The Dolomites
Walking in the Val Gardena
About the Dolomites
Towards the end of the 18th century a French geologist called Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu discovered a limestone-like rock while fossicking around in the Alps of theTyrol. It was different to any other known at that time. The rock was given his name, dolomie (dolomite in English) and the range of mountains in the north of Italy came to bear his name.

The Dolomites now form the border between Austria and Italy. They cover 141,903 ha of spectacular landscapes and include 18 peaks that rise above 3000 m. The geography is complicated - there are great lumpy mountains and spiky pinnacles, precipitous cliffs and rock walls, high grassy meadows known as
alms, and dense forests. Long narrow valleys carve up the mountain areas and provide access to the towns and villages that are located at these lower altitudes.

The extent of the area and its challenging geography made it hard to pinpoint a place to spend a walking holiday. So we set some criteria. We wanted a sizeable village in a mountain environment, with good shopping and restaurants, not too overdeveloped for tourism, a good network of lifts and accessibility to some of the other valleys for possible day trips. And, of course, there would have to be good day walking which means that the snow would have melted enough for the lifts up to the trails to be open.

After much poring over maps and guidebooks we settled on the
Val Gardena and an apartment in the village of Santa Christina. It was June 2010 and we liked what we read about this time of year in the mountains.
A brief history and its linguistic fallout
The mountains of the Dolomites form a formidable natural frontier between the countries we now know as Italy and Austria. They fall entirely within Italy but straddle two separate regions - the major part within the region of Trentino-Alto Adige, with the remainder in the Veneto. Until 1919 this was all part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

At the end of World War I following major battles between Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops, the Italians occupied and annexed the mountain region. It was formally awarded to Italy in post war treaties and a period of intense Italianisation followed, a process that was only reversed during and after World War II. Post war, the region became a fully autonomous region of Italy and both German and Italian were made official languages. Although this was for some years an uneasy arrangement, the region seems now to be quite comfortable with this way of communication.

Something like 70% of the population of Alte-Adige speak German as their first language. To them it is quite natural that the region is also known by its German name of Südtirol. Everyone also speaks Italian. This is Italy after all.

But then there is Ladin, an old Rhaeto/Romance language which developed when the region was colonised by the Romans. Ladin is taught in schools and is still spoken in five valleys which, until recently, have remained quite isolated. These are Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Fodom and Val di Fassa.

Hidden in the introduction to most guidebooks and maps is usually a statement advising which language is being used. In our web page we use the Italian form of names, followed by German and, when appropriate, Ladin.
Even before we arrived it was clear that language would be an interesting feature of our stay.
Val Gardena
The Val Gardena (Grödental if you speak German, and Gherdëina in Ladin) proved to be an excellent choice.

We drove up from Lake Garda and, as the mountains began to envelop us, had to keep taking great gulps of amazement. It was sooo beautiful - a bit like stepping into the pages of National Geogaphic Magazine. The turnoff into the valley was off the busy motorway that connects Bolzano (Bozen) to the Brenner Pass ( Passero del Brennero, Brennerpass). From there we reached the three villages of the valley, first Ortesei (St Ulrich, Urtijëi), then Santa Cristina (St Christina, S. Crestina) and finally at the head of the valley Selva Gardena (Wolkenstein, Sëlva).

We had selected Santa Cristina as it was said to be the smallest and most unspoilt of the three. Even so it was amply provided with hotels and apartments, though not the solid walls of high rise that were something of a feature in the other two. Our apartment was high up above the village with a view that looked directly across to one of the most significant peaks in the landscape, Sassolungo (Langkofel, Saslonch). We never tired of this view and would check how our mountain was looking at every hour of every day.

The only downside of this wonderful location was the fact that the shops, bars and restaurants were all at the bottom of the hill with a 2 km climb back up again. It never seemed worth taking the car to the shops so we gave ourselves a bit of extra preparation for mountain walking.

On the first day we were there, 20 June, Midsummer, it snowed. When the clouds cleared we looked across a jumpy green landscape, dotted with rustic mountain houses to the craggy outcrops of rock on Sassolungo dusted with fresh snow. It was sheer magic and every day after was picture perfect.
Walking, climbing and skiing are the life blood of the mountains. Once the winter season is over and the snow melts, the lifts reopen for summer use and there is a bewildering diversity of walking.

Firstly, there are a number of long distance, high altitude footpaths called
alte vie where you can walk for up to six days or more. There is a network of rifugi, or refuges, which enable you to stage a walk or to do shorter loops. Up here also you will find the Via Ferrate, pathways in hazardous environments where there are ladders, metal rungs and, notably, steel cables attached to the rock faces to assist the walker. Some of these are associated with the fierce fighting of WWI when they were built to assist the movement of troops. To walk the Via Ferrate you need helmets, ropes, harnesses and, above all, a good head for heights.

At a lower altitude there is a staggering choice of shorter trails. Most of these will begin with an exhilarating haul up towards the high peaks in a space age gondola. Once up at a height where the valleys spread out below and the mountains tower all around, tracks head off in all directions across alpine meadows, known as
alms or in some cases, alpe. Piano is another word that may be used to describe an area of open plains or meadows. There is often a rifugio at the top of the lift where you can fortify yourself before setting off. After a day's walking you can either take the lift down to the valley or walk down one of the tracks that winds to the bottom.

The pathways are generally very well made, meandering across meadows, traversing slopes, occasionally crossing patches of scree and venturing through forests. The signposting is good and usually bilingual. In springtime the wildflowers are amazing.
The tracks and trails of the Dolomites
1 Col Raiser
2 Monte Pana/ Mont de Seura
3 Alpe di Siusi
4 Dantercepies from Selva Gardena
5 Seceda from Ortesei
Walking in Val Gardena
The perspective sketch above will be helpful in understanding the walking in and around the valley.

The valley runs roughly west to east, which is bottom to top on the map. On either side and at its head are impressive groups,
gruppi of peaks. Each peak has its own name but they are also known collectively by their group names. So on the north side of the valley is the Gruppo Puez- Odle, on the south side is the Gruppo Sassolungo and towering at the top of the valley in the east is the dramatic Gruppo Sella.
Short walks in the valley
We eased into it, beginning with a walk up a disused rail line to Selva to become familiar with the countryside. Houses are painted white, trimmed with wood or other dark coloured materials. Roofs are steeped pitched and balconies are positioned to catch the sunshine. Traditional farmhouses are built into the hillsides with piles of wood stacked on verandahs or under the eaves.

Every bit of hillside was covered in long grass and colourful flowers. And all the farmers and their families were furiously engaged in the hay making harvest. They used traditional wooden scythes and long handled wooden pitchforks - the slopes were too steep for more modern equipment. The smell was delicious but we almost wept as the colourful flowers were swept away. The new mown hay was tossed down the hillside to flatter spots where it could be bundled onto carts.
Another walk wound down to Ortesei maintaining a level well above the valley, and passing right by our front door. Along the way were farmhouses and meadows, colourful cascades of bright little flowers, forests, mountain streams and always a wonderful view of the mountains. The feature of this walk was a remarkable church deep in the woods with a tapered spire that challenged the mountains for its elegant soaring splendour. We did this walk twice, once completing a circuit back to Santa Cristina along the old railway line and climbing our hill in exhaustion. The second time we set off in the morning, had lunch in Ortesei and caught the bus back. But there was still that hill to climb.
Although the geography is complicated, we got the picture after a while and quickly discovered that all the infrastructure is set up to make access to walking easy. The three villages have lifts on both sides of the valley to take walkers up to the higher slopes and alms. A regular bus service runs up and down the valley so there is no worry about driving and parking. In fact in high season some roads are closed to vehicular access other than when visitors are arriving and departing from their accommodation.

From the top of the lifts, tracks head off in all directions and it is all wonderfully interconnected - fabulous for walking and even more amazing for skiing in winter.
Day walks in the mountains
In our two weeks we spent five days walking on the high tracks and trails and found that nothing we had read had prepared us for these glorious walks. Each was special in its own way.
From its station just above Santa Cristina village a gondola made easy work of the climb to 2107m and the alms of the Alto Piano. We walked a criss-cross circuit of this open area where Sassolungo was always right before our eyes and the wildflowers were breathtaking - ranunculus, gentians, dandelions, daisies and buttercups and heaps of others we can't put names to.

Leaving the paths is discouraged and is not wise as there were squishy areas where little streams drain into ponds and soaks. There was still a lot of snow around from the bad weather earlier in the week. Interesting features that distinguished this walk were a mountain church which warranted a detour from the main tracks and little mountain huts, called
malghe, which dot the landscape. These were originally used for summer grazing but now seem to be modest summer chalets, perhaps a bit like an Australian beach house.
After a fabulous ramble round this mountain wonderland, we had a late lunch at the Col Raiser rifugio and came back down in the gondola.
1 Col Raiser
You can do a complete circuit of Sassolungo with some moderately difficult stretches and in past years we would probably have done it. This time, however, we were satisfied to reach the Refugio Comici and enjoy lunch on a sun drenched terrace.
Across the valley from our living room we could see two chairlifts going up to the base of Sassolungo. These took us to our next walk.
There were many ways down. We chose a path through flowery meadows and forests and then a trail that ran alongside a mountain stream all the way down to Monte Pana where the lift dropped us into the valley.
2 Monte Pana/ Mont de Seura to the Rifugio Comici
The first lift zipped up from the base of the valley, a mere 200m, to Monte Pana, a luscious green basin surrounded by forests. We then transferred to the other lift and swung above the trees, up another 400m, to reach Mont de Seura, a flower filled pasture with stunning views down to the valley and across to the peaks of the Gruppo Puez- Odle.
A rough track headed off into a forest and we clambered over rocky outcrops and tree roots to emerge on the scree slopes at the base of Sassolungo. A passing English couple alerted us to a bright yellow alpine poppy, pushing up through the white stones. Apparently very rare, this lovely little flower seemed to relish the harsh conditions.
A pathway left the higher slopes, passing through a couple of rustic villages and then a steep forest road took us down, down, down till we emerged, once again at Monte Pana and the very welcome chairlift down to Santa Cristina.
For this walk we took advantage of the bus and completed a loop, that coordinated a series of different trails, starting in Ortesei and finishing in Santa Cristina. A gondola cable car swept us up 770m from Ortesei and on a glorious sunny Sunday we joined a happy crowd of families and walkers setting off to enjoy the easy walking on the alms of the Alpe di Siusi.
You could walk for hours in this colourful rolling landscape. The crowd thinned out as we wandered further from the lift station and we had the place almost to ourselves. Tracks wound across the meadows and through patches of forest, with dozens of huts dotting the hillsides and a backdrop of high snow capped mountains. We picnicked on a grassy slope surrounded by wildflowers.
3 Alpe di Siusi
A trail up into the rocky Puez group of crags and peaks left most of the crowd behind but it was quite hard going on a rough track and less protected on what had become a windy day. But not to be defeated we climbed to the top of the ridge and had lunch looking out towards a panorama of vertical rocky peaks partly covered in snow and mist.
This was a walk that started for us with a cable car from Selva to 2298m and then a traverse across a ridge with a stunning view back down the Val Gardena. In front of us were the steep walls of the mighty Gruppo Sella .
After the previous walks this one was a bit disappointing to us because it was crowded and we also found the landscape to be more disturbed and scarred with tracks and trails, roads and car parks, lifts and cafes. The car and bus parking areas provided access for large groups of people of all ages clicking along with their sticks in long lines like caterpillars.
4 Dantercepies from Selva Gardena
From here the track continued across a rocky moonscape before returning to Selva by a steep descent into the valley. We chose instead to return to the Dantercepies lift along a high level pathway that was edged with tough little plants and brilliant flowers.
There were stunning views of all the little mountain huts that dotted the rolling slopes and the backdrop of mountains. We walked right around the piano, picnicked on a mound of moraine surrounded by flowers and then followed a track for a while towards some of the higher peaks. Then from the Col Raiser lift we found a mountain track that wound round and down to the heights above St Cristina and home. Pretty tired but happy to have finished our stay with such a wonderful walk.
We had saved this stunning walk till last.

From the centre of Ortesei a series of escalators took walkers up to the Seceda cable car which ascended almost vertically to the lift station at 2456m and a vast panorama. From there we looked down on the
alms we had enjoyed so much on walk 1. In one direction the Puez-Odle group, subject of walk 4, towered high above the meadows. Opposite was Sassolungo and its gruppo with the track of walk 2 clearly visible.
From the lift station a pathway climbed along the edge of a precipitous cliff that dropped terrifyingly into the valley below. Edged with brilliant yellow flowers, it climbed towards a group of spiky peaks and then headed off to circle round the edge of the piano. This had all been under snow on our first walk up here.
5 Seceda from Ortesei, across the alms to Col Raiser and down to St Cristina
On a winding road back through the mountains we found ourselves in the midst of a family's haymaking. The youngest children stopped the traffic while the adults scythed and raked the grass on the steep slopes above the road. It was then all tossed down onto the road with long wooden pitchforks and loaded into carts which were towed away by an ancient tractor. Only then could the traffic move on but everyone took it in good spirit and there were smiles and waves all round.
Further afield
Our decision to spend base ourselves in the Val Gardena meant that we got a really good feel for that small part of the Dolomites. But there are of course heaps of other possibilities. The Val Badia, further east is one and the area north of Cortina d'Ampezzo is also very popular.

For real adventurers, the Brenta Dolomites west of the Brenner motorway is another majestic group of peaks but best suited to those looking for a real mountaineering experience.
The Great Dolomite Road, or Grande Strada delle Dolomiti east of the Brenner motorway finds a way through the mountain passes to link Bolzano and Cortina d' Ampezzo. On the way it picks up the Val Gardena and Val Badia roads. By all accounts this is a wonderful dramatic excursion. We did only a bit to reach the Val Badia where again we found imposing mountains, networks of lifts and walking trails and picturesque villages.
Like the Val Gardena the Val Badia preserves the Ladin language. In the village of San Martino, we found a Ladin museum tucked away in a castle. Here there was a collection of rather curious displays of Ladin life and culture and a self guided audio system.
Bolzano and Otzi
We ended our exploration of the Dolomites in Bolzano, which is a lively university city with an elegant historic centre where churches and tiled roofed buildings are of an agreeable modest scale. From its piazzas and arcaded narrow streets there is a background vista of the nearby mountains. It is an altogether agreeable city in which to spend a day or two enjoying its animated restaurant quarter and visiting its museums.
For us the real drawcard was the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology where you come face to face with Otzi the famous "Iceman". We had been fascinated by him since his discovery by walkers in 1991, so it was spine-chilling to actually see him with all the belongings he was wearing and carrying 5300 years ago.
The details of his life and death have been cleverly pieced together. Born in c.3300BC, he probably lived somewhere north of the present Bolzano and died aged about 45 years as a result of an arrow wound. His last meal was probably ibex meat and some sort of wheat grain. You view Otzi through a small window. He is laid out in a small refrigerated space, glistening with frost and eerily real. It is a moving experience: you can't help feeling that this man may have known and walked over the same alpe that we see today. We share it with him.
Moonrise and
Sunset on Sassolungo
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