Ötzi the Iceman – The superb Museo Archeologico dell’ Alto Adige (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology) in Bolzano features the actual corpse of Ötzi the Iceman. His frozen body was discovered high in the Alps on the Austrian/Italian border by a group of German walkers in 1991. Assuming the corpse was that of a lost climber, officials literally hacked him out of the glacier, unfortunately damaging his left side in the process. Only on discovering his pre-Bronze axe did they realise what they had found: a perfectly preserved 5,300-year-old Neolithic hunter, complete with clothing, weapons and personal belongings, all in excellent condition.

Verona – The city of beauty, romance and times gone by, is a mere two-hour drive away. The riches of Verona, characterised by its picturesque Italianate architecture, colourful history, vibrant markets, trendy shops and spirited atmosphere, make it one of the true gems of the country. Because of its many historical buildings, the Roman heart of the city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its old town boasts numerous magnificent Roman ruins; not least the world-famous Arena di Verona – a 2000-year-old Roman Arena – and also Piazza della Erbe, which used to be a Roman Forum. Verona is also the setting for the famous story of Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. The places where the young lovers supposedly lived and died are visited by thousands of tourists every year.     

Kastelruth – The lively village of Castelrotto (Kastelruth in German) is an excellent base for your exploration of Alpe di Siusi (walking area Seiser Alm & Schlern) and the surrounding area, and it has more character than any other village we know in the Dolomites region. With its quaint village square and traditionally-clad locals, its picturesque traffic-free centre and over 1000 years of history, it seems lost in another world. This is home to the undisputed stars of traditional folk music, ‘Kastelruther Spatzen’.

Open Air War Museum – The memory of the terrible fights in the Dolomites between Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers from 1915 to 1917 during WWI is kept alive in an extraordinary open air museum near Cortina d’Ampezzo. http://www.grandeguerra.dolomiti.org/default.html

Lagazuoi Tunnels Via Ferrata – Probably the most unusual via ferrata in the eastern part of the Dolomites. During WWI the Austrians and the Italians fought over and inside Mount Lagazuoi in the Dolomites. Both sides dug a network of tunnels inside the mountain with the aim of planting mines beneath their enemies. Some of the tunnels have been restored, with an easy via ferrata following the route of one of these Lagazuoi Tunnels. Storerooms, barracks, passageways, and other artefacts are well preserved and still visible. Choose whether to walk through the tunnels going up or down (down is easier!), then take the cable car the other way. The 1-2 hours walk starts with a cable car ride from Passo Falzarego, west of Cortina d’Ampezzo, up to the Lagazuoi summit. Before starting the hike, rent helmets and flashlights next to the cable car station.

Top spot for food lovers – This is where Italian and Austrian cultures overlap, inns and restaurants serve-up hearty portions of Speckknödelsuppe (bacon-dumpling soup) and Polenta e coniglio (rabbit cooked with polenta), and the hospitality and generosity of the people is unique – it is, quite simply, the best of both worlds.

International Mountain Summit – An annual end-of-season event which attracts the world’s best mountaineers and mountain climbers to the town of Bressanone (Brixen). This popular Mountain Festival (Bergfestival/Il festival della montagna) offers a series of conferences, forums, talks, mountain films, guided walks led by famous mountaineers, workshops and a bouldering competition. There is also a customary ‘warming down’ event (Abklettern: end-of-season climbing). Here is all the info: http://www.ims.bz/en.html

UNESCO – Nine dolomite mountain ranges are listed as UNESCO protected world heritage sites: Pelmo-Croda da Lago, the Marmolada, Pale di San Martino-San Lucano, the Bellunese Dolomites, the Friulane and Oltre Piave Dolomites, the Northern Dolomites, Puez-Odle, Catinaccio-Latemar, Bletterbach and the Brenta Dolomites.

Dolomite Ladins – More than 30,000 Dolomite Ladins live in the Ladin speaking villages of the Dolomites and a stay in Alta Badia offers you the opportunity to learn more about the area’s Ladin population, their ancient language (more than 2,000 years old), their history and their culture. Visit the enthralling Ladin museum Ćiastel de Tor in San Martino. The museum highlights aspects of the past and present of the Dolomite Ladins, the important influences of historical events on their lives and the strong link between the Dolomite’s landscape and their culture. Info: www.museumladin.it

History & Culture

Strikingly different from the rest of the Alps, the limestone Dolomites of Northern Italy rise dramatically from Alpine valleys to startling spire-like pinnacles. Formed some 200 million years ago, they are, in fact, made of ancient coral reef and as a result marine fossils are frequently discovered among the mountains’ dramatically towering peaks. The Dolomites take their name from the area’s predominant mineral, ‘dolomite’. In 1789 the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801) identified the crystalline magnesium that makes up the rock. It was later named ‘dolomia’, which, in turn, gave rise to the term Dolomites.

Scattered remains of pre-historic civilisation, dating as far back as 6000 BC, have been discovered in the region of current Trentino-Alto Adige. Since then, the area has had a turbulent history. In more recent times, in 15 BC, the Romans advanced from the south bringing with them a new culture and new sophistication. Around the year 400, Rome withdrew its legions from the area and three other tribes moved in to take control: the Lombards (bringing in Venetian culture and traditions), the Alemanni and the Bavarians. The Franks came onto the scene shortly afterwards reviving the Germanic culture. However, an ethnic minority of the dominion of Rome, the Ladini, still survives today in some valleys.

The mountains of the Dolomites represent a natural barrier between the Italian peninsula and the rest of Europe, and, historically, the area was relatively peaceful up to 1915. In actual fact, the Dolomites were basically untouched by the outside world until, almost overnight, the high mountains and passes became the front line between Austrian and Italian troops during WWI.

Today, despite being part of modern Italy, the Northern Dolomites have an Austrian feel, which is not surprising if you remember that until 1918 the area was part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire. Whilst officially trilingual (Italian, German and Ladin – the ancient Rhaeto-Romance language), two-thirds of the population speak German as their first language, however, locals are generally comfortable conversing in either Italian or German, and some speak excellent English too.

Geography, Flora & Fauna

No description of the Dolomites would be complete without mentioning the abundance of wildflowers, which are at their peak during June and July. Having a different geology to the main alpine chain, Dolomitic limestone supports around 1,500 unique species, many of which are rare alpine gems. The flora of the Dolomites is outstanding, not just in its variety, but also in its sheer quantity; almost always with stunning views as a backdrop. Stop anywhere that takes your fancy; dense woods with wintergreens, coral root and other flowers, at a wetland area coated in butterworts and marsh orchids, or amongst the endless flowery meadows. Rich fruits of the forest abound, as do other solitary flowers that grow on rocks such as the vibrantly pink alpenrose. There are also many herbs, healing plants and fungi that only grow on Dolomite pastures like the Alpe di Siusi plateau.

Wildlife thrives in the Dolomites, most notably the alpine ibex (Steinbock in German). The ibex has, for a long time, been regarded as a mystical animal; almost all its body parts were sought after as an ingredient for ‘magical’ potions. As a result, the ibex had disappeared from much of the Alps at the beginning of the 19th century. Thanks to the efforts of a small group of people, the last remaining animals in Italy were protected in 1816. Today, after extensive and ongoing introduction programmes, the population in the wild is estimated to be about 30,000.

The landscape of the Dolomites is renowned for its magnificent walking and flora, but it is a less well-known fact that this is also one of Europe’s top butterfly habitats – as there are around 150 species, you’re sure to see a bountiful variety of them.

If you’ve walked in the Alps before then you might recognise ‘that’ whistle all too well: the marmots’ warning. Marmots are relatively easy to spot, especially at dawn and dusk, standing upright at their vantage point. Nutcrackers are common in the woods, and alpine choughs, ravens and crows may come down to share your picnic lunch! Climbing higher you might catch fleeting glimpses of alpine chamois, the true rulers of this rocky world. A chance meeting with the extremely rare brown bear is highly unlikely, but in recent years there have been occasional sightings, partly due to wandering bears from Slovenia.

When you head for the great outdoors you will also have the opportunity to spot the more common mammals such as roe deer, weasel, marten, hare and red squirrel (which may be black or red). Local birds of prey include owls, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.