We’re in the Dolomites. We are surrounded by towering, jagged, snow dusted mountains. Specifically we are staying outside of Cortina d’Ampezzo in northern Italy with friends from Perugia who come here during their winter vacations. They are giving us the red carpet treatment. We are seeing things, tasting foods and visiting places we would never have experienced on our own.
Milena and Sergio found a hotel for us near their cabin. We are tucked in the woods. We wake up to coral sunrises on the powdered sugar mountain peeks. It’s a fairy tale. During the first day here, we rode a chairlift to a nearby sledding park. The kids were required to wear helmets which turned out to be a good thing because Tom took off before mastering the the lesson on “brakes.” Moments later we watched the second biggest wipe-out of the day. Matt raced down quickly and put the pieces back together.
I hung out with the less adventurous where we watched the sledding and joined in the tradition of drinking cups of “bombardini” (little bombs) which are a delicious mixture of hot rum, eggs, sugar, and cream.
Over one of these bombardinis, we met a good friend of Sergio who lives here year-round. He and Sergio share a passion for astronomy. We got to talking about stars and quickly came to recognize that their shared passion extends well beyond a hobby. Alessandro devotes much of his time to Cortina’s planetarium and mountain-top observatory. Sergio started working with him about 12 years ago. Then in 2009, Sergio created a computer program that allows anyone in the world to manipulate Cortina’s impressive telescope via the internet. Through this program, one can search for planets and supernovas at home (with the understanding that all findings be reported back to the observatory, of course).
Sergio asked Alessandro how things were going since they last spoke. Alessandro announced that on December 24 he discovered another supernova. Congratulations were given, and then plans were made to take all of us stargazing that night.
But the highlight began with our moonlit walk to the Col Druscie Observatory. After a short drive up the mountains from Cortina, we left our car and hiked 30 minutes up a snowy trail to the peak.
We entered the control room and ascended to the dome where the equipment is housed. One by one we then climbed a ladder to peer through the lens of the telescope. Alessandro pointed it first to the moon and cautioned us to take short turns so we didn’t damage our retinas with the brightness. Then we looked at Betelgeuse and finally Jupiter and its moons. Between visual destinations, we asked hundreds of questions ranging from the magnitude of the universe to the age of stars to the composition of comets. My uncle showed such aptitude for astronomy that Alessandro and Sergio took a break in the stargazing session to open an account for him on Sergio’s on-line program, “Sky on the Web”. It turned out to be just as interesting to observe the workings of this website. And now my uncle can aim Cortina’s telescope anywhere he wants and download his own pictures of the heavens.
It wasn’t until 9:30 pm when we finally recognized how hungry we were. We slid down the mountain on our coats and ended up at the coziest restaurant imaginable warmly perched on the secluded mountainside. We tasted three northern Italian specialties including beet ravioli, bread balls in broth, and deer gnocchi. The kids stuck with buttered noodles and then started falling asleep. We were all in bed by midnight.
While it seemed impossible to compete with the rare opportunity of the night before, Sergio and Milena succeded. On our last day in Cortina, we met for lunch at Malga Misurina, a dairy farm outside of town. The driveway was so snowy and slippery that we needed a forklift to rescue us and bring us the top of the hill where everyone else was waiting to order lunch.
Everything we ate had been grown or raised on the farm. We shared ten plates of cheeses, salami, sausages, pork ribs, polenta, bread balls with speck, and cabbage salad. Later, we took a snowmobile–pulled sled beyond the tree line to the summit of Tre Cime and then rode individual sleds down a 1-mile course. It’s hard to describe. It was fast. It was fun. It was incredible.