Monday, 24 October 2016

Dawdling in the Dolomites

In my youth I was never particularly interested in Geography. At the tender age of twelve I took up the clarinet at school to avoid Geography lessons. Sorry, Mrs Constable, but there you have it. One thing I can say about this motorhoming lark is that it has improved my European geographical knowledge. Just take the Dolomites. Before September 2016 I could definitely have said they were a mountain range and could probably have said they were in Europe, but I doubt I could have gone beyond that. Now I can say they are in the northern Italian Alps, were once part of Austria and spectacularly consist of sheer, craggy slabs and pinnacles of pink-grey rock (no idea what type of rock - my geology is way behind my geography!).
The start of the Dolomites for us (and a hang gliding launch point).

And we all enjoy the view!
It’s a beautiful region with magnificent rock formations smoothing out into gracefully rolling alpine pastures, and timber balconied chalets straight out of Heidi, with enough lederhosen and frilly dresses to reinforce the impression that becoming part of Italy after WWI didn’t change the traditions from earlier centuries. They’ve kept some of the German language too, along with something more local called ‘Ladin’, which is apparently still spoken in some areas. Place names can be a bit confusing, with Italian and German versions, such as Vipiteno/Sterzing and Bressanone/Brixen, but this mix of cultures means the food has turned out to be one of my favourite crossings of Italian and German cuisine.
Monte Bondone sosta
A free sosta, overlooking the alpine meadow and mountain coach trip restaurant near the summit of Monte Bondone, marked the start of the Dolomites for us. The temperature got down to 6°C in the middle of September and everything was feeling very autumnal. The leaves had been falling from the trees since we got to Italy a couple of weeks before, but you can sort of ignore that with daytime temperatures still at 32°C. We wondered when the snow would reach this mostly empty sosta, as it was surely built for winter tourism, though with no electricity on offer.

We had a bit of a false start leaving this sosta though, involving a closed road, a mountain race of some kind and a policemen whose “how on earth am I going to explain this to the English people in this van” look quickly turned to a smile as Rob spoke to him in Italian, following which we were forced to retrace our steps back down almost to Riva del Garda, before getting on the road to Trento. The sosta places in Trento were easy to find, as they were right in the centre, but I reckon you have to get there early to take one of the 6 places (2 in a layby by the river and 4 on a large car park). These places are a bargain with 24 hours on the ticket for a small number of Euros, but if you can’t get one you can easily park in the car park for 2 hours at a time - which is worth it for getting such a short walk to the historical centre.


Trento is famous for a series of ecclesiastical councils held in the 16thC to determine Catholic doctrine in response to the Reformation, and every palace in town that housed any members of the councils has an information sign, thankfully in Italian and English, telling you about the building and who stayed there. I thought that the cathedral was particularly attractive both inside and out, with a delicate pink stone exterior, Romanesque features and a refreshingly plain interior, without the added swirls and gilding of the baroque. It also has two interesting flights of stone stairs on either side of the nave, which presumably take you up to the bell towers and to the galleries featured on the outside.

The spacious square beside the cathedral is home to the bishop’s palace on one side, a central fountain and some 15thC palaces with beautiful exterior painting, though to be fair, the whole historic centre is dotted with painted palaces, making a leisurely stroll very worthwhile. Despite it being Sunday when we were there, we found many shops and restaurants were open, which meant we could be tempted by local cheeses and salamis, and partake in a lunch of very Germanic bread dumplings in a very Italian Bolognese style ragù.
Bedollo fair
It doesn’t take long to ‘do’ Trento, though there is also plenty there for those who want to linger. We left at about 3 p.m. and headed into the Dolomites proper on a road which took us through Baselga del Pinè and into the general Pinè area. At Bedollo, which seemed to stretch into several villages, we stopped by a small lake to have lunch before moving on to yet another part of the Bedollo set-up where we stumbled across a rural festival to do with bringing the cows down from their summer pastures. There were some very festive cows, wearing headdresses of fresh flowers and fir branches. The men showed off many a bare knee below lederhosen and a myriad collection of pointy felt hats, mostly sporting feathers in their colourful braiding bands. The ladies were largely in milkmaid ensembles. As we arrived some strapping chaps were performing in some kind of whip cracking competition. It looked like jolly hard work and the puffs of smoke given off with the cracking reminded me of the caps boys at school used to throw on to the floor  to explode. It definitely frightened the dogs, who had to go back to the safety of the van.
Bedollo fair

Bedollo fair

To Rob’s glee, there was a great deal of very local produce for sale, with much free tasting of cheeses, salami, speck (a smoked, cured ham of the Südtirol rather like prosciutto), apples galore, crauti (sauerkraut), wurst and beer - all testament to the area’s muddled Germanic/Italian culture. Of course, so much sampling and purchasing so late in the afternoon meant we had reached 7 p.m. and really needed to find somewhere to stop for the night. Little did we know that search would provide one of those little motorhoming adventures that you can tell all your friends at dinner parties when you return home.

The main road towards Cavalese did not look promising for the sort of quiet layby or picnic spot we tend to favour for wild camping, so we took a side road at Molina di Femme and headed upwards, and upwards, and upwards. We passed a couple of good parking spots near an outdoor adventure centre, but we had our ‘let’s see what’s round the next bend’ heads on. That’s why we also ignored a couple of off road spots where logging lorries load up. We often find good viewpoint spots at top of passes, and this was a good, wide road, so we headed on and up, and it began to get dark, then it began to rain and suddenly it was a narrow road with many hairpin bends. We head out above the tree line and straight into the clouds and we had no idea where the top was likely to be, so Rob started to try a 300 point turn, but I think my screaming “we’re all going to die” might have been a bit off-putting, so he abandoned that one. Eventually, at above 2000m Rob had had enough and just stopped in a tiny passing place and said he wasn’t going to drive any further. He got out, had a little walk around, took a peek round the next bend and found a mountain refuge/restaurant, a large helicopter landing circle and a little viewpoint parking place. So, with great relief, we stopped, closed the shutters and cooked dinner.
The Manghen Pass looked fine the next morning
 The temperature got down to 3°C in the night, and it was quite windy right up there on the pass. The dogs stayed under their little blankets all night, which are actually our spare towels because we didn’t think the dogs would need blankets at this time of year, but they are thin skinned sighthounds who cry when they get cold and try to snuggle in with us. Next time we do this I’m bringing their PJs and proper blankets.
You have to imagine it in the dark with added rain and fog
By 7 a.m. the next day we began to hear cars passing us. Were there commuters going over this mountain pass? Then the motorcyclists arrived to take pictures of the views from what we found out, because we could now see the tourist map board, was the Manghen Pass. It did all look so much better in the clear morning light, and, of course, the drive down was much easier, and we passed the first cyclists of the day making their slow ascent. When we passed a cattle lorry we did feel a bit foolish about our worries the previous evening, but you had to be there in the dark, the rain and the fog to appreciate that!
Campitello fi Fassa
Our next stop was much easier - the Val di Fassa - a proper Dolomite area, with all the accompaniments of winter skiing, much of it being used for non-snow related activities to stretch the business viabilities throughout the year - ski-lifts are great for hikers who just want to walk downhill, and for the many hang-gliders who take a more floaty route. We had decided that it was time we used a proper campsite again and availed ourselves of electricity and laundry facilities. There are several campsites around there, but we went for the prettiest at Campitello di Fassa (and most expensive at €32), since I was going to be left there to my own devices while Rob took himself off on a day of cycling the mountain passes.
The campsite was expensive, but you pay for the view!

Rob’s mini cycle tour:

Just beyond Campitello the valley gives way to some of the highest and most impressive of the Dolomite peaks, divided into distinct sheer-walled massifs such as the Sella and Sassolungo Groups, or glacier-topped Marmolada. The road layout allows a circuit of about 50km, known as the Sellaronda, that crosses four passes as it circles the Sella group and offers breathtaking views of the others, and it was this that I set out to ride.
Man and bike

More Dolomites

Even at Campitello we were at 1400 altitude, and it was a cold start at 8am, but the climb to the Sella Pass at 2244m warmed me up. From here it was a quick, short descent to a col before another (shorter) climb to the Gardena Pass at 2234m. The sun was out and everything looked great, and by early afternoon I even dared ride bare-legged for a while. I was far from the only cyclist out, though we were outnumbered easily by motorbikes. The route continued round the east of the massif, over the easily-missed Campolungo Pass, a mere pimple at 1870m, and I had a coffee stop at Arabba before tackling the final climb to the Pordoi Pass at 2239m. By now my legs were starting to feel the strain.

The summit of the Pordoi Pass was a vast expanse of car parks and tourist tat by an enormous cable-car station below more sheer cliffs, but it also marked the start of the exhilarating last descent, and I zoomed back down to Lesley and the dogs in near-record time.  

We left the Val di Fassa and headed upwards to visit a couple of the passes Rob had tackled on his bike ride - the Sella Pass and the Gardena Pass. The road passes quite close to the sheer walls of rock I’d viewed from the valley and there were ski-lifts everywhere, some huge and some tiny, which looked a bit frightening to me.

We took the road through the Badia Valley, where they will hold the Ski Olympics in December 2016, and then took a side road to San Vigilio hoping to find the sosta in our book. We did and it was large and very attractive, but also very closed, so we continued up the tiny valley into the national park. Again, this was a really pretty area consisting of sheer sides coming down to wooded lower levels, and a wide flat valley bed covered in very white, small stones, over which roamed a great many free range cows. It would have been perfect for wild camping if it weren’t for the many signs telling us that they didn’t want any kind of camping anywhere at all round there, and since the road didn’t go any further than a large car park and a big, commercial refuge-cum-restaurant, we were forced to retrace our steps (so to speak).
Parco naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies 
We were a bit stuck for somewhere to stay the night, to be honest. There were no more nearby sostas in our book, and we were at a loss for which road might offer up a suitable overnight spot, but it would certainly not be on the main road between Bressanone (aka Brixen) and Brunico (aka Bruneck). Almost on the flip of a coin we turned towards Bressanone, from where we planned to leave the Dolomites, and indeed, Italy, via the Brenner Pass. 
Walkers' car park overnight spot

Nice walk
At Chienes we headed into the hills once again and luckily spotted a brown tourist sign showing parking off this road and ended up in a lovely walkers’ car park near Terento village, where we spent a very quiet penultimate night in Italy and where even in late September, on a Thursday, hikers began to arrive and park up from 7:30 a.m. By 10 a.m. the car park was very full, probably because the reasonably easy walk from there goes to a snack bar in the pretty South Tyrolean meadows some 40 minutes away.
Nice walk

Nice walk