Country of the Pale Mountains ~ Dolomites

Italy’s regal, rocky rooftop, the Dolomiti, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides some of the best mountain scenery in all of Europe. These pale sentinels, composed of sedimentary rock similar to limestone, rise dramatically above the surrounding landscape.  These unique summits were named after French scholar and mineralogist, Deodat de Dolomieu back in the mid-18th century, the first person to discover how this stone differed from limestone.

We had a week to explore the towns and villages dotting the landscape and to do what we love best, hike, beneath dazzling light-gray spires, azure sky, and with a lush green carpet at our feet.  We marveled at every turn the beautifully manicured lawns, meadows and fields.  What the cows didn’t take care of, the mowers did.  Flower boxes hung off most window sills, while many buildings and private homes had hand-painted names on them, business branding, words to describe the local landscape, and family surnames.   The entire region was a work of art!

Thanks to friends Frank and Margee, we settled into a timeshare in the village of Santa Cristina, a perfect location for exploring the Dolomites.

Seven out of ten locals speak German as their first language and many wish they were part of Austria.  Signs and literature in the province are written in both German and Italian.  Some of the local elders in the villages still speak in the ancient Roman language of Ladin.

Even with a week, we couldn’t begin to explore the entire province.  This is what we managed:

2.  Castelrotto

Italy is known as the land of 1,000 bell towers and this village seems to subscribe to the theory “bigger is better”, as their tower dominates the town’s scenery.  Only 5% of the locals are native Italian-speaking and most know their town by the German name of “Kastelruth”.  Murals on several of the town’s buildings speak to its 1,000 year history.

3.  Bolzano

Gateway to the Dolomites, this city of 100,000 boasts a most unusual attraction that drives hordes of tourists to her doorstep, a draw envied by her neighboring country of Austria ~ Ötzi the Iceman.

While hiking in 1991, high in the mountains on the Italian/Austrian border, a German couple stumbled upon an amazing discovery, a corpse, thought to be that of a missing hiker from several years earlier.  What was actually being witnessed was a discovery unlike any other, the corpse of Ötzi the Iceman (found in the Ötztal Alps, ergo the nickname Ötzi), entombed for more than 5,000 years in a glacier. This revelation began a 10-year battle between Austria and Italy for ownership.  Tooth enamel studies showed that he grew up in Italy, ending the battle.

Our main goal in Bolzano was to visit the South Tirol Museum of Archeology and see the actual corpse of Ötzi. Although encased in glass now, it is compelling to see flesh and bone and clothing of someone who walked the earth 5,300 years ago.  An artist’s rendition of what he looked like in life is displayed as well.

After touring the museum we headed to the open-air market, where I had a great time trying to converse with the woman at the pasta counter in Italian.  A typical German lunch at a street-side bistro rounded out our time in Bolzano.

4.  Ortisei

Many of the surrounding towns and villages are connected by walking trails so we decided to get our morning exercise and explore Ortisei, a town where wood carving runs a close second to tourism in its economic vitality. We browsed through the ART52 exhibition, a room given by the township to showcase local artists’ work.  Lots of creative, talented people appear to live here.

5.  Sterzing (Northern Italy)

There seem to be ancient castles on every hilltop, some vague images of their former regal selves, while others have been refurbished.  We had read about a castle near the Austrian border that had not been developed for tourism, had changed little since the 15th century, and could be toured.  This sounded intriguing so we booked a tour of Reifenstein Castle, led by Frau Steiner. It is a fascinating medieval castle, one of the best preserved and historically important castles of South Tyrol.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed once inside the castle.

We crossed over into Austria for a typical sausage lunch and stopped to visit a beautiful church in Gries, Austria.

Of all our activities while in the Dolomites, hiking remains my absolute favorite, a memory I will carry with me for some time.  We had perfect weather, allowing us two hiking days up close to these pale giants.  I had dreamt of completing a via ferrata while in Italy, but our location didn’t allow for it so I will just have to save this for another time.  The hikes we did were breathtaking so I have no complaints.

For our first hike, we took the gondola up to Compatsch, where we hiked the Panoramic-Zallinger Hutte Hike.   Stepping off the gondola, I felt the urge to yodel as we stepped onto the Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest alpine meadow, where we were surrounded by 360º views of the Dolomites and the sound of cow bells clanging.  This trail followed alpine meadows, dropped down into deep woods, and traversed high valleys dotted with huts, one of which we stopped at for tea and apple strudel…oh so yummy!

Our second hike found us on yet another gondola from Col Raiser, where we hiked for miles before arriving at Seceda, with stunning views across the entire Dolomite range. The Alpe di Siusi lay before us, dotted with huts and hotels, one of which we stopped at during our hike, for a lunch of local cheeses and breads.

We will never be able to choose one favorite location during this European trip, but the Dolomites will most likely rise near the top.

Next Up: Venice