A six day trek in the Italian Dolomites

To kick off our summer European trip, Andrew and I went on a six day trek in the Italian Dolomites on the Alta Via 1 North trail with our friends Maddy and Dani. We took the train south on Monday 3 July from Lausanne to Venice where we met up with our friends, who had flown in from the U.S. the previous day. We all then hopped on a 2.5 hour bus to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a mountain resort village tucked up in the Dolomites of the Italian Alps. We stayed at the Hotel Ambra which was conveniently placed within a 5 minute walking radius of the bus station and the town’s main drag.

For this trip we used an adventure travel agency, Mac’s Adventure, to book a self-guided walking tour. For the tour, we walked each day from hut to hut on the Alta Via 1 trail and carried only our clothes and lunch for the day as dinner and breakfast were included in our room fee each night. We paid Mac’s Adventure an agent fee for booking our mountain huts (Italian: rifugi), our hotel in Cortina on either end of the trip, a guide book and also the map for their recommended route. Overall I had some mixed opinions on their service but it was helpful and easier than trying to book everything on our own.

Trek Day 1 – Tuesday 4 July: Our first day of the trek began with two bus rides for a combined two hours to the trail head at Lago di Braies in the Parco Naturale Fanes-Sanes-Braies, a gorgeous, crystal clear, alpine lake.

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Our Dolomites hiking crew: Maddy, me, Andrew & Dani. We are here at the trail head on Lago di Braies

We hiked upwards immediately for about 2 hours before we reached the highest point of the day, followed by a meandering trail through a high meadow before reaching our first rifugio.

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View from Forcella Sora Forno (2,388m), the first pass we reached on our trek and first glimpse we had of the expanse of the Dolomites.
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The high meadows of the Sennes area of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo on the final stretch to the rifugio. 

We ended up hiking 3.5 hours for 6.1 miles to the Rifugio Sennes. We lucked into a private room for the 4 of us to share along with showers (included in our booking).

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Rifugio Sennes

Dinner was off a menu with a EUR 20 credit towards our choice. We each got the goulash with knödel, which are boiled dumplings that are typically associated Austrian food and not Italian. This is because this province of Italy, South Tyrol, is predominantly German speaking and has been heavily influenced by the close proximity to Austria. This lead to a mix of Germanic and Italian cultures in this area that had been previously unknown to me.

Our knodel with beef goulasch at Rifugio Sennes on Day 1. 
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Morning view from Rifugio Sennes

Trek Day 2 – 5 July: We had a gorgeous day to hike further south on the trail to Rifugio Lavarella.

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Dani, me and Maddy hiking as we approached the rifugio. You can see here we had cows for neighbors 🙂 That is our rifugio on the right hand side.

We hiked 3 hours to the rifugio, which included a steep descent down a valley and then a gradual re-ascent back up to a similar elevation.  We checked in, stored our packs and then did another hike up to the Ju de Sant Antone at 2,466 meters (8,090 ft) to total our day’s mileage at 9.8 with an elevation gain of 3’234 ft for the day. It was a hike straight up to a pass and had an incredible view of the Dolomites and snowy peaks of the distant Alps.

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Walking up through the high meadows above Rifugio Sennes towards the Ju de Sant Antone
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Our group at the Ju de Sant Antone looking north. We had lunch here in the sun and there was a little shrine to the saint as well.
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View hiking down from the Ju de Sant Antone

We slept on the top floor under the eaves in a room shared with one other solo German hiker. The room booking included showers, which were welcome after a day on the trail. We passed the evening playing rummy on the porch and making friends with a fellow solo hiker from LA. We had half board at this rifugio which means it’s a set menu with a few options included in our room fee. Dinner for me was a fried egg, cheese and potatoes and fried veal and fries for the others.

My egg and potatoes with a slice of cheese in there. Simple but delish!

Trek Day 3 – 6 July: This was our longest day yet and definitely one of my favorites. The terrain was varied, as it was over high meadows covered in wild flowers, we hiked up two high passes (challenging but so rewarding), went down a super steep pass and entered the World War I ruins area. Overall we hiked 11.8 miles, 6.5 hours and 5,207 feet elevation gain through the day.

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In the morning, we hiked through these gorgeous meadows. There were herds of cows and horses along the way as well.

Dolomites long hike day

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A view from Forcella del Lago, the first pass we crossed, looking down and across the valley we hiked. You can see the trail we hiked on the left side and how it meets that trail in the center as it snaked it’s way up to Forcella Lagazuoi, our second pass of the day on the top left.
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Hiking down from the pass – super steep!
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Our group just below the Rifugio Lagazuoi

A super cool aspect of this section of the trail is that it is full of leftover remnants of World War I (trenches, high mountain hideouts, tunnels and stone huts) due to the vicinity of the former border between the dismantled Hapsburg Empire and Italy. An excerpt from our guidebook:

“During the 1914-1918 conflict Piccolo Lagazuoi was occupied by the troops of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is important to remember that at the time Cortina d’Ampezzo was one of the southernmost parts of the Empire so this was the front as the Italians advanced. Both sides spent massive amounts of time, energy and human lives digging tunnels (11 in all) through the mountains for the purpose of laying explosives to mine enemy positions. Escalated by the Italians from their stronghold it was designed to dislodge the Austrians who occupied the summit.”

It was amazing to walk through these high peaks and to imagine what it was like to wage war and live life as a soldier up here! It is hard to photograph, but the cliff walls above the trails had tons of little hideout holes bored into them, which were used by soldiers as lookouts and perches to ambush the enemy.

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High up in the Dolomites, we saw many of the ruins of the solder’s former hideouts. Here is one, you can see how well they blend in when they used the stones from the local peaks to build the huts.
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The girls taking on the defensive from one of the trenches 😉
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At least the view from the trench was nice!
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A view of the Cinque Torri on the right and the jagged peaks of the Croda da Lago on the far left. This was our view for a good 1.5 days. Not so shabby!

We stayed this night at Rifugio Angelo Dibona, a rifugio named after a famous guide and mountaineer from Cortina. The hut had an incredible view across the valley and a delicious menu. We lucked into a private room for the four of us, a shower and our choice of 3 courses from a menu of Italian style fare. Unfortunately I discovered I was incredibly allergic to some plant in this valley as I became super sneezy/stuffed up for the next 1.5 days, but such is life. Got to go with it!

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The Rifugio Dibona in the golden hour. It had a huge deck on the other side with views of these peaks
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Sunset and moonrise from Rifugio Dibona
The pasta from our dinner at Rifugio Dibona. We all got different pastas so that we could share. We had pasta with tomato sauce & mushrooms, gnocchi with chive sauce and ravioli. After that we each had grilled chicken, pork chops and an omelette. Goodness we ate so well!

The Dolomites are also home to the creation of the via ferrata, which started as a means for the WWI soldiers to scale the mountain peaks. Today, it is a popular sport and people travel here specifically to climb these historic via ferrata routes. Our rifugio was located at a parking lot below a ton of routes and also many rock climbing routes as well. You may recall that Andrew and I climbed a Via Ferrata last year (see post). They’re super fun and I wish we could have done one but we didn’t have the equipment.

Trek Day 4 – 7 July: If we had followed the main trail to hike directly to our next Rifugio we would have had a short day, so we deliberately routed ourselves on a bit of a detour. We hiked high above the valley first, went down into the valley, hiked up the other side to summit the Croda Negra (with incredible views) and then on over to the Rifugio Averau. It turned out to be a very long day and a little tough given that the previous day was long too, but we all had smiles whenever we saw the vast vistas and we’re surrounded by the fields of colorful wild flowers.  The day ended up being 11.8 miles, 6 hours and 3,624 ft elevation gain.

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In the morning we hiked to the top of an outcropping and met an older German couple from Stuttgart to take our photo
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One of the most intact ruins from the WWI encampments we saw on the trail.
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View across the valley and of the Cinque Torri on the right. We can’t see in this photo, but the Rifugio Dibona is just below those high peaks on the left, around the treeline.
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At the top of the Croda Negra
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View from rifugio Averau just after an evening thunderstorm
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Sunset view from the Rifugio Averau

We got to the Rifugio Averau for the night and thunderstorms rolled through. We sat on the covered deck watching storms pass over the tops of the mountains while sipping beers and playing Rummy. Honestly – this is the life!

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Rifugio Averau

The food at the rifugio was unbelievable and the best of the trip. We shared local pasta specialties for our first course, including a ravioli filled with beetroot and gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce. The main course was rabbit stuffed with bacon and cheese and a grilled white fish. The dessert was the best tiramisu any of us had ever had and a cheesecake made of the lightest sweet ricotta with chestnuts. Omg I went to bed so full and happy. I will dream of this meal for a lifetime!

Top left: Tiramisu; Top middle: Burrata stuffed ravioli; Top right: Stuffed rabbit: Bottom left: Beetroot stuffed ravioli; Bottom middle: Gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce; Bottom right: View from our table playing cards in the evening

We slept in a room of bunk beds that slept 10, which was the biggest of our trip. It felt a little luxurious as they had sheets (because otherwise you have to sleep with a sleeping bag liner and use a pillow case of your own as we did in all other rifugios) and they provided a shower towel (because otherwise we all used those quick drying travel towels). It was a sweet spot!

Day 5: After two long days of hiking our legs were tired and it was a little bit of a slow start, but we energized again as soon as we got moving and saw the gorgeous scenery again.

We started by walking down to the Cinque Torri, a group of stone towers popular with rock climbers which was also the home to a free open air museum that showed what the trenches and huts were like for soldiers stationed there during the war at this strategic location.

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The Cinque Torri. The open air museum was in a spot hidden by the rocks on the bottom left. We walked through the towers of rock before continuing on the trail off to the right.

We hiked on for a total of 8.1 miles in 4 hours with 1,196 feet elevation gain, going over two passes and through vast high meadows full of wildflowers and incredible views.  It was gorgeous!

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A great showcase of the variety of flowers in the meadows.

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Hiking down towards the Rifugio Croda da Lago, which is below the peaks on the left. You can also see Cortina down in the center of the valley below us.

We arrived at our last Rifugio of the trip at Rifugio Croda da Lago around 3, took showers (the first and only which required a fee of EUR 3.70 for 25 liters of water) and sat on the deck for the rest of the day enjoying the weather.

The menu of this Rifugio looked good but our half board menu only included a few options, and the food turned out to be fine but our least favorite of the trip (we had been spoiled rotten at previous Rifugi!!). We shared a room of 3 bunk beds with a middle-aged Swedish couple from Stockholm.

That night we got some really intense thunderstorms and sat under the cover of the buildings eaves with a bunch of other people watching the lightning light up the sky. We even saw a lightning bolt strike a tree on a ridge just above our rifugio. For our last night it was perfect!

Trek Day 6 – 9 July: On our last morning of the trek, we had a 2.5 hour, 5.6 mile 2,356 feet descent down from the Rifugio to the valley floor through a forest as we walked back into Cortina to the Hotel Ambra.

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On the morning of our last day on the trail

We spent the afternoon showering, organizing our luggage and hanging on the patio of the hotel catching up on blogging, photos and life. And gelato! That night we had a delicious dinner outside at the Restaurant Perla for amazing pizza.


Reflection on the Alta Via trek:

This trip was amazing and surpassed my expectations:

– We lucked out with weather. Blue skies every day and it never rained while we were on the trail. It was warm and we sweat plenty but it wasn’t unbearable. We even scored some awesome thunderstorms towards the end.

– The food was far more of a culinary experience than I knew it would be. We got to have incredible German and Italian food.  We were far from starving! Each rifugio was accessible by a 4WD road, so they had no problem getting supplies for such meals.

– We got to have showers every day, which I had not been sure would happen.

– The majority of the people we met on the trail were super friendly and we would even run into the same people from time to time, including our solo hiker friend from LA and a friendly group on a REI guided trip.

– The trails were well marked with plenty of signs and numbered trails.

Dolomites sign

– The wildflowers were lovely. I think we saw flowers of every single color of the rainbow and it was so beautiful. I was so pre-occupied that I didn’t manage to take many flower pictures.

– The Dolomites are lower in elevation than the Swiss Alps but they are so beautiful. The jagged peaks, wide open meadows dotted with wildflowers and the big valleys – it was just so beautiful every minute and we were constantly in awe.

– The WWI artifacts were really cool to see and a neat addition to the hike.

– The rifugios were so much nicer than I expected with far more amenities. We have seen a lot of cabanes in Switzerland that are rather spartan at times, but these were so nice. Of course part of the reason is because they have road access but still – the Italians really know how to do it right!!

– I would definitely like to try to do another similar trek in the future here in Italy or in another country. It was a very cool way to travel by hiking every day but stay in a place with a bed, running water and a restaurant.

So, the end of our memorable Dolomites adventure and the end of the first week of our summer off from work.

On Monday July 10 we all hopped back on the Cortina Express bus at 8:30 am to depart the beautiful Dolomites. We said goodbye to Maddy at the Venice airport as she was catching a flight back to NYC, Dani left us at the main bus station to stay the night in Venice (but we’ll see her again tomorrow in Bucharest) and Andrew and I stayed on the bus until it dropped us in Bologna. We are staying here for one night in an awesome little studio apartment with 4 Star Apartments (thankfully equipped with a clothes washer/dryer to clean all our smelly hiking clothes) on the edge of the old city by the train station and spent a few hours this evening exploring the city before we catch our flight in the morning to Bucharest, Romania. I must say that we were really happy with our short stay in Bologna. It was hot (90s) but the city streets are lined with covered arcades, we ate delicious ragu (aka pasta bolognese, which started here in this city), gelato and did a nice self guided walking tour to explore.

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Top left: Bologna ragu for dinner; Top middle: some canals are left over in parts of the city; top right: the two towers of the city; Bottom left: a church from the 5th century, seen from the arcades lining the street; bottom middle and right a spot at a bar near the Piazza Maggiore where we got local sparkling wine and a charcuterie plate. 

Next up: Romania!

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