I did it again.
Trawling through Instagram, I came across a fantastic photograph of a landscape that looked other worldly, like a scene from Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. ‘Where is this magical place?‘ I thought, before looking at the location tag of the photo and figuring out that it was in the Dolomites – a UNESCO world heritage mountain range in the north east of Italy.
There is something about the mountains that draws me in. The scale and grandeur of large mountain ranges seem to make everything else feel fairly insignificant – something which was very welcome having had a fairly difficult year to date. A place to forget about the worries. A place to reset.
As usual, I did my research – hours and hours of research. Where should we stay? Where should we visit? How accessible were the best photo opportunities and scenery? And finally, when was the best time to visit?
The internet told me that September was a wonderful time to visit the Dolomites. The weather would be cooling down slightly, but still mild. The crowds that came in August to escape the searing heat of the rest of the country would be gone and it would be fairly quiet (compared to summer). Perfect I thought. Well, Mother Nature had different ideas. A couple of days before our trip I checked the local forecasts and there was snow, what seemed like significant amounts of snow at higher elevations along with temperatures into the minus °c’s. I needed to re-pack – take out some shorts and pack some sweaters, fleeces, hats and gloves!
We flew into Innsbruck, Austria with British Airways (getting some use of our Avios miles) – a short flight of 1h 25m. The hire car was booked through Sixt, who’s service was awesome by the way. I will definitely look at using this company again in the future. We then embarked on our 1.5 hour drive to the town of Ortisei, which would be our base for the first three nights.
Ortisei is the largest town in the valley of Val Gardena, located in the South Tyrol region of Italy. Situated at 1,236m above sea level and surrounded by snow peaked mountains, it is the ideal base for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Being in the South Tyrol region (or Alto Adige as it is known in Italian) bordering Austria, the area has a very Austrian / German feel to it – the architecture and also the bilingual signage showing both German and Italian. In fact it was difficult to figure out which language to use (I hasten to add that I can barely speak German or Italian, but it’s good to make an effort) – it was a case of seeing which language people spoke to you first, and then running with it!
Anyway, back to that architecture.
The centre of Ortisei is mostly pedestrianised with a good selection of cafes and bars, restaurants, shops and hotel resorts. We stayed at the Hotel Garni Snalterhof, a family run bed and breakfast on a piazza in the centre of the town. Staff were friendly, rooms were comfortable and traditionally decorated (the manager did inform us that the top floor was being completely renovated after we departed – I hope they keep some of the charm). Although there was no bar or restaurant within the hotel, there was a lovely restaurant next door called Vedl Mulin offering pizza along with other Italian and Tyrolean dishes. It was well worth a visit. It’s also worth giving a shout out to La Cercia – a lovely little enotecta. We called in a few times to sample the local wines, which were really good value. Once again very friendly staff – a theme which seemed to run throughout this lovely little town.
There was a great art gallery in the centre of town, which had a stunning photography exhibition and if you are a fan of churches it’s definitely worth calling in to Chiesa Ortisei. Don’t be fooled by the fairly subtle exterior, the interior is absolutely jaw dropping.
The perfect thing about being based in Ortisei was the mountain transportation. The town has three lifts to reach the mountains, all located centrally. There are two cable car / gondola systems travelling to Seceda and the Seiser Alm, and a funicular railway travelling to Resciesa.
Our first journey into the mountains took us to Seceda. Quite fitting really, given that the photo I had seen on Instagram was taken here. The location can be reached by the Ortisei-Furnes-Seceda cable car, which takes you on two cable car journeys to reach the summit station at 2,500m.
The views that await you when you exit the station are breathtaking, or should be. Our view was one of grey cloud and very minimal visibility! So minimal in fact, that we couldn’t actually see anything beyond the station building and adjacent restaurant.
However, we had all day and we were not going anywhere until these clouds had cleared offering me the views I had travelled to Italy for. The good thing about being so high up in the mountains is that the weather moves quickly. Within minutes of our arrival onto the mountain, the fast moving clouds started clearing from below offering us a beautifully dramatic scene of the valley below and the mountain pastures covered in snow.
The perfect opportunity to set off on a short hike. The mountain side is a huge collection of hiking trails, and although some sections are fairly steep, it is quite manageable. Probably more manageable without all of the snow on the ground, but even so nothing too taxing.
We headed up towards a panorama point, but as the clouds raced in again, within minutes we were surrounded by grey gloom and a chilly brisk wind. Was I ever going to get that view that I so desperately wanted?
We stopped for lunch and a beer, and watched the clouds clearing once again so quickly set off up to the panorama point and along the ridge of the mountains.
As the clouds lifted, the jagged peaks of the Torri di Fermeda slowly appeared. This is what I was waiting for. Spectacular and dramatic, there it was – the Lord of the Rings landscape I had wanted to see.
No sooner had the clouds lifted to offer me these views, another bank rolled into and plunged them into a murky grey fog. Time to head back and brave the scary descent on the cable car. Did I mention that I am not a huge fan of cable cars?
So, I got the views that I came for, but not quite the right conditions. A great excuse to head back one day, eh.
What a difference a day makes. We opened the shutters in the room the following morning to a gorgeous blue sky. Quick, let’s grab some breakfast and try and head out as soon as possible.
On the south side of Ortisei lies the Ortisei-Seiser Alm gondola which transports you up to the Seiser Alm / Alpe de Suisi (depending on your German or Italian preference).
Seiser Alm, at 56 square kilometres, is the largest high altitude alpine meadow in Europe. The journey up by gondola takes about 10 minutes to an altitude of 2,000m and offers yet another spectacular view when you alight.
The pine forests and rolling green meadows in front of the backdrop of the jagged mountain ranges is simply beautiful. Heavy rain the night before had washed away any remnants of snow from the area, leaving a lovely summer scene stretched out as far as the eye could see. As with Seceda, the area is a maze of hiking trails and alpine huts, along with a few high end spa hotels (which are very complimentary to their surroundings).
Pretty much every trail you take, every angle that you look offers a photo opportunity. It’s difficult to stop taking photos. It’s also very peaceful. Despite there being access to the area by road for those of you who really are scared of cable cars, there was barely any noise apart from the relaxing clang of cow bells as the cows are free to roam these meadows.
There are a few alpine huts scattered around on the Seiser Alm. You are probably never 20-30 minutes walk away from somewhere to rest your legs, to grab a lovely local dish and a cold continental beer. Our favourite was the Malga Sanon hut which had a lovely terrace over looking the landscape and also some very friendly staff.
You could really spend all day wandering the rolling meadows of the Seiser Alm, which is pretty much what we did.
I imagine it would be a magnificent spot for some night sky photography – perhaps we will stay overnight next time. Maybe in one of the Spa hotels.
Time to leave Ortisei and head off to our next destination, Lake Misurina, for the next three nights. This journey would take us along a small section of the Great Dolomites Road into Cortina d’Ampezzo but first we needed to do a detour. We needed to visit a church. A very small church. Due to a technical hitch with the car’s sat-nav sending us down a single track road that ended up being closed meaning turning around in someone’s garden, this church had a lot to live up to.
The Chiesetta di San Giovanni in Ranui is located just outside the village of Santa Maddalena in the Val di Funes (valley). A Baroque church dating back to 1744, the tiny building sits in the middle of a meadow with a backdrop of pine forests and the Odle mountain range. Well, this is what we were lead to believe. There were definitely forests, but the striking mountain range was hidden behind the dense clouds (familiar story developing here isn’t there). Nevertheless it was a gorgeous church and definitely worth a visit.
There are rumours on the internet that this is the most photographed church in the world. I am not sure that I believe this, given that we were the only people there and the local area seemed pretty much deserted!
Anyway, onwards from Santa Maddalena and the sat-nav decided to send us on a hair raising journey along mountain side single track roads for about an hour before we reached more acceptable roads and a far lower heart rate. We arrived onto the Great Dolomites Road at the Passo Falzarego – this being the highest point of the journey. A nice spot to stop for lunch, take in the views, admire the bravery of the people travelling on the cable car and take some photos.
We headed down towards and through the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo before heading back into the mountains to finally reach our destination of Lake Misurina.
Lake Misurina, the ‘Pearl of the Dolomites‘ sits 1,756m above sea level and sits on the edge of the Tre Cime di Lavadero National Park. With a 2.6km circumference which is a perfectly acceptable walk, and a micro-climate that apparently provides pure and health-giving air, it’s a great place to use as a base for a few days.
A few hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are scattered along the lake for the tourists heading up to the national park, however it was fairly quiet when we visited. I can imagine bus loads of people and some chaos over the summer months.
We stayed for three nights at the Quinz – Locanda al Lago, a very small family run restaurant on the north shore of the lake with rooms on the first floor – all offering a balcony views across the glass like water along with the fabulous mountain backdrop. Rooms were functional and nicely decorated and the restaurant offered a great menu but they did get busy from the over spill from the large hotel next door.
The best thing about the hotel location were the ever changing views – the clouds heading up from the valley beyond the lake causing the mountains to disappear momentarily and the re-appear. The walk around the lake also gave some great views of the national park to the north.
Tre Cime di Lavaredo, also known in German as Drei Zinnen are three distinctive peaks within the national park, and probably one of the most photographed mountain groups in the Dolomites. The hiking trails that surround these peaks offer some of the greatest views that it should be high on the list of to-do’s if you are heading into the area.
You could tell that it was going to be popular given the amount of vehicles in the car park at the start of the trail head – all having paid the €25 toll fee to use the road. The trail head begins at the Rifugio Auronzo, a mountain hut at 2,330m before heading along the south side of the Tre Cime on a pathway literally carved into the mountainside with a very long drop to one side!
Despite the terrifying drops the trail does offer some fantastic views along the way before reaching the next stopping points of the small Capella degli Alpini followed by the Rifugio Lavaredo, about 30 minutes into the hike.
After a little break at the Rifugio Lavaredo, which sits directly under the three peaks (you guessed it, now covered in cloud) it was time to head up the Forcella Lavaredo at 2,545m directly east of the Tre Cime offering a 360° panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.
The clouds cleared in time for me to get the shots that I wanted to, and then it started snowing!
On the basis that I was less than halfway into the circular trail and the clouds were closing in from all directions, I made the decision to turn back and head to the car.
The cloud was closing in and the snow getting heavier as I made my way back to the Rifugio Auronzo. Walking back along the mountain side trail in the thick cloud was a slightly eerie experience with very few people now passing me. By the time I made it back to the Rifugio the snow was falling heavily and it was time to take cover, have a well earned lunch before heading back down to Misurina once the weather had cleared.
There are rumours that the new Star Wars Han Solo movie had been filming on location here in May so I will be keeping my beady eyes on that to see if I spot some familiar landscapes.
The final full day in the Dolomites. The final place to visit on the list.
Lago di Braies, or Pragser Wildsee is an alpine lake situated at 1,469m above sea level and 45 minutes drive from Lake Misurina. Located in a sheltered valley it is considered to be the most beautiful lake in South Tyrol. Upon arriving, I wasn’t able to argue with such a statement.
The first glimpse of the lake as you head from the car park and past the hotel that sits on the shores gives you an idea of what to expect. A clear reflection of the surrounding mountains in the emerald green waters. Yes, this lake was definitely beautiful.
Aside from the hotel, a small restaurant, the boathouse and small church the remainder of the lake surroundings are untouched. There is a trail that runs the entire way around the lake – about 4km in length, with only a few changes in elevation so fairly easy for most people to manage.
We did one loop of the lake which took about an hour at a fairly slow pace (mostly due to the fact that there were quite a lot of people on the trail, and that every few steps offered a new photo opportunity). There are no words to describe the beauty, so I am going to let the photos do the talking here.
Lago di Braies was the perfect end to our tour of the Dolomites. This area of Italy is a must to visit if you are a fan of mountain landscapes, alpine lakes and beautiful, dramatic scenery.
The people are friendly, everywhere is clean and tidy and we made a comment towards the end of our week that we had not seen a single chain restaurant or store in the whole time we were there, which is such a refreshing change (don’t visit if you want to visit McDonalds). Everything was local and authentic. A breath of fresh air. Literally.
We awoke to snow on the day we were leaving Italy which was a lovely sight. Considering the weather forecasts that we had seen prior to leaving, we were quite lucky that the weather didn’t hamper our visit (apart from my slight disappointment that the conditions were not 100% how I had wanted them for some of my photos)!
We will be back. There is so much more to explore.