In northern Italy, the Dolomites region offers mountain inns, hiking, and a 70-mile scenic driving route.
CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy — Raniero Campigotto, the owner of a mountain hut nearly 7,000 feet up in the Dolomites range, has resigned himself to the impossibility of serving dinner without having his guests jump up mid-fork through the polenta and grilled sausage and run outside.
They are trying to catch “enrosadira,” the term from a local language called Ladin for the stunning moment when the setting sun makes gray spires glow iridescent pink in this mountain range in northeastern Italy. Picture the jutting rock formations of the southwestern United States, substitute the desert floor with a sea of dark-green spruce forest, and you have what some will argue is the most breathtaking landscape in the Alps.
“I’ve always lived here,” said 43-year-old Campigotto. “But sometimes I stop in my tracks, enchanted by certain sunsets and certain dawns.”
I returned to the area where I had spent my favorite childhood winter skiing breaks, this time for a summertime combined hiking and driving visit along the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti, the Dolomites Great Road.
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The route stretches just south of the Italian-Austrian border for about 70 miles, starting at Cortina d’Ampezzo, a couple of hours north of Venice. Right before entering town, a road sign reads “Bon azeto,” welcome in Ladin, the ancient language spoken only by an estimated 30,000 inhabitants in the Dolomites.
The road then climbs right up to Campigotto’s Col Gallina “rifugio” (mountain shelter) at Falzarego Pass and eventually ends in Bolzano/Bozen in Italy’s semi- autonomous and bilingual region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol.
The highlight for me was a strenuous four-hour round-trip hike from Col Gallina to Rifugio Lagazuoi where, on its terrace at 9,000 feet, I devoured a heaping plate of pasta with local deer meat while taking in a 360-degree view over the Dolomites’ most striking peaks and valleys.
To the east is the broad basin with swanky Cortina, Italy’s answer to Aspen and St. Moritz. The imposing peaks of the Sella Group rise to the west, carved into surreal shapes from the coral-reef-and-volcanic rock mixture that emerged millions of years ago to form the range. The Marmolada glacier glittered in the August sun to the south.
In the cheerful buzz of conversations in Italian and German at the communal outdoor tables, I realized I had never seen a place where the majestic beauty of nature contrasts more with the tragic scratches of human folly.
The same trails where athletic mountaineers and fashion-conscious day-trippers with poodles in tow walk were carved by hand by the Austrian-Hungarian and Italian armies, which fought bitter trench battles here during World War I.
Less than a century later, mountain-lovers from the former enemies vie for position down improbable tunnels hewed through the sheer rock face to shoot only the perfect Alpine photo.
The sole animosity I witnessed was directed toward a pesky leash-less poodle that dangerously darted between legs on the steepest stretch of trail. (No, Prada-clad ma’am, I was not trampling your dog, I was nimbly trying to avoid falling down a ravine.)
Three generations ago, bloodshed marked the gain of each meter in the stalemated front line. Today, the trailhead parking lot, with license plates spanning the European Union from Portugal to Romania, is itself evidence of a borderless continent.
About halfway up the mountain from the Falzarego Pass to Lagazuoi, at the snow line past fragrant shrubby pines, tiny daisies and violets, hikers with flashlights and safety equipment can leave the main trail and go straight up the mountain through tunnels carved during the 1914-1918 Great War.
Tunnels, machine-gun nests and impossibly cramped living quarters are all part of the free “Museo all’aperto del Lagazuoi,” one of several World War I open-air museums in the area that provide a striking introduction to this forgotten history.
“People can experience firsthand what those soldiers suffered through,” Campigotto said. “We have a hard time walking up with a backpack, they went up armed carrying 90 pounds.”
On a cloudless summer day, it was indeed staggering to read on the many bilingual museum panels of men who shivered through subfreezing storms, hunkered down on the opposite side of a rock face in an improbable high-altitude standoff.
Even the Great Road was built for strategic reasons, but it is virtually impossible to visualize war among the bursts of red petunias cascading down wooden balconies in its merry villages dominated by onion-steeple churches.
Leaving the Falzarego Pass on SR48, the road precipitously descends into a deep valley, with walls of giant firs allowing a few glimpses of remote chalets, the ruined castle of Andraz and the pastel spires above, some towering above 10,000 feet.
Then it spools up an emerald meadow, bend after bend popular with bikers, to the Pordoi Pass, which at 7,346 feet allows another breathtaking panorama over the massifs all the way to the Cortina basin. On a late Sunday afternoon, a smattering of faithful walked up a narrow trail to a tiny stone church that looked doll-sized against the backdrop of the Marmolada glacier.
On the other side of the pass, SS48 traces Val di Fassa through resort villages like Canazei that are pure “Sound of Music” fantasy, with their whitewashed houses trimmed in blond wood. The Great Dolomites Road follows SS241 up one last, lower pass with wide views before coming down toward Bolzano/Bozen.
Guidebooks make much of the Lago di Carezza/Karersee as the last attraction before the city, but the pretty pond, visible only from a boardwalk, is a far cry from the splendor just left behind.
In fact, driving the last stretch of road is literally a comedown, mixed with the realization of how unique the Dolomites are.
There is plenty of mountain scenery ahead, and on this particular summer evening, I had dinner plans at Toblino castle, which sits in the middle of a lake surrounded by vineyards, a short drive down the highway. But as the sun set in a golden summer dusk, I felt a distinct twinge of regret.
No more “enrosadira” for me, no more peaks that looked first like the rose marble along Venice’s canals and then as if a flame had been touched inside them.
I wished I were up at Col Gallina, where silverware must have been clattering down as people stampeded outside for one last look.