The Dolomites, July 24-28

We loved the Dolomites. The combination of spectacular jagged mountains, attractive villages, excellent hiking, and small adventures, suited us perfectly. We stayed for five nights, the longest in one place yet in our six weeks of travel. We even started to refer to Hotel La Maison as "home." The peak tourist season hadn't quite started yet, so to us the Dolomites felt like a well-kept secret. That feeling was probably deceptive -- Europeans are clued in even if Americans aren't; they'll arrive in droves as soon as August hits.

We stayed in the town of Alleghe, well-located in the eastern Dolomites. It's a small and accessible place, allowing us to perform a thorough comparison of gelato offerings. (Matters are complicated by the fact that flavors change daily at each shop.) Coincidentally, Alleghe boasts one of the few indoor ice rinks in all of the Italian Alps, a skating opportunity not lost on Tim, who does miss his weekly ice hockey games at home. Peculiarly, a flier at the rink advertising the Alleghe hockey club shows a game against Stanford -- we kid you not.

In our four full days, we embarked on four little expeditions, all involving some hiking, and most also involving cable-car, gondola, and/or chairlift rides. It's impossible to do justice to the beauty and ruggedness of the Dolomites in just a few photos. The mountains alone are superb enough, but there's an added dimension: The Italian-Austrian front during World War I ran right through this inhospitable area. Aside from the history itself, the legacy of WWI activity includes two interesting features:
  1. A huge network of tunnels and other fortifications inside some incredibly steep mountains. On one hike we descended for a couple of hours inside a maze of tunnels, emerging nearly a thousand vertical feet lower on the mountain. We rented helmets and headlamps, and were given a rather sketchy map. The occasional suspicion we might be lost only added to the adventure. There were periodic peeks through lookouts and gun holes, and we were able to pop out on a ledge for a lunch break (photo 4).

  2. Via ferrata (literally "iron way") throughout the entire mountain range. Cables, ladders, handholds, steps, and other fixed features were installed originally to enable the soldiers to move around the steep mountains, and now do the same for hikers and climbers. We only tried a few easy ones without ropes (photo 5) -- they got the heart pumping sufficiently, and were a great deal of fun.
It was a relief to get to the mountains after the heat of the Italian cities. We were fairly lucky with the weather -- some sun, some clouds, and a bit of rain but nothing that hampered activities. We'll undoubtedly see more severe weather, sooner or later, as we continue our travels west through the Alps.

Settling into a comfortable hotel, with internet in the room and little daily overhead in terms of travel logistics, meant we were able to dig a bit more than usual into schoolwork. Still, it's a topic of some discussion. We're now rationalizing that later parts of the trip -- when we're in a camper or on a sailboat for extended periods, for example -- will be more amenable to consistent schoolwork. We'll see.

So far we haven't met as many people during our travels as we might like. Since there are so few Americans in the Dolomites, we did quickly recognize and befriend an American family staying in our hotel, including an impromptu parking-lot soccer game among the kids, and a joint dinner out. The language barrier makes it difficult to go beyond a casual conversation with locals, so other travelers may be our best bet for social interactions outside the family.

Next stop: Aprica, then on to Chamonix, France

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