Hot Spots of Italy's Dolomite Mountains
Published: April 2011
By Adam Sachs
For the perfect alpine retreat, look no farther than Italy’s Dolomite Mountains.
“Either you must be deeply in love,” Hugo Pizzinini said with a little smile, “or you must bring a good book. That, or you kill each other. There is no other way.”
Love or distraction. That was all we needed to pack for an overnight stay in his baita, or mountain hut, on a grassy slope high above the village of San Cassiano in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites. The cabin serves as a remote outpost of the family’s hotel, the Rosa Alpina. Here, guests who seek the romance and serenity of true Alpine isolation (or just have a good book they want to finish) can enjoy the pleasure of hiking up in the air and having a piece of the mountain all to themselves. The log cabin has a large living room with sleeping lofts, piles of wool blankets, and fuzzy slippers, deep reserves of wine and firewood. That and a genuine sense of having momentarily slipped free of the earth’s orbit and found a place to sleep closer to the moon.
The Dolomites sit at the top of Italy, where the jagged, skyscraping spires and electric-green valleys of the Trentino-Alto Adige shoulder up against Austria. The air is like a cold drink of water, crystalline and restorative. In summer, the fields are thick with edelweiss and pink rhododendron. Stuck to the sides of mountains like little toy houses are the rifugi, wooden huts where a skier or hiker can stop for fragrant pork sausages with soft polenta or a simple plate of cheese and speck, the indigenous cured, smoked ham of the region. Digesting on the deck of a rifugio at cloud level (if there were ever any clouds around), a glass of local Lagrein red in hand, it would be easy to feel sorry for all the peaks of the world that aren’t as unrelentingly beautiful as these and all the hikers and skiers who aren’t as well fed.
The Pale Mountains, as they were once known, owe their special qualities to the unusual mineral makeup of the dolomite rock. In the light of late afternoon, the mountains take on a distinct pink glow, turning redder as the sun descends. The rocks trap light and play strange tricks with it, an effect known locally as enrosadira. History, too, is ensnared in these precipitous passes. Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed brutally here in World War I. The mountains are laced with tunnels and chiseled with the vie ferrate, or “iron roads,” man-made narrow climbing paths, evidence of the struggle for control of this notoriously hard-to-master aerial borderland. The people of the valleys are, like the rocks that surround them, separate and unique. Despite the comings and goings of various empires and armies, the locals here are neither Italian nor Austrian. They are Ladin (pronounced lah-deen), and speak a language descended from Latin, preserved by isolation and protected by nationalistic pride.
Pizzinini and his family are Ladin. They converse with their guests at Rosa Alpina in a variety of languages and manage to make the hotel feel like an intimate, unpretentious Alpine chalet (even though someone’s parked a Bentley out front and the gift shop carries vintage Berkel meat slicers that sell for the price of lesser cars). Pizzinini grew up in the hotel and is adept at the kind of predictive mental-telepathy helpfulness of the innately suave hotelier. He is always rushing off somewhere soundlessly and then, just as suddenly, reappearing at your side with a map of the exact terrain you want to hike or precisely the right prescription for where to drive for lunch.
I’d met Pizzinini once before. It was winter, high season in the Alta Badia. For a few snowy months each year, San Cassiano and its sleepy neighbors become very fashionable. For skiers looking for a balance of refined and relaxed, something less showy than the more internationally famous Cortina d’Ampezzo the next valley over, this is the place to be. (And Rosa Alpina, as well as Hotel La Perla, in nearby Corvara, are the places to stay, if you can find a room amid the loyal returnees.)
Over dinner at St. Hubertus, the hotel’s Michelin two-starred restaurant, Pizzinini had confided in me a secret of the Dolomites: they were prettier after the thaw. Could he sense by my line of questioning that I was a less than stellar skier and might prefer a different season? (“Can I hike up to a rifugio and eat sausage and polenta?”) The locals, he continued, favor the spring and summer, when the mountains are revealed, flowers bloom, crowds thin out. Come back when it’s warm, Pizzinini said, almost conspiratorially. “Come back and you’ll see. Bring a special girl and you can go up to our cabin and nobody will bother you.”
At the time, both summer and the girl were purely theoretical notions. Now I’d found someone I hoped wouldn’t feel overly murderous toward me in an isolated cabin. So, a few seasons late, I did the smart thing and finally took Pizzinini’s advice. My girlfriend, E.B., and I flew into Venice and drove steadily upward from that manifestly sea-level box of chocolates. Soon the air smells of pine and the hills are alive with, if not the sound of music, then a vivid tapestry of Alpine clichés: carved Tyrolean chalets with flowerpots on the terrace, cable cars and bulbous church domes and roadside inns where you can stop to steady yourself after the dizzying road. At Cortina d’Ampezzo, the car is pointed up and over the Falzarego Pass, climbing close to 7,000 feet, then winding down again through the switchback slalom into the Val Badia.
The Pizzinini baita is unmarked but not hard to find. From Rosa Alpina, we just kept walking up, circling skyward, until there was no sign of the villages below and no remaining hikers on the path headed down. Just when we were sure that we were lost, we spotted Paolo Pizzinini standing on the wood deck of a hut, tending to a fire in the grill and salting rib steaks. Paolo looks very much like his son Hugo, only somewhat more rugged and more relaxed. He unwrapped several cheeses, sliced about a half pound each of speck and farmer’s sausages with a folding knife, and uncorked a bottle of champagne. The place was remote, I said, not rough.
We convinced Paolo to stay for a drink and the three of us stared off the wooden deck at the sloping, flowering pastures and the gray-pink light on the craggy range beyond.
“Summer is another country,” declared Paolo with pride as he bid us farewell. This was his piece of that country, but he’d lend it to E.B. and me for the night. We stayed on the porch until the sun went down and ate the steak with our hands, despite the presence of very nice silverware. We felt sated, drugged by the moonlight and good air. We made a giant fire in the giant fireplace—a splendid, crashing symphony of a fire that was louder than the wind outside—and fell asleep as it burned.
The next morning, someone arrived by car with fruit and yogurt and silver pitchers of coffee. Mountaintop room service. He returned to the village with our used plates and empty bottles and the good news that we’d survived the night and had decided to hike over to the neighboring peak.
“There are five Ladin valleys,” Agustina Lagos Marmol said, stopping at a ridge to let us catch up. Behind us, in the distance, was Marmolada, the highest peak and largest glacier in the Dolomites. Below us, unseen, were Corvara and Corfosco. “Each valley speaks its own dialect of Ladin, some more German, some Italian. And in each valley they will tell you that theirs is the real Dolomites, the most beautiful place to see.”
Marmol grew up in Patagonia and has hiked up and skied down many of the world’s prettiest mountains. She organizes tours all around the Dolomites. “There is nothing else in the Alps like these mountains,” she says. “I’ve been here 18 years, I walk all the time, and I haven’t seen all of it. The rocks, the color, the form—it is always changing.”
E.B. and I followed as Marmol set off through a sloping field full of yellow globeflowers. We paused to look at a tangle of pine that resembled a particularly wild piece of driftwood. “Cirmolo,” Marmol said. “They call them the skier’s curse because those balls of pine can get hidden in the snow.”
As we headed down toward the road that would lead us back to Rosa Alpina, I filmed a little movie with my camera, narrating as we went. Here’s what I said: “Undulating hills, pine needles underfoot, pink stones at night, through the rhododendron, sweet soft air, stopped for a snack at the church.”
I might as well have added: “Repeat daily.”
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.
When to Go
May is the perfect time to book your trip to the Dolomites region of Trentino-Alto Adige. The months of June through September are the ideal time for hiking.
Drive 2 1/2 hours north from Venice or two hours south from Innsbruck, Austria.
Hotel Berghofer Recently revitalized hotel in a classic Alpine building with amazing views of the surrounding peaks. Hay-based spa treatments, a beautiful stube with wood from a nearby castle, and a welcoming host in a dirndl make for a dreamy mountain lodge experience. 54 Oberradein, Redagno; 39-0471/887-150; berghofer.it; doubles from $370, including some meals.
Hotel La Perla A classic romantic hotel with a horseshoe bar, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and an impossible-to-describe, surreal wine cellar involving an altar to Sassicaia. 105 Strada Col Alt, Corvara; 39-0471/831-000; hotel-laperla.it; doubles from $304.
Hotel Rosa Alpina 20 Strada Micura de Rue, San Cassiano; 39-0471/849-500; rosalpina.it; doubles from $470.
Great Value Rifugio Fanes S. Vigilio di Marebbe; 39-0474/501-097; rifugiofanes.com; doubles from $140.
Vigilius Mountain Resort The only way to reach this modern, minimalist, mountaintop resort is by cable car. An intimate, well-designed place at the top of the world. Vigiljoch Mountain, Lana; 39-0473/556-600; vigilius.it; doubles from $428.
Pretzhof The family raises pigs and cows at this working farm and restaurant. Don’t miss the savory roast-pork strudel. 259 Tulfer, Wiesen; 39-0472/764-455; dinner for two $97.
Rifugi Scotoni Hike up to this mountainside restaurant above Capanna Alpina for big plates of cheesy polenta and grilled sausages. 2 Alpe Lagazuoi, San Cassiano; 39-0471/847-330; lunch for two $41.
St. Hubertus Hotel Rosa Alpina 20 Strada Micura de Rue, San Cassiano; 39-0471/849-500; dinner for two $124.
Trattoria Oies Traditional Ladin country restaurant overlooking the slopes that serves up spaetzle, goulash, and dumplings. 17 Oies, Badia; 39-0471/839-671; dinner for two $55.
Ütia de Börz Excellent rifugio with extraordinary views from the large wooden terrace; the owner cures his own speck. 26 Strada Börz, San Martino in Badia; 39-0474/520-066; dinner for two $55.
Zur Rose Modern Tyrolean cuisine in an ancient dark-wood-paneled dining room. 2 Endergasse, Cortaccia; 39-0471/880-116; dinner for two $138.
Dolomite Mountains Founder Agustina Lagos Marmol’s team can lead you on the best hikes in the region. 347/826-6271; dolomitemountains.com; tours from $1,639 per person.