The Dolomites – Where Heaven Comes Down To Earth
If a landscape could yodel, it would be the Dolomites of northern Italy. Craggy and majestic, the grey, ribbed mountain peaks of the Dolomites thrust into the sky,. Where there are shelves instead of sheer rock faces, snow gathers in deep pockets. In the depths of the valleys below cows with clonking bells wade though wildflower meadows with log houses where farmers store cut grass for winter feed. The Dolomites peaks are part of Europe’s Alps, which run in a chain between France and Austria, but what makes the these mountains different is their sheer boldness. While most mountains are triangular, the Dolomites are jagged giants that leap straight into the clouds.
Tucked into the upper right hand corner of Italy, hard against the Austrian border, the Dolomites are a sensational part of the country that doesn’t make the headlines. Until the end of the First World War when the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye transferred ownership to Italy this was Austria, and the region still maintains the fiction that it’s part of the South Tyrol. German is the lingua franca, “Guten tag” is the standard greeting, and instead of pasticcerie there are konditorei, platzs instead of piazzas.In winter, the Dolomites are a natural magnet for skiers. As well as world-class downhill runs, the cross-country and off-piste skiing is legendary. At the heart of the Dolomites, Cortina d’Ampezzo is Italy’s most illustrious winter ski resort, a luscious mountain village set within a colosseum of stone walls, with style to burn and boutiques galore.
Come June and the region becomes a hiking paradise. Lavishly endowed with forests, photogenic mountains, wildflower-studded pastures and hallucinogenic sunsets, the Dolomites is the sort of place where you spring out of bed in the morning and lace on hiking boots without a second thought. Quite simply these are some of the world’s finest alpine walks, with an interconnected network of trails that lift you from summer meadows to jawdropping views.
What puts hiking in the Dolomites into a class all its own is the via ferrata. Literally “the iron way”, the via ferrata is a system of steel ropes, iron ladders and rungs that have been fixed to the sides of the mountains to enable modestly agile hikers to reach the high peaks in relative safety.
Something else that distinguishes the Dolomites’ walking trails is the rifugi, the mountain huts that operate from about mid-June to late September. Spaced at convenient intervals along the trails – and sometimes only an hour from the closest parking lot – rifugi dispense warmth, hot chocolate, hot showers and as their name suggests, a refuge from the leg-burning workouts that the trails deliver. While most rifugi provide only basic accommodation to trekkers at a reasonable price, they’re renown for their robust food, a synthesis of Italian and Germanic that sets ravioli alongside dumplings and sausages, strudel with mascarpone.
The provincial capital is Bolzano, a gorgeous city built around a Tyrolean-style old town with a sprawling market and a huge central piazza where you can take your coffee in the shadow of an enormous duomo with a multicoloured tiled roof capped with a lacy spire. Bolzano’s cable cars and mountain railways hoist you from the town centre into the surrounding mountains, the most dramatic of which is the Altopiano del Renon, a pasture-covered plateau with dizzying views over Bolzano and the Sarntaler Alps.
One Bolzano attraction won’t want to miss is the local archaeological museum where the star is Otzi, the Bronze Age ice man who was found mummified on a nearby glacier. An intriguing side note to the region is the Messner Mountain Museum, the creation of Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest mountaineers and explorers of all time. The museum is spread across five different sites in the Dolomites, including the 10th century Castle Sigmondskron and the Museum in the Clouds, MMM Dolomites, perched at 2,181 metres, with fabulous panoramic views of the Dolomite peaks and the Marmolada Glacier. And excuse me, but I can’t resist telling you that there’s a lovely 90-minute walk from here back down to Passo Cibiana, but walking in the Dolomites has taken hold of my heart. You won’t find a better reason for owning two feet than this.