Strap on your walking boots and head to the Dolomites

FOR walkers, September means one thing: the last chance of the year to pull on those boots and get up into the mountains. “It’s not Switzerland,” sniffed my wife, when I suggested that we take a break form our usual stomping ground and head to the Dolomites in north Italy. Well, you can’t argue with that, but if you are going to take one last trip this year, then the Dolomites are a brilliant alternative. In fact, now that the unbearable heat of summer has faded, this is the peak season in the South Tyrol region, the best place from which to explore the area.

The Dolomites take their name from the French geologist Dodat Gratet de Dolomieu, who was fascinated by the makeup of the light-coloured rock, and the way that it appears to take on different colours through the day as the light alters. The most famous part of the region is perhaps the Rosengarten, a mountain range that becomes oddly pink at sunset, something which is traditionally attributed to a rather peculiar story involving a goblin king called Laurin (and which also accounts for the number of hotels called Laurin in this part of the world).

The mountains form a barrier between the Latin and the Germanic worlds and while these days the two cultures co-exist comfortably – most people speak German and Italian, as well as the local Ladin dialect – this wasn’t always the case. Incredibly, the Austrians and the Italians actually fought in the mountains in the First World War. Several museums and cemeteries are dotted around the area to commemorate their sacrifice – including one at the mountain of Marmolada, where the Italians built a fort inside the glacier.

That pointless fighting left one valuable thing behind, though – the via ferrata routes that are all over the mountains. The armies hammered ropes and ladders into the rock to make it easier to get to their lookout spots and these – or modern versions of these – are still there, meaning that with a bit of equipment (and training) you too can get to the sorts of places normally accessible only to hardened mountaineers.

If that makes the Dolomites sound like something for iron-men, it’s not. The sheer number of cable cars and the friendly mountain huts – rifugios, as they are often known here – with their excellent food, make this region ideal for gentle walking, and means that you are rarely short of a way to cut short a day should weather (or fatigue) get the better of you. It’s a pretty family-friendly area.

The best-known part of the region is the 30km-long Val Gardena, famous for its wood-carving, examples of which will meet you at every turn – they’ve used their skills to make everything from Roman Legionaries to the world’s biggest Nativity. It’s a stupendously well-connected valley with three villages that are well set up for tourism: Selva Gardena (known in German as Wolkenstein), S Cristina (St Christina) and Ortesei (St Ulrich). If you want shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, then opt for Ortesei – the others are a little sleepy. That said, a shuttle bus runs regularly between the three villages and it’s no more than a 20-minute ride from one end of the valley to the other.

Ortesei is also the best served by cable cars. On one side, you ascend steeply on the Mont Seuc car, which takes you to the famous Alpe di Siusi, a green area that has been farmed since before Roman times. Its fame means that the area has been tamed a little too much and frankly the walking up there is a bit of a disappointment, unless you like tramping along flat roads for hours on end. Best to take a trip to the top for the view, then come down again. (Incidentally, if you buy the South Tyrol guidebook they sell in the tourist office, note that the path numbers have changed since they printed the book – have a look at the back page for information or you are sure to get lost.)

Much better walking is available if you take the cable on the other side of the town, to Seceda. The country up there is a little rougher, meaning that the possibilities are far more varied. You get superb views of the some of the peculiar, jagged mountains that are so unique to this area, and the massive Sella Gruppe in the distance. There are lots of walks, and it would be a shame to miss the beautifully situated Regensburger Hutte, or if you want a gentle stroll, just pop down to the friendly, family-run Rifugio Troier.

Once you have explored this end of the valley, take a trip to S Cristina and take the Monte Pana cable. There you can either sit in the valley in the shadow of the vertiginous Sassalungo mountain, or take the second car higher to Mont Seura. Take a gentle hour’s stroll under the mountain to the Ciamponoi refuge and cafe, and you can wander on towards the Sella mountains, or take the cable back down to Selva.

Most of the hikers you see in these parts are the new-boots-and-walking-sticks sorts. Cappuccinos and ice-creams are much more a part of the deal than altitude sickness and blisters. That said, where there are mountains there are challenges and there is no shortage of tough walking – take the eight-day Sella Gruppe circuit, for example. Whatever you want, the Dolomites have it. It’s true that it’s not Switzerland, but it’s none the worse for that.

Stay at: The Hotel Adler Spa & Sport Resort is the best place in Ortisei, a massive nineteenth-century hotel with a spa, outdoor swimming pool and gardens. Address: 39046 Ortisei, Val Gardena, Dolomites, Italy. Tel: +39 0471 775 001,

Getting there: The best option is probably to go to Bolzano, and then drive through the windy but utterly beautiful Sella Pass. For directions to Bolzano, see box above.