In the welcome glance of placid sunshine and morning optimism, we head to the train station in Lienz, Tyrol, en route to the trail head. Along the way, we are intrigued to see hay bales in unlikely disarray and trees apparently buried to their knees in mud. <Hmm, must have been some real flooding.> Arriving in Toblach, just over the border into Italy, and inquiring for the bus stop, we learn that our bus is back in service as of this very morning, following storm-caused road closures. <Wow, fortunate timing!> Arriving at the lake where the trail starts and clarifying which way to head around the lake, we are told by three different individuals that the trail is (partially) closed, due to landslides. <WHAT?!> I have sudden visions of six days’ hiking in the Dolomites, anticipated for a year plus, suddenly imploding. From the front desk of the luxury hotel on the near end of the lake, I phone the local tourist office. When the woman who answers tells me that the trail is indeed open, I joyfully pass the phone to Stefanie for native-German-speaker confirmation that I have heard correctly!
So began a week in northern Italy with friends Stefanie and Anne! Since it’s way more interesting to catch a glimpse of the area than describe the trail footstep by footstep, I’ll try to keep my commentary to a minimum and stick largely to photographic reporting.
Day 1 to Rifugio Pederü
“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…and strips the forests, and in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!'” (Psalm 29)
We set off on the Alta Via I (literally, “High Way #1”) or Dolomiten Höhenweg (it’s Südtirol — part of Austria till after WWI, so there’s a lot of Italian/German signage) — first rounding the lake, beautiful even with the landslide debris floating on its surface, and then launching up the rock-strewn, path-obliterated slope.I guess the first 1 1/2 hours, maybe, we didn’t have a trail, but thankfully the mud beneath the rocky surface had more or less solidified, and we weren’t the only ones who had ignored the “trail closed” signs at the departure point from the lake. What was most interesting, and a bit alarming, was the state of the trees — those in the path of the rock slide, either felled or somehow still upright, had been stripped not only of their evergreen foliage but, to a large extent, also of their bark.
Above the rock slide area, the landscape took on a more predictable outlook — a meandering trail with lots of ups and downs, past a couple of rifugios (the Italian version of the Austrian Hütte or mountain lodge). Seven hours later, the last stretch landed us about at the elevation we’d started at, after descending a ridiculously steep road (much better to be walking than driving), and we were glad to be able to relax over dinner at Rifugio Pederü. (The first three nights I was almost uncomfortably comfortable, given that I imagined a tiny bit of roughing it for a week.)
Day 2 to Rifugio Lagazuoi
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God…. (Psalm 36)
Our second day was the longest, as we wandered deeper into the grand landscape, and our destination for the day was the highest point on the trek. We started out heading up out of the basin where our previous night’s lodgings had been. Along the way, there were some intriguing rock formations — I really can’t comprehend the sights and sounds that must have accompanied the shaping of these hills. Then our way stretched out in a broad valley… …before heading up toward the pass (located in the middle right of the photo below): After the climb up, we found some minimal shelter from the wind for a few minutes’ rest and a snack. With the clouds not looking so inviting, we soon headed down the precipitous other side. Amidst the rock-strewn terrain, what should I find but Edelweiss (the one bit of flora I was particularly dreaming of seeing)!?! Down from the pass, the sun was out again. It was pretty splendid to lie in a patch of grass and lazily observe the shifting clouds drifting above the solid mountains. Then, on and up — it was still a lot farther than it looked! At one point, we thought we heard voices on some nearby parallel trail, but couldn’t see anyone. Lo and behold, the voices were carrying from the massive cliffs off to our left, where a couple of climbers were part-way up the face. (Can you find them? Hint: They are wearing blue and red.)Closing in on our goal, we saw the first signs of the dugouts and tunnels that dot the landscape, leftover from WWI and the three-year conflict between the Austrians and Italians for the pass. Arriving at the lodge, there was plenty of time before dinner — a three-course Italian meal! — to enjoy chatting with other hikers (German/Austrian and Israeli), who had some pretty entertaining stories of how the landslide threw a monkey wrench into their hiking plans, having intended to start a day or two before us. I also enjoyed taking the short path out to the actual peak, trying to absorb the grandeur of the mountains bathed in the light of early evening.
Day 3 to Rifugio Averau
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; He utters His voice, the earth melts. …Come, behold the works of the Lord, how He has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth….” (Psalm 46)
We woke up to a splendid breakfast buffet — hiking Austrian or Italian style is no way to lose weight! Breads of various kinds, cheeses and salami, yogurt and a variety of muesli, sweet breads, soft boiled eggs, tea and coffee. Oh my! I was glad I’d gotten up early, not only for the extra cups of coffee downed, but particularly for the splendid morning sunlight washing over the landscape. Before heading down the trail, we took the short jaunt out the peak again… …and then headed toward the highlight of the day’s trek — or maybe I should say the low-light, since headlamps were in order! …One of the ways down from the peak is through the 100-year-old tunnels, built like mazes into the mountainsides. We couldn’t imagine the deprivations the soldiers who built them must have experienced — exposed as they were to harrowing enemy fire and the perhaps even more relentless enemy cold…. We spent two hours in and out of various passages and traversing steep, damp steps down dark passages, in-between arriving at multiple portals overlooking the landscape below. Somehow war in such an environment seemed especially senseless — were the soldiers shouldering munitions or injured comrades able to appreciate the rugged beauty around them, or was their misery in the tunnels as unmitigated as that of those in the trenches in northern Europe, with the added element of alpine weather? On the last bit of our descent, we got caught in the edge of a rainstorm, but all in all we were spared getting wet. From the pass at the foot of the mountain to our next destination, we managed to get slightly lost — but still got to the lodge before the building wind turned into a proper rainstorm.
Day 4 to Rifugio Citta di Fiumi
Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge…. (Psalm 61)
Day four was one of the most beautiful days on the trail. Although I was initially pretty disappointed to forego an over-the-peak route (questionable weather, and I couldn’t find anyone else leaving the lodge that morning who was taking that route), the route we did take was spectacular — starting with a brief bit of graupel (miniature, alpine hail) as we got underway, and then a chance to scramble around the base of this wonderful work of art: From there our path was a a steep descent, followed by a trail aiming back up to a beautiful lake and a rifugio that offered shelter in good time to bypass a rain shower and watch the fast-changing skyscape while enjoying a coffee. I decided to go local, and ordered an espresso with grappa. Man, the shot of Italian brandy (more or less) was so strong that I couldn’t even taste the coffee! Our path led up to the next ridge/pass, then on and on in the same wonderful, ever-changing panorama of jagged peaks and unsettled clouds. Along the way, we took time for shots of something besides landscape — a rocky seat, peanut butter and cranberry sandwich-making, and the other creatures inhabiting the terrain. We enjoyed our lodgings for the evening — the first Alpenverein Hütte (mountain club lodge) of this trek. (The other lodgings so far were privately owned, but the ones sponsored by the mountain club tend to be family run affairs, small, and a bit more rustic!)
I foolishly decided to venture forth before dinner for a rocky scramble — only to discover I was really too tired for adding more to the day. But, I managed to get pretty soaked, since I didn’t turn around in time to beat the rain.
In the evening, we ended up playing a card game with another woman sitting at our same table. A widow, she was out hiking for an extended number of days, determined to enjoy again some of the same trails she’d enjoyed with her husband over the years. She turned out to be an interesting and lively personality — Austrian, but having spent all her adult life in France. She seemed as pleased to have been included in our rounds of cards as we were for her company, and she even jotted down the name of the game for her grandkids. …This is the fun of hut-to-hut hiking — the encounters, or sometimes repeated encounters, with fellow hikers, in a setting where everyone is simultaneously worn out and refreshed from days outside in the sun and fresh air.
Day 5 to Rifugio Tissi
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. …When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8)
A splendid find along the way on day five was a small farm advertising burro (butter) and formaggio (cheese). Anyone who knows me well knows I’m quite a fan, so of course Anne and Stefanie and I had to stop. Not only did we enjoy the quaint scenes of morning on a small farm, but, with the help of another hiker who translated, we managed to buy a wedge of cheese for lunch — and glorious glasses of fresh milk! What fun! It was Saturday, so day hikers were out in full force, their numbers largely made up of young Italian families. Past the lake, the crowds thinned. Arriving at our last lodge of the week, we were blessed with some of the best views of the trip — the ridge just above the lodge offered a 360 degree panorama, not to mention a precipitous view down to the lake at the foot of the mountain. I felt like I could spend ages just sitting up there and taking it all in. The warm afternoon, the pleasant small talk with a young Italian couple also relishing the view, the subtle changes of light and color over the vast landscape of peaks and valleys — what a storehouse of happiness for cold, gray days to come! After dinner, a whole crew of us traipsed back to the ridge for sunset — the master Painter, unwearied by all the preceding days of equal masterpieces, splashing fresh glory on His canvas of common grace. Later, when I thought pretty much everyone had gone to bed (it was all of about 10:15 p.m., but there’s sort of an unspoken rule of climbing into your sleeping bag by 10:00), I tiptoed back downstairs, in hopes of catching a glimpse of a meteor shower. A hum of Italian came from a small group of other would-be stargazers. I found a spot in the grass to stare up at the heavens — the Milky Way sprawling across the dark expanse and a few exciting meteors passing overhead — until it got too cold to wait for more meteors.
Day 6: Back to Town
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90)
Finally it was time to leave the mountains and head back to town. On our descent, we were again surprised by the number of weekend day hikers, many with young kids in tow. Many, too, brought along their dogs, including breeds that looked more like little lap dogs. However, the dogs seemed to share their masters’ enthusiasm for the outdoors, trotting up the incline with good cheer sufficient to compensate for their short little legs. (If a year for humans equals seven for a dog, then there must be a similar multiplication factor for mileage calculations for small dogs!)
It was lovely to find a cool mountain stream for wading — even if less ideal to accidentally offload my backpack on top of an ant hill! By mid-day, we were back to town, where we found a cafe to perch till the bus came… …having been blessed with six days with dear friends, splendid views, good health, tasty meals, and lovely fauna and flora….
Udine and Back to Vienna
Getting back to Vienna from the end of our trail was no small task. First a bus ride to Belluno, where we realized we had just enough minutes to buy train tickets and catch the waiting train on to Udine, where we’d already booked tickets for a return to Vienna the next day. Unfortunately, in the rush, the ticket salesmen misunderstood the destination name and sold us the wrong tickets. By the time we realized the mistake, there was no time to board the departing train, and the same man, rather disgruntled, exchanged out tickets for seats on what must have been Italy’s oldest, stuffiest, slowest model. Changing in Treviso (which we hadn’t meant to visit at all), we were rather dismayed to see a train heading to Wien Hauptbahnhof (Vienna Main Station) just about to pull out of the station.
But, after another train to Udine, we found the bus to the suburb where we’d booked an Air B&B for the night. Our Italian host greeted us as though long-lost relatives, his beaming face and exaggerated gestures the perfect stereotype of Italian hospitality. Although a sleepy-seeming little town, there was a delightful pizza shop, where we sat on bar stools outside, gobbling up the pizza and sipping at the wine that were both perched on the wide windowsill “table.” From there, we were directed to a gelato shop, which was the perfect way to polish off the evening!
The next morning we had time to look around Udine, with its ancient town square and relaxed atmosphere, before an uneventful train ride back to Vienna. Before I can write “The End,” I must say a specific, huge thanks to my cousin Rachael. She took the same route last summer, have planned it all out herself from her home in New Zealand, and she kindly asked if I would join her. When it because obvious that I couldn’t return from the States last summer as planned, it was a big disappointment to miss Rachael’s visit to Europe and the much-anticipated hiking trip together in the Dolomites. …This summer, it was tremendously helpful to follow in the footsteps of her thorough planning — and I hope there will be an opportunity to hike together (maybe New Zealand?) in times to come….