THE MOUNTAINS OF VENICE
The Dolomites are the most magical and enchanting mountains in the world. They are haunting and primevil, at times bizarre, eerie, and even disquieting. At dawn and dusk they glow rose, red, and orange as if on fire, and look unreal, surreal. They almost look alive (which they were!) They can appear like ruins of mountains...skeletons of mountains...ghosts of mountains. They are bewitching, and I have spent most of my life under their spell, irresistably drawn to them, transfixed and held fast, wanting nothing more than to gaze at them in wonder and awe.
Yet in spite of their fame, there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion about the Dolomites, starting with the simple matter of exactly what and where are they are! Magazine articles, guidebooks, websites, and travel shows are responsible for perpetuating these , even on the part of Italians themselves!
Is "Dolomites" just another name for the Italian Alps?
No! The Italian Alps extend all across the north of Italy, along its borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. The Dolomites are but a small section of the Alps, located in the northeast part of the country. Some so-called cycling "tours of the Dolomites" traverse the Stelvio, Mortirolo, and Gavia passes, but none of these passes is even near the Dolomites. You can see this for yourself just by noting the differences in the forms and colors of the mountains.
Then what sets the Dolomites apart from the rest of the Alps?
The Dolomites are known for their striking forms and spectacular coloration. This is the result of their origin (under an ancient lagoon--the Tethys Sea) and resulting chemical composition. Over the course of their 250 million-year history, wind, water, and ice have sculpted them into dagger blades, ruined castle battlements, soaring cathedral spires, organ pipes, jagged fangs, and other fantastic forms (though the author Dino Buzzati asserted that it is wrong to say they resemble any works of humankind (they were here millions of years before us) and look only like their unique, magnificent selves. Their colors change with the path of the sun: purple, silver, gold, terracotta, rose. Enchanted is the word that best describes these mountains. Learn more about their origins
Are the Dolomites and "South Tyrol" synonomous?
Absolutely not! Seventy percent of the Dolomite range is located in the province of Belluno, in the Veneto region. The South Tyrol (Süd Tirol/Alto Adige) is synonymous with the autonomous province of Bolzano, which, along with the autonomous province of Trento (the Trentino), comprise the autonomous Trentino-Alto Adige region. Although these two provinces are entirely mountainous, only 10% of the mountains are Dolomites (though they spend a lot on marketing to make you believe otherwise). In contrast, two thirds of Belluno province are covered by Dolomites. There are also Dolomites in the provinces of Udine and Pordenone in the Friuli region. The catchy slogan, Dolomiti, the Mountains of Venice, was in fact created partly to counter the deceptive, dishonest, promotions of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, which has even used images of Belluno's mountains in its ads. Although the proud inhabitants of Belluno province are understandably miffed at having the provenance of their mountains attributed to that distant regional capital on the sea, a meh slogan like Dolomiti, the Mountains of Veneto would not grab anyone's attention. Mountains of Venice, on the other hand is paradoxical and puzzling, and should incite potential visitors to seek an explanation.
But the Dolomites really are than you might think!
Is German the language of the Dolomites?
German is spoken in the province of Bolzano, that is, the Alto Adige/South Tyrol. The languages spoken in the provinces of Trento and Belluno are Italian, Trentino, Bellunese, and Ladino, a Rhaeto-Romance language not of Germanic origin. (It is also spoken in the Val Badia and the Val Gardena in Bolzano province). The Alto Adige, which prefers to be known as South Tyrol, was once part of Austria (until it was unfortunately ceded to Italy after WWI) and does not consider itself Italian, wheras the Trentino and Friuli were once part of the Republic of Venice, hence the appellation Triveneto.
RIDING AND STAYING IN THE DOLOMITES
Unlike other parts of the Alps, the Dolomites are not a solid range of impenetrable mountains, but instead, are composed of groups of peaks (fossilized reefs and atolls!) separated from one another by valleys (you can see this for yourself here). To get from one valley to another, you cross a . The roads are excellent and there are abundant signs indicating the way to passes and towns, so it is extremely easy to find your way around, and consequently, to plan your own tour or stay. By staying in or near a town like Agordo, Alleghe, Caprile, Colle Santa Lucia and the Val Fiorentina, the Val di Zoldo, Pieve di Livinallongo, or Arabba, all of which are in the heart of the Dolomites, you can ride loops that will take you over most of the legendary passes. There's a wide choice of which will satisfy any taste and budget: small hotels, , B&B's, apartments, and "scattered hospitality" offerings, such as those in the , , and the Zoldo Valley. If you are looking for an authentic, intimate, and rewarding experience, as well as supporting local economies, opt for smaller villages, hamlets, and family-run establishments, and avoid staying in chic towns and luxury hotels with a jet-set clientele (indeed, luxury and cycling shouldn't even be used in the same sentence!). The "real" Dolomites are not about golf courses, tennis courts, dance clubs, wellness centers, shopping for designer sportswear, and other diversions that can be found in any lowland city or seaside resort. Nor are they an amusement park or merely a succession of Strava segments. They are a geological treasure, a delicate ecosystem, and the home of people whose families have lived there for generations, with their history, cultures, traditions, languages, and folkways...and you are their guest.
Ride to a (dairy) for lunch. View the and learn about the natural history of the Dolomites. Visit a one of the many , and immerse yourself in the desolate atmosphere and tragic plight of the soldiers stationed there, and honor their memory.
Cycling is a great way to enjoy these mountains, but if you're curious, you'll want to know what lies beyond the roads. It's time to grab your boots and backpack and head for the superb network of trails maintained and marked by C.A.I., the Italian Alpine Club, Hiking trails in the Dolomites are easy to find and follow. The best known are the Alta Via routes that criss-cross the range. The websites of Individual areas such as those below, offer a wealth of information, such as fascinating excursion. There's no need to pack a tent, sleeping bag (a , yes), meals, and stove, for wherever you go, you'll find abundant rifugi (refuges) offering bunks and hearty meals prepared by the hutkeeper (this is Italy, after all!). The excellent (1:25,000) can be purchased in bookstores and newspaper/magazine stores.
Street view? No, trail view! You can do virtual hikes in the UNESCO Dolomites, thanks to Google Maps. Click to see the areas available for exploration. You can click each area (Pelmo, Pale di San Martino, Sciliar etc), then choose one of the routes on the right and click "View on Google Maps" in the the upper left of the window. Expand the section with pegman on the lower left to orient yourself and get an overview of the area. Just click on the trail (or pegman) and away you go. I have mixed feelings about "virtual hiking" but it does offer advantages: it enables hikers to preview trails to determine if they are suitable for their cababilities, and lets those who have hiked them relive their experiences (I enjoy it myself). Finally, it permits those who are physically (or otherwise) unable to hike them, to see places they would never have been able to see.
Photo © April Pedersen Santinon
A road map of the Province of Belluno is your best choice. You can find one in book stores, magazine/stationery stores,
and souvenir shops. The guidebook shown at left, Passi e Valli in Bicicletta--Dolomiti Bellunesi, by Anastasia, Pauletto,
and Supino, gives details of 45 passes and climbs (not all climbs lead to passes; e.g., the Tre Cime and Pian de Pezzè):
length, average and maximum gradient, difficulty rating, suggestions for loops, and more. (available in Italian only).
, ISBN 978-88-85327-69-6