There are plenty of great reasons to visit the Dolomites. For most, it’s the world class alpine skiing and unrelentingly gorgeous mountain hiking and trekking. Italy’s South Tyrol represents a unique slice of Italy due to its fusion of German and Italian culture that oftentimes leaves you wondering whether or not you overshot your drive and ended up in Austria, Germany or Switzerland. Not surprisingly, over 90% of Italians in the region speak German as their first language. When eating you’ll find menus that begin with polenta (the bread of the dolomites), have pasta entrees alongside Tiroli’s famous canederli (dumplings the size of your fist) and end with apfelstrudel. The region’s architecture represents a similar blending of traditions. Nowhere is this tradition of blending German and Italian culture more enchanting that in the chapels and small churches or chiesette of the Dolomites.
Why so many churches?
Italy has an abundance churches and chapels. Feels like they are everywhere. Every village, town, and big city neighborhood has one dedicated to their adopted saint. The represent the power and presence of the Catholic church and have turned their home team advantage into ubiquitousness. Finding a church in Italy is easier than finding a Starbucks in Seattle. There are so many chiese, cappele, cattedrali, and basiliche that at times you cease to notice them. But there’s something about the small picturesque chiesette of the dolomites that make you take notice. The oftentimes appear small and insignificant against the backdrop of soaring mountains and flower filled meadows but their presence is unmistakably large and memorable.
One of the best places to see some of the Dolomites’ most unforgettable small churches is Villnöß or Val di Funes. This small valley covers an area of about 30 square miles (you can drive through it in about 10 minutes) but has some of the most instagrammed churches on the planet. Chiesetta di San Giovanni in Ranui is a veritable jewel-box of a chapel set in a meadow below the famous Odle range that towers above it. The church was built in the 18th century and dedicate to St. John of Nepomuk, a 14th century Bohemian/Czech martyr who was drowned in a river and is a protector from floods and drowning. Quite useful for a valley that has tons of mountain snow that pours through it every spring. Colorful baroque paintings on the outside of the church detail the life of John and hiss martyrdom. The copper onion dome, an iconic feature of German and Austrian church architecture, is topped by a star which symbolizes the martyrdom of John whose body was found with a garland of star shape flowers covering it.
The church is small. Really small! I visited and a wedding was taking place. There was really only room for the wedding party inside the chapel. Everyone else had to wait outside.
Visitors also flock to Funes to see the unforgettable Santa Maddalena. This quaint church in a village of the same name is one of the oldest in the Dolomites and has been around since the 13th century. Much of the church has been restored and added to over the years but the tower is original. Set against the stunning Odle mountain range this church looks its best at sunset when the mountains behind it turn pink in the setting light. Santa Maddalena is also a perfect starting point for hikes inside the Nature Park Puez-Odle.
San Pietro and Santa Barbieri
Moving west along the valley you come to San Pietro and its eponymous named church. Set on the hillside in the middle of town it creates a great landmark if you are hiking the valley floor and is referred to as the ‘dome of the valley’. The inside of this Baroque church is filled with paintings that details the life of Saint Peter. The town of San Pietro is a great place to start several hikes in the area including a panoramic low mountain trail that gives some of the best views of the Odle range and even ends in a mountain waterfall.
If you travel a bit further west you’ll find the tiny village of San Valentino and it’s hillside church dedicated to Santa Barbieri (pictured in the header.) The church is breathtakingly situated overlooking the western ranges of he Dolomites and is unforgettable due to its views. The view from the front of the church is one of the most spectacular in the Dolomites and makes you wonder if the reason to build the church in that location wasn’t calculated to invoke a sense of humility to the splendor of nature.
The Dolomites are also filled with small chapels at the tops of the mountains and along mountain hiking trails as well. These micro chapels are part of Italian mountain culture and are almost like mini refuges in what can be a forbidding environment.
Any hike into the Dolomites including Resciesa in Val Gardena accessed from Ortesei a means you’ll encounter these small chapels. Many of them have memorials to people who have lost their lives in the mountains and can be quite moving as well as cautionary in terms of encouraging one to respect their environment.
And finally, my favorite: San Valentino
San Valentino is one of the most dramatic small churches of the dolomites mainly due to its setting in a small village of the same name (not to be confused with the San alentino of the Val di Funes–there’s two!) on the high plateau Alpe di Siusi at the base of the Schlern.
Nestled among the meadows and farms of the Alpe di Suisi, San Valentino is a great starting point to hike the tranquil pastures and villages of Castelrotto.
Want to visit all of these amazing churches? They are all a short drive or hike from one another.