Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Discover Dolomite mountain range

Some of the world’s most famous action heroes have filmed scenes of derring-do in the Dolomite mountain range, part of the northern Italian Alps. From Bond to Stallone, they have flexed their muscles on these challenging slopes. Today I am following in their macho footsteps - tackling a two-hour via ferrata climb up Col dei Bos (Hill of Cows), whose peak stands at 2559 metres. My guide is the nimble Mario, who has scaled Everest and K2, and was a climbing adviser on Stallone’s Cliffhanger, filmed here. (Mario remembers the Hollywood star as very short, unfeasibly muscle-bound and a bit of a scaredy-cat). Via ferratas are fixed climbing routes created so that soldiers in the First World War could haul up supplies to tunnels and trenches. 

The limestone peaks and valleys around the region’s main town of Cortina d’Ampezzo formed a front between Italian and Austrian soldiers – the Italians eventually prevailed in 1917 and Cortina, formerly Austrian, became part of Italy. Many of the mountain dug-outs have been preserved as outdoor museums. The via ferratas, meaning iron routes, consist of rungs hammered into the rock to create a ladder. A steel cable runs alongside and climbers clip onto it to secure themselves. While the Dolomites were their birthplace, via ferratas have now been set up worldwide to enable climbers of all levels to attempt difficult ascents. My ‘intermediate’ route, called Via Ferrata degli Alpini, begins with a sheer vertical stretch and I find myself scrabbling clumsily. I’m sure even wimpy old Sly Stallone didn’t wail ‘I’m stuck!’ and swear tearfully at bruised knees. I have climbed a bit, but would still class myself as a novice… I am attached to Mario and two fellow climbers by a rope (an extra precaution for beginners). 

On my harness is a length of material with a clip on the end. Each time I progress upwards, I clip above the next bolt on the metal cable. I use the rungs to help me climb, but they are quite far apart (I’m short) and I need to find foot and handholds too.
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After a difficult first half hour, the climb gets easier and we stop at the natural platforms en route, looking out over jagged spires and smooth plateaus. The 18 peaks of the Dolomites are a UNESCO World Heritage Site – they have borne witness to the evolution of life and landscape for more than 250 million years. Reaching the end of our 300m climb is a triumphant moment. We whoop, high five, breathe, take in the views and head for a well-deserved lunch at Rifugio Laguzoi. There are 56 refuges in the region, which are largely Alpine-style wooden chalets offering good food and sometimes beds for the night. I tuck in to Laguzoi’s famous carrot gnocchi before heading outside for a photo on the promontory where Stallone filmed Cliffhanger’s opening scene. Well-known as a high-end ski-resort favoured by celebrities including George Clooney, Cortina d’Ampezzo and the surrounding area is increasingly becoming an all-year-round destination.
From June to October, snow gives way to meadows of wild flowers and a network of walking, hiking, biking and climbing routes. I spend a morning with mountain bike guide Fabio, who takes me along Cortina’s disused railway track, now a 30km cycle route through forests of larch and pine. Fabio’s family are ‘Ampezzani’, the name given to the region’s longest-serving residents. His ancestors set up home here in the 13th century, first as farmers, then as ironmongers. Fabio is a ski instructor in winter time and is obscenely fit for 51. A father of three, whose wife is a florist, he can’t imagine living anywhere else.


 ‘My life is here,’ he says. We make our way up and down pine-needle paths and shale, taking in the ruin of an 8th-century castle and dipping our feet into an ice-cold mountain stream. While Cortina is definitely a draw for the adventurous, there is plenty to do if you prefer more gentle activity. The town itself feels more Austrian than Italian, with carved wooden balconies and baskets of geraniums. Designer brands are wedged between the outdoor-wear shops, and in the evenings well-groomed locals and visitors sip Aperol spritzers. My spacious room at the Hotel Franceschi looked out over mountain peaks and was a five-minute walk from Pasticceria Alvera, brilliant for morning croissants or afternoon cake. There are easy walks or drives to surrounding villages and lakes, and I’d recommended lunch or dinner at Il Brite de Larieto, a working farm and restaurant two kilometres out of town. Everything on the menu is made here, from ham and cheese to fennel-seed bread and traditional dumplings. The region’s mountain refuges are also reachable without hiking for miles as lots of them have cable cars which take you close by. I stayed the night in family-run Rifugio Averau, with good home-cooked food and comfy dorms, where a dramatic midnight thunderstorm ricocheted around the mountains.

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In the morning I walked 8km along one of the well-marked hiking routes for lunch at Rifugio Scoiattoli, overlooking the towering Cinque Torrei rock formations. My plate of violette pasta with thyme, pine nuts, porcini mushrooms and pancetta was the most memorable dish of the trip. Scoiattoli’s huge terrace was scattered with beanbags and sheepskin rugs – and in winter they fire up an outdoor hot-tub.

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