With the dramatic Dolomite mountain range nearby and the promise of 2 days of good weather, we wasted no time making our way towards the Strada delle Domomiti for a thrilling drive through this beautiful and distinctive landscape while the sun was shining and the clouds at bay. Beginning in the East at the town of Bolzano (the capital of Alto Adige), winding and sweeping its way West to Cortina d’Ampezzo, this 110 km road proved to be an exhilarating route, passing towering peaks, and extraordinary natural scenery.
Setting off from Bolzano, a small valley town surrounded by vineyards, we were absolutely amazed as we passed through mile after mile of apple orchards. As each orchard went by we presumed there couldn’t possibly be any more but there were, many, many more. Apple in Italian is ‘mela’ (one of the few words we have come to know) but apples do not seem to be hugely represented on any of the restaurant menus we have seen and only in a few pastries (we know this from conducting important research in patisserie windows!). Half the crop is sold in Italy and the rest exported, 30% to Germany and the rest distributed between the UK, Spain and Scandinavia. The variety being grown all seemed to be Red and Golden Delicious and stopping to take a photo, we happened upon a beautiful view over the hillside orchards and lake.
Unlike the tectonically created rocky Alps, the Dolomites were born from the sea, formed from mineralised coral reefs laid down in the Triassic period, then forced up from the ground around 60 million years ago when the European and African continental plates collided, resulting in the unique panorama we see today. Jutting into the sky, piercing the clouds like jagged teeth, the unmistakably pale facades of the mountain sides reflect years of harsh erosion by ice, sun and rain. The corrosive environmental effects have left their mark, carving out tall spires, needles and tooth like structures, remarkably shaped and honed, each one uniquely striking. On the Eastern side of the mountain the Rosengarten section (or Catinaccio) takes on a spectacular golden rose tone as the sun goes down, replacing the cool, pale grey and casting a beautiful light on the mountainside, a sight for sore eyes indeed.
Driving along the ‘great Dolomites road’ in the motorhome was fun, rewarding and at times challenging with around 26 hairpin bends on the way up and 33 on the way down just over the Pas Pordoi alone topping out at nearly 2,500m (that’s 8,200ft in old money) , not including S bends, U bends and all sorts of other bends not classed as hairpin! There was certainly plenty of concentration required, specially when going through a narrow rocky tunnel which really should have been one way but wasn’t. This now hugely important road started out its life as a simple mule track, later improved for cart access and then expanded further for military purposes. Thanks to the foresight of two pioneers of South Tyrolean tourism, who recognised the value of linking the dolomite areas as well as providing access to the valleys, further enhancements were made resulting in the spectacular route we have today. We noticed along the sides of the roads that many areas are crumbling away and have been re-enforced, demonstrating just how much maintenance such a road demands to keep it safe. The road is said to have taken 2,500 workers 8 years to build. Visualising the immense amount of manpower, time and cost of building roads such as these and the long tunnels that cut through the mountains is virtually unimaginable.
Our drive into the mountains took us to Lago di Carezza a must see stop to take in the beautiful scene of the mountain peaks, trees and clouded sky reflected in the clear blue waters giving a double aspect of this stunning location. A popular area, it was quite crowded but with good facilities & specific camper van parking spaces. Parking is free for 15 minutes which is not quite enough time so we paid for an hour which we suspect most people do. If your stopping to take in a sight there’s no point in rushing for the sake of a euro or two. From Lago Carezza we drove onto Carezza and our stopping point for the night and after parking, had a stroll and a quiet drink as the sun set being treated to the sight of the Rosengarten range so known due the mountains taking on a spectacular pink hue in the sunset.
The next day wanting to ascend higher, we parked Buzz in the car park at Pera just on from Vigo di Fassa and took the ski lift up the mountain for a better view. We were told that the last part of the lift was closed due to repairs so we would have a steep, 30 minute walk to the top where there were places to eat and drink. That sounded fine, so we eagerly hopped on the ski lift and up we went. Having only been to mountain regions to ski before, it was quite a novelty to get the lift up with a completely different view of the landscape with green, thickly wooded areas at the bottom giving way to the bare, grey stone above, rather than a completely snowy outlook. To say the 30 minute final walk to the top was steep would be an understatement. Having thought it would be chilly at the top, and taking a spare top and fleece, both were swiftly put away in our backpacks as we huffed and puffed up the slope, getting hotter by the second, stopping every few minutes to look back down at the emerging views (and to get our breath back!). Once at the top the majestic sights all around us made it more than worthwhile and the refreshments on offer soon brought us back to life.
Never ones to plan too far ahead, this turned out to be an occasion when we really should have. Happily descending the 30 minute walk back down to the ski lift, little did we know that even ski lift operators have long European lunch breaks and the lift was closed from 12.30 until 2.pm. We of course arrived at 12.31pm! We couldn’t believe it and cursed ourselves for not checking on the way up. It just hadn’t occurred to us that it might close. We weren’t exactly rushing but were aware that cloudy weather could be on its way, blocking our views, so rather than waste an hour and a half waiting we opted for the long walk down which would apparently take us 50 minutes and save us 40 – not to mention later earning us an Apple Strudel for our efforts, such is the way The Office is Closed keep in shape regimen works! As it turns out, the walk down, though long, steep and resulting in sore toes, was quite enjoyable and gave us a different feel for the mountain and a new perspective walking under the ski lift rather than sitting on it.
Continuing on we drove into Canazei where we stopped for a break and climbing higher over the top at Pas Pordoi with it’s hairpin bends and on to the Col Rodella with a slightly easier climb, always looking for somewhere to stop and take in the amazing views. Eventually as the evening drew on we parked up at Cortina d’Ampezzo for the night and to reflect on what we had seen, it’s fair to say that the Alps are mighty but the Dolomites are stunning with the highest peak being the Marmolada at 3,343m dominating the range. We would like to have taken another day or so but with the weather changing that really wasn’t an option, driving steep hairpin bends on narrow roads is ok doing it in the pouring rain would not be, so 2 days it was and we would happily do it again.