Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness

Author: Henry Van Dyke


The first stage on the journey thither was by rail to Belluno— about four or five hours. It is a sufficient commentary on railway travel that the most important thing about it is to tell how many hours it takes to get from one place to another.

We arrived in Belluno at night, and when we awoke the next morning we found ourselves in a picturesque little city of Venetian aspect, with a piazza and a campanile and a Palladian cathedral, surrounded on all sides by lofty hills. We were at the end of the railway and at the beginning of the Dolomites.

Although I have a constitutional aversion to scientific information given by unscientific persons, such as clergymen and men of letters, I must go in that direction far enough to make it clear that the word Dolomite does not describe a kind of fossil, nor a sect of heretics, but a formation of mountains lying between the Alps and the Adriatic. Draw a diamond on the map, with Brixen at the northwest corner, Lienz at the northeast, Belluno at the southeast, and Trent at the southwest, and you will have included the region of the Dolomites, a country so picturesque, so interesting, so full of sublime and beautiful scenery, that it is equally a wonder and a blessing that it has not been long since completely overrun by tourists and ruined with railways. It is true, the glaciers and snowfields are limited; the waterfalls are comparatively few and slender, and the rivers small; the loftiest peaks are little more than ten thousand feet high. But, on the other hand, the mountains are always near, and therefore always imposing. Bold, steep, fantastic masses of naked rock, they rise suddenly from the green and flowery valleys in amazing and endless contrast; they mirror themselves in the tiny mountain lakes like pictures in a dream.

I believe the guide-book says that they are formed of carbonate of lime and carbonate of magnesia in chemical composition; but even if this be true, it need not prejudice any candid observer against them. For the simple and fortunate fact is that they are built of such stone that wind and weather, keen frost and melting snow and rushing water have worn and cut and carved them into a thousand shapes of wonder and beauty. It needs but little fancy to see in them walls and towers, cathedrals and campaniles, fortresses and cities, tinged with many hues from pale gray to deep red, and shining in an air so soft, so pure, so cool, so fragrant, under a sky so deep and blue and a sunshine so genial, that it seems like the happy union of Switzerland and Italy.

The great highway through this region from south to north is the Ampezzo road, which was constructed in 1830, along the valleys of the Piave, the Boite, and the Rienz—the ancient line of travel and commerce between Venice and Innsbruck. The road is superbly built, smooth and level. Our carriage rolled along so easily that we forgot and forgave its venerable appearance and its lack of accommodation for trunks. We had been persuaded to take four horses, as our luggage seemed too formidable for a single pair. But in effect our concession to apparent necessity turned out to be a mere display of superfluous luxury, for the two white leaders did little more than show their feeble paces, leaving the gray wheelers to do the work. We had the elevating sense of traveling four-inhand, however—a satisfaction to which I do not believe any human being is altogether insensible.

At Longarone we breakfasted for the second time, and entered the narrow gorge of the Piave. The road was cut out of the face of the rock. Below us the long lumber-rafts went shooting down the swift river. Above, on the right, were the jagged crests of Monte Furlon and Premaggiore, which seemed to us very wonderful, because we had not yet learned how jagged the Dolomites can be. At Perarolo, where the Boite joins the Piave, there is a lump of a mountain in the angle between the rivers, and around this we crawled in long curves until we had risen a thousand feet, and arrived at the same Hotel Venezia, where we were to dine.

While dinner was preparing, the Deacon and I walked up to Pieve di Cadore, the birthplace of Titian. The house in which the great painter first saw the colours of the world is still standing, and tradition points out the very room in which he began to paint. I am not one of those who would inquire too closely into such a legend as this. The cottage may have been rebuilt a dozen times since Titian’s day; not a scrap of the original stone or plaster may remain; but beyond a doubt the view that we saw from the window is the same that Titian saw. Now, for the first time, I could understand and appreciate the landscape-backgrounds of his pictures. The compact masses of mountains, the bold, sharp forms, the hanging rocks of cold gray emerging from green slopes, the intense blue aerial distances—these all had seemed to be unreal and imaginary—compositions of the studio. But now I knew that, whether Titian painted out-of-doors, like our modern impressionists, or not, he certainly painted what he had seen, and painted it as it is.

The graceful brown-eyed boy who showed us the house seemed also to belong to one of Titian’s pictures. As we were going away, the Deacon, for lack of copper, rewarded him with a little silver piece, a half-lira, in value about ten cents. A celestial rapture of surprise spread over the child’s face, and I know not what blessings he invoked upon us. He called his companions to rejoice with him, and we left them clapping their hands and dancing.

Driving after one has dined has always a peculiar charm. The motion seems pleasanter, the landscape finer than in the morning hours. The road from Cadore ran on a high level, through sloping pastures, white villages, and bits of larch forest. In its narrow bed, far below, the river Boite roared as gently as Bottom’s lion. The afternoon sunlight touched the snow-capped pinnacle of Antelao and the massive pink wall of Sorapis on the right; on the left, across the valley, Monte Pelmo’s vast head and the wild crests of La Rochetta and Formin rose dark against the glowing sky. The peasants lifted their hats as we passed, and gave us a pleasant evening greeting. And so, almost without knowing it, we slipped out of Italy into Austria, and drew up before a bare, square stone building with the double black eagle, like a strange fowl split for broiling, staring at us from the wall, and an inscription to the effect that this was the Royal and Imperial Austrian Custom-house.

The officer saluted us so politely that we felt quite sorry that his duty required him to disturb our luggage. "The law obliged him to open one trunk; courtesy forbade him to open more." It was quickly done; and, without having to make any contribution to the income of His Royal and Imperial Majesty, Francis Joseph, we rolled on our way, through the hamlets of Acqua Bona and Zuel, into the Ampezzan metropolis of Cortina, at sundown.

The modest inn called "The Star of Gold" stood facing the public square, just below the church, and the landlady stood facing us in the doorway, with an enthusiastic welcome—altogether a most friendly and entertaining landlady, whose one desire in life seemed to be that we should never regret having chosen her house instead of "The White Cross," or "The Black Eagle."

"O ja!" she had our telegram received; and would we look at the rooms? Outlooking on the piazza, with a balcony from which we could observe the Festa of to-morrow. She hoped they would please us. "Only come in; accommodate yourselves."

It was all as she promised; three little bedrooms, and a little salon opening on a little balcony; queer old oil-paintings and framed embroideries and tiles hanging on the walls; spotless curtains, and board floors so white that it would have been a shame to eat off them without spreading a cloth to keep them from being soiled.

"These are the rooms of the Baron Rothschild when he comes here always in the summer—with nine horses and nine servants—the Baron Rothschild of Vienna."

I assured her that we did not know the Baron, but that should make no difference. We would not ask her to reduce the price on account of a little thing like that.

She did not quite grasp this idea, but hoped that we would not find the pension too dear at a dollar and fifty-seven and a half cents a day each, with a little extra for the salon and the balcony. "The English people all please themselves here—there comes many every summer—English Bishops and their families."

I inquired whether there were many Bishops in the house at that moment.

"No, just at present—she was very sorry—none."

"Well, then," I said, "it is all right. We will take the rooms."

Good Signora Barbaria, you did not speak the American language, nor understand those curious perversions of thought which pass among the Americans for humour; but you understood how to make a little inn cheerful and home-like; yours was a very simple and agreeable art of keeping a hotel. As we sat in the balcony after supper, listening to the capital playing of the village orchestra, and the Tyrolese songs with which they varied their music, we thought within ourselves that we were fortunate to have fallen upon the Star of Gold.


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Chicago: Henry Van Dyke, "1," Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022,

MLA: Dyke, Henry Van. "1." Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Dyke, HV, '1' in Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Little Rivers; a Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from