Forget about Florence and its Renaissance roots. See you later, Manarola and your picturesque coastline. There’s been a change of plans. I belong in Bolzano and the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. The draw will not be a surprise: The dramatic, rugged spires of the Dolomites best even the Tetons.
German (and Austrian) heritage runs deep in this area. Historically, the heavily-contested region was part of Austria-Hungary, but control shifted to Italy after World War I as an award to the victors. You can still see many castles and towers that are remnants from that era and before. The landscape is more German, but the weather is more Italian. I packed gloves and a stocking cap specifically for this area, but temperatures neared 100 degrees, and I have a sunburn to prove it.
But the mixed cultures means that everything in the area has two names – one in Italian, one in German. This includes towns and streets, and signs and restaurant menus always list both (and usually don’t include English). When I walked into a tourist information office, I was greeted in three languages: buongiorno, guten tag and hello. (There’s another language, Ladin, that is only used in this region, though I’m not sure I heard it during our stay.)
Bolzano, a city of about 100,000 people, seemingly goes on holiday every weekend. Many shops shut down after noon on Saturdays, and about 80 percent of the businesses (including supermarkets) are closed all day Sundays. This can make it difficult for vegetarians to find food, particularly in a town with mostly Tirolean restaurants, many of which don’t display their menus in English.
But that’s OK. The city itself is not the reason we visited. This is the home of the Dolomites. Even though Bolzano is the only place in Italy where I felt like I might be able to navigate in a car, my preferred choice of travel was a different type of car: the cable car. From Bolzano and many of the surrounding villages, you can pay your way up to the mountains a little bit at a time.
We arrived around midday, and after lunch we walked a few blocks from the train station to the Funivia del Renon, which lifted us up about 1,000 meters in a dozen minutes, dropping us at Soprabolzano. From there, a single-track train slowly took us deeper into the mountains to Collalbo, where we got out and then hiked to neighboring Longomoso, where we passed numerous people dressed in traditional German garb. Yes, lederhosen included. Past the village, you get to see “earth pyramids,” natural pinnacles similar to ones at Crater Lake National Park, as well as expansive views of the Dolomites. We had a nice outdoors dinner in Soprabolzano before riding back down to reality.
With more time the following day, we could visit Alpe di Siusi, the largest high-alpine meadow in Europe, according to Rick Steves. Even though traffic in Alto Adige is fairly light, I’m not sure I would have liked driving even my old Honda Civic coupe up the steep, winding road to Siusi. How the bus drivers do it, I’m not sure. We only had a handful of near-accidents in the 50 minutes each way. (Small world: A couple that was just moving away from Bend was also on our bus.)
Then you get to the Siusi cable car, with the Massiccio dello Sciliar towering above you, and all is well. After another 15-minute cable car ride, any roads seem light years away. Compatsch is a gateway to numerous other cable cars that will whisk you up the meadow and into the highlands if you’re in a hurry (and willing to pay). Otherwise, you can hike to the horizon and beyond.
Certainly, this is a region worth fighting for.