Our first foray into the Dolomites was to Refugio Bolanzo at 2457m. Well supported by the bus from Bolanzo which wound it's way up the narrow road followed by the Siusi gondola which cribbed 1500m off the climb! Did we feel we were cheating, not at all as it was still a slog at altitude though plenty to look at with the cute wooden hay barns and alpine chalets, rolling meadows, wildflowers and handsome cows. The last half hour of rain made us very grateful for the warm fire in the Refugio.
An early morning hike up to Monte Pez for panoramic views of the Sciliar Peaks before a hearty breakfast. The weather warm and sunny by now as we ambled along the plateau toward the rocky spur and yawning ravines with the teeth of the Sella range. Track sidled to the Alp de tires refugium for a delightful coffee where we met our new friends from Norway. They have been visiting this area for years and put us onto the next few days itinerary. Passing many walkers by now as it was Saturday we made it to our new home for the night Sassopiatto, all the mod cons after renovations with lovely blonde wood panelling.
The ascent of Sassopiatto peak 2969m was motivated by the Norwegians who had been thawted by bad wx many times yet here we were, a clear glorious day. They set off at 7.15 and we followed as quickly as we could afterwards reaching the huge iron cross at the same time, go team nz. Stupendous views rewarded us for the sweat. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we passed others making their way up in the increasing cloud and heat it was now time to head round to Refugio Vincenza 1894 rebuilt in 1903 because of an avalanche and no wonder. Poised on a narrow platform, surrounded by vertical rock walls, awe inspiring with massive views out to Alpe di Sius and the Austrian alps. We were pretty rapt to get here not only for the unique landscapes and position of our stay for the night but also as we discovered it had only opened the night before! Lucky rather than well planned. The refugios close over winter and don't open until the snow conditions allow. This last winter was a biggie in Europe. Today we have been walking over snow packs thankfully softened by the sun.
We have found new ground for adventure opposite last weeks trek with a whole new area to explore. Valley Gardena,is our new home, jagged cliffs, high pastures covered with wildflowers and pine forests. We just love the vivid colours with the green, grass, dolomite limestone and the blue sky. We are lucky with good weather. Based at Firenze refugio, our favourite refugio so far, this morning.We climbed up an impossible looking gully to find stairs and handrails. Handmade with timber from the local forest and we often think of the history behind the trails constructed in the 1st World War. The trail opened out into high sheep pasture and meandered past steep dropoffs to the valleys below.. The views were fabulous and we lay about for a long time. To the south is the Alpe di Siusi to the west lthe Sella group, the north the Odle group and in the distance in the east the alps of Switzerland and Austria. Once back at our refugio we thoroughly enjoyed chatting with dutchies and Swiss on the other side.
Had to check out what all the fuss was about. Venice was founded over 1,500 years ago on 117 different islands that are linked by 150 canals and around 400 bridges and pavements.
The buildings are supported by and built on oak and pine piles that are driven deep into the ground. They are secure because the soil is so water logged that there’s no free oxygen in it, so there’s no decay. We saw though that the ground floor of many of the older buildings are disused because of high tide flooding. The palaces and churches all sitting on these foundations grand as can be. It's just a matter of fighting our way through the tourists or best of all getting up very early to enjoy wandering without the throngs of people.
Another olde worlde scene with chatter and music right outside we were in Split famous for the Diocletians palace, 1700 years old, while close by in the harbour lay million dollar yachts. We hiked up hill and down past querilous farmers (trust us to get off the beaten track) to the beach for a swim. Not quite realising the big walk we had taken on called for a hitchhike to get back to town now 5 kms away with a guy explaining how the country was corrupt and a catastrophe. A trip to Zadar for a twist up the bell tower, hot cycle to the beach then a sweaty hike to the port and overnight ferry back to Anacona Italy. Whew!
After Dubrovnik where it seems the town has been given away to the tourism, Korcula has a refreshingly local people vibe, a living old town. We hired bikes for two days to explore the vineyards, olive groves and small villages, as well as the glorious old town. Sampling its wine was a top priority as the best of all Croatian whites is produced from posip grapes, which are only grown here. The grk grape, cultivated around Lumbarda, also produces quality wine. We just showed up and Lorenzo was free and very obliging in showing us his Lovric winery. He talked us through the production process and gave us samples of the white and red wine they produce which were both beautiful. Getting back on our bikes and heading for a swim in the turquoise waters afterwards to wash off the sweat was pretty special.
Kotor, another Unesco town, appealed to us for its easy bus ride from Dubrovnik, cute 14th century stone walled airbnb to stay in right in the carless old town, a place we could hike and being situated in a bay. It wasn't to get into things as it wasn't long before enjoying a coffee in our cobbled piazza with its stone buildings and alleyways. Our Airbnb shuttered windows were just above the clink of cups and murmur of chit chat. We made a foray into the food market where we sampled local smoke-dried ham and smoked cheese infused with walnuts and pistachios. It was then time to make our way up a crumbling ladder of 1350 steps to St John’s Hill, where panoramic bay views rewarded us. The towns impresive defensive fortiications snake uphill behind town in the 9th century and were gradually extended over the following 1000 years to form a protective ring around the city. Another trail took us up the Ladder of Kotor, an old military road that led to the Frontier of the time. Boasting over 70 switchbacks it had a consistent gradient ideal for trudging up the 900 m or so to the road. We started early to beat the heat, the only others we encountered on the trail a local man and his pack horse, heading down for a load of supplies to sell to the sweaty tourists making the trek in the heat of the day. On the way home the trail divides to the bastion on St John's hill that we visited the day before, in no time we were back in the old town enjoying a well deserved coffee.
The fairy tale old city we have landed in is Dubrovnik, in the middle of the Dalmatian Coast. Known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, it’s a place that is medieval and mythical. The walled-off Old City, parts of which date from the 11th century, is surprisingly intact, especially given the fact that it was a major trading center and one of the wealthiest cities in southern Europe and therefore fought over. Its Slavic people managed to fend off the Venetians, Ottomans and other empire builders in order to remain an independent city-state. (Eventually they capitulated to Napoleon.) We enjoyed wandering the 2km long walk around the city walls with its views of the sea, mountains and town life. If it weren’t for the thousands of other tourists, an afternoon wandering the Old City's steep, cobblestoned streets would feel like time travel.
I peered out at the medieval town of Matera with hundreds of caves nestled into the side of a canyon, what a special place! All along the edges of the ravine are caverns and grottoes in the limestone layers, which has been habited since the old stone age. Roman occupation, Byzantines, Lombards, Normans and that's not all. Many of the more modern houses are little more than caves as well, but others have been hand made from the limestone into proper walls, ceilings, floors, and rooms. Some of the churches we visited were mainly natural caves with heaps of atmosphere, where the well trodden shiny steps led me to imagine people worshipping. On plastered walls are the remains of Byzantine frescoes. We ambled down one of the main streets, up and down stairways zigging and zagging our way along the side of the cliff and around the paths. Many of the chambers have been long abandoned, now trashed, sad reminders of the people who lived here in poverty. However many have been refurbished as shops and art studios, cafes, bed and breakfast accommodation and museums Matera is in the flux of reinventing itself once again. A beautiful place to get lost and have no agenda.
Finding a place to stay in Amalfi took lots of research as it is touristy so finding a renovated monastery in the isolated mountain village Nocelle (450m) was a coup. We arrived on the bus that wound its way up the narrow road to spectacular views of the entire coast. A world apart from other towns it’s a sanctuary, a silent place. Tackling the Sentiero degli Dei (the path of the gods) was our goal as we set off in the cool of the early morning our hearts high as the altitude, we had it all to ourselves! Fabulous vistas way south to Capri and north to Sicily on the goat trail path in the heat of the sun contrasted with the cool of the forests. We made it to the end passing Grotta del Biscotto where abandoned centuries-old stone houses sit embedded into the cliff. Then we headed back the same way but many Sunday hikers by then making it less tranquil. Scents of thyme, laurel and rosemary as we brushed by the wild herbs growing along the path. Despite steep, uneven terrain, centuries of people have pushed forward to make the land habitable with vineyards, lemon groves and vegetable gardens terraced plots much like the paddy field's of Asia. We saw many abandoned farmlets and thought of the young people most likely wanting a different life in the city.
Buried as a time capsule under layers of pumice ash, the first thing we noticed about Pompeii was its size. Around 20,000 people lived here and the layer of ash preserved it from time, weather and looters. From the colourful frescoes and mosaics to the underground aqueducts it is all well intact. We can imagine the streets teeming with street vendors and shops with jutting cloth awnings, tavern goers, slaves, vacationers from the north and prostitutes. The paintings in the entrance to the brothel describing the different positions customers could choose from!
Inside the main city walls, we dodged the tour groups as we walked through the paved city streets. The layout is just as it would have been before the eruption, with private homes mixed in with shops, restaurants, temples, an amphitheatre and even a hotel. Indentations in the road which have been worn down by the wheels of chariots, and an early ‘beware of the dog’ sign made out of mosaic.
Julie and Jo