Well, it’s taken a year to post this, but to be fair, we’ve been a bit busy! We chose our last overseas baby-free vacation well, if we don’t say so ourselves! As has been the case for our last three big trips, we had some close friends getting married abroad and decided to tag on a few weeks of adventure afterwards. This time our friends’ wedding took us to Budapest, which we visited in 2014 on our whirlwind Eastern European tour, and after little deliberation we decided to head to Italy post-wedding to explore the Dolomites, a mountain range (part of the Alps) in northeastern Italy. It’s been on our list for a while and once we started doing some research we knew we had to go.
Our weekend in Budapest was basically all fun and no touring (the perks of visiting a city for the second time!). We had a crew of ten good friends who all piled into an AirBnB and basically ate and drank our way through the city, spent a really relaxing afternoon at Rudas baths, and took a (terrifying for me) “cruise” on the river. We topped the weekend off with Rob and Dora’s gorgeous wedding, set at Fisherman’s Bastion, a 100+ year old terrace with towers, rising from Castle Hill on the Danube River, right across from the stunning Parliament building. I could not think of a prettier spot in all of Budapest!
The whirlwind Budapest weekend behind us, we set off for the Dolomites. We flew into Verona, where we specifically did not do any Romeo and Juliet tourism, but did enjoy some of the best gelato I’ve ever had, wandered the pretty piazzas, and admired the famous Verona Arena.
The next day we took a quick train ride up to Bolzano, which is one of the biggest towns that serve as the gateways to the Dolomites. Bolzano is a lovely city in its own right, and feels much more Austrian than Italian. The region of Trentino-Alto Adige (Trentino-South Tirol) is autonomous and contains the two provinces, Trentino and South Tirol, where both Italian and German are spoken. The feel is much more Sound of Music than Cinema Paradiso. You can find great pasta on the menu next to a delicious schnitzel and lovely white wines– what’s not to love about the Italian-Austrian combination (ahem)?
Our tummies full of hearty mountain fare, we set off toward the mountains where we were to hike for a few days, staying in mountain huts. Our trek started off with a bus ride and gondola (many of these areas are ski mountains in the winter) and then a 4-hour trek that afforded dramatic views of the mountains ahead and ended at an adorable rifugio (a mountain hut, or in many cases, more like a lodge), where cows were grazing and the whole scene could not have looked any more like a postcard of the Alps.
The next day proved to be a challenge. The first part of the trek took us past marmots and to an adorable red-roofed rifugio with breathtaking views of the valley below where we took a quick break.
Then it was onward and upward to the opening of the Passo del Molignon, which began the most challenging and least enjoyable part of the trek for me. We started descending down loose scree into the moon-like amphitheatre Conca del Principe. While the eerie atmosphere in all directions (and the insane dirt biker speeding past) distracted my knees for a little while, I was quickly reminded of that time I basically slid down the side of Kilimanjaro while having an “I can’t do this anymore” breakdown. The scenery was bizarre, with low fog and crumbling rocks in all directions and the occasional bird whose sounds could be heard echoing throughout the otherwise silent amphitheatre.
Alas, after every downhill there’s an uphill, and climbing up that loose scree was not one bit more fun. However, after the three hour ordeal, another rifugio greeted us at the Passo Principe, and you bet your ass I sat there and ate strudel and drank hot chocolate for a while. The hardest part of the trek behind us, we headed downhill another 45 minutes to one of the prettiest spots I’ve ever had the pleasure of resting my tired feet: Rifugio Vajolet.
A huge pasta meal, hot shower (these are rare in the rifugi) and good night of sleep did wonders. With the Torri di Vajolet in the background (if I could safely hike backwards, I would have), we set off on day three of the trek. After a few hours of ascending and descending through two passes, we reached the beginning of the via ferrata Roda de Vael.
Via ferrata (literal translation is “iron road”) is a system of climbing found in the Alps that consists of steel cables (and some ladders) that climbers attach themselves to with specialized equipment. Many were boult so that soldiers could move through the mountains during World War I. It makes for an exhilarating experience that is somewhere between hiking and rock climbing, and while it is a safe way to scramble up and down mountains, there’s a reason you need equipment– this system was put into place where the path is extremely exposed, where simply walking wouldn’t be a safe option, and where one careless slip could mean a thousand-foot fall.
The routes range from easy to insane, and while the technique is easy enough to pick up, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with any aversion to heights. We had a blast scrambling up the mountain with views of a tiny town below (which took my breath away when I had the courage to look down) and then descending down a crazy route that involved some horizontal scrambling along a face using widely spaced ladders. I’d say we earned our beers, dumplings, goulash, fried cheese, polenta, and chocolate and ricotta cake at the Rifugio Roda di Vael!
Our final day was a piece of cake (strudel) compared to the previous three. We descended to the small town of Vigo di Fassa, from where we took a bus back to Bolzano. We spent the next few days relaxing by the pool, drinking Aperol Spritz, biking around town, checking out a skateboarding championship, perusing the art museum, and generally taking it easy.
The rest of our time in northern Italy was spent visiting wineries and staying near Trento, and then meeting my aunt at Lake Garda for a few days of total relaxation. We stayed on the northern end of the lake in Riva del Garda and managed to not do much more than swim, eat, and read.
All good things must come to an end, and we capped this trip off with a little less than 24 hours in Milan. I hadn’t been in 20+ years, and I was stunned by what a classy city Milan is. It just oozes art and style. A trip to Milan wouldn’t be complete without a trip to see Lo Sposalizio, a painting by Raphael that was commissioned for a wedding of my ancestor over 500 years ago.
Italy, you once again left us stunned by your beauty and hungry for more adventures. The biggest adventure was yet to come, though!