Honey to the Soul: the Dolomites

We left the hot sticky touristy cities and exchanged them for a much cooler north-eastern region called the Dolomites. We were there from July 4-9, 2022. The Dolomites encompasses countless mountain towns and villages, as well as several impressive peaks. We stayed in two popular towns: Cortina d’Ampezzo and Ortisei. The scenery we saw in these places was jaw-dropping. It was like honey to our souls. I may be from Canada, but Callum (Australian) has a deep appreciation and awe of mountains, too. We both had an inkling as to how beautiful our time in the Dolomites was going to be. Neither of us predicted how these mountains would make us feel.

After our time in Venice, we made a quick train stop to the mainland part of Venice to pick up a rental car. Switching from public transportation to the freedom of a car was timely. We were getting a bit sick of all the people, so having our own car meant we were finally able to be alone, just the two of us. Soon we were taking breaths of relief as we made our way towards Cortina d’Ampezzo.

We arrived in Cortina at around 2pm and were instantly barraged with a forceful sheet of rain so instantaneous, it made me gasp as we got out of our car and ran to the check in counter of our hotel. Parking was a challenge and something to be aware of when visiting this region. We stayed right in the centre of the town, where there was a large loop road that was one way, circling the main centre of town. We checked in, put on warmer clothes, and went searching for lunch.

Something that surprised us while in the mountains was the presence of midday closing hours. Nothing was open. We had arrived hungry during everyone else’s’ lunch and siesta time. The streets were dead and everything was shut. We were getting wetter and hungrier as we walked through the town, looking for any restaurant that could feed us. We did finally find an open café that could do very simple pizzas. Afterward, we returned to our room where I was overcome with tiredness and had to sleep. It’s not like we could do much of anything, anyway.

We were both somewhat depressed. The forecast for the next few days was solid rain and thunderstorms. We are usually lucky with weather whilst travelling, but it seemed that the most picturesque place we would stay was going to be dreary and freezing the whole time we were there.

Something else we learned while in the Dolomites was that the weather forecast can be very wrong. Within hours of our arrival in Cortina, the rain stopped, the thunder went elsewhere, and the sun broke through the clouds. It was a completely different place that evening. The town was buzzing, shops were open, geraniums were blooming, and a plethora of restaurant options were thriving. I couldn’t believe it was the same day.

We planned our next few days carefully. There is a hike one must do while in this area, but the cost of parking is 30€. This is quite a hefty sum for the chance you might be rained out. Thankfully, the next day, the sun was shining with only a few fluffy clouds in the sky. We got up as early as our hotel’s breakfast would allow (7am), ate quickly, and were on our way. We knew that parking would be competitive and that the drive was about 45 minutes away. Callum had read that it’s best to arrive at the parking lot at around 8am so that we could get a spot. Otherwise, we might’ve had to drive back down the mountain and wait for a shuttle. We got to the entry gate, paid our fee, and found out that there was heaps of parking. I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry, but we really hadn’t needed to rush as much.

The Tre Cime Lavarado loop is one of the most popular hikes to do in this area, and for good reason. It is breath-taking at every turn. The loop is 10kms round trip and circumnavigates the three colossal pinnacles that gives Tre Cime its name. Two things we found out about it before beginning was that it would only take about 3 hours, and that it was mostly flat. Uh-huh, yeah right. I disagree on both counts. First of all, the hike was so gorgeous, that it’s impossible to not take photos every few minutes. This makes the time add up quickly. Secondly, while the hike does indeed begin flat, it does not remain so for the second half of the loop. In our opinion, this was a moderate hike that was quite a struggle at times because of how steep some of the inclines were. One stretch from the bottom of a valley back up to the parking lot area was so steep, I resorted to a trick I do when the task in front of me seems impossible: I counted steps. Make it 50 steps without stopping and then take a break for a minute. Repeat. Go further if you can, stop earlier if you must, but always aim for around 50 steps at a time. Even Callum admitted that this part of the hike was not flat, and that it shouldn’t be labelled ‘easy’ as that is quite misleading for the less adventurous.

Was it worth it? You betcha! We started where everyone starts: at Rifugio Auronzo. These ‘refuges’ are in place all along trails in Italy and act as a resting spot, café, toilets, and in some cases, places to sleep if you are doing overnight hiking. Such a great idea to have these.

After walking only a short distance, we reached the Cappella degli Alpini, a small chapel. It was here we shed a few layers of clothing and went off the path to get a great view of Belluno below. Next, we made our way to another rifugio that we stopped at for a few minutes to stretch, drink water, and get some shade. Even though we hadn’t gone far, it was already around 930am and the sun was getting hot. After this we made our way to a few look off points and enjoyed a croissant that we had taken from our hotel’s breakfast room. What a place to eat a croissant!

Our next destination was a great place to stop for lunch and gave us the best views of the three peaks. This was Rifugio Lavaredo, a very picturesque building which we took many photos of. We settled in and looked at the openness of the fields before us on one side, and the majestic three towers on the other side. We went in and bought a couple of paninis, a coke, and a strudel to share.

This part of Italy is very close to the Austrian border and used to belong to Austria until Italy annexed the region during WWI. So, many German-speaking tourists come to the Dolomites for the weekend to do some hiking. Many of the towns have German names and everyone speaks both German and Italian. The whole time we were in the mountains we said ‘We may as well be in Austria. It feels like this is a different country’. Therefore, it makes sense that goulash and strudel are always on the menu in all the restaurants. We tried a few and they were all very different from one another. The best one was the cheapest and most generous slice at Rifugio Lavaredo.

The rest of the hike was quite technical and not as enjoyable. We had to hike down into the valley, and then straight back up and around the Tre Cime. It started to rain in our last half hour of hiking. Thankfully we had umbrellas and waterproofing for our pack.

After the hike, almost 6 hours had gone by, and my poor feet were done. Everything was worth it, and it was one of my favourite things we did while in Italy.

The next day I rested while Callum did a morning hike on his own: the Lago di Sorapis hike. This is a bit of an effort walking through forest and then along cliff faces using metal ladders and chains and he was rewarded with a turquoise green lake with stunning mountain peaks framing the view. He was glad to do a hike on his own, and I was happy editing for this blog.

Lake Sorapis is a very popular hiking destination, but because of the difficulty of getting there, it is not as competitive to get parking. Callum said there were still lots of people. There are a few annoying things people do whilst hiking: taking up the trail and not moving over when someone faster comes up behind them, talking loudly, smoking or vaping, obnoxiously playing music from their boom box, and trying to get the perfect Instagram shot, ruining other people’s views. These are things we encounter world-wide. Why, oh, why, do people do these annoying things? Anyway, Callum still loved his time.

In the later afternoon we drove to another very popular lake: Lago di Braies. Also known as ‘Lago di Instagram’. This moniker is due to the fact this is a very accessible site with plenty of parking and only a five-minute flat walk to the actual site. This lake was a complete surprise to me, as I am terrible at travel planning and had no idea it existed. Callum told me we should make the drive there in the late afternoon and I felt sooo tired. I asked ‘If we don’t go, will we regret it?’ The answer was ‘yes’ so we jumped in the car and went. I was clueless as to the popularity and iconic shot of the boats on the water. The first thing that I thought was ‘Oh, it looks like Lake Louise, in Canada!’ and the first thing I said was ‘Oh, you can rent boats! Let’s do it!’

The price to rent the boat was 35€ for half an hour. They take 50€ as a deposit in case you use up a full hour, but you get the 15 back if you return it within the half hour time frame. This amount of money was worthwhile and surprisingly, cheaper than renting a boat on Lake Louise! We each took a turn rowing, and I had such a lovely time. I love boats. We even found a family willing to come along side us to exchange our phones to then take photos of one another. How else would we get these pictures? After our boat ride we spent a bit of time on shore. There were heaps of photographers, capturing the lake with the evening light. It was very peaceful with only about twenty other people hanging around by the time we left at about 7pm. Apparently, during the morning and afternoon the place is absolutely packed with people standing in line to take pictures from the dock. When I watched a video about it recently, I was so surprised. I kind of like being in the dark about popular photo places. It makes seeing them more pure and peaceful. Not like my manic ‘I must photograph these blue domes or I’ll dieeeee’ attitude I had while in Santorini.

The next day we left Cortina and drove to another quaint town called Ortisei. This drive was only 1.5 hours but was a bit action packed with how curvy the road was and all of the crazy drivers. We stopped to catch our breath and say hello to some cows.

We stayed in the CUTEST B&B ever. It was seriously so comfortable and immaculate and cozy, that I would dub it my favourite accommodation of our whole trip. Ortisei is known to be a great place to ski in the winter, and our host and owner of Garni Irma has spent his entire life in this town. He thinks every season is special but loves the autumn for the beautiful colours and winter for the amazing ski season the best. The dining room where a plentiful breakfast was served had massive windows looking out onto the postcard view. The only downside to this gorgeous place was how steep all the streets were. To find lunch and dinner, we had to walk down, down, down and then after filling up with carbs and meat and strudel, we had to walk up, up, up! So much walking up hills. It’s the price you pay for the beauty of the mountains, I suppose.

After settling in and unpacking we took yet another drive to another photo-worthy spot: the St Magdalena church. When you google ‘the Dolomites’ the very first image is the same one I took. It was so cool to visit the place, enjoy it, and then find out afterward how famous it is. The walk up from the tiny town of St Magdalena (or St Maddalena…the name of the town and the church) was a steep climb and I complained a lot. I didn’t know what I was about to see. I was so stunned by the beauty, that I immediately called my family in Canada for a facetime. I wanted to show them the beauty of where we were! I was gobsmacked! I felt like shedding a tear!

We enjoyed this spot for some time unencumbered by other tourists. A few did come walking by but kept going or went further up the hill. This place is smack dab in the middle of a village where real people are trying to live their lives. The 300-some residents do not like tourists and the roads all have boom gates that require a code. This means parking in town and making the steep trek up the hills to get to the best viewing spot to admire the Odle Mountain group. The residents don’t like people traipsing all over their fields, so we kept to the roads. This place was stunning and worth the effort. I recommend it and I would do it again.

The next day Callum did another solo hike called Alpe di Siusi. This hike starts in Ortisei with the Mont Sëuc cable car. At the top is the largest alpine pasture in all of Europe. He got some great photos of the views and then proceeded to hike down to the town of Santa Cristina, which was only a 10-minute bus ride from Ortisei.

That afternoon we took the cable car up to the Seceda. This was one of the most expensive things we did while in the Dolomites. The escalator up the cable car was only a five-minute walk from our B&B and the cable car was quick and efficient, but…it was very pricey. It was 35€ return per person. Considering we were only going to have an hour and a half or so up at the top before the last cable car went down, it was extremely expensive. Anyway, I am glad we did it because I got to see the iconic rigid Seceda mountain, with its strange slanting shape and green slopes on one side with rocky cliff face on the other. These unique looking peaks were what I had envisioned in my mind when we were planning our Dolomites trip. It was very chilly up at the top, and if I were to do it again, I would remember to bring along a jacket. We hung out at a couple viewpoints, taking it all in. We didn’t do a hike as we did not have any time, however, it is something we can always do next time we visit. Because visiting the Dolomites again is a must. We spent six days in the mountains, stayed in two towns, and saw as much as we could…but it is a mere pinkie finger’s worth of what actually exists. We loved it so much. It was healing to breathe fresh crisp air, feel the space around us, and appreciate the glorious mountains.

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