In 1872, Amelia Edwards, a popular English novelist, embarked on an intrepid journey through the Dolomites. More than a century later, inspired by Edwards' account of her travels, Alan and Susan Boyle retraced her steps.

Spirits of the Dolomites explores past and present, change and continuity. The book includes excerpts from Edwards' original narrative juxtaposed against the authors' modern-day encounters with the descendants of those Edwards met among these majestic peaks, and compares Edwards' unpublished watercolours with stunning recent photographs of the areas depicted.

Emphasising the connections between Nature and humanity, this book is a beautifully illustrated, engaging portrayal of one of the world's most spectacular natural phenomena.

INSPIRATION

We begin near the wild and inaccessible Loch Coruisk, surrounded by the jagged peaks and pinnacles along the sharp-edged Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye. Traversing the Cuillin ridge is one of the most daring mountaineering routes in Scotland.  We were up for that challenge in 1973 when we booked a night at the far-flung Coruisk mountain hut.  It’s one of the most isolated buildings in Britain, surrounded by mountains, over 10km from the nearest road with no easy connecting paths.  There, on the hut’s dusty bookshelf, we discovered a 100-year-old book that inspired a lifelong passion for the Italian Dolomites.


In her book, Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys, Amelia Edwards tells the story of her astonishing adventures through the Dolomites during the summer of 1872.  It was not only the improbable journey in a bygone age that amazed us but also the incredible illustrations drawn by the author herself that both excited and incited us.  Rocky needles and tall towers soaring into the sky topped massive peaks with overhanging rock faces.  These were mountain crests to excite our wildest imaginations, more like pictures from a fairy-tale book than a travel journal.  Before the evening ended, Amelia had incited us to visit the Dolomites to discover if these mountains were really so fantastic and, if so, could we climb them?

 

Rottonara's Inn, Corvara where Amelia stayed, 30 July 1872

Amelia fascinates us with detailed descriptions of the places she visits and witty accounts of her conversations with the wide range of ordinary people she encounters: children, peasants, priests, mountain guides, border guards and inn-keepers. Some of their descendants, like the Ghedinas in Cortina, the Pezzès in Caprile and the Giacomellis in Predazzo, still live there today.

As the mountains remain constant, Amelia’s delightful drawings and exquisite pen-portraits enable our imaginations to travel through time and picture life as it was at the dawn of tourism in this World Heritage site. The precision of Amelia’s writing provides a rich and rewarding historical insight. As we read each page, our curiosity grows about what happened to the villages she passed through, the inns she visited, the statues she sketched and the paintings she scrutinised.The more we read, the more we wonder.

In Spirits of the Dolomites we tell the story of Amelia's journey, adding our own conversations with descendants of people that Amelia met. Although we recognise some of the countless changes over time, we are more struck by those things that have not changed.

CELEBRATION

To commemorate Amelia’s daring exploits, and also to create an active tribute to the Dolomite’s first female pioneer, we have traced a new long-distance, high-level, route through the peaks that she describes so vividly and remain as wonderful today as they were in her day.  The mountains connect us with Amelia’s thoughts and feelings that she shares so generously in her book.  Starting from Hotel Aquila in Cortina,  Amelia’s first base in 1872, Alta Via Amelia is a 30-day trek through all the main Dolomite mountain groups, in the same sequence as Amelia’s travels. The route links rifugi or alberghi for accommodation along the way and ends at Hotel Bad Ratzes, at the foot of the Siusi Alp, where Amelia also stayed and bade farewell to the Dolomites.

Using well-marked footpaths from start to finish, Alta Via Amelia is 400 km in length involving an altitude difference of over 30,000 m to be climbed and also descended.  The route is accessible to hikers of all ages who are sure-footed, reasonably fit and with a head for heights; rock climbing skills are not required.  To accommodate more expert mountaineers, Alta Via Amelia also includes 20 more demanding variants.  These are in parallel with the normal route with the same start and end points. They include vie ferrate of all grades and provide varying degrees of additional challenge, allowing followers to pick and mix their own itinerary.


Click here for our blog about the first completion of Alta Via Amelia

 

Alta Via Amelia is an active tribute to one of the Dolomites’ greatest friends and admirers.  By following it on foot we get a closer experience to Amelia’s, a more intimate relationship with the mountains, a challenging physical achievement and a connection with her spirit as conveyed by her own words:


I had visited the Dolomites during the previous summer, not returning to England till close upon Christmastime, and I had been occupied during the greater part of the spring in preparing that account of the journey entitled "Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys." Time ran somewhat short towards the last, as my publishers were anxious to produce the volume early in June; and when it came to the point of finishing off, I sat up all through one beautiful night in May, till the farewell words were written. At the very moment when, with a sigh of satisfaction, I laid down my pen, a wandering nightingale on the pear-tree outside my library window, burst into such a flood of song as I have never heard before or since. The pear-tree was in full blossom; the sky behind it was blue and cloudless; and as I listened to the unwonted music, I could not help thinking that, had I been a pious scribe of the Middle Ages who had just finished a laboriously written life of some departed saint, I should inevitably have believed that the bird was a ghostly messenger sent by the good saint himself to congratulate me upon the completion of my task.

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