Italy’s towering Dolomites are not always sprinkled with ski lifts and snow. Summer allows hikers, cyclists and nature lovers to explore the dramatic peaks writes Janine Stephen.
By: Janine Stephen
The sound of cowbells bubbles through Alpine air. At the top of Tre Croci (Three Crosses) Pass, a herd is munching its way across an acid green meadow, making music as it goes. Above them: jaw-dropping splendour.
Northern Italy’s Dolomite Mountains won World Heritage Site status in 2009, and UNESCO doesn’t mince its words when describing them. “It features some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes anywhere,” it says.
Pale rock cliffs up to 1 500 metres tall reach bald heads to the sky, skirted by forests smelling of warm pine resin and lush meadows. The rock glows different colours according to light and time of day: yellow, silver, lavender. The most famous shade is enrosadira, ‘turning pink’ in the ancient language Ladin.
Exploring Cortina d’Ampezzo
The nine areas of the Dolomiti stretch over 142 000 dramatic hectares. Cortina d’Ampezzo, one of the oldest ski resort towns in Europe and a stylish and wealthy town, is just a two-hour drive from Venice and surrounded by mountains up to 3 000 metres tall with names such as Mount Crystal and Pomagagnon.
Cortina’s pedestrianised centre, the Corsa Italia, lies in the shadow of a Gothic bell tower and is lined with eateries, boutiques and galleries. It’s said that this is where next season’s fashions are first seen. Many winters ago, I’d caught a ski lift from town to a resort where brightly clad skiers swished down pistes like lollipops.
Cortina is big on winter sports maps. It will host the Alpine Ski World Championships in 2021 and the Winter Olympics in 2026. Summer offers different pleasures.
Summer Pleasures in Cortina
A winding road leads through the Boite Valley on route to Cortina, and villages line it like beads on a string. These include Pieve di Cadore, where the Renaissance painter Titian was born in the 1480s, and you can visit the house, now a museum.
From Cibiana di Cadore one can reach the “Museum in the Clouds” or the Messner Mountain Museum Dolomites, which tells tales of rocks and peaks and the men who first climbed them. It’s in a restored WW1 fort atop Mount Rite, now with glass “lanterns” replacing the gun turrets, all the better to soak up the views.
Our base was Borca di Cadore, a settlement with lots of vegetable gardens, small enough for the waitron at the local pizzeria to recognise us the second time around. It’s on that most scenic of bike paths, the La Ciclabile delle Dolomiti or La Lunga Via delle Dolomiti.
This winds all the way from Calalzo to Cortina to Dobbiaco along an old train line and is mostly paved. The section above Borča has a pedestrian lane and a sunrise walk here, as the mountains glow yellow and the goldfinches play in the grass is its own reward.
The Gastronomic Star of The Dolomites
The Guardian calls Cortina “the clear gastronomic star of the Dolomites”, and Michelin-starred establishments are available (Tivoli is one).
Enoteca, a wine bar in town, serves a vast variety of wines – including a couple from South Africa. In true Italian fashion, good food can often be found deep in the mountains too. Rifugi (literally ‘refuges’) usually offer both overnight accommodation and meals with breathtaking views.
Rifugio Averao comes recommended for dishes like pheasant lasagne or homemade pasta – and you can get there by snowmobile or helicopter. A local speciality offered by many restaurants is casunziei: heart–warming beetroot-filled ravioli with browned butter and poppy seeds. Plus, grappa, of course.
Hiking The Dolomites
In winter, trails often require skis or snowshoes. In summer, all you need is energy – the area has a choice of over 300 walks. There are hikes in Cadore too, but an enormous storm had ripped up the trails, so we made for Cortina.
A couple of short bus trips later we were at that cow-filled meadow, heading for a lake of legendary beauty: Sorapis. The path wound through forest, crossing rivers where even in 28-degree heat, ice still clung to the ground. In places the dolomite limestone had tumbled down in swathes of white scree.
Years ago, on a Dolomite walk, we saw chamois picking their way along cliffs and marmots fleeing from foxes. The largest creatures to see in the Dolomites are golden eagles and, if insanely lucky, brown bear in the Western Trentino area.
Families – including little lap dogs – shared the trail to Lake Sorapis, despite crumbly slopes, steel steps drilled into rock to help climbers, and vistas too big to absorb.
After crossing a final stream of icy meltwater, you come upon the lake, glowing milky blue like an alien eye. The eerie colour is caused by glacial silt. You can’t dive in as it’s a protected area, but picnics are standard, and – naturally – there’s a nearby rifugio open in season.
Get The Imagination Going
Over 500 years ago, the artist Durer went walking in the South Tyrol area of the Dolomites and painted what are considered the first landscapes ever from the West.
The Dolomites get the imagination going – but the enormity of the surrounding peaks tends to keep the ego in check. Even architect Le Corbusier called the Dolomites the most beautiful buildings in the world.
As clouds built up on an unimaginable massif and the land turned to gothic splendour, the words of Italian writer Dino Buzzati seemed perfect, too. “What colour is the Dolomites?” he wrote.
“Is it white? Yellow? Grey? Pearly? Is it the colour of the ash? Is it the reflex of silver? Is it the paleness of the dead? Is it the shade of the roses? Are they rocks or clouds? Are they real or are they a dream?”
Need to Know
Summer season is from June to September. In August, it’s packed and busy. Note some cable cars, lifts and buses don’t run off-season, so getting around is trickier, and museums may be closed. In winter, The Telegraph says that 95% of the slopes are covered by snowmaking in warmer years and there are red, black and blue ski runs. Hiking can still be done with snowshoes. In summer, fat bikes and mountain bikes can be hired.
A car will make exploring much easier but is not essential if you have time. Local buses can get you from piste to piste, or trail to trail. Information (often in English) is available at the bus station.
See dolomitibus.it, which also has a bus and bike option. There are ATVO buses that go directly to Cortina from Marco Polo Airport.
Many tour companies offer guided or customised visits to the Dolomites. You can find specialists in day and multi-day hikes, cuisine or the Via Ferrata: routes used during World War One with iron ladders.
Five-star luxury abounds in Cortina at venerable establishments such as the Grand Hotel Savoia; names in the guest book include Sophia Lorena and Winston Churchill.
For options from camping and B&Bs to top–drawer accommodations, download a guide from dolomiti.org, or contact the tourist office on Corso Italia, Cortina: +39 0436 869086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rifugi or mountain huts are listed on infodolomiti.it. Inexpensive rooms can be found via Airbnb in charming Borca di Cadore, a 15-minute bus ride away.
SAA flies to Milan’s Linate and Malpensa airports as well as to Rome’s Fiumicino airport daily. From there, take a short connecting flight to Marco Polo Airport in Venice and catch a bus to Cortina.
Words by Janine Stephen