Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Dolomites

We’ve committed to ourselves to make an effort to see as much of Europe as we can while we’re here, so Saturday, nearly on the spur of the moment, after doing our weekly grocery market, we took off for Cortina d’Ampezza, 273 km away in the Italian Alps.

The Italian Alps – the Dolomites – lie within the district known by Austrians as Südtirol. Part of Austria until it was ceded to Italy at the end of World War I, it is known by Italians as Alto Adige. Although Mussolini tried to make the region more Italian it by replacing German place names with Italian ones, it retains much of its Tyrolean heritage and, often, German is spoken.

We drove south from Salzburg toward Zell am See, then turned west to pass through the Hohe Tauern national park, then through Lienz, before crossing the border into Italy. Though the architecture and steep green broad fields of this most northerly part of Italy looks much like Austria, the Dolomites are dramatically  different from Salzburg’s more modest Alps.

The Dolomites stand stark, jagged and bare, a contrast to the green lushness of lower mountains. The stone – seen from the valley below – seems friable, and indeed there are wide areas of pale, powdery-white scree along some sections of the road or visible midway down the face. The peaks are cut in great vertical fissures, their pale, nearly colourless faces reflecting the passing colours of the sky, turning gold, umber, violet and deeper brown depending on the light.

We arrived in Cortina in about four hours. It's a very pretty town, a ski resort, as are so many of the towns in the region, filled with dark-timbered buildings with wide balconies, very like Austrian houses. There are stout stucco buildings, too, painted the soft colours of the Mediterranean, many with the decorative motifs and murals commonly seen in Salzburg and throughout this region. A church with a free-standing steeple dominates the town centre; around it a series of plazas are connected by streets lined with shops selling high-end clothes, jewellery, furs and leather goods, art and antiques.

It was a hot evening, and we sat for a time on one of the plazas having a drink and watching the passing parade. There were plenty of tourists like ourselves, of course. But there were also couples walking dogs of all sizes, women dressed as though they were returning from evening mass and those carrying bags heavy with food from the market. Families stood and talked as their young children chased each other around the plaza, laughing and calling out. Babies were pushed in strollers or carried on the backs of their parents. A young boy wheeled on a tiny pink scooter. It reminded us of the village in Spain we visited last summer, where the whole community, from children to grandparents, came out in the evening to socialise on the town plaza.

Following suggestions we found online at Rick Steven’s Europe, in the morning we mapped an itinerary along the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti – the Great Dolomite Road – with Seis am Schlern as our ultimate destination. Off we went, the car climbing narrow winding roads with sheer drops off one side or the other, passing meadows of wild flowers and stands of conifers and other trees. We shared the road with what seemed like hundreds of cyclists and half the motor bikes in Europe, as well as a tour coach or three. Other cars appeared suddenly around bends, roaring towards us. It was a harrowing drive as we tried to pass straining cyclists on our right while impatient motor bikes, buzzing like mosquitoes, roared past on our left. At the top of Passo Falzarego (2105 metres/6906 feet), we stopped at the trail head. There, in the car park of a café and shop, we mingled with about 75 motor bike riders in their black leathers, many part of an organised run, as well as hikers, cyclists and other tourists like ourselves. Leaving, I took one too many photographs, so we got stuck right behind a huge tourist coach, which slowly made its way through tunnels and around corkscrew bends that, in many cases, exceeded 180 degrees as we followed it down the mountain.

After following the twisting road down, we began ascending again, still following the coach through tiny villages at the edge of cliffs, winding through woods, then passing meadows of grazing cows. Some of the cows ignored the procession of coach, cars, motor bikes and cyclists, caravans driven by Dutchmen – the Dutch seem to be very big on caravan holidays; others wandered to the edge of the road, large eyes set pale brown faces staring. Along the way, enormous tour coaches slowed to pass one another on the precipitous roads, while the motor bikes darted ahead and dogged cyclists pushed past, not to be crowded out.

Just before we reached Passo Pordoi (2242 metres/7355 feet), Himself managed to overtake the coach and off we went. As we zoomed by, I saw a young man having his picture taken next to the sign marking the pass. It must be famous, I thought.

My best friend during the drive – as we drove at times through tunnels several kilometres long or along roads with sheer drops below – was the door arm rest, which I gripped tightly, putting all my mental energy into keeping the car on the road.

The mountain views, however, were astonishing. Taller than any I’ve experienced, they made me feel as I felt at the Grand Canyon – surrounded by a vastness that must be experienced first hand. Below their stony peaks, in valleys thick with trees, we occasionally encountered ruins of stone schlosses, sometimes looking as though they were carved from the narrow stone outcroppings on which they stood. Or there might be thick timber-built houses surrounded by meadows. Whole villages perched on the precipices high above us, thick bulb-topped steeples visible against the sky.

As we passed through Livinallongo del Col di Lana, through the Val Fassa and the Vale ega Eggental on our way to Bolzano, the landscape seemed more lush, and the mountains lost the claw-like quality scratching the sky. I regretted the change; there was something essential in the barren naked peaks I missed.

Once in Bolzano, we walked in the withering heat toward its medieval central plaza. (Bolzano, once the part of the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol, is home to the 5,000-year-old remains know as Ötzi the Iceman.) We looked for tourist information to get us to our final destination. The information bureau, however, was closed, so we had an ice cream as we mapped out our route to Seis am Schlern.

I was again nervous on the 30-minute drive to Seis am Schlern on a road that hugged the side of a mountain overlooking a narrow gorge. On the mountain opposite, grape vines grew on a green terraced slope.

‘Look at the river down there,’ said my husband, spotting the Eisack nearly a thousand metres below us.

‘Wow. That’s some drop.’

Gripping the door handle, I was glad couldn’t see it.

We boarded the cable car under the fissured face of the peak known as the Schlern (2564 metres/8412 feet) and rode over a wide meadow into Europe’s highest mountain meadow, the Alpe di Siusia. The valley, eight miles wide and 20 miles long, rises to an altitude of 6,500 feet (1,981 metres), according to Steven’s site. On this day in early July, it was filled with wild flowers in fields bordered by trees. Houses and farm buildings, stout and tall, with broad balconies overhung with dark timber roofs, stood in steep pasture land, which was also dotted with small wooden sheds. As we ascended, cows grazed beneath our feet. From our car several hundred feet above, we could hear their bells ringing loudly and vigorously, like wind chimes on a March day.

From the upper cable car station, we looked across the valley to the Sasso Lungo mountains, or, in German, Langkofel, soaring 3,181 metres (10,436 feet) at the tallest peak. Beyond them, other ranges stretched into the distance, growing fainter against a sky that darkened as a storm approached. Behind us, the Schlern stood bare and brooding, like a jagged broken tooth.

Driving through Innsbruck on our way home, we continued to be surrounded by towering mountains that seemed to march away into the distance, rank after rank. Because Salzburg sits at the northern tip of the Alps, it is not circled by mountains. Look north from here, and you see a plain stretching northward. I had not since my arrival here felt so completely enclosed by mountains.

We saw, also for the first time, Edelweiss, which blooms in July. We first spotted it, looking wilted and forlorn in cramped plastic pots, for sale in front of the café and shop in the Passo Falzarego. It looked limp, grey and unappealing. Even later, when we saw it thriving in a flower bed in the Alpe di Siusia, it looked not small, bright, clean nor very white. Nor, as Himself remarked, despite the promise of the famous lyrics, did it seem happy to meet us. In fact, its distinctive, almost masculine, appearance is better served by its Latin name, Leontopodium, ‘lion's paw’, than it is by the Rodgers and Hammerstein song.

So much for Broadway sentimentality. I was glad to meet the original.

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