In northern Italy, the Dolomites mountain range serves as an impressive backdrop for a cultural crossroads. Here, Italian and Austrian influences converge, breeding yet another distinct branch of European tradition. And though there is still a chill in the air, it’s the perfect time to start planning ahead for your spring or summer getaway with VBT. One of our travelers, Dr. Bonnie O., has provided us with a little inspiration to Cycle Europe in an account of her summer biking vacation in Italy: Cycling the Dolomite Valleys. Enjoy!
We traveled to Italy with VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations, a 41-year old company offering tours from Europe to Peru to New Zealand and Vietnam. They provide a first-class vacation with hawk-like attention to every detail. This was our first vacation under their auspices but most people who take one trip with them end up taking another.
This is the first summer they are offering their Dolomite tour, but already it is booked through the season. And for good reason. The Dolomites are Italy’s playground. The Alps provide excellent downhill skiing and cross-country skiing in winter and bicycling, sky-diving, hiking, kayaking, and fishing in summer. It is an ideal combination of spectacular natural beauty sprinkled with medieval castles and Austro-Italian history. It is Sound of Music country with bratwursts and pasta. And it proves to be the perfect place for bicycling.
Dolomite bike paths meander through the mountain valleys, forests, and open meadows bordered by rivers, family farms, and towns. Farmlands are not fenced in and often crops go right up to the bike path. Every several miles, springs come right out of the mountainside, their water funneled through spouts providing bikers and hikers with fresh, cool, clean water. At least one beautiful church steeple marks every small, quaint village. Medieval castles pepper hillsides between and even in many of those villages. Stupendous, snow-ribboned mountain peaks provide the backdrop for it all.
Italian culture intrigues just as much as its high peaks. And the culture is just as varied as those peaks. Italy is still considered by experts to be the most culturally diverse country in Europe. When we reached the towns closest to the Austrian border, all signs were first written in German and then in Italian. My husband and I heard people greeting each other in one language; responses came in another!
Food is another important part of Italian culture. During the biking part of our visit in the Dolomites we were served 5-course meals at dinner every night. And the food was delicious at every meal. It was in the Dolomites that my husband and I first developed our addiction to gelato, Italian ice cream. The Italians invented ice cream and I don’t think they have stopped eating it since. You cannot walk down the street in any village or city without seeing multiple groups of people licking away. After a day or two of experimenting with different flavors, we found ourselves slurping our favorites before lunch and slurping another favorite before dinner.
Before our biking trip started in the Dolomites we visited Venice; and after our biking trip ended in the Dolomites we took an extended visit to Florence and Verona. Both Venice and Florence offer Kodak moments every time you turn around. Both are among the most beautiful cities in the world. Florence is one of the museum capitals of the world and houses the best Renaissance art in Europe. We visited museum after museum to see the greatest works of High Renaissance Art, such as Michelangelo’s David. We visited the huge and awe inspiring synagogue in Florence. In each city we visited one gorgeous cathedral after another.
Of all the towns and villages Bruce and I visited, the ones that pulled at our heartstrings the most were Merano and Verona. Why? Both were built on a human scale. Merano is a small town so it is not surprising that we would find it so. But Verona is the fourth most-visited city in Italy and it is still structured such that it feels small and manageable.
In both Merano and Verona the people were very friendly, helpful, and warm. One evening as we walked along the riverfront in Merano we heard a street concert, its young and older members clearly residents of the town. It felt like we were experiencing something from our own childhoods.
The gorgeous scenery and historical buildings added immeasurably to the experience in both places. In Merano we visited a castle built in 1227; its winery now produces 500,000 bottles of wine a year. Of course a little wine-sampling was scheduled for our tour group, and a superb dinner followed. But what I will always remember is getting off the train in Merano after a week of biking. The first thing I smelled was honeysuckle. The town’s entire honeysuckle crop was in full bloom and its aroma followed us throughout the town. It was glorious.
Verona also sported honeysuckle blooms but what we also loved about this city was the wide streets cordoned off for pedestrian traffic only. We had time to meander around Verona where we noted pedestrian-street after pedestrian-street where stylish clothes were displayed behind huge glass windows; a gelato store graced every block; kiosks selling soccer memorabilia were grouped together in city squares which also hosted open fountains where anyone could cup their hands and take a drink of pure, fresh water.Verona was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 2000. It was a Roman fortified city by 200 B.C.E. The Roman arena here is the third largest one still in existence and the best preserved.
By the time we got to Verona we were totally in vacation mode. And so we did observe. What we noted was the Italians interacting with their peers. Italians are always talking and gesticulating. It is not only fun to watch but also leaves you with the impression that these people really enjoy talking with one another, that it is a national pastime. And it feels warm and friendly. And it feels like this is what we were made for, to find pleasure in the company of others.
Dr. Bonnie O.
June 20, 2011