The Sounds of the Dolomites – Music in the Mountains
Sample the Sounds of the Dolomites, Italy’s summer-long festival of music in the mountains, including walking along the Peace Path. Trentino has echoes of a Tyrolean Sound of Music, from Alpine meadows to musical meanderings. But these trails are poignant not predictable. This is untamed Italy, not the country colonised by pizza, pasta and package tours
Photo credit: Visit Trentino 23208
The Dolomites are made for dreamers, foodies, hikers and history buffs. For too long these mountains have been monopolised by the ski set. It’s time to reclaim these peaks in summer. Trentino is an Alpine wonderland in the heart of the Dolomites, with a foothold on Lake Garda. To us, this sea-like lake represents the region’s calling card but to the Italians it’s all about the brooding Dolomites. These peaks have powerful fans, from the late Pope John Paul II to the Dalai Lama, who sees Tibet in these mystical mountains. More rationally, Le Corbusier described the Dolomites as the most beautiful natural architecture in the world. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the mountains are inspirational enough to persuade mere mortals to pick up their boots and musicians to pick up their bassoons.
The tail-end of the Centenary of the First World War is a chance to see these peaks afresh, walking the Peace Path along the former Austro-Italian frontline, past forts, trenches and heart-wrenching memorials. The Centenary provides a focus for a wartime legacy that refuses to fade away. The theme is particularly poignant as not only was Trentino on the frontline but also found itself in the Austrian, not Italian, camp. But it’s not a misery march. The crests have returned to their rightful owners. You’ll be sharing the trails with golden eagles, golden retrievers – and madcap musicians lugging bassoons. World-renowned musicians will perform concerts in Alpine meadows in the shadow of wartime forts. Welcome to the weird but wonderful Sounds of the Dolomites.
Photo credit: Carlo Baroni
Out of the wartime shadows
A century ago it was more about iron in the soul than golden eagles in the peaks. The Italians and Austrians fought futile battles on these perilous crags yet still changed the Dolomites’ history forever. Many Trentino forts, which formed a bulwark along the southernmost flank of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been restored. The Peace Path now runs along a former frontline that was once a high-rise wall of steel. In summer, the loveliest settings, near forts and flower-bedecked meadows, are the stage for the Sounds of the Dolomites, a two-month-long musical and walking festival, often with wartime undercurrents. So far, so strange: it sounds like a Tyrolean Sound of Music with battlefields.
Never fear: the walks along the Peace Paths are as uplifting as the music. The leisurely hike to a concert is the chance for chatting with everyone from music fans to mountaineers. En route, expect to be overtaken by Trentino pensioners who have the mountain lungs and legs to prove it. I’m resigned to being beaten by eighty-year-olds but still resent their supreme ease in these jagged peaks. All is forgiven when I finally join the families of musicians and mountain-bikers picnicking on the grassy slopes. The crowds swell and still as the concert begins. The soaring music merges with the setting, sweeping over meadows carpeted with gentians to the peachy peaks beyond. The mood is majestic yet surprisingly intimate. Last time, I spotted a sloppy golden retriever putting its head on a cellist’s lap while he was playing.
Photo credit: Visit Trentino 22854
The Sounds of the Dolomites
The Sounds of the Dolomites is Italy’s most stirring mountain festival, a magnificent series of open-air concerts staged in the natural amphitheatre of the Dolomites. The festival showcases Trentino’s musical calling and Alpine heritage, with eclectic concerts performed on grassy banks beside a spectacular lake, inn or peak. For almost twenty-five years, this open-air festival has brought music and meditation to Trentino’s loveliest peaks. The soaring music is chosen to symbolise the adventurous spirit of those who seek to conquer mountain peaks. It’s a meditative festival that strikes a deep chord with walkers, who can even accompany the musicians on a hike through the mountains. For the locals, it’s a return to their roots. As a mountainous region with a musical soul, Trentino boasts forests where Stradivarius, the legendary instrument-maker, selected the choicest spruce for his deeply resonant violins. It’s hard not to be stirred by such heritage.
The festival embraces folk, jazz, classical, choral and world music. Expect a cosmopolitan cast including soulful singer-songwriters and contemporary divas, intense Italian cellists, African world music stars and American jazzmen. Past performers range from the melodic Brazilian Gilberto Gil to La Scala opera singers, classical orchestras, rock stars and Youssou N’Dour, one of Africa’s best-known performers. This year’s edition opens with a concert by genre-crossing Graham Nash, forever associated with the legendary Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Born English but now American, this singer-songwriter and composer will be performing in the rugged Val di Fassa on the grassy slopes beside the Rifugio Micheluzzi lodge. From Campitello di Fassa to the lodge is a leisurely two-hour guided hike, or say it quietly, a far shorter taxi ride – but that would really be betraying the spirit of this magical mountain festival.
Photo credit: Visit Trentino 22868
Music in the mountains
The Dolomites settings soar as high as the music, whether you’ve arrived by cable-car and a gentle stroll or trekked there with a bassoon on your back. Natural amphitheatres provide the spectacular backdrop for the summer concerts. The scenery can be domesticated or wild, taking in high mountain pastures and cosy Alpine lodges. If it’s a ‘music and hiking’ event, then you might be crossing rugged terrain, past low-slung forts, silvery-grey lakes, and forests of beech, larch and firs. It’s all about communing with nature in poetic settings – and the musical feast. For softies such as myself, it can be a gentle morning stroll from a cable car, past tinkling streams and flower-bedecked meadows. But if you’ve chosen the hard-core version, don’t exclude a dramatic trek, scree-crunching your way to a concert, even traversing snowfields. Either way, the rewards lie in the camaraderie and scenery, with the concert perhaps staged by an Alpine lake or below a snow-capped glacier.
Photo credit: Visit Trentino 22847
Meet the madcap cellist
Mario Brunello, the Italian cellist who best embodies the adventurous spirit of the festival, performs at this year’s Sounds of the Dolomites, including playing in the hiking part of the festival around majestic San Martino di Castrozzo. The celebrated cellist has been involved in the festival since the very start. The madcap musician coaxes extraordinary sounds from his 17th-century Maggio cello and literally lugs it around the mountains, stopping for impromptu recitals. He is still in awe of both the mountains and their power to inspire musicians. As Brunello marvels, “The magic behind this mad idea to play music in the mountains really hit me when I met a blind-woman who’d trekked for two hours to reach the concert.” The musician also loves “the grandeur but intimacy of the setting, the chance to play naturally, without amplification,” and praises the `purity’ of music-making in the peaks. “For a musician playing in the mountains, the magic moment is not the echo but the pure sound itself.”
Photo credit: Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Hiking the Peace Path
I was one of the eager fans who followed in Mario Brunello’s footsteps a few years ago, along the Peace Trail, all part of commemorating the Great War. Our musical pilgrimage took in the First World War forts between Folgaria and Lavarone, with performances by trenches, patrol passages and military outposts. We were joined by musicians brought together from the combatant nations, with representatives from Austria, Italy, Germany and Britain. Today, the high plains of Folgaria and Lavarone are still ringed by seven Austrian-built forts, all accessible on a 28km-hike, or tackled in shorter trails. Fort Belvedere is perfectly preserved, an impregnable garrison that defied bombardment. Inside, the museum-fort still ricochets to the sounds of artillery fire and shrieking soldiers, the special effects enhanced by genuinely damp tunnels and sheer drops. In May 1916, Fort Belvedere even marked the launch of the Spring Offensive that moved the frontline to Vicenza. But on our visit to the fort, the mood was supremely calm and peaceful. Outside, the sextet’s farewell concert included peace compositions played by musicians from opposing sides in the war. Songs once sung in the trenches were freely shared, and it was moving not maudlin.
Photo credit: Alessandro Gruzza
This July, Mario Brunello will be circumnavigating the spiky crown of the Pale di San Martino massif, on a three-day hike, with music fans following in his footsteps. The virtuoso cellist will be accompanied by the famous mountaineer and free-climber Maurizio Zanolla, known as Manolo. The `musical trek’ involves three to five hours of relatively unchallenging hiking per day. It’s a meditative quest, as much about the mountains as the music. But if you’re not upto the three-day trek, come for the final concert on 8 July, held close to the Rifugio Rosetta Alpine lodge, reached via a cable car and an easy guided hike. Collapse on the grass, at over 2,500 metres altitude, listen to a moving concert, share a picnic and take in the peachy sunset over the jagged Pale di San Martino peaks. No picnic would be complete without Trentino wine, from sparkling Trentodoc, a match for the finest Champagne, to fruity, ruby-red Marzemino, Mozart’s favourite wine. You might even deserve to feast on pearl-barley soup or steaming polenta and mushrooms in the Alpine inn itself. This is heartfelt home-cooking, peasant fare with a princely view over the peaks. But if this is peasant fare, who would be a peasant anywhere else?
Photo credit: Federico Modica
Dawn in the Dolomites
Even here, Trentino’s wartime conflicts are never far from mind. The peaceful-looking Rifugio Rosetta was heavily damaged in both World Wars but has survived to bear witness to the Peace Trails, a remarkable project that rose from the ruins of war. Yet at times the Great War is such a faint backdrop that it fades away completely. The Sounds of the Dolomites festival takes many peaceful forms, including apricot-tinged sunrises. Dawn in the Dolomites is the concert series for romantics and early-risers, if not a contradiction in terms. You gather in the Dolomites for stirring music as dawn rises over the peaks. The musicians hike with you, lugging their instruments too, so you can’t complain. If you’d rather sleep in, consider the more civilised Campiglio Special Week in July. This `festival within a festival’ is staged in and around the chic resort of Madonna di Campiglio, the winter preserve of the fur coats and Ferraris set. In summer, the resort is far more diverse and democratic, with concerts staged around the slopes, peaks and valleys of the Val Rendena, including beside Alpine dairy farms, complete with jingling cowbells and cheesy tastings.
Photo credit: Visit Trentino 26678
Hiking into the sunset
It’s easy to forget that we belong in these awe-inspiring peaks, even if we can’t keep up with the local octogenarians. The Dolomites were first charted and mapped by the British Victorian `gentleman mountaineers.’ If only to honour their memories, pick up a pair of walking boots and take a cable car to the top of the nearest peak. Even without a concert as motivation, prepare to be blown away by the scenery. The landscape can be domesticated or wild, from meadows carpeted with Alpine flowers to stark glaciers and shimmering lakes. With their pinnacles and towering spires, the Dolomites are noted for the dazzling enrosadira effect, when the dying rays of sunlight bathe the jagged mountains in a rosy glow. The long shadow of wartime slowly melts into an apricot-tinged sunset that washes over the peaks. On every visit, I silently toast the madcap mountaineers who made all this possible. And the peace paths that were once warpaths. And the musicians who make us see it all afresh.
Doing the Trentino Dolomites:
Visit Trentino, the helpful tourist board: www.visittrentino.info/en
Sounds of the Dolomites music-in-the-mountains festival, 30 June to 31 August: www.isuonidelledolomiti.it & +39 347 4944220 (booking needed). Expect noon starts and most concerts sited near a cable-car, mountain lodges (`rifugi’) or a short hike away
Campiglio Special Week, a festival within a festival, 16-27 July, Madonna di Campiglio: www.isuonidelledolomiti.it
Forte Belvedere (mountain fortress): www.fortebelvedere.org
Flights: British Airways to Verona: www.britishairways.com
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer whose work, including blogs, can be found on www.lisagerardsharp.com