Dolomites Delights

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The Dolomites have been on my to do list for a while and once the summer crush was over, I managed to convince a friend from Germany to join me for a week of walking. We planned for a flexible itinerary and a good thing we did, as the weather forecast turned increasingly bad for the first day we would be there. So we revised our initial plan and dodged the rain – and as it turned out snow! – by alternating sitting in the steam room of the hotel with testing bars nearby for the best aperol spritz.

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For our first day of walking the day cleared to a beautiful blue sky, but it was cold and the snow line had moved significantly lower on the surrounding mountains, making for some spectacular scenery. The planned walk was the Sassolungo circuit, which involved first making our way up by cable car to the Rifugio Demetz. That cable car was an experience in itself, but it did make for some neat photos (the photo above was taken from inside the cable car). Having arrived up high we stepped out in howling winds that were whipping up the powdery snow that had fallen overnight. We added an additional layer before tentatively exploring the path downhill. Fortunately someone had already broken trail and so each armed with a walking pole we descended carefully, occasionally sliding in the fresh snow which reached up to our mid-calves at times.

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The scenery was out of this world: sheer rock faces dusted by snow, luscious green hills beyond and the faint outline of the actual snow-capped Alps. Magical. After an hour we reached Rifugio Vicenza and treated ourselves to a hot chocolate. From there we were snow-free and walked the path towards Rifugio Comici where we had an excellent late lunch, before finishing up at our starting point on Passo Sella. Our aperitivo waited for us in Canazei after the obligatory steam room.

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The next day the snow line had retreated a little and we made our way to Campitello to take the cable car to Col Rodella. From there we walked the well-frequented Sentiero Federico Augusto to Rifugio Sassopiatto and then returning through the Val Duron to Campitello. A far more popular route, we found ourselves with many more walkers on the trail and enjoyed seeing the Sassolungo from a different angle. The descent was hard on the knees and when we thought the worst was behind us, there was a very long walk on road surface (and at one point very steep) to get back to Campitello.

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For our third day of walking we had chosen the Viel del Pan, described as an easy walk. When the bus we were supposed to take didn’t arrive, we opted to take the car to drive to Alba and take the cable car to Col dei Rossi to start our walk. Another blue bird day meant spectacular views all around (the photo above is a composite panorama of Sassolungo on the left and Sella Group on the right) and the walking was easy (and again quite busy). After an hour and a half we got to the point where we would commence our descent to Passo Fedaia, another descent requiring hard work from our knees.

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Once we got to Fedaia Lake we walked across the dam to the other side to see if the lift to the Pian dei Fiacconi was working. Well, if we thought that Monday’s cable car was interesting, we had something else waiting for us: metal baskets for two people at the time, with the door bolted shut after you and up you went, standing for 20 minutes or so in the open air as we ascended. Great views of course, but not sure about the WHS aspects of this contraption! At the top we met some people who had walked up, which had taken them three hours of tough walking, particular as conditions high up were challenging in the slippery snow on steep terrain.

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Although there are many more walks to do in the Val di Fassa area, we decided to move to Cortina d’Ampezzo to explore another area. An early start the next day was well rewarded when we didn’t have to queue for too long to get access to the parking area at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (at a steep 30 euro for the privilege). This is another very popular walk and an early start is really worth it to avoid the crowds.

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Even so, we walked in between large groups of people, but once we moved off the main path to continue on our circuit, we were almost by ourselves, enjoying the views, which almost make you feel you’re on a different planet. By the time we finished our circuit the first drops of rain started to fall, further confirming our excellent timing that day. In Cortina the sun was shining and we enjoyed a nice aperitivo on a terrace in the sun.

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On our last day we made our way to Ortisei, a beautiful village, specialised in woodcarving and did some sightseeing before checking into our luxury accommodation of the trip in Hotel Jakoberhof, just outside of Ortisei itself. More spa and aperitivo time, and an outstanding dinner to finish up a great week in the Dolomites. The problem now is that I want to go back for more walking, but winter is here…

 

 

Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia

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May was a busy month, but I did manage to catch the final day of the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition in Barcelona, where one of my photographs was on display. The timing was tight, but between arriving on Saturday morning and checking into my accommodation, I managed to see the full exhibition, have lunch and wrap up my picture and take it with me. The business part taken care off, I could now enjoy revisiting the city I had first seen in 1998. I walked around older parts of Barcelona in the late afternoon, did some shopping and picked up some food, before retiring to my hotel.

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The next morning I got up early and walked in the direction of Casa Battlo, a key example of Antonio Gaudi’s architecture. Already from the outside it is an interesting facade, but as the line for entry wasn’t very long yet, I got myself a ticket and followed the headset tour of the house. Inside the house was even more extraordinary than outside and in its shapes and forms it at times reminded me of the remarkable Hundertwasser house in Vienna. There were no sharp corners here, all soft flowing forms inspired by nature and beautiful colours.

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I walked for miles that day, eventually walking back through the Rambla, then to the Port where I had a leisurely lunch by the water, followed by a walk along the Barceloneta beach back to the hotel. I managed to get there just in time to avoid a big rain storm coming through. I had a nice siesta while it bucketed with rain and once it had dried up, I headed out again to walk to the famous Sagrada Familia church for my allocated entry time. I highly recommend buying your ticket beforehand, as it will be impossible to get a ticket on the spot. I had also booked the headset to guide me walking around the church.

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In 1998 I had only seen the church from the outside. Going in was a mind-blowing experience; the structure, shapes, lights and colours are completely unique and give an atmosphere of great lightness and joy, something I have never experienced or seen in a church (and may well account for why I’m not a big fan of churches!).

It was a treat to walk around and see the light falling through the coloured windows, shading the ceilings blue and green, or red and orange. Every detail is beautifully crafted and it will be amazing to see it in 2026 when it is finally finished. Sadly, due to the rainstorm in the afternoon, it was not possible to visit the tower for safety reasons, which I had booked. That was the only negative, but it was such an incredible experience that in the end it didn’t matter much.

Siracusa

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Long, long ago I studied ancient Greek and learnt about Archimedes and the city of Siracusa. It took me a while to connect the dots and realise that Ortygia, the city I was visiting in Sicily, was that Siracusa. The ancient city of Syracuse that was turned by Greek colonists into the largest city in the Greek world. Later it scored victories against Carthage and Athens and it was the home of Archimedes – yes, he of the bath tub and the Eureka! exclamation.

Siracusa / Ortygia is a beautiful place and on many people’s itineraries when visiting Sicily.  The city is full of old stone buildings, Greek ruins and remnants that often have a unique form and radiate soft hues in the late afternoon sun. It was a pity I didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, a mere day and a half, squeezed into a weekend before a work trip.

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If you arrive at Catania airport, it really pays to book the bus in advance. I didn’t and wasn’t able to buy a ticket at the airport straightaway, but would have had to wait to see if there was a place on it. Rather than waiting to see what my chances were, I chose to jump in a taxi to the railway station and catch a train from there. If you go for a taxi, anywhere in Sicily, negotiate your taxi fare before you get in and don’t believe what they ask you. My taxi driver was a cantankerous old man who kept fiddling with his meter during the relatively short drive, cranking it up to astronomical figures. I took issue with that, we ended up yelling insults in Italian at each other, and I threatened to call the carabinieri, before he settled on a fare that was still too much. The train ride was an oasis of calm compared to that.

After arriving in Siracusa I walked towards the old town and found a spot to have lunch and watch the scenery, while spending some time before I could check into my accommodation. I had booked Lemoni Suite in the old centre, run by Marcello and Milagros. I highly recommend it if you are looking for accommodation in Ortygia; it’s impeccably clean and they serve a breakfast that will fuel you for the day ahead. Having completed check-in, I headed out again, meandering around the old part of town, visiting the main piazza and enjoying the beautiful sunset before going for a light dinner at a small restaurant around the corner, recommended by Marcello.

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The next morning, after a copious breakfast, I walked through the old centre again, taking photographs in a completely different light compared to the late afternoon light the day before. I visited an interactive display about Archimedes, which was a lot of fun and just before midday headed up to the Parco Archaeologico Neapolis that features some amazing ruins. The enormous Greek Theatre is the main drawcard, but the park also features a Roman Amphitheatre. At the latter, I overheard a mother asking her young daughter about what differences the young girl had observed in both sets of ruins. I really had to bite my tongue not to blurt out my observation that in one they performed plays and in the other they killed each other. Quite the contrast.

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In another area of the park there is an astonishingly large cave in the rocks, known as the Ear of Dionysius. It refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Siracusa. According to a legend he used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, using its acoustics to eavesdrop on plans and secrets of his captives. But another version claims that the cave was carved in this shape so that it would amplify the screams of prisoners being tortured. The acoustics remain impressive, although the only screams you will hear these days are those of kids who can never resist testing those acoustics at the highest volume they can produce.

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After a couple of hours in the archeological park, it was time to head to the railway station and jump on a train to return to Catania. I really wished I could have stayed longer in Ortygia and Sicily in general and will have to plan a return here to do the island full justice.

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