No snow required: Exploring Italy’s Dolomites during the offseason
I had two challenges to overcome when planning a late-May trip to Northern Italy’s Trentino-Sudtirol region: a major snow year and the offseason.
The first meant that the thousands of miles of trails in the rugged Dolomite mountains were still buried. The second meant that many of the high-alpine refugios, famed for hearty food and rustic lodging, were closed between winter and summer. One more thing — I arrived in the rain and the forecast called for more storms throughout my trip. For a trail runner eager to spend the night at staffed mountain huts while completing a multiday traverse, things looked grim.
At least, that was my initial reaction. Then I connected with Sandro de Zolt, an internationally certified mountain guide and a gear tester for La Sportiva, the outdoor footwear and apparel company based in Val di Fiemme, a narrow valley at the base of the Dolomites where mountains loom over storied pine forests. Sandro was born and raised in a military station at Passo Rolle, where he learned to ski at 2 and was scaling the mammoth cliffs of his backyard with his father at 7.
Nothing to do in his home stamping grounds in May? Pshaw.
True, I wouldn’t disappear into the mountains for days at a time on this trip, he said. But with his guidance, I would get a wellrounded tour of the entire region — an idyllic mountainous area inhabited since ancient Roman times — through day hikes, local drives and, thanks to a happy scheduling coincidence, glimpses of some of the world’s best cyclists in the Giro d’Italia, a three-week, multistage, grand-tour race whose mountain stages overlapped with my stay in the area.
The chief highlight of a week that included many was a vigorous and scenic 15-mile hike that included summiting Monte Castellazzo (7,650 feet) and being guided to staggering views of
enormous mountains and a huge statue of Jesus positioned in the pose of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Sandro, a friend and I started hiking in the woods and followed a creek up a steep grade for about a mile before the trail jogged left and climbed to a grassy ridge. That’s when I was rendered speechless. Ahead of us, mountains powered out of the earth, bold giants of rock and ice with patches of snow clinging to the exposed cliffs, creating a beautiful mosaic of gray and white leaning into the sharp, blue sky.
An emerald field colored by wildflowers spread out before the mountains, and in its center was one of the region’s famous high Alpine refugios — which was, as expected, closed.
Sandro, who is also the chief of mountain rescue in Val di Fiemme, asked if we would be interested in an espresso. Of course we would. Once we regained our composure, we walked toward those incredible peaks, through which ran a narrow road and tiny village, until we reached Passo Rolle, home of the military station where he grew up as well as several hotels, a small ski area — and a roadside espresso stand.
Caffeinated, we continued upward to the summit of Monte Castellazzo. From the peak, we savored simple sandwiches of salami and fresh mozzarella on Italian bread as we gazed down on a sprawling snowfield at the foot of a trifecta of classic Dolomite peaks (Bureloni, Vezzana, Cimon della Pala). It’s an understatement to say that I was absolutely not thinking about all the things I couldn’t do in the Dolomites at that time of year. Instead, I was immersed in the moment. Of all the pleasures in life, picnicking on a mountain while surrounded by even higher mountains is among my favorites.
Initially settled by the Romans in 15 B.C., the Trentino-Sudtirol is made up of two self-governing provinces that are among the wealthiest in Italy. Before Italian control in the 1940s, however, this area was part of AustriaHungary and, before that, the Austrian Empire and, before that, the Holy Roman Empire. During both world wars, the mountainous borders saw much conflict; today’s refugios began as wartime bunkers.
Outdoor recreation started around the 1950s with the arrival of winter skiers and mountaineers eager to summit the high peaks. Cortina d’Ampezzo, a resort in the Dolomites, was the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, and is a stop on the present-day World Cup Circuit for Alpine skiing. Fly-fishing has arrived, according to Sandro, and the multitude of trails, trams and chairlifts create an extensive adventure network interspersed with unique and charming villages. These towns are populated by hearty mountain folks, many of whom live in thick-walled, Tyrolean-style chalets that are hundreds of years old.
Still, the Dolomites feel off the beaten path, especially for Americans who often opt for more accessible ranges in the European Alps. One reason for this is that it’s not easy to get to the Dolomites. I flew from Denver to Munich, Munich to Verona, then drove two hours north to Cavalese, a village in Val di Fiemme at the southern base of the range.
Unlike many mountain towns in North America, which typically began as mining, ranching or railroad towns and have a more recent history, this area is thick with legacy. Many of the village residents, such as Sandro and his fiance, Gulia Delladio — who will be the fourth generation to run La Sportiva, which her great grandfather founded in 1928 — have been there for generations. True, the mountains are the main draw. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much else there was to experience.
“Drive from the lake up and through Pregasina — it might feel like you’re going on someone’s driveway — until you reach the church. Park and then take any of the trails that start; they are all worthwhile.” So read Sandro’s text when I asked for a terrific, off-the-beaten-path hike near Lake Garda, Italy’s largest freshwater body.
At the lake’s edge, palm trees indicated a Mediterranean climate. In the tiny village of Pregasina, the church’s parking lot was full of cars, and a crowd of hikers spread out onto a web of trails. Trail 422A, Sandro’s suggestion, was a thin path that led to the land’s edge and then climbed over the undulating landscape to a prominent viewpoint. On my left was a sheer drop over the cliffs, hundreds of feet to the water, where sailboats bobbed like tiny toys. On my right, the forest thickened and burst with the sound of songbirds and rustling critters. The sky was overcast, but the views were still rewarding: stacks of mountains falling into the dark blue water below. The lake was vast, its end nowhere in sight.
On my way home, I caught the hill-climbing stage of the cycling tour, which was quick, colorful and abuzz with action.
Children zoomed across the cobbled plaza of Arco, a small town near the lake. Bordered by limestone cliffs on one side, Arco is famous for its annual Rock Master event, an international climbing competition. Judging by the sporty tourists in the town plaza — some carrying trekking poles, others riding mountain bikes — it is as much a launching point for adventure as a climbing town.
It is also home to Gelateria Artigianale Tarifa, where I savored the creamiest pistachio gelato I had during my trip (which is saying something, given the amount of gelato I consumed).
Another recommendation from Sandro took me to Planitzer, a wood-hewn restaurant between Trento, a classic Italian city with cobblestone streets and a beautiful plaza with a fountain at its center, and Val di Fiemme. Planitzer serves food grown by its neighbors and makes its own wine and liquors, and I arrived hungry. As I relaxed into the soothing, pine-walled interior and savored a glass of local pinot noir, I struggled to decipher the expansive menu, which came only in German or Italian. Seeing my effort, my server sat at my table and offered to translate each page. Instead, I asked her to bring me the local specialty.
Thus began my introduction to nettle dumplings, which sound so much better in their native tongue: unsere knödel. Two large dumplings the size of a child’s fist arrived in a rich, buttery sauce. With a texture similar to gnocchi and an earthy flavor, the savory dumplings were pleasantly filling. Afterward, as I settled my bill, my server asked if I’d like to sample several flavors of their homemade liqueur, a question to which there was only one answer. My favorite was the elderberry.
A scene from my first day in the area captures the spirit of the people who live there. I drove from the airport in Verona to Trento, a city of about 100,000 residents, and promptly joined hundreds of Italians gathered in a cobblestoned plaza to cheer Giro d’Italia riders sprinting through Stage 16, a 34.2-kilometer time trial.
Individually, riders flew out of a starting gate as music boomed across the courtyard. The cyclists pedaled, brilliant in their spandex and awe-inspiring with their muscled speed, while the crowd bellowed in joy. I marveled at the riders’ passion, endurance and strength, but it was the energy of the crowd - a friendly, determined spirit I would encounter throughout my week - that most impressed me. Coupled with the stunning landscape and delicious food, this hospitality reinforced something Sandro told me on our hike: There is no perfect time to visit because each month has its own appeal. I couldn’t agree more.
Sometimes referred to as the “Matterhorn of the Dolomites,” Cimon della Pala is the best known peak of a group of mountains called the Pale di San Martino.
Mountain guide Sandro de Zolt, left, takes visitors on adventures of all types, including multi-pitch climbs, ski mountaineering and hiking. Here, he descends Monte Castellazzo with a client.
Nettle dumplings known as knodel, a specialty in the SudTyrol region of Italy, are served in a rich, buttery broth.