A DRIVE THOUGH THE DOLOMITI

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Flying over the Alps, is that the Matterhorn I see?

While paddling late afternoon across the lagoon, my head came to a stop as my eyes locked on an impressive range of snow-capped mountains rising in the distance above the islands of Venice. The bold and angular mountain tops, far away and barely in focus, appeared to be what we had crossed on our earlier flight from Frankfurt.  That is another story. Anyhow, the distant panoramic view was simply stunning!  We had to go there!

dolomiti routeI spent the next few years studying on what I had seen on that earlier trip. It turns out that I had been looking at the Dolomiti, known also as the “pale mountains” for their light-colored rock structure.  The Dolomiti are made of fifteen massifs, being compact groups of mountains. Google image searches led me to learn that that this was a place we would wat to see.    But what route to take?  How would a trip through the Dolomiti fit into a travel itinerary?

Looking at it from a grander view, I thought, how nice would it be to see and be able to compare the Swiss Alps, the Dolomiti, and lake country of northern Italy …all in one trip? An itinerary fell into place with exception to the route through the Dolomiti.  I knew we would want to see Oberammergau (site of the Passion Play) and Neuschwanstein Castle, but what land route should we take to reach Austria? What was the oh-my-gosh, most beautiful road passing through northern Italy? After countless hours on the computer walking my little yellow Google man on every “blue” road I could find, I realized the entire blessed place was simply beautiful.  That did not solve my problem!  In the end, from a Frommer’s online travel forum, some local truck driver wrote of his many deliveries through the region. He said there was only one great route and provided a Google Map to support his claim. Basically, the route carried us north on A 27 before crossing through the mountains to A 22 which carried us to Innsbruck, Austria. A believer in word of mouth, I jumped on the idea which fit perfectly into an upcoming trip.

[note: I’ve never planned something that could not be improved upon. In the following posts I’ll try to also include information on things we should have done differently.]

After flying into Venice, with two days there (you can never have too much of Venice), we rented a car at the airport and headed north on A27. Oh, and we let the rental folks know the nature of our itinerary so that they would give us a car with enough umph to make the trip.  Looks were not important at all on this trip.

Making good time on this first leg of the trip, I learned much later that we had overlooked a stop worth making.  The town of Treviso, near Venice, is inland though built on the water with canals like Venice. Of special interest, a restaurant there, called Le Becherrie, is supposedly the place where the desert Tiramisu was first made. How about that! That is the kind of thing you want to experience in travels!

In two hours of drive time we arrived at Cortina d’Ampezzo, which, for us, was the visual gateway into the Dolomiti. From that point the road narrowed, winding its way upward through pristine hemlock forests with occasional views of massive walls of stone.  The road became straight and easy going for a while as we appeared to ride the top of some long flat-topped ridge.

We had not realized how important the region was in war.  During World War II, allied troops advancing north out of Africa punched through the region. And in World War I, intense mountain-top battles halted the advance of Austrian/Hungarian troops into Italy.  Prior to the war, much of the area in present day Italy was part of Austria. At one point the Italians planted large amounts of explosives under a cliff-top military post which when detonated, destroyed the high elevation perch along with many Austrian troops thereupon stationed.  The trained eye picks up on the large number of explosion pock marks in cliffs and mountain sides throughout the drive.

 

Passing near the congested community of Pian Falzarego, we turned onto SP 24 which carried us onward to the pass of Valparola. Cars packed the roadside as people in gear ventured deeper exploring this most rugged leg of our trip.  The road narrowed a bit as it skirted the top of the world. It was June and we were nearing the snow line. The view of grotesque and ever-changing jags of mammoth rock renewed with each twist and turn as we neared the pass. Like looking across some ancient graveyard of giants, the view from the 7,000 ft elevation was immense, giving us unimaginable glimpses of the ancient stone monuments as far as one’s eye can see.

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If the elevation and distant views were not enough, a small museum along this highest run of road was packed with artifacts and story-telling placards of horrific battles once fought nearby.  Built in the 1890’s, the Austrian built Forte Tre Sassi, or Fort of Three Stones, was a favorite target for the Italians during WWI. The bombed landscape and a crucifix stand in solemn remembrance of a past people today hope will never be repeated. I encourage you, to Google walk this impressive section of highway. Click on this Google Link

From Valparola Pass, we turned south passing numerous hillsides, each covered in green unlike in winter when Italians ascend to this place to enjoy skiing and other winter sports.  We reached the town of Arabba and turned onto SR 48 which wound tightly upward to Passo Pordoi, a ski resort and travelers’ stop for many on bus excursions. The location is also well travelled by cyclists as well as those cruising on motorized bikes.

We reached the stopping point for the day and luckily our hotel had been earlier booked from home. Being the first week of June, our trip happened to occur during the customary change-over period from winter to summer. [note: plan accordingly as in Italy and elsewhere in the alps, resorts typically close or greatly reduce operations during the first week of June in order to clean and adjust for summer following the end of ski season.]  Unplanned travel during this time is a bit risky if you do not book your stay in advance. Also, note that access to some of the higher elevation trails may be denied in order to protect tourists from the dangers of unsafe conditions.

Our timing was both good and bad, the hotel accidentally booked us during their close time. So, we, among with a few others, were the only ones staying at Hotel Col di Lana. The price was fair and their restaurant was the only one  with full menu  that was open for many miles.  Following a good night’s sleep, I awoke before sun up to hike the hill to a small chapel that stood nearby. The rising sun from that spot was fabulous. In the distance, a round topped monument marked the burial site of over 8,000 Austrians who had died and were buried at that place during the two world wars.

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After breakfast, we went across the street and rode the gondola to the ski post at the top of the mountain. It was June and yet we were able to hike for hours along the snow packed landscape. The view was breathtaking, and we gave thanks for our safety upon reaching an iron cross people collectively filled with stones from the surrounding area.  We joined in the tradition.

Heading back to the road, we drove north again passing grand displays of nature such as Tore del Sella and Grohmannspitze.  The road would soon turn more westerly as our slow downhill descent led us through miles of little mountain villages. Soon we came upon A27 where the remaining hour drive into Austria was along a major four lane highway. Our trip through the Dolomiti was at end.

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The sights we saw were incredible and will always stay in my mind. Going back to the days of my childhood, I remember a scout leader once telling us that the Virginia Blue Ridge mountains we made almost as if God had raked the back of his fingers along the earth below. In comparison, we were told that, here in North Carolina, it was as if God had grasped, squeezed, and sat back down clumps of earth below.  Virginia was a land of narrow ridges with long broad valleys while North Carolina, a land of ancient hills rolled with time creating many twists and turns and cold dark hollows.

The mountains we traveled in Italy were mostly in the range of 12,000 ft elevation. They were pristine and had only recently been pushed from the ground below. I can imagine that once upon a time the views in North Carolina may have been similar.  Our 6,000 ft. mountains were also once 12,000 feet tall.  Imagine the 6,000 feet of rock and soil that is now gone.  Where did it go? The view for us is about the enormity of erosion where in Italy it’s about the birth of the same process that is forever changing.

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