Image credit: Freddy Planinschek / Alta Badia Tourism
In Italy you will often hear the expression “dolce far niente”, which can be translated as “the art of doing nothing” or “sweet doing nothing”. Actually, you may have already heard Julia Roberts use it in Eat Pray Love whilst enthusiastically devouring Margheritas, slurping al dente spaghetti and downing glasses of red in Naples or Rome. We cannot blame her for her infinite appetite nor for quickly getting smitten with Italy — while doing nothing but enjoying its culture, its history, its cuisine — at her own pace. After all, who wouldn’t? Each Italian region is a melange of distinct traditions and remarkable landmarks; it is not even a cliché to name the whole country an open-air museum. But there is something different about Northern Italy that even the most hardened traveller will observe and feel.
In the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Dolomite mountains, which span the regions of Belluno, South Tyrol and Trentino, you will subconsciously pass an imaginary threshold into a unique realm. Considered one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, the Dolomites are worlds apart from any other mountains in Europe. At 3,343 metres high and encompassed by dense pine forests, the mountains are an overwhelming view to behold. Capped with pinnacles which resemble cyclopean needles, this untamed landscape truly has the invigorating power to lure travellers into experiencing “la dolce vita” and even surprise them with a few secrets.
1. Welcome to a cultural hopscotch.
Wedged into the top right-hand corner of Italy, the region of South Tyrol also known as Alto Adige (‘Upper Adige’ after its most famous river) is a beautiful conglomeration of deep mountain valleys, forests, rivers, and lakes — all guarded by spiky mountains that soar up in intense colours. Geographically, you are in Italy — even though some sarcastically remark the region is as Italian as sauerkraut — but Austrian history prevails. Until 1918, the region belonged to Austria and eventually became part of Italy after the two countries fought a merciless battle across the mountainous terrain. Today, locals speak both languages as well as Ladin, an ancient Romance language preserved and spoken by inhabitants of Alta Badia as well as in the other valleys surrounding Sella. Amusingly, urban ‘battles’ are still waged over the German, Italian and Ladin spelling of street names and we, too, acknowledge that reading signposts can be a lengthy and challenging endeavour.
2. Ladin is a lasting reminder.
While the past of the region has always encouraged political bickering, it’s obvious this Italian autonomous area is pure boon in terms of its cuisine. In Alta Badia, fine cuisine is highly regarded (three restaurants are even awarded with Michelin stars) and boasts German and Ladin influences. Traditional fare is also plentiful and reflects the mountain existence. If you have never tried this type of cuisine before, think hearty fare that is a befitting reward for surviving the hike up a snowy mountain. Prepared by good-natured and hard-working Ladins, who are renowned for having a knack for friendliness and hospitality, the dishes are a combination of pastas, polentas, rich soups and dumplings (which are called either gnocchi or spätzle).
In the Dolomites, the best-known Ladin restaurant is Maso Runch, located at the bottom of the Nature Park Puez-Odle near the village of Badia and surrounded by green meadows. The home and restaurant of Nagler family, Maso Runch is a real culinary institution where you will be greeted personally by Herr Nagler, a ruddy faced middle-aged man wearing a traditional feathered felt hat, while his wife, Frau Nagler — donning a dark-blue apron — will huff and puff down the wooden stairs of the villa maneuvering rich platters of local dishes that are part of the generous seven-course menu. Hams, wursts, pork legs, spinach ravioli and an alarming assortment of “turtres” (various shapes and sizes of doughnut and pancake-like concoctions) are paired with homemade wines and schnapps, which will warm you up even on the coldest winter nights.
3. The peaks go ablaze in summer.
In winter, these mountains are less forgiving than other mountains in the Alps. Yet, as harsh as they might appear in the eyes of an experienced skier eager to conquer it laterally and vertically, in summer they become softened powerfully by their colour, which varies throughout the day. Its summer make-up ranges from blushing soft-as-petals rosy-pink shade to blazing orange-red flames at sunset; as soon as the last light disappears in the horizon, the cliffs turn grey and within seconds, a complete darkness enfolds them.
The phenomenon of such colours is called “enrosadira” (literally “to become rose-coloured” in Ladin) and takes place due to a special composition of calcium carbonate and magnesium present in the mountains, which during summer, give the peaks the famous rose-pink. In late afternoons, as the sun begins to set, the mountains begin to “glow” beautifully in alternating hues of pink and rose, which gradually turn to purple. When hiking, travellers often stop to gaze in wonder at the “glowing” peaks (especially at Santa Croce) as twilight makes them ablaze in magnificent shades which never seem to repeat twice.
4. It is as much a walking paradise as it is a skiing wonderland.
Skiers may swear the Dolomites is their second home in winter, but come summer, they admit that the sleek shiny fireside can wait. Once warm days slowly abound, the powdery pistes transform into green pastures, where the sun shines mildly and enhances the natural colours of this alpine heaven. It is also the perfect time for mountaineers to prove they won’t rest on their laurels. Instead, they start exploring — for to utterly enjoy the Dolomites, one has to walk.
Ski lifts stay open throughout summer and give access to the high alpine pastures and rocky limestone peaks. However, the best hikes in the area can take up to six hours (and involve plenty of steep uphill climbs), but your inner child will surely be happy to stumble upon a local dressed in the ever-popular ‘lederhosen’ and his loyal Saint-Bernard merrily taking their weekend hike. For less-experienced hikers, there are plenty of mountain guides who can lead you to some off-the-beaten track trails, and if you do get tired of walking, just rent a mountain bike and experience a downhill ride to remember.
5. Skiing does not have to be routine.
In one of the leading ski areas of Europe, both the beginner and the experienced skier will be able to enjoy an exhaustive number of slopes. There are numerous gentle valleys, steep chutes and long winding sloping meadows, so skiing is an activity one starts craving more and more each day. But recently, skiers have been given the option to explore the Dolomites differently, through ski safaris, going from hut-to-hut or rifugi-to-rifugi — making the most of the exceptional local cuisine, culture and hospitality. The experience, available from mid-April to December and varies from five to eight days, will take you from valley to valley on groomed on-piste slopes until you reach a different high-altitude rifugio or hotel each night. Tours start from Alta Badia and continue to peaks where World War I battles raged and to the famous and ritziest ski area of Cortina d’Ampezzo as well as the Marmolada Glacier — the largest glacier in the Dolomites.