Text and photo Robert Bazika , Traveler and guide of the travel agency Kudrna Brno
500 km from the CR | 5,000 km2 of valleys and mountains | 3,343 m above sea level - the highest peak | 100+ "via ferrata” protected climbing routes | 2 scoops of Malaga ice cream essential
In the Alps we can find most everything, from snow-covered glacial massifs to rocky ridges to lush green hills. AND THEN THERE ARE THE DOLOMITES, whose extraordinariness is evident at first sight. The labyrinth of countless rust-orange towers adorning the magnificent limestone pyramids, along with the turbulent war history, make the Dolomites a proud lady you must visit at least once in a lifetime.
The northern gateway to this mountainous region may be the picturesque town of Dobiacco, which most locals have called Toblach since the Austrian Monarchy. However, since the First World War, there have been two official languages here – German and Italian. But in the center of the Dolomites around Cortina d'Ampezzo, the original inhabitants, relatives of the Swiss speaking Rhaeto-Romance, supposedly still partly speak a very different indigenous dialect. In both these towns, the windows of houses reveal painted vases or dolls, or boast ubiquitous flower boxes, sometimes even a colossal “outbreak” of geraniums. The charm of Cortina is underscored by the pedestrian zone crowded by hotels, restaurants and outdoor shops. You must not miss the legendary, early 19th-century Hotel De La Poste, where Empress Sissi is said to have stayed. Be sure to enjoy at least two scoops of Malaga ice cream with raisins drenched in Amaretto liqueur (a delight that totally blows me away every time), and sit for a while in the local church, whose slim tower dominates the entire valley. Oddly enough, it is not cold in there. This is due not to the fragrant flames of the candles but actually to the southern, Mediterranean climate. It often happens that a little higher in the Austrian Alps, it is cold and pouring, while here, you enjoy a whole week of sunshine.
The extraordinary Iron Path
After the 1956 Winter Olympics, the locals began to create broad access to the surrounding mountain towers and peaks, making logical use of the original military paths forged in WWI. The steep mountain trails, rock galleries and tunnels hollowed by dynamite, as well as the lofty verticals with remnants of wooden ladders and hemp ropes, have come back to life as bold rocky outcrops, secured by steel cables, metal steps and metal ladders. The Iron Path – in Italian via ferrata – was born. Gradually in the Dolomites, up to a hundred of these protected climbing routes were created, ranging from those that everyone can handle with the use of "holding" ropes, to demanding, several-hour ascending routes. These I can recommend only to experienced ferratists, of course with full equipment needed for such climbing. It’s no exaggeration that the Dolomites have become the Mecca of this adrenaline sport. From my own experience, I can promise to you that it is the via ferratas that fundamentally enhance the uniqueness of these mountains, and for me, they are a local magnet that still attracts. We could go on about the Dolomites for hours, but to really understand them, you need to experience the feeling of scaling an exposed wall like a spider, the intense sensory connection with every rocky step and hold, those hours of toil when the world narrows down to focused concentration of your every move, and that perfect illusion of true climbing.
Three thousand meters in the legs
Hikers too can enjoy a variety of great experiences. Would you like to push your elevation limits and conquer the "easiest" three-thousander? The pyramidal peak piz Boe (3,152 m ASL) tops one of the most massive table mountains of the Dolomites, which is especially familiar to skiers thanks to the popular Sella Ronda ski tour. From the Passo Pordoi road saddle, a cable car will take you up to the first station at 2,950 m ASL. From here, you are two hours at the most away from the summit chalet Rifugio Capanna and enjoying a cup of coffee. And if you want to enjoy the splendor of evening silence, views of the highest glacial mountain in the Dolomites (Marmolada at 3,433 m ASL), sunset and daybreak, you can also book an overnight stay in the highest-elevated lodging in the Dolomites. I highly recommend it, but only after a few days of mountain acclimatization.
History everywhere you look
The turbulent history of WWI, which permeates everything in the Dolomites and which you can feel at almost every step, is best experienced on the Galleria dell Anticima trail. It starts beneath the peak of Lagazuoi, to which you can return by cable car, and leads almost entirely through a labyrinth of war tunnels down to the pass of Passo Falzarego. If you're hungry for more, you can continue along the hiking trail to perhaps the most photogenic towers of the Cinque Torri. Here you will find the original trenches, reconstructions of tactical positions, equipment, troop quarters and a hospital. Fifty kilometers south of Cortina d'Ampezzo, above the town of Longarone, is the deep Vajont Valley. Above it lies the alpine village of Erto, perhaps the most magical in the Dolomites. It lends the impression of an eagle's nest, where, among the beautiful stone houses, there is hardly room for a car to pass. No tourists anywhere, just a small café with cheap and excellent coffee.
Three Peaks of Lavaredo [Tre Cime di Lavaredo]
Without a doubt, the most attractive trip in the Dolomites is the circular route around the majestic towers of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, from the Auronzo mountain chalet to the Dreizinnenhütte chalet and back. You can spice up the day hike with a via ferrata climb to the war post at the small tower of Toblinger Knoten or continue along tunnels and “balconies” blown out in the rock to the observation point at the peak of Monte Paterno. From here, you will enjoy before you the splendor of the towers of Tre Cime and the entire eastern part of the jagged Dolomite peaks. Just one recommendation: don't come here on weekends, especially in August, during Italian summer holiday. You will save long waits standing in queues everywhere you go. And when you descend, make a stop at the magnificent Lake Misurina. Photographers from all over the world have been competing here for decades for the most beautiful, or rather the kitschiest photo with the reflected relief of the Tre Cime towers. And finally, let me also mention a local legend. Misurina, the spoiled daughter of King Sorapisse, is said to have once asked him to bring her a magic mirror owned by a fairy up on Mount Cristallo. The fairy did hand it over to the king, but for the price of turning him into a mountain to forever protect the flowers in her fairy garden from the sunlight. A distraught Misurina filled the valley with tears. And thus was created this beautiful lake between the mountains of Cristallo and Sorapiss.