Friday, May 27, 2016

Venice Day Trip - Dolomites Tour

As a change of pace from touring the districts of Venice, Rich and I wanted to take a day trip to the mainland to visit the Dolomites, a mountain range several hours north-west of Venice that form part of the Eastern Alps.  Using the same strategy that worked so well for our After Hours Doge's Palace and San Marco Basilica tour, Rich found another "small group" tour led by a driver/guide in a minivan that seated a maximum of 6-8 people.  This 8.5 hour Dolomites day trip was offered by and cost around $220 Canadian per person.  Compared to a later bus tour that we took in Iceland that seated over 30 people,  this tour was so much more convenient, efficient and enjoyable.  The larger the group, the longer you have to wait at each bathroom or coffee break stop.

The pickup point for the tour was at the Tronchetto Car Park at the west end of Cannaregio, where the road bridge connecting the island to the mainland could be accessed.  We were among the first people to arrive for the tour, along with another family of three.  Once another couple showed up, our guide Carlo decided that he had his quota and ushered the seven of us towards his minivan that was parked in the car park.  The family of three climbed into the back of the van and since the other couple were both taller than us, they climbed into the middle leaving Rich and I to squish into the front with Carlo. It was a bit tight for me but it allowed us to be able to take photos through the front windshield.  Having spent the last week idyllically on the car-less island of Venice with its canals and palazzos, it was a bit of a shock to see highways, traffic, power grids, industrial factories and high-rises.

But once we drove beyond the boundaries of mainland Venice and into the countryside, we started to see greenery and get our first glimpses of the mountain ranges.  It was interesting to see the numerous road signs warning of snow and slippery conditions when we were less than an hour away from Venice, which rarely gets any snow.  We ended up driving over 3 hours north, high up into the Dolomites, making many stops along the way to tour points of historic and geographic interest.  Carlo's heavily accented English made his running commentary a bit difficult to understand, but he was very knowledgeable and brought us to all the best vantage points for photo opportunities.  He also insisted on taking multiple photos for us at each stop, so I now have more photos with Rich and I in them together than on any other vacation.

Our first stop was near the town of Longarone where we looked upon the Piave Valley, dubbed the "Valley of Death" when the nearby Vajont Dam was bridged in October 1963.  This resulted in a massive flood that killed around 2000 people, destroying Longarone and other nearby villages.  I researched this tragedy on Wikipedia after our vacation and found out more details. The "megatsunami" was caused by a massive landslide from the mountain Mont Toc, which resulted in 260,000,000 cubic metres of rock and forest being hurled into the reservoir, displacing 50,000,000 cubic metres of water and generating a 250 metre (820 foot) wave.  Shamefully, there were apparently many warning signs of the impending disaster including minor landslides in previous years but these were all ignored by the government and the Dam owners.  Even worse, the government refused to accept any responsibility after the fact, deeming it an act of God, and so the victims' families received very little compensation.

After that sobering tale, we moved on to Pieve di Cadore, the birthplace of Tiziano Vecelli, better known as Titian.  There are so many Italian artists whose last names start with "Ti" (Tiepolo, Tintoretto) that for the longest time, I did not realize that Titian and Tiziano were the same person.  Before actually entering the comune, Carlo stopped to give us a nice view of it from afar.  Once in the comune, we saw the statue of Titian in the centre of town, as well as his childhood home.  From the edge of the comune, we were able to get a stunning view of the countryside with the mountains in the background.

We were given the opportunity to have a coffee break in Pieve di Cadore and chose to do so in the historic coffee shop "Gran Caffé Tiziano", located in the basement of a heritage building.  As we continued our drive, we made a couple more stops in Commune di Valle de Cadore and San Vito di Cadore to take photos of pretty churches set against the Dolomite Mountains as a backdrop.

Next we headed towards the town of Cortina d'Ampezzo, a popular winter sport resort which hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics.  Prior to entering the town itself, we stopped by the location of the Ski Jump Competition.  Later in Cortina, we saw black and white photos from those Olympics including one of the same ski jump site that we had just visited.  At the 1956 Ski Jump event, Swiss competitor Andreas Däscher introduced the new technique of jumping with his arms held at his side as opposed to raised over his head.  This technique proved so successful that it became the new standard for the sport.

Before entering Cortina, Carlo gave us another opportunity to get a panoramic view of the town.  As usual, he ran around grabbing each family's camera to take photos of them against the gorgeous setting.  Cortina D'Ampezzo was the primary location of the classic 1963 Peter Sellers/David Niven film "The Pink Panther".  By coincidence, Rich happened to watch this old movie on the flight home from Venice and recognized the ski town as the one we visited on the tour.

The promotional writeup for our Dolomites tour advocated that this "Small-group tour with a maximum of 8 ensures a more personalized experience".  This was no exaggeration as we discovered half-way through our tour, when our guide Carlo gave us a choice for lunch and for the rest of the day.  He said that the official agenda of the tour included stopping for a leisurely lunch at a restaurant in Cortina.  However if we preferred, we could pick up a "picnic lunch" and he would take us to a great location to eat it where we could enjoy more scenery.  Our group unanimously agreed to this new plan. 

Carlo brought us to the Latteria Gastronomia in Cortina where we bought a bag of buns, selected cheese and meats and each of us was made a custom sandwich.  Rich picked Speck, an Italian delicacy of flavoured, smoked, cured ham while I selected Mortadella, which is a large Italian pork cold cut that is flavoured with spices, pepper, berries and pistachio.  We both chose "strong" as opposed to "mild" cheese but were not expecting the thick wedges of cheese that were put into our buns.  It was fun to look around the store to see what other regional fare was available.

If I had a cooler, I would have loved to have brought home some of the spinach spätzle, or the various stuffed ravioli that were local only to this area and not available in Venice.  I settled for buying a bag of cookies made of meringue stuffed with a creamy lemon filling, which I shared with everyone else at our lunch spot.

Carlo brought us to the beautiful Lago Ghedina, about 40 minutes from Cortina, at an altitude of 1457 meters.  With its emerald-green water and the view of the mountains in the background, it was amazing how much this scene resembled Lake Louis in Alberta.  The restaurant Ristorante Al Lago Ghedina sits at the back of the lake.  We ate our lunch while admiring this gorgeous setting, but were eaten alive by mosquitoes.  Italian mosquitoes must inject a different strain of venom than what we are used to in North America because our bites swelled up much larger and itched for much longer than usual.

Following lunch, we made one more stop at the Parco Naturale Delle Dolomiti D'Ampezzo to get a last look at the mountains from below, before heading up into the Dolomites themselves.  Taking a toll road and driving progressively higher, we climbed up to a viewing point about 2400 meters in altitude.  We were on our way to see the "Tre Cime di Lavaredo", three peaks of rock standing side by side.  We did not consciously spot these specific three peaks while we were up there, but one of our photos may have captured them.

While looking up at the mountains from the villages below provided some excellent views, it was nothing compared to the spectacular sights we saw once we were in the midst of the mountain peaks.  It felt strange to see all the snow on the slopes and to even be able to stand in a snowbank and make a snow ball, when the temperature was over 24 degrees Celsius and we were walking around in short sleeves.

Carlo pointed to some holes in the rock and told us about them.  During World War I, much of the fighting between Austria and Italy took place in these mountains, specifically the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Mount Piana and Mount Cristallo  because of their strategic positions.  Italian troops dug caves to provide a safe haven for troops and munitions.  Some of these caves are still accessible to hikers today.

Descending from the mountains, we stopped at Lago Antorno where from farther away, we had a better view of the Three Peaks of Lavaredo.  Next we visited Lago Misurina, the largest natural lake in the Cadore area, for more photo opportunities.  Around 10 hotels line the lake, which was used for speed skating events during the 1956 Cortina Winter Olympics. 

The final stop of our tour was the large dam at Lago di Santa Caterina which was created in the 1930s.  Two large stone lion sculptures surround the pathway along the top of the dam.  The Santa Caterina church can be found across the road.  By now, we had seen so much gorgeous scenery that it felt like an embarrassment of riches.  It had been a long day and most of us fell asleep for a while on the ride back to Venice.

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