Fifty US dollars doesn’t get you much these days, but in the Italian Dolomites it buys 650 miles of downhill trails, and 464 modern ski lifts leading to and from about 40 facilities and through eight charming mountain villages. All this and one of the most spectacular mountain settings in the world. Don’t trust me? Well, UNESCO agrees, and it was named a World Heritage Site in 2009.
Set in Italy’s Southern Tyrol region, where German is heard more often than Italian, the Dolomites’ charm bursts into colorful splendor when the twisting rocky peaks turn soft pink during sunrise and burning red at sunset. The ideal setting during any season, winter time sees some of the best skiing in Europe. After a trip to Venice, we drove up into the Dolomites and made the quaint village of San Cassiano our base to ski the region.

And I do mean ski the region. Purchase the Dolomite Superski pass and you can visit all the ski resorts in the area, all accessible by ski lifts alone. One of the best ways to experience what the region has to offer is by sking the four passes circuit called the Sellaronda, which means literally around the Sella Mountains. The route takes you on 65 kilometers of trails and ski lifts and through a savagely beautiful land of piercing rocky spires, backwoods trails, expanses of snow and endless mountain vistas. Along the way you conqure four mountain passes: Pordoi, Campolongo, Gardena and Sella. You can choose to follow the route clockwise or in the opposite direction.

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Signs lead you the whole way

We started from the town of Corvara at 10 am, an easy and fun ski from San Cassiano

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Right away the Dolomite signature peaks surround you

The crowds are swallowed up into the vastness of the area. Over three days of skiing we never waited to ride a ski lift. Yes, that is  a lot of runs and very sore legs.

Proof we were actually there and having a good time. Just in case you didn’t believe me!

Everything is gigantic in this beautifully desolate country, even the sun!

Three peaks. Can you find the mountain hut?

Moderate level skiers can enjoy the 4 passes, but you need to keep moving or you will run out of time. With the sun racing us to the bottom we were still in the middle of nowhere.

By 4:30 pm we arrived back to where we began. Expect the trip to take five-six hours, including a picturesque lunch along the way.

Tired but excited from our adventure we arrived back at our chalet, Ciasa Roby. With an attentive and knowledge staff, warm clean rooms and a friendly atmosphere I would recommend it anyone visiting the region.

Have you skied in the Dolomites? Do you have other recommendations for skiing in Europe? Post a comment and join the conversation.

If you go

When to go: Winter….

Seriously, you can expect good ski conditions from December-April.

Getting there:
The only way into the area is by car, bus or taxi.

The nearest airports are Treviso, Venice, Verona, and Innsbruck in Austria.
The main international airport is “Marco Polo” in Venice. Low cost flights arrive in Treviso. Search for flights here.

Bus transfers: Terravision from/to all the airports, until 12th April.
Warning: We booked the Terravision bus back to the airport, but it never showed up! The pickup points are larger towns outside of Alta Badia region and we were forced to take a cab back to Venice airport which cost $250!!! Turns out the company wrote an e-mail confirmation to me the day before which I didn’t see BECAUSE I WAS SKIING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE. Check your e-mail and confirm the ride before waiting in the freezing 3 am morning air.

Accommodation: There is a lot to choose from. You can get started by looking here.

I faced my dive buddy for a final check as our boat approached the Renaissance city of Venice. Weight belt on, air open, B.C.D. working….we gave each other the final OK symbol, not the thumbs up of course. We weren’t amateurs, this wasn’t our first trip after all, we were ready. We even checked the news that morning before we left, which of course was our downfall. “Venice is underwater” the swanky Italian host informed us. “Dress appropriately,” he advised with a wink. I was taken in by his professional nature and shinny suit.

We stepped off the water taxi, not onto the worn cobble stone streets of lore, but raised platforms sagging with tourists from far flung reaches of the globe. Underwater indeed! We were over dressed! Without the benefit of galoshes the fancier hotels supply, we were left to battle our way through the crowded back alleyways and along the cheap narrow walkways clashing with history. Luckily an unusual cold snap had also plunged the city into a snow bound mess, closing the airports and offering some respite from one of the world’s most visited destinations.

Piazza San Maro is the heart of historical Venice and the best place to start your vacation. Of course you need to find a way through the water first! No, that is not a canal.

The paths are clearly marked…with frozen bodies.

If you can wait a few hours the water usually recedes and a full walking tour can begin. The beauty of Venice is in the winding alleys, the narrow canals and the towering ancient buildings offering a direct link to history…very little imagination required!

We began our tour at Basilica San Marco (St. Marks). A Byzantine masterpiece, it is the most famous church in Venice. With 149 competitors that is saying a lot. Completed in 1096 it is well worth a visit inside. The four famous horses on the outside, taken from Constantinople, are fakes. You need to enter…and pay…to see the real ones.

Of course you’ll find more than just horses inside.

The Doge Palace, the home of Venice rulers called the Doge, is another must visit. But beware, there is so much to process in this fascinating place you may leave thinking everything looks the same. Luckily the tour ends with stint in the old prison cells where you can find respite from the gorgeous paintings and intricate ceiling work.

In the Doge Palace you will also cross the poetically inspired Bridge of Sighs, named for the prisoners headed towards execution and alas their predictable, if imagined, last breaths. It is one of the most photographed scenes in Venice , but I missed out as the city decided it was nicer to surround it in advertising. Maybe next time….or a swing by Google images.
The Grand Canal is the main artery of Venice. Three bridges hold the two sides together, Rialto Bridge being the most scenic. Shops line the bridge and the top is a great place to view the canal and the boats plowing their trade.
Escape the busy Grand Canal, and the crowding tourists, done any side alley. Getting lost is probably one of the best ways to spend your time.

A church around every corner.
Gondolas out despite the cold.

Church of St. Mary of the Friars in the distance. It was built as promise to God for ending a particularly bad spell of the plague.

Huddling together

If you go

When to go: Venice is busiest from the months June through September when the weather is warm. The famous Carnival is in February and like in the summer months the city gets crowded and the hotels full. If you are looking for less of an elbow to elbow experience the months of October through April are still generally fine with some mild days.

Getting there: The closets airport (4 miles away) is Marco Polo International Airport. Another option, especially for budget airlines is Venice Treviso Airport (16 miles away).

Venice occupies over 100 islands. The historic center is located 1 1/2 miles from the coast and can be reached by either car, bus, taxi or train via the Ponte della Libertá (“Bridge of Liberty”). You can also reach the area by water taxi, one runs directly from the airport.

Accommodation: Prices in Venice are more expensive then on the mainland as everything used must be delivered by barge and handcart (no cars in Venice!). For suggestions on cheap hotels in Venice try starting your search at EasyToBook.com.

In November I stopped by imperially romantic Vienna, Austria for two days on my way to a consulting job in Sri Lanka. The holiday season was just starting and the city was awash in Christmas lights and markets selling spiced wine, dried meats and just about any type of cheese you could ask for.
Vienna has so much history that it is a challenge to tackle the city in the short time I had. I was assaulted with recommendations by friends, guidebooks and internet sites about what I had to see. However, unlike other cities, I felt no pressure to spend my days locked in old palaces and in quite museums (although you would not be wasting your time if you did.) Instead, I spent my days walking the medieval city streets, exploring the architecture and fabulous statues, and of course drinking glühwein, spiced wine, at every Christmas market I found. When I only have a day or two in a city, I find walking the best way to soak in the atmosphere. Of course it was also nice to get a head start on my Christmas shopping.

I got lost immediately and enjoyed every minute of it. Every corner held a different feast for the eyes and I soon didn’t care where I was.

Four shy statues

Naschmarket, a curious blend of Viennese culture and oriental flavor. Dating back to the 16th century there are plenty of delicious delights to buy, or just sit at one of the many cafes and restaurants and soak in the atmosphere.

Spices

The Museum Quarter is a must see

A Christmas market.

Statue in front of the Austrian National Library in the Hofburg Palace

Fountain near the Spanish Riding School

Don’t smite me…smite the snakes…

There you go…

Christmas and shopping was not complete until first I walked down Mariahilfer Strasse, the cities main shopping street, and then down the pedestrian avenues leading to Stephansdom Cathedral.
Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s) Cathedral. Begun in 1359, it was not completed until the 20th Century. Even today constant renovations hide parts of the building. Luckily the city prints pictures of the building on the scaffolding so as not to disrupt the beauty too much. Can you spot the scaffolding in the picture above?

Inside the Cathedral

No matter where you look in Vienna…someone is watching you!


If you go

Bring a lot of money, Vienna is expensive. I stayed at the Radisson SAS Palais, on Stadtpark. The location was great, but not necessarily worth the price of $200/day. However, there are cheaper options in hostels which can be found here.

When to go: Vienna is generally mild and the weather reliably follows the four distinct seasons. Average summer temperatures range from 20°C to 30°C, the average winter temperatures are around 0°.

Getting there: The Vienna Airport has connections all over the world and can be accessed from just about anywhere. Trains run from the airport often and are the best way to get into the city. The two best choices are:

The City Airport Train Vienna-Card leaves every half hour from the city center (Landstrasse/Wien Mitte) and the airport – the ride lasts 16 minutes (single ride 10 Euro, round trip 18 Euro, with the Vienna Card 7.50 Euro instead of 10 Euro ).

With the Airport City Train (Schnellbahn) S 7 and S 8 you can get a discount with the Vienna Card or with another ticket of the Vienna Transportation Authorities. You need only buy an additional “Aussenzonen” (outer zone) ticket for 2.20 Euro (1.80 Euro if bought in advance) and have it punched before entering the train. Without the Vienna Card, you need to pay two zones (4.40 Euro, or 3.60 Euro if bought in advance). The trip takes 20 minutes and is the best deal considering it only takes 4 minutes longer than the City Airport Train.

In October I moved from Sri Lanka to Kosovo. Coming from Colombo the streets of Pristina, the capital city, seemed orderly and quaint. The city is a mix of historical Ottoman era mosques, drab communist housing, and new buildings catering to the ever present contingent of international development workers. There is a fantastic cafe scene and a variety of international restaurants that I have not found in other developing countries. A major downside to the city is the pollution due to, a dinosaur of an electrical plant spewing cheap coal fumes over the city and the use of the cheap coal in family stoves to stay warm.
Escaping the city is easy though, and Kosovo is blessed with abundant nature and is ringed by amazing mountains. You just have to be careful to stay on the paths as unexploded mines still lay hidden in the undergrowth. Taking advantage of the beautiful Autumn weather we drove one hour to Mirusha Falls, a popular swimming hole in the summer months, all but deserted in late Autumn.
The trail is not marked but is easy to find. Just head towards the canyon in the distance. If in doubt there is bound to be illegal loggers in the area…just ask them. We parked our car next to two guys in full camouflage with two way radios. Presumably they were on the lookout for police.

A thin path winds it way through a field before rejoining the Mirusha River.

Not quite a full river, but it gets bigger closer to the falls.

The track is quite muddy so bring good shoes.

The canyon opens up to the first of a series of 12 falls that stretch into the canyon over 32 kilometers.

A slippery path leads up the canyon wall to the next water fall. From there the climbing gets harder and some technical experience is needed to explore the full canyon. Caves also dot the area and are easy to explore with a local guide.

If you go

Getting there:

About an hours drive from Pristina towards Peje. As you pass Gilareva take the left hand turn towards Gjakovoa for another 8 km. Turn left onto a dirt road at the sign, in Albanian “Ujvarat e Mirushes”. A gas station sits across the road. Follow the dirt road and park either in a grassy field on the right or follow to a small parking spot just beyond a steep dip in the road.

There are no signs to the Falls but just follow the dirt road until it turns into a path. The hike takes about 30-40 minutes one way.


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