The Dolomites for Seniors

It  was hot  – too hot – in southern France, and much of the world this summer. Day after day.  Week after week.  I had to escape.  The mountains called.  I chose Italy’s Dolomites, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) from our abode in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France.  We made the drive in two days, less stress for seniors, with an overnight stop in Brescia. 

Brescia for an overnight stop and beer break. City cathedral in background,

As a passionate skier (sadly those days are over), I knew some of the Dolomite’s famous slopes, including the renowned Sella Ronda, a 500 -kilometer ski circuit.  It stretches through four valleys around the Sella mountain which are also connected by road passes.   And, I remembered a challenging ascent to the Adamello, a 11,000-foot peak, many, many years ago.  I was eager to return to these mighty mountains – even without the challenges and excitement of bygone days.

This would be a Dolomites for Seniors trip. I am not as fit as I was in younger days, and husband Bob is struggling with Alzheimer. No overnights in mountain huts for us. No all-day killer hikes. Not even strenuous 1/2 day treks. Been there. Done that. We would take leisurely walks and drive – not hike -through the heights. Thanks to tips from friend Noel and his Italian buddy Fabio, we stayed in a lovely, if not luxurious, apartment in the town of La Villa.  My  friend Karen was with us.

Unlike us, Karen is a very fit senior and dedicated walker.  She set off every morning for two-hour hikes.  Bob does not move too quickly in the morning.  While Karen hiked, I got Bob up, dressed and breakfasted.  When she came back,  we were ready for adventure at a slow, senior pace.

My trusty new Suzuki Swift, Poppy, was the perfect mountain car.  Agile, responsive and fun.  She took those curves like a champ, and they were endless. Not quite like my beloved Porsche, but that too was a different era.

We drove the Sella Ronda route, up and down, switchback after switchback. Fortunately, there are places to pull off for photos.  During our week in these rugged mountains, I went photo crazy.   I could not resist.  Every view was a postcard.

While Bob and I are not up to strenuous treks, we figured we could try a gentle mountain walk.  We followed the advice of a local and set off on a trail  to  the hut/rifugio, Munt Pasciantado. The jaunt was not exactly senior flat as we had been led to believe. There is no such thing in the Dolomites.  Yet, it was pleasant and the goulash lunch at the rifugio was delicious. Goulash, not pasta, in Italy?

We were in South Tyrol, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian.  The region borders Austria to the north, and was part of Austria-Hungary until it was annexed by Italy after World War I. There are three official languages:  Italian, German and Ladin. The latter is an ancient Rhaeto-Romance dialect derived from popular Latin and spoken by just four percent of the population. Ladin is also spoken in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland.

Most everyone in Sud Tyrol is  bilingual, and most Ladins are tri-lingual. We were in the southern part where more Italian than German is spoken, yet there is much that is Germanic, such as the  architecture and food.  

We had another fun and tasty rifugio interlude at Rifugio Valparola at the top of a mountain pass where  more German specials were on the menu: Bratwurst, potato salad and apple strudel. The cozy ambience was 100 % gemütlich, almost like being back in Germany. Hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists savoured their accomplishments and replenished themselves after strenuous activity. We had not earned those calories, but we still enjoyed. I even went for the Italian finale:  Grappa.  The rifugio has 10 different flavors of this fiery brew, all homemade.  I followed the owner’s suggestion and went for Cirolo Zirm, delicious, although I have no idea what the flavor was.

The rifugio was on our route to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort that is part  of Dolomiti Superski, the largest ski area in the world.  We were disappointed. in the town, but the drive was spectacular.

We could not hike to the peaks, but we could ride.  From Corvara, just a few kilometers from our apartment in La Villa, we rode a gondola then a chairlift to a windblown, barren area with super views of surrounding mountains and endless photo opps. Getting off a moving chairlift with no boards attached to your feet and no snow on the ground can be tricky — at least for some seniors. We conquered, but with senior angst.

The part of Sud Tryol around the Sella Massif is Ladinia, the heart of the Dolomites where 30,000 Ladins live. In addition to their language,  they have their own culture, traditions and culinary specials.  Since food is a travel highlight for me,  I was eager to try  Ladin cuisine.

Claudine Saltuari, a manager at our apartment complex (www.dolomit.it), suggested an agriturismo, Maso Runch. We have been to many agriturismi over the years, usually rustic farms which offer simple local food and lodging.  This one was especially popular, and only with Claudine’s assistance could we get a reservation.

It was like no other agriturismo – china, crystal and fine wines – and more popular with seniors than the younger set. The food was copious, course after course.  Following a hearty barley soup, we tasted three different kinds of tutres, pastry filled with spinach, sauerkraut or potatoes. Both are popular in the Ladin kitchen.


Next came a pasta course, ravioli filled with spinach.  And more — multiple platters with goulash, pork shank, polenta, sauerkraut, fried potatoes.   We were stuffed, but could not pass on the dessert: Apple fritters with ice cream.  After all that, a digestif Grappa was in order.    

For more about the Ladins, we visited the Museum Ladin Ciastel de Tor in the town of Badia – good senior activity. The informative and well-presented displays are housed in an ancient, restored castle.    For centuries Ladins lived somewhat isolated in this terrain of steep, rocky slopes.  They were poor, living off the harsh land.  Things began to change with more skiers and hikers discovering the attractions and beauty of the Dolomites.  Tourism brought opportunity for an easier life.  As they began to intermarry and intermingle, preserving the language became challenging. In Ladinia, children learn both German and Italian in school, and Ladin three times per week.

We found cool and delightful temperatures in the Dolomites – and much more.  No need to be a hardcore athlete to appreciate the Dolomites. Even old folks can enjoy this awesome region.

Scroll down for more photos.

When the sun is shining, sunset in the Dolomites is magnificent.
Same mountain as above. Dolomite clouds can also be spectacular.
I had a fun chat in German with this gentleman at a local products market in the nearby town of San Cassiano, a cute and classy village.
Church in San Cassiano
Apple Strudel. We could not get enough of this favorite which the French have not mastered. Several afternoons we did the German ritual, Kaffe und Kuchen (strudel). But, Italians not forgotten. Sometimes we opted for the Italian custom: Late afternoon apero with savoury snacks.

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A magical meal in Italy

I felt I should have been reporting for  Bon Appétit magazine.  It was one of those fabulous food and people spreads – a multi-course meal in the huge, homey kitchen of a 500-year-old house in a tiny Italian village shared by Italians and Americans.  And, I was lucky enough to be part of it.  Too good to be true.cucina7

Thanks to our friends Noel and Carol, whom husband Bob and I know from our days together in Germany, we were included in this memorable feast which went on for five fun-filled hours.  Noel and Carol have retired to northern Italy where they enjoy la dolce vita.  We were their houseguests.

Carol and Noel
Carol and Noel

The lunch hosts:  Fabio and his American wife Victoria.  Fabio is a vintner (www.policreti.it)  with a passion for precious gems as well as grapes.  He has been trading in gem stones since the age of 18, worked for the up market jeweler Bulgari in New York as well as in Italy, and is also dedicated to restoring his

Fabio
Fabio

family’s ancient home, Palazzo Policreti Negrelli in Aviano, which has 47 rooms and has been in his family for more than 200 years. The original owner, engineer Luigi Negrelli , played a significant role in the construction of the  Suez Canal.

Fabio  met his warm and gracious wife  Victoria in California.  She is employed by a German construction company as a translator and much more.  “I am lucky to have an American wife,” says Fabio.  “Italian women often have headaches or give you headaches.”

The guests: In  addition to me and Bob, Noel and Carol, seated at the table were  Riccardo and Zeta, two jolly Italian characters who have known each other since the age of 3, met Fabio  in Los Angeles years ago, and call themselves “professional  travelers.”    Riccardo said he “doesn’t belong to one place,” while Zeta calls himself  “a man of the planet.”   ”We can’t retire, we don’t work,” explained burly Riccardo, who says he has four wives, each in a different country, and claims his only possessions are “an old car and a bicycle.”

Riccardo
Riccardo

Zeta, a chef,  does work six months out of the year at his brother’s restaurant in Greenville, S. C. “When Zeta visits us the first question is ‘what’s on the menu?’  His creations are famous at our hose,” says Fabio. “Instead of making a grocery list, he just looks in the refrigerator and his imagination begins to spin.  He can literally put together a feast by using all the various items which have been abandoned in our frig.  Needless to say, I like to work around him as there is always something to learn or a new taste to discover.”

Zeta
Zeta

The food: Zeta was the coach, Fabio the student who made a big patch of Ligurian pesto with guidance from the chef.  They wanted to share their creation with friends, hence the lunch party.

The French are obsessed with food — Italians perhaps even more so.  Most Italian men cook, Fabio told us, as he checked the boiling pasta for texture.  “A cucina10big part of the day is based on food,” he said.  And, it  is essential that ingredients  be of top quality, he explained.  He claims that Victoria  is “thankful to me for showing her the true secrets of Italian cooking improvisation.”

A refreshing cocktail, a combination of Campari, white wine, Prosecco, and Schweppes, got  the afternoon of to a festive start.

The meal began with fresh ricotta, so creamy and delicate, served with homemade mango chutney and caramelized figs with balsamic vinegar.  The cheese was locally produced, and it was exquisite with the tangy chutney and figs.  There was a platter of prosciutto from the local butcher who cures it cucina1himself, we learned.  And a salad — greens, tomatoes and  luscious mozzarella di Bufala with pungent olive oil from Puglia and black salt from Cypress.  The main course:  trofiette, a  Ligurian pasta,  with the pesto which had been prepared with pecorino.  “Never use parmesan,”  insisted Fabio.

This was followed by a bowl of spaghettini  with the same pesto.  The flavor of the pesto changes with the different type of pasta, we learned.  It seemed hard to cucina2believe, but it was true.  I preferred the pesto on trofiette, others liked the spaghettini  version.  This initiated an animated  discussion of the difference between trofiette and trennette, another type of pasta… Food is definitely serious business in Italy.

For dessert, aged Sardinian pecorino and pears. “It’s hard to get good pears…these are organic from Trentino… Never tell a farmer he has good cheese.  Then he will eat it all, ”  said Riccardo. The cheese was knock-your-socks- off strong.  I loved it, but it was too much for Bob.    He had several  helpings  of the  perfectly diced fresh strawberries that followed.  This prompted Fabio to tell of his cucina6grandmother’s fantastic crop of strawberries in 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster.  A boost from radiation?

He went on to relate more engaging tales of his grandmother, a remarkable woman who  “was a very special person to me.”   She lived through two great wars,  suffered the tragic deaths of several family members, but was always a positive and smiling person, Fabio recalled.  “She was the oldest car rally driver in 1996 at the age of 95.  I was the only person brave enough to be her co-pilot.”’

Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.
Fabio and his grandmother in 1996.

We drank Fabio’s Pinot Grigio, followed by a strong red wine called Stroppolatini, then a Sud Tyrol Kerner as an after dinner wine.  Some indulged cucnia9n a rare 45-year–old herb Grappa to top off the meal.  There were also chocolates, courtesy of Riccardo who brought them from a special shop in the Dolomites.

All the ingredients for a magical afternoon:  lively ambience,  fascinating personalities, excellent food and  amusing, entertaining, educational conversation  covering  everything from religion and politics, to the economy, movies — and food of course.

“Italians lose interest in politics,” Victoria said.  “That’s the problem.  They’d rather discuss food.”cucina13

Just in time for summer picnics, Super Slaw.  See recipe in column at right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right