Italy: Climb every mountain (or take the comfy van)

By Roger Hall

We were huddled together at 3000m. The weather was clear, but it could change at any moment. In the distance were the snowy peaks of Austria. A few yards to our right, mountaineers were tackling the last tricky ascent to the peak; to our left, a group of climbers were descending. They crabbed sideways down the sharp terrain, clipping their carabiners on to the safety wire.

Admittedly, those of us huddled together were in a restaurant in the Cinque Torre watching all this through the windows as we scoffed our lunch ... but it was still a challenging view.

What we could see was part of the Dolomites' "via ferrata", or "iron way", that enables relatively inexperienced climbers to ascend peaks and walk along ridges in comparative safety.

For most of us in the restaurant, the only things we were ever likely to clip on these days were bow ties, but a couple of the men in our party had done rock and mountain climbing, and they gazed wistfully at the peaks, wishing they were there.

This was the last day of our seven-day luxury walking trip run by Alternative Travel Group (ATG), based in Oxford, England: luxury meaning all you need for these walks is a reasonable degree of fitness and a fat wallet.

The trips are expensive but, as with so many holidays, you get what you pay for. In ATG's case, this means three- or four- (and on some trips, five-) star hotels, good food at all times (including fine wines), two guides, transport in comfortable vans and back-up for those who decide they have had enough walking or in case of injury.

ATG doesn't enquire about your wallet, but it does give you a handy guide to fitness by asking you a series of questions so you can work out your own level and see whether you can match that required for the particular walk.

Here's a sample question: After prolonged physical exercise (a 10-mile walk, a 15-mile bike ride), do you feel: a. ready to enjoy another or a social activity; b. ready for a nap; c. in need of a day or two to recover; d. determined never to repeat the experience?

The honest answer to this one is, of course, b, c and d.

On a scale between 20 and 50, the Dolomites walk is ranked at 30: not too arduous. Certainly there are some climbs, but much of it was along the "via ferrata", which is not just wires and bridges and ladders, but many kilometres of flat pathways that cut across the Dolomites and were built for military transport during World War I. Now, because of those paths, thousands of summertime walkers enjoy the mountains in safety.

Of course, many climbers scale peaks where there are no wires, ladders or bridges. Several pinnacles rise steeply up from flat ground like vast stalagmites and require the sort of tricky rope-work the rest of us usually see only in films about K2, or cutting fellow climbers loose to die so you can save yourself and have them surprisingly turn up later. But from the safety of a pathway, we were so close to the climbers we could almost shout out suggestions as to where they could find their next handhold.

From our first hotel, we started off through lush, green meadows, populated with cows fitted with bells. No doubt they make an attractive sound, although possibly less appealing to those who have to milk them. Sometimes we descended through woods first, but always we ended up amongst those glittering pinnacles. It is, surely, some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

At mid-morning, there was usually a stop for coffee or a snack. One advantage of being in a skiing area is that there are plenty of places that provide food and drink, and you could sit in the sun for a break and once again take in the wonderful views. Then onwards until midday when one of our guides, Lara, would materialise with a table spread for lunch. In charming English, she'd describe what we were to eat. Intricate, subtle salads (artichokes, lentils, baby tomatoes, Italian parsley; fennel and orange; zucchini salad; borlotti bean salad; spinach, pear and walnut), luscious cheeses, parma ham, salamis, ricotta and honey, grapes, fresh figs, all kinds of fruit, accompanied by local wines and fruit juices or water.

Each night at dinner, Lara would tell us what was on our menu and what wines she had selected for us - soave from Verona, lugana from Trebbian grapes, and so on.

More walking after lunch or, for those of us who decided we'd had enough exercise for the day, a ride back to the hotel in the van. I did this a couple of times so that I could have a nap, sit in the sun on the balcony and read or ride a bike around the lake by our hotel.

Clearly the attraction of the Dolomites is the scenery, and possibly the only downside is that, unlike most other Italian holiday destinations, there are no grand churches, historic buildings or art galleries to visit.

ATG very cunningly ensures that the accommodation gets better as the journey progresses. The first gave us a vast room overlooking pastures and mountain peaks, the second overlooked a lake ... and more peaks, and our last two nights were in the four-star Misurina Hotel in Cortina.

Our suite had a sitting room, two superb bathrooms, a vast balcony overlooking the street, a picture-postcard church and yet more peaks in the background. And for our last night of the trip, we dined in a restaurant that had a Michelin star.

However, the best part of these holidays is not the scenery, the walking, the food or the luxury accommodation: it is one's fellow walkers. We've done a few of these walks now and have made lifelong friends as a result.

They are mostly English and Americans. Every one had been on these trips before: some had done several and one couple were on their 20th trip (if you do 10 walks, the 11th is free so they'll be happily anticipating their second freebie).

Generally people, especially of our vintage, who love to travel and are prepared to walk make great company. And so it proved once more. Thus each day as we walked with our friends, the sparkling conversation was as good as the sparkling scenery.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

You can get more details about Alternative Travel group at
www.atg-oxford.co.uk

The Cortina and the Dolomites trip takes eight days and runs five times
a year. There is a maximum of 16 walkers and the cost is about $4600.


- NZ Herald

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