Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mountain Air

      A quick ride back to the airport in the morning, a stop at Europcar and we are off, equipped with a compact Nissan. The autostrada immediately takes us past farm fields of grapes and surprisingly, lots of corn. Has Italy joined the global market for corn syrup?  In less than an hour, we climb in elevation, passing charming towns that sit in valleys and cliffsides. Is it the uniformity of houses with their red tile roofs and stucco walls that give them their charm? Many of the small towns in the Sierra foothills feel out of place in the forested landscape and certainly do not add charm. What is it about Italy that gives these small towns such character? I am reminded that everything in Europe is a smaller scale than the US, from the size of cars, highways, tractors, houses, to cups, shower stalls, and even forks and spoons! Are we just used to excess or why are our things so big?
     We arrive at the Hotel Gaia in Cortina D'ampezza at mid day. The receptionist is not there and I make my best attempt, with gestures and drawings, to communicate with the friendly elderly gentleman, who is standing in and provides detailed directions in very animated Italian. It is amusing that people continue in animated dialogue even though we know that not a word is understood! At the same time, it is amazing how much can be conveyed with gestures, and how warmth is conveyed with just a smile? He calls me "Linda" with a lilt and a veryItalian rolled 'r' and my heart melts. 
    Cortina, home of the 1956 winter olympics, sits in a valley surrounded by verdant green grassy  slopes that rise above town; up winding roads are ski runs, chair lifts, Swiss looking chalets and apartments. In order to relieve our anxiety, we go in search of our trailhead and car park for tomorrow's hike to the rifugio. We are not sure of the exact location as self guided hiking information is sparse online, Rick Steves doesn't stay in rifugios, and foot trail maps of the area can be confusing. The information office is closed, to our dismay but thankfully we come across a ranger-like young man, who just happens to drive into the parking lot and gives us explicit directions. We learn that the information offices have closed for the season but that there are two carparks before and after Podestagno, with the trailhead off the highway on the road leading to Rifugio Ra Stua. 
    Feeling more confident, we embark on a driving tour of the Tres Cime area, taking advantage of this weather which is forecasted to change any minute. It is a beautiful day, with puffy clouds that shroud the mountain peaks. Tres Cime's jagged peaks, in the far eastern Dolomites are world famous and we stop often to gaze and photograph the 360 degree panorama of snow brushed granite spires which rise above green grassy valleys. The two lane mountain roads are easy to navigate and distances between valleys are close. The sound of cowbells echo from one valley to the next. At Lago San Antorno, a nondescript lake with a bar and cafe, we treat ourselves to German apple strudel with melted whipped cream and Italian tiramisu. This area of Italy straddles an interesting blend of Austrian, German and Italian cuisines. 
     The clouds turn gray as we make our circuit down through Misurina and back to Cortina. The rain is now a steady downpour. How quickly the scenery changes as low clouds obscure the mountains and hills, and the light fades to gray. The mountains disappear into the mist. We hope for clearer weather tomorrow as we hike out. 



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