Making cultural tracks in Italy’s Dolomites

If the thought of skiing the same slopes for a week bores you, try a guided ski safari through the Dolomites where even novice skiers can explore a variety of lodges, historic sites and ski in/ski out museums.Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Pink clouds like candyfloss float above as we bump along in our snowmobile past quaint wooden chalets with smoke billowing from their chimneys. It’s that bewitching time of day in the Dolomites. They call it enrosadira (or alpenglow) and it’s when the mountains glow pinky red.

Geologists believe the explanation lies in the unusual composition of calcium and magnesium carbonate in the rocks. These majestic mountains were once coral reefs, forced upwards by tectonic pressure to form towering cliffs that, in turn, were gradually eroded by the elements to form jagged peaks. Over the course of a few days, we admire them from different pistes and rifugios (mountain huts) on a guided ski safari from Corvara to Cortina 'Ampezzo.

Thanks to our guide Marco, we’ve leisurely covered over 18 miles today without retracing our steps, getting lost, arguing or (in my case) fretting whether a wrong turn will end in a treacherous black run.

I’d assumed ski safaris were the preserve of expert skiers hungry to go off piste and ride the most challenging slopes, but here in the Dolomites — a United Nations World Heritage Site — there are mile upon mile of perfectly groomed red runs to cruise along, and plenty of pit stops to take in the local culture and historical sights, often hidden under a blanket of snow.

There’s been no need to stop on the side of a piste to pore over the map. No hassle ordering a cab in Italian for a certain time and place to connect to another ski area, or haggling about the cost. Cumbersome kit is transported ahead of us, and there's a childlike excitement that instead of returning to the same chalet night after night we’ve no idea what awaits us.

We skid to a halt outside a tiny chapel next to Rifugio Fuciade in Val di Fassa, the engine cutting to reveal the silence and solitude of the valley. Isolated in winter, a snowcat or snowshoes are the only way to reach this cosy haven, a former priests’ retreat 6,500ft up in a natural amphitheatre with front-row views of the Pale di San Martino mountain range.

Hot air blasts our faces as we follow Marco inside the restaurant with rooms, kick off our boots and are greeted by an overexcited brown Labrador and owner Emanuela Rossi.

Her lodge is a labyrinth of low-ceilinged corridors and pine-panelled rooms decorated with all sorts of antiques and memorabilia, from homespun curtains and embroidered pillows to hand-carved wooden butter dishes.

The basement wine cellar is stacked high with more than 600 bottles of wine and over 100 types of grappa, while in another room cured hams swing from hooks and cheese wrapped in hay is stacked to age. Emanuela’s son, Martino, is head chef and clearly has the locals’ approval. Within an hour, the restaurant is bustling with over 60 people who’ve made a snowcat pilgrimage to sample the heady mix of traditional Ladin and Mediterranean cuisine that’s common across this region.

South Tyroleans are Italian citizens but a mutable border means this region was once Austrian. There are three official languages — German, Italian and Ladin (an ancient Rhaeto-Romanic tongue with Latin roots) and an eclectic culture and cuisine to match.

We feast on a mix of dishes, from simple polenta dumplings with port sausages and porcini mushrooms to gourmet venison tartare with raspberries and capers. Vegetarian options abound, including ravioli filled with wild pears and figs, and potato spaghetti with mountain cheese fondue and truffle.

But food, of course, isn’t the only way to digest the region’s culture, with some of the most intriguing museums found at the top of some majestic peaks.

This was a First World frontline for several years, and while key historical sites are easily navigated on a self-guided ski tour, I’m glad I get to experience them in the company of local Marco, a former member of the Alpine corps, an elite division of mountain soldiers, who shares poignant insights. 

On the mighty Marmolada, we follow his tracks to admire the view from the Queen of the Dolomites, the highest peak of the Domomiti Superski at 10,964ft, and we whoop for joy on the Bellunese, the region’s longest (7.5 miles) red run with a drop of over 3,280ft. But it’s the museum at the top (reached by cable-car) that makes the most impact. Here artifacts and photographs tell the moving story of how this mountain became one of the most hellish battlefields, with more troops perishing from hyperthermia and avalanches than in actual combat.

Over the next few days, we follow Marco as we ski past former trenches, glimpse an old canon and pause at monuments dedicated to fallen soldiers. We traverse stunning landscapes around the villages of Monte Pelmo, Monte Civetta and Cinque Torri and stay at more cosy family-run lodges such as Rifugio Mountain Inn in Passo Giau, one of the highest and remotest hotels in the Dolomites, where the only living creatures above us are birds and paragliders. 

After a week, it’s not just my skiing that’s improved — my understanding of the Dolomites has too. I’ve got to know its people, food, history and culture. I’ve skied a lot of different pistes, but the best part is I’ve discovered what really lies beneath.

Take three: museums and galleries you can ski to

Marmolada Grande Guerra
Marmolada is home to the highest museum in Europe, a tribute to the many Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops who fell there in the First World War after fighting the enemy and the forces of nature in temperatures as low as -30C. See displays of how the Austro-Hungarians tunnelled deep inside the glacier to build an ‘Ice City’ to house hundreds of soldiers. 

Lumen Museum
Discover the history of mountain photography, from the earliest cameras through to the digital age. Take a selfie as you wander through the mirror Speigelsaal room against a backdrop of multiple mountain scenes and be sure to eat in the adjoining AlpiNN restaurant, which cantilevers out over the Dolomites and serves up gourmet food as tantalising as the breathtaking views. 

Messner Mountain Museum
Situated on the summit plateau of Kronplatz (7,464ft), this is one of six Alpine museums created by Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner. The stunning concrete structure, designed by British architect Zaha Hadid, features a viewing platform cantilevered over a valley with panoramic views of the mountains. 

Essentials

How to do it
Dolomite Mountains offers a variety of ski safaris for all ages and abilities, taking in different resorts and rifugios, traversing a different area of the Dolomites every day accompanied by a mountain guide. Seven days, including ski pass, breakfasts and dinners, two nights in a four-star hotel in Alta Badia and four nights in mountain inns from €2,990 (£2,530) per person (based on four people sharing) or €4,130 per person (based on two people sharing). 

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