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My Naples gig was full of awesome surprises and now I was off to a comfortable, and not to early, departure from Naples. I said goodbye to my hosts then hit the road for the Italian Alps, more specifically, the Dolomite Mountains. Google maps said it was a 9-hour drive to Bolzono where I was going to base out of for the next three days.
After getting up to speed and into the Italian driving grove on Autostrada A1, Italy’s main north south corridor, I pondered on the Roma sign. Like in the USA the highways display the next major city at the onramps, and route splits, Roma is Rome. All of Italy’s major towns have Italian names, but evidently they weren’t good enough for ass bites elsewhere. So the powers that be, named Italian towns other names. I mentioned earlier Napoli was bastardized to Naples, Costiera Amalfitana was bastardized to the Amalfi Coast and Roma to Rome. What the hell?
I whizzed by the east side of Roma wishing I had time to visit Vatican City and the coliseum, but the mountains were calling, and I was accelerating to get to them. I was a long way from the Sierra Nevada where John Muir made his famous quote: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” But, the call was no less loud.
I was enjoying the increasingly hilly countryside which was starting to look like photos I have seen of Tuscany, maybe I was there? According to the autostrada signs the next major destination was Firenza, soon I deduced what outsiders decided Firenze should be known as, outside the borders of Italy. There was a remarkable absence of signage for Florence; some foreigner didn’t like Firenza? For the convenience of what?
I put Firenza into my rear view mirror and then Bologna. After Bologna Autostrada A1 started heading more westerly toward Milano or (Milan) for those who can’t pronounce Milano. That is until they get a craving for the best Pepperidge Farm cookie made. Here I left the hills of Tuscany behind and had entered the flat farming country of the Poe River Valley, but not before I sampled a fine, pre-made, Tuscan panini at the autostrada grab and go. Who could drive through Tuscany without trying some of their world famous cuisine?
Nearly a third of all Italians lives in the fertile expanse of the Poe Valley, some of the most heavily cultivated land in Europe. At A22 at Modina I turned north toward the rooftop of Europe, the Alps. The north side of the Poe Valley rise the Italian Alps, Oh, how I had longed to set my eyes upon the Alps. Speeding along autostrada A22 the mountains and the villages of their valleys passed by. I was excited to see whether the climate was mild enough for vineyards, not only in the valley bottoms but also in terraced hillsides towering above. I looked for turnouts to capture the picturesque vineyards and the old stone building, but there weren’t any in photogenic spots. I was hoping Bolzano would be similar, I was climbing in altitude and I feared I’d rise above the flowering of spring. Back home in the Rockies, May can sometimes be less than optimum for scenery before the blooming of the foliage. The number of old castles on the hills surprised me, centuries ago; this place was divided into many small fiefdoms
In my haste to get to my hotel somewhere on a hill above Bolzano, or Bozen as the German residents call it, I only took note of possible photo opps for later. Maybe I could slow down a bit and take the village route that the autostrada replaced when I headed back south to Roma.
The Dolomites Mountains or Dolomiti as they are known locally is one of Europe’s top destinations in both the summer and winter! They rise up like a cathedral of rock, full of rugged crags and breathtaking pinnacles. The mountains differ from the rest of the Alps because of their dominant rock type, dolomite, which forms sheer vertical walls of white and gray. This panoply of saw-toothed spires tower up to 10,000 above sea level, high above the farming valleys and Tyrolean villages below.
Because of their embarrassment of natural riches, the Dolomites became a World Heritage Site in 2009. The Dolomites have always had a huge imprint on those who admired them for the first time, and it is not a secret that they are acclaimed by many as the most beautiful mountains on earth.
Before leaving my home in Idaho I tried to get directions from Bolzano to my hotel on the hill above the city, but the hotel never replied. All I had were the GPS coordinates, which before I left home, I entered into Google Maps, after studying the maps in satellite view, I understood how to get to the hotel from the space station. I found the mountain I needed to cruise in a hotel searching quest. Nonetheless, I wish I had an address with a couple of road clues. Google maps didn’t have this gem of a switched backed Fiat trail named. This was definitely a search for the light of day. Lets see, I go through a tunnel, than exit the autostrada, turn right then head up the hill. How hard can that be?
After exploring many wrong roads on abutting mountains, I found an artistic rendition map with caricatures of villages at the foot of the mountain I had explored more than once. As I glared at the map in exasperation, an English speaking resident asked whether I needed any help. I told him the name of the hotel, and thankfully he knew the place. He let me know I hadn’t gone quite far enough up the hill on the previous reconnaissance.
Fifteen minutes and a two-dozen switchbacks later I found the hotel that allegedly was five minutes from town, dang it, I forgot my helicopter. After a hasty check in at the hotel, post 6PM, I expedited back down the hill to seek out the prettiest valley I had found on Google images; Val di Funes. Sure I had been on the road, for nine hours and lost for another two but I was burning daylight and I couldn’t afford to miss a day of shooting this far from home.
I arrived two minutes before that bright evening light diminished on the peaks of the Olde Range beyond. I hadn’t reached the optimum vantage, but I was in Val di Funes at magic hour despite my hotel finding foibles. I squeezed off a few hasty shots before the sweet light left the mountain. For the next hour I found other vantage points that photographed well, but I wish I had the spotlight of sun that was lost in the western clouds after my arrival.
Exhausted but happy, while heading back to Bolzano in the dark I came across Castle Branzoll all lit up in the village of Klausen or Chiusa, depending on if you were Italian or German. The castle demanded I stop and capture its image, despite my fatigue, out came the tripod, camera, and 300mm lens. While shooting, a Belgian man came up and started talking, he was a political wonk and we had a nice chat about world politics, and I quizzed him about how Europeans see Americans. Without going into details, I hope he was frank about it, and didn’t pull any punches, because I honestly want to know. A successful day wrestled away from Murphy’s Law’s best efforts to thwart success. The Castle was a cool and unexpected bonus for the day.
On the way to Val di Funes, I marveled at the quaint Tyrolean architecture. The Dolomite region surely was different from southern Italy. It was like a whole different country. That is because it was, or is, according to the ethnic German majority. Most the population is of Austro-Bavarian heritage and speaks German. Only a quarter of the population speaks Italian as their first language. South Tyrol, also known by its Italian name Alto Adige, is an autonomous province in northern Italy.
Here, the region’s Bavarian culture is alive and well. Ruddy-faced Bavarian men sporting Tyrolean wool hats are a common site. Initially chuckling because of this, days of yore, retro shtick quickly changed to admiration. In the USA’s throwaway culture our head wear is a cheap, ball caps, way too often, hung on our heads backwards. Folklore costumes play a huge role in Bavarian life. The saying goes that: “Clothed in a dirndl or lederhosen you are always dressed to perfection.” Folklore dress not only is and always will be a fashionable way to dress, but it will always represent an essential aspect of Bavarian culture. Now I didn’t see anyone wearing Lederhosen the traditional Bavarian leather breeches, or dirndl, the traditional dress worn of Bavarian culture, but I saw these fine suede leather garments for sale in many stores.
After the defeat of Austria-Hungarian empire of World War l, South Tyrol, up to today’s Austrian border was occupied by the Italian army. In fulfillment of the London Pact, Italy was granted the territory which it occupied. Today the ethnic Germans still resent it and doggedly hang on to their culture and language.
This dichotomy creates more traveling fun. All signs in the Dolomite region have both the German name, and the Italian name written on them. Ok that is all well and good for the residents, but for us visitors we get twice the confusion. Now when I would ask a German speaker directions and I gave the Italian name, they couldn’t or possibly, wouldn’t know or help.
4:30AM came just as early as it always does followed with a rollout of bed and a leap into the shower. The plan was to shoot the Sella Range from the Gardena Valley, then drive a loop through Cortina then back to Bolzano. Murphy’s Law never far away presented me with a road closed by landslide. I wouldn’t get morning light anywhere good dang it.
While reviewing my options I realized I hadn’t transferred my wallet from my shorts I was wearing the previous day to my jeans I was wearing this morning. Yikes, I wouldn’t have found out about my missing wallet until I needed fuel. A landslide saved the day even though it ruined the morning shoot. Murphy’s Law might have hidden qualities we fail to notice.
Upon retrieving my wallet, I got some advice from the inn keeper Doris, of other ways to get to where I wanted to be. There were multiple options. Unlike the Rocky Mountain where I live that have very few roads through them; the Dolomites are riddled with roads everywhere. Every donkey trail from two hundred years ago is now a paved path to hillside villages connecting with the bigger villages along the valley floors.
Settling upon a new plan, I headed east to try to reach the Gardena Valley from another route. The Gardena Valley was northeast so at roundabouts along the way; northeast is the direction I chose. I found a pond that provided a reflection of Mt. Latemar playing hide and go seek in the clouds above, this could be a good shooting opportunity; the Dolomites are short of good reflection ponds and lakes. The clouds were hanging on the peaks, but it was windy at the mountaintops so it was a waiting game. The pond was awfully mossy for so early in the year which made composition a challenge.
Heading east-northeast through a beautiful valley bottom I felt the need to unload some coffee. All over Italy I had observed men who wanted to pee just pulled over and did so. I guess that is what you do when there isn’t the plethora of bathroom choices like there are in the USA. Well, I not being able to shed my American squeamishness about public urination, I took a short walk into the woods where I promptly took a nasty fall and a tumble down a hill after slipping on some wet foliage. Maybe those Italian men were onto something and had a better idea. I didn’t seem to be any worse for the wear and went about my business.
I soon continued up the hill to the village/ ski resort of Carezza then over Costalunga Pass that I hoped would drop me into the valley of the route that would take me to Sella Pass and the Gardena Valley. As I descended the pass, I was soon stopped by workman clearing the road of downed trees. Spring-cleaning in the Dolomites, I was starting to suspect the reason so many hotels were closed was for the clearing of trees and landslides because of spring runoff and winter damage. I concluded it was time to return to the room for a midday nap.
Returning over Costalunga Pass I saw a ¾/4-moon over Mt. Latemar and the clouds had dissipated to reveal the whole mountain. I was pleased to get some detail in a moon at eleven AM, without a cobalt blue sky for contrast and some post-processing the moon would have been lost to the light of day.
Once again, in the afternoon I backtracked the way I had gone earlier in the day, but when I got the roundabout in Birchabruck/Ponta Nova I took the right turn south south/east as I had already been east northeast and thought I’d choose the longer route and see something new. Both forks went to the same valley highway, just on opposites sides of Mt. Latemar.
The next roundabout, I again chose east/northeast as I was still hoping to achieve Sella Pass someday. I wound through some wonderful country along Strada Statal 620 and the picturesque village of Cavalese. Here I stopped to shoot what I though was a church, but instead was Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme, a museum.
I then dropped into the Val di Fiemme where I found a semi pseudo main route, Strada Statal-48 where I headed north in what I hopped was the direction of Cortina or Sella Pass, I didn’t care which. Without the explorers’ heart that I have, many would be frustrated beyond belief, but I find every fork in the road to be an adventure. Sure I have a rough outline of what I’d love to capture, but it is also cool to find and capture the unexpected.
The Val di Fiemme was beautiful; I was again amused and awed by the series of picture perfect villages strewn along the valley floor. Now and again I’d consult my map to orient myself of where I had arrived at, and where I might go.
At the roundabout in Predazzo I saw a reassuring sign pointing to Sella Pass so I went left. I was soon in Valle di Fassa a valley on the east side of the Sella Mountain Range, and I marveled at the sublime view of the peaks these alpine villages were gifted with.
In the town of Moena I stopped in the roundabout above yet another picture perfect town and took a few photos of the alpine architecture and the towering mountains above. Long before being photographed, the Dolomites were described by scientists and climbers who told with extraordinary emotion the amazement and transcendence, they felt about the verticality, grandeur, essential purity, monumentality, and mystical asceticism, the saw and experiences when among these magnificent massifs. These were all descriptions to describe the Dolomites before photos could spare them a thousand superlatives. I also was choking on a mouthful of similar superlatives while I photographed the mountains above.
Moena was also where I had to decide whether to go to Cortina or Gardena Valley. I really wanted to see Cortina, but considering the series of obstacles I had already faced, I choose the Sella Pass and the Gardena Valley, as Cortina would likely have me negotiation unfamiliar villages and roundabouts in the dark on my return to Bozen. Sella Pass it was.
It was an enjoyable drive up Val di Fassa; every few miles was another cute little village. I marveled at how you could have such population density and still feel as though everything was so pristine. The driving experience of the Dolomites was easier than southern Italy. The traffic was lighter, but you still had to watch your backside for sports car speedsters, and locals who had been driving here so long they no longer drove with the wonder of a visitor. Visitors who to the chagrin of the locals, had their jaw on their chest in awe, and their eyes wandering equally from the pastoral valleys, picturesque villages to the crown of pale peaks above.
At the village of Canazi I started climbing Sella Pass, every switchback presented a new view of the valley below and the mountains towering above them. It wasn’t long before I had climbed from spring back into winter. I shot a picnic table emerging from the snow of winter, a hint of the alpine summer soon to come.
Nearing the top I drove into the middle of a photo shoot. A photographer from a German motorcycle magazine had a couple of dozen cafe motorcycles placed in perfect composition over the valley and under the peaks. The crew was sitting around waiting around for the evening light. I chatted and asked whether I could shoot their setup and they agreed. As I shot I realized they had about one ever every motorcycle make imaginable. I mentioned this to the photographer, and he laughed and said: “except for Harley Davidson. I asked: what’s up with that? He replied, Harley Davidson didn’t have a café model, but I corrected him: What about the Buell? Hopefully, one day I can find them on another mountaintop with a complete collection.
The tree north peaks of the Sella Group were stunning from here, I checked my map to check if I’d accidently happened upon Drei Zinnen (German for “Three Peaks,”) Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Italian). I had not, but they were grand nonetheless. Cresting the top of the pass I paused for a much needed sandwich at a the Passo Sella snack bar and had a nice visit the resort owner who was building a new hotel. It was spitting snow, and about 35 degrees and windy and the crew there was amused at my attire, a Columbia summer guide shirt and, once again in my shorts. I explained, I also live in the mountains.
I descended the pass to a few miles distant to a roundabout where I chose to go back east to the crest of Gardena Pass. The mountains were playing hide and seek in the clouds, and the light was nondescript Patches of snow were still lingering and elsewhere was the matted down brown grass of a ski slope freshly freed of its winter blanket of snow. Yep, I was in stunningly beautiful landscape that wasn’t very shiny right now. I continued to the top of Gardena Pass anyway and got a few record shots of the place.
The ski resorts in the Dolomites were nearly as numerous as the picture perfect villages. Val Gardena/Alpe di Siusi, Val di Fassa/Carezza, and the Araba/Marmolada are all part of the ski area that surrounds the Sella Group of mountains, which collectively provide 311 miles of wonderfully interconnected slopes. From here there is ample access to the Sellaronda, the famous circuit of ski runs around the Sella Massif.
As I descended Gardena Pass the way I had climbed I was soon in the villages of Val Gardena. Here I had to decide whether to hang out for sunset, but because of the clouds enveloping the mountains my optimism for the spot escaped me. I decided to return to my favorite place, Val di Funes for sunset. On my way I discovered the route I could have taken east this morning, four miles north of the route closed by landslide.
Upon returning to Val di Funes I chose a different road, one lying farther west that placed me higher above the valley. This provided less valley and more mountain for my compositions. The profile of the Olde Range from this valley was amazing. I played with some comps, while waiting for a brilliant sunset, but it never came because of pesky evening clouds to the west.
In the middle of the night I awoke with huge pain in my knee, evidently I hadn’t escaped my tumble the previous day undamaged. I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg, Dang it. I ate a handful of medication and returned to bed after turning off my alarm.
Later after sleeping in until 6:30 I wandered down stairs to pump up my resolve with multiple café Americano espressos and a fine German breakfast while I pondered a plan that could be achieved with a crippled leg.
I was having a hard time convincing myself I could achieve the required clutch engagement of my fiat on more windy mountain roads. I did though think this might be a good opportunity to go visit Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavarian Germany three hours away. The driving would mostly be Autostrada freeway until the mountains on the Austrian/ German border. A plan was reached. After the late start and a scrumptious breakfast, I headed north for the Austrian border and a peak into another country two, if only for a day.
I dropped into Innsbruck for a quick look around and a few record shots, then I couldn’t find a way onto the Autobahn heading west, the route to Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Bavaria. The North Tyrolean Alps although impressive didn’t serrate the sky as stylishly as did the South Tyrolean Alps otherwise known as the Dolomites, I had been shooting my previous days. These seemed more like a solid escarpment similar to the southern eastern Sierra in California around Bishop, than the sculptured peaks of the Dolomites or that Grand Tetons near my home.
A the village of Motz I found my exit for the northbound leg through Austria and the roundabouts started having a crossed out destination, this aroused caution, caution I threw to the wind because I couldn’t read the message. One roundabout after another, but it was a beautiful day, and I was enjoying a drive that didn’t stress my knee. I stopped for fuel in Nassereith and learned what the roundabout messages were telling me; the tunnel to Germany was closed. The lady at the gas station told me of an alternative route, but it would have taken more time than I wanted to give, as I wanted to be back at Val di Funes again by evening light.
Reassessing my goals I started a round about way back to Innsbruck where I wanted to explore a bit more, but along the way I poked along on side roads to capture the sound of music like farm scapes of the beautiful valleys. It is impossible to not think about the sound of music.
At a roundabout in the village of Obermieming I had a choice of returning the way I had come, an expedited route to the autobahn, or taking the scenic, off the beaten route through Wildermieming. Wildermieming! How could I pass up a route like Wildermieming?
The road called “Mieminger StraBe” ran through or near by a bunch of Mieminger something or others, I had picked a great route. It was haying season, and farmers were out and about, tourists were walking and biking, and I was enjoying my plan B.
Seeing some farmers tooling around in their tractors putting up hay, I exited route Mieminger StraBe for the dirt roads hoping to photograph some tractors on ridges with the North Tyrol’s behind them and maybe some Fräulein Julie Andrews might grace my viewfinder. I discovered a whole network of farmer paths winding through the valley of rolling hills below the jagged mountains. Scattered here and there were log sheds for hay. At first I was hoping I wasn’t trespassing but the dirt tracks appeared to go from one property to another with no clear delineation of the properties – I kept going here and there and taking a few photos along the way. Interesting little buildings, big gaps between logs, I guess the main purpose was to keep the rain and snow off the top of the stack. It was time to head for Innsbruck for to take a better look around.
Back in Innsbruck there were some pretty buildings in the Mariahilf quarter I wanted to shoot on the north side of the Inn River, and I was betting there would be a cool downtown area of Innsbruck as well, and Innsbruck’s Old Town didn’t disappoint. Old Town has been closed to cars and is a wonderful walking mall lost in time. Grand old buildings, sidewalk cafes, and churches were all filled with cool shops and the streets were alive with visitors. The golden light of afternoon had just lit up the plaza nicely.
Innsbruck became the capital of Tyrol in 1429 and in the 15th century the city became a center of European politics and culture as emperor Maximilian 1 moved the imperial court to Innsbruck in the 1490s. Many old buildings from the Middle Ages and modern times survived in the heart of Innsbruck’s old town. One of the great things about Innsbruck is that almost every corner you turn affords spectacular views of the Nordkette Alps.
I stayed a bit longer than I had planned and made my exit around 6pm. It was time to again shoot Val di Funes, in my opinion, one of the prettiest landscapes I had ever seen. My previous two visits although good, were less than what I wanted, what a surprise.
Val di Funes was once again wonderful, but not perfect. For the third evening in a row the pesky clouds to the west put the kibosh on sunset color: regardless, it was still a stunning landscape.
I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I missed a day in my itinerary, wow, the opportunity to add something. No wonder my hotel cost analysis projection seemed too good to be true.
I could go to Cortina, as I still hadn’t made it there yet, but then I would still have a very long drive back to Rome the following day and I was running really, really low on steam. I was also getting discouraged by the consistent evening clouds that were robbing the Dolomites of warm evening light. The psychedelic coast of Cinque Terra would get me one third closer to Rome and would add another corner of Italy to my portfolio; Google maps showed me Cinque Terra would leave me only 5 hours from Rome. Cinque Terra it was
The Dolomites are stunning no mater where you go; I think it would be really tough to blow a photo trip to the Dolomites. My trip in May was shortly before the summer driving season and roads were a problem, landslides and road crews clearing trees off roads. Summer would provide more dependable roads, and greener mountains covered in wildflowers. Remember if one route is closed there might be another ten kilometers up the road that will go to the same place. I stayed in Bozen because of its proximity to Val di Funes; I would have been better off staying in Valle di Fassa, Gardena or Cortina.