The Enchanting Dolomites
The Dolomites have always been one of those elusive but enchanting places that most people have heard of but can’t quite place geographically. Many can instantly recognise the towering mountains of the Sella Ronda that rise majestically out of rolling pastures and know that it falls under Italy’s jurisdiction. You probably don’t know that the Dolomites where annexed from Austria and given to the Italian as payment for siding with the Allies during the First World War and UNESCO sited the landscape as a World Heritage Site for being widely regarded “as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world”.
Flying into Venice is always exciting especially as you peer out of the window across to Venice as you come into land and recognise the iconic landmarks of St Mark’s Square and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. I thought it was forgivable to imagine I was James Bond in Casino Royale, cruising along the Grand Canal on a beautifully built wooden sailboat leaving behind a wake of destruction, half submerged buildings and a sobbing beautiful girl. The water is a hive of activity with water taxis powering to and from the city leaving trails of white foam in the green lagoon. Being a sailor it all appeared very organised and in complete contrast to my building apprehension about driving 3 hrs to the Dolomites on the infamous Italian autostrata.
On this particular trip for Summit & Blue I had chosen a slightly longer route passing through Bolzano, the capital of the South Tirol, and commercial centre to the wine growing region. They are particularly proud of their unique ability to grow white grapes used to produce Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Kerner. Later on Claudia Rier, from the South Tirol tourist office, a Master of Wines and road cycling officianado, introduced me to some delicious white wines including St Magdalener and Lagrein along with a fine summer drink called a ‘Hugo’. She couldn’t tell me whether the drink was name after a particular gentleman of a similar name but I do remember it requires a large red wine glass, a good slug of Elderflower cordial, two thirds Prosecco, a third mineral water, a handful of fresh mint, ice and a quarter of a freshly squeezed lime.
A few days later, when mountain biking with Claudia and a colleague from the Alta Badia Tourist office, Roberto, she would explain more about the interesting blend of cultures that make up the South Tyrol. It is a complicated affair that involves the Roman Empire, a regional dialect still used by locals called ‘Ladin’ (described as a vulgar form of Latin) and the more stoic characteristics of the Bavarians. Whatever the historical mix they all looked like international athletes hand hewn from the limestone of the Dolomites with manners that put most of us to shame and giddily relaxed obviously from the abundance of Spa therapies and treatments available in almost every hotel.
I will never forget my first glimpse of the Dolomites from the top of the Passo Gardena. The build up driving up from the exotically named village of Ortesi St Ulrich and Val Gadena, a regular on Ski Sunday, was overwhelming and, as a former horticulturalist, the meadow flowers and herbs where mesmerizing. I have just reason to mention the wild herbs because I was introduced to a variety of schnapps by Marcus, owner of the Rifugio Bioch, made from 30 different meadow herbs harvested from his grandmother’s garden that can only be described as Ricola on steroids! This was quickly followed by a variety of other weird and wonderful concoctions made from unusual ingredients such as pine resin! Needless to say I was particularly pleased that the ride back to the hotel involved absolutely no uphill.
Being July the Dolomites were a hive of activity with large Germans cruising the twisting mountain roads on powerful BMW motorbikes, colourful and lean road cyclists, hidden behind designer sun glasses, up on their pedals, propelling themselves towards the crest of near vertical mountain passes and glamourously clad Italians up from the valleys admiring the memorable scenery of the Dolomites before returning home with abundant stories of their ‘treacherous’ adventure to the mountains.
Accommodation in Alta Badia is diverse ranging from 5 star deluxe hotels with 2 Michelin star restaurants to the more modest Albergos and Garnis. In fact, they boast more Michelin star restaurants in Alta Badia than anywhere else in the mountains. My hotel, La Majun, is a great family run hotel, close to the centre of La Villa, immaculately clean and with a fantastic restaurant with glorious views. As a single diner this fortunately gave me something to look at each evening when the friendliness of my fellow diners but my lack of Ladin or Italian inevitably caused the conversations to come to an abrupt end. Breakfast was a veritable feast, a genuine Ladin banquet made up from a huge variety of freshly baked breads, home-made jams, cold meats, local cheeses as well as a full menu of cooked items. Naturally I was happy to forgo the usual bowl of porridge on these occasions.
Like all South Tyrolean hotels, La Majun has a large Spa area on the lower ground floor with indoor swimming pool and an eclectic mix of treatment rooms including Finnish saunas (at various temperatures), a Scottish Shower (a drench from a cold bucket of water) and other slightly peculiar but fascinating treatments. Users should be aware that the South Tyroleans, like the Austrians, are very liberal when it comes to saunas and spas so don’t be surprised to find the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker sitting alongside you in their full glory whilst commentating on the weather.
Once I had recovered from my high altitude mountain biking with Claudia and Roberto, during which every leg muscle and, alarmingly, my teeth tingled, it was clearly apparent why the Dolomites are such a unique winter and summer playground and a destination that Summit & Blue highly recommends. Road biking, mountain biking, hiking, Via Ferrata, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, Alpine skiing, ski touring are just a few of the activities that we at Summit & Blue have focused on.
So what do I take away from the Dolomites; breath-taking and memorable scenery, genuine hospitality, the desire to become an international road cyclist with buns of steel and a new taste for Hugo’s, the easiest way to polish off a whole bottle of Prosecco without drawbacks!