Italian Dolomites


I’m taking photo requests now so when regular commentator Giles asked for, rather bizarrely, more photographs of bicycles I set out to find the best I could. My research led me to an area of the Alpago north of Il Lago do Santa Croce. 

There were tales of a legendary bicycle lost deep in the chestnut forest above the village of Sitran for many years that had become one with nature. 

Armed with maps and guides and a nose for the curious I eventually found the bike, englobed as the stories had said. I will reveal the evidence at the end of this post to keep the bi (cycle) curious reading. 

So after a couple of days in the Alpago mountains looking across at the Dolomites it was time to get in there. The 32,000 acres of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, which was only established in ’93, was our first destination. After what seemed an eternity of strip malls, run down industrial units and hyper markets on the outskirts of Belluno we turned in towards the dramatic profiles of the limestone pinnacles that make up this most beautiful of mountainscapes.  


Listed as a natural World Heritage site by Unesco, the Dolomites have been considered special for a long time. The first written descriptions were of extraordinary visions and powerful emotions and used words such as sublime, purity, intensity,grandeur,mystical aestheticism and transcendence. 

The first Dolomite travel guide in English, John Murray’s Red Book from 1837 defined the landscape as ” imparting an air of novelty and sublime grandeur to the scene which can only be appreciated by those who have viewed it ”

We have and we can. 

We turned off the busy main road and were quickly enveloped in a tranquil valley. The Val de Mis has been dammed and flooded to create a pale blue reservoir with a narrow road on one side. Half way along a rest and recreation area has been created with picnic lawns with shady trees, an exercise and workout zone ( handy in this heat!), a bar and restaurant ( much handier), a bunch of wooden chalets, an amphitheater, an area of hardstanding pitches with water and electricity and shower/ toilets and a grassy free park up by the lake. All good.     


It made for a perfect spot for the night with the setting sun turning the mountain golden. 


It was a sweet relief to get into the cool water although a bit alarming to realise that the level was slowly dropping to satisfy the needs of the city. There had been no rain here and a heat wave so there wS a lot more water going out than coming in. I kept an eye on a partially submerged rock and the lake level dropped a couple of feet overnight. That’s a lot of water. 

      Still, most people didn’t seem to want to swim anyway but picnic. Obviously an event of great cultural significance the Italians take it seriously, spending hours over a relaxed lunch in the shade. Or dinner. Some folks came out to play cards before the eating began.  


  In the morning we hiked up the steep sided lateral valley walls of Val Falcina. More ancient coppice for charcoal the wood was mainly hazel and hop hornbeam, a new one on us but plentiful in these parts.  


We had spotted an old cable that had been used to get the wood or charcoal down and way up on the trail we found an old motor barrow.  

  A little later, when we came down to the river we were ” treated” to a view of some stromatolites or layers of petrified tropical algae from back in the day, ( put me straight Milo).  

 Fossils were found in the dry riverbed among interesting rocks.  


The afternoon was spent further up the lake at the Cadini del Brenton, a long series of stunning pools of green water linked by waterfalls.  

  Some fit and buff athletic types were leaping from pool to pool but others were more sedate.  

 The pools were described as vortices and there was some great swirling jacuzzi effects. The clouds had been gathering while we were there and eventually the thunder was followed by  the storm sending sheets of heavy rain and hail and sending everyone scurrying back down the hill. 

With no point hanging about in the wet we left the Mis and drove north,deeper into the Dolomites, to Val Lucano and with the sky cleared, another great park up.  

   It was yet another picnic area with bar b que’s and tables and benches. We met an Italian couple there who gave us some tips on where to go. The women had lived in Galway and been to Ireland many times. The Italians seem more interested in our licence plate than anywhere else has been and Tranny has been getting many admiring glances. 

Sally had had enough of scrambling on rock and slipping on scree so we devised a hike for the next day from the end of the valley up a forest track for 1000m to a col overlooking the range to the north. So, with the heat that was in it, we were off by 7, past the last houses of the village  

 and their tree trunk flower beds 

 Past more neat piles of riven timber 

 and wayside shrines 

 while the landscape through the trees got loftier  

 we reached what seemed to be an old mill site with more swirling pools  

 and massive cubes of cut stone lying around in a jumble gathering moss. 

Switchbacking up through the shady forest we didn’t notice the build up in heat till we finally rose above the tree line for the final climb up across the lush wildflower filled alpine meadows.  

   Where there was a mountain hut busy with hikers and bikers and a fountain of cool spring water. The views were worthy of the effort.  In the distance we could see a slither of glacier atop Mamalada, the highest of them all. 

   From the Coll paths led into the high mountains in all directions but we were not prepared to go further and after feasting our eyes and bellys we returned to the old mill for a swim in the cold pools.  

 And above us, in a “privado” area, some new age mud therapy was in progress.  

 The dogs were also keen to cool down at any opportunity and Toby took to ditch bathing.  


With the heat making day long hikes impossible we decided to check out the cable car up from Alleghe, a lakeside town further north up the road. The lake had been created when a massive landslide had blocked off the valley and the rising river waters had flooded 4 hamlets slowly submerging them. A few years later to add insult another landslide into the lake had created a tsunami that took out a load more homes. But all is tranquillity now and the lakeside made another room with a view.  


And finally, the big reveal. The bicycle englobed. By a chestnut tree. 



A crystal clear starry sky all night, and the tips of the white towers that encircled us slowly shining as the rising sun threw shards of light above the valley and the wide pale moon just sat there watching. 

I hadn’t been on the pipe. That’s how waking up at the top of Slovenia sounds. 

But we turned our backs on all the magic and headed out towards the border and as fate would have it our very last encounter with the country was a surreal alternative to the impression we’d had. Realising we had Slovenian stamped postcards to send we pulled into the big building before the border and asked them to add it to their post. We didn’t stay to play.  


Arriving in the first place to restock supplies in Italy was also a culture shock. After 2 months in former Soviet block countries the wanton consumerism was impressive. With a huge amount of style and bling.  

   We don’t have these kinds of artworks outside Supervalu.  


But style has been big here for centuries and the old city centre streets are a crumbling fading warren of urbane perfection.  







 And they know how to keep their melons cool.  

 I’m sure the rain lashed brethren back home in Eire don’t want to hear about it, but it’s a battle to stay cool here. We had to make an emergency stop at the Lago Morto ( does that mean Lake Dead ?) 

 an emerald green hydroelectric reservoir with the mighty legs of a motorway stepping around it, but still heaven in its heatstroke saving cool.  

 We headed for the hills again, to a free municipal camper park up in  the village of Tambre, 950 m up in the Alpago mountains, overlooking the big blue Lago do Santa Croce and the bulk of the Dolomites, our next destination.  

 Armed with local route maps from the lovely, if somewhat flirtatious, lady at the tourist info we devised an early morning 4 hr hike up into the wilds.  

 All went well until we got lost on the return due to poor, wrong and missing signage and a spiders web of possible tracks. I might have to go back to tourist info.  

 Skilled mapmanship got us back on track passed sad ruins and through thankfully shady forest.  

   It wasn’t all abandoned either. Lots of the old places had been done up and new hamlets were appearing with the ever present finger bar mower, which along with the tiny tractors and trailers, I would love to see at home.  


Finally arriving back at base we drove along the high tableland of the Consiglio forest, a wonderful area we had happened upon of thousands of hectares of mixed woodland, mainly beech but also stretches of conifers that are popular with shade seeking picnickers.  

   Lots of mown grass, tables and benches and fresh water are all laid on to aid the enjoyment of the forest. Coillte have some catching up to do. While we were there what looked like the Italian national squad came past.  


A little further into the forest was an ethnographic museum that although frustratingly only in Italian had great exhibits about the forest folk. The Venetians of the 15th century used loads of the beech for oars and boat building.  

 And later on a huge industry of wood work developed particularly the making of beech strips 1/4 in thick for use in loads of stuff.  


 And we met the charcoal makers.  

 Really interesting displays on water powered saw mills, ariel runways for the lumber, tools and houses etc etc. And we didn’t understand a word. Even showed us timber dam construction.  

 No nails involved of course. 

But we had a date with the big stuff in the morning. A 1000 m climb from the highest park up we could find to Rifugio Seenza and the Laste saddle. And a more beautiful sunset camp you couldn’t wish to find.  


A more or less circular 5 hour route we needed to start early to avoid the heat, so the kettle was on at 5.30 and a hiker had already gone past. We had decided to go clockwise which meant a long steep climb to start, but in shade, followed by a more gradual traverse of the high cliffs and a steep descent from the summit on the way back that would quickly get us into shady forest.  

 The cloud had nestled into a bowl in the middle of the forest that bury off as we climbed.  

 All too soon we were in the sun, which even at 7.30 seemed hot.  

 And then we were over a shoulder, above the tree line and another world revealed itself.  

     We heard sheep as we approached the refugio but it took a while to spot them high on the wild flower slopes.  

 The shepherd and his dog were keeping a watchful eye from the balcony where we were grateful of a coffee and rest.  

 The real splendours awaited us at the Coll another 15 mins higher where the emergency shelter was reassuringly rugged.  


The views, of miles and miles of mountain ridges, was jaw dropping and had to be taken in bit by bit over time to avoid a rush to the head. 

My love affair with the Julian Alps was in jeopardy, I had a new mountain mistress.  


Time to go down before we got giddy. 

  On the way we passed a huge erratic and madonna shrine were we left an offering to mark the life of a friend cut short untimely like his brother’s before him.  

And on down to the peaceful cathedral of beech stippled with light and adorned with snails in a tight embrace.  


 Tonight at our lakeside camp we feel love and light a candle for the Brennan brothers.