From Bolzano to Cortina, the Great Dolomites Road
In 1860 a road linking Cardano with Nova Levante through the Ega valley already existed but its higher stretches, such as Passo Pordoi for example, were simply paths and mule tracks.
This was the period in which a number of 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.
But the most significant road was undoubtedly the great Dolomite road which began in Bolzano and finished in Cortina d’Ampezzo across the Costalunga, Pordoi and Falzarego passes.
It all began when a provincial law voted to build the two Pordoi and Falzarego stretches in 1897, from Arabba to Canazei and Livinallongo to Cortina respectively. At the time the area marked the southern confines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus the priority objective was military. But it wasn’t just this. The Austrian-German Alpine Club, whose local clubs had been an important driving force behind the building of high altitude refuges, gave strong support to the building of a vehicle access road between Bolzano and Cortina.
The idea of the German mountain climbers was taken up with great enthusiasm by two pioneers of South Tyrolean tourism: Albert Wachtler and Theodor Christomannnos, president of the Bolzano Alpenverein the former and head of the Merano section the latter. It was Christomannos, in particular, son of a wealthy family of Greek traders who lived in Vienna, who grasped the importance of a road which would not solely provide access to the individual valleys but was also capable of linking up the whole Dolomite area.
Work began in 1901 and a grand total of 2500 workers set to work on building the road! It took eight years to complete the road, a relatively short time if we remember that the technologies and means at their disposal were a long way from our own.
Theodor Christomannnos, far-sighted tourism pioneer, launched the motto: “No hotel without roads, no road without hotels”, and thus hostelries and hotels were built along the road which were, however, requisitioned during World War One: Passo Pordoi (2,239 m) was, in fact, right on the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. The commemorative obelisk built in 1905 with the figures relating to the Great Dolomites Road is still standing.
It was a very important event from both economic and symbolic points of view in that it marked the definitive opening of the Dolomites to international tourism promoted also via important literary work such as that by Karl Felix Wolff (Die Dolomitenstraße, 1907) and Christomannos himself (1909).
Subsequently the local population, used to harsh mountain life, could turn to new activities, thanks to the large numbers of tourists passing through the area, opening hotels and restaurants to cater for the growing numbers of tourists.
It can thus be said that it is also thanks to the building of this road that the Dolomites are the much loved tourist destination they are today.
More than 100 years since it was built, the Great Dolomites Road is still today bringing people to admire enchanting landscapes surrounded by internationally unique mountains.
But we can’t ignore the flip side either and I believe that it is important to stop and think about the changes – and not all of them positive – that have taken place in the Dolomites. The boom in cars and even more motor bikes is a constant, frequently uncontrolled, consequence of mass tourism.
The Grande Strada della Dolomiti connects up 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.
Interesting facts about the Great Dolomites Road
Tom Phillips, photographer and mountain lover, has taken on an interesting task: with careful research he has collected a great many period photographs taken at the places the Great Dolomites Road passes through and matched them up with photographs he himself has taken on the same spot today.
This work gave rise to a site which, in addition to celebrating the excellent photography of Antonia Verocai Zardini, one of the first great Dolomite photographers, also shows how much the area has changed. See link at the end of this page.
In the direction of Passo Falzarego, after passing the village of Andraz, after a few kilometres on your left you pass the Andraz castle museum². If you have time, a visit to the museum is highly recommended.
You then continue to Passo Falzarego where a dramatic cable car gives you the chance to climb comfortably to Rifugio Lagazuoi with its terrace and internationally unique panorama! A further reason to visit Mt. Lagazuoi, Great War battlefield, is the presence in the area of a great many traces of the fierce fighting that took place here between Italian and Austrian Alpine soldiers: trenches and positions perched on vertiginous ledges have been restored and are today a veritable open air museum. From Passo Falzarego you then descend to the Ampezzo valley all the way to Cortina, the Pearl of the Dolomites.
After that, until secularisation imposed by the Treaty of Paris of 1802, the castle remained in the bishop’s hands and was used 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 he chose the castle for long stays between 1457 and 1460 to ensure his safety.