“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”
– Edmund Hilary
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt”
– Jon Muir
Imagine a place surrounded by a 360-degree view of mountain ranges so tall and rugged, they seem to jut right into the heavens, sometimes shrouded by fluffy clouds of cotton candy, illuminating the sky in bright oranges and pinks during sunset. When the sun rises, the crisp air makes the hairs on your skin stand ever so slightly, a nice reprieve from the normal August mid-day heat. Soft purples paint the dawn sky as the moon sets in the distance and the sun slowly starts to wake up the town. Imagine deep valleys in the heart of the mountains built in Bavarian architecture, charming and filled with wild goats and sheep roaming freely. As you gaze up into the clear blue sky, you are delighted with paragliders swopping through the valleys and soaring above peaks like majestic eagles. This place exists, and it is called the Dolomites in Northern Italy, a climbers and hikers paradise in the Italian Alps. I hadn’t even heard of this beautiful place in the world as of one month ago. We met a nice Aussie couple back in Delphi, Greece, who were hikers and climbers and highly recommended that we visit, and I sure am glad that we did!
Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2009 for its geological uniqueness. If you are planning a trip to this beautiful slice of the world (which I highly recommend!), head on over to their official website to learn more and plan your trip. But first, read through this blog for tips on where to stay and hiking in the Dolomites.
Whether you’re here because you’re planning a trip to this area of Italy, or you just want to get your stunning mountain photos fix, I hope you enjoy!
Where to Stay in the Dolomites
We stayed a total of three nights in the area. Belluno is the closest main town to the Dolomites, just a 30-minute drive from one of the many main entrances to the national park. (Entrance to the park is free.) In the town of Belluno, you can stock up on sundries, groceries at Super W (their local supermarket), or have a meal at one of their several pizzerias and other casual restaurants. The nearby town of Feltre is also a good home base if you have a rental car.
Rifugios (refuge) are typically family-owned accommodation with rooms for sleeping and a restaurant/bar that typically serves local, home made food for hikers who are passing through the mountains on long journeys, such as the one from Munich, Germany to Venice, Italy, a 30-day hiking trek. They are usually located away from cities in remote locations. They are open to the public, so both locals and transient travelers visit, and no prior reservations are required; you simply show up and come as you are.
We book most of our accommodation on this long-term travel adventure through Airbnb. This is where we found Col di Roanza, which, unbeknownst to us, turned out to be a rifugio! Here’s a photo of the beautiful property.
Our bedroom was upstairs, just above the outdoor restaurant patio. The room was small but it was all we needed since we only used it for sleeping and were out all day hiking. When we were home, we used the bright open space indoors to work on our laptops (Wi-Fi is free and relatively reliable and fast.) Keep in mind that during summer months, it can get quite hot and there is no air conditioning or fans provided, but it does cool down quite a bit at night. There are no screens on the windows, but thankfully very few bugs and no mosquitoes. During wintertime, it gets below freezing.
We were the very first guests through Airbnb, so it was an interesting experience. The owner’s name is Cristina, a single woman whom we guessed to be in her 60’s. She runs the entire place on her own with a bit of wait staff help for her restaurant, Bar Roanza, which is a very large space and has a lovely outdoor patio with large umbrellas to provide shade from the strong mountain sun. Cristina is vegetarian and co-owns a farm near Venice, which supplies most of the food she cooks and serves in her restaurant. We enjoyed this beautiful mountain backdrop view several times during our meals.
Her property is quite large and contains two beautiful wild horses and three donkeys, one of which is only one year old! Baby animals are the best. They love cuddles and are extremely calm and tame. They crave human attention and love getting their pets! Don’t worry, they don’t bite, but the baby girl will lick and kiss you. 🙂
There were some folks doing a WorkAway here on the farm and helping out in the kitchen, learning how to cook and speak Italian. We met a gal from Georgia (of Vietnamese heritage with a Southern drawl) and a guy from Brazil, both doing the WorkAway. I love experiences where we get to chat with the people who picked and harvested our food, helped prepare and cook it, and ultimately served it to our table.
We enjoyed many delicious vegetarian (and one meat) meals during our stay, which are reasonably priced (between €6 – 10 per dish.) Here we have zucchini pie (savory) with green beans sautéed in olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs, served with a side of boiled beets and potatoes baked with onions. They make their own mint syrup that you add to sparkling water so that you can make your own healthy pop. Everything is from right here in this region of Italy, made from the hands of a woman who is passionate about food, farms, and healthy eating.
These are the travel experiences I live for, especially as a foodie who enjoys the process of growing, cooking and taking my time eating food. Speaking with many locals over the past four months of our travels, people tend to view Americans negatively when it comes to how we approach food. They think that we only eat hamburgers and fast food, but we’re not all that way. These farm-to-table concepts exist in many places in America, and I certainly hope they become more widespread so that we can eradicate awful chains such as McDonald’s and instead make organic, local ingredients more affordable by subsidizing local farmers instead of pumping money into fast food chains that are killing our population.
Here are more photos of the food that we enjoyed:
Hiking in the Dolomites
It was surprisingly difficult to find websites or blogs with helpful information about specific hikes in the Dolomiti region, so we relied on recommendations from Cristina, and she certainly didn’t steer us wrong! I recommend to just drive around the national park one day and enjoy the pristine mountain views that make you feel as though you are in Switzerland. The access road through the national park is accessible via the town of Belluno. We hiked a total of three days and felt we could have spent an entire week here.
We did two long day hikes which I will explain in detail below.
1) Rifugio Alpini 7°
Length: 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) round trip
Hiking Level: difficult
Elevation Gain: 1,200 meters (3,600 feet)
Time: Approximately 9 hours (7.5 of hiking, 1.5 of rest at the rifugio)
This hike actually begins from the backyard of our own rifugio, Col di Roanza, and ends up at another rifugio way up high in the mountains. The hike took us 9 hours, including a 20-minute nude dip in a cold swimming hole pool with turquoise water (a much-needed refreshment from the hot mountain sun), and a 1.5-hour stop at the rifugio once we reached the top. Thank goodness our reward was the rifugio because it was not an easy hike in the August heat.
If you have a rental car, park at Col di Roanza and stop in to say hi to Cristina and use restrooms before you set out on the long journey. The photo below is what you look up at before you start the hike. (Don’t worry, the hike doesn’t bring you to the top of those peaks, but there is a way that you can ascend the summit, however, climbing gear is necessary.) If you have your own gear with you (including a helmet), you can stay overnight at Alpini Rifugio 7° and continue on to summit the peaks the following day.
From Col di Roanza Rifugio, start walking down the hill. In less than five minutes you will see a trail on the right side of the road. This is where the hike begins. About 20 minutes into the hike, you will see an awesome bench, which we titled “Bench at the End of the World” (ala Swing at the end of the World in Banos, Ecuador, which we visited at the start of our world travel adventure back in April.) (Blog can be found here for later reading.)
Very shortly after the bench, you will reach a tunnel that is nearly 1.6 kilometers (one mile) long, so bring a headlamp, flashlight or phone with bright illumination.
The light coming through the tunnel breaks made for some phenomenal silhouette photos.
We crossed several streams and continued to follow the river until we ascended the mountain. (The start of the hike is relatively flat and very easy and calm through a covered forest.)
There are endless options for a refreshing dip in hundreds of intimate natural pools, carved out by years of water cascading down the mountain, shaping natural water slides and turquoise swimming holes. (swim suits optional because nobody else is around! Go for it, live a little!)
Starting the final ascent to the rifugio…feeling quite ready for a break from the ascent. An ice cold water and espresso was very enticing at this point.
We passed a snake!!! Or so we thought…
But something seemed a bit off…the snake looked a bit too shiny and too still…
Later when I downloaded photos to my computer to edit in Lightroom, I zoomed way in and noticed a divot in its head! Some prankster placed a fake snake on the rock! Perhaps it is to warn people that there are snakes in this area and to be cautious. It worked for me!
After nearly four hours of hiking, feeling quite tired and hot, we finally saw the rifugio in sight. I’ve never been so happy to know that food and rest were within reach!
We spent 1.5 hours outside in the shade under umbrellas overlooking the entire valley below and jagged peaks above. This rifugio is owned and operated by a young family. We ordered pasta, local sausages with polenta and tomato sauce, ice cold bottled waters, espresso, a Ritter Sport chocolate bar and 2 tiramisu, then promptly took a nap after major food coma. We managed to rack up a bill of €45,00 with all that food, but the views were so worth it. Refueling is necessary after a demanding hike like this! You’ll need that energy to get back down!
The hut to the left is where the owners operate their teleferico, which is the only way to deliver goods to and from town, as there is no access road to get to this rifugio. It is truly remote and secluded. The teleferico takes approximately half an hour to go across the valley and up and over the mountain to the other side, where there is another station with an access road to Belluno town. The workers spend three months working here during summer (all other months are too cold and snowy to be open). The only way for them to get up and down the mountain is to hike the four hours up or down (you’d better not forget anything you need once you leave!)
2) Monte Serva
Length: 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) round trip
Hiking Level: moderate
Elevation Gain: 1,100 meters (3,300 feet)
Total Elevation at the Top: 2,133 meters (nearly 7,000 feet)
Time: Approximately 6 hours
On our third and last day in Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, we hiked Monte Serva, since the trailhead was very close to our rifugio. Since sunrise in August is 6:00 AM, we woke up at 5:00 AM to get an early start at 5:30 AM. The views and the fact that we only saw a few other people on the entire hike, made it completely worth it!
How to Get There
From Col di Roanza rifugio, drive up the hill until the road ends. Be very cautious, as the road is extremely narrow with no side rails, and traffic is two ways. Sometimes we had to do a two-point turn just to make a tight hairpin curve because the road was so narrow. After about five minutes of driving, the paved road will end and a gravel road will begin (pictured below.)
Park to the side of the road (you may see other cars, unless you go extremely early.) You’ll see this sign:
This is the beginning of the trail. The entire hike is directly uphill on a steep slope and never flattens out, so be prepared for your thighs and calves to burn!
Little did we know that later that afternoon it would torrential downpour in a dangerously strong storm that lasted a full hour. Good thing we weren’t caught in it! The air is crisp and cool so early in the morning, and I love that time of day because the world has not yet woken up and it feels as though you have the entire earth to yourselves.
A little more than halfway up the route, you will come across a private home with four aggressive dogs on chains who will bark at you like crazy. If their owner is not home, they are extremely ferocious so do not pet them! If the owner is home, they will be a little more calm, but you still should not pet them. They are guard dogs in charge of herding all the goats and sheep that roam the mountain freely. The owner’s front yard is open to hiker passerby and you are welcome to come in the gate and rest your feet on the benches provided (no need to knock, just let yourself into the gate to sit in the outdoor section pictured below.) This is an excellent place to have a snack before completing the ascent. You can see the sign in the photo below that says “attenti cane” (beware of dogs).
From this house, you are really close in distance, but not necessarily in length because the final stretch is even steeper. Once you get to the goats, you know you’re at the top.
Goat: “Uhh…it’s not what it looks like. Carry on, nothing to see here…”
Once you finally reach the top (2,333 meters / nearly 7,000 feet), it truly feels as though you are on top of the world. All struggling and feelings of wanting to collapse quickly fade as you are greeted with these views:
Some stunning panoramas (that’s me doing a leapfrog over the summit post on the far right of the below photo):
I hope you found this post to be helpful in planning your trip to the Dolomites!
NEXT UP: VENICE, ITALY