Rifugio Lagazuoi is
perched atop a precipice at 2750m with some of the
finest views you could hope to get with an espresso
Italian mountain high
doesn’t mean going without the good things in life
Hiking in New Zealand
requires a certain amount of sacrifice. Any self-respecting Kiwi hiker
expects to endure - even enjoy - day after day of sandflies, rain and
dehydrated meals tasting of boiled foam rubber.
Not so in Italy. As my
companion and I tucked into a plate of gnocchi washed down with a few
glasses of wine on a cliff-top balcony high in the Dolomites, we decided it
was a style of hiking that would be very easy to get used to.
The limestone Dolomites,
in the north-eastern corner of Italy, are quite different to the granite,
glacier-sculpted Alps to the north. Erosion has carved the white rock into
gravity-defying towers and pinnacles that soar above picture-postcard
meadows dotted with cows, their brass bells tinkling. Even without good food
and coffee, it'd be a fine place for a hike.
We stumbled off our
overnight bus in Bolzano, transport hub, capital of the Trentino-Alto Aldige
region and gateway to the Dolomites. The city also suffers from a kind of
cultural schizophrenia. Alto Aldige, alias South Tyrol, was part of Austria
until the end of World War I and still has a strong German flavour. This
would be of limited interest to the tramper except for one important thing
- it means that every town, mountain and minor geographical feature has two
names, one Italian and one German.
Despite the confusion
resulting from an Italian map and a German bus timetable, my companion,
Timothy, and I eventually made it to the trailhead, the 2100m Passo
From the pass, serious
hikers scramble 600m up a crumbling limestone bluff. We decided to take
the cable car. We were directed to a side window where we were handed a
crash helmet and a set of protective leather clothing each.
"What kind of cable car
is this?" we asked in horror. It turned out to be a case of mistaken
identity - we looked "identisch" to a pair of motorcyclists who’d left
their gear behind for safekeeping.
The cable car deposited
us a short stroll away from Rifugio Lagazuoi (2750m), a hikers' hut atop a
precipice with sublime views of the mountains. But hut is perhaps not the
right word. Called a rifugio in Italian or Hütte in German, our
accommodation - family owned and run with pride - had more in common with
a luxury chalet than a refuge or a hut.
After dinner and a shot
of espresso of near-lethal strength, we set off to explore. On a nearby peak
we found a life-size crucifix commemorating the dead of World War I. It
seems improbable, but the Dolomites were the scene of heavy fighting between
the Italian and Austrian armies in 1916. Some of the mountains are like
Swiss cheeses, riddled with tunnels carved by half-frozen soldiers using
little more than teaspoons.
The memorial left us
reeling with culture shock: Hundreds of coins were wedged into the cracks of
the cross, and a cake tin nearby was stuffed with banknotes. Why hadn’t
anyone nicked it all?
Our plan the next day was
to follow part of Alta Via 1, one of six long-distance routes that traverse
the mountains. I had come prepared with enough equipment for two weeks in
southern New Zealand in midwinter. Timothy, on the other hand, had a daypack containing
a toothbrush and a sleeping bag. It soon became clear that Timothy had done
a better job of anticipating the conditions.
At first we found the
Alta Via disappointing. Apart from one steep climb up scree and teetering
rock to a pass, the trail was wide enough to drive on and crowded with loud,
obnoxious day-trippers. We soon learned the best tramping lay off the main
route on the higher, less frequented trails.
One such detour took us
across the Fanes Plateau, a textbook karst landscape of sinkholes and
delicately sculpted limestone formations. We spent all of one stormy
afternoon exploring and arrived at the next hut soaked, exhausted and
ecstatic. The Italians huddled inside thought we were barking mad.
Further on, Alta Via 1
ranged from the hellish - where the trail met a road, with all the resulting
crowds and commerce - to the eerily beautiful. It took in deserted plateaux
speckled with edelweiss and rusting World War I debris, clusters of
weathered timber houses where butter-makers once passed the summer months,
and lots of cows with bells on.
One night we stayed in a
hut run by the Club Alpino Italiano, Refugio Biella. Simpler and cheaper
than the family-owned chalets, the club huts cater to the more serious
hikers. They also give a 50 per cent discount to members of any hiking
club. Fortunately, Timothy happened to have a monthly pass from the Prague
Public Transport Authority which had a logo that could just about pass for a
row of mountains. We were welcomed into the international brotherhood of
mountaineers and got a cheap night’s sleep.
But the Dolomites were
saving the best for last. As we were climbing to a final saddle, the 2330m
Forcessa di Cocodain, we almost tripped over a herd of ibex.
If you haven’t seen an
ibex, imagine a mountain goat on steroids with huge curving horns. We
counted 17 of the beasts, sitting on the track, chewing their cud and taking
in the view. Occasionally they had a go at head-butting a sign welcoming
visitors to Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti. They certainly weren’t interested
One of the difficulties
we had in the Dolomites is that we never knew how to greet people. If we
wished someone a "buongiorno!", they’d bark back at us in German; if we
tried German they’d shrug and reply in Italian. We decided it was safer to
try English first.
Eventually we established
that Refugio Vallandro, a classic Alpine chalet and our last night’s
accommodation, was German-speaking. Noting our interest in the local
schnapps, and no doubt pleased to have some fools spending up at the bar,
the owners poured us a few glasses of their home-made firewater.
"Fantastic! We'll take
the whole bottle," shouted Timothy, once we’d regained consciousness. The
barman laughed and showed us a three-litre flagon.
It was a fine night and a
fitting end to our hike. Plus our hangovers helped to dull the shock of
returning to the other Italy the following morning - the Italy of traffic
jams, overpriced designer shops and homicidal young men on motor scooters.
Italy may not have much
in the way of untouched wilderness, but if you like to end a day of serious
walking with fine food and a good espresso, the Dolomites are hard to beat.
Our only regret was that it would be hard going back to dehydrated mince and
First published in Hawke's Bay Today, May 2002.
Bolzano, gateway to the
Dolomite Mountains, is well served by trains from
northern Italian cities. The same can’t always be said for
transport to the trailheads.
For information on Servizi Autobus Dolomiti bus routes see
www.sii.bz.it — the site has an English version and will find
the best connection by train, bus and even cable car — or ask at
Bolzano’s tourist office, on the main square about 200m from the
Be sure to bring a map. Topographic maps published by Kompass or Tabacco are sold in outdoor
equipment stores around Europe. The 1:25,000 scale maps are best,
but 1:50,000 is sufficient.
If you’re unsure where to go, you could base your hike around the
long-distance trails that traverse the Dolomites. Each of the six
Alta Via is clearly marked with colour-coded signposts and symbols
painted on the rocks.
It’s a good idea to book your accommodation a few days ahead, but
you will always get a place to sleep in an emergency.
The privately-owned hikers’ chalets, called rifugio in Italian or
Hütte in German, provide meals and a choice between rooms and
dormitories. Most have a bar and all make excellent coffee; food is
more expensive than in the cities, but it beats lugging your
supplies across the mountains.
The Alpine Club-owned huts are cheaper and more basic. If you belong
to a hiking club anywhere in the world, be sure to
bring proof of membership because it may get you the discount. A New
Zealand Federated Mountain Clubs card, for example, is just the
ticket. Note that club hut accommodation is dorm only and you will
need a sleeping bag. And possibly ear plugs.
If you have some spare time in Bolzano, it’s worth visiting the
city’s most famous resident — although he’s been dead for 5000
years. Ötzi the Iceman, discovered in a glacier high in the
mountains in 1991, is the oldest frozen mummy ever found. He now
resides in a freezer in the Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Adige.
Timothy atop Piccolo
Lagazuoi (2780m) at a memorial to German and Italian soldiers killed in
the Dolomites during World War I
Cows cross Lago
Ibex take in the
Sunset lights up
peaks near Rifugio Lagazuoi
Ibex guard the 2330m
pass Forcessa di Cocodain