The mountains of the Dolomites, in northern Italy, aren’t just for ski season. Once the snow melts, there’s a whole new landscape to explore
It was pitch black when I arrived in the Italian mountains. After the two-hour drive from Venice Marco Polo Airport, past fishing lakes and tiny villages, I could just make out faint, shadowy silhouettes on either side as the car wound its way slowly upwards. By the time I pulled up outside Chalet Bracun – a pale yellow and dark wood chalet – in Corvara, it was so dark I could have been anywhere. But night is the best time to arrive. Then, as sunshine nudges through your shutters and into your eyes the next morning, you get to experience the excitement of arriving somewhere without the post-flight fatigue.
And, when you open the shutters, you find yourself slap bang in the middle of one of the most beautiful scenes you could imagine. Just in front of my room, a stream trickled under a wooden bridge towards woodland and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Further ahead were the pretty chalets, shops and bars of Corvara, the main centre of this part of the Dolomites, in Northern Italy. And all around me pea-green fields rolled upwards towards the misty, craggy, imposing mountains of the Alta Badia region.
This is why visitors flock here in their droves both in summer, for walking and basking in sun-soaked meadows, and in winter, for skiing. The place is filled with seasoned walkers, well kitted-out with sensible boots, macs, thick socks and walking sticks – but there are also those simply seeking a relaxing holiday in gorgeous surroundings.
The good news is you can do as little or as much as you like – and you don’t need to strain your muscles too much to get the most out of the area. The walk from the Pordoi Pass, which is just a half-hour bus ride from Corvara, gives you great rewards for not too much effort. Follow the signs marked ‘Viel dal Pan’ (literally ‘bread walk’). The path winds gently around and up the mountain, giving you views of a nearby town, Arabba, before bringing you face to rock face with Marmolada – the highest mountain in the Dolomites, complete with glacier. More adventurous and experienced walkers can go on treks up to the glacial lakes, while the rest of us admire the views from slightly lower down.
I alternated days hiking up craggy mountainsides, and scrambling down through steep woodland and loose soil, with others just exploring the town and chilling with a beer. And each evening there was a chance to join fellow holidaymakers with a gorgeous, gut-busting three-course meal and unlimited wine. Just watch the hangovers...
If you’re not the hardiest of ramblers, the Alta Badia Mountain Pass is a good investment. For around €38, it gives you unlimited bus journeys and use of 11 gondolas and chair lifts, giving you effortless access to some of the best views. It is also a fast pass to the real gems of the mountains – the rifugios, where you can grab a hot drink, cool beer or nourishing bowl of soup with dumplings. You’ll find these in the most unlikely places, at the top of steep mountains, half-hidden by the mist.
That’s the beauty of this area – your adventure can be as challenging or as relaxing as you choose. The highest points of the landscape may be treacherous and unforgiving, but these are cushioned by springy meadows, woodland and lakes. And if you don’t fancy conquering a mountain every day you can spend time lower down, visiting the pretty La Villa for a coffee in one of its cute bars. Or catch a half-hour bus to Ortisei, a very Austrian town with nice cafes and little boutiques to explore.
On to Venice
I was sad to leave the Dolomites after a week enjoying the fresh mountain air, but there was one more treat before flying home – a night in Venice, which is only half an hour from the airport.
Some cities take a few hours or even days to warm to – but with Venice it was love at first sight. Just a few yards from the coach station, down a few steps and round a corner, are cobbled pathways, tiny bridges and surprisingly clear, light blue water. The magic of Venice strikes you instantly, despite the constant stream of tourists flowing through its streets.
I stayed at a traditional Venetian guesthouse, Hotel Al Portico
, in Cannaregio – the ‘Jewish ghetto’. It's rambling and charmingly ramshackle, flowers tumble out of hanging baskets and there’s a peaceful courtyard hidden at the back.
The downside to Venice is the cost – if you are a tourist, you will get ripped off. Even perching at a café countertop for a quick plate of pasta will leave you liable for a ‘service charge’ on top of the menu prices. So if you’re after a special romantic meal, you might as well just go for it and eat somewhere with a good reputation – Da Fiore, in San Polo, is considered one of the best. There are also a few decent eateries, or trattorie, outside the tourist trap of St Mark’s Square. Aciugheta (‘little anchovy’) in the Castello district serves robust fish and meat dishes, and pizza.
To avoid sky-high bar prices, you could always grab a supermarket bottle of plonk, find a seat in one of the city’s many piazzas and people-watch without the bill. Another money-saving trick is to eschew the classic gondola ride, which can cost around €100, and instead jump on a traghetto. These are old, battered gondolas, which cross the canal at seven different points. Don’t expect the oarsmen to serenade you – or bank on a seat – but 50 cents for one of the world’s classic experiences is a snip.
Of course the water is only a small part of this beautiful city. And, tragically for my battered heels and fragile ankles, the best way to explore Venice’s bridges, alleys and waterways is... walking.
Ella travelled with Collett's Mountain Holidays, who offer a week's stay at Chalet Bracun from around £550 per person in high season.
British Airways flies to Venice Marco Polo from London Gatwick, from around £42 one way, including tax.