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Hot Spots of Italy's Dolomite Mountains

A gondola in the Passo Gardina section of the Dolomites, in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige.

Photo: Jose Bernad

Each day we chose a walking route with Marmol. There were no bad directions to take in the country of Summer in the Dolomites. Sometimes, we’d give our boots a rest and ask Pizzinini for lunch suggestions. One day we drove north from San Cassiano and followed the vertiginous roads toward Passo delle Erbe. There, Pizzinini said, a man named Fritz Promberger cured his own speck at an inn called Ütia de Börz. Once again we were sure we’d lost the scent. And once again we were rewarded for persevering by an astounding view of snowy peaks and a farmer bearing ham. We ordered canederli, dense dumplings in rich broth (basically matzo-ball soup, if matzo balls could be flecked with chunks of pork).

Driving down, we watched men carefully combing and cutting long, flowy grasses. From a distance they looked like little itinerant barbers giving a shaggy green giant a trim.

“Only after midnight,” Max Mutschlechner said, in what is perhaps history’s all-time best answer to the question, “Do you speak English?”

Mutschlechner and his wife, Petra, are the keepers of Rifugio Fanes, a peculiar mountain inn at 6,758 feet above sea level. The only way in or out is by foot, ski, or snowmobile. We’d set out from San Cassiano with Marmol, joining the trailhead at Capanna Alpina. At first the walk is steep, vertical and narrow. We scrambled up the rocks, stopping often to look down at the receding valley below (and breathe hard). As we turned around the first peak, we descended together into a wide-angle-lens open land, part green shrubby pasture dotted with yellow flowers, part rocky moonscape strewn with pebbles churned up by some long-forgotten glacier. Then we came upon golden, long-maned horses on one side of the path and chewing cows on the other. The two cliques didn’t mix and paid us—the only biped traffic for miles around—no attention.

We walked up again, past an abandoned military lookout, past blue-green tarns, over more prairie plateaus and rock-strewn terrain. Nearing Fanes, the evening light faded to a gentle, dusty gray-yellow. The walk was tiring, surreally beautiful, and exhilarating. We were happy to reach the rifugio in time to pull off our boots and change for dinner.

What you want at the end of a hike in the Dolomites is a stube, the cozy, rustic, wood-paneled dining room typical of these mountains. Rifugio Fanes’s had all the usual notes—plates of sausage on rough-hewn wooden tables, hairy beasts and antlers on the wall—and some atypical ones. Note, for example, the taxidermied bearded head of the mountain goat above our table. The rest of the animal pokes out on the other side of the wall, its hindquarters exposed to the elements. The totem poles, tepees, and life-size carved wooden figures in headdresses, Mutschlechner explained, are expressions of a deep personal affinity for Native American peoples forged during a much-recounted 1970’s road trip through the American West.

Tyrolean rustic meets Southwest nostalgia—preserved at high altitude in the folds of these remote, crazy-beautiful mountains. Why not? This wasn’t just another luxury outpost but a particular (and particularly weird and welcoming) piece of the Dolomites.

It was nearly midnight when Mutschlechner joined us at the table, bottle of homemade pino mugo–infused grappa in hand. He poured a round for the table. Tiny pinecones, floating in potent red liquor. Mutschlechner’s family built this place in 1928. A stuffed, leather-bound family scrapbook was hauled out for our inspection: bleached photos of men in the uniforms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; a postcard for Fanes in the 1930’s involving white-bearded gnomes (the meaning was unclear); a snapshot of a relative standing near Mussolini.

Mutschlechner wetted his mustache with a little more piney mountain moonshine and filled our glasses.

Bun pró,” he said. Ladin for cheers. “We say that these mountains attract people. If you love them, you’ll always come back.”

Bun pró to that.

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.

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