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Italy's undiscovered alpine retreat

Rick Steves

Rick Steves' Europe

9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013

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Located in northeastern Italy, the Dolomites have been called the most beautiful mountains on earth, and certainly they are among the most dramatic. They offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe, whether you want to stay firmly planted on the ground or soar high above the valley floor.

While no secret to the Italians, many Americans aren't aware of these remarkable peaks. The mountains differ from the rest of the Alps because of their dominant rock type -- dolomite -- which forms sheer vertical walls of white, gray, and pink rising abruptly from green valleys and meadows.

It's here you'll find Europe's largest alpine meadow -- Alpe di Siusi. The huge meadow -- 3 miles long by 7 miles wide -- seems to float at 6,000 feet. It's dotted by farm huts and wildflowers, surrounded by soaring peaks and crisscrossed by meadow trails -- ideal for flower lovers, walkers and equestrians. For a good home base, try the nearby village of Castelrotto, which offers accommodations and restaurants with Tirolean flair.

Because the Alpe di Siusi is a popular winter destination for skiers, chairlifts are everywhere -- providing springboards for dramatic summer hikes or bike rides. Mountain bikes are easy to rent, welcome on many lifts and permitted on the meadow's country lanes.

While the Dolomites are peaceful now, during World War I the front line between the Italian and Austrian forces ran through these mountains, and many paths were cut into the range for military use. Today mountaineers can follow a network of metal rungs, cables, and ladders -- what Italians call a via ferrata. One famous wartime trail is the Strada delle Gallerie (Road of Tunnels), which passes through 52 tunnels.

Those battles are part of a hard-fought history that has left the region bicultural and bilingual. For many centuries it was part of Austria. But after its World War I defeat, Austria lost this land, and "Sudtirol" became "Alto Adige." Many locals still feel a closer bond with their Germanic ancestors than with their Italian countrymen. Most have a working knowledge of Italian, but they watch German-language TV, read newspapers auf Deutsch, and live in Tirolean-looking villages. Overall, seven in 10 Italians living in the South Tirol speak German as their mother tongue.

The main city of the region -- Bolzano (or "Bozen" to its German-speaking residents) -- exemplifies this split personality: If it weren't so sunny, you could be in Innsbruck. This arcaded old town of 100,000 is worth a Tirolean stroll. The main square, Piazza Walther, is the town's living room. It was the site of Italy's first McDonald's, which -- in the early 1990s -- became the first McDonald's to be shut down by locals protesting American fast food.

Bolzano's top attraction is a 5,300-year-old man named Otzi. This frozen "Ice Man" was discovered high in the mountains on the Italian/Austrian border in 1991. Police initially believed the corpse was a lost hiker, and Otzi was chopped roughly out of the glacier, damaging his left side. But upon discovering his copper-bladed hatchet, officials realized that they had found a nearly perfectly preserved Stone Age hunter. Later, researchers pinned down the cause of his death -- an arrowhead buried in Otzi's left shoulder that led to uncontrollable bleeding and a quick end.

As the body was found right on the border, Austria and Italy squabbled briefly over who would get him. Tooth enamel studies have now shown that he did grow up on the Italian side, so it's only fair that Bolzano's South Tirol Museum of Archaeology is Otzi's final resting place (http://www.iceman.it).

With Otzi as the centerpiece, the museum takes you on an intriguing journey through time, recounting the evolution of humanity -- from the Paleolithic era to the Roman period and finally to the Middle Ages. The exhibit offers informative displays and models, video demonstrations of Otzi's extraction, and his personal effects. You'll see Otzi himself -- still frozen -- as well as an artist's reconstruction of what he looked like when alive.

Also in Bolzano, you can take a quick, easy cable car ride over the countryside to the touristy resort village of Oberbozen, where Sigmund Freud and his wife once celebrated their wedding anniversary. The reasonably priced, 12-minute ride offers views of the town, made-for-yodeling-farmsteads and distant views of the Dolomites. But if you want to hike among real mountains, linger in the Alpe di Siusi instead.

In spite of all the ski resorts, the regional color survives here in a felt-hat-with-feathers way. Whether you experience the Dolomites with your hand on a walking stick, a ski pole or an aperitivo while mountain-gazing from a cafe, it's easy to enjoy this Germanic eddy in the whirlpool of Italy.

(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)