If spending time in mountain regions brings you the incomparable feeling of exhilaration, awe and serenity, then the Italian Alps could be the next place to visit. If you enjoy something extraordinary, dramatic, yet lovely beyond words, you may wish to head specifically to the Dolomites.
The Dolomites is a range of mountains in the northeastern portion of the Italian Alps along the Austrian border. This range extends from the Adige River in the west to the Piave Valley in the east. It is composed of six massifs, or groups. While disordered in a varietal fashion, each group has its own character and beauty. Mount Marmolada, or "Lord of Them All," is the largest and most imposing with its outer ring of black, jagged crest and huge precipice.
The Dolomites spread through the provinces of Belluno, the South Tyrol and Trentino-Alto Adige. With 18 peaks which reach to above 3,000 meters, this mountain range is an exhibit of some of the most breathtaking mountain landscapes. The majestic splendor of this unique area was enough inspiration to have been used as a background for Leonard DaVinci's Mona Lisa.
The name Dolomites comes from the early 1800s when French geologist Deodat Gratet de Dolomieu became the first person to describe the rock "dolomite" as a carbonate rock. Dolomieu's colorful history in itself is a story. He was a French Knight of Malta who at age 18 killed a fellow member of his order in a duel. He was condemned to death, pardoned and became a calvary officer. De Dolomieu became famous during the French Revolution when he followed Napoleon to the Pyramids. When he became ill in Egypt, he was forced to leave. During his return, his ship was caught in a storm and washed up on the shores of Taranto, Italy in the southern region of Puglia. There he was taken in as a prisoner of war and transferred to Messina, Sicily where he was put in solitary confinement. After much stipulation and pleas from Napoleon to the Pope, de Dolomieu was released.
The sweeping panoramic landscape which has drawn so many visitors is composed, therefore, of Dolomitic limestone. This is the characteristic which gives the Dolomites international recognition as a geological wonder, with glaciation and erosion being two of the main causes for the wide variety of landforms. Various shapes of the mountains can be compared to rocky pinnacles, plateaus, steeples, turrets, spires and towers. Another visual comparison of the set of these mountains would be that of a pipe organ with its perfect curve.
Also within these mountains you will find streams, rivers, lakes, valleys and pastures of unlikely sizes. For this reason, the region does quite well with farming grapes, apples and dairy, along with a major hydraulic capacity for energy. Tiny villages to large mountain cities are sprinkled among the entire area.
While this mountain range possesses a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, its real claim to fame is the amazing metamorphosis which occurs when the sun shines on the mountains during the many clear days in the region. The sunlight is the essence which creates the transfiguration of the appearance of the mountains throughout the day. A deep red to a rose flush are the predominant daylight colors, but it is at dusk when the final color phenomenon takes place. The rose flush turns into a blue and then an amazing amethyst which leaves many spectators standing in awe and wonder at its heaven-like appearance. The color pallet begins to wind down as the sun sets lower with grey, ashen and finally pure white of the snowy peaks completing the cycle.
Though people have lived for centuries in this more isolated area of Italy, it has become an important part of the Italian map within the last century. During World War I, it was the defeat of Austro-Hungarian forces, (composed of soldiers from Austria, Hungary and Germany), in a battle called the "Bloody Crossing of the Piave Valley" which gave the Alto Adige portion of the mountains previously known as Tyrol to Italy. A force of 300,000 surrendered to the Triple Entente leading to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian army. Today, one can visit the open-air museum and tour tunnels and trenches used by soldiers during the war.
The sensitivity of the loss of Tyrol still remains in some areas. Certain areas still insist on the German language and culture, but other areas have begun to assimilate with the Italian ways, as was encouraged by Mussolini.
It was during World War I, then, that many passes were created for easier travel through the mountains. Many of those passes remain today, making the Dolomites a very accessible location by way of Venice, Innsbruck and Verona. There are many climbing trails along these passes, such as the Val Sella, Val Gardena, Via di Fassa, and Alte Vie (meaning high paths). Along many of these paths you might encounter "rifugi," which are huts that hikers can use for rest.
Of course there are many attractions to be found among the Dolomites. While hiking and climbing are great draws, obviously skiing is one of the greatest activities in the region. The resorts among these mountain areas are known to be among the best in the world.
If physical activity is not compelling enough to make a visit to the Dolomites, perhaps the views alone by driving along the Grand Strada delle Dolomiti (Great Road of the Dolomites) straight through the heart of the Dolomites to Cortina d'Ampezzo, would make it worthwhile.
Cortina D'Ampezzo tops the northern region of Veneto in the province of Belluno. This ski resort town is one of the most fashionable places for the Italians to be seen during the winter months. It rivals Madonna di Campiglio, located in Trentino-Alto Adige and Courmayeur in the region Valle d'Aosta.
It was in Trento, a modern and robust university town in the province of Trentino, that the Council of Trent took place in the 1500s-a true turning point in the history of the Catholic Church. Counter-Reformation was thus begun, bringing half of Europe back to Catholicism.
Closer to the border of Austria, the Germanic and Italian cultures have begun to live in harmony, with medieval and modern influences. Bolzano, the capital of the South Tyrol (Südtirol) or Alto Adige is the largest city in the province. Noticeable here is the Tyrolean culture evident in the language, food, architecture and people. But among the beer and sauerkraut and fair-haired Germans, you will see the Italian influence which slowly has trickled in as is visible by the espresso (only as the Italians make it) and Italian boutiques. In addition to the usual churches, castles and museums, Bolzano is home to the world's oldest preserved body!
While there are so many more facts, figures, and areas which deserve to be mentioned here, from the flowers at Rosengarten to the Cimon della Pala, known as the Matterhorn of the Dolomites, to the earliest known pioneers, Josiah Gilbert and George C. Churchill, the most obvious conclusion consistent among multiple sources is that this region's unique quality is well worth a visit!
Author's note: This region became a fascination to me when researching the little town of Vinigo di Cadore in the Valle del Boite (province of Belluno), the family town of my mother-in law (Bonnie Felice DiCillo). Her great-grandmother, Amelia Marchioni, was the first woman to have a sewing machine in the town of Vinigo! The photos I found on-line inspired me to research a little further, and it was through this that I discovered the magical area of the Dolomites.