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Travel: Peak friendship on a stunning walking trip to the Italian Dolomites

© Werner DejoriWalking in the Italian Dolomites.
Walking in the Italian Dolomites.

To mark a milestone birthday (no, I’m not confessing which one), the bucket-list destination I favoured most was none other than Val Gardena in the Italian Dolomites.

Despite the fact that I’d only just visited this tranquil gem for the first time earlier in spring, the South Tyrolean showstopper had quickly become a firm favourite. Crucially, too, the UNESCO World Heritage range’s most renowned natural wonder saves itself till autumn when, by all accounts, the Burning Dolomites promised to be even more aglow than my inferno of birthday cake candles.

If, like me, you end up inspired to follow in the footsteps of famous artists, writers, adventurers, photographers and philosophers who repeatedly return to this verdant valley, captivated by its bewitching beauty, then as soon as you set eyes on the enigmatic Alpine peaks and pinnacles, you’ll come to understand their irresistible draw.

The Dolomites

These monumental massifs, often tantalisingly enshrouded in veils of cloud, have a magnetic personality all of their own – powerfully charismatic and awe-inspiring, with an underlying frisson of unfathomable danger, which I doubt even frequent visitor Sigmund Freud ever got to the bottom of.

A nature lover all my life, there is nowhere I feel more nurtured than enveloped by a landscape that will never truly be tamed. And there was no-one better to share this momentous occasion than with my close childhood chum, Elaine, whom I’ve known since she was born as our mums were besties, too.

Bridget with childhood friend Elaine Weir. © SYSTEM
Bridget with childhood friend Elaine Weir.

Giddy on adrenalin for our hiking holiday together, we were up bright and early the morning after arrival to meet our guide and the rest of our small but enthusiastic walking group for a full-day descent below iconic, sheer-sloped Sassolungo via the Plans de Frea.

Terrific value for money, two guided walks are included in each seven-day Inghams package as well as flights, accommodation, airport transfers and the services of a helpful rep, while selected Val Gardena Active member hotels like ours provide extra complimentary activities from yoga to bike tours along with a tourist card for free local public transport.

We had been warmly welcomed at the friendly, family-owned Hotel Mignon, where we loved the excellent four-course dinners and generous buffet breakfasts as well as our stylish, spacious suite with stunning balcony views of Selva’s flower-box chalets and surrounding amphitheatre of mountains.

The family-owned Hotel Mignon in Sëlva, Val Gardena.
The family-owned Hotel Mignon in Sëlva, Val Gardena.

Just a short stroll to the Ciampinoi cable car, the cost of the €18 ticket was well worth the swift shortcut to the summit. My husband wouldn’t have enjoyed the journey as he isn’t keen on heights, but to us, it was exhilarating, silently sailing over rooftops and stomach-flipping cliff edges. Despite being blessed with sun and blue skies, the temperature dropped significantly at 2,250m and I was glad of extra layers packed in my rucksack, along with water, sun cream and a cap for when it got hotter.

Taking the climb

First stop was the unmissable viewpoint, a launch-pad for high-thrill sports like paragliding, mountain biking and World Cup ski races in winter. It’s also ideal for panoramic photos of the vivid-green, forest-covered slopes and Val Gardena’s three main postcard-pretty villages – Selva, Santa Cristina and Ortisei, known not just for their wood-carving traditions, but unique Ladin language.

In our walking group of mixed nationalities, ages, couples, friends, siblings, solos and even one dog, the pace was steady and relaxed, with occasional stops as the guide pointed out wildflowers or wildlife. Chatter was convivial and a cappuccino with heart-shaped chocolate sprinkles more than welcome at a remote rifugio with sink-into beanbags on the sunny terrace.

Any worries that I’d find it difficult to keep up with more athletic walkers were slowly dissipating, cosseted by the fresh air, spell-binding scenery, cheerful chirp of marmots and seductive scent of pine. It was the gentle introduction I needed to enthralling days of long hikes – as energetic or easy as you liked.

By the end of our eight-mile descent past crystal-clear rivers, flower-filled meadows, shaded leafy forests and bilingual signs in German and Italian, we were toasting new friendships made with Sandy and Leanne from New Zealand, clinking Aperol and Limoncello spritzers while sharing laughs and anecdotes. We enjoyed walking and socialising with them throughout our holiday and are still in touch today.

Our second guided hike through Passo Sella past Rock City boulders should have included the infamous coffin lift for those brave enough to jump aboard the rustic, rectangular cubicles swinging unnervingly in the breeze to the dizzy heights of Forcella del Sassolunga at 2,685m. Disappointingly closed due to high winds just as we got there, family-run Toni Demetz Rifugio, built by a heroic father in memory of his son who was tragically killed alongside a tourist by a lightning bolt on the remote location, is reputed to be a very special place with incredible vistas.

Towering mountains above the beautiful grassy plain. © Lukas Runggaldier
Towering mountains above the beautiful grassy plain.

If the weather turns bad or you need a rest one day, charming Bolzano, around an hour’s free bus ride down the valley, is an ideal day visit for the museums, restaurants and historic old town with its arcade shops.

A definite must-see from September onwards, when the larch trees blaze golden and orange, the enrosadira or Burning Dolomites that these mystical Pale Mountains are famous for is well worth a challenging climb to breathtaking vantage points like lofty Alpe Juac with its reverent cross. Framed in the haloed- heavens, an endless, other-worldly horizon of serrated, skyward-soaring summits slowly set alight by the fiery, blood-red sunset, is an unforgettable phenomenon that may just lure you back one day even sooner than you imagined.

P.S. Marmolada, also known as the Queen of the Dolomites, is the highest mountain of the Dolomites. It lies between the borders of Trentino and Veneto. The Marmolada was first climbed by Paul Grohmann in 1864, along the north route. The south face was climbed for the first time in 1901 by Beatrice Tomasson, Michele Bettega and Bartolo Zagonel.


Inghams offers seven nights’ half board at Hotel Mignon, Selva Val Gardena, Italy, flying from Edinburgh on August 7, 2024 from £1,329 pp based on two adults sharing. All flights, transfers and two guided walks are included. An Inghams Walking kids-fly-free offer is available to new bookings on selected Italy packages throughout July and August.

A complimentary tourist card covers buses, trains, funicular railways and some cable cars. Visit

Holiday Extras is the market leader in UK airport parking, hotels, lounges and transfers. Seven nights’ parking at Edinburgh Airport on August 7, 2024 is available from £63