Am I dreaming? Are these mountains possible?
Driving the narrow roads of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy forces you to question what you thought you knew about mountain landscapes and alpine beauty.
Along the way you also pass through many villages.
As you drive through a small picturesque village composed of stone houses, a cathedral, and a few essential businesses, your imagination is filled with ideas about what it would be like to live in the family home in a place like this. Generations before you have struggled forward from medieval trades and ancient traditions and superstitions. The grandchildren of your grandfather’s adversaries may be your pals or your even your spouse. Your great grandmother’s volunteer work in the cathedral may still be on display in the form of draperies, lace, stitching or other handmade artwork. Old family disputes may be simmering or forgotten in the narrow cobblestone streets that are your shared world. Centuries of happiness, sickness, birth, celebration, faith, tradition, storms, and inventive tradesmen have filled your family history. You know the mountain slopes nearby as the source of your winter fuel, your water, and as the pastures where you spent your youthful summers tending the family livestock. But you also know the big city far below as the place of your studies and it pulls you toward a profession and career.
All of these ideas, and more, float through your mind as you reach the outskirts of the village and begin the climb toward the next pass high above. The narrow cobblestone street gives way to even narrower asphalt. Massive stone walls provide the platform for switchbacks as you ascend the steep mountainside bordering the valley where the villages are built. At times you drive near the rocky channel that delivers the snow melt runoff to the valley. The forest is dense. You can only see a short distance to the next corner. Suddenly a large truck appears and you move as far as you dare to the outside and hope that your mirrors don’t hit and that you don’t tumble down the slope. They don’t seem to be phased by the squeeze and don’t slow down. The driver in the car behind you is impatient and passes at the first opportunity and then disappears around the next corner. Now you can slow down and hug against the bank around the corner hoping not to meet another truck.
The sky above is filling with afternoon clouds. The autumn sun is low.
After dozens of corners you have climbed out of the valley, but your arms are getting tired. The forest begins to thin and there are large meadows. Then the view opens even more as you near the summit. Large expanses of grass mark where the snowfields linger in the spring.
The singular rock walls and spires of the Dolomite Mountains tower above the landscape. They always seem like they are out of scale. They are too tall when they protrude that much above the huge forested mountain that you just drove up. They look almost artificial as if they were stretched in a digital image. But there they are.
If you are lucky the clouds will part and let the sun spotlight the white dolomitic walls. They are the real stars. The shaded forest and the dark swirling clouds frame the rock. You get glimpses of barely believable scenes as you drive near the summit.
You have to keep your eyes on the switchbacks. You have to look at the mountains.
You look back at the road just in time to swerve to the right as a motorcyclist leaning in around the corner screams by. Then six of his buddies zip by winding through the gears keeping their compression high and the adrenalin flowing. Bright colors on the tanks and on their suits leave a vivid memory, but they are gone and the sound slowly fades.
It is a relief to pull over. There is another scene that must be photographed. How can you depict such a spectacle? A short walk into the forest provides the vantage point you want, but the light is not good. The clouds are swirling around the rock. At times it is obscured completely. Eventually the clouds thin. And far to the west the clouds open and the sun shines through. The rock is almost too bright to look at. You photograph rapidly. Your time is short. Then the clouds close. Sometimes you get what you wanted, but often you don’t. You drive on. Oh, wait. Pullover. I have to get that. Repeat.
When you finally reach the pass you may find a small hotel, a café, a gift shop, and perhaps a cable car reaching up to the top of the rock. There are tour buses and lots of motorcycles parked while people take in the view. The names of the passes are intriguing: Passo Falzarego, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena, Passo San Pellegrino, Passo Cibiana, Passo Duran etc.
Each pass is integral to the history of the villages below. It can serve as the grazing grounds, the ski area, the tourist destination, the invasion point, or all of the above.
As you wind down the steep slopes on the other side the sequence is reversed. When you near the next valley small farms and inns begin to mark the outskirts of villages. The ancient traditions of these villages may not have been influenced by villages on the other side of the pass during the early centuries of history in each village. Languages may have been different also. Trade or war may have introduced their populations.
You pass through the village thinking about its history and start up the next pass.
What will you see on the other side of the mountain? It is an old question and even the theme of a children’s book .
In the Dolomite Mountains you are certain to be treated to an unexpected panorama of startling rock formations. On the other side of every mountain a new world of mountain history awaits. The views from the fabled passes make the climbs very worthwhile.
If you enjoy mountain scenery the Dolomite Mountains will make your dreams come true! You can view more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.