Italy: Santa Maddalena in the Dolomites

It’s ridiculous that it has taken me a year and a half to post these pictures, but then again, consider the year and a half it’s been. Or better yet, time travel back with me to simpler days, and consider the pre-pandemic bliss of a snowy stay in the Dolomites…

I don’t think I had even heard of the Dolomites mountain range until the Instagram era. Then, I saw the same jaw-dropping image of this one spectacularly situated church again and again, and I said to myself, I want to go there, wherever there is.

I had to look it up, and I found out that the Dolomites are in the Tyrol region of Northern Italy. I thought I would go one summer in the distant future, but then the opportunity to visit during a winter vacation in Europe came up, and I changed my plans.

Getting to the part of the Dolomites in the picture, i.e. the Val di Funes, via public transportation is not that complicated, but it’s hard to figure it out online, and the Internet led me to believe it might be impossible to do. But when I contacted the hotel I wanted to book if I could actually make it there (the truly wonderful Hotel Tyrol), they gave me directions that were fairly straightforward and affordable. I took the train to Bressanone / Brixen (the former the Italian name, the latter the German name, because everything is in two languages this close to the Austrian border) and then caught Bus 330, which at that time was running every hour (turns out there is a schedule online, here). I called the hotel to let them know I was on my way, and about a half hour later, when I hopped off at the Santa Maddalena-Filler stop, the hotel owner was there to pick me up and drive me up the very steep hill to the hotel.

It was hands-down the most stunning bus stop I have ever have the pleasure to arrive at or depart from.

The hotel was an experience in itself. Fairly recently renovated, it had the feeling of a low-key yet upscale Tyrolean lodge. It was both modern and traditional at the same time. (It’s one of the buildings up the hill, below.)

Because it was too late in the day to go back out into the snow, I quickly set about partaking of the offerings: an outdoor hot tub with a view to the snow-capped mountains; a glass-walled room that faced those mountains, in which you could wear a spa robe, sip mountain herb-infused tea, and read magazines on lounge chairs in pin-drop silence;…

…a dining room that set out to one-up every awe-inspiring breakfast and dinner spread I had experienced thus far; and the room itself, which was timber-clad, stylish, exceptionally cozy, and somehow under 100 Euros a night.

Of course I’m going to show you more food than you need or want to see:

Some places make adaptations for people with dietary restrictions. Others go beyond simply accommodating — they create meals that ensure food parity, as it were. This was one of those places. They had gluten-free options for every course of every meal, and the options must have been just as delicious as the non-gluten-free ones, because I couldn’t see how they could have improved upon what I ate.

The next morning, I slip slided up an icy-muddy path behind the hotel to an adorable church that was similar to but not exactly the one of my Instagram dreams, which I intended to visit later.

It was really shocking to me that a tiny village had a church so ornate and opulent.

Afterwards, I set out for the top of the jagged mountain ridge visible in every picture of the Val di Funes. I went back to the bus stop and took the bus up the mountain for a half hour. Near the top, I hopped out and had lunch at a very cute traditional restaurant, and then I rented a toboggan from them.

I had never tobogganed before, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been sledding (if at all), so I asked the guy at the restaurant how to use the reins, how to brake, and so forth. He didn’t speak English, so all I got were a few hand and foot motions and a mimed assurance that there was nothing to it. (There most certainly was.)

At first I was on a fairly flat part of the mountain trail, and I could only get my little sled to move by pushing it along with my feet like kids who have those new wheelless training bikes. Embarrassingly, a family of two parents, one per sled and each with a kid sitting between their legs, zoomed past me as though this were the safest and easiest sport in the world. The funny thing is that they zoomed both past me and past the sign below.

When I finally reached this part of the trail, where it was sloped enough to pick up any speed, I went from 0 to 60 in seconds (though admittedly the 60 was in kilometers per hour, not miles). I felt pretty sure I would fly off the trail into a ravine at every bend, and because Europe does not take American precautions to limit liability, I almost did fly off the un-guard-railed trail quite a few times. It felt like Olympic slalom skiing. Once I got over the fear of death and dismemberment, it became really fun and thrilling. (Taking the picture below very nearly killed me.)

The trail ended in this huge snowy field with what looked like a Russian Orthodox church.

So many tourists “doing it for the ‘gram” had been visiting the church over the past few years that a community member installed a fence around it and started charging admission via an automated system that doesn’t actually work (I know, because I tried to use it). Long story short, instead of visiting the (locked) church, I was granted viewing but not photographing privileges of some hundreds-of-years-old murals in the villa of the mother of the son who charged admission but then went off somewhere with the only key to the church and was nowhere to be found.

From that church I walked back to the hotel and then up the tiny path to the church with the view that I had planned my whole trip around. When I finally got there, I sat down on the bench that had in all likelihood been installed after Instagram made this spot in the middle of nowhere a global destination, and I just stared and stared and stared. I don’t want to say it was the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen, because who can really make that call, but I can say that I have never seen a more beautiful view. And I probably never will — unless I come back in summertime.

I’ve got one more installation to this Austro-Hungarian Empire (lite) travelogue — featuring the small towns of the Dolomites that I spent like an hour each in on my way back to Zurich. It was an epic trip, so I suppose it’s fitting that I’m dragging its retelling out as though it were an epic tale.

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