The Great Dolomites Road

From Bolzano to Cortina, the Great Dolomites Road

The Great Dolomites Road, known in German as Die Große Dolomitenstraße and in Italian as the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti, has undoubtedly played a crucial role in the tourist development of the magnificent mountain region in northern Italy.

This mountainous route traverses the Dolomites, passing through South Tyrol, Trentino, and Veneto.

While some sources indicate its starting point as Ora (BZ), the historically more plausible beginning of the Grande Strada della Dolomiti is at the small village of Cardano, situated on a sunny high plateau at the edge of the Ega valley – known as Eggental in German – just a few minutes by car from the capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano.

In 1860, a road connecting Cardano to Nova Levante through the Ega valley already existed, but its higher stretches, such as Passo Pordoi, for example, were simply paths and mule tracks.

During this period, several cart access roads were opened in the Dolomites, such as the link road between the Ega Valley and the Fassa Valley in 1895 and the Val Badia access road in 1893. However, the most significant road was undoubtedly the Great Dolomite Road, which began in Bolzano and ended in Cortina d’Ampezzo, crossing the Costalunga, Pordoi, and Falzarego passes.

The initiative started with a provincial law passed in 1897 to construct the two stretches at Pordoi and Falzarego, from Arabba to Canazei and Livinallongo to Cortina, respectively. At that time, the area marked the southern confines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the primary objective was military. However, it wasn’t just about military considerations. The Austrian-German Alpine Club, whose local clubs played a crucial role in building high-altitude refuges, strongly supported the construction of a vehicle access road between Bolzano and Cortina.

The idea of the German mountain climbers was embraced with great enthusiasm by two pioneers of South Tyrolean tourism: Albert Wachtler and Theodor Christomannnos, the former president of the Bolzano Alpenverein and head of the Merano section. It was particularly Christomannos, the son of a wealthy family of Greek traders who lived in Vienna, who recognized the importance of a road that would not only provide access to individual valleys but also link the entire Dolomite area.

Construction began in 1901, with a total of 2500 workers embarking on the ambitious task of building the road. It took eight years to complete, a relatively short time considering the technologies and means available were far from our own.

Theodor Christomannnos, a visionary pioneer in tourism, coined the motto: “No hotel without roads, no road without hotels.” As a result, hostelries and hotels were constructed along the road. However, during World War One, these establishments were requisitioned, especially at Passo Pordoi (2,239 m), which was situated right on the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. The commemorative obelisk erected in 1905, featuring figures related to the Great Dolomites Road, still stands today. This was a significant event both economically and symbolically, marking the definitive opening of the Dolomites to international tourism.

Theodor Christomannos.
T. Christomannnos

The promotion of this endeavor was furthered by important literary works, such as those by Karl Felix Wolff (Die Dolomitenstraße, 1907) and Christomannos himself (1909). Subsequently, the local population, accustomed to harsh mountain life, found new opportunities as the area saw an influx of tourists. Hotels and restaurants were established to cater to the growing number of visitors. It can be said that the construction of this road played a pivotal role in shaping the Dolomites into the beloved tourist destination they are today.

More than 100 years since its construction, the Great Dolomites Road still attracts people who come to admire enchanting landscapes surrounded by internationally unique mountains.

However, it’s crucial not to overlook the downside. It is important to pause and reflect on the changes—some not entirely positive—that have occurred in the Dolomites. The surge in cars and, even more so, motorcycles is a constant, often uncontrolled, consequence of mass tourism.

Great Dolomites Road

Great Dolomites Road

Great Dolomites Road

Description of the Great Dolomites Road

The Grande Strada della Dolomiti connects Bolzano and Cortina d’Ampezzo. I’ll describe the route here starting from Bolzano, but obviously, it can also be done in reverse, starting from Cortina.

You can catch sight of the majority of the main Dolomite peaks from the Great Dolomites Road, and for this reason, I recommend dedicating a whole day to these 110 kilometers of asphalt road. This way, you can stop as often as you like to admire the view, take a short stroll, and relish the splendors of this mountain world.

In some sections, the road is very narrow and steep, with hairpin bends, requiring you to drive with great care. I would advise against driving it with a trailer attached to your car. Numerous panoramic points and parking areas provide breathtaking views of the Dolomites surrounding you.

Interesting facts about the Great Dolomites Road

Tom Phillips, a photographer and mountain enthusiast, has undertaken an intriguing task: through meticulous research, he has gathered numerous period photographs taken at the locations the Great Dolomites Road passes through and juxtaposed them with photographs he captured at the same spots today.

This endeavor has given rise to a website that not only celebrates the outstanding photography of Antonia Verocai Zardini, one of the first great Dolomite photographers but also illustrates how much the area has changed. You can find the link at the end of this page.

Itinerary

  1. From Bolzano, head towards Cardano and take the road to Val d’Ega on the SS241. Until 2007, the road passed through the bottom of the gorge, nestled between towering rock faces, creating a truly spectacular route. Unfortunately, this road was closed in January 2008 due to the risk of significant rockfalls and landslides, making it too dangerous. In its place, a tunnel was constructed, cutting right through the Ega Valley gorge.
  2. Continue to Nova Levante, where you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful view of the Catinaccio massif.
  3. Proceed to Lago di Carezza, the favored spot of Austrian Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi)¹. Despite being a bustling location, I recommend taking a quick stroll around the little lake with its mirror reflections of the Latemar massif.
  4. Cross Passo di Costalunga (the border between the autonomous provinces of Trento and Bolzano) to Val di Fassa. In Vigo di Fassa, turn left onto SS48 to Canazei, situated at the northern edge of the Fassa Valley.
  5. From Canazei (Cianacéi in Ladin), a steep and winding road leads you to Passo Pordoi, the border with the Veneto region. The pass offers beautiful Marmolada, Sass Pordoi, and Sassolungo views.
  6. On the other side of the pass in Veneto, descend to Arabba (Rèba in Ladin) along the Great Dolomites Road, featuring thirty-three hairpin bends. Continue on SR48 past Arabba, through Livinallongo del Col di Lana.
  7. Heading towards Passo Falzarego, after passing the village of Andraz, a few kilometers on your left, you’ll find the Andraz Castle Museum. If time permits, a visit to the museum² is highly recommended.
  8. Continue to Passo Falzarego, where a dramatic cable car provides a comfortable ascent to Rifugio Lagazuoi with its terrace and internationally unique panorama. Another reason to visit Mt. Lagazuoi, a Great War battlefield, is the abundance of traces from the fierce fighting between Italian and Austrian Alpine soldiers. Trenches and positions perched on vertiginous ledges have been restored and now constitute a veritable open-air museum.
  9. From Passo Falzarego, descend to the Ampezzo valley, all the way to Cortina, the Pearl of the Dolomites.

Map – Great Dolomites Road

Great Dolomites Road Map.

GPS FILES
Great Dolomites Road – Download GPX file
Great Dolomites Road – Download KML file


Note

1. Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1837-98), known as Sissi, spent a period of rest at Grand Hotel Carezza in August 1897. By then, she was no longer the beautiful, sporty young woman she had once been but a sick, melancholic, and very lonely woman. To regain her strength, she customarily took long walks in the area.

Elisabeth’s stay was recommended by her doctor, who, together with Theodor Christomannos, a proponent of the Carezza project, organized the transformation of the complex into the Empress’s summer residence. On the 18th of August, the Emperor’s birthday, a grand feast was celebrated in the residence’s hall, marking a significant social and patriotic event.

On the 24th of August 1897, Sissi went for a walk past the Nova Levante dairies to the Zenay farmhouse. The itinerary has been known as the Elisabeth Walk ever since. Almost exactly a year later, on the 10th of September 1898, Sissi was assassinated in Geneva.

The fame of Residence Grand Hotel Karersee extended beyond the borders of Europe. In the early years of the next century, tennis courts and a 9-hole golf course were built there based on American plans.

A favorite among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, the Grand Hotel was razed to the ground on the night of the 15th of August 1910, causing significant damage to the building but fortunately resulting in no loss of life. It was almost immediately decided to rebuild the hotel, and the new incarnation of the building was completed just two years later, boasting a total of 350 rooms and almost 500 beds.


2. Andraz Castle was built on a massive boulder transported to the valley during the last glaciation, dominating the surrounding area. Positioned strategically, it served as a key point for controlling roads from the south (Belluno, Agordo, Caprile), north (Bressanone and Castel Badia, San Martino in Badia, Valparola), and Ampezzo over the Falzarego Pass.

The first historical references to the castle date just after the year 1000, and it is known that in 1221, it belonged to the Schoneck family (Colbello), who were granted it as a fief by the Bishop of Bressanone.

It remained the property of vassals of the Prince Bishops until the 15th century when, in 1416, the Bishops of Bressanone took full control of it.

From that point until secularization imposed by the Treaty of Paris in 1802, the castle remained in the hands of the bishops and served as the headquarters for small military garrisons under the command of a captain. Nicolò Cusano, Bishop of Bressanone, was undoubtedly Andraz’s most illustrious guest and chose the castle for long stays between 1457 and 1460 to ensure his safety.


Guidebook: The Great Dolomites Road

In this little book, the author covers the Great Dolomites Road, which traverses three regions: Südtirol, Trentino, and Veneto. It offers a classic itinerary to explore some of the most scenic parts of the Dolomites. I advise anyone driving along it to begin in Bozen (Bolzano in Italian).

The route takes you through Karneid, Nova Levante, Carezza Lake, Passo di Costalunga, Vigo di Fassa, Pozza di Fassa, Campitello di Fassa, Canazei, Pecol, the Fedaia Pass, Pieve di Livinallongo, Col di Lana, Falzarego Pass, Valparola Ridge, Cinque Torri, and the Tofana.

The book includes many reviews for the best-recommended restaurants in the locations described. It features maps, color photos, and descriptions of the attractions in all the localities covered.

An extensive section provides helpful information on how to get to Bolzano and Cortina, return, and what services are available for renting a bike, the preferred means of transportation for traveling the Great Road. Read more about the guidebook.

My contribution to the guidebook:

The guidebook “Great Dolomite Road and Via Ferrata” contains a final section, written by me, that provides all the information about the Via Ferrata, including how to climb it, the required equipment, potential dangers, and much more.


LINKS
The Great Dolomite Road – Tom Phillips’ website.
Castello di Andraz – The Andraz castle museum².