Thursday, March 20, 2014

#tbt Alta Via 1

Around 15 years ago, the husband, my brother and I decided we wanted to do a long distance drinkathon hike in the Italian Dolomites.  We booked time off work, bought cheap Ryanair tickets to Venice and started researching using mainly these publications:
The books were pretty old but informative.  We decided to do part of the Alta Via 1 starting at Lago di Braies and finishing at Zoldo Alto (although the whole route goes as far as Belluno).  I planned how long it would take us to do each section, booked bunks at Rifugios (mini hotels/huts on the mountains accessible usually only by a path or by helicopter), planned what food we should carry and much to the boys' disgust, made a packing list to include sleeping bags, carabiners and slings (because I'd read in the book that we might need them)!  Our backpacks were pretty huge and heavy as we were carrying everything we were going to need for over a week both during and after our hike.  I was a wee bit worried how it would be carrying them along narrow mountain trails.

We flew to Venice and caught the train to Villabassa, via Verona. 
From here we took a bus to Albergo Lago di Braies which is situated on a beautiful turquoise lake surrounded by forests and mountains and is the starting point of the Alta Via 1.
It wasn't tourist season when we arrived so the hotel was spookily empty and reminded us slightly of The Shining.  Our rooms had balconies overlooking the lake and the owners opened up the dining room especially for us which was nice but still, it was kinda eerie!  We got a glimpse of how difficult it was going to be for my brother (who is a vegetarian) to get much to eat along the trail that didn't involve meat and also how difficult it was for the husband (who speaks fluent Italian) to get the Italians to understand that my brother really didn't eat meat - put it this way, vegetarianism isn't very popular in Italy!  Luckily he didn't starve, there was plenty of pasta pomodoro and bread to be had along the way :)

After a good night's sleep and a morning cup of coffee laced with grappa (a strong Italian liquor), we set off bright and early.  The coffee with grappa became our morning tradition during the hike.  It wasn't long before we realized that the quality of our maps wasn't great.  Countour lines and distances were not very accurate at all and we reached our first Rifugio way before we'd planned.  After stopping here for something to eat, we decided to keep going to the next Rifugio which didn't look too far away, but yes, it was indeed much farther away than depicted on the map!  We didn't have bunks booked but were hopeful that they would have room for us.  The scenery was amazing and constantly changing from mountains, rocks, forests and moors.  Although the trails were steep and narrow, they were not too difficult.  We eventually arrived at Rifugio Pederu  and got a fantastic room in the attic all to ourselves complete with fresh, clean bedding.  No sleeping bags required here :)  We spent the night eating and having a few beers.

The next day began with the customary grappa laced coffee followed by an almost vertical climb.  We were pretty tired by the time we got to the top and even though our planned destination Rifugio Lavarella was closer than we'd thought, we decided to stay there anyway.    We were surrounded by stunning mountains, scenery and lots of trails, so we hiked around, ate a huge lunch and messed around at a nearby lake.  The signposts along the trails were great, probably better than some of our maps!
Again, we had a private room with bunk beds which was quite luxurious (and very cheap) and again, our sleeping bags remained in our backpacks as did the food we'd been carrying for lunches and snacks.  The food here was fantastic.  The menu consisted of several courses in typical Italian fashion and there was also a great bar.  Yep, although we were walking up and down mountains every day on this trip, I still managed to gain a few pounds!

Our next destination was Rifugio Lagazuoi, situated at 9,028 ft on top of a rocky crag full of caves and  tunnels that were carved into the mountain below during World War 1.   We hiked for a long time before we reached our planned lunch stop Rifugio Scottoni which was about half way.  Scottoni is situated in a huge meadow/valley surrounded by rocky peaks.  We could smell it before we saw it, the scent of roasting meat was amazing.  Lunch here was a great experience, surrounded by beautiful scenery, drinking big beers and eating tasty barbequed meat.  It was hard to get going again, in fact we should probably have just stayed here for the night but we pressed on.  Onwards and upwards, we climbed for the rest of the day, it was brutal!  All the time we could see Lagazuoi in the distance, never seeming to get any closer.  This part of the hike was all rock and scree and it was tough going to be honest.  We finally reached the Rifugio, checked in and dumped our stuff on our bunks.  This time we were sleeping in a large dormitory with 17 other people.  Cheap again, but not too luxurious :)  The 360 degree view from up here was spectacular.  You could see for miles.  We were surrounded by sheer cliff faces and jagged mountains and the drop directly below the Rifugio was steep and scary.
Dinner here was the food of the day which was tasty and of course, full of meat :)  They assured my brother that one of the courses was meat free, but there were very obviously wee pieces of the red stuff in his dish :o  Anyway, we ate like pigs and all enjoyed the red wine on offer before retiring to the dormitory with it's snoring occupants.  We didn't sleep so good that night, it was rather noisy.

The next day after our grappa coffee, we climbed around some of the rocks and explored the labyrinth of underground tunnels inside the mountain with our headtorches.  It's hard to believe there were men (Austrian and Italian troops) fighting battles here, although the scars on the rock give you some idea.  You can read some information about it here. It was steep, rocky and crumbling and here is the husband giving me a heart attack :)
Sometimes we'd arrive at a hole in the wall which gave way to a sheer drop to the valley below.

We made it down to the bottom after a lot of fun scrambling and had another coffee with grappa.  As we were sitting enjoying our drink, a man sat down next to us and asked us if we could show him the receipt for our drinks.  Apparently he was a plain clothes policeman trying to catch out the owners of the cafe for tax dodging.  We thought at one point that we were in big trouble too, but he let us go after warning us about obtaining proper receipts.  Crazy!  

Next up was another huge climb towards the massive Cinque Torri.  We were getting used to blasting up trails now so it wasn't a problem although the boys were giving me a hard time about the lack of use and the weight in our backpacks of the unused carabiners, slings and sleeping bags!
The view from the top was amazing.  We hiked for the rest of the morning stopping for a picnic lunch and finally ate some of the food we'd been carrying.  Eventually we reached Rifugio Palmieri, a lovely place next to a lake.
There were a couple of strange characters that we kept bumping into along the way that showed up here too.  One of these guys kept trying to follow us around, talking constantly, but after a few beers, we didn't really care any more.  Most of the people we met along the trail were really nice and from all over the place.  I was amazed at the amount of older people hiking up and down the mountains, I hope I'm like them when I'm their age!  We had a hike and messed around at the lake here which was nice and relaxing.  A historic moment happened here, this was where my brother tried his first Prosecco :)  Another historic moment was when I woke up in the morning on my dormitory bed with a used bandaid stuck to my cheek.  We had gone to bed in the dark the night before so I hadn't seen it before lying down.  Shudder!   The accommodations here were probably not the best we'd stayed in so far, plus it was very busy, but the food, the drink and the surrounding area more than made up for it. 

The next day after a couple of grappa coffees and a huge breakfast, we traversed trails through forests and across rock faces.  It was spectacular.  We could see were were slowly losing height and decided that we would stop our hike in Zoldo Alto at the Albergo Bosco Verde where the husband and I had stayed before on a ski trip.  We also knew that we could easily get a bus from here down to Belluno and then continue by train to Pordenone to stay with a friend who lived close by.  We had a nice, hot shower, stuffed our faces, drank too much and all had a fabulous night's sleep in huge, comfy beds :)

So that's a brief summary of our Alta Via 1 experience taken from my fuzzy memory.  It was one of the best holidays I've ever had and I would love to do it again one day. I've probably forgotten a lot, but this would be a very long blog post if I posted everything, so think yourselves lucky :)   Our very last journey here in Italy was on a water taxi from Venice across the lagoon to the airport as the sun was setting, such a beautiful and poignant way to end our trip.  Happy travels y'all! 

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