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Italy's Alps, the Dolomites

Italy

Italy's Dolomites come with staggering peaks, beloved parks, and a mix of Italian and German culture, as the region was ruled by Vienna until the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated in World War I.

Complete Video Script

We're on our way to Italy's dramatic limestone rooftop. The Dolomites, with their distinct and jagged peaks, offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe.

And these mighty mountains seem to protect the traditional culture in the region's villages and bucolic farmsteads. Historically Tirol was its own state. Today that region is divided: part in Austria, and part in Italy. The Italian part is called "South Tirol."

The region is a mix of the two cultures, and officially bilingual. While the traditional economy is farming, today tourism is also big — skiing in winter, hiking in summer.

The Great Dolomites Road — beautifully engineered — leads to the nearly 7,000-foot-high Sella Pass. It's great for a joy ride, and famously a big challenge for bikers. Making it to the summit is always a good excuse for a triumphant group photo.

These bold limestone pillars offer something for everybody. This is rock-climbing country — thrilling, even for spectators.

From the town of Ortisei [a.k.a. St. Ulrich or Urtijëi] we're catching the Seceda lift. All over this region, the lifts do the climbing fast and easy, depositing hikers sweat-free at thin-air trailheads. I love walking on a ridge. And with as many nationalities enjoying this scene as there are flowers in the fields, the blissful world up here is one of pristine nature, and happy hikers.

These slopes are busy with skiers in the winter. When planning, be aware that in early spring and late fall — that's between seasons here in the Dolomites — many lifts, huts, and restaurants are shut down, and trails can be covered in snow. We're here in summer and everything's wide open. Everywhere I look feels like an alpine adventure awaiting my arrival.

One thing I love about Europe: I've been coming here all my life, and there's still places to discover.

The town of Kastelruth feels like an alpine village, rather than a ski resort. That's why I feature it in my Italy guidebook as the ideal home base for exploring the Dolomites.

The hyperactive bell tower seems to ring out the wisdom of honoring local traditions. Buildings are painted with murals celebrating the town's rich heritage. Clearly, fire has long been a concern. St. Florian, the patron of firefighters, is shown all over town putting out fires. The town cemetery is like a lovingly tended garden. Entire families share a common plot. Cobbled lanes lead past friendly shops to the welcoming town square. And for generations the fountain, with its metal cup, has invited all for a refreshing drink. The fountain also watered horses back when coaching inns lined the square.

Here in the region of South Tirol, even though we're in Italy, locals speak German first and Italian second. That's because, for centuries it was in the Austrian Habsburg realm, ruled from Vienna.

After World War I South Tirol ended up as part of Italy. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region. He even gave each city a new Italian name. This town, Kastelruth, became "Castelrotto." But the region's Germanic heritage endures. You can see it in its prosperity and in its lively folk culture.

Amateur folk bands have fun keeping that heritage alive. The instruments are traditional, as are the costumes. The blue aprons come from a time when humble workers needed to protect their precious clothing. It's nice to think that these boys are both modern and traditional — and their traditions are clearly surviving into the next generation.

Kastelruth is the gateway to Europe's largest alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi [a.k.a. the Seiser Alm]. As automobiles are generally not allowed, visitors approach by cable car. Landing at Compatsch, the commercial hub of the meadow, hikers can hop a lift or a shuttle bus to the trailhead of their choice. The Alpe di Siusi [Seiser Alm] is a natural preserve at the foot of the mighty Sassolungo [Langkofel] and Sasso Piatto [Plattkofel] peaks.

The meadow is three miles wide by seven miles long and seems to float at 6,000 feet above sea level. It's dotted by farm huts and wildflowers, surrounded by dramatic Dolomite peaks, and crisscrossed by meadow trails — ideal for equestrians, flower lovers, and walkers. It's also just right for someone needing a lazy beer with a spectacular view.

And completing this storybook Dolomite setting, the spooky mount [outcropping] Schlern, home of mythical witches, looks boldly into the haze of the Italian peninsula.