Our landlady, Debora, had recommended that we go to Prato Piazza so we thought we’d give it a go. Now, if you have a car you can drive up there but that would be too easy for us, wouldn’t it, and besides we don’t have a car. Never mind, the local buses are frequent and we have a Farhplan to help us plan our journeys. Except that the Farhplan is about as far from a plan as you can get and it needs a degree in quantum mathematics to understand. Suffice it to say that the 9.30am bus we thought we were getting to Cimabanche didn’t actually operate in October and we had to get a different bus to a different place and at a later time.
Not to worry, we soon walked off our irritation by walking up route 37 which had glorious views of the surrounding mountains.
It was a reasonably tough walk, though the path was, for the most part, well maintained. As is often the case, it was the last half hour which proved the hardest because we had the tempting sight of the Rifugio Vallandro on the far horizon, but clearly still several hundred metres above us. We could see that it was open and would offer some welcome respite. As, indeed, it did when we finally reached it. By now it was lunchtime and although we had a picnic with us (Jane, quite rightly, never travels without a supply of food) the Goulash Soup was too tempting to miss. It was chilly but we sat on the terrace, high up in the world, in the sunshine feeling quite euphoric at having made it. And the soup was excellent.
Prato Piazza is, indeed, wonderfully scenic, so Debora was right to say it is her favourite place. It has an upland valley, almost like parts of the Lake District only much higher. We were some 2,000 metres up with an open sky all around us, farmers bailing the hay and even a bird watcher searching for birds.
If our path up was long and, at times, laborious, the one down was like a helter-skelter ride. Down into a steep ravine on a narrow, steep path with no hand holds and plenty of loose gravel and a stream to cross several times. We were both more than happy when we eventually made it down to the road to reach Cimabanche only to realise that the bus which would have taken us back to Dobbiaco had left just 5 minutes ago and the next one wouldn’t go by for another two hours.
‘Aha,’ we said, ‘according to this ‘ere timetable the Cortina Express is due in 45 minutes.’ We were standing right outside Cimbanche’s only restaurant (in fact, virtually Cimbanche’s only occupied building). But it was closed, of course. So we sat down, ate the sandwiches Jane had so lovingly prepared, drank our flask of tea (we don’t trek light, you know) and waited. And waited. 5 minutes after the scheduled departure time there was no sign of any bus so we wandered back over to the bus timetable and it’s then that we noticed the small print. Making full use of our 40 minute Italian course we just about managed to work out that the Cortina Express wasn’t due anytime soon. The service was just for the summer – it ended on 1 October! Not so much Express as espresso – one swallow and it was gone.
So, we did what any seasoned traveller would do. We walked to the other side of the road and waited for the bus travelling in the opposite direction. This took us on a lovely scenic ride to Cortina where we got out, wandered around for ten minutes before boarding the same bus again, this time travelling back to Dobbiaco.
We’d got high in Prato Piazza, though the come down was a bit cold turkey (actually, a bit cold prosciutto but this is the 21st century not the 1970’s) but now we wanted to get really high and so, trusty mobilcard in hand, we headed for the delightfully named Sexto. (Come to think of it, maybe this really is the 70’s after all). From here you can take a cable car up the mountainside and trek up to Helm, or Mount St Elmo. At the cable car station the cashier spouted a lot of German then Italian at us. After much shrugging and quizical looks he wrote the numerals 65 on a piece of paper and said ‘Seniors Day’. It transpired that pensioners got a discounted fare on this day and he was asking me if I was 65. Bloody cheek. Mind you, at €13 each for a ride of less than 10 minutes I wish I’d said ‘Yes, we’re both taking the Queen’s shilling, don’t you know’.
We rode up the hillside with a car packed with, shall we say, a load of slightly age challenged passengers, all wearing stout boots, backpacks and walking poles. There was also a stack of full beer crates keeping us company. The restaurant obvously knew it was Seniors Day, as well.
On the walk up to the next hut we were in the company of the aforementioned seniors plus families with children, dogs, even babies in rugged looking pushchairs but many of these faded away as the path became steeper. The higher we got the more the views opened out. It also became noticeably colder as we became noticeably slower. The summit of Mount Elmo eventually hove into sight and up here at 2433 metres the wind was very chilly. We managed to cram ourselves into the lea of the abandoned mountain hut and eat our lunch.
The view from the top was stunning but it was no place to linger so we tightened our laces, extended our walking poles and set off down the hillside calling in for a quick cup of hot chocolate at the cable car restaurant just to warm our chilled hands. From here the path more or less followed a very steep downhill ski run. We were having trouble staying on our feet just walking. Lord knows what it’s like skiing down the mountainside.
We eventually reached good old Sexto having descended more than 1,100 metres, nursing our sore calves, knees and feet and rewarding ourselves with a cooling beer whilst waiting for the bus. Tip: always build in bus waiting time if there is a bar nearby.
Tre Cime, the Three Peaks, was so easy to get to from our apartment and it was such a wonderful place to contemplate the beauty of nature that we decided we ought to do more than just circumnavigate it with the crowds so we headed off in the early morning light.
On the internet a walk down Rienza Valley was recommended. This involved trekking half way around Tre Cime to the Locatelli hut (unfortunately closed and therefore not able to offer refreshments). From there the path descends in a series of hairy switchbacks down the cliff face of the valley head. But just as we were gingerly making our way down a couple of lads on bikes rode by. You see people all over these mountains cycling up and down steep, gravelly paths risking life and limb. Mad.
We did eventually reach the valley floor and didn’t see any mangled wreckage on the way so assumed the cyclists had made it in one piece. It was, indeed, a glorious walk alongside the Rienza River, between sheer mountain sides with the sun shining on the autumn leaves. Fabulous, and once again it was a half hour wait for the bus. And the bustop was conveniently sited right outside the bar. We have our own Fahrplan, you know!
Our last day in Dobbiaco, a Friday, dawned and our plan was to take the bus to Tre Cime, wander around a bit, take the bus back down to a lake, wander around there, have some lunch, maybe go on down a bit further before returning early to the flat, packing and going into San Candido for dinner. But, as I have already mentioned, the thing about Fahrplans is that they are subject to seasonal variation.
It was so gorgeous and peaceful up there at Tre Cime de Laverdo (to give it it’s full Italian name – Drei Zinnen in German) that we decided to wander on. When we came across a signpost pointng to Locatelli Hut but by a different route going around Monte Paterno we thought, well, why not stay up here. There was a bunch of horses and several groups of trekkers ahead so how hard could it be.
Well, at times, very. Steep, knee jarring desents, spine tingling scree slopes and lung busting ascents. But what glorious scenery and what a high on which to end our first Dolomiti walking experience. We’ve been blessed with fabulous weather and have pushed ourselves into tackling some paths that we just wouldn’t have contemplated before. But the rewards have been immense.