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Lake di Braies Panorama, this stunning alpine gem could be the prettiest lake in Italy
Lake di Braies was one of my main targets for the Cortina Region.

Cortina d'Ampezzo – the Dolomites, take two
click on photos to see large

Val di Funne Chapel, Olde Range
Chapel at Val di Funnes on my 2014 trip to Italy

Life is good; I again had the opportunity to return the Dolomite Alps, a mountain landscape that blew me away on my first visit.  My first trip to the Dolomite Mountains in 2014 I had a marvelous time exploring the mountains of South Tyrol and Trento basing out of Bolzano or Bozen, as the locals know it. The Italian Dolomites offer a unique corner of the Alps with distinctive geology and a fascinating blend of cultures.

The antiquity and weirdness of Venice was and interesting stop on our way to Cortina.  The hour and a half drive from Venice to Auronzo di Cadore increased in beauty as we climbed in elevation; I was seeing places I wish I had the time to stop at; a photographer’s recurring, deja vu.   Venice was interesting and photogenic; however, cities are outside my comfort zone and I was relieved to be climbing in elevation, both for the serenity of the mountains as well as the cooler temperatures.

Bobbing gondoloas on the Grand Canal
Bobbing gondoloas on the Grand Canal

The Dolomites are an alpine nirvana like I have at home in the Grand Tetons, but much larger, comprising over 90,000 acres of mountainous terrain. During my first trip of three nights & four days, I explored many beautiful places; however, I missed one of the main attractions on my list, Cortina d'Ampezzo, because of a comedy of errors including landslides, and poor decisions at roundabouts. This time I would stay at or near Cortina to insure I didn’t miss the Dolomite’s, most famous village. Through the magic of I found a wonderful and amazingly cheap hotel, Hotel Juventus, on a beautiful lake, Lago di Santa Caterina, in the village of Auronzo di Cadore about 20 miles away from Cortina. Auronzo di Cadore was stunning, I chose well.

Auronzo di Cadore

Located to the south of the main chain of the European Alps that span five countries, the Dolomite Alps are geographically and culturally at a crossroad between Italy to the south and Tyrol to the north. The Dolomites are notable for their composition of pale colored dolomite, a limestone like rock formed beneath deep, ancient seas. That is what the geologists say; I say they are notable for their abrupt vertical rise and their serrated profiles, they make the Sawtooth Peaks of Idaho appear as aspirants of grandeur, which can only achieve a participation trophy.  Thirty years ago I vowed to never live where I couldn’t see granite; I have had to modify my vow to granite or limestone. The limestone peaks of the Canadian Rockies have also influenced this minor change of heart.  I could be very happy here or among the limestone peaks of Canada.

The mountains around Bolzano during my 2014 trip, although beautiful, had very few lakes, the Dolomites of Venito seemed to have more.  I love photographing the reflection of mountains in alpine lakes.

 Lago d'Antorno, in Misurina, Italy.
 Lago d'Antorno, in Misurina, Italy. 

Though the Dolomites have been almost exclusively an Italian possession since after World War One, the culture remains a blend of the Tyrolean, Rhaeto-Roman and Italian influences.  In Trento and South Tyrol you are more likely to hear the locals speaking German than Italian. When asking directions there, use the German name, as they won’t acknowledge the Italian one. Some areas of the Dolomites, Cortina d’Ampezzo for example, are principally Italian in culture and in language, although the architecture is still distinctly Tyrolean.

The Dolomite leg of my three-week jaunt through Italy, southern Germany and Switzerland allowed only two nights and three days to revisit the Dolomites. Too little time for this, most favorite of places. My wife wanted more time in Cinque Terre’s Tyrrhenian Sea to bake in the sun, I wanted more time in the mountains, guess who won. Exhibit A in why my photo trips are more productive when I travel alone.  The joke will be on her though because Cinque Terre is a vertical world of stairs. I though will suck it up and enjoy shooting the centuries old buildings clinging to the cliffs and the thriving beach scene in the harbors below.

Auronzo di Cadore
Auronzo-di-Cadore from the bridge across the lake at our hotel.

After checking into our Tyrolean hotel we set off for a quick reconnaissance, as the following morning I wanted to shoot three lakes before the wind came up and blew away the mountain reflections. As we rounded every turn giant limestone peaks leaped into the air, and we were soon in awe of this amazing alpine destination.

The quick reconnaissance turned into a lengthily and productive photo excursion.   The original plan was to check drive times to Lago di Braies so I could shoot them early in the morning while my wife preferred to sleep.   As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait until the calm of morning for good reflections on the lakes.   I got some good record shots at Lake Misserina Lake; I then checked the road to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and on the way I found beautiful Lago-d'antorno with the very craggy Cadini di Misurina Group in full reflection. What a pleasant surprise, this alpine jewel never showed up in my research. The toll road to Tre Cime di Lavaredo wasn’t something I wanted to do this day as I still had other scouting to do.  Off for Lake di Braies. 

Reflection on Lake di Braies

Over Passo Tre Croci and down the hill, I found another pretty lake, Durrensee Lake, but it was lacking the light I needed to capture its beauty. I factored it for morning.

Upon my arrival at Lake di Braies, the largest natural lake in the Dolomites, I also found it prime for shooting, I had to wander a bit to find some calm water, the shooting was good after finding it. Braies Lake is indeed quite stunning both for its position, framed as it is by the Dolomites, and especially the imposing Croda del Becco, and for its emerald green and turquoise waters.  The lake was lower than I had hoped as spring runnoff hadn’t yet filled it, and the classic wooden boats that had livened up so many photos I had seen, had not yet been put out for the summer.

Gaisl Peak a piece of alpine wonder I discovered by going to see what is up one more road.

A short time after departing Lago di Braies, my Peugeot suddenly swerved to the right as if being sucked off course like a magnet up a beautiful mountain road.  Sharon groaned because she knows from experience that soon we will likely be on a two-rut road that makes her breasts hurt. It was the road to Ponticello, and I’m glad I swerved into my whim; this is how we discover stuff. It climbed to about 6,000-foot elevation in the midst of the Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park, A heck of a gem to swerve into.  The view stretches all the way from the Cristallo Massif to the Hohe Gaisl Peak. I must come stay here at Rifugio Prato Piazza Hotel, a little piece of heaven at the end of the road. Sharon was relieved to find it was paved the whole way; although I found a photogenic two-rut road beyond where I parked.

Lake Misurina high in the Dolomite Alpes of northern Italy.
Lake Misurina, I have often thought that thise could have been a better photo without the hotel dead center. I am always wrong, I have sold dozen prints of this.

Heading back to the hotel, Durrensee Lake still wasn’t ready for photos, but Lake Misurina was perfect.  After shooting sunset at Lago di Santa Caterina at the hotel, it was time to rejoice the productivity of what was meant to only be a reconnaissance day.

The province of Belluno seemed to be a bit more Italian in nature than South Tyrol I had visited previously and was reflected in the dinner menus.  It was the off season in Auronzo di Cadore and there were few dining choices; however, we happened along the perfect one, a cubbyhole restaurant downtown that served the most amazing lasagna.  We inquired of the lady who owned the place and were surprised to find the ingredients didn’t include cheese – who knew you could make awesome lasagna without cheese?

Tre Cime di Lavaredo
Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the cheaters view

The following morning I shot a sunrise near the hotel, raced to Lake Misserina, then down to Durrensee Lake, Durrensee Lake was the only one of the bunch I didn’t shoot satisfactorily the first day, this time it was ready to shoot.  While there, I found a window through a valley where I could shoot a glimpse of Tre Cime di Lavaredo.  Although not the classic view, a view of the classic monolith nonetheless. In retrospect, this morning I wish I had returned to Lake di Braies for a morning shot of the lake.

While enjoying the views on my way back, I dined on a Nature Valley fruit and nut granola bar, brought from home for eating on the go, I imagined Sharon who preferred unconsciousness until after eight AM was now showered and at the breakfast buffet preparing a plate of Tyrolean crepes smothered in butter and local jam, with an assortment of Bavarian cold cuts and fresh brewed cappuccino. Those silly tourists, they don’t know what they miss.

Cortina d'Ampezzo – the Dolomites
Outscirts of Cortina d'Ampezzo

I returned to the hotel to pick up Sharon who was all refreshed and satiated and ready to go. We then started working our way to Cortina; I took a few record shots of the village. Cortina d'Ampezzo Valley has a classy, centuries-old charisma. This bustling mountain town, known as Queen of the Dolomites, is nestled in a sunny valley of incomparable beauty at 3,700 feet above sea level. Not very high in comparison with the alpine resorts tin the Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountains, but the Dolomites achieve alpine grandeur with lower elevations. Films like For Your Eyes Only and The Pink Panther have used Cortina for their mountain eye candy. It was 1981 when Roger Moore as James Bond, chased assassins on motorcycle down a bobsled run while on skies. Downtown Cortina is essentially one street, but oh, what a street. With small cafes, luxury shops, 18th-century buildings and a mountain backdrop at every turn, it’s as charming as they come.  I’m glad I finally made it here.

Mt. La Gusela Colle at Passo Giau in Santa Lucia
Mt. La Gusela Colle at Passo Giau in Santa Lucia

It was the Cortina region I wanted to see not the city itself; so in the absence of Roger Moore or Peter Sellers we were off then to Selva di Cadore. Selva di Cadore was the home of a photogenic chapel that rivaled in beauty, the church at Val di Funnes beneath the Olde Range, another Dolomite treasure.

The route was a curvy delight over yet another stunning pass, Passo Giau what amazing mountains in ever directions. The drive would have been fun in a Roger Moore Ferrari instead of our Peugeot that was more like Inspector Clouseau’s Mini Cooper. At this elevation in the middle of May fell short of the glory that was sure to come in July when the tundra turned green and the wildflowers would bloom, few photos were taken, but beautiful though nonetheless.

Selva di Cadore the village of stunning chapels in amazing alpine settings. I photographed three of them and missed the one I went to find.

The annual rhythm of farming and the system of managing the pastures and forests date back to medieval times. They log everywhere here, and it has served them well, centuries of selective logging and the place still looks great.  The land has been protected and nurtured from development, both voluntarily through the right of property succession belonging to the firstborn child, This system keeps farms as farms and never shrinking properties shared between all progeny, and legally through villages administering laws protecting land from subdivision. In this way, not only is there assured to be enough fodder for farm animals and produce for the villages, but also the traditional landscape and way of life are preserved and enjoyed by all. Their agrarian heritage is now harvesting tourist dollars. Clearly they have been practicing sustainability for centuries.

Village of Selva di Cadore
Village of Selva di Cadore

Selva di Cadore was a cute hamlet built into the side of a limestone peak.  I photographed two beautiful churches, and didn’t realize until I got back to the room I missed the church I went to see.  A good excuse to return.

On our return, we did a quick look-see in the town of Cortina and pondered some dinner; however, the amazing lasagna in Auronzo di Cadore was calling us back for seconds despite its lack of fresh Italian Ricotta Fresca and Mozzarella.

The following morning I did another sunrise without the wife, returning in time for a Tyrolean breakfast, The hotel breakfast reflected Tyrolean roots, including freshly baked bread, fruit juices, teas, pastries, and fruit, but also cold cuts, savory specialties, and special jams, cappuccino and espressos made to order. Satiated and coffeed up we set out on the next leg of our European journey, Bavaria’s German Alps and Neuschwanstein-Castle.  

I can’t seem to get the Dolomites checked off my bucket list, the first trip I missed Cortina, this trip I missed the onion domed chapel at Selva di Cadore, the prime view of Tre Cime di Lavaredo and a sunrise at Lago di Braies. My bucket list only grows; it never gets smaller. I love being a photographer!

It is both to my wonder and relief that the millions that visit Venice don’t take this short hop into the Alps of Italy.

My first article about my 2014 Dolimite trip.


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Rest of series

! . Colorful Procida

2. A Skeptic's Venice

3. Cortina d'Ampezzo

4. A touch of Bavaria

5. Matterhorn Photo Quest

6. Oh' Cinque Terre

7. Amazing Pitiglano