Italy’s Hidden Charm: Umbria, Tuscany and the Dolomites

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Italy My sister and I were triumphant, as we posed outside Refugio Lagazuoi, the highest refugio in the Dolomites.
My sister and I were triumphant, as we posed outside Refugio Lagazuoi, the highest refugio in the Dolomites. Photo by Vivienne Tam

Travel in the Dolomites

I fell asleep on the drive from Tuscany north to the Dolomites, the section of the Alps clustered around the north-eastern end of Italy. When I awoke, the rolling Tuscan hills had been replaced by sheer rock face, the ash-grey structures rising majestically out of the ground and dwarfing the road that snaked deftly around them. Our first stop was in the German-speaking town of Montan; I was no longer in the heart, but at the boundary of intersecting cultures. It was as if I had stepped into another country altogether.

The food was heartier; instead of thin-crust pizza and fettucine, we were served casunzei, small folded pasta packets with either a white (potatoes and herbs) or red (beet) filling, and canerdeli, large, plump dumplings stuffed with speck (dry, smoked ham). Of course, the locals maintain their willowy figure by working off all those calories running the Alpine trails as morning exercise.

Hiking in the Dolmites, Italy. Flickr/Neil Wilkie
Hiking in the Dolmites, Italy. Flickr/Neil Wilkie

To truly understand what the Dolomites are, you have to spend a few days doing what the thru-hikers do. The Alta Via is a challenging 12-day hike through the steppes of the mountain range and experienced hikers, or those looking for a rugged adventure, follow the trail for the breathtaking landscape, stopping to rest for the night at mountain huts called refugios.

So, in search of our Dolomite adventure, we booked two nights at Refugio Scoiattoli, accessible only by chair-lift or foot. Perched on the peaks in which World War One was fought between the Italian and Austria-Hungarian troops, Scoiattoli is truly a gem hidden in the crevasse.

Upon recommendation of the other four lodgers who were in the middle of their Alta Via journey, we rode a chairlift up to Lagazuoi the next day for panoramic views of the Trentino Alto Adige range, and a steep descent down through the World War One tunnels that penetrated a maze through the heart of the mountain.

A sign over the tunnel entrance warned us we would need a headlamp, helmet and boots, but we ventured in anyways with hiking sandals, BlueJay caps and iPhone flashlights. Some 500 meters of dark stairs later, we emerged into the sunlight victorious, with a slightly bruised ankle and a much deeper appreciation of our soldiers.

There was a plethora of hikes to do from our refugio, including the via ferrata, in which you use harnesses and pulleys to pull yourself up the rock face. We only had the strength for one hike this trip, but my sister and I are determined to conquer the Alta Via together at some point in the future. This is not going to be the last we would see of the Dolomites.

As we headed to the airport, we were already discussing plans of when to return. Italy is a country full of undiscovered secrets, ones that are not found by rushing between tourist destinations, but rather letting the country seep into you: the language, the people, the culture. I will be back, but until then: Ciao, Italia.

If You Go to Italy

Stay at Refugio Scoiattoli in the Dolomites for the best panoramic view. The website also highlights the best trails such as the World War One trail mentioned in the post.

An agriturismo is the best way to experience the Italian countryside. Agriturismo.it is a great way to find one that fits your needs, as you can filter according to the activities offered, price range, rooms etc.

Learn a few basic Italian phrases. I bought a phrase book for Italian and it helped me immensely in communicating with the locals.

Author Bio: Born in Singapore, Vivienne immigrated to Canada at age fourteen, completed her undergraduate studies in New Jersey, and spent two years as a volunteer in Fuzhou, China, giving her an avid passion for seeing the world and telling stories about the people she meets. She is currently an engineering PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, but a creative at heart, and she writes about finding beauty in unexpected places at www.beautyinthemargins.com.

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