Italy Reaches Its Peak in the Dolomites

The mountain range loved by Hollywood and known for its dizzying landscape offers serenity, adventure, and (maybe) hidden treasure.



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MY MEMORY OF the Dolomites as a child is of a place packed with a feeling of urgency. We were five cousins of all different ages, with different parental figures screaming at us to get our hats and jackets on or off, depending on the time of the day. I dreaded ski school, getting lost in the mountains, the frostbite, and falling off ski lifts. I was always the lanky, clumsier one. Ski teachers reprimanded me in the local Ladin language, and I had no idea what they were saying. But at the end of the day, when we were back home, we would look out at the Monti Pallidi, the pale mountains (the Dolomites are referred to as such because of their light gray color, close to that of the moon’s surface), as they turned bright pink with the haze of the setting sun, and my mother would read us origin folk tales about those incredible peaks. Time would stop. The stories were from an anthology collected by an Austrian anthropologist called Karl Felix Wolff.

From Plan de Corones to Mount Averau to Val di Fassa, every part of the Dolomites has a hidden history. Under Lago di Braies, for example, legend claims there is an underground region where the last of the ancient Fanes people sleep. When the promised time comes, the Fanes will awaken, step into the sun, and resurrect their ancestors’ world. The stories usually involved centuries-long naps in the darker nooks of the mountains and a riveting desire to return to the sun. Light and shadows are always in dialogue and conflict. The creatures living in the woods of the Trentino-Alto Adige region were mysterious: burly Salvans, primitive men with furs who inhabited the caves of Val di Fassa; milk-thirsty Salvanel trickster elves; and graceful, luminous Vivana fairies who lived on the banks of high rivers and helped villagers with their domestic chores, collecting laundry from clotheslines and folding it. This is the architectural reason why balconies and window shutters of the more traditional houses have holes in them called portelle delle vivane. They are fairy-feeders.



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It wasn’t until a recent trip to the Dolomites that I got to experience a glimmer of that more enchanted, primordial side of the pale mountains. I alighted in Bolzano one week prior to a looming knee surgery appointment. Whether I wanted it or not, this was bound to be a slower-than-normal adventure, the exact opposite of what I’d known as a child. I arrived at the Alpe di Siusi, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, after a long train ride and a steep, winding drive up the pass. I spotted the Sciliar massif with its dizzying views and finally arrived at the majestic Alpina Dolomites hotel. The building was all wood, stone, and glass, with wide-open spaces that managed to feel spacious and cozy at the same time. Entering the quartzite facade felt like penetrating the mountain itself. The architecture reflected the simultaneous movements that were working within me: a sense of vertigo and Stendhal syndrome when confronted with Europe’s most dramatic high-altitude plateau and one of utter peace that came with feeling so close to the sky.

I was tired, yet every single part of me resisted the idea of receiving a relaxing spa treatment. I was on a defiant urban kick of not needing anyone’s help to unwind. Nothing would ever work, I thought as I crossed the threshold of the panoramic wellness area with its salt and aroma steam rooms and Finnish and herbal saunas. Ten minutes later, I was immersed in a heated waterbed filled with mountain hay, fast asleep. This unexpected rest, like the ones of the Fanes in the mountains, would mark the beginning of the New Dolomites. Mountains have their own concept of time, one that is actually much closer to my own delayed physicality. In one of her essays, the American writer Rebecca Solnit beautifully detailed the magnetic properties of remote mountain ranges: “The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” I wanted to go there.

And I did. The following day I reached the town of Ortisei and met with Alex Demetz, the director of marketing for both Alpina Dolomites and my new temporary nest, the Hotel Gardena Grödnerhof, who greeted me with an infusion of mountain herbs: lemon balm, nettle, peppermint, sage, and cornflower. The hotel, which had been one of the valley’s very first, was soon going to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Ortisei is nestled between the mountains and is in the shade for a great part of the year. That’s why Demetz, who grew up under the wing of his mountain-hiking father, Emanuel, also spent his youth in search of Solnit’s distant light. He longed for the sun, his own “color of desire.” I went hiking with Emanuel the following day.

When I showed up at the meeting point, he was standing there with a worldly, ironic grin. I anxiously spilled the beans about my looming knee issues and all the things I could not do, but he stopped me before I could finish my sentence. The other person who was coming with us just had hip surgery. So there we were, two women who needed to take it slow. We took the gondola up to the Alpe di Siusi plateau, the sunniest part of the Dolomites and the largest high-alpine pasture. Emanuel led the way as we passed donkeys, cows, and horses. The huge valley we were traversing would soon bloom with hundreds of wildflowers and rare endemic plants. The hill was spotted with wooden cottages and summer vacation outposts owned by locals, with breathtaking views of the Sassolungo and Sassopiatto. Two hundred forty million years ago, the Dolomites’ two most iconic mountains were submerged under an ocean called the Tethys, which extended from Spain to China. The Sassolungo was a mighty coral reef, which explains its jagged appearance, whereas the Sassopiatto, with its more levigated, soft contours, lay in the area where the surf broke and was smoothed out by millions of waves crashing into it. We were walking on what was once a seabed, and the mighty crags we saw in the distance had survived the coldest glacial era. One of the local legends said that under the Sassolungo massif lay a buried giant. The pinnacles of the mountain, known as the Five Fingers, were the beast’s last visible body part.


We stopped for a drink at the rustic family-owned Baita Sanon and made our way back down; both our knees and hips were happy and flexible. Sometimes when you adjust to the rhythm of a place, magical things happen to your body. The spa treatments helped too. I was so encouraged I decided to stay an extra day and make my way across the mountains toward Cortina d’Ampezzo, aka the Queen of the Dolomites. I had been there most recently thanks to Francesco Chiamulera, who had invited me to his literary festival Una Montagna di Libri. Chiamulera is the literary and cultural king of Cortina, a place all Italians know because of its glamorous retro-flavored history. Sophia Loren hosted Italy’s first Olympic Games there in 1956. Her visit was followed closely by those of Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, post-“Casablanca” Ingrid Bergman, and Clark Gable. “A Place for Lovers,” directed by Vittorio De Sica, was shot there and jump-started the hot affair between Marcello Mastroianni and Faye Dunaway. The first “Pink Panther” was also shot there in the early ’60s, starring Claudia Cardinale outfitted in Yves Saint Laurent.

Chiamulera has picked up on a lot of that original glamour and channeled it into books, with great literary guests such as Emmanuel Carrère, Peter Cameron, and Azar Nafisi attending his festival. He was on his way to Taipei when I was visiting, but, as I imagined, he refused to let me set foot in town without a proper list of recommendations, including a meal at the Michelin-starred SanBrite, which juxtaposes san, which means “healthy” in dialect, with brite, the word for a shepherd’s house in Ampezzano dialect. The restaurant is owned by Chef Riccardo Gaspari and director Ludovica Rubbini. They make, season, and age their own cheese; raise their own animals; and are masterful at mixing and merging unexpected flavors — from prairie wildflowers to mountain pine.

Chiamulera also introduced me to Le Regole d’Ampezzo, a communal organization traceable back to the first inhabitants of the basin: former nomads who, with their cows and sheep, laid claim to a shared property in the woods and pastures that would give them equal access to its natural resources. Since the 1990s, the Regolieri, or “rulers” — a fitting name as they are a kind of untouchable local royalty — have also managed one of the region’s most beautiful parks, the Natural Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites. The head of the park, Michele da Pozzo, who has spent his last years reopening water trails, handed me over to Manuel Constantini, the park’s ranger. We walked up to the prehistoric Fanes waterfall and looked at tiny crevices in the trees. We listened to woodpeckers and saw deer hopping away. We made our way through many former World War I barricades. In this area, it’s still possible to find bombs, grenades, and other artifacts from the war. We walked up to the ruins of St. Hubertus, a castle built in 1896 that was the summer residence and hunting lodge of the eccentric and fascinating Irish countess Emily Bury and her friend and lover Anna Powers. When the Great War broke out, the castle was vacated, and after a few years, the Austrians burned it down. Very little is left of its former glory, but a butler supposedly buried the countess’ treasure in the woods under the tallest stone pine. Many people to this day still go out looking for it.

When they step into the sun to resurrect the world of their ancestors, the Fanes will probably find the legendary bounty — along with the peak’s other hidden treasures, crystallized like coral reefs, giant’s fingers, and primordial seas.


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Chiara Barzini Writer

Chiara Barzini is an Italian author and screenwriter, nominated among the 100 most influential Women of 2020 by Forbes Italy. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vogue, The Village Voice, T Magazine, Interview Magazine, Harper’s, Vanity Fair Italy, GQ Italy, Vice, and Dazed&Confused amongst others. She is the author of the story collection Sister Stop Breathing (Calamari Press, 2012) and the novel Things That Happened Before The Earthquake (Doubleday, 2017.)


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