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Did You Know … ?
- Dolomite native Reinhold Messer was the first person to climb Everest solo.
- Rome’s Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were natives of the Lake Como area.
- Fiat’s name, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, means Italian Automobile Factory, Turin.
- Speakers of Ladin are descended from soldiers dispatched to the Dolomites by Emperor Tiberius.
- Trento, in the Dolomites, was the site of the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (1545-1563).
The Italian Alps sweep across the north of Italy in a grand arc that once formed a mountainous national frontier for the country and now invites visitors to enjoy its natural wonders and manmade charms.
The famed Matterhorn and Mont Blanc are on the border with Switzerland and France, respectively, but other peaks wholly within Italy surpass 14,000 feet, as well. The alpine region also features deep and beautiful river valleys plus shimmering lakes, including Como, Garda and Maggiore.
The rugged terrain lends itself to outdoor activities, most notably skiing (generally but not always in winter), as well as hiking, ice walking, mountain climbing, rock climbing and sailing on the lakes. In addition, visitors can watch for chamois and ibex in Italy’s oldest national park, the Gran Paradiso, high in the mountains.
Part of the Dolomites, a range in Italy’s eastern Alps, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That United Nations body says the site protects “a diversity of spectacular landscapes of international significance.”
he manmade part of the Italian Alps includes villages and cities with histories dating back hundreds of years, vineyards, grazing lands and, at intervals, castles and fortresses perched overhead. Visitors find medieval churches, palaces and artwork in almost any town visited, plus occasional evidence of a presence dating to the Roman Empire.
The residents are an enlivening mix, too. Villagers living near the French border often deem French their first language, and similarly, those near Austria are generally German speakers. In fact, one part of the Dolomites is South Tyrol, an area that belonged to Austria until after World War I. But the biggest surprise is Ladin, an offshoot of Latin with several dialects of its own. The language evolved and survived in near isolation for centuries.
Visitors find much to please the eye, cultural variety to pique their curiosity and many ways to be an active traveler. A trip to the Italian Alps calls for some serious — and pleasurable — planning.
Things to do for Venturers
- Ski at Cortina d’Ampezzo, host of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Madonna di Campiglio is another of the more chic choices for skiing, but there are less-costly options in Italy’s Alps.
Or, consider Selvio, which has summer skiing.
- Attend Carnival in Ivrea, an event that concludes with some wild orange-tossing battles, meant to represent the fight to end tyranny in medieval times.
- Hike, climb rocks or even climb a mountain. Make that the Matterhorn from the Italian-Swiss village of Breuil-Cervinia, but only if you are an experienced climber.
- For the busiest nightlife, head to the more upscale ski resorts where operators cater to a clientele who want lively entertainment.
- Look for chamois (small antelope with very soft skin) and ibex (a mountain goat with horns up to three feet long) in the Gran Paradiso National Park.
- When the weather is good, relax for a change. Sit in the central piazza of any alpine villages to sip a drink and watch the world go by. If in Caldaro, which is in a winemaking area, sample the local goods and visit the town’s South Tyrolean Museum of Wine.
Things to do for Centrics
- Depending on the season, ski in the Val d’Aosta, or come to the valley for walking and hiking.
- Ride a cable car from Breuil-Cervinia to a viewing point for a good look at the Matterhorn. You can use the cable cars as a way to access climbing routes or off-trail skiing, as well.
- In the central Alps, put Bergamo Alta (Upper Bergamo) on your itinerary. It is two cities. Upper Bergamo, site of a charming medieval center, the remains of Venetian walls and a fortress, is accessible from Lower Bergamo via a funicular railway. You can walk up, too, if you are feeling ambitious.
- Travel by ferry or take a sightseeing boat trip on one of Italy’s most popular lakes, such as Como, Garda or Maggiore. Take scenic drives around the perimeter of one or more lakes.
- Plan a religious pilgrimage to the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. Points of interest include the nine Sacred Mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Holy Shroud of Turin, in the Duomo of Turin. (Tourists see a copy of the shroud.)
- Photograph the area’s medieval town centers (a viable idea in countless mountain towns), but Trento’s Duomo and historic center warrant extra attention because of the city’s role in church history.
Things to do for Authentics
- Shop for Tyrolean goods — clothing or foods — in German-speaking areas close to the Austrian border. Look for wooden carvings in Ortisei, a town noted for its carvers. (It also has extensive hiking and skiing trails.) Or visit a Christmas market. Some sites are Arco, Bolzano, Bressanone, Brunico, Merano, Trento and Vipiteno.
- Gamble in the Casino de la Vallee at the spa resort of St. Vincent.
- Drive to Fenis for a look at its 14th century castle, described with good reason as a fairytale concoction, with its assorted turrets and spiral staircases.
- Take a self-guided walking tour of Aosta, with its preserved Roman walls and street grid designed by the ancient Romans. See the Roman gate, the Arch of Augustus and the Roman theater, then look at medieval sites, too.
- Get thee to Courmayeur for a spectacle, meaning a stupendous view of Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc. Then, from La Palud, north of Courmayeur, ride a cable car up Mont Blanc to a viewing platform (Punta Helbronner) at the border with France.
- At Brunico, tour the Ethnographic Museum, which is a re-creation of a typical local village. The town also hosts a jazz festival.
For more information, consult the Italian Government Tourist Board at www.italia.it and choose your language if necessary.