily have stayed longer, further along the valley there are the towns of Bolzano and Bozen, connected by the spectacular Great Dolomites Road. There is Marmolada, the highest peak where you can hike or take a cable car up to the glacier and at the end of the day of course you can head out for some fantastic Italian food and wine. Bellissimo!
Top tips for a trip to the Dolomites:
1) Use the Maps.me App instead of paying for GPS with your car hire
2) Go early September before the majority of the ski lifts close and the weather is nicer
3) Even during the summer the weather is changeable so pack and dress accodingly when going up the mountains
4) Use Refugios to refuel at the top of the walks. Stay over for a more rustic experience.
5) If you plan to hike down the Lazaguoi Tunnels take sturdy boots and a flashlight