The Dolomites Feature
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Hiking the Dolomites
For many overseas visitors, the Dolomites conjure images of downhill skiing at Cortina d'Ampezzo and Madonna di Campiglio. But summer, not winter, is high season here; Italians, German-speaking Europeans, and in-the-know travelers from farther afield come here for clear mountain air and world-class hiking. In 2009, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) named the Dolomites to its exclusive list of natural heritage sites. The dramatic terrain, inspiring vistas, an impossibly pleasant climate have are complemented by excellent facilities for enjoying the mountains.
Picking a Trail
The Dolomites boast a well-maintained network of trails for hiking and rock climbing. As long as you're in reasonably good shape, the number of appealing hiking options can be overwhelming.
Trails are well marked and designated by grades of difficulty: T for tourist path, H for hiking path, EE for expert hikers, and EEA for equipped expert hikers. On any of these paths you're likely to see carpets of mountain flowers between clutches of dense evergreens, with chamois and roe deer mulling about.
If you're just out for a day in the mountains, you can leave the particulars of your walk open until you're actually on the spot; local tourist offices (especially those in Cortina, Madonna, and the Heart of the Dolomites) can help you choose the right route based on trail conditions, weather, and desired exertion level.
Traveling the Vie Ferrate
If you're looking for an adventure somewhere between hiking and climbing, consider a guided trip along the Vie Ferrate (Iron Paths). These routes offer fixed climbing aids (steps, ladders, bridges, safety cables) left by Alpine divisions of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies and later converted for recreational use. Previous experience is generally not required, but vertigo-inducing heights do demand a strong stomach.
Detailed information about Vie Ferrate in the eastern Dolomites can be found at www.dolomiti.org. Capable tour organizers include Scuola di Alpinismo (Mountaineering School) in Madonna di Campiglio (0465/442634www.guidealpinecampiglio.it) and Cortina d'Ampezzo (0436/868505www.guidecortina.com).
One of the pleasures of an overnight adventure in the Dolomites is staying at a rifugio, one of the refuges that dot the mountainsides. There are hundreds of them, often in remote locations and ranging from spartan shelters to posh retreats. Most fall somewhere in between—they're cozy mountain lodges with dormitory-style accommodations. Pillows and blankets are provided (so there's no need to carry a sleeping bag), but you have to supply your own sheet. Bathrooms are usually shared, as is the experience of a cold shower in the morning.
The majority of rifugi are operated by the Club Alpino Italiano (www.cai.it). Contact information for both CAI-run and private rifugi is available from local tourist offices; most useful are those in Madonna di Campiglio (www.campiglio.to), Cortina d'Ampezzo (www.dolomiti.org), Val di Fassa (www.fassa.com), and Val Gardena (www.val-gardena.net). Reservations are a must, especially in August, although Italian law requires rifugi to accept travelers for the night if there is insufficient time to reach other accommodations before dark.
Food is as much a draw at rifugi as location. Although the dishes served are the sort of the rustic cuisine you might expect (salami, dumplings, hearty stews), the quality is uniformly excellent—an impressive feat, made all the more remarkable when you consider that supplies often have to arrive by helicopter. Your dinner may cost as much as your bed for the night—about €20 per person—and it's difficult to determine which is the better bargain.
Snacks and packed lunches are available for purchase, but many opt to sit down for the midday meal. Serving as both holiday hiking destination and base camp for difficult ascents, the rifugi welcome walkers and climbers of all stripes from intersecting trails and nearby faces. Multilingual stories are swapped, food and wine shared, and new adventures launched.
Stumbling on Ötzi
It was at the Similaun rifugio in September 1991 that a German couple arrived talking of a dead body they'd discovered near a "curious pickax." This was to be the world's introduction to Ötzi, the oldest mummy ever found.
The couple, underestimating the age of the corpse by about 5,300 years, thought it was a matter for the police. World-famous mountaineers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander happened to be passing through the same rifugio during a climbing tour, and a few days later they were on the scene, freeing the iceman from the ice. Ötzi's remarkable story was under way. You can see him on display, along with his longbow, ax, and clothes, at Bolzano's Museo Archeologico dell'Alto Adige, where he continues to be preserved at freezing temperatures.
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