No snow re­quired: Ex­plor­ing Italy’s Dolomites dur­ing the off­sea­son

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - AUSTIN360 TRAVEL - By Rachel Walker

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.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY RACHEL WALKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

PHO­TOS CON­TRIB­UTED BY RACHEL WALKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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