After waving good bye to Markus and little Florin we started heading up the mountain that would entertain us most of our morning… After a series of zig zags we wiggled our way up and soon gained an altitude that would provide us with views over the Bolzano valley and the mountains around.
As we went, we noticed the cable car Markus mentioned he would use everyday day on his commute to work, and wondered how it would feel to go up in such a construction, hanging on a wire, almost every day.
The road we chose turned out to be a good choice, few cars passed, and that’s just what we appreciate, especially when we have to wiggle our way up a steep and hilly road…
On the way up we found chestnuts by the side of the road, that we would end up carrying over kms and kms, always with the dream and hope of finding a grill to roast them… We never really did…
As we approached the end of the winding road, our bodies were sweaty and our stomachs were beginning to roar… We found a restaurant on the side of the road and debated over first addressing the thrist with a fresh drink at the restaurant or the hunger by attacking our lunch..
When we saw a bench next to a restaurant, we decided to feast first on our usual collection of cheese, tomato and the potential boiled egg, before heading off to the restaurant for the drink. In the end, the drink was accompanied (sadly only for me) for what turned out to be the best chocolate cake slice of the trip so far… =)
Thrist and hunger resolved and forces recovered we went back on the road with the aim and hope of finally reaching the mystic Dolomiti. This had a place on my list of places to go for quite a while now, somehow associated with a mental image of some amazing mountain peaks sticking out from the ground, that I might had seen from a postcard one day. So I wondered, at every turn, when would these peaks suddenly just be there looking back at me…
Markus had told us that along the road we were taking, we would find a lake with some amazing colors. The mesmerized way he described it, mades us both be eager to see it with our own eyes. We reached it as the sun began to set but still with enough light to contemplate its unique and amazing colors, contrasting with the raw carved rocks behind it.
As I saw the rocks I wondered if these were the ones in my mental picture… They were similar and amazing no doubt, but I could not be sure they matched..
By the time we had walked around the lake, the light was almost gone so we found a place not too far away that would allow us to better contemplate the lake, not at sunset but at sunrise.
It was an interesting night, as we woke up to the most bizarre deep echoing sound, maybe a bark but definitely not from a dog… We never saw or found out from which animal it came from, but the strange stunning sound still echoed in our heads as we left the lake and in fact for quite some days afterwards… and still today we really wonder what animal it came from…
After the lake we never really stopped being surrounded by mountains. I would soon realise that the Dolomiti was by far not defined by a single mountain peak, but a vast and amazing collection of mountains, all with their different peaks, shapes and rock types…
A few pedals after the lake we reached also our first collection of cable cars, taking tourists and hikers shortcutting their way up to the mountain refuge on the top. We did not know at the time, but they turned out to be the only (or one of the very few) working cable cars in the whole of the Dolomiti at this time of year…
As it happens, we had reached the area already outside the Summer season, when tourists and hikers are a-plenty, but not quite in the winter season, where people come for the ski and snow sports. We had arrived in Autumn, which happened to be not the high season, not the low season, but the “off-season”.
This brought us all sort of interesting picadilos… We planned to make good use of our time in such a beautiful mountain region by doing some hikes. For these we planned to leave our bikes and bags in a campsite and then take a cable car to the beginning of the hikes which we had researched and found to be most interesting in the region we were in … However, we found that not only the cable cars were not working (they had just closed down a few days before), but also all the camping sites were also closed!!! We couldn’t find a single one open…
This meant among other things, camping next to a picnic bench just next to town before deciding what we could do instead. It also meant that our hiking possibilities were quite reduced. But we were able to find alternatives. Which brings us to the good thing of reaching the Dolomiti in the so called off-season.
First and foremost, it meant that we were surrounded by surreally beautiful Autumn colours.. We discovered (having been told previously by our friend Markus) that there is such a thing as a pine tree that instead of always remaining green, it looses it’s needles… It’s called larch and in Autumn its needles turn from green to yellow passing through all sort of tones in an amazing display of colour that cannot be really properly described by words… Or even put into photos, and we did spend a lot of time trying.
It also meant that there were tremendously less tourists around. This makes you feel like these treasures of mountains are almost entirely yours to play and explore, but also, and perhaps more importantly in our case, that people are more tolerant and open than they might otherwise be…
We saw in our maps that there some mountain refuges close to the hikes we would like to do. So we thought that perhaps the owners would be kind to two passing cyclists and allow us to camp next to their facilities, or if not, at least, ask them to watch over our belongings. Contacting a few of them before hand, most refused such an idea and suggested instead they we paid for one of their overpriced rooms on offer, others didn’t reply at all, simply because they were not even open…
But one rifugio said that we could come and ask (or talk as we understood it)… And so we made our way then up to rifugio Marmolada, along a very winding, but again empty road (off season is also apparently when all road reconstruction is made so in fact the road was closed-ish.. but we chose to ignore the sign as did some other drivers…).
Once at the refuge, we just asked as we had done in the email and owner, without making much about it, just pointed us to a corner of his backgarden. Finally with a place to pitch our tent and to leave our stuff, and able to hike in these wonderful mountains, we sat inside the restaurant area of the rifugio having a comforting cup of hot tea (plus yet another apple strudel for me ;p)
The next day we woke up with the sun and were treated with amazing views over the Marmolada mountain peaks, that we hadn’t been able to see the day before as they were covered up in clouds. There was something special about the morning sun hitting the snow covered and rock bare peaks, up above…
We quickly got our hiking setup going (pannier turned into backpack) and started walking up the mountain in the path know as the Viel de Pain. The sun kept going up at the same pace we did and soon our views broadened even more. On the way we would pass the occasional solitary larch trees with their amazing tones of yellow.
Eventually we reached another refugio, but like so many other, it was closed in this so very special season. We continued towards the furthest one, at the turning point of our hike. Gradually, as we went, the more mountainous peaks we were able to observe, each with its characteristic shape… Some more carved, others with a long steep crest…
The views we were being presented with were breath taking and of increasing beauty, all the way up to the point we started seeing an equally increasing number of cable cars and abandoned or closed down ski infrastructures on the other side of the ridge… The climax was contrasting and some what disappointing… So we found a place to eat our sandwiches where we could see the mountains but all the man-made structures were somewhat out of sight.
After lunch we decide to take some path variations we had seen in our maps just to make the return (even) more interesting… This took us along a crest that although was not of any particularly interesting mountain, provided views over all the surrounding amazing mountains… The ragged Langkofel and Sellagruppe on one side, and the snow covered Marmolada on the other. This was the first hike we made in the Dolomiti but was perhaps the one where we enjoyed the views the most.
Fully content with having finally found a way to hike in the mountains and with the experience we had had, we returned to the refugio for a victory warm chocolate. The next day we packed and said farewell to the owner of the refugio with hopes to find other ways and places we could hike in the Dolomiti.
We had seen another set of hikes we would like to do as we crossed the region, but again, either the off-season or the ridiculously priced rooms, were proving to make yet again our lives, or at least our hiking ambitions, more difficult. It seemed refugio Marmolada had been a super lucky and kind find.
We decided then, as we sat at the side of the road, eating our respective gluten-full and gluten-free cookies, that we should just forgo these hikes and head to the city of Cortina and to what might have been the only open campsite in the entire region.
At the time we were somewhat disappointed we could not do the hikes we planned but were just content with the fact that we had a plan that would allow us to hike once again.
Before that, however, that was this little hill and mountain pass called Passo Giau to contend with! We were somehow both excited and scared of the challenge. The elevation profile climbed more than 1000m and from what we had read and been told, it seemed that we were heading towards an epic climb.
None of them were wrong, and the road sign we found just as we were about to start the climb confirmed it… Warning: 29 tornanti… We knew that climbing up to Passo de Giau at 2236m was going to be a challenge, and the highest point of our trip so far, but we didn’t know how many wiggles we were going to have to make along the way.
Nevertheless, taking our time and making our regular stops, we passed and turned each of these turns (photographing each one along the way) all the way to the Passo. Reaching it felt like finishing an epic race and at the lack of a cheering crowd, we cheered ourselves!
Reaching the Passo had opened up to us a whole new set of views and mountains on the other side. Our minds were blown, there was just no end to the amazing mountains in the Dolomiti. I never really knew which mountains were those I had seen in that postcard and had imprinted on my mind. It did not matter in fact, all of them seemed equally impressive in their own way.
However, as impressive as the views might have been, equally impressive was the cold wind that could be felt. I had to forgo my dreams of us boilling a hot chocolate in our camping set as our reward of our climb and, after we put on as many layers as we could, we slid our way down as fast we could to Cortina and the campsite. When we reached it, it was already night.
We had headed there with two main purposes: having the usual and needed rest day(s)-off and making use of the campsite as a base for more hikes in this new region. Neither of these went quite as we planned.
The illusions of hiking would soon met reality in the campsite reception when after a day off in the town, with delicious gluten-free pizza and a majestic ice-cream*, we were told that besides cable cars, also buses were not working in the (off) season. Again, there was no way to reach the hikes we wanted to do there.
So after a more quiet day in town but not entirely a day-off, we were confronted with the need to again cycle up 1000m up on our bikes just to the get to the beginning of the closest interesting hike.
We found however, some company to get us up the hill, without who we might have just given up on such strenueos idea. As we used our half-day-off half-chores-day to do the first clothes laundry in more than a month (the previous one had been in France, 3 countries and more than 1000km before!) in the laundry room we struck conversation with a fellow cyclist tourist from Australia – Doug.
After some cycling exchanges, we all agreed to spend our “day-off” hiking.
However, the rest day didn’t feel as such, with the epic hill we had to climb on our bikes to get to the footpath. To give you some idea of the gradient: we climbed 700m over 5km. We were just thankful that we were able to leave our bags behind that day.
But our efforts were well rewarded – the hike of Croda de Lago provided us with yet more amazing views over the Dolomiti mountains. And the refugio next to the lake provided us with refreshing reward beers once the hike was finished, even a gluten-free one for Sarah. We will never forget the silence we.. heard?.. felt!, once on top, and there were no birds, no wind and no one than ourselves…
The next day we finally had our day-off, staying at the campsite and trying to do as little as possible. It is on these days that we find that carrying some non-essentials like the hammock, is well worth it!
After finally having had a rest day, we bid farewell to Doug and left the Cortina campsite and we were back on our bikes! It seemed we couldn’t leave the Dolomiti without having a look at the apparently famous three rocks/tre cime/drei zinnen (although we had never heard about them before), so we headed up to Rifugio Auronzo at 2326m.
However, this time though, fully loaded, the 1000m climb and the insane slopes, even with the cheers of the passing by drivers, were just too much and we had to swallow our cyclist pride, and push part of the way.
Nonetheless, the views at the top as the sun set and the little tucked away corner we found to spend the night, made it well worth it! The ridiculous pedal up to rifugio Auronzo was rewarded with being able to wake up and watch the sun rise slowly creep over the surrounding mountains.
We decided to make the most of having a place to stow away the bikes and took a short hike around Tre Cime. The three rocks are famous, apparently, but we thought the rest of the landscape was equally stunning, if not more so. After the hike we started making our way down from the refugio and out of the Dolomiti.
Before we would leave however, we would stay still in yet another refugio… In the outskirts of the region, and after yet another winding road with many tornanti (and construction works), we found a small refugio that like the one in Marmolada, was open but not quite, and that allowed us camp in their backyard.
On our final day in the Dolomiti, the wind was fierce and we were bid farewell by an Autumn confetti of leaves flying through the air. We did not knew at the time but it was a sign of change.
After a couple of weeks and an amazing experience across these mountains, that suprised and overpassed any expectations we could have, we finally left them behind.
But not without clear intentions of returning one day. Perhaps around the same Autumn time, with its larch trees and decreased tourist numbers, but with some climbing gear in our pack… 😉
For now we had a new horizon in mind. We were heading to Slovenia and about to enter the Balkans… As we said often – now things were about to get (even) more interesting…
* what we planned to be the ordinary scoops of ice cream turned out to be two majestic ice-cream creations, so moved we were by the ice cream shop owner’s passion about her job and shop…!
(Loads more photos here!)