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Belluno, Gateway to the Dolomites

The valleys cut deep into the Alps in this part of Italy, rivers winding their way down to lakes and the sea far away. At the feet of the great curtain of the Dolomites, between dense forests, are large clearings and Alpine meadows. Belluno sits in such country, a secure settlement built on an escarpment in the bend of a river. Its business was always a trading post and waystation for the lumber and metals brought out of those forests and mountains, both needed for Venice’s shipbuilding.

The town is far north, but with its back protected by high mountains, its climate is gentler then would otherwise be. This inspired Venetians to make Belluno their second “hill station” resort town, after Vittorio Veneto. The Venetian lions you see high on the walls, their faces broken, were defaced by French troops when Napoleon extinguished the Venetian Republic.

Today you can wander the lanes of Belluno, admire the delicate style of building the Venetians took everywhere with them and stroll in the wide, elliptical main square with its Belle Epoque cinema set in the middle of the long arc of townhouses and stores.

The country around Belluno is really wonderful. In the many small villages that dot the hills you can see people live well: their house are sturdily built, flower boxes on every window, many surrounded by bounteous gardens and orchards. The high and austere grey Dolomites close by are famed for the great variety of outdoor sports that bring tourists and adventurous travelers to Belluno all year round – skiing, kayaking, sailing, trekking, mountaineering, biking.

Any time of the year is good, for real round the year beauty of Belluno is where it sits, at the gateway to the Dolomites. Around the town is a National Park, renowned for hiking and mountaineering. A nearby lake is good for sailing and windsurfing, you can bicycle along a dedicated route and skiing is at the Nevegal and Cortina d’Ampezzo, just short drives away.

So put your skates on the next time you are in these parts – come and visit Belluno!

A little bit of history

It is thought that Belluno gets its name from Celtic “belo dunum” (splendid hill). That would be ‘dunum’ as in ‘dune’. It’s on a bluff overlooking a tight bend in the river, classically a good place to settle. The Romans certainly thought so, building their ‘out of the box’ military fort there, around which the town soon grew. The Romans gone, Belluno was the prize of Lombards and Franks. Like other fiefs of warlords, Belluno argued and tussled with its neighbors, eventually electing to join the merchant republic of Venice so its own traders could get on with business instead of fighting.

Its history then follows Venice, avoiding wars when possible and trying to be on the winning side when not. After Napoleon’s charge through northern Italy and his suppression of the Venetian Republic, Belluno with Venice was handed over to Austria, and with Venice was annexed by the new Kingdom of Italy.

Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen