The most sensible approach to the Alpine geological wonderland known as the Dolomites is also the most evocative one. Here’s how it’s done: After the three-hour drive from Venice Marco Polo Airport toward Austria, pull off the autostrada into the inviting city of Bolzano.
In the pedestrian zone on Piazza della Mostra you will encounter the town’s best restaurant, Zur Kaiserkron. The lunchtime flavors — smoke-cured ham known as speck, orange-infused ravioli, honey-glazed duck with beet sauce, an array of local mountain cheeses — inform you that you’ve arrived in a distinctive place with a robust Mitteleuropean sensibility that also has the capacity to surprise.
As you proceed northward, note how the city gives way to silky green meadowland. And then suddenly you see it: the asymmetrical limestone spires of the Dolomites erupting from the placid landscape like a gigantic prehistoric paw in gruff welcome.
I’d been to the Dolomites several times before my recent trip, but always in winter, when the hotels are monopolized by ski bums and many of the slender, high-altitude roads are impassable. Its high-season epicenter is the resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics and today a snowy haven for fanciers of chic.
An altogether different experience awaits a summer visitor. Prices are lower, rooms and tables at the best places are more accessible, the lifts are open to any and all sightseers, and its picturesque, if at times nerve-rackingly corkscrew, thoroughfares are far more easily negotiated. Shorn of its wintry curtain, the mountainous landscape leaves no doubt that — with apologies to Tuscany, Sicily and Campania, home of the Amalfi Coast — the Trentino-Alto Adige region bordering Austria and Switzerland features Italy’s most stunning topography.
And in the summertime, when the sunlig
ht lingers well after 9 in the evening, views of that topography invite a more leisurely appreciation.
But the Dolomites aren’t for mere gazing, as I discovered in July after leaving Bolzano and ascending into the mountain village of Castelrotto. All a
round my car, an outbreak of physical fitness materialized: hundreds of men, women and children in jogging shorts or mounted on cycles or clacking downhill with their walking sticks. And a few miles outside of town, at the Adler Mountain Lodge where I checked in, a wellness convention seemed to be underway, with the hotel’s entire clientele shuffling cultlike in their terry cloth robes and slippers from sauna to massage to outdoor pool, which overlooked what has to be the most entrancing view in the entire region.The Adler is barely a year old and is as sleek and solicitous as any resort one might encounter in Aspen or Chamonix. I sat on the torchlit patio with a glass of local riesling and appraised the Dolomites. The 18 peaks — some exceeding 9,000 feet — form the centerpiece of a national park as well as a Unesco World Heritage site. They loom over deep valleys, wildflower-speckled meadows and a multitude of glistening lakes. Encased in their flinty bulk is the fossilized narrative of a rich marine life that perished in the Triassic period over 200 million years ago.
As I sat there, the fading sun brushed dabs of gold and lavender against the rock faces. I contented myself by sending taunting photographs to my friends back home in Washington until a waiter appeared and gently inquired if I intended to eat dinner, as it was getting on 9:30. I submitted to an excellent five-course meal that included cauliflower soup with pine nuts, conchiglie pasta with prawns and lamb chops on a bed of anise-laced cabbage, and then returned to my room, drew back the curtains and opened the windows, so that when I awoke I could encounter immediate visual evidence that I hadn’t dreamed all of this.
The next morning I perused the bulletin board next to the Adler’s reception desk, taking note of the day’s various hotel-sponsored physical activities that I would be missing. I had places to go, and the one road leading out of the hotel would soon be closed for several hours to accommodate a half-marathon whose participants would include members of Nigeria’s national track team (they train here annually because of the thin mountain air).
My own wellness program was of a different sort. I was headed two hours east to San Vito di Cadore, an otherwise unimpressive town that hosted, inside a somewhat dreary hotel, the hottest new restaurant in the Dolomites. Aga is its name — “like acqua, or water,” explained the impish co-chef and owner (with his partner Alessandra Del Favero) Oliver Piras, “because we’re simple, limpid and transparent.” He managed to say this with a straight face.