There is something irresistible about Italy and Italian culture. The language is sexy, the locals gregarious and eating well is a national sport. Neither Nikki nor I had been to the Dolomites, nor knew much about them beyond a few breathtaking pictures of pale spires and sheer faces.
Yet we had our hearts set on an extended stay in a cute mountain village - with luck becoming quasi local rather than just itinerant travellers. Extracting our seven year old son Ben from school and the need to eventually return to work limited us to three months. Not the Peter Mayle standard year away but still long enough to have an excessively good time.
Advice from friends, books and Google Earth pointed to the tiny town of Molveno as our starting point. Its setting is spectacular - nestled between an alpine lake and the precipitous Brenta Dolomiti. The Dolomites - defined by their mineral laden grey, white and sometimes red rock - originally formed as coral reef and marine sediment before the seas retreated and the tectonic plates squeezed them skywards. The Brenta are the western-most outpost of this geological freak show and include a number of notable peaks including Campanile Basso and CrozDell'Altissimo that watch over the town like sentinels.
Our first walk skirted the bottom section of Croz Dell'Altissimo's imposing South Face to a rifugio at the head of the valley. The track had been chipped and blasted into the wall. No resource consent required. Although easy travel the consequences of stepping off the edge would have been final. The next day while Nikki and Ben were embroiled in home-away-from-home schooling I shot back with my bike. Very cool riding.
Hiking and biking were our primary activities. Both were equally rewarding. Molveno has a lot of moderate to easy off-road riding well suited to a seven year old's fitness and skills. But there are also plenty of solid hill climbs and singletrack hidden away. Curiously, Italian mountain biking appears to focus on gravel tracks and forestry roads. Ride guides, and the few locals I rode with, all steadfastly avoid singletrack even though it is in plentiful supply. Admittedly some is off limits. Bikes are not allowed on National Park tracks less than 1.5m wide. So I was left to sniff out the twisty stuff, with the associated satisfaction of 'discovering' new trails.
Brown bears are the featured local fauna. At the end of a long walk Ben would miraculously discover extra pep as Nikki pondered "whether there might be any around here". It transpires they were all but extinct a few years ago - excessive inbreeding weakened the gene pool. Replacement stock was imported from Croatia but the total population is still reckoned at only 20 odd. They're reputedly quite shy so our chances of an encounter were remote. We duly trundled off to nearby Spormaggiore to spot some in captivity. While taking photos, Nikki suffered a Minties' moment when her sunglasses fell and slipped through the bars to land on the far side. A Larson-esque scene followed as the bears tore them asunder. Prior to this I had left my spectacles in a taxi in Rome. Later in our trip I dropped my sunglasses somewhere on a climb. It was an unfortunate holiday theme.
A few pairs of glasses lighter, we relocated east to Val di Fassa - a long, narrow valley lined with the obligatory striking peaks. We were punished with inclement weather for the first two weeks, forcing us to the cities for entertainment. Venice, Verona, Merano and Bolzano are all conveniently close and have much to offer. Bolzano is the final resting place of Otzi, the mummified 'iceman' who was found in a glacier on the Italian-Austrianborder in 1991. 5300 years old and no grey hair - although he apparently suffered arthritis, worn teeth and had been mortally wounded by an arrow. The museum is fascinating and we learned much about prehistoric man. The star attraction is kept in a freezer. Alarms sound if the equipment malfunctions and an ER team relocates him to one of the three reserve coolers. When first discovered nobody guessed he was so old and precious. Apparently it is not uncommon for bodies of long-dead climbers to be spat out of glaciers. So Otzi was treated in a very rough and non-archaeological fashion when chipped and yanked from the ice. A jackhammer was used at one stage. It took three days before a forensic scientist spotted the bronze age axe. The rapidly thawing Otzi was snap-frozen and security stepped up to itscurrent level.
An Italian friend invited us on a weekend ride in the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park, a few hours northwest of Val di Fassa. The forecast was abysmal but somehow delivered ok conditions. The route was breathtaking with alpine meadows, cascades, gorgeous lakes and numerous towering peaks like Croda Rossa (it really is red) to keep us company. Although not overly difficult, the ride was too long and at times too steep for Ben, so he and Nikki walked a shorter route to meet us at Rifugio Sennes for Saturday night. Unlike NZ backcountry huts, Italian rifugi are more like hotels with hearty meals, booze, separate rooms, linen and showers. Very civilised and let us ride with just day packs - however the previous evening's grappa was not conducive to an early start.
Italy breathes cycling - especially of the tarmac variety. Thousand metre passes with 30 or more switchbacks litter the Dolomiti and are regulars on the Giro d'Italia. The Sella Ronda with its quattropassi at the head of the Val di Fassa is a classic day ride. The Giro steamed through our area at the end of May. We joined the partisan locals to cheer Ricardo Ricco over the finish line at Alpe di Pampeago. Alberto Contador claimed the maglia rosa. Everything about the Giro is pink and Ben astutely observed that it was an unlikely colour for a men's event. Ricco subsequently fell from grace when ejected from the Tour de France after being careless with his doping regime.
From Val di Fassa we migrated north to the lush valley of Alta Pusteria in Alto Adige. The province borders Austria and until WW1 was part of that country. German is the first language and strudel the default dessert. WW1 history is at every turn with the Italian-Austrian frontline once slicing throughthe area. Of all the insanity that comprised the 'Great War', trench warfare at up to 3000m was perhaps the most crazy. More troops died from cold and avalanches than from enemy fire. After three years of battle there were no substantive land gains for either side. We encountered remnants of fortifications, trenches, stone battlements clinging to cliffs and tunnels on most forays into the mountains, notably Tre Cime di Lavaredo and Cristallo near Cortina d'Ampezzo.
A legacy of the war is the via ferrate - literally "iron way". Mountain paths built for the troops were protected with steel cables and in parts equipped with ladders and swing bridges. The vast network is maintained today. With a harness and pair of carabiners on short leashes, even those with minimal mountaineering experience can use the easier routes to scramble about the cliffs and high peaks. Italian climbers are disparaging of via ferrate as it encourages people with inadequate skills into the high alps. Congestion and rock fall are serious problems. I was frustrated by this exact situation yet still loved via ferrate for its mixture of novelty, accessibility and war history.
The joy of the Dolomiti is their accessibility for families and others who are less-than-gung ho. Ski lifts take the initial pain out of 'climbing' 3000m peaks and were always a highlight for Ben. Walking paths lace the valleys and mountains. All are well defined and marked with the ubiquitous Club Alpino Italiano redand white signs and matching trail markers. With Ben, we rode disused shingle roads and easy middle chain ring tracks for a few hours into high alpine valleys complete with cowbells, deer, squirrels, marmots and the occasional (small) snake. One great ride out of Cortina led to Cascate di Fanes. We were then able to walk behind the thundering waterfall and skirt around its base on an 'equipped' path. Quite a rush.
The alpine provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige have extensive off-road cycle networks for touring. Combined with some of the mountain bike routes on shingle roads you could construct a fabulous cycle tour. Most are discoverable on the net or in brochures from local tourist offices, and some are just discovered... from our place in Pera we often rode up or down the Val diFassa on an easy path beside the river to visit other villages; 36km of rail trail links Dobbiaco and Cortina d'Ampezzo; and cycle ways run all over Alta Pusteria - the regional train at San Candido has three freight carriages just for bikes so you can ride 30 km down the valley to Brunico and catch the train home.
The Dolomites satisfies on so many different levels. The mountain biking and hiking for us as a family was beyond our wildest expectations. The potential for climbing, ski touring, alpine traverses along the via ferrate or multi-day mountain bike trips bouncing amongst the network of rifugi are all tantalizing reasons to plan a return match.