Hiking Italy’s spectacular Dolomites – The Washington Post
It was late afternoon. I had started where the trail began, in Bressanone (also known as Brixen), and planned to follow it to its terminus in Feltre, the town where I live in Northern Italy. Already I had trekked seven miles to about 6,200 feet above sea level. Only 3,200 feet of elevation stood between me and the circular hike called Sass de Putia and, more important, what stood beyond the mountain pass.
Long-distance hiking in the Dolomites compacts the world to its finest, most delicious moments, such as that impromptu photo opportunity shared with strangers. More sumptuous were the views, which were rivaled only by the meals served along a trail that attracts day hikers as well as backpackers. Eating and walking one’s way through those rocky dips and rises is perhaps unique to this region. Certainly you can’t get truffle-buttered biscotti and crispy pork knuckle along a typical hiking trail. Here, nature and haute cuisine coexist at high altitude.
The Alta Via 2 (or Dolomites High Route 2) is one of 10 serpentine paths wending through the Dolomites of South Tyrol and the Veneto. It stretches from north to south for about 115 kilometers (about 71 miles). The hike is intended to be completed in about two weeks, over which time a hiker gains and loses more than 75,459 feet of altitude. In July, I hiked roughly the first 50 miles over four days, a time during which, as Amelia Edwards, the English writer, wrote nearly 150 years ago, “one escapes from hackneyed sights, from overcrowded hotels, from the dreary routine of table d’hôtes.” She described the “singular isolation of these mountains, many of which stand detached and alone, falling away steeply on all sides.”
Although I set out to hike the entire length of the trail in 10 days, my pace had me set to complete it in six. Not long into that first day, after the waterfall, I reached Putia Pass and abandoned those plans. The vista into a fertile green amphitheater and the jagged peaks around it brought a revelation: There was no need to rush. From there, I used my maps to guide me on a culinary midsummer ramble, following a loose itinerary along the high passes. The Dolomites reward spontaneity and wanderlust.
Amid the high roads and low passes
I carried many maps. The Kompass maps 56, 59 and 76 each covered a portion of the hike down from Bressanone. But before the hike was through, I had purchased one more map highlighting World War I sites and had received two more maps free (for various regional summertime diversions). There are many ways to plan a trek across the Alta Vias. Some of the hikers I met had planned for eight to 10 hours of hiking between remote Italian mountain huts known as rifugi, or for less hiking between huts, which left more time for lakeside sunbathing or mountain climbing. Others went on multiday tours with local guides. Most planned a few months in advance to ensure private rooms at the huts. Booking later meant sharing rooms. (Camping is only allowed within designated areas in Dolomites national park.)
Having planned the trip in June, I arranged for a mix of half-board dormitories and single-room accommodations at several huts and hotels. It was how I found myself descending from Sass de Putia, past the mooing cattle grazing atop a nearby rise, down below the Rifugio Genova and its yelping children dueling over a swing with views of the valley that rolled out into a distant mist. I was heading to Rifugio Malga Gampen (altitude 6,765 feet) in Trentino Alto Adige for my first night along the trail.
There are dozens of huts along the trail, many featuring extensive, proper Tyrolean and Venetian cuisines: sumptuous cappelli d’alpino (spinach tortellini), braised pork, aromatic pheasant and broccoli timbale prepared in ways found only in this region. Or homemade dishes from the Friuli area, such as prosciutto crudo di San Daniele with Montasio cheese.
An hour after I arrived and showered in the community bathroom, I sat in a recliner watching the sun setting over the Val di Funes when the three men from the waterfall arrived a half-hour before dinner. We nodded in shared fellowship and sat down to a dinner of cheesy potato dumplings dusted with Parmesan, braised beef with a pink onion reduction and a small green salad. Another couple ordered a bottle of Trentino red and a charcuterie board. Dessert was a homemade chocolate nougat cake.
Towering over the patio were Medalges (8,064 feet) and Sobutsch (8,156 feet), aglow in the gauzy sunset. They were exemplary Dolomites. The Dolomites — as well as the mineral dolomite — get their name from Déodat de Dolomieu, a French geologist who around 1790 brought global attention to the limestone found in South Tyrol. Many of the mountains are flecked in burnt umber, because the dolomite can include hematite, like iron, and therefore rust.
Near the barn loft where 12 beds were arranged for hikers, the colossal slope of Sobutsch was covered in pine and prairie and massive boulders before sweeping almost vertically up through stony debris and gashes from previous rockfalls. From my seat at the rifugio table, the facades seemed unscalable, though I knew the mountain’s back ridge lay along the next day’s section of the Alta Via 2.
The next morning, the mountains looked wholly different. For the next three days, I would consistently find myself awestruck by the ways in which every altitude shift, every position of the sun, changed the Dolomites, shadows revealing new fissures and deeper crags, darkened cracks brought into the light while others were hidden.
At breakfast, I remembered what Edwards had written: “In the way of food, a kind of rough plenty reigns.” This was still true. In the mornings, many huts offer sandwiches (prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella, wild greens, pesto aioli) to go. Salutations are exchanged in German, orders placed in Italian and gratitude given in English. Under the cold shadow of Sobutsch, I set back out to the trail, hiking for several hours past fields of campanulas and purple gentians bending against the breeze and jagged crevices of rock and the little shelves on which sit solitary trees.
Beneath the mountain Piz Duleda and its solitary cross (9,543 feet), I entered a Martian landscape of rock and desolation, not a road or motor sound save for, overhead, an airplane so close I could see the livery colors of a Norwegian airline. Shortly after, I came across my first wire-assisted portion of the route, known as via ferrata (iron path in Italian). Steel ladders and heavy-gauge steel cables bored into rock are occasionally provided to help hikers through steep passages. The maps identify many of the technical via ferrata sections meant for experienced climbers, which can be easily circumvented.
The first via ferrata was constructed in Austria in 1843. There are said to be about 600 in the Dolomites today, some of which date to World War I, when they accessed the shifting front-line fortifications between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.
A brief ascent and a more relaxed descent led me to Puez Hütte (8,120 feet), where there crowded a mass of tour groups, schoolchildren and joggers. The hut, being supplied only by helicopter, had diverse offerings such as goulash, cabbage salad with ham, and sugar pancakes with cowberries. Like many rifugio, Puez Hütte is accessible only by foot, producing its energy and sourcing its water locally: Spring water is purified by a UV-filtration system and bottled in glass at the bar. And because telephone and internet (powered by solar) are spotty, many businesses request payment in cash.
I ordered three bottles of water: two to fill up my water bladder, one to drink in with the view. I ate an energy bar, wanting to keep my expenses low. (The trek can be done on $50 to $60 a night or around $200 if you don’t want to sleep in dormitory-style bunk beds.) Afterward, I trekked out, passing the heliport where kegs of beer sat on a cargo net, having arrived earlier that morning.
Along the trail, beneath a wooden cross of Jesus at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, I met Jan, a late-20-something from a village in the Black Forest. He was hiking from Munich to Venice and had stopped for a break.
We descended into the valley together. He was heading for a rifugio at the bottom, and I had another three hours of hiking. Jan had quit his job to hike the trail and would be starting a master’s degree program after he finished the trek. “I’m more of a village guy,” he said, “but these views are incredible.”
We parted ways in the valley, and, after a steep incline and via ferrata section to Rifugio Pisciadù (8,487 feet), I met some other Germans, Ruth and Stephen, who were also making the trek from Munich to Venice. We met along the steep scree wall between Torre Brunico and Colfosco when I asked Stephen, who had a GPS device on his backpack, how much higher we had to climb. “Oh, only 500 meters,” he said. (About 1,600 feet.) In other words, much higher. We were billeted in the same bunk room, and, after a dinner of polenta, sausage, wild mushrooms, a cabbage salad and strudel, they showed me the route they would take to Venice.
Maps were essential social currency. Sharing and detailing routes and workarounds, such as how to get around the region’s highest peak, Marmolada, which had been closed to hikers after part of its glacier broke off earlier this summer, was an exercise in joint appreciation for all the trail had to offer.
In the morning, I planned my own deviation. I left early, skipping breakfast to trek along the butte toward the Piz Boè. At 10,341 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Sella Group within the Dolomites and is considered by many to be the easiest summit over 10,000 feet to reach by foot. Its panorama of dolomite Alps like shark teeth reaching skyward is worth the crowds. A rifugio sits at its peak, and as I passed around 8 a.m., the trails were flooded with tourists making the trek upward. Many had arrived from the tram at Pordoi Pass with views of the Marmolada (10,968 feet), known as the Queen of the Dolomites.
Perhaps knowing it sat on the former front lines of World War I led me to the Museum of the Great War at the bottom of the tram, where on display were the munitions and equipment used by both Austrian and Italian troops to defend their positions during the frigid winters along these mountaintops. A solitary rotunda dedicated to German troops who died in the war sits in the valley below the pass.
I stayed the night in the Hotel Savoia, which sat along the trail. In the morning, wanting to avoid crowds, I walked through dawn along the Arabba Geological Trail, veering farther off the conventional Alta Via 2 path. Along the trail are 18 stations that detail the flora, fauna and geological formations. The full loop, where supplies were shipped during the war, would take only a day to complete. As I walked, a prairie dog yelped, and roe deer scurried down into the valley. Across from the ridge stood the Marmolada. What I mistook for the sound of pines rustling in the breeze was the glacier melt becoming a rushing torrent.
Although the Alta Via 2 treks directly over the Marmolada, with a rifugio situated at the base of the glacier, I took the variant that led down toward Malga Ciapèla (4,757 feet) and boarded the tram up to Punta Rocca (10,964 feet) atop Marmolada. During World War I, trenches were blown straight through the mountain. I peered into old command stations and observation posts, ducked through wet passageways toward gun slots looking out across to Pordoi Pass. At the second tram stop on the mountain (there are three, the last one arriving at a panoramic view point at Punta Rocca), there is another museum to World War I and Europe’s highest museum.
Steeling myself for the hike to my last rifugio, I ate a quick cream-filled brioche and downed an espresso before heading into the wooded low country, its quietude pierced by quivering sunlight, the sounds of eddying rills of the Ru Petorina and a chorus of birds.
The afternoon brought bouts of rain, and the wind picked up along the switchbacks toward the last mountain pass. A quick jog down the slope through a field of arnica blossoms and pink Daphne, past a group of horses grazing in the wind-washed fields below, brought me to my next hut.
I reached Rifugio Fuciade (6,496 feet) as a live band was kicking into gear and lunch service was in full swing. Tractors chugged about the nearby farm, sending up the sweet scent of freshly cut hay. At many huts along the trail, ink stamps are laid out near the reception desk to allow hikers completing the full Alta Via 2 to stamp their notebooks. At the end of the trail in Feltre, if all the stamps are present, hikers receive a badge. I didn’t have all the stamps, because I learned about them late. I stamped my notebook at Fuciade anyway. I sat down to lunch: gnocchi with ham and pork shanks. And later, dinner: black garlic lamb, beef cheek, Italian canederli (a breadcrumb dumpling) and a list of more than 700 wines from which to choose. And drifted thereafter to sleep under the moonlit gaze of the Dolomites, encircling the rifugio with their jagged battlements and ridges, like a fortress against the world that I’d soon reenter.
Rosen is a writer based in Northern Italy. His website is kennethrrosen.com.
Passo San Pellegrino, Soraga
A vegetarian-friendly mix of Italian, Austrian and Greater European cuisines with mountain views and rooms to rent for nightly stays along the shoulder of Passo San Pellegrino. Rooms from about $105 per person, per night.
Arabba Livinallongo del Col di Lana
The Hotel Savoia below the tram at Pordoi Pass offers sweeping panoramas of the Alps with a bakery, pizzeria and bar situated on the Alta Via 2 and on the border between the Veneto and Trentino regions of Northern Italy. Pricing varies based on season, from about $75 per night.
The seasonal mountain outpost has been family operated for more than 40 years. It offers South Tyrolean cuisine such as Kaiserschmarren or barely soup, and has both dormitory-style and private rooms available. Double rooms with breakfast from about $55 per person, per night. Shared rooms with breakfast from about $40 per person, per night.
The Italian Alpine Club of Bologna’s hut located in Alta Badia sits atop the Sella Group and offers only dorm rooms, sleeping between six and 20 people. Camping sleeping bags are required. Overnight dormitory stays from about $33 per person, per night for nonmembers. Dormitory with half-board (breakfast and a three-course dinner with dessert) from about $68 per person, per night for nonmembers.
A renovated mountain cabin with panoramic views along the Alta Via 2 accessible only by foot. Entrees include Kaiserschmarren and regional favorites such as polenta with mushrooms and local cheeses. Kitchen is open 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., after which cold dishes and soups are served until a three-course dinner offering begins at 6:30 p.m. Dishes from about around $12. Beds from about $30 per person, per night.
Museum of the Great War in Marmolada
Via Malga Ciapèla, 48, Rocca Pietore
The museum and viewing deck from atop Marmolada is open year-round. Cable car from Malga Ciapela includes museum entry. Open daily, 8:40 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Round-trip tickets about $35 per person; discounts available for juniors, seniors and students.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.