The Dolomiti Friulane, even though not particularly famous, are certainly not a poor man’s Dolomites. This section of these celebrated mountains used perhaps to be considered of a lesser value, but more recently they have started to see their status as “first degree Dolomites” recognized – and rightly so.
This is perhaps due to the designation of the Dolomites as a UNESCO Heritage Site, but in fact, prior to that, the institution of a Regional Park in 1996 has to be accounted for the very first step that was to lead to the more recent recognition of this section of the Dolomites as being worthy of protection under the prestigious UNESCO banner.
Once their status has been acknowledged the recognition it deserved, it is a matter of fact, though, that in comparison to their more famous cousins to the north and west, the Dolomiti Friulane are lesser known (and frequented) mountains. But this is certainly not a point of detriment – actually, quite the opposite.
In fact, besides all that you would expect from a Dolomites’ setting, here you will also find that peace and quiet that you would rarely be granted along the massively trodden paths of the Dolomites’ heartland – unless you were to go there out of high season.
Having said that, within this wide area we have to distinguish between sections that have had different destinies, and that still to this day have very different stories to tell – as well as different land uses.
To begin with, there is an objective geographical difference, and so we have to first identify a Pre-Alpine section, of a generally more contorted outline, with narrow gorges and tormented rocks. This is reflected in a certain roughness of the landscape, which, however, does not exclude the presence, at times, of wide, open valleys, sometimes occupied by serene lakes – as is the case at Bàrcis, for example.
Then, as we proceed inland, we enter a scenario of vast, gravelly valley floors occupied by torrents and streams with crystalline waters, which are perhaps the most characteristic aspect of this landscape, and that mark the transition between the Pre-Alpine and the Alpine section.
This is the case, for instance, of the beautiful and rugged Val Cellina, or of the more solitary Val Cimoliana and Val Settimana, which besides presenting landscapes of pristine beauty in their own right, could also be seen as corridors that lead straight into the heart of the Dolomiti Friulane.
There, as you find celebrated sights that have been known to the mountaineering élite for a long time, such as the Campanile di Montanaia – a steep rock needle that stands tall and straight as a bell tower (as the Italian name clearly points out) – you cannot help but wonder how these majestic sights have managed to remain relatively unknown, when compared to the much more famous features of the Central Dolomites (by the way, the Campanile di Montanaia was first conquered by two Austrian climbers in 1902; see Claut).
If wild, rugged mountains are what you’re after, then, the Alpine section of the Dolomiti Friulane will provide you with all the expected ingredients: vast spruce forests topped by lunar peaks of Dolomia Principale – Main Dolomite, the rock responsible for the pale tinge of these mountains, and for their flaming hues (orange, pink, purple) at dawn and dusk; dramatic views; places of interest revealing a tormented geological history (such as the Dinosaurs’ Foot at Casera Casavento, see Claut; or the numerous faults and over-thrusts that reveal themselves at different locations – especially near Andreis); then, in addition to – and perhaps above – that, there is a “wilderness feel” that you wouldn’t find elsewhere, which is what makes this area unique within the Dolomites.
But if the mountains are the highlight of a visit to the Dolomiti Friulane – and one wouldn’t expect it to be any different – the architecture is, in fact, no less interesting. Many villages display homes built in ancient vernacular styles which reflect the characteristic of a particular sub-area or valley. In this case, too, broadly speaking, we can make the distinction between a Pre-Alpine section – where the main building material is stone – and an Alpine sector, where the use of wood becomes more prominent, being more available as a primary resource.
Bearing that in mind as a first orientation, every village has its own particular identity and flavor – as, for instance, Andreis in the Pre-alpine section, with interesting traditional terraced houses; further up the val Cellina, in Claut you can visit a fascinating example of a traditional smoke house, while in the upper Tagliamento valley wood dominates in the vernacular architecture of Forni di Sopra, which is also the most important resort within the Park.
A case in its own right – and that will be mentioned here despite being in an eccentric position in the Dolomiti Friulane, and outside the Regional Park – is that of Sàuris, a village that has never severed the bond with its Germanic roots, and is perhaps the most interesting of the whole region – certainly my favorite.
The initiative that has to be thanked for the good state of preservation of Sàuris (and many of the other villages, for that matter) is the “Albergo Diffuso” (literally, the “Diffused Hotel”), that had the aim of restoring old houses and dwellings to make them available for visitors to rent, thus maintaining a link between the property and their original owners. This also had the indirect benefit of preserving the connection between the old families, their historical roots and the present life of the community – and in fact, one could say that this has worked particularly well in Sàuris.
Last but not least, it has to be mentioned that the area now within the boundaries of the Regional Park was also the scene of a tragedy, when in 1963 a massive landslide precipitated into the artificial Vajont lake, causing a disaster that claimed nearly 2,000 lives and destroyed the town of Longarone (in the lower Piave valley), while damaging heavily the local municipality of Erto and Casso.
All in all, if you love un-spoilt nature, and want to enjoy the benefits of a wilderness that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the Dolomites, I would heartily invite you to come and discover for yourself the Dolomiti Friulane: a magnificent corner of the Alps, which – if perhaps lacking the grandeur of the Dolomites' heartland – will reward you nonetheless with its beautiful nature, its peacefulness, and with small, discreet surprises at every corner.
The Forra del Cellina (Cellina river gorge)
1. The Reserve rests on the most interesting section of the large valley carved by the Torrente Cellina (stream or river), within the Cretaceous limestone that constitutes the relief (rock substrate), located between the towns of Barcis and Montereale Valcellina. The morphological aspect is that typical of a grand canyon: it is the most relevant in the region, and certainly one of the most spectacular in Italy, with vertical walls and imposing phenomena of fluvial erosion. Within the domaine of the Reserve, one can observe a real “system” of gorges (or canyons), flowing and merging into one another, and relative to the courses of the Alba, Molassa and Cellina streams.
2. On the vertical walls of these deep incisions are well documented the morphologies connected to the erosive action of water: erosion pools (“marmitte di erosione”), sub-excavations, and carved, moulded rocks. These forms characterise mainly the lower and medium part of the mountain slopes, while in the most elevated zones these phenomena are masked, erased and substituted by those due to the fracturing of rock, the action of meteoric water and of ice and thaw — as well as of gravity. On the riverbeds are present alluvial deposits, generated by the action of transportation and sedimentation of the river courses: rock, stones, pebbles, gravel and sands are subjected to a continuous movement downstream, especially during the floods.
3. The carbonated nature of these rocks has determined the establishment of phenomena of dissolution that have generated karstic morphologies, which are present a bit everywhere, within the territory of this protected area. One can observe both surface karstic forms: dolines, sink-holes, grooves, Karrenfelds — ridged fields — and corrosion pools (“vaschette di corrosione”), as well as hypogeous (subterranean) karstic forms, such as wells, caves, galleries. These latter reach their maximum expression in the system of cavities known as Grotte Vecchia Diga (“Caves by the Old Dam”).
4. The Reserve is characterised also by some floral and vegetational peculiarities, connected to the particular micro-climatic conditions of the area, due to the aspect of variable steepness of the mountain slopes, diverse pedological situations, and heights that vary from the circa 315-350 m of the valley floors to the 1,470 m of the top of Monte I Cameroni. Of particular interest are the thickets of Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) that can be observed in the canyons, with the presence of Yew (Taxus baccata), Day Lily (Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus) and the Rosaceae species Spiraea decumbens ssp. tomentosa. Witnessing the rigid local micro-climate, Rhododendron shrubs are also visible here, while in the most elevated part of the mountain slopes are present interesting examples of beech woods on calcareous soil.
5. The detritic conoids and the gravelly beds (scree) are colonised by the typical flora of rocks (‘glareicola’), which includes Crested Cranesbill (Geranium cristatum), the Umbelliferae species Athamanta cretensis, Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) and some Limestone Ferns. The steep, overhanging rocks are graced by the purple blossoms of Campanula carnica (Carnian Bellflower) and a very peculiar flower, Alpine Devil’s Claw (Physoplexis comosa). The contingent of fauna present in the Reserve is not high, but made explicit with numerous species that do not find easy matches in similar environments. Species that nest in the area are: Peregrin Falcon, Golden Eagle, Common Buzzard, Mountain Swallow, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Boreal Owl and White-throated Dipper.
6. Among the ungulates, are to be mentioned: Chamois on Croda del Pic, Roe-deer and Deer. Also rather widespread are other small mammals, such as: Badger, Fox, Beech Marten, Squirrel and Dormouse, as well as some species of micro-mammals. The Trout (Salmo trutta fario) is present both in the waters of the Cellina and the Molassa, while in the dampest locations it is easy to see Common Toad, Spotted Salamander, Alpine Newt, Yellow-bellied Toad and various species of Frog. In the gorges also live some reptiles: the common Grass Snake and Dice Snake (Natrix tassellata); on scree (“macereti di frana”) and in the areas with detritus, one can observe: Horned Viper, European Green Lizard, Smooth Snake, Slow-worm and Common Viper.
7. This naturalistic setting takes on a particular historic value for the presence of some works for the exploitation of the waters of the Cellina river for hydroelectric purposes, realised at the beginning of the 1900s, and for the passage of the old road of the Valcellina. This track (an old route) was created as service road for the construction of the “vecchia diga” (Old Dam), and for the canal supplying with water the hydroelectric plant at Malnisio. It represented the first road to be open to vehicles linking the valley with the plains, and it was used until the beginning of the 1990s.