By Rick Steves
|Treating the Alps like a beach, in Italy’s Dolomites. Credit: Rick Steves|
Stretching out on a lounge chair I relaxed as if I was at the beach — but I was high in Italy's Alps, the Dolomites. Europe's largest high alpine meadow — speckled with wildflowers and manicured by munching goats and cows — stretched like a sea before me. And in the distance, stark limestone peaks towered — jagged like cut glass in the blue sky. My soundtrack was the happy laughter of Italian children enjoying a mini-petting zoo filled with alpine critters. A few yards away their parents sipped wine on the veranda of their chalet guesthouse — thoroughly enjoying that Italian "dolce far niente" (sweetness of doing nothing).
The meadow, the Alpe di Siusi, spreads high above the city of Bolzano, separating two of the most famous Dolomite ski-resort valleys (Val di Fassa and Val Gardena). Measuring three miles by seven and a half miles, and soaring 6,500 feet high, Alpe di Siusi is dotted by farm huts and happy hikers enjoying gentle trails.
The Sasso Lungo mountains at the head of the meadow provide a storybook Dolomite backdrop, while the bold, spooky Mount Schlern stands gazing into the haze of the Italian peninsula. Not surprisingly, the Schlern, looking like a devilish Winged Victory, gave ancient peoples enough willies to spawn legends of supernatural forces. Fear of the Schlern witch, today’s tourist-brochure mascot, was the cause of many a broom-riding medieval townswoman’s fiery death.
A natural preserve, the alpine meadow is virtually car-free. A cable car whisks visitors up to the park from the valley below. Within the park, buses shuttle hikers to and from key points along the tiny road all the way to the foot of the postcard-dramatic Sasso peaks. Meadow walks are ideal for flower lovers and strollers, while chairlifts provide springboards for more dramatic and demanding hikes.
The Alpe di Siusi is my recommended one-stop look at the Dolomites because of its easy accessibility to those with or without cars, the variety of walks and hikes, the quintessential Dolomite views, and the charm of neighboring Castelrotto as a home base.
The town of Castelrotto (population 2,000) was built for farmers rather than skiers. It has good bus connections, fine and friendly hotels, and more village character than any town around. Pop into the church to hear the choir practice. And be on the town square at 2:45 p.m. as the bells peal and the moms bring home their preschoolers.
Castelrotto also has a German name — Kastelruth. A hard-fought history has left this northeastern corner of Italy bicultural and bilingual, with der emphasis on the Deutsch. Locals speak German first. Many wish they were still Austrian. In the Middle Ages, the region faced north, part of the Holy Roman Empire. Later it was firmly in the Austrian Habsburg realm. After Austria lost World War I, its South Tirol (Südtirol) became Italy’s Alto Adige. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region, including giving each town an Italian name. The government has wooed cranky German-speaking locals with economic breaks that make this one of Italy’s richest areas (as local prices attest). Today, signs and literature in the autonomous province of Südtirol/Alto Adige are in both languages.
This region's local color survives in a blue-aproned, ruddy-faced, long-white-bearded way. There’s yogurt and yodeling for breakfast. Culturally as much as geographically, Südtirol/Alto Adige feels Austrian. (Part of Austria is named after Tirol, a village that is now actually in Italy.)
Tourist offices in any Dolomite town are a wealth of information. Before choosing a hike, get their advice. Ideally, pick a hike with an overnight in a mountain hut and make a telephone reservation. Most huts, called refugios, offer reasonable doubles, cheaper dorm (Lager) beds, and good inexpensive meals.
The best time to visit — when everything is open and booming, but also at full-price and crowded — is from mid-July through September and during the ski season. The months in between can be pretty dreary. During the spring and fall low season, the most exciting trails are still under snow, and the mountain lifts are shut down. Most mountain huts and budget accommodations are closed, as the locals are more concerned with preparing for another boom season than catering to the stray off-season tourist.
The Dolomites, Italy’s dramatic limestone rooftop, serve thrilling and reliably sunny alpine thrills. Its bold, snow-dusted mountains and green meadows offer great hikes. To call a traditional town (rather than a ski resort) home, settle down in Castelrotto. And for the best of Italy's alpine thrills in a gentle package, stretch out in the Alpi di Suisi.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.