Italy: The fairytale comes true

By Alessandra Zecchini

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Once upon a time in an alpine realm there lived a handsome prince. He fell in love with the beautiful princess of the moon but could not live up there for the light was too bright.

And she could not live on Earth under the shadow of the dark and imposing mountains of the prince's land.

Fortunately, the gnomes, i nani silvani, decided to help in exchange for the right to live undisturbed in the realm. The little creatures spun some moonrays and covered the mountain with eternal moonlight so that the princess could feel at home among the now-bright peaks of silver and white, gold and pink.

This is the legend of the Pale Mountains, today known as the Dolomites, standing tall and bright in the northeast Italian region of Veneto.

The mythical alpine realm is long gone, but some say the gnomes still live there.

Last winter my mother tried to convince my little boy of their existence, saying that she often saw them. And we really did see some tiny footprints in the snow just outside our door.

"Those are the cat's," said the savvy older sister. Nonetheless, they did look quite magic.

The valleys of the Dolomites are full of old villages with charming little churches, often graced by an onion-dome bell-tower.

Higher up, woods of deep green shade ancient paths among wild strawberry fields, all topped by breathtakingly tall peaks of bare rock.

In such a landscape it is easy to feel like a character out of a storybook living in a magical and forgotten realm.

The name Dolomiti is relatively new. In 1789, French geologist Deodat Dolomieu discovered a new type of rock, later named dolomite in his honour.

In 1864, English travellers Josiah Gilbert and George Cheetam Churchill extended the name to the entire mountain range when they wrote a book about the region, Dolomite Mountains.

But for many inhabitants of Belluno, the provincial city of the Dolomites, the name Monti Pallidi, or Pale Mountains, remains as dear as the legend itself.

Today the Dolomites are well-known for skiing, having some of the most beautiful slopes in the world, and its resorts such as Cortina d'Ampezzo are frequented by royalty, Hollywood stars and the rich.

But there are other aspects of the Dolomites that are less known and, in my opinion, even more beautiful: the summer season, the hiking, the nature and the traditions.

In 1993 the National Park of the Dolomiti Bellunesi was established, covering 32,000ha, devoted to protecting the natural environment. This includes preserving the life of the mountain dwellers with a series of projects like the recovery of high mountain pastures, where dairying produces wonderful cheese, butter and ricotta.

For the keen walker there are inexpensive mountain huts, called refuges, positioned a day's walk from each other. The refuges provide good meals made with local products including polenta, mushrooms and cheese.

It all makes for a comfortable night at high altitude.

Most refuges are open only in summer, but a few - with wood-burners - are available in winter. They are run by expert mountaineers, who also do the cooking.

Reaching a refuge is like finding Shangri-la: a cold beer, a convivial meal, and off to a bunk bed - it seems more comfortable than a five-star hotel, even when toilet facilities and hot water are limited.

Unfortunately, the numbers of hikers taking advantage of the experience are dwindling. Our mountain guide told me that most people now tend to go as far as they can with a car - and that's it - thus missing the best panoramas, flowers and animals.

The flowers are something else: a fourth of all of Italian flora (1400 species) can be found in these mountains, and the National Park adopted as its symbol the rare morettis bellflower (Campanula morettiana).

Some of the flowers seem to be somehow attached to the naked rock. Others open up as a group, a sea of colour in the highest valleys.

Passionate botanists come from throughout the world to photograph the flowers, many of which grow only in one or two valleys.

There are 49 species of orchids alone, and 96 species of colourful butterflies add to the beauty of the short-lived summer season.

July is the best month to visit. Many flowers will be still out in August, but by September most of the blooms are gone.

The lack of tourists also increases your chances of seeing the wildlife, including marmots, chamois and, if you are lucky, one of the eight pairs of the golden eagles that live in the park.

Some hikes are day-walks and you can stop at a refuge for lunch (booking is recommended) and then return in the afternoon.

Others are a step down from rock climbing. These are called vie ferrate and require a helmet and some basic equipment.

I attempted one near San Martino di Castrozza and was overwhelmed by fear. I prefer the easier and well-marked walks of the Vette Feltrine.

But then maybe that's because the Vette Feltrine are part of my heritage, what I remember from my childhood - alive with legends and gnomes as well as flowers and tasty foods.


How To Get There

The park is less than 100km from Venice. The nearest cities of Feltre and Belluno are easy to reach by train, bus or car. Maps, accommodation and useful information can be found at Dolomitipark.it/Eindex.php

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