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Trip Report Italy trip report: The Dolomites

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This trip report, on The Dolomites (or at least the small section we visited), is part 3 of a multi-thread trip report that starts at:

http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34821411

We left Lake Garda on Sunday, May 28, and drove to the Pension Uhrerhof-Dëur, near Ortisei (St. Ulrich). The trip was mostly highway, on a road, the A22, that passes through numerous tunnels, called 'galerie'. Having see this on the map, I had purchased, in Stresa, a pair of flip-up polarized sunglasses. These worked very well. When the sun was out, I flipped them down when in the open, and flipped them up when entering a tunnel. Indeed, en-route, we were delayed at the site of a chain-reaction collision involving several cars that had occurred at the mouth of one of the tunnels. When going from the sunlight into the relative darkness of the tunnel, one really can't see very well for a while. We were a bit late for lunch in Ortisei (around 2:30), but after asking around, we were directed to La Cascade, although it took a while to figure out the one-way streets we needed to take to get there (even though it was in plain sight from the main road).

We then proceeded on (and by 'on', I mean UP!) to our hotel, the roads getting narrower and narrower as we got closer and closer, until they were not much wider than the car. Fortunately, there was little traffic, and I was never forced to back up (since there was a drop-off on one side, and only a flimsy wooden railing).

At the Pension Uhrerhof (http://www.uhrerhof.com/index-en.htm), we benefited from some Fodor's serendipity. Prior to leaving on the trip, Margie had asked many questions on the Fodor's Forum. When Margie wrote that we were going to stay at the Uhrerhof, we received an e-mail message from a Fodorite who has stayed there often. She asked when we were going, and it turned out that she and her husband were going to arrive the day before us. They greeted us shortly after our arrival, and treated us to a pre-dinner schnapps in their room, which they had arranged to be next to ours. What a nice welcome to our hotel! And after driving up the road to the Uhrerhof, you can really use a schnapps (I wouldn't suggest having one before the drive). We sat on their balcony, overlooking Ortisei far below. At 1,480 meters above sea level, the Uhrerhof is 640 meters higher than Ortisei.

Let me say a few words about the Dolomites, which is a very odd part of Italy. It was once a part of Austria-Hungary, but was annexed by Italy in 1919. You can learn about it on the Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trentino-South_Tyrol.

Thus when I wrote the town name 'Ortisei', I followed it by 'St. Ulrich' in parentheses: every town has an Italian name and a German name. In booking the hotel, when a reply to my Italian e-mail request came back asking for my 'Creditcardnumber' (one word), I knew I was dealing with a speaker of German. In fact, signs in the region often show three names: Italian, German, and a name in a third local language, Ladin.

The Uhrerhof is 'full-board', meaning one eats dinner there, in addition to breakfast. We were well cared for by the Zemmer family, which runs the hotel. The chef, Walter Zemmer, prepares hearty, wholesome meals, and is less heavy-handed on the olive oil and butter than many of the local cooks. He served a magnificent white asparagus soup on our first evening. When I reached back to my college German, and told his daughter Dunia it was 'ausgezeichnet' (outstanding), she beamed.

Monday, May 29: It was rainy all day. We set out in the morning to ride the cable car from Ortisei up to the Alpi di Siusi, a large alpine meadow. However, the cable car proved to be closed. In fact, as we were to discover, lots of things were closed.

This was perhaps another case of the casual Italian attitude I mentioned earlier. The weather was rather rainy, so there were fewer tourists around (Germany is close enough that people can decide at the last minute to come down for just a few days, or not). So, it seemed, the management just decided, hey, let's not open for another couple of weeks. Never mind that a schedule giving an opening date of May 20 had been published months before. Never mind that there might be tourists who planned visits from the United States based on that published schedule. In fact, there were only two lifts open in the entire area, in Castelrotto.

Instead, Margie and I decided to drive through the Passo Gardena for a scenic ride. There we could get a good view of the dramatic scenery of the Dolomites, foothills to the Alps, with its towering rocky outcroppings, switchback roads, and dramatic drop-offs.

Its VERY dramatic drop-offs, often switchback turns with no railings, on wet, gravel-strewn roads. We didn't get very far into the Passo Gardena before Margie found herself freaked out by the conditions (and she'd driven on the Amalfi Coast). Let's just say that she turns out to not be a good mountain person. Since it was not one of the goals of our vacation to have Margie spend an hour clutching the handle over her car window with white knuckles, we turned back (not an easy feat in itself). Margie was not the only person at the Uhrerhof to have this reaction to the roads. There was an Australian guest who, having been driven up to the hotel, told her husband that she had no intention of going back down that road until it was time to leave (although she ultimately relented).

So instead, the area being filled with woodcutters, a traditional local industry, we visited one of them. But we chose a modern one: the Galeria Unika (http://www.unika.org/), which had really remarkable works on display. We then met our Fodor's friends for lunch at the Ristorante St. Michael, a nearby restaurant in the town of San Michele, and then returned to the hotel. And, since the hotel is also a spa, Larry took a shower in one of their fancy multi-jet showers, and spent some time in the sauna.

Tuesday, May 30: The cold front passed by, with spectacular downpours during the night. Thus, the rain stopped, but it was still mostly cloudy, and it got rather cold. We drove down to Castelrotto to look around, where a weather station set up in the town's bell tower read 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 degrees Fahrenheit). We did a walk around a hill containing stations of the cross. We then went into the 'Spatzenladen', and bought a CD by the 'Kastelruther Spatzen', a local singing group that apparently put Castelrotto on the map. The German name of the town is 'Kastelruth', and 'Spatzen' are sparrows. See (and hear) them at http://www.kastelrutherspatzen.de/.

We had a nice lunch at the Hotel Zum Turm, marred somewhat when the woman at the next table collapsed from dizziness, and was carted off by paramedics (although this seemed to have nothing to do with the food). We drove back into Ortisei, intending to visit the 'Museum de Gherdëina', a museum celebrating the Ladino-speaking population of the area. Since I'm interested in Romance languages (I speak three of them, some better than others), I thought that would be an interesting visit. But alas, despite posters proclaiming an opening date that had already passed, it was in fact closed. A hand-printed sign noted that it would open June 1. We walked around the main shopping area of the town, but the shops there were also closed, although in this case, just between noon and 3:30 pm, for a long lunch. It almost seemed to us that the Dolomites were closed due to inclement weather.

We did find one museum that was open ' a milk and cheese museum on the main road. It was small, but interesting, and to make it easy for its guests, the displays were all in three languages. However, those languages were German, Italian, and Ladin. Back at the hotel, I once again made use of the sauna.

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