Through The Dolomites In Winter

It was not for the sake of reaching Italy through snow and ice that I sledged through the Dolomites in winter, though that – would be a powerful stimulus; it was even more for the sake of seeing the region when there were only stretches of cold and solitary loneliness. In the warmer months the pass is so thronged with motors and carriages that one can scarcely see the mountains for the dust, but in winter there are only the local inhabitants, in their isolated villages, and here and there some visiting enthusiast of toboggan or ski.

The Dolomites are part of the Eastern Alps, and so far to the eastward that they are not under the government of Switzerland, but are part Austrian, part Italian. They are mountains of remarkable beauty, mountains of peculiarly jagged and pointed peaks, mountains whose rocks are of strikingly varied colors. They are not of the very highest Alps; their loftiest peak rises eleven thousand feet; on a clear day they can be seen from distant Venice, rising fine and clear on the horizon.

I entered the Dolomites from the Austrian town of Toblach, which is easily reached from either Innsbruck or Vienna. It was the second year in which I had gone there in winter, and on both occasions the cold at Toblach was intense, and the snow there, and for miles southward, was from five to seven feet in depth on the level and vastly deeper in drift-filled hollows.

I started from Toblach at half-past seven in the morning, and, translated into terms of Fahrenheit, it was two degrees below zero, but fortunately there was no wind. “Drink hot milk; never brandy; brandy makes a man hot first, but then cold,” was the friendly advice of the few bystanders who had gathered to see the sledge start off through the dim half-light into the snowy distance.

In a few minutes I was in the heart of a great loneliness. Toblach itself is four thousand feet above the sea, and on either side of the valley, through which the road goes twistingly, mountains rise for thousands of feet higher, incredibly sheer and’ fantastic. The dry, crisp, powdery snow was of spot less white. The forests of fir were deep and somber. Shadows in the snow were of a blue I have seen nowhere else save in the water of the Grotto of Capri.

Here and there were footprints of wild four-footed haunters of these silences, and spots fluffed by the wings of some bird.

There was a dim and shadowy dawn, but although the light would steadily become brighter and stronger it would be three hours before the sun itself could be seen from this deep-set valley, though long before that the high-hemming heights would be shimmering gloriously.

And even though there was deep snow, many a scarred and wrinkled precipice was bare, and showed its rich coloring of jet black, of silver, of white, of ochre and copper, of bright yellow, of purple, of red.

The sledge was so low as almost to give the impression of sitting on a board. The tails of the horses seemed high above! In an American sleigh the seat is like a chair, but on a Dolomitian sledge your feet must go out almost straight.

A little stream was crossed, and I noticed that in spite of the cold it was not frozen. “No,” said the driver, “that never freezes. It is warmer in winter than in summer. Soon you will come to where it is smoking!” And soon, indeed, it was actually sending up a cloud of steam beside the road.

It is a region of avalanches; there is terror here as well as beauty. I passed a spot where, only two days before, a tremendous avalanche had come overwhelmingly down from the jagged heights, sweeping bare a wide swath in its descent. The mass of debris lay in the bed of the valley, but on the lower slopes of the opposite side from that of the avalanche great trees had been thrown down by the score, though it was clear that the avalanche had not touched them. There seemed no reason for it, and I looked to the driver for an explanation.

“It was not the avalanche but the wind from it,” said he; “the wind sent upward on this side as the avalanche struck the bottom. It was as the air in a gun,” he added, explanatorily.

“Some avalanches, they come slow, slow,” he continued, out of the depths of his avalanche experiences, “and some, like this, come fast, like the wind. And it is toward the end of February and in the early days of March that avalanches most commonly come.”

Many of the trees had been thrown right across the road, which was a little above the bottom of the valley on the side away from the avalanche, and a party of soldiers had chopped the way clear; for this is a military road, and must not at any time be impassable.

From the cliffs hang masses of huge icicles, which from time to time come crashingly down; it is usually when exposed to the afternoon sun that the icicles fall, and the special danger time is from two to four o’clock.

It is an ancient road, this; it was for ages a great highway of commerce, and remained so until the coming of railways took traffic away from this unrailroaded region. In the past what bales of silk, what spices and gems, what merchandise of every sort passed over this Strada d’Allemagna; what travelers and merchants, what armies! And perhaps, as showing the indefinable interest that attaches to merchandise from distant and unknown regions, I may mention that at a solitary gast-haus I saw a box labeled with the name of a Michigan fly-paper!

It was fascinating, this road that was a long channel sunk in the deep snow. There was exhilaration in the air. The mountains took on a sumptuous splendor in the mild glitter of sunlight. “Drink deep of the pleasures of shelter”? Yes! But it is fortunate that we may also drink deep of the outdoor pleasures of such a mountain road and such a day.

Ceasing to follow the valley, I found the road mounting and twisting and leading beside great chasms, and offering superbly far-sweeping views. If a high wind had risen or if snow had begun to fall-and it sometimes covers, they will tell you, three feet in an hour-it would have been wise to stay for a while at one of the isolated inns that are open all the year for the accommodation of soldiers, mail carriers, men of the countryside villages. But the weather continued clear and windless, and I merely stopped once in a while, for a few minutes, to warm myself and drink of the bitter coffee of the countryside. It was served as a compromise between stronger drink and hot milk, and its price, expressed in our money, was about two cents a cup.

In all such inns, in winter time, one has the interesting experience of being shown, not into the rooms for tourists, for that part of the house is now closed, but into the natural living-rooms of the people themselves. At one side will be a great stone stove, set lengthwise, and generally with its stoking door opening into the hallway. A wooden bench is set close against it; sometimes a bed is placed on top!

It was seldom that I met any other traveler; but once, at a stretch of road that was fittingly lonely and grim and stern, I passed a prisoner, marched through the beaten-down snow of the road between two berifled and behelmeted soldiers. He was charged with theft, they told me; and he stood miserably shuffling and stamping, as they stopped to talk with me-a winter visitor being a longed-for break in monotony–and he was gaunt and cold and wretched enough to insure conviction by any plump and well-warmed magistrate.

There were miles and miles of superb loneliness, and I think the effects were finer in the suffused light than they would have been had the sun been shining directly into the valley. There were miles and miles of silence and solitude, broken at rare intervals by coming upon a tiny snow-bound village, with roofs covered deep with snow, with tunnel-like paths cut through the snow, with fir trees emerging out of the snow, with snow, snow everywhere and a general effect as of being quite cut off from the world.

Though it was cold, the ride was not disagreeable. The absence of wind had much to do with this. And as the hours passed the cold gradually lessened.

By noon I came to a delightfully situated town, with its snow-covered houses nestled at the foot of snow-clad slopes and peaks.

Cortina, this-but how different from the familiar Cortina of summer!-Cortina d’Ampezzo-the Magnificent Commune of Ampezzo, as the appreciative Venetians named it when they took possession of this region five centuries ago. But the place is Austrian now.

One never becomes fully accustomed to the contradictions of these mountains. Here, at an altitude somewhat higher than that of Toblach, the sun at mid-day shone with such warmth as to melt snow in the streets, and I ate a delightful luncheon in an oriel-windowed alcove, heated by the genial sunlight alone.

I walked up some of the mountain roads and reveled in effects of snowy glory and white loveliness, and returned to the inn at evening with the fierce cold creeping wolfishly down again from the heights. Now there was a fire in the dining room and a great fire was heating my bedroom, and I found that, not content with giving me the usual brass hot-water jar of winter Europe, the warmhearted hostess had put in two, making the bed a thing of coziness. Of the many hotels of Cortina, this was the only one that was open, all the rest being closed and empty. There is always one, even in small and isolated towns, for local and military custom.

There is a pretty general belief among Americans not only that we are the people and political wisdom will die with us, but also that it was born with us. It tends toward modesty, therefore, to see how these ancient communes have been getting along for sundry centuries, with such a degree of popular government and popular rights, as to show that these were not novelties made in America. Cortina was long part of that Italian republic of Cadore which, enduring for centuries, gave great popular freedom and frowned explicitly upon nobles and titles of nobility.

And it is pleasant to find that old records tell of this region sending a gift of larch timbers to Venice when ships were needed for a fleet against the Turks, and sending trees to help in the rebuilding of the Palace of the Doges after a destructive fire, these being probably the very roof-timbers that we see in the Palace today.

A pleasant feature of winter travel is that it finds people glad to talk of the things that mean much to them-that is, if they find that a visitor cares to hear. And so I was told that Cortina is ruled by a burgomaster who is chosen by the vote of the male citizens; a citizen being a man, of voting age, who pays taxes; but that there is a droll qualification of this, which is, that a man who still lives at home, in a house which belongs to his mother, is not a master, and therefore has no vote!

The burgomaster holds office for three years, and I found the present incumbent to be a practical, sensible, everyday farmer.

“He sees to everything,” the citizens say. And, indeed, he acts as magistrate as well as mayor, and settles, formally or informally, all the disputes of the place. Everything relating to town business, everything relating to marriage or death or to expected marriage or death, every matter of business or building, is in his province. If a man wishes so slight a thing as to change the posts of his porch, the burgomaster must preliminarily inspect and give or withhold consent. “He is our father,” said a townsman, simply, to me. And what might be tyranny is checked by his being an elective officer; one of the people, set in place by the people, with a definite term in which to wield the burgomasterial sceptre.

With all this, it would seem as if there were little room for anyone else, yet there is a Capitano-the people all use this Italian title-who is in charge of the military of the commune. He has an eye on things in general, and his gold-laced uniform seems to keep the people from forgetting that there is a government at Vienna.

There are community forests and community pastures, each citizen having the right to a certain amount of firewood annually and to pasturage for his cows; these privileges coming from the old Italian days. The forests are of great extent, stretching over miles and miles of mountain land, and a few watchmen keep record as the citizens report their woodtaking. In the wild upland pastures, in the midst of an immense loneliness, a few herdsmen, paid a pittance by each owner, care for the high-wandering stock.

Every man is ambitious to own a bit of land of his own; and for this land hunger, old as all time, provision has been wisely made. For, just outside of the close-built town, on the nearly level portions of the long-sloping mountain sides, are numberless little square stones and wooden pegs-boundary marks, separating unfenced patch from patch.

An industrious, hard-working folk, these. When the last tourist disappears they do not begin lethargically to await another tourist season. The men who in summer are guides or waiters or carriage drivers turn in winter to one or another of the many town industries. There are iron-workers, makers of locks and keys, workers in wood-carving, in furniture, in inlay and filigree, and mosaic. Nor do the shops, tucked into every corner, show any outward or visible sign of their character, except perhaps for some slow-turning water-wheel. There are schools for artisans; sewing-schools for girls; excellent common schools for all. And any tramp, any wanderer without visible means of support, is led to the commune boundary and admonishingly sent on his way.

As in most of Europe, things of the old time have been succeeded largely by the modern; yet the women still wear the little round black-bestreamered hats, which they touch, in saluting, like men, and in their short skirts they walk stridingly. And in spite of a destructive fire of nearly a century ago there are still houses of the charming ancient fashion, with wooden roofs and outside wooden galleries, a kind of building still common in the remoter villages.

Often one is tempted to follow one of the slender, zig-zag roads far up some slope and over a ridge into an adjoining valley. There is the constant beauty of the mountains, merging far away into a soft agglomeration of mistiness; from peaks that tower thousands of feet upward snow blows gently, trailing clouds of glory, bannering the peaks with a perfect white that shimmers against the perfect blue of the sky. And at your feet, where the sun has cleared an open space, you may see tiny Alpen roses showing in the face of this winter landscape and these stupendous heights. Evening approaches; and long after the valleys and the lower slopes are twilighted in steel cold, a rosy glow lingers on the summits. Then I have seen the light of the young moon give a tender glory to it all; I have watched the snow-wreaths gather thickly around some summit and the snow come falling in soft-sheeted mysteriousness; and I have listened to a great wind stirring among the forests and come roaring fiercely down.

Few of the natives of this region have any desire to emigrate or even the desire to visit other lands. They are prosperous; they are happy; with energy they work and they play. They have sport with sleds, with snowshoes, with skis. Genially gregarious, they love to gather in pleasant parties, love to make music for each other with zithers, with horns, with full orchestra. The world forgotten, they are, in winter, by the world forgot, and all the charm of their nature comes to the surface.

Before feast days they build great fires in the fields. It is still a custom for a young man to set a ladder to a girl’s window, mount it, tap, and talk with herthis being a survival of the ancient Italian custom which Shakespeare utilizes in having Romeo go to Juliet’s balcony and Valentine plan to meet Sylvia. Other ancient customs are followed. At a marriage, from eight to twelve young men, dressed as knights of old, with swords and helmets, attend the bride to church. There is seldom a wedding journey. Friends and relatives go to the new-married couple’s home for a feast, and always the door is locked so that a man may come and, after crying out that he demands the bride, shall try to break in and carry her off. Wedding gifts are usually of money, a generous gift being from two to five kronen; a krone being of the value of twenty-two cents. But one need not go to the Dolomites to learn that riches is a relative word.

On my first winter visit to Cortina there were just three visitors there: a mother and two sons, North Germans, who were in the Dolomites to ski; and it is a tremendous sight to see a skier come flying-at times literally flying!-down a mountain side. On my second visit there was but one stranger, an Austrian, a well-to-do man, apparently in the Dolomites on business. And with him I had an amusing experience.

My sledge from Toblach returned to that place from Cortina, and when I was ready to go on southward I looked about for another. After I had bargained for it, this Austrian came up and said, with a smile:

“I should like to share your sledge to Pieve di Cadore. You are American. I shall pay one quarter.”

“Why not one-half?” I asked.

“Because you are an American!” he replied; in the calm assurance, that some Europeans still have, that an American should naturally be expected to pay more than his share.

As a matter of course, I declined his company and sledged alone.

When I left Cortina it was to sledge onward over the border and into Italy; and in less than four miles the border-line was reached, where near together stand poles striped with the green and white and red of Italy and poles striped with the yellow and black of Austria. And here the soldiers, acting not only as national sentinels, but as customs’ guards, came out, brilliant bits of color, in their uniforms, amid the snow and the evergreens, and they were amazed to see an American, and eagerly talked for a little. They had had enough of snow and solitude!

Proceeding, there are villages precariously huddled between gorge and precipice; there is wider opulence of color in costume; there are women with huge burdens on their heads; clustered about village fountains there are green-kerchiefed women with shiny kettles of copper that they carry dangling from curved yokes of wood; there are lofty forts commanding the road, with sentinels silhouetted against the sky. Steadily the air grows warmer, and the snow that falls will soon disappear from the heights.

Vastly interesting are the old-time inns in the region that is now entered, for here, as farther north among these mountains, the tourist part of the house is closed and the traveler is shown into the common-room, which is here sitting-room, kitchen, and dining-room combined. And always it is a room low-ceilinged and heavy-beamed, with the fire in its very center on a massive hearth built of stone, some two and a half feet high and eight feet square. The smoke ascends through a great suspended cover, like a square umbrella of wood, and looking up into this one sees hams and sausages, cranes, and iron chains. A high seat is around three sides of this primitive and fascinating fireplace; a seat so high that the men, sitting there, rest their feet on the high stone hearth. There are double-ended andirons of monumental size. A pot is boiling over the fire. Meat is broiled. The men eat and drink and smoke, and there are little shelves that they draw out for their dishes or tobacco. A low door leads into the wine vault, and there is suggestion of casks and beams, of drink and mystery and romance, strongly remindful of the Three Musketeers. The hostess serving, the light gleaming from rows of polished copper and pewter, the coarse stone floor, the chopped bread for soup, the grated cheese, the walls blackened by generations of smoke, the lights and shadows-all at once you have been set back for centuries into a centuries-old past.