It was to be altogether different mountains that my husband and I had planned to visit this September, having booked a tour of Georgia and parts of Armenia. But, as for many of us the global Covid-19 pandemic put a spanner in the works, we decided on a trip closer to home. As I write, we are sitting in a holiday apartment in a small village above Lake Garda, where we have spent many pleasant weeks before. We made our way here gradually, stopping along the way in Lower Austria first, and then last week in South Tyrol (Alto Adige). South Tyrol is an area we have travelled to quite a bit, but we had never been to Toblach (Dobiacco), just South of the Austrian border in the beautiful Puster Valley.
The transition from the Austrian side in East Tyrol to the Italian side in South Tyrol is seamless, and if it were not for the road signs we would not have noticed that we had arrived in Italy. This region is culturally “Alpine” on both sides of the border, and the German language is legally equivalent to the Italian language in the entire region of Trentino-South Tyrol. (A small digression into history: The current border between Italy and Austria was created after the First World War when the Treaty of Saint-Germain came into force in 1920. The South Tyrol region had a conflictive history following this partition about which there is currently a very interesting exhibition at Schloss Tirol in Dorf Tirol (Tirolo), where we also spent a few days.) More about that in another blog.
The Dolomites are an extensive Southern Alpine mountain range, part of the Southern Limestone Alps, located in the North Italian regions of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol and Friuli Venezia Giulia, covering an area shared between several provinces (Belluno, Vicenza, Verona, Trentino, South Tyrol, Udine and Pordenone). The Dolomites owe their name to the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu, who first studied the particular composition that forms their bedrock (double calcium carbonate), unique in the whole Alpine range. They are also called the “pale mountains” because of their white appearance.
During our three days in Toblach, we took full advantage of the beauties in this small town´s vicinity. Our first hike took us to some of the most iconic mountains of the Dolomites.
Three majestic peaks
The year was 1869. For the first time, a climber reached the peak of the Drei Zinnen (literally “Three Peaks”), which in Italian go by Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The Viennese Alpine climber Paul Grohmann, who had dedicated himself to the first ascent of numerous Dolomite mountains since 1862, was the first mountaineer to notice the Three Peaks, which he saw as a worthwhile summit destination not because of its height, but because of the “boldness of its construction”. From the second half of the 19th century, the Hochpustertal became a destination for summer visitors, but although mountaineering was already popular in the Western Alps at the time, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Dolomites received relatively little attention from climbers. In August 1869 Grohmann hired the local guides Franz Innerkofler and Peter Salcher for the first ascent of the highest of the three peaks, the Große Zinne which rises up to 2999 m.
The first woman to climb this peak was Anna Ploner in 1874. It took longer for the other two peaks to be reached. Nowadays they are a much visited and climbed mountain range. Already in 1908, more than 2000 people visited the mountain hut Dreizinnenhütte, which was originally built in 1881, but destroyed in 1915 during the so-called “white war” at the high-altitude Alpine sector of the Italian front during the First World War. The Alpenverein Südtirol rebuilt the hut in 1922.
The three dramatic peaks rise on the southern edge of an extensive plateau at about 2200 m to 2400 m, are a highly popular tourist destination. The area north of the mountains up to their peaks belongs to the municipality of Toblach in South Tyrol (Alto Adige) and to the Drei Zinnen nature park, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009. It also belongs to the European network of nature reserves Natura 2000, established to protect the habitats of wildlife and plants.
The UNESCO World Heritage label is awarded to sites of “outstanding universal value” that meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. In the case of natural heritage sites, this includes among other points “areas of superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”. That is certainly something that can be said about this area of the Dolomites. Being awarded this label is an honour, but also attracts large numbers of tourists.
We hiked around the Drei Zinnen on a well trodden trail from the Auronzo hut (inaugurated as “Prince Umberto Hut” in 1925), which can easily be reached by public bus from the valley below. We shared the trail with many many other hikers on that sunny September Sunday. (Nevertheless, it was possible to keep our safe Covid-19 distance.)
The entire hike took us a good five hours, not counting photo breaks and a snack stop at the Drei Zinnen hut, although fitter and faster hikers passed us many times and no doubt finished it in under four hours. But I am pleased to say all of us (including our dog) held up well and were ready for another hike the next day.
The most photographed Alpine lake?
Since we were in the region, I wanted to see the Pragser Wildsee (Lago di Braies). This must be one of the most photographed Alpine lakes and has sometimes even been dubbed “Lago di Instagram” because it has appeared so much on that platform. It is also a tourist magnet, and in times of Covid-19 there is actually a reassuring requirement to wear face-masks while surrounding it! (Most people comply with the rules.)
This beautiful lake is located 1494 m above sea level and is dominated by the imposing Seekofel massif (2810 m). It really is a beauty that is worth a visit, despite the “overtourism”. Many a dog was also enjoying the water during our hike around the lake.
Incidentally, this lake was involved in some of the final conflicts of World War II. Shortly before the defeat of the German NS regime, in April 1945, 139 – mostly high-ranking – personalities from 17 European countries were transported from concentration camps to South Tyrol as hostages by the SS. The SS had wanted to use the hostages for negotiations with the Western Allies. The hostages included many prominent political figures, including the former Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and the former French Prime Minister Léon Blum. Ironically, it was the German Wehrmacht who freed the hostages from the SS on April 30, 1945, when it was evident that the Germans had lost the war. They took them to the hotel “Pragser Wildsee”, where they found asylum. The contemporary history archive of Lake Braies is now located in this hotel.
The lake also plays a role in the South Tyrolean world of legends. It was said that from here the underground parts of the “Fanes Empire” could be reached by boat. The now buried gateway to the underworld is said to have been at the southern end of the lake towards Seekofel mountain, which is why it is called Sass dla Porta (Torberg) in Ladin.
A small jewel
Our third hiking destination was the Toblacher See (Lago di Dobbiaco), a small Alpine lake that you can easily reach on foot from Toblach. It is located in the Höhlenstein Valley at an altitude of 1259 m, fed by the Rienza river. The lake has a circumference of about 4.5 kilometers and can be surrounded on nicely laid out walking paths in about 45 minutes. Like the Pragser Wildsee, it is part of the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park and is protected as a natural monument.
It is a nice destination for families too, as the route along the lake shore has been enhanced by a nature trail with different information boards about the nature surrounding the lake. With its diverse bank vegetation, it is a resting and nesting place for many different water birds.
I could easily have spent several more days in this beautiful region, but after three days we continued our gradual approach to Lake Garda, stopping in Dorf Tirol for a few nights. More about that soon.