ST PAUL PIONEER PRESS – By Jennifer Wilson
As we ascend toward wispy clouds in an autumn-blue sky, the kids are pretty sure we’re in heaven from the looks of these jagged Italian Alps known as the Dolomites, after the hard stone that composes them.
Or at least on its stairway, and they don’t even have any 70s songs in their short memories suggesting such a thing. “We should’ve brought a jar to catch one of those clouds,” notes seven-year-old Sam, who scrabbles over the rocky skree like a mountain goat. I have my preschooler Zadie on my back—the climb was a little much for her. It’s a great workout for me.
Sam, Zadie and I are on our way to the oldest hikers’ hut, or refugio, in the Cortina d’Ampezzo, one of many valleys making up the Dolomites (two hours north of Venice). Our guide, Karin Pizzinini, points out the Marmolada: the highest peak at 11,000 feet.
“You can ski its glacier,” she tells Sam as they hike, hand in hand.
On our climb, we can see many of the valleys in these, the youngest of the Alps.
There’s the Sella Massif, a stocky huddle of mountains that is the site of the Maratona dles Dolomites, luring 8,500 mountain bikers the first Sunday of every July to its intense trails (bike hotels, ski lifts and bike passes for buses cater to the two-wheel set here). Its famous Sella Ronda loop passes through all four Ladino valleys of the Dolomites: Val Badia, val di Fassa, Val Gardena and Val di Livinallongo—beloved by bikers and skiers and interconnected by lifts. Our guides tell us you don’t even need a car in this area—you can get anywhere with a good map of the ski lifts.
The kids and I spot the neighboring Averau mountain, where my husband, Jim, ascends the via farrata Averau. A combination between a hike and rock climb, via farrata was invented here in World War I by soldiers navigating this rugged terrain. The rock-mounted ladder-and-cable system was too much for the kids, but we swore we could hear Jim’s gleeful yawp across the valley.
The hour-plus hike to Refugio Nuvolau earned me one of Italy’s creamy perfect cappuccinos and the kids a Coke and chips—I was way beyond prohibiting junk food, I’d lured them up the mountain by waving Italian chocolate bars in front of their faces. I look longingly at the other climbers nursing local grappa. That was for later, back at the hotel, when Jim and I could exchange stories of the day while the kids investigated the hotel. Little ones are enveloped into the culture here. While we overnighted in Venice en route to the Dolomites, they were welcomed and petted when we’d stop in to a wine bar for a mid-afternoon glass.
Karin points out a few chunked-out mountains, remnants from World War I when the Austrians and Italians in these valleys fought each other. We’ll later tour the open-air museum of remaining Italian battle trenches at a small huddle of peaks at the bottom of this mountain known as the Cinque Torri. Despite the war, the shared Ladin culture of the Dolomite people has unified them for 2000 years—it was only last century you could even get into and out of these valleys without the help of a horse-drawn sleigh. All tourism signs read in Italian, German and Ladino, from the 200-some refugios to 5000 miles of marked skiing and hiking trails.
“The Austrian and Italian soldiers would sometimes come down from the mountains to meet at night and exchange family news,” says Karin.
We make the tricky scrabble down to reunite with an adrenaline-pumped Jim returning from his via farrata, so excited that he’s forgotten to remove his orange helmet.
“I’ve never done anything like it,” he says. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever climbed a mountain.”
We take a ski lift to the parking lot and drive about five minutes to catch the heart-stopping 1800-foot ascent in a funicular to Refugio Scoiattoli for wine and spinach- and beet-stuffed ravioli. While pizza and wine are affordable and abundant in this vacation zone known for chic shops (buy your Chanel ski sweater here), refugios delivered the best values and views throughout the trip. The slow snaking trail to Refugio Lavarella in the Fanes Valley took 4.5 hours (I left Jim and the kids at the hotel), passing a waterfall that could be navigated with an iron cable, lumpy green pastures of cattle with cowbells, and enormous boulders that made hikers look like extras in Land of the Lost. My tour group stopped for lunch at Malga Gran Fanes refugio, revved-up metabolisms devouring thick chicken-barley soup, speck and potatoes topped with fried eggs, and the Ladino dessert kaiser schmarren (pancakes and lingonberries) for 11EU, including beer.
After a few nights in the picturesque Hotel Park Faloria in Cortina (doubles €120-€320; parkhotelfaloria.it), we moved to the lesser-known but centrally located Alta Badia valley, checking in to the splurgy Rosa Alpina Hotel in San Cassiano (doubles €300-€1200; www.rosalpina.it). Like most hotels, they have a pool and saunas. Like the higher-end ones, they have their own spa (some lodgings, such as the Hotel Posta Zirm in Corvara, www.hotelpostazirm.it, book spa treatments for non-guests). This is good news for a middle-aged mom with inexplicable aches and pains after hauling a four-year-old up a mountain.
Owner Hugo Pizzinini roves the lush leather-and-wood spa and lodge, often with year-old son Jacob, who will begin working here, as Hugo did, when he’s five. He attends to the details, and the stay is comfortable, plush and American-friendly.
“For me, the goal is to know all of the guests,” he says.
The Relais & Chateaux lodging (and choice of Italy’s adopted son, George Clooney) is home to Chef Norbert Niederkopfler, who has two Michelin stars, and whose cooking demonstration taught Jim to make proper tortellini. (Next door, Hugo’s cousin has his own Michelin star at La Siriola.) We still fantasize about Rosa Alpina’s breakfasts of local yogurt, prosciutto, wheels of cheese, omelette bar and fresh-squeezed juices. Our gracious server brought the kids tiny pots of liquid chocolate for their steamed milk.
Keith Dragon, a world traveler visiting from Boulder, encapsulated the Dolomites over fizzy prosecco by a crackling fire in Rosa Alpina’s bar as Jim and I grabbed that evening cocktail.
“If international travel isn’t in your comfort zone, and you’re not into the big cities, but want a culinary experience with history, this is the place to do it,” he says.
• Dolomite Mountains (www.dolomitemountains.com) assembles personalized itineraries in your targeted budget range. Expect to pay between 2,500-4,800 EU/week, plus airfare. Options include guided, half-guided or unguided, and a wide range of lodgings. Save by staying in beds and breakfast or refugios. American-based outfitters like Mountain Sobek Travel also lead Dolomite trips (subcontracting with Dolomite Mountains).
• Astute trip-planners can cut costs by going solo. Lodgings and tourism offices offer packages and advice, but don’t expect the speedy service of a private outfitter. Venice airport-Cortina buses run year-round. Public transportation is good.
• The area shuts down April to mid-June, and October to November.
Jennifer Wilson and her family are spending the year traveling Italy and Croatia, rediscovering the land of where her maternal great-grandparents immigrated from 100 years ago. Follow their journey at www.touchingupmyroots.com. Her book of the same title will be published by St. Martin’s Press in Spring 2011.