Leaning back in my deck chair, I enjoy the warmth of the sun on my skin. A living sea spreads out before me, but it’s a sea of wildflowers. I’m not on the beach, but on a farm, with a view of Europe’s largest high alpine pasture, cared for by eating goats and cows. In the distance, snow-capped peaks loom against the blue sky. These are Italy’s Alps, the Dolomites.
My soundtrack is the happy laughter of Italian children enjoying a petting zoo full of alpine animals. A few meters further on, her parents drink wine on the veranda of their chalet guest house – and enjoy the dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) to the fullest … like me.
The sky-high meadow of the Alpe di Siusi seems to float high above the city of Bolzano and separates two of the most famous ski area valleys in the Dolomites, Val di Fassa and Val Gardena. The Alpe di Siusi is 4.8 by 11 kilometers and 2,000 meters high and is littered with farm huts and happy hikers who enjoy gentle paths. These mountains differ from the rest of the Alps in their predominant rock type – limestone – which forms steep vertical walls of white, gray, and pale pink walls that rise abruptly from green valleys and meadows.
At the top of the meadow, the Sassolungo offers a picture-book backdrop of the Dolomites. And opposite is the Schlern – a long, flat mountain ridge that ends in creepy cliffs – boldly looking into the haze of the Italian peninsula. Not surprisingly, the Sciliar gave the ancient peoples enough willpower to spawn legends of supernatural powers. The fear of the Schlern witch, today’s mascot of the tourist brochure, was the cause of the fiery death of many medieval citizens.
As a nature reserve, the alpine meadow between the peaks is almost car-free. A cable car brings visitors from the valley to the park. Within the park, buses take hikers to and from key points along the tiny road to the base of the scenic Sasso peaks. Meadow walks are great for wildflower walks, while chair lifts act as a stepping stone for more dramatic and challenging hikes. Mountain bikes are easy to rent, welcome at many lifts and allowed on the meadow paths.
The Seiser Alm is my favorite stop in the Dolomites because of its typical views, but also its easy accessibility and the variety of walks and hikes. In addition, there is the charm of the neighboring town of Castelrotto, which I use as a home base.
Castelrotto is also a funny blob of Germanic culture in Italy: there is yoghurt and yodelling for breakfast … Wiener schnitzel and strudel for dinner. The region has long been oriented to the north, first as part of the Holy Roman Empire and then firmly in the Austrian Habsburg Empire. After Austria lost the First World War, its “Südtirol” (South Tyrol) became Italy’s “South Tyrol”. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region, including giving each city an Italian name (such as Kastelruth, also known as Kastelruth).
This highly competitive history has left this northeast corner of Italy both bicultural and bilingual. Signs and literature in the Autonomous Province are in both languages, but the emphasis is on German. It still feels Austrian, both culturally and geographically. The Germanic color survives in a manner wearing lederhosen with a blue apron, reddish face. Most locals still speak German first, and many feel closer to their Germanic ancestors than to their Italian compatriots. Most of them have a good command of Italian, but watch German-language television, read newspapers in German and live in seemingly Tyrolean villages. The government has courted quirky German-speaking locals with economic interruptions that make this area one of the richest areas in Italy.
I love coming home to Castelrotto after a hike in the meadow. It was built for farmers rather than skiers, so it has more character than any other town in the area. When I come to church, I enjoy practicing in the choir. Then, as I step out of church at 3 p.m., the bells ring as I witness the happy parade of parents bringing their preschoolers home. These idyllic moments may seem like cultural clichés, but they are authentic, not performances for tourists. It is moments like these that make it easy to enjoy this Germanic vortex in the hot tub of Italy.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com), who lives in Edmonds, writes European travel guides, hosts travel programs on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was taken from his new book “For the Love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.