Think you know Italy? The magnificent Dolomite region in South Tyrol just may prove otherwise. Craggy massifs tower over charming villages and green meadows. Chalet-style houses line alpine rivers. And you’re as likely to hear German from local tongues as Italian. It’s an unexpected delight, where maze-like roads wind their way between mountains, leading to Austrian-flavored enclaves and medieval porticoed streets.
Despite its alpine beauty – or some might say because of it – South Tyrol has inspired its share of contention. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the German-speaking province was used as a bargaining chip in World War I by Britain, France, and Russia to lure Italy into the war as an ally. And though the region was annexed by Italy in 1919, disputes over territory and heritage – especially with both German and Italian nationalism running high during World War II – continued right up until 1971, when the United Nations stepped in as arbitrator.
So exploring these Dolomite Valleys is truly an intercultural experience, one that even transcends Italian and Austrian. It’s especially fascinating to peek into the Ladin cultures in villages like Cortina d’Ampezzo. Isolated by geography, the Ladin language has survived over centuries and today is thought to be one of the world’s rarest. It’s rarer still to dine on traditionally Austrian cuisine within Italian borders. But there’s ample speck (a prosciutto-like, juniper-flavored ham) and spatzle (egg noodles) to go around, to say nothing of a warm dish of apple strudel with a glass of Gewurztraminer, pressed from grapes cultivated on cool alpine slopes.
To experience Italy: visit Cycling the Dolomite Valleys on easy bike paths.