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My husband’s people come from vintage mountain stock. On both sides of the family there were chemists who were also hunters, mountaineers, Alpini. There was a grandmother who was pelted with stones in certain hamlets for daring to ski in trousers; an uncle who was part of the 1954 Italian expedition to K2 and led Jewish refugees and British paratroopers to safety in Switzerland through the mountains during World War II; and still another uncle who was a poet-explorer and prisoner of war in India for six years. Add to this mayors, Olympians and enough ski instructors to float an independent nation.

I look at the photographs and I see straight-backed, stubborn-lunged people who might have come into the world with a tiny pair of crampons on their feet.

My husband, who left the damp northern Italian valley town of his youth as a 16-year-old student, is that rare Italian almost devoid of nostos . The only thing he missed in his adopted town of Pensacola, Florida, was the mountains. While he was away, he would make watercolours of the ranges, evoking the expansive throne of the Carega, the 52 man-made tunnels of the Pasubio, the devil’s horn of the Cornetto. These were the peaks of the Little Dolomites, or the Prealpi, unique for dolomite rock—a kind of limestone infused with hints of rose quartz. They rise up from the plains of the Veneto, jutting to heights above 2,000m. Decades later, they remain his principal bind to the heimat, so it was inevitable that at some point in our relationship, I would be dragged up those mountains.

The place from which you begin many of the climbs in the Little Dolomites is Campogrosso, which until 1918 marked the border between the kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire. To get there you must pass the town of my mother-in-law’s birth—Recoaro Terme, where Friedrich Nietzsche got his inspiration for Thus Spoke Zarathustra, after which the crazies set in and he ended up hugging a horse in Turin. Today, the town has a faded old-world elegance. The road continues through more of these towns that seem to have been cut from the mountains, where the locals look like they’re happiest when they’re dangling off the edge of a cliff from a rope.

For a sea person, the effects of altitude can be disarming. The body grows awkward and heavy. The ears get blocked. The heart shrinks. I hoped for a gentle start but I was given the challenge of the most difficult first—Cima Carega, whose summit is 2,259m. My self-reliant husband gave me only one piece of advice before abandoning me to my challenge, “Contain thy energy".

The old Alpini trick is to keep a steady pace from start to finish, so I adopted a slow plod in the hope that a kind of meditation would set in. I walked alone, heart panting out of its paltry south Indian skin, ascending 700m. All around, small chalky white paths seemed to stretch on and on. The scenery transformed from expansive valley to suicidal rock face. Sturdy, jazzy wildflowers pushed through underfoot. Every half-hour I would glimpse my husband or one of our group. “Good, you’re still with us," they would shout, and be off again.

As I climbed, my body began to feel and sound as old and decayed as a 1980s discotheque. Boom boom. Whoosh whoosh. My ears were completely blocked. That’s odd, I thought. I can hear the sea inside me. Breath surging through me like waves. I kept focusing on the mountain hut at the summit—it was my own version of the Diamond Way, except that instead of a pinprick of light, I kept imagining a plate of pasta. There was a point at which I thought I would not be able to go any further, and then another, and finally, after clambering over a hunk of antique Habsburg wall, when I was about to offer my body as meat to some extinct predatory bird, there it was, Rifugio Fraccaroli, the mountain hut.

Was there ever a more ecstatic feeling? Nietzsche, sulky fellow, was of the opinion that nature was best enjoyed in solitude. My husband, also pretty impressive on the grump, is of this opinion too. But to me, the one redeeming outcome of a near cardiac arrest is the ability to be able to share the experience. People with whom you were only sharing pleasantries a few hours ago are suddenly whipping off their sweaty T-shirts and revealing a propensity for pig innards. Everyone glows in the light of the sun, laughing, drinking, pretending not to notice the daggers of lactic acid shooting up and down their shins. It’s all a kind of bliss, until you realize that what goes up must come down.

Among us is a Puck-like character, Ricky, who suggests we make the more challenging descent. At this stage, my street cred with the Veneti is high, so I can’t protest, although what I’m really thinking is, where’s the cable car? We go down the deceptively named Pra’ dei Angeli (Angel’s Meadows), named by one of hubby’s straight-backed ancestors, and we are in Tolkien territory now—long grasses, caves, plateaus of stone. I fumble over some rocks, creating a mini avalanche, and remember I’m supposed to shout something to warn people who might be traversing below. But instead of “Sasso, sasso", I yell “Sesso, sesso", which elicits hoots of laughter. My dyslexic Italian bugbear. Stone, sex—only a vowel differentiates them. For days afterwards, my quads shuddered if I walked up or down stairs. “We all suffer," Ricky says, cheerfully. “We call them Doberman bites."

Gino Soldà, who was part of the K2 mission. Photo: Courtesy Gino Soldà Family Archive
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Gino Soldà, who was part of the K2 mission. Photo: Courtesy Gino Soldà Family Archive


From my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Vicenza, you can see the entire range of the Little Dolomites in the distance. At breakfast, I’m quizzed about the names of the peaks. In the evenings, we watch as blistering sunsets break into Titian-pink clouds. Always, there is a discussion about the weather. Will it or won’t it be a good day for the mountains?

Over the next few weeks, I master the Veneto version of Murphy’s Law for climbing: If you carry everything, you may not need it. But what you don’t have, you will need. Our next expedition, the 52 galleries of the Pasubio, is an entirely different kind of walk—more pilgrimage than adventure.

Exactly a hundred years ago, a group of young Italian men at war—teenagers really—carved 52 tunnels into the mountain because it was the most exposed front of the Austro-Hungarian artillery. The narrow path runs for more than 6,500m and you must use a headlamp to pass—the rocks inside are slippery and can be fatal.

At the Pasubio summit is an area called the Zona Sacra (Sacred Zone), which is where most of the battles were fought. A mountain farmer sits at the top of a trench, staring at one of his sheep stuck below. The poor animal has broken its leg; it’s a powerful reminder of the 300,000 Italian and Austrian soldiers who died in the trenches of these mountains.

On the way down, we tell each other ghost stories, trying to frighten ourselves with laughter. I think of my husband’s ancestors, of Nonna Flora, who was still skiing at 82, whose mind gave way before her legs. About Cugino Gianantonio, who is in his 60s but still goes into the mountains after the rains to pick mushrooms for risotto. About the particular black truffle that is found only in the forests of these mountains, which are the doorway of memory for my mother-in-law. It is the woods themselves, the bosco, the selva, that differentiate these mountains from others. They come with their own legends—the anguana, nymph-like women who were priests of a pre-Christian matriarchal society, who were burnt as witches in the hundreds and who some say reappear as snakes. The salbaneli who accompany them—jokers and dwarves, djinns of the wood. And there is the nebbia itself—probably the most popular word in the poetry of the Veneto, because the fog arrives all of a sudden, spreading its misty fingers everywhere, transforming the mood from what is merely beautiful to what Italians like to call suggestivo.

It was on the top of the devil’s horn of Cornetto, from where I could see the spires of St Mark’s of Venice in the distance and hear the bells of cows clanking all the way down in the valley below us, that I had something of a moment. Call it spiritual if you like. “It’s a bit like our version of Dances With Wolves," Ricky said. “You have gone through our rituals and now you are one of us." What future expeditions await? Frozen waterfall climbing with ice picks, I’m told.




Fly to Venice and rent a car in Vicenza (1 hour from the Venice Marco Polo Airport). There are buses too (Vicenza-Recoaro, Recoaro-Campogrosso), but a drive lets you stop and visit the castles of Romeo and Juliet in Montecchio Maggiore on the way to Campogrosso.


Rifugio Campogrosso is the main mountain hotel/restaurant at the pass, right on the old Italian/Austrian border. Hotel Trettenero in Recoaro Terme, recently refurbished with jacuzzi on the terrace, etc., is a better, more comfortable stay, only 20 minutes down the mountain.


The Ristorante Rifugio La Guarda is the best restaurant there, offering gnocchi with fioretta (a kind of cheese).

Malga Bovetal is a good stop if you go for a day trek. It’s the one right below the Cornetto mountain and offers good polenta and locally made cheese, such as Asiago. Rifugio Fraccaroli is the one on top of Carega, where the famous dish is the pasta cimbra with bacon.


Child Friendliness êêê

From Rifugio Campogrosso to Malga Bovetal, children are welcome, but some of the treks are too tough and require expert climbing.

Senior Friendliness êêêêê

Recoaro Terme is a water thermal station aimed at the oldest customers, and Italy in general is an ageing country.

Lgbt êêê

It is a slightly conservative area. Compared to other countries in southern Europe, Italy is probably less LGBT friendly.

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