Sunday, October 28, 2007

3 August: Mountain Majesty

We woke up to a steady drizzle and a valley obscured by clouds, which put a bit of a damper (pun intended) on our plans to take a scenic drive around the Sella Gruppe, one of the most famous mountain groups in the Dolomites. In no hurry to get out into the rain, we had a relaxing breakfast in the Uhrerhof’s breakfast room, feasting on the typical buffet of cold cuts and cheese, croissants and rolls with homemade jams, hard-boiled eggs, and canned fruits.

We decided to wait out the rain by driving down into Ortisei and doing a little shopping. We parked in a garage in the middle of town and came out in the midst of a lively street market. We made our way to the main shopping area and visited the town’s main church, the interior of which is a wonder of apricot and mint-green tones accented with gold gilt. Ortisei is famous for its woodcarving, and the town is crammed full of shops where you can buy carved items of every religious and secular theme imaginable – from crucifixes and crèches to wildlife sculptures and toys. We stopped at a nice little gift shop and bought two cow bells on leather straps. I am in the market for authentic alpine cow bells and haven’t found the “real thing” yet, but these were far better than the tacky fakes you find in most tourist shops. I’m also looking for a dirndl, or traditional alpine peasant dress, and we found a shop selling very stylish ones, but they were pricey and not colorful enough for our tastes. It was getting on towards lunch time so we stopped at a café for pizza and ciabatta while we waited for the sun to come out. The clouds were definitely breaking up and we finally got our first glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the Sella Gruppe rising dramatically in the distance (photo, above).

We headed back to the parking garage but ended up waiting over twenty minutes to get out because some guy had gotten his ticket stuck in the machine at the exit gate. Someone must have called a phone number on the ticket machine because a man eventually showed up with some tools, looking very annoyed. He started prying open the machine and then suddenly threw his pliers on the ground and yelled “Impossible!” (you have to imagine it with the Italian accent, of course) three or four times, accompanied by violent hand gestures. He finally got the gate to go up but he was still standing there, fuming at the now-mangled machine, as we drove out. We left Ortisei around 2 p.m. and set our sights on the Sella Gruppe. More and more of the mountains slowly emerged out of the clouds as we pressed onwards and upwards through lush green valleys. We had chosen a counterclockwise route to take around the mountain group, heading first over the Passo di Sella (pass #5), which afforded us spectacular vistas around every curve (photo, above). John was driving and he reported that the SLK was a little gutless but handled the curves pretty well; we certainly wouldn’t want to drive those crazy narrow roads in a larger car! We stopped several times for photos; the SLK’s shiny black paint job looked particularly nice set against the pale limestone peaks (photo, right).

It took us an hour to get from Ortisei to the top of Passo di Pordoi (pass #6) where we geared up with hiking boots and our warmest clothes and bought tickets for the cable car ride (24 Euro round-trip) up to Sass Pordoi at a lofty 2,900 meters. The top was shrouded in clouds and we just hoped that we would be able to see something up there. We got some amazing views of the surrounding mountain landscape before our cable car was engulfed in a cloud as thick as pea soup. We walked out of the cable car terminal into a lunar landscape – nothing but jagged shards of rock as far as the eye could see. The remains of a recent snow clung to the ground and a biting wind chilled us to the bone. We took lots of photos (right) and then decided to follow the only obvious hiking trail, which took us past a small rifugio (a sort of “warming hut” like the hüttes of Switzerland and Germany, where you can buy snacks and drinks). The trail climbed slowly upwards as we traversed the side of a barren valley punctuated by dramatic dropoffs and watched a long line of hikers disappearing into the clouds on a ridge high above us. We think they must have been hiking up Piz Boè, the highest peak of the Sella Gruppe at 3,151 meters. We can only assume that they were going to spend the night up there, since they could not possibly get back down the mountain before dark.

As for us, we had no such ambitions and decided to veer off the trail to hike up to a stone cairn (see photo, right - the red dot marks the cairn), from which we looked out into the dramatic abyss on either side of the Pordoi Pass. The misty, swiftly-moving clouds broke up just enough for us to catch enticing glimpses of endless mountain ridges disappearing into the distance; we could only imagine how spectacular the view would be on a clear day! After taking our fill of photos, we retraced our route, stopping to admire the tiny yellow and white wildflowers that somehow manage to eek out a living in this harsh environment. We returned to the cable car terminal at 4:15, which gave us another half-hour to roam around before the second-to-last departure of the day. We found a natural arch in the rock and looked down through the hole at the crazy twists and turns of the Passo di Pordoi road. A huge metal-framed cross was erected near the cliff's edge and people have been slowly filling it with rocks.

Thank goodness for long summer days, as once we had returned to the bottom we had plenty of daylight left to continue our circumnavigation of the Sella Gruppe. Now it was my turn to drive, down the other side of the Passo di Pordoi and onwards over the Passo di Campolongo (#7) and Passo di Gardena (#8). We were amazed by the number of ski lifts and trams that dotted the slopes above us – this area must be absolutely amazing in the winter, but I’m not sure how you would decide where to ski, as there seem to be unlimited options available. It is impossible to describe the majesty of the Dolomites so you’ll just have to look at the pictures – I’ve posted more than 50 from today’s drive on Flickr ( The driving was very challenging – lots of first-gear hairpin turns – but thrilling. We ran into some traffic towards the end as we headed back towards Ortisei, which slowed us down a bit. After stopping to admire the view over Ortisei - now brilliantly lit by the early evening sun - we returned to the hotel at 6:45, just in time for dinner, which is served promptly at 7:00.

Dinner was a repeat of the salad buffet followed by tomato & mozzarella salad, a simple chicken broth soup, a fabulous meat & cheese lasagne, classic Wienerschnitzel with creamy potatoes, and apple streudel with whipped cream, accompanied by another tasty Südtirol red wine. I think the Südtirol might just be my favorite place in Europe, as it seems to combine the best of Germany and Italy – dramatic landscapes, friendly people (who all speak German so I can actually communicate), and delicious food!

The only problem we had with the Hotel Uhrerhof is that we were seated in a dining room with two families whose kids could not keep still, so the atmosphere was somewhat less than romantic. I wonder why they didn’t seat us in other dining room, which was much quieter. We probably should have asked to move, but we always feel awkward complaining about such things. After our streudel we quickly retired to our room and enjoyed a nice brandy from the minibar as we planned out tomorrow’s route to Lake Como.

More photos from the Dolomites:

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