A travel tip for the Dolomites: You do not want to be the driver, negotiating steep hairpin turns and bands of Italian cyclists pedalling through dangerously narrow mountain passes.
You want to be the passenger, the one hanging her head out the window, mouth agape, transfixed on the mountain peaks and gloriously green valleys. This monumental mountain range in northeastern Italy is one of the world’s most beautiful playgrounds for outdoor adventurers, from winter skiers to summer hikers, bikers, mountain climbers and more. But equally fascinating is its cultural heritage.
Much of the region was Austrian until annexation by Italy after World War I, and the distinctive local cuisine reflects these roots; expect lots of speck, sauerkraut, knodel and strudel. From valley to valley, village to village, you will still encounter mostly German, some Italian with a lilting accent, as well as Ladin, an umlaut-heavy language native to this remote region. But though road signs are posted in two or three languages, the otherworldly beauty of the Dolomites needs no translation.
If you’re heading to Italy, don’t forget to consider a weekend here – we’ve got you covered.
3pm: Explore war-themed museums
To understand a place, one must understand its history, so begin a visit to the Dolomites with a lesson on its war-torn past. At the hillside Bunker Museum (admission, 5 euros, or about S$8), descend into a chilling Cold War bunker where installations trace the South Tyrol region’s history through fascism and the fight for autonomy. Delve further into the past at the Forte Tre Sassi (7 euros), a mountaintop museum in a disused fort that examines the hardships that World War I soldiers faced, and the fierce battles fought around the surrounding mountain passes. (Those with more time can also visit the area’s World War I open-air museums to hike through the trenches and tunnels used in tragic battles between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies.) Or, if driving into the region from the west, stop at the imposing Forte di Fortezza, a labyrinthine fortification spanning nearly 50 acres that was constructed by Austria out of fear of the French in the 19th century and has now opened as a museum (7 euros).
5.30pm: Visit an alpine lake
A dazzling spectrum of blues and greens glimmer from the chilly depths of Lago di Braies, an alpine lake nestled deep in the mountains. Hike the 2 1/2-mile trail that hugs the jewel-toned lake, where colours shift in the sunlight from milky emerald to brilliant sapphire, with an ever-changing mountain backdrop beyond. In the summer months, polished wooden rowboats are available to rent (25 euros an hour, June through September, between 10am and 5pm); winter visitors can snowshoe through the snowy scene.
8pm: Have a Dolomite dinner
High above the town of Bruneck, dine on traditional Tyrolean cuisine at Oberraut, an alpine chalet with homey wood-panelled dining rooms and dirndl-clad servers. The menu features dishes made with products grown on the property; for instance, delicious bread dumplings called canederli are made with meadow herbs and served with fresh greens from the garden. Or book a table at Osteria Garsun, a family-run restaurant with a hearty set menu of Ladin specialties (25 euros), which recently included panicia, a vegetable-and-barley soup, and casunziei, or house-made half-moon ravioli served with melted butter, ground poppy seeds and Parmigiano cheese. Save room for two rounds of dessert, including warm apple strudel and a bracing shot of grappa.
10.30pm: Check out the bar scene
After dinner, join the local crowd gathered beside the river in Bruneck at Brunegg’n, a cocktail bar with live music – country, folk, rock – and DJ sets on weekend nights. At a table on the terrace, order the Colonial IPA from the Bolzano brewery Batzen Brau (5.50 euros), or try the Hugo Mango, a fruity twist on the bubbly Tyrolean elderflower cocktail (4.50 euros).
8am: Hike at the triplet peaks
One of the most spectacular hikes to tackle in a half-day is the 6-mile circumnavigation of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, three distinctive mountain peaks that loom large along the entirety of the trail. The stony paths are relatively easy and well-marked, making this one of the most popular (and crowded) Dolomite hikes. The trail begins at Rifugio Auronzo and loops around the rugged spires, past meadows of wildflowers, small lakes and a few rifugi (mountain huts). There is ample parking at the trailhead, and a 30 euro road tariff per car.
12.30pm: Grab some local lunch
When it is time to refuel, head to Pur Sudtirol, a grocery shop and cafe where everything – from the yogurt and cheeses to ripe summer peaches – comes from the surrounding territory. Gather a selection of picnic supplies, perhaps some speck, graukase (a pungent Tyrolean cheese named after its gray rind), apple cider and a loaf of crusty rye. Or order lunch at the cafe, which offers fresh salads and daily specials, like cheesy knodel on a bed of chopped cabbage. Lunch, about 12 euros.
2pm: Visit a mountain museum
After scaling his first summit at the age of five, Reinhold Messner went on to become a famed mountaineer – the first to summit every mountain over 8,000 meters (including Mount Everest, solo). Now in his 70s, Messner has founded a series of museums in his native Dolomites. The most recent, the Messner Mountain Museum Corones, is a podlike complex designed by Zaha Hadid atop Kronplatz, elevation 7,500 feet. Ride the ropeway to the summit to admire sky-high views, then tour the museum’s exhibits dedicated to the history of mountaineering and its pioneers (admission, 10 euros). Afterward, meander to the meadow where a herd of horses graze, or ascend the peaks via ferrata, one of the protected “iron path” climbing routes with steel cables that aid rock climbing throughout the Alps.
5pm: Have some wine
Though the region is most known for its white wines, skip the sylvaner and riesling in favor of little-known Alto Adige reds during a tasting at Abbazia di Novacella, a pastoral monastery of Augustinian canons founded in the 12th century that produces wine from grapes grown in the surrounding terraced vineyards. Prefer the robust Santa Maddalena or the sweet schiava? The aromatic lagrein or the zesty zweigelt? At a table in the Stiftskeller, the monastery’s bustling cantina, sip your way through the menu; if you discover a new favorite, the on-site wine shop sells bottles to go.
8pm: Dine out at a Michelin-star restaurant
Michelin stars hang over the Alta Badia, a beautiful valley dotted with polished resort towns. In the well-heeled village of San Cassiano, a fleet of Porsches park outside the Hotel Rosa Alpina and its acclaimed restaurant, St. Hubertus, which last year earned a third Michelin star for Norbert Niederkofler’s haute mountain cuisine (tasting menus from 200 euros). And down the road at the Ciasa Salares hotel, Matteo Metullio, a rising star chef (and St. Hubertus alumnus), has caught the attention of the culinary world. Not yet 30 years old, Metullio earned a second Michelin star last year for his game-focused cuisine at the hotel’s La Siriola restaurant (tasting menus from 130 euros).
9am: Admire some Gothic frescoes
The town of Brixen (Bressanone in Italian) has deep roots as a religious and cultural centre of the region. In the cool morning light, visit the cathedral, which dates to 980 and has an Austrian-Baroque facade, beautiful frescoes and a marble-clad altar. Equally impressive is the adjoining cloister, where Gothic frescoes believed to have been painted in the 14th and 15th centuries adorn Romanesque colonnades around a contemplative garden.
11am: Paraglide over the peaks
Launch yourself off a mountaintop with just a few running steps, a harness fastened to your tandem paragliding instructor and perhaps a quick prayer. Then sit back for a euphoric flight among the majestic Dolomite peaks and down into the valley below. One of the most experienced outfits is the Fly2 tandem paragliding team, who have been flying in the Val Gardena for over 20 years (various launch locations and flight durations, from 110 euros).
1pm: Hope aboard a gondola
After a smooth landing, ride the adrenaline wave back into the mountains aboard a cardinal-red gondola that ferries riders from Ortisei to the top of Mont Seuc (round trip, about 19 euros). This summit, with an elevation of over 6,500 feet, offers a sweeping panorama of the Alpe di Siusi, the largest alpine plateau in Europe. Beyond the plateau’s meadows rises a spectacular series of mountain peaks, including the rugged pinnacle of Sassolungo and the flat-topped Sasso Piatto. From here, you might hike or cycle through the green meadows (mountain bike rentals available at the base). Or simply settle in at Ristorante Mont Seuc, where the weissbiers are cold, and tables on the outdoor terrace offer front-row seats to one of the finest Dolomite views.
Those seeking low-key, family-friendly lodgings will find an abundance of chalet-style options, such as the welcoming Hotel Tannenhof, a rustic 35-room resort near Bruneck (doubles from 92 euros).
The family-run Hotel Rosa Alpina is the premier luxury property in the region with a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, exclusive spa and 51 mountain-chic rooms and suites (doubles from about 500 euros).
In the Alpe di Siusi, the Adler Mountain Lodge boasts a mid-piste location with 30 rooms spread between private cabins and a modern lodge (from 800 euros per person in September).
By Ingrid K. Williams © 2018 The New York Times