Over the past few years I have seen many images of the jagged peaks, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes of the Dolomites and a visit to that area in the north of Italy has been high on my wish list... at the end of August I finally got my act together and organised a short trip to the area.
I took an evening flight to Venice and stayed overnight in a guest house at Ponte Nelle Alpi... in a violently horrendous thunderstorm. The guesthouse was on the top of a hill and very exposed to the elements. The rain hammering off the window, the howling wind and the thunderclaps directly overhead meant that I did not get much sleep. The coffee at breakfast was most helpful in my recovery and I continued my drive north.
As I got to higher ground I found that the storm had completely disregarded all thoughts of it still being summer and had dumped 10-15cm of snow on all ground above about 1600m altitude.
I drove to Misurina lake but did not find that to be too photogenic, so I continued along the road to Lago D'Antorno which was more to my liking. I find that in order to get good reflections it is best to use lakes that are rather small (ponds and puddles are also acceptable) in order to keep your subjects more immediate and prominent in the frame.
Both of these lakes are on the road which leads to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and my idea was to drive up the steep toll road and maybe do the circle hike around those iconic peaks. The car parks at the top of the road, holding at least a thousand cars, were already full (about 11am, on a slightly unpleasant day) and as a result they were operating a "one in one out" policy on the toll road with a sizeable queue. Instead of joining the queue I returned to Lago D'Antorno and decided to follow the toll road on foot. I had read an account from another photographer of doing the same thing in deep snow in winter and he described it as an easy hike taking about 40 minutes so I was quite confident. I am not sure what kind of physical specimen wrote that other blog but I can say that apart from the smooth road surface there was nothing whatsoever which was easy about that hike - an unremittingly steep slog which took me at least an hour and three quarters and left me extremely tired, despite the beautiful views.
After spending so much effort on the climb I decided not to do the 4-5 hour circle hike around Tre Cime, the clouds were looking rather dark and moody and I did not want to get stuck in a storm, so I decided to retreat back down the road and check in to my accomodation.
I chose a hotel close to Cortina D'Ampezzo as my base for the trip on an "it looks like it is roughly in the middle of the places I want to visit" basis and I was happy to find that it was in quite a beautiful spot.
As a location it also turned out to be quite good as it was quite close to what turned out to be one of my absolute favourite spots, the top of the Giau Pass. As the day ended to skies cleared and sunlight bathed the snowy ground.
Although I usually do at least some research on specific locations before embarking on my trips I find that there is no substitute for actually viewing a location in person. With mountain locations especially it is hard to reliably translate "kilometres on the map" into "time taken to travel" and plans made without knowledge of the terrain can easily turn out to be unrealistic. I decided to treat this trip as a scouting mission, meaning that I would try to visit as many sites as possible in my 3.5 days in order to understand where to focus in a future "proper" photography trip.
The next morning I was out of my room at 0430, ready to try and do some astro photography at the Giau Pass and then wait for the sunrise, but I faced an unusual difficulty - I could not get out of the hotel! The door was locked and bolted, the reception was empty, there was no bell, there was nobody around and there were no other exits. I made some noise (enough too attract the attention of anyone who would be there, but not enough to wake the hotel residents) and waited around for 15 mins to see if anyone came along... but no. Trapped. I went back to bed.
Three hours later the day began properly and I drove up to the top of the Falzarego Pass.
From here it was possible to travel by cable car to Lagazuoi, a 2835m peak. Although this was the second highest altitude I have reached (without the aid of a plane that is, the Zugspitze summit being my highest point) it was still possible to look up from Lagazuoi to even taller peaks in the surroundings.
From Lagazuoi it is also possible to look down on a much more famous neighbour, the small cluster of peaks which make up Cinque Torri, a kind of natural monument in the middle of nowhere and a popular destination for climbers.
Near the summit of Lagazuoi you can get a closer look at some fortifications dating from the Great War over a century ago. The front line in the battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire went right through this area and all over the Dolomites it is possible to see evidence of the desperate struggle which took place between the opposing forces in the harshest of environments.
There is a lodge at the top of the cable car route where you can eat something, get some coffee or even stay overnight. These Rifugios are a feature of almost all easily accessible peaks and mountain areas in the Dolomites and make it a lot easier and more comfortable to spend time in what would otherwise be the wilderness. On this occasion there was some construction work ongoing at Rifugio Lagazuoi and while I was there a helicopter was constantly shuttling materials up and down the mountain without ever landing. It was impressive to watch.
It was time to continue my journey, starting by entrusting my life to a few rather insubstantial looking wires as the cable car made its descent.
I made my way to the Gardena Pass, another spectacular tour through mountain peaks by way of hundreds of hairpins.
My objective was the Seiser Alm, a vast mountain meadow surrounded by peaks. There are many different ways to reach the Seiser Alm, but during the day it is forbidden to drive there, you have to approach by cable car. I had partial directions to get to the spot I was aiming for - I took the cable car to Compatsch and then a bus to Saltria... but then I was not quite sure where to go next. I wondered around for an hour or two but I don't think I found the best views.
When visiting this area again, and especially in order to get to the best places at the best times for photography (sunrise, sunset, night) I think that a totally different approach would be needed. Normally I like to have a single base and then travel to different locations, but in the Dolomites there would be huge advantages to staying in a different Rifugio every night in order to be as close as possible to your subjects.
This was a very long day... some 4-5 hours of driving as well as multiple cable car journeys and about 20km of walking... so I was happy to get back to my hotel and get some rest before the morning.
The next day I also planned a long journey, heading this time a bit further north before circling round to an area near to where I had been the day before and returning via the Gardena and Falzarego passes. My first stop, before 6am, was at Lago di Landro.
From there I continued to Lago di Dobbiaco having first satisfied the demand from my rental car which instructed me to add at least one litre of oil "immediately".
The final part of my morning lake trilogy was the famous Lago di Braies, a very beautiful place but also a horrendous tourist trap. My advice to anyone wanting to enjoy this place is to arrive very early in the morning or very late at night, it was slightly uncomfortable already when I arrived at 0830 and by the time I had completed the easy hike around the lake it was absolutely swarming with what seemed like many millions of people.
Having gladly removed myself from the multitudes at Lago di Braies I made my way to the next famous destination, the church at Santa Maddalena. This was a location I had been looking forward to perhaps more than any other, but it was a place where the experience did not quite measure up to the expectation. It seemed to me that the place had not quite made peace with its status as a tourist attraction. It has managed to embrace some aspects of that, such as charging a few euros for a parking place, but the overall feeling is one of being a bit unwelcome. The church is in the middle of a field, but according to the signs it is prohibited to walk around in that field which rather limits your chances for photography. There is a tiny platform that you are allowed to stand on in the corner of the field, which means that everyone who obeys the local rules will end up with almost exactly the same picture as each other. Drone photography is also prohibited there, which is another limitation. I think that if they would accept that the place is and will be a tourist attraction and make a little bit more effort to be accommodating, while also charging a bit more money for parking if necessary to make it a sensible business, then everyone might end up being more happy.
The whirlwind tour continued and it was time for the next destination. It had been nearly 20 hours since I took a cable car journey so I decided to fix that by ascending to the spectacular peak of Seceda (2519m).
This mountain provides some other-worldly views as it looks like the ground has just been ripped apart at the seams, on the one side pleasant green meadows slope steeply upwards and on the other side there is a vertical drop of hundreds of metres.
After another rather exhausting day it was very easy to fall asleep... and a bit of a struggle to avoid doing just that while driving back to the hotel.
My final morning in the Dolomites was reserved for completing my mission to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, having had a false start in that adventure on the first day. The toll road does not open until 0600 which makes it a bit of a challenge to be in position for the sunrise in the summer, but I was the first one through the gate on this day and determined to make the best of it. I parked in the massive car parks near Rifugio Auronzo and started the circle hike around Tre Cime by around 0615.
The hike, which took me about 5 hours, could be thought of as a tour of different Rifugios. The trail starts at Rifugio Auronzo and then (in the direction I travelled) leads you to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli (Drei Zinnen Hutte) and Malga Langalm before completing the circle at Rifugio Auronzo. Each leg of the journey takes about an hour.
The temperature was something of a challenge during this hike, it was 3 or 4 degrees when I started before the sunrise and 31 degrees when I finished about midday... luckily I had pretty much expected this and had dressed on a "I will warm up eventually" basis, accepting to be a bit cold to start with in order to have the benefit of not having to carry extra clothing in the second half of the hike.
The trail is easy to follow and well maintained, but there are some noticeable changes in elevation at various points, requiring quite a lot of ascending and descending even though it is roughly level overall.
By the time I was approaching the Drei Zinnen Hutte, about half way round the hike, a coffee was definitely needed. I stopped for 20 minutes to recharge my batteries. This mountain lodge is in an amazing location on the mountain plateau.
This was the most spectacular place on the circle hike in my opinion, but the views in general in all directions were quite amazing and I highly recommend the route to anyone who has the opportunity and capability to experience it.
With that, it was time to make my way back to Venice Marco Polo airport. This was my first visit to the Dolomites, but I truly hope it will not be my last. Whenever I get a chance to return I think that these hectic few days have provided me with some good lessons for how to make a successful second trip. The key for that would be to stay in a number of well selected Rifugios rather than one central hotel and accept the slight inconvenience of regular check in - check out as a price worth paying for being in the right place at the right time.
Until next time!
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