The Dolomites and its landscape

The Dolomites and its landscapeThe Dolomites bring to mind a host of superlatives, “Les Dolomites sont le plus belles constructions du monde” (Le Corbusier,1950), “They are unlike any other mountains, and are to be seen nowhere else among the Alps” (John Murray,1837). More poetically our very own Italian writer Dino Buzzati exclaims “Sono pietre o sono nuvole? Sono vere oppure un sogno?(1956)” Are they real or a dream?
There is no doubt that these are very special mountains and in 2009 were awarded with UNESCO recognition as a natural world heritage site.
Besides their natural beauty there is a whole story to be told of the human presence over the course of millennia. It has profoundly modeled the Dolomites and its landscape. It is here for us to enjoy.

Every meadow and pasture below the timber line is the result of the clearing of the forest in the past. Were it not for this action, trees would still cover most the landscape with the exception of the high altitude meadows where climatic conditions are prohibitive for their growth. This is just one example of how man has modified the landscape, but the presence of urban dwellings high in the mountain valleys and numerous trails are a stark and clear reminder that people have inhabited the Dolomites for a very long time. We would wish they were pristine and untouched by human-kind, but arguably the impact for the most part has been benevolent.

In large part the preservation of the landscape in the Dolomites is attributable to a form of rural democracy that is locally referred to as the REGOLE. Although the Regole are found in many communities in the Dolomites the most prominent, and should I add the most effective has been the Regole of Cortina d’Ampezzo. The Regole have a statute called the Laudo and it sets out the rules and regulations for the common use of the pastures, the exploitation of the forests and the maintenance of the roads and foot paths. The land under its jurisdiction is owned by the local inhabitants and is passed on from one generation to the next under strict norms. The land in question is vast, and in the case of Cortina it has preserved the town from being overrun by a frenzy of speculative construction.
To benefit from the Regole you have to be a REGOLIERE, which is restricted to the founding families. The first Laudo dates back almost 1.000 years in Cortina, and there are currently approximately 1.000 Regolieri. The there is plenty of literature covering le Regole. Not only is it interesting from an academic perspective but it continues to influence local policy and decision-making.

Other factors come to play in shaping the landscape of the Dolomites, especially in the large tracts of land not owned by the Regole. As expected the interaction here has been more complex among the various stake holders, but perhaps a bit naively I like to think that overall the results have been positive. We now have the privilege to continue to enjoy the beautiful Dolomites.

Dolomites reinvented

Dolomites reinvented


Pelmo, ca.1873

1857 may well mark a turning point in the story of the local people inhabiting the region we now call the Dolomites. The word history may be too presumptuous given the very limited scope of these changes. But changes they were, jump started by a Cambridge educated geologist and botanist by the name of John Ball (Dublin 1818- London 1889). Since early on he traveled extensively in the alpine region doing botanical research and engaging in climbing and hiking activities. He was the first to officially reach the top of Mt.Pelmo accompanied by a local guide. The year is 1857. A ledge in the Pelmo is called “cengia di Ball” and there are various plaques honoring his name scattered across the Dolomite mountains.
He went on to write Ball’s Alpine Guides, three volumes published between 1863 and 1868, the latter on the Eastern Alps and the Dolomites.
It is almost certain that locals had already climbed Mt.Pelmo and many of the sorrounding peaks before Ball, but the uniqueness of his action is that it was done with the intent to explore, study and write about these places.The Dolomites were a harsh place to live and most activities were focused on getting enough food on the table. Most mountains did not have a name, and if they did, most would not care to remember it. Let me quote from the great book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys written by Amelia Edwards and published in 1873.

“The peasants of the mountain district between Agordo and Primiero seemed, so far as one could judge in a single day’s journey, altogether poorer, dirtier and more ignorant than elsewhere…..even the lady at the Gosalda (sic) albergo…had no kind of local information to give. Being asked the name of the noble mountain that formed the main feature of the view before her windows, she replied first that it was the Monte Cereda; then that it was the Sasso de Mis; and finally admitted that she did not know for certain whether it had a name at all. ….the mountain however, as set down in Ball’s map, proved to be the Monte Prabello”.

The Dolomites came to light. Scholars, adventurers, naturalists, artists, painters and writers soon came to discover this corner of the Alps, and it happened quickly.
Between 1861 and 1863 two English friends traveled the region extensively and wrote a book called The Dolomite Mountains. George Churchill was a geologist and his pal Josiah Gilbert an artist. The ensuing book was adorned with beautiful paintings and it represented the first in-depth description of the Dolomites.
In that same period (1862) a young Austrian lawyer by the name of Paul Grohmann arrived in Cortina d’Ampezzo for the first time. It was love at first sight. He would spend the better part of his life concentrated on mountain activities mostly centered in the Dolomites. In 1873 he was granted honorary citizenship by Cortina by virtue of the multiple activities he helped develop including founding the Guide Alpine. This was followed in 1875 by a detailed map of the Dolomite Alps and two years later of the travel book Wanderungen in den Dolomiten.

Word was spreading around and it would have a lasting impact on the lives of the local population. Agriculture slowly gave way to tourism. Cortina d’Ampezzo was without question the main beneficiary of this change. Its first records date back to 1876 and show the arrival of almost 10.000 guests. 14 years later this was up to 16.000. The trend was to continue in the decades ahead. The other valleys were less fortunate but change also came their way. The Dolomites attract tourists from around the globe but a lasting impact can be attributed to the book by Amelia Edwards. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys is a magnificent story of her journey in the region. She meticolously depicts a cultural landscape, both in her writing and in her exquisite drawings. Knowing most of the places she describes having hiked there myself, I can visualize them as I read along – 140 years later. Ax it may be difficult to get a copy of the book you can download it from the digital library of the University of Pennsylvania.
Thanks to the curiosity and courage of these 19th century travelers, the Dolomites were reinvented and were put on a map.

Why are they called the Dolomites?

why are they called the Dolomites?Seldom does a mountain range take its name from the underlying rock structure, perhaps with the notable exception of the Rocky mountains. However this may not be such a fitting example given that “rocky” is a generic rather than a specific term such as “dolomite”.

So,why are they called the Dolomites?
For my grandparents these were just “our mountains” and as a child I don’t recall the word Dolomites being used very often. Back in the late 1800’s geologists and naturalists were against calling the Dolomites as such, correctly stating that dolomitic mountain ranges exist in many other parts of the globe. These were referred to the Venetian and SudTirol Alps.

Back in 1864 two English scholars by the names of Josiah Gilbert and George C. Churchill wrote a detailed diary of their excursions in the area in 1861, 1862 and 1863, with meticulous descriptions of their travels. They went on to publish their memoirs in the book “The Dolomite Mountains..”.Their writings give us a precious and rare glimpse of everyday life of what was a secluded and little knowns corner of the Alps. Remember, at the time there were few roads and communications with the more developed plains to the south and Venice were sketchy. The growing season was short and only through hard labor were the locals able to make a living. Times were difficult and the notion of tourism was a blessing that came much later.
In the ensuing years the term Dolomites continued to be hotly contested by other scholars. A local name could have been a valid option – had there been one. But locals did not have a specific name for many of the mountains surrounding their back-yard, let alone a mountain range. It is interesting that even today certain alpine peaks are referred to as Cima Undici, Cima Dodici and so on. Translated this means Peak 11, Peak 12 etc.

It was not until after WWI that the term Dolomites became widely used and accepted. Today there is unanimous recognition of the word Dolomites and most mountain hikers and climbers have a pretty well defined picture of its location

How about the name itself, where does it come from? The term Dolomites traces its origins to the Marquis Deodat de Dolomieu, who traveled extensively in the area studying and recording his findings in the tradition of the scholars at the turn of the 17th century. Unlike limestone that reacts vigorously in contact with hydrochloric acid, the marquis de Dolomieu noticed that dolomite rock had a very weak reaction. Although the two rocks looked very much alike, he realized that the chemical composition must differ. Since this chemical formula was unknown he sent it to his friend N.T. de Saussure for further analysis. In 1796 de Saussure presented his findings at a scientific meeting and called the rock Dolomite in honor of his friend Dolomieu who had made the initial discovery.

Where are the Dolomites?

Where are the Dolomites located?

Where are the Dolomites located? They are in the NE corner of Italy and are part of the Alps from which they differ morphologically. To a large extent this difference can be attributed to the underlying rock composition. Dolomite mineral rock is also found elsewhere, but nowhere in the alpine region is it as common as here.
With the help of a map we can pretty well define the borders to the north, west and east, whereas to the south it is open to interpretation as I will explain shortly.


The northernmost limit of the Dolomites runs along Pustertal between the towns of Mulbach and Innichen. This area is called South Tyrol, or Alto Adige in Italian. This region belongs to Italy but culturally it has remained Austrian, and the language spoken here is German.


The easterly limit follows an imaginary line from Innichen to Santo Stefano di Cadore and then on a southerly course along the Piave river to Ponte delle Alpi.


The southerly limit of the Dolomites is open to debate. Tradition and culture position it north of Belluno valley which runs from Ponte delle Alpi to Feltre and then along the Valsugana. This interpretation was accepted and validated by UNESCO by including the Schiara group, clearly visible from Belluno, as part of the Dolomites World Heritage site area.
A stricter interpretation based on geological evidence pushes this boundary further north towards Agordo. It follows a major fault line that crosses rugged mountainous terrain from Agordo to Domegge di Cadore. This view excludes the Schiara group and others from the Dolomites proper.


The western limit of the Dolomites roughly follows the Adige river between the cities of Trento and Bolzano (Bozen in German).

How to get there

Venice Marco Polo airport is the closest airport to the gateway of the Dolomites. It is fast becoming an international destination point with direct flights from most European countries, Dubai, Doha, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto (in season). Frequent bus service connects it with the Venice train station (35 minute ride depending on traffic) and a not-so-comfy train ride lands you in Belluno in two hours. There is a also a twice a day direct shuttle to Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Google Street View in the Dolomites- a good thing?

Google Street View in the Dolomites is now online. You can log on for a virtual tour of some of the trails in our mountains. Given the weight and the size of the cameras that have to be carried by the operator, only the easier trails were digitized for now. Therefore the via ferrate and the more challenging hikes are not included in Street View, based on safety concerns.
This is of course part of Google’s declared objective of making every angle of the world surface available on-line, mountain ranges included.

What is interesting is that the Unesco World Heritage Site Foundation enthusiastically joined in. Their declared objective at the meeting was to promote the Dolomites to an extended public, thus making it more attractive for people from around the world to come visit.

Right? Not according to many locals and the CAI, the Italian Alpine Club. Making the mountain trails so publicly accessible and in such an effortless way betrays the very nature of the mountain spirit. As young boys and girls we were taught that a spectacular view was and should be a reward for the hard work getting there, and that sweating it out was the cost of enjoying a cold sandwich and a glass of water after having reached the destination.

CAI goes one step further, by arguing that it can be outright dangerous. Following the trail while comfortably sitting in front of your laptop may instill a false sense of security and undermine potential risks. It also does not take into account the micro-management of a hike, all the split-second decisions a hiker must make in response to changes, such as in the weather pattern for example.

I was very impressed with what I saw in Google Street View in the Dolomite trails. There is no question that it certainly is an accurate display of what the Dolomites have to offer. However, as much as I appreciate this technological advance, I still miss the sweat and the muscles ache at the end of the trail.

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Cadore high country—for families

How satisfying is it really as a parent to introduce your own children to the mountains? That depends really! Given the right trail and the right attitude, I’ve seen mine take off, and there’s no turning back… at least until they hit their teens. Not even a brisk day and a bit of rain will get them discouraged. The Dolomites are a choice location for travelling with little ones: there’s an endless list of easy hikes with easy access, weather-shelters, and comfortable alpine huts with bunk beds (kids like bunk beds), not to mention the absence of dangerous predators. Combine that with idyllic rolling meadows for picnic stops, and plenty of animal and plant life (both domesticated and wild). Want something more adventurous? Our guides can take you out for a day on the rock or help you complete a via ferrata.

Allow me to let you in on a spot that deserves your attention. Pian dei Buoi and the eastern Marmarole mountain massif rises just above Lozzo di Cadore: Both the family-managed Rifugio Baion and Rifugio Ciareido are frequented by locals. You’ll rarely hear a language spoken other than Italian and regional dialects. At Rifugio Baion food is something special, coming from the Friuli area from which the management hails

We’ve been out scouting areas in preparation for our new custom family tours. These will not be advertised as group tours because we know every family has its own dynamics and preferences. We can help you organize the perfect family alpine experience.

Late winter ski tour under Monte Alto

Remember this spot? We were here in 2011, and here we are again. Some old friends gave me a call last night to propose a backcountry ski tour. We hadn’t skied together since 2008, and we’d been crossing paths all winter. I wanted to do something a bit off the beaten path, and avalanche risk was moderate to high above the treeline, so our destination had to be safe. Strangely enough, we had the same tour in mind. Here’s a short trip report and some photos to give a sense of this year’s late winter snowpack.

We’ve been getting a lot of new snow in the Dolomites lately, but also plenty of wind. The scouring action has left a beautiful drifted landscape, but also deep slabs which are prone to slide, even under the weight of a single skier or snowshoer. We came across several of these slabs on low angle slopes, which confirmed it wasn’t the right day to go high. Luckily we managed to get just above the trees to a ridge under Monte Alto. The summit itself yields fantastic views of the vertical south face of the Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. We turned around before climbing the final steep summit cone. Better safe than sorry!

As we suspected, nobody had been through yet to break trail. Route finding proved to be a bit of a challenge, as the majority of the tour was in the trees. The descent was, simply put, a disaster complete with face plants and slow-motion cartwheels. Whenever we got our confidence up, the wind-blown crust would put us back in our place. Nobody escaped the frosty humiliation. Needless to say, the camera went into the pack for protection. Sorry folks, no pictures of the wreckage! All-in-all, a gorgeous day in great company. We got to see a new spot in winter, and we even linked a few turns somewhere deep in the trees. It’s snowing again… stay tuned for next weekend.

Big snow

Yes, we got all that. It’s been making white stuff on and off for over a week. We did get two days of unusually warm weather, but above 1400m it’s all snow. More on the way this week, then looks like a sunny weekend. Val Fiorentina is the right place to be in this kind of weather. Rifugio Città di Fiume is easily accessible just below Passo Staulanza, and presents no particular risks. The rifugio remains open weekends throughout the winter. During breaks in the heavy snowfall the north face of Mt. Pelmo made an ominous appearance. Even when hidden in the storm, it made its presence known as a sizable avalanche rumbled down. Nice to know you’re at a safe distance!

Eco-cultural tourism

Book a mountain walking holiday with us and you’ll discover the Dolomites are more than meets the eye. Beyond the sweeping panoramas, a deep, yet subtle story is constantly unfolding. This is the story of a landscape-in-formation; of majestic peaks, but also bucolic alpine and subalpine pastures, and bustling alpine towns. We characterize our experience as ‘eco-cultural tourism’ because it’s about the way this story unfolds before you as you walk through this landscape.

Is there such a thing as untouched wilderness in the Alps?

The Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally proposed as a cultural landscape (a milieu of nature and culture in an ongoing relationship at the landscape level). This landscape narrative was not acceptable to the UNESCO commission because of a problem with specificity: the entire alpine arc can be considered a mosaic of cultural landscapes. In the end the outstanding universal value of the site was argued on the basis of its geological and geomorphological importance, and the unique beauty associated with the dolomitic structures. Thus, the Dolomites received recognition for their ‘natural heritage’, but a quick glance at a postcard or map will quickly reveal that this area is far from the ideal of unspoilt nature.

Let’s refigure the question: can you find untouched wilderness in America?… Really?… let’s think about this for a moment. In the Americas we are accustomed to having our nature ‘natural’ and our culture, well… highly anthropogenic, if not downright industrial (and unsightly!). Beginning from the Muir and the great American wilderness movement, we enclose our nature in parks. We escape to these parks, hoping not to encounter another human, or lay eyes on a man-made structure during our visit: we can be no more than mere visitors in these landscapes. Somehow we don’t maintain these expectations when we make our ‘escape’ to the Alps. Stopping mid-hike to walk into a bar in an alpine chalet for a drink—something quintessentially European in character—becomes an unmentionable blasphemy on God’s creation if inserted into an American context.

The food! The wine!

Of course, getting into the mix of nature and culture doesn’t always involve a trip to the bar. Italy’s alpine populations are fiercely proud of their open pastoral landscapes, their rows of vineyards, and also less renowned cultivated counterparts including patchworks of home vegetable gardens, chestnut and walnut groves, and fruit orchards.

And here’s the core of the nature/culture issue (at least as far as tourism in the Dolomites is concerned!): the food culture. Remember, besides pizza and lasagna, Italy brought the world the Slow Food movement. The key to Italy’s strong position in foodie-land is the express tie between nature and culture articulated through one of our most basic bodily functions. Italians are leaders in the western world when it comes to tying what they eat to ‘territory’ (territorio). Territory is the combined, localized manifestation of climate, ecology, culture, history, raw soil, and seeds. In America we talk about ‘heirloom varieties’. In Italy, we’ve reached a level of appreciation (verging on obsession) for local varieties. So much so that nearly every valley in complex geographical regions such as the Dolomites has a local cuisine based not only on local recipes, but also local varieties of squash, cabbage, corn, grain, radicchio, chicken, and so-on.

Ok, that’s all nice and cultural, but what about the ecology?

The sight of a herd of cows or goats, accompanied by the sound of bells might be unwelcome to the wilderness purist. Think of the fragile alpine meadows! This is a common preconception, however. Much alpine biodiversity can be attributed to traditional patterns of cultivation and the transhumance—the seasonal cyclical movement of domestic herds of sheep and cattle from valley to alpine pastures. Grazing keeps patches open and introduces an important ‘disturbance’, attracting birds, wildflowers, and pollinators. There’s also a great deal of interest in ‘cultivated biodiversity’ on the part of scientists trying to address growing cracks in the world’s food system. As a living cultural landscape, the Dolomites have much to offer in these regards.

We seek to break down the ‘nature-by-day, culture-by-night’ dichotomy which is typically implicit in mountain tours. Whether you join us for two days or ten days, we make sure you get an experience that respects the place, the people, and the landscape. Walk, don’t run (or rush) your way through our little corner of the world, and you’re sure to be rewarded.

Snowshoeing and winter photography

Following an unexpected success last winter, 34 alpine huts in the Cadore and Zoldo region alone have again decided to remain open throughout the winter in order to receive snowshoers and backcountry skiers. The region’s network of groomed and marked trails provides easy access to backcountry areas away from crowded ski areas. Visitors taking advantage of the alpine hut network are rewarded with hot meals and even a warm bed to sleep in.

Why not try something different this winter holiday? Ski slopes not for you? Winter excursions on snowshoes promise a quieter retreat into the winter landscape, away from the crowded resorts.

Winter photography is about lines and light. Snowy panoramas invite conversion to black and white but colors can be equally intense. If you decide to remain in an alpine hut over night, sunrise and sunset are not to be missed. The Dolomites region’s climate means lots of sun over the winter months, so opportunities are plenty.

Our snowshoe guides and photographers are ready to help you make the most of your outing. At the moment, we’re only offering this option as a custom trip. Contact us for more information.