Leave the beach behind and trek Europe’s prettiest mountain range, the Dolomites
Sun seekers might disagree, but in my opinion there are few better places to spend the summer than the Alps, where you can find dozens of activities to suit everyone from uber athletes to Uber passengers.
My family needed a little convincing too, before they’d agree to spend their holidays in the mountains rather than on an island beach resort, so to sway them I called on the help of Dolomite Mountains, a holiday company specialising in tours of the Italian mountain range. Our plan was to mix some hiking and biking with a bit of comfort and culture.
We flew to Innsbruck and got a two hour transfer over the Brenner Pass into Italy to San Cassiano, and checked into one of those hotels that make you feel instantly comfortable. Hotel Conturines in San Cassiano is a third generation family hotel that doesn’t make you feel like you are gatecrashing a family event. Lovely.
The next morning we met our guide, Ricardo Feichter. He had the task of assessing the capabilities of our mixed group before deciding on a suitable route. He proposed a five hour circuit stopping at Santa Croce for lunch. The path was a hike/scramble through beautiful larch woods, skirting underneath the classic Dolomite mountain feature of sheer limestone walls thrusting like teeth from a set of dark green gums.
Ricardo was a fantastic guide – showing us scraps of local history, pointing out twisted trees that had been struck by lightning, spotting animals and flowers. With my Londoner’s (ie. non-existent) knowledge of nature this was all very welcome.
Ricardo had selected the perfect path for kids, one that climbs steeply, requiring them to use hands to scramble up, with occasional tricky sections including a long drop. This isn’t about exposing them to unnecessary danger, but gives them a sense of achievement and adventure.
Of course the perfect path also has the perfect lunch stop, and when the kids discovered that the restaurant had the local dish of Kaiserschmarren (chopped up pancakes with applesauce and sugar) all was right in the world.
Hiking is all in the head, especially for kids. They can go for hours longer than they, or you, think they can as long as they remain alert and interested. Napoleon said that his armies marched on their stomachs – my family marches on attention spans and jelly babies.
Our next overnight was Rifugio Kostner at 2,550m. Rifugios are mountain hostels. They serve good simple food, including our beloved Kaiserschmarren. Sleeping quarters range from dormitory style to private rooms. Don’t expect luxury but you can thrill at the views and think yourself superior to mere valley dwellers.
With the forecast showing storms approaching, we needed to crack on. Marco Bergamo, our guide for the next two days, chose another great path and we made good time, reaching the lunch stop at around 2.30pm.
Now it was decision time. With another 500m of exposed rock left to climb we had the option of taking a chairlift. My adventurous side (my family would say “mean” side), said we should hike up. After all, where is the satisfaction in getting a chairlift? But with the weather closing in, and the fact that walking in full view of a working ski lift with tired children would be borderline cruelty, we took the easy option.
Good decision. Minutes after we arrived, as my wife ordered her obligatory Aperol Spritz (one must keep up standards even in rifugios), the heavens opened and the rain began to beat down. A near miss.
Our brief for the trip had included “culture” and I thought this was going to be delivered in our final stop, Venice. But after a wonderful mountain breakfast and an exciting climb down to the valley we got a taxi transfer to Cinque Torri, an area of extraordinary battles during World War One.
We took a cable car up 800m to what in 1914 was the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We ate where thousands of Austrian soldiers had once made camp in order to spy on the Italians below. But the Italians, ever the lateral thinkers, had a plan. They dug a tunnel into the mountainside as far as just beneath the Austrian encampment, packed the hole with dynamite and blasted half the mountain to pieces.
To nobody’s surprise, many soldiers died, both Austrian and Italian, but the exploit did leave behind an extraordinary open-air museum that’s as impactful as the trenches of Flanders, and boasts incredible views.
The climb down through the tunnels, where hundreds of men laboured for months, is spooky and chilling, made all the more dramatic by the cracks and flashes of a vicious thunderstorm. As we emerged at the bottom of the tunnel system we had another 20 minutes of walking before we could reach shelter, but a five year old can only run so quickly down a rocky path. We proved too slow to avoid a good old fashioned drenching.
No matter, the next stage of our Dolomite Mountain adventure had us staying just 20 minutes drive away at the luxurious Hotel Cortina, which gave us plenty of opportunity to dry off and relax. Cortina is seriously posh, as evidenced by the Moncler shop a mere diamond toss from our hotel.
Cortina D’Ampezzo is the largest town in the Dolomite region and a starting point for all manner of Alpine activity. I chose to channel my inner Froome with a bike ride, while my family strutted the streets and eating ice cream and drinking coffee.
When we finally arrived in Venice we found it to be the ideal end to a wondrous, if exhausting, tour of the region. Weary and more than willing to succumb to the alluring luxury of this ancient town, we indulged ourselves by arriving at the hotel in a water taxi. The kids loved riding the gondola, though my wallet was less impressed. Everyone knows these glorified canoes are a tourist trap.
Managed tours like these can often feel prescriptive, but for hugely diverse areas of the world like this they’re almost essential. This is a memorable trip that gets the most out of Italy’s stunning mountain range, and can convince even the least adventurous travellers to abandon the sun lounger.