We left Veneto on Saturday morning and headed north, winding up into the hills. We’d already covered some of this ground during our day in Asolo, but before long we were in new territory.
In one of the many villages we passed through, we had to stop for fifteen minutes to let the cows go past. They weren’t headed for the milking sheds: this was the annual ritual of bringing the cows down from the upper pasture. The whole town turned out for the event, which was extremely noisy due to the large wooden bell on the collar of each cow.
The higher we climbed, the more Germanic influence we observed. Place names, architecture, food all began to change. We stopped Saturday night in Cortina d’Ampezzo, which was 360 degrees of gorgeous. The air was cleaner than down on the plains, and the people just as friendly.
On Sunday morning we threaded our way through the Dolomites, taking the most scenic route we could devise. The views were stunning; pristine chalets set in manicured pastures against a backdrop of vertical rock faces about green valleys. The trade-off was that the roads from Cortina onwards were tortuous and winding, with tight curves and frequent tunnels.
As we traveled further into South Tyrol the language and culture continued to change. Official signs that had been in Italian and German were now in German, Italian and Ladin, the regional language. French was frequently listed as well. We were still geographically within Italy, but culturally it was a different country.
We stopped in Arabba, Canazei and Balzano. Along the way I observed that the taps in bars, which I’m used to seeing offer only beer, now dispensed several varieties of wine, soft drinks and almost any other potable liquid as well. We reached Merano late afternoon and spent Sunday night in the Youth Hostel there, which we thoroughly recommend. When we visited shops, bars and restaurants in the town we were interested to discover that German was the dominant language.
We left Merano on Monday morning and set a route for Switzerland. We drove through mile after mile of apple orchards and then, at the Swiss border, the balance of land use abruptly changed to predominantly grazing. Whether this is because of subsidies or because of agricultural history, I don’t know, but I suspect the former.
Our route into Switzerland climbed to high mountain passes – 2,500 metres above sea level and more – and then back down to green valleys. It did this repeatedly. The roads on the Swiss side of the border were appreciably better than their Italian counterparts, but still very busy with road users of all types. We became used to being passed by a phalanx of cyclists as we traveled down the spill of hairpin bends that descended into each valley. And at one point the road was closed for some time while a television commercial for a new car was being filmed on the section ahead.
As the culture and language have changed along this journey to and beyond the Dolomites, everything’s become much smarter and tidier. In Switzerland it’s rare to see run-down houses, an overgrown orchard or scrap rusting on an industrial lot. On the other hand, the coffee has definitely deteriorated. That’s a trade-off we’ll have to evaluate carefully over the next few days.