Located in northeastern Italy, the Dolomites have been called the most beautiful mountains on earth, and certainly they are among the most dramatic. They offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe, whether you want to stay firmly planted on the ground or soar high above the valley floor.
While no secret to the Italians, many Americans aren't aware of these remarkable peaks. The mountains differ from the rest of the Alps because of their dominant rock type--dolomite--which forms sheer vertical walls of white, gray, and pink rising abruptly from green valleys and meadows.
It's here you'll find Europe's largest alpine meadow--Alpe di Siusi. The huge meadow--3 miles long by 7 miles wide--seems to float at 6,000 feet. It's dotted by farm huts and wild flowers, surrounded by soaring peaks, and crisscrossed by meadow trails--ideal for flower lovers, walkers, and equestrians. For a good home base, try the nearby village of Castelrotto, which offers accommodations and restaurants with Tirolean flair.
Because the Alpe di Siusi is a popular winter destination for skiers, chairlifts are everywhere--providing springboards for dramatic summer hikes or bike rides. Mountain bikes are easy to rent, welcome on many lifts, and permitted on the meadow's country lanes.
While the Dolomites are peaceful now, during World War I the front line between the Italian and Austrian forces ran through these mountains, and many paths were cut into the range for military use. Today mountaineers can follow a network of metal rungs, cables, and ladders--what Italians call a via ferrata. One famous wartime trail is the Strada delle Gallerie (Road of Tunnels), which passes through 52 tunnels.
Those battles are part of a hard-fought history that has left the region bicultural and bilingual. For many centuries it was part of Austria. But after its WWI defeat, Austria lost this land, and "Sudtirol" became "Alto Adige." Many locals still feel a closer bond with their Germanic ancestors than with their Italian countrymen. Most have a working knowledge of Italian, but they watch German-language TV, read newspapers auf Deutsch, and live in Tirolean-looking villages. Overall, seven in ten Italians living in the South Tirol speak German as their mother tongue.
The main city of the region--Bolzano (or “Bozen” to its German-speaking residents)--exemplifies this split personality: If it weren’t so sunny, you could be in Innsbruck. This arcaded old town of 100,000 is worth a Tirolean stroll. The main square, Piazza Walther, is the town’s living room. It was the site of Italy’s first McDonald’s, which--in the early 1990s--became the first McDonald’s to be shut down by locals protesting American fast food.