Travel Italy: An Exploration of the Italian Dolomite Mountains
February 22, 2012 was an absolutely gorgeous day, so my friend Andrea and I decided to go on a sightseeing excursion while the rest of the gang went skiing. We drove from our location near Sillian in the Austrian region of East Tyrol across the border into Italy to the region of South Tyrol.
Today this region is the autonomous province of Alto Adige in Italy, but it used to belong to Austria until 1919. Today, about 70% of the residents still speak German here, and many villages are up to 90% German-speaking. The Teutonic language is heard everywhere. German and Italian together with Ladin, a Latin dialect, are the three official languages of this region.
Our first stop was the village of Innichen (in Italian: San Candido), a historic market town that grew around an abbey that was originally founded in 769 AD. Today’s collegiate church of Innichen was rebuilt in the 12th and 13th centuries and is considered the most important Romanesque building in the Eastern Alps. The church has a very austere interior, several outstanding medieval frescos and a churchyard with very intricate wrought-metal grave crosses. Outside the church is a war memorial to victims of the first and second world wars whose names are commemorated in a metal book.
Just steps away is St. Michael’s Church which also dates back to the 12th century but was redesigned during the Baroque era after 1735. We took a brief walk through the old town and stopped in at a local delicatessen where we admired the smoked ham, sausages, cheeses, vinegars and various preserves. We could not resist and had to pick up a couple of edible souvenirs in this store.
After Innichen we drove through the small town of Toblach (Dobiacco in Italian), a picturesque town with numerous hotels and tourism establishments. Not far out of town was our next stop: the Toblachersee or Lake Dobiacco, a gorgeous alpine lake that is framed by high mountains with steep cliffs.
Cross-country skiers were gliding past the lake, and a horse-drawn sleigh was carrying passengers around the extremely scenic lake. We stopped in at a small lake-side restaurant called “See-Schupfe” (literally translated “lake-side shed”) where I got to taste the thick South Tyrolean hot chocolate which is sinfully made of melted chocolate mixed with whipped cream.
Our drive continued through the picturesque Dolomite Mountains with occasional peeks at the Drei Zinnen (Tre Cime di Lavaredo), consisting of three characteristic limestone peaks that reach an altitude of 2,999 metres. Next on our itinerary was Lake Misurina, an Alpine lake located at an altitude of 1,756 metres near the famous winter sport resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo. This scenic lake is surrounded by the mountain massifs of the Drei Zinnen, the Monte Piana, the Cadini Group, and the Monte Cristallo. A small ski area is located at the slopes surrounding the lake and the lake itself was solidly frozen.
We walked to the far side of the lake to a building that looked like a grand hotel, but it turned out to be a pediatric asthma facility, located here due to the pristine high quality air of the Alps. Then we crossed the lake back all the way to the North side and had a peek inside the four star Grand Hotel Misurina.
Outside on the lake a spectacle of another kind was getting started: a winter polo game was being held on the lake, part of the Cortina Winter Polo Audi Gold Cup 2012. The athletes and their beautiful athletic horses were going at it on the snowy surface and scoring numerous goals. One very important passenger was actually flown in by helicopter to attend this exclusive event.
After our visit to Lake Misurina we drove about 10 minutes, parked the car and started our own sports program of the day. We went Nordic walking through a scenic valley framed by majestic mountains, including the famous Drei Zinnen (Tre Cime di Lavaredo). Less than half an hour later we arrived at the Malga Rin Bianco restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch. My friend Andrea enjoyed polenta with melted cheese and mushrooms while I tasted “Gnocchi alla Cadorina” – the local potato gnocchi that were smothered with melted goat cheese and herbs. Alpine mountain food will definitely stick to your ribs.
We started our drive back to the Austrian side of the Dolomites and stopped off in Sillian, our home base for the week and the centre of the Austrian High Puster Valley which is a great winter and summer recreation area. I took some images of the Gothic parish church (Pfarrkirche Maria Himmelfahrt) that was built in the mid 15th century.
In the evening we sat down for another filling dinner at our inn, the Oswalderhof. As it was Ash Wednesday today, one of the holy days of fasting, we were served noodle soup followed by a codfish filet with potato salad as there was no meat allowed. Austria’s province of Tyrol is known as one of the more traditional and conservative places in the country, and Christian traditions are still taken quite seriously. After a nice evening chat we headed to bed to get ready for another day of skiing tomorrow.