Far up above the Tyrolean villages that nestle in the green valleys of the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites lies a secret world. Hidden behind the faces of the mountains of the Fanes massif is a world of magical pine forests and bubbling brooks, of ice cold lakes and eery moonscapes. Sky meadows carpeted with wild flowers lead to elevated valleys with scatterings of boulders that seem to have rained down from the heavens above. Tumbledown barns keep hay dry for the brown and white cows that wear bells around their necks and marmots scamper in the shadows of the salmon pink mountains.
This world is seen only by those on intrepid adventures. It’s a reward for physical exertion and challenge, for commitment and perseverance. It’s a place that seems to exist in the clouds rather than in reality on Earth. And the only way to get there is on foot.
We have walked in the Dolomites before. We’ve walked around the tops of the valleys and up along the tree lines. We’ve crossed under cable cars and over steep, chicaning roads. We’ve drunk espressos in mountain cafés looking down on the pretty villages below. But this year we were craving adventure and craving remoteness and so we decided on a ‘hut to hut’, a three day walk that would take us behind the Fanes massif, to a land inaccessible by car where even the ski lifts don’t reach.
Mel booked the holiday, she always does, she even tells me which flight to book and that’s all I have to do. It’s wonderful having a friend whose decisions and tastes you trust, the bliss of having a break from the mental load of researching, planing and booking holidays is very welcome. In fact it was our trip to the Dolomites last year that gave me the idea of running Bleak House Experiences, to give other people the respite that Mel so generously gives me.
Packing for adventure
We were to carry all of our possessions on our backs. We exchanged a few frantic messages before we left: how many changes of clothes would we need? Should we share a bottle of shampoo and did I need waterproof trousers? What on earth would we wear in the evenings and did I need to buy some shorts? Should we take a book to read and what about our phone chargers? And, importantly for me, which film camera should I take? (The answer was my Pentax K1000, by far the smallest and lightest of the ones available.)
We were a little nervous about the weight of our rucksacks, trepidatious about getting half way around our route and feeling the urge to throw them off a mountain top. But surprisingly they didn’t bother us at all and the only time we really realised quite how heavy they were was when we took them off and almost fell over forwards without their counterbalancing weight.
It’s wonderfully liberating to know you have everything you need right there on your back and it’s hard not to marvel at all the non-necessities contained in your house back home. Needless to say, we packed a little too much and by the end of the first day we both agreed we were looking forward to next year’s trip when we would be able to ‘ace’ packing. We’d already realised we would never be bothered to change our walking clothes and it was apparent on the first evening that the outfit ‘de rigueur’ at the refugios was a full set of thermals and a pair of walking socks.
Our walk began with two hour amble along the river from Corvara to San Cassiano, which was mostly about getting to the real start of the walk. We felt slightly ridiculous with all of our kit as we passed elderly people in motorised wheelchairs and parents with pushchairs and we were very glad when we began the ascent up the mountain. We gained height quickly, leaving the chalets, hotels and restaurants behind, noting the last house we would see for the next few days.
Our walk that afternoon followed an old pilgrim route that leads up to the 15th century Santa Croce shrine where we were to spend our first night. We walked across meadows and up through a very steep, seemingly never-ending pine forest. Eventually we emerged, blinking, from the darkness of the forest to find ourselves above the tree-line with incredible views across the valley to the mountains beyond.
The walk was hard, relentless in fact, but as we made our way up into the mountains I could feel the stresses and strains of everyday life lifting from my shoulders. Being able to focus on little else than placing one foot purposefully in front of the other is a great way to pause the mental chatter in one’s head.
Finally we reached Santa Croce, a 18th century church built on the site of the old shrine, adjacent to a 17th century farmhouse that was built to accommodate the sacristan and weary pilgrims. The farmhouse is now a welcoming refugio where we were fed a hot meal of barley soup and pasta and a glass of wine. We stepped outside for a minute at twilight to watch the thunder storm playing out on the mountains opposite before retiring to our very cold room where we slept in all of our clothes, including our coats. The difference in temperature between here and the villages below told us quite how far we’d risen.
Down, up, down
We awoke the next morning to find ourselves high up above the clouds. It’s always an odd feeling to be in sunshine knowing that people down below are probably grumbling about it being a cloudy day. We left the refugio and made our way down through an exceedingly pretty pine forest, so magical I half expected nymphs and fairies to flutter across our path from behind the rocks. We walked down for hours, not seeing a single other person, descending as far as we’d climbed the previous afternoon. Eventually we reached a dry, rocky riverbed where we sat for a while and ate the biscuits from our packed lunch.
We chatted amiably as we went and this is the wonderful thing about walking with a friend. As life moves on it can be incredibly hard to spend time together and although Mel and I see each rarely during normal life, having these four days once a year allows us to cover every inch of our lives, to ask all the questions, get all the answers, laugh together and share our experiences. We are comfortable drifting in and out of conversation, as happy walking in silence as we are in chatter and giggles.
We climbed again, through pretty meadows punctuated with hay barns. Eventually we found ourselves back in a thick pine forest, welcoming the break from the beating sun. Soon enough we emerged into a rock-strewn clearing where we could see the pass through the mountains above, feeling a little trepidatious at the enormous distance we still had to climb, up a zig-zagging gravelly path that seemed to be clinging perilously to the side of the moonscape slope of the mountain.
We plodded up in silence, lost in our own thoughts, concentrating on our feet. Finally, exhaustedly, we reached the pass and sat for a while taking in the panoramic view. From the top we walked down the other side and found ourselves in an enormous wild flower meadow filled with cows, the tinkling of their bells charming our ears before the sight of their brown and white bodies reached our eyes.
Far down below the field, nestled in the bottom of the valley we found our refugio for the night, Lavarella, initially built in 1919 as a lodge to provide shelter to climbers and moutaineers. It’s at this point I must disabuse you of any notion that we were staying in anything that resembled a Scottish bothy with no electricity or heating. At Laveralla we dined like queens, with a sumptuous dinner of Tyrolean dumplings and grilled Italian cheese, white chocolate mousse and cherries. After dinner we drank glasses of wine on the terrace in the setting sun, watching the tinkling cows milling around, a welcome substitute for a television and strangely hypnotic. Tired and full we retired early to our shared dormitory where we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
Up, along, down
We began walking early on our final day, climbing up the other side of the valley to walk along an undulating valley. The whole landscape was covered in enormous rocks that looked as if they’d been dropped from the sky. There were wild flowers everywhere and it was not hard to see why the Victorians took so much inspiration from Alpine landscapes to build their rockery gardens and dells. It was incredibly beautiful and otherworldly.
We passed along the valley for miles, bidding good morning to the grazing horses and smiling at the marmots scampering between the rocks. We walked along enjoying the respite of the relatively flat path that followed the line of a rocky river. After a couple of hours we reached the end and began the long, arduous descent to civilisation. We walked down steep stone steps and winding, hazardous paths, past waterfalls and brooks and little bridges. Finally we reached the bottom and walked along the valley, resisting the urge to take the path up to the next mountain in search of new adventures instead of continuing down to the end of our walk. We dutifully made our way to the final refuge where we had an espresso and a slice of apple strudel to celebrate our achievements.
Sitting at the bus stop waiting for a lift back to Corvara, we had the strange feeling that we’d imagined everything that we’d just done. As we waited to be transported back to our bags, back to our make up and hair dryers, jeans and technology, we gazed up at the mountain we’d just descended to find we could see nothing of the places we’d been. All those memories and the things we’d seen hidden again behind the rock faces, high up above. It was as if we’d been in an enchanting, imaginary world for a little while, and perhaps in truth we had.
For these photos I used my Pentax K1000 with Fuji Superior 4oo film, developed by Carmencita. I rated my film at 200 and overexposed by three stops which absolutely terrified me and was thrilled to see the ethereal, vintage look this gave them. Leaning in to overexposing is hard, it goes against everything I have been taught in digital photography but the details on the mountains and the clouds from these shots delighted me.
We booked our trip through Colletts Mountain Holidays. We did the moderate two night hut to hut, the details of which are here.
In the last year I have run six Bleak House Experiences and they have transformed my business and my life. Here is a recap and celebration of the first wonderful year.
An insight into how Lauren Keim and I we put together a very special Bleak House Experience celebrating Virginia Woolf’s much loved book Mrs Dalloway.