With their distinctive limestone peaks, rich wildflower meadows and glorious trails, the western Dolomites are a strong contender for Europe’s most idyllic mountain region.
Words and photography by Joly Braime
From where we stood clustered on a rough ledge at the top of the Forces de Sieles pass, the sprawling panorama took in the deep basin of the valley end, the sheer, purplish cliffs and the colossal white-tipped teeth of the mountains beyond. Alpine choughs like giant blackbirds wheeled below us, and a cool wind chilled the sweat of the steep climb. At that particular moment, however, no-one was looking at the view. In fact, eight Canadians, four English people and a Scot were all staring intently at me.
‘The way down is a bit steep and loose,’ our guide, Sally, had just said, ‘so as you’re descending I’d like everyone to leave at least a “Joly” length between yourself and the person in front.’
Along with my international band of companions – one of whom had her left eye closed and was carefully reckoning up my height with her hiking poles – I was half way through a week-long guided walking holiday in the Dolomites, based out of the village of Selva in the Val Gardena valley. And it was nice to be making myself useful.
The landscapes of Italy’s South Tyrol are something very special indeed, even for mountain connoisseurs. This was my first visit, but I grew up on stories of the Dolomites. My grandad drove his old Vauxhall 30–98 sports car over there in 1927, and was so delighted with what he called ‘one of the most picturesque regions in Europe’ that he couldn’t resist returning regularly for the rest of his life.
The beauty of the area is partly down to the curious reflective qualities of the local rock. The great, jagged limestone bastions above you seem to soak up the light at different times of day. In the early morning they gleam an implausible golden colour with the rising of the sun, while the evening infuses the rock with soft rose tones. At her first sight of them, in 1948, Hemingway’s journalist wife, Mary Welsh, described them as ‘pink shafts rising higher into the clouds’.
It’s no surprise that nine areas of the Dolomites are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including a chunk directly north of Selva in the Puez-Odle Natural Park, where several of our walks ventured.
The tri-lingual Tyrol
The village of Selva is tucked away towards the eastern end of Val Gardena – a lush, deep valley in Italy’s South Tyrol province. The views are dominated by the distinctive peaks of the Sella and Sassolungo massifs to the south, while the seemingly impenetrable cliffs of the Stevia plateau loom directly to the north above the village. Before they became flashy ski resorts, the settlements of Val Gardena were famous for the manufacture of wooden toys, and carved statuettes still leer at passers-by from the windows of the surviving workshops.
If the architecture, prevailing German chatter and weissbier on tap seem distinctly Austrian, it’s because the area has only been Italian for less than a hundred years. The allies dangled it as a carrot to tempt Italy into the First World War, and the ‘White War’ along the Italian Front saw hellish winter fighting between the Austrians and Italians before the latter finally annexed South Tyrol in 1919.
To further complicate matters, at the time of its annexation, most of Val Gardena’s newly Italian citizens didn’t actually speak either German or Italian as their mother tongue. An American tourist visiting the ‘Toy Valley’ in the early years of the 20th century noted that ‘the people, a unique remnant of an unknown race, among themselves speak a strange language of their own, particularly those in the upper end of the valley.’ The language was Ladin – a Romance tongue peculiar to a small section of northern Italy – and it still predominates in valley communities like Selva, Ortisei and San Cristina.
What this means in practical terms is that whatever language you use in Val Gardena will be the wrong one. Greet a local in Italian and they’ll reply ‘grüss Gott’; order a beer in German and the bar staff will say ‘prego’. One of our group attempted both languages, only to be told by a passing lady that he really ought to try speaking Ladin. Signposts can often seem a bit crowded, until you realise that ‘Ortisei’, ‘St Ulrich’ and ‘Urtijëi’ are all the same place.
A wide choice of routes
Another reason the signposts are crowded is the sheer volume of fantastic mountain trails around, most of them remarkably well maintained. Taken together with the extensive network of lifts and the charming mountain huts serving cold glasses of creamy buttermilk and even colder beer, it’s little wonder the area is so popular with hikers and bikers alike.
Our particular trip with HF Holidays offered two choices of route each day. The easier walks tended to go at a fairly leisurely pace, with more of an emphasis on coffee and lunch stops – though some tactical use of the ski lifts and gondolas meant that cutting back on the legwork didn’t mean losing out on the views. The harder walks were rather more strenuous, generally clocking in at between 16 and 19 kilometres (10–12 miles), and with anything up to about 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) of ascent. As with the easier strolls, they tended to make use of lifts from time to time, and while purists will regard this as cheating, the flipside is that pruning 5km and 1,300m off the start of your day can bring some tantalisingly ambitious routes within the reach of the day walker.
Our guides, Sally and Bill, were knowledgeable and experienced, and the itinerary was well curated. Each day brought something different, from classic mountain days with taxing ascents to long, leisurely bimbles through verdant alpine meadows.
Thrill-seekers may also find themselves tempted by Val Gardena’s more vertiginous possibilities. The fighting along the Italian Front in the Great War saw the creation of many ‘vie ferrate’ (literally ‘iron ways’), where steel cables and ladders were bolted into the rock faces to help soldiers access strong strategic positions. These via ferrata routes have found their place in the modern world of leisure mountaineering as a sort of halfway house between a scramble and a rock climb. If you want to tackle one – perhaps on the mid-week ‘free day’ – you’ll need some specialist equipment and a local guide, but there are various firms in Selva that can oblige.
Not everyone chose to walk nose-to-tail on the group trips every day. Some of my fellow ramblers did the odd day of independent walking, while two keen botanists among our number tended to devise even shorter routes, so as to dawdle as long as possible over the local flora. One evening as we sat in the hotel bar, they proudly informed me that they’d spent an hour covering a single kilometre that morning.
It was easy to see how. Even as a layman, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered wildflower meadows to compare. Among the innumerable buttercups and bright clusters of bird’s-foot trefoil were pale alpine pasque flowers, rich yellow globeflowers, the purple blue trumpets of gentians, and pink alpine rhododendrons. My botanically-minded companions returned from their forays with pictures of the various orchids they’d sniffed out (including the famous lady’s slipper), and I found myself childishly delighted one afternoon above the Vallunga (the ‘long valley’ reaching north east out of Selva) when Sally pointed out the sticky-looking leaf rosette of an alpine butterwort, a carnivorous plant that feasts off insects at high altitudes.
Europe’s largest alpine meadow
Several walks ventured up onto the Alpe di Siusi (commonly known by its German name, the Seiser Alm), and these routes were among my highlights of the week. The largest high-altitude meadow in Europe, it’s set on the south side of Val Gardena above the village of Ortisei, and covers more than 20 square miles.
Our penultimate day saw us loop round the back of Sassolungo – the iconic ‘long rock’ that towers sentinel-like over Val Gardena – following a narrow path along the southern slopes of her stocky little sister, Sasso Piatto. As we descended onto the plateau of the Alpe di Siusi, the dusty mountain beneath our feet gave way to soft, fresh meadow, glittering with wildflowers. Bay ponies lounged in the sunshine under vibrant blue skies, and the rugged limestone peaks hulked tall in every direction. Visiting this extraordinary landscape in 1873, the English novelist Amelia Edwards wrote, ‘Imagine an American prairie lifted up bodily upon a plateau from 5,500 to 6,000 feet in height – imagine a waving sea of deep grass taking the broad flood of the summer sunshine and the floating shadows of the clouds […] then, after all, I doubt if you will have conceived any kind of mental picture that does justice to the original.’
You’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
- TIME/DISTANCE: Joly stayed in Selva, Val Gardena, and walks were accessed by bus, ski lift or directly from the hotel. Most walks departed around 9am and returned around 4pm. Itineraries vary depending on season and weather, but generally the easier walks range from 8–14km (5–9 miles), with 180–420m (600–1,400ft) of ascent, while the harder walks cover 11–18km (7–11 miles), with 700–1,300m (2,300–4,250ft) of ascent and up to 1,300m (4,250ft) of descent.