The desire to visit Italy again was driven by our love for the mountains. Glorious towering mountains, isolated and serene; a place to go and escape reality, disconnect from the modern world and feel the earth and stars move around us. I had dreamed going back on and off over the years ever since spending summers there with my family, road tripping and camping during the time we lived in Germany. The images flash through my head of beautiful countryside, tourists with fanny packs in Rome and Florence, peering off the leaning tower of Pisa, day glow sunscreen on our noses, exotic food, the smell of the streets, the flowers…and the open road.
While researching the Dolomite Mountains in Europe we came across a gorgeous photo similar to this below and immediately said, “these mountains are calling and we must GO.”
We had 16 days. The rough road trip outline would allow us to Explore the Dolomites, swing by Slovenia to visit Predjama Castle, make our way down to Plitvice National Park Croatia, then travel the coast to Split and all the way down to Ploce; hop on the ferry to Trpanj and drive the island all the way down to Dubrovnik where we would meet up with some friends from Sweden. Then return via the same route but over to Trieste, Venice, Verona, and back to Milan. A little more than two weeks to drive what looked like a very short distance turned out to be just a taste of what these amazing, espresso driven and lavender filled countries have to offer. This Post is about ITALY.
The Dolomite Mountains
After the 12 hour flight (total) to Milan, Italy and rented an Opal 4-door wagon, hopped in the car and made our way directly to the area of Valgardena in the Dolomite Mountains, which only took about 3.5 hours. (Huge thank you to my hubby who basically chugged espressos to stay awake as I napped on and off on the drive, occasionally waking up to see the amazing countryside, gorgeous vineyards lining the hills, terracing up the mountain side).
Our Hotel was a new modern hotel called Smart Hotel Saslong in Santa Cristina, the next town up from Ortisei. The Smart Hotel Saslong had an excellent European breakfast spread each morning, everything you could want from pastries, breads, meats, cheeses, eggs, yogurt, fruit, and juice and coffee. Some things to note: jams are also known as fancy mustards, croissants usually have some kind of fruit filling and they’re delish, most espresso is made by an instant coffee machine unless there is a barista, the Italian lemon cookies are the bomb, and Americans really have no clue what a good breakfast buffet looks like…sorry. But I’ll take my European breakfast over a free continental any day!
Santa Cristina Val Gardenia and Ortisei are all great jumping off points for various activities; hiking, skiing, relaxing, arts and culture. You can hike from various jumping off points in town to head up into the mountains, but we opted for starting in Ortisei. The town was peacefully quiet in the morning and slowly came to life as the sun grew stronger, it’s a quaint and adorable European town at the base of the mountain.
The town of Ortisei of South Tyrol in Northern Italy’s Val Gardenia/ Dolomite Alps… is adorable. With a small population of about 4,700 people the town has a quaint city center boasting with local artists, galleries, street art, spec vendors, wine makers and friendly tourists. The European architecture and detailed carved accents, window boxes filled with beautiful bougainvilleas, begonias, roses and tulips, the subtly of life and surrounding landscape makes you never want to leave!
We started at the main gondola area and rode the longest gondola straight to the top of Secede Val Gardena viewpoint. This had a beautiful view and took us up over the local farmland, higher up the side of the mountain and was a pretty quick ride to the top; by the time we were up we had the most amazing panoramic overlooking the entire valley! This map outlines all the lifts and taking off points from Ortisei area.
Whether you hike up or ride the gondolas there are Refuges (or Refugios) sprinkled across the hillside down the slopes of the mountain. In the winter these huts are great stopping points for skiers to recharge and during the summer they act as the perfect place to grab a beer, lay out on the yard and soak up some sun. We stopped at the Trojer Refuge, which had baby goats and chickens in a pen, a kids area and of course the Restaurant. I recommend ordering some local Germanic influenced food and grabbed a couple large beers. The staff is very friendly and wear traditional Lederhosen garb. We met a couple from Canada who was on break from Rome and exchanged taking photos while trying not to fall down the side of the mountain. After a long break lounging in the sun and contemplating wanting to stay there forever, we made our way back up to the top and caught the last gondola back down.
Another note is to make sure you come prepared with great hiking shoes, water and layers. For more info on equipment check out my Iceland Tips blog.
After exploring the mountains and town over a few days we packed up and made our way up through the highest peak of the Dolomite Mountains called Marmolada. At the top we took a small hike to a gorgeous lookout we got back in the car and winded our way down the mountain. Looking up from the backside we saw a spectacular view, hundreds of parasailers were sprinkled across the sky, one after another they jumped off the top peak and floated effortlessly down. The road was very windy on the way down but allowed for cars to pull off on side lots and take a breath, snap a photo or grab a bite at a roadside picnic table.
Driving out and down from the Dolomites took a lot longer than we had expected due to windy roads and because we decided to take a detour to a fabulous little hotel in the middle of nowhere on Misurina Lake called Grand Hotel, that I had found online and reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie set. The eerie resemblance was spot on. The hotel, sadly, was under construction so we were not able to capture it in all its colorful glory, but the mountains behind made quite a show so we took a lovely walk around the lake admiring the scenery..We wished we could jump in a paddle boat and go swim but they were all closed as we were approaching fall and sunset… as an alternative we grabbed a gelato and espresso at the local cafe and geared back up to leave.
By the end of the night we were tired and scrounging online to find a place to sleep. Just after twilight we landed in Portogruaro. A historic town with older city center with narrow cobblestone streets and filled with amazing architecture and history; including the Town Hall Palace, Lemene River, the Old Water Mill, the Cathedral and hundreds of Romanesque Archway hallways. We checked into the Hotel Spessotto, by parking on the main one way road and walking down the “no cars” road to the front entrance of the hotel, and then immediately went on the search for dinner stumbling upon another gem and had the best wine and most delicious meal ever.
Antica Locanda al Campanile, is a must! The whole menu was in Italian, we had no idea what was what and it didn’t matter because it was all a beautiful experience. All the seafood the waitress called “Fish”, including shrimp and crab. Everything else was “chicken” or “vegetable” and I don’t eat shrimp so of course I managed to order just that, which I ate anyway and it was Heaven!! The wine tasted full of earth and love, and the whole place screamed romance and luxury in a quaint home-cooking kind of way. Check it out here.
By morning the city was bright and cheerful and bustling with bikers, daily commuters and workers. Portogruaro turned to be quite fascinating. The original part of town has two principal streets running parallel and the old city is surrounded by a wall with 5 giant arched gate entrances, 3 of which still exist. The highest building is the Belltower, built in 1414, and can be seen from anywhere in town but is also a bit askew. I would think so after how long it’s been standing, it reminded me of the leaning tower of Pisa. In the morning after breakfast we spent some time exploring the main square and walked the streets and then was transfixed by the tunneling arch hallways toward the main gate of Torre Santa Agnese and how many beautiful bikes there were. This place is a must stop on your next Italian adventure for sure!
Trieste is a gorgeous Adriatic sea-side Ancient Roman city on the Italian, Slovenian and Croatian coastline bursting with life and culture. Heavily influenced by Italian, Hungarian and Slavic cultures it was one of the most important seaports all the way up to the 19th century and a highly underrated travel destination. I really wish we had more time to explore here, we stumbled upon this beauty while driving back from Croatia toward the end of our trip and sadly on a time crunch. We also arrived the day before the Barcelona Regatta. Thousands of yachts were making way to arrive in Trieste and the city was covered in amazing paraphernalia and street vendors and local cheese and flower markets.
The one night we had in Trieste was beautiful and simple, we stayed at a hostel-type hotel in the city square that had no local parking or restaurant but had everything we needed close by. Note: keep extra cash handy as we found a few place here that did not take card and also, a local helped us feel better saying don’t feel bad for not tipping, or tipping small, it is not their custom as it is in the states. They are all well paid.
Verona was a quick trip as well, we were in and out of the town in under 3 hours and only had time to grab a bite to eat in the main square across from Arena and then walked down to the Romeo & Juliete House and balcony. As a main attraction in Verona, this Shakespearean legendary area was packed with people. The love wall leading into the house is covered in gum and love notes from visitors all over the globe. (I read online that this will be banned or has been banned and no food or drink are now allowed in the courtyard). Legend says if you rub the breast of Juliet you will receive good luck! In turn her upper body is shinier than her lower, however, being a little overwhelmed by the number of people we opted to snap a few photos and then be on our way but it was a fun side adventure worth stopping by.
Check out my separate post about Venice here and the amazing 3 days we spent exploring the floating city. So much to do and never enough time.
Thanks for stopping by and until next time, Adventure On Y’all