It must have been a cold, lonely, but stunningly beautiful perch for the soldiers. Rocky spires extending in all directions, with valleys carpeted in forest and meadow far below. Intensely cold winters, with fingers too cold to squeeze a trigger. Occasional bursts of intense gunfire and mortars, interspersed with long periods of just hearing the sound of wind whistling over airy ridges.
I was with my guide Paolo Tassi, high above Cortina d’Ampezzo, on the Punta Anna, a via ferrata (iron way) route in the Italian Dolomites. The aided “climbing” along the aesthetic ridgeline was spectacular, and the views even more so. Maybe it was because the bolts and cables made what would be a challenging climb relatively straightforward, freeing my mind to wander. But I could not also stop thinking of the Italian and Austrian soldiers who transformed this region a century ago during World War I, when ladders were built, tunnels blasted, trenches dug, and roads carved out through the mountains. It was an ironically beautiful killing zone, and that sharp edge of history makes today’s peaceful alpine paradise that much more special. The contrast between the region’s violent past and its sublime present couldn’t be more extreme.
Today’s Italian Dolomites, in the region around Cortina, offer countless picture-postcard views of green fields and small towns with Tyrolean architecture backed by rocky spires. In fact, when you picture the classic idealized alpine village, it’s likely that your vision will meet reality in the Dolomiti. With world-renowned climbing, hiking, biking, history, and a culture and cuisine offering a mix of Italian and Austrian influences, the Veneto and Alto Adige regions pack in a massive amount of attractions for the adventurous traveler. Still, for many American travelers, the Dolomites sit in the shadow of more popular European alpine destinations like the French or Swiss Alps (in fact, they’re actually a different mountain range, with a different geological history borne of the dolomite limestone of uplifted coral reefs). Only a few hours north of Venice, the region is hardly difficult to get to, and it can be over-visited in the peak summer season, but by late September we found half-empty hotels and restaurants, and gorgeous sunny weather with cool mornings and warm days.
Starting our trip in Cortina, the hub of the region and an ideal base camp, my wife Sylvia and I drove over the winding Tre Croce Pass toward Misurina and the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The circuit around the 3 massive monoliths is typically extremely crowded in high season, but we were stuck behind exactly zero cars on the winding toll road up to the Rifugio Auronzo, the start of the walk. Above treeline, the views extended in every direction as we trekked counter-clockwise around the peaks. At the Rifugio Locatelli, I split off to scamper up the peak above the hut, where I found stunning 360-degree views across the Sesto Dolomites. I also found barbed wire—remnants of the war—as well as a cross memorial to the fallen soldiers who died in these high altitudes in a war that started for the most pointless of reasons.
The following day I met Paolo early at our hotel, and we drove up towards the Falzarego Pass. Shortly before the top, we turned off and climbed up to the Rifugio Dibona. After a quick espresso to fire up the creaky engines, we started a steep 40-minute hike up to the base of the via ferrata. At the first set of cables, we put on our helmets and climbing harnesses and started up. On the via ferrata, you can make the climbing more or less difficult by relying less or more on the cables and bolts, versus just climbing the natural rock. But in either case, you’re completely safe, in that you’re securely attached to the steel cables by 2 carabiners attached to dynamic cord, which in turn is attached to your harness. You slide your ‘biners up the cable as you climb, and when you come to another bolt, you simply unclip one ‘biner and re-attach it to the cable above the bolt, and then do the same with the second. As a result, you’re never unclipped from any protection. That said, while most via ferrata routes do not require much in the way of technical skill, you most definitely should be comfortable on high, exposed ledges and rock faces, and have good enough strength and fitness to be able to haul yourself up to the next hold or ledge when necessary.
As we crested one of the final ridges of the route, Paolo pointed out the rusted tin cans left behind by the World War I soldiers guarding this unlikely place, somewhat far from the front lines to the north. To the north, we looked out at an old rifugio that was used by Austrian troops in the war. Protected by artillery from above even higher on the slopes of Tofane Mountain, the outpost was never taken by the Italians. The remnants of original bolts and ladders were visible as we climbed—very different than the shiny new cable we were climbing on. From the top of the route high above town, and in view of the ski cable car that runs in winter, we gazed out to permanent snow and ice on the mountains of Austria to the north, and west to the glacier of Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. On the way down, we ran down steep scree fields, losing thousands of feet in elevation that had taken hours to climb up. Paolo mentioned that these slopes became fantastic sidecountry/backcountry ski lines in winter – they had a perfect pitch at the angle of repose. On our way back to town, Paolo told me that Cortina was the perfect town for him, since it has everything an adventure junkie could want, along with enough culture to support a life well-lived. Oh, and he took care to mention that because it sits in a large bowl instead of a narrow valley, it’s sunny — “in other mountain towns you only get a few hours of sun a day,” he said. This was still Italy, after all.
After driving through the Val Badia to the mountain village of San Vigilio, I set out the next morning to tackle a classic Dolomiti mountain bike loop, the Fanes-Sennes. The region is known as a classic for dirtheads and roadies alike, and typically sees stages of both the Trans-Alp Challenge and the Giro d’Italia.
Setting off from the ridiculously picturesque town on a rented mountain bike, I climbed to the end of the road, and then set off up the steep fire road from Pederu to the Rifugio Fanes. Fall colors were starting to penetrate the valley as I climbed, and I passed a modest number of hikers heading up into the alpine country. From the hut, situated in a beautiful meadow, I climbed over a high pass and began a steep and rugged descent down the valley south toward Cortina. As I dropped lower, the valley turned into a rocky gorge with a rushing river at the bottom, with spectacular waterfalls along the way. Eventually I reached the low point of the loop and turned back up the next valley toward Ra Stua and the Sennes Valley. Here the Austrians had staged a number of troop regiments, and had built roads for transport and supply. It was on one of those roads that I was now grunting up on the bike. After a long day, and over 7,000 feet of total ascent, I eventually created the second pass and began the steep descent back down to Pederu and the cruise down-valley to San Vigilio.
For our last sampling of the region, we drove to San Candido, a town about an hour north of Cortina, and just a few kilometers from the Austrian border. After a short trip to explore the Austrian town of Lienz, where we enjoyed pizza and gelato on the picturesque town square, we returned to wander around San Candido. Although the town is located alongside a road and rail transit corridor, and as a result is not as quiet as a place like San Vigilio, the old town center is actually quite pleasant to wander around, and we enjoyed an afternoon caffe in view of the historic Romanesque church. San Candido is an ideal base from which to explore the northern section of the Sesto Dolomites, with a number of small roads and trails heading south into the mountains, with some of the most famous lakes and rifugios in the region just a short drive or hike away. In the evening, I tried my hand at a trail run up the north side of the valley, and was treated to stunning views back across to the peaks, even seeing the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the distance. The run became a bit of an unintentional epic when I accidentally (on-purpose) chose to extend the route to the next town up the valley, Dobbiaco, from where I had to make my way back to San Candido in the encroaching darkness.
Cortina is both the most famous town in the Dolomites, and perhaps the best base from which to explore. From town, roads lead over high passes to the east and west, and along river valleys to the north and south. As the largest town in the eastern Dolomites, it has the largest selection of hotels, restaurants, shops, and gear rental and guide options. It also happens to occupy a beautiful subalpine meadow in a large bowl surrounded by 3,000-meter peaks. The Hotel Europa is conveniently located right in the heart of town on the main road, within easy walking distance to just about anything in town along the pedestrian area. Billed as a 4-star property, it’s really 3-star, but it’s a solid choice and offers everything you need for a short stay. If you’re looking for a longer stay, a quieter option, or something more luxurious, there are numerous 4-star and above properties in and around town. The Cortina Tourism website has a rich collection of information on local hikes, bike routes, guides, and other activities, dining, and entertainment.
San Vigilio is a charming little mountain town surrounded by perfectly kept green fields with cows grazing, and feels even more Tyrolean than Cortina. In the hierarchy of languages, German comes out on top here, and you’ll find more schnitzel and torte than you’ll find pasta and tiramisu, though the beauty of the place is that you’ll likely find both. The Hotel Excelsior is the best property in town, and offers everything from a full-service spa and wellness center to a restaurant to bike rentals and day tours. It’s highly recommended as a friendly but quite luxurious place from which to enjoy the area’s many charms. The staff and owner (Herr Werner Call) provided me with maps and equipment to support my mountain bike adventure. The breakfast buffet was extensive, and dinner was elegant in the dining area. Oh, and the view from our room’s patio was classic alpine paradise.
In San Candido, the Leitlhof Hotel is a stylish modern construction of wood, with clean lines, inset lighting, and the wonderful smell of pine penetrating our room. The view across the valley to the Sesto Dolomiti was spectacular, our ultra-modern and gorgeously-constructed all-wood room was much larger than any other hotel we visited in the region, and the restaurant and spa areas were equally luxurious. If you prefer to be right in town (the Leitlhof is a 10 minute walk away), the Sporthotel Tyrol is another good option, though note that they may be closed for the season after late September until ski season starts.