Italy’s Spectacular Dolomite Mountainsby ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours is bringing back one of our favorite tours in 2010, Bicycling Venice and the Dolomites. This northern Italian mountain range offers some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve seen anywhere in the world. So unique is this area that in 2009 it was named one of two natural UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy. Here’s an introduction to the history and natural assets of this special area.
In 1887, 17-year-old George Winkler first soloed the sheer 2821 meter (9,225 foot) Die Vajoletturme, starting a tradition of free climbing in the Dolomites. But if free climbing isn’t your thing, the Dolomites offer ample opportunities for hiking, bouldering, skiing, mountain climbing, paragliding, hang gliding, base jumping – and of course, bicycling.
The vast majority of the alluring, jagged Dolomite features are made of limestone sediment deposits from an ancient, tropical sea. Several of the main groups in the western Dolomites (including the Marmolada, Sassolungo, and the lower part of the Gruppo Sella, among others) were once ancient shallow-water banks and islands. A present-day example of what this area once resembled would be the Maldives or Bahamas’ archipelagos. Fossils of once vibrant sea life – algae, corals and marine invertebrates – turn up imprinted in the Dolomitic rock, suggesting the area may once have supported a coral reef.
This ancient sea formed a mountain chain that stretches nearly 1200 kilometers from France’s Cote d’Azur to Yugoslavia. The Italian Dolomites are a significant chunk of this alpine chain. Dotted throughout are 14 mountain massifs (a large mountain mass or group of mountains that create their own section of a range). These massifs are separated by lush valleys, tall passes and the Isarco, Adige, Piave and Avisio Rivers.WWI changed the physical landscape of the Dolomites – and the lives of its people. The high alpine residents were caught in the middle of a battle between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Italy entered the war in 1915, siding with England, France and Russia and against the Austro-Hungarians, bitter warfare was raged on mountaintops and passes from spring of 1915 to autumn of 1917. Both sides vied for defensible locations on high peaks which were ruthlessly defended in the dark of winter and despite major loss of life. In the winter of 1916, ten meters of snow pummeled the Dolomites and over 10,000 lives were claimed in avalanches.Sadly, there was no winning this horrible war, but the evidence of the struggle still exists today in the form of mine explosions that altered the natural landscape, trenches, tunnels, rusted barbed wire and even remainders of boots, cans from food and clothing.Nowadays, the region embraces a peaceful present and prospers mainly through tourism. Modern tourism took flight in the mid-19th century as British scientists and mountain climbers discovered the region – and today people still flock throughout the summer months to bike the passes, hike the vie ferrate and in the colder months to ski.
One of the most popular destinations is the impressive Sella Massif or Gruppo Sella. Evidence of early human presence in the valley exists in a mountain path bridging Laion and Passa Gardena. The path serves as proof that during the last millennium B.C.E. this area was not only occupied but was part of a commerce route from iron mines in the east to the Valle Isarco. The Romans trickled into the area starting in 15 B.C.E With it’s a lush valley dominated by craggy peaks, the highest of which is Marmolada which towers at 3343 meters (10,968 feet), it’s no wonder that humans throughout time have been drawn to this area.Today ExperiencePlus! customers who join our bicycle tour in Italy’s Veneto and Dolomites trip are offered the opportunity and challenge of circumnavigating the Sella Massif via four passes — Sella/Sellajoch, Passo Gardena/Grödner-Joch, Campolongo and Pordoi. This panoramic bicycle journey is known as the Sellaronda and is one of the most popular and well-known bike rides in Italy. In fact, every July the area is invaded by cyclists who arrive from over 43 nations to ride in the Dolomites Marathon or, La Maratona. The first Maratona was held on July 12, 1987 and 166 riders zoomed over seven Dolomite passes. Since then, the number of participants in this bicycle ride has grown to 9,000 – a mix of amateurs and professionals watched by thousands of fans who cheer from the sidelines or watch the event live from their living rooms. We won’t have the crowds of cheering fans on our July 21- 28th Dolomites trip but you will have tour leaders nearby to offer you plenty of encouragement, water or a snack.A testament to the significance and impressive mountains, UNESCO granted the Dolomites World Heritage Site status in 2009, ensuring future generations of visitors can experience these stunning mountains behind the lens of a camera, and from the seat of a touring bike. Join us in July.