The Dolomites (Italy)


Italians speaking German? Italian villages that look Austrian? These are not so odd in the northeastern part of Italy (Trentino-Alto Adige) that belonged to Austria before 1919. This region is the home of the Dolomites, a spectacular mountainous region that is in the South Tyrolean province and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As we arrived here early last evening after an all-day bus ride from Lake Como (with a stop in Verona), we were immediately struck by the alpine scenery, passing vineyards and apple orchards along the way. We stayed at the Pension Seelaus in Compatsch, situated in Seiser Alm, the highest alpine meadow in all of Europe. The inn had lots of charm—quaint planter boxes hung from the upper-story balconies filled with petunias. There was time only to look around briefly before we sat down for a group dinner:  a salad bar (including dried chili peppers and anchovy croutons), ham and barley soup, sautéed fish, spinach and steamed potatoes with hollandaise, and flan for dessert.

We stayed at the Pension Seelaus

It was easy to see why this region of majestic beauty is so universally admired. Broad subalpine meadows are edged by craggy, steeply sloped mountains, the elevation differences so great that they seem exaggerated. Here, in Compatsch, the Schlern looms in the distance to the south and typifies the mountain scenery. The rocks appear as a bluish-grey from its calcium-magnesium carbonate composition (dolomite).

The Schlern

In this setting, many recreational opportunities are enjoyed, mostly skiing and hiking. After a morning briefing session by Robin (our guide), we were on our own and decided on a longer hike to the upper elevations with four other tour members. We got sidetracked and wound up at the top of the ski lift above Saltria. As the lifts were not operating, we had to scramble down the hillsides to find a trail. One led to Goldknopf where we decided to have lunch and where we were introduced to speck, a prosciutto-like ham made here in South Tyrol. After a long hike and worn-out, we decided to take a bus from midway between Saltria and Compatsch back to the inn in time to have a cold glass of beer before dinner. In the bar, TV sets were showing the destruction wrought by hurricane Katrina on New Orleans only days before.

Many of the hikers we greeted along the trails were German-speaking and they all used hiking poles.

Most of the hikers were German -speaking

Most of the hikers were German -speaking

All the signs were bilingual, in Italian and German. Depending on which part of the Tyrolean alps you happen to live in, you are likely to speak one or the other language more commonly.

German-language signs are not uncommon

This part of Italy was a pleasant surprise for us. Its mountainous terrain and alpine scenery reminded us more of what we’d expect in, say, Switzerland. This is a breathtakingly beautiful area where we could see returning one day.

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Canals of Venice (Venice, Italy)


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What could evoke a better sense of place than the canals of Venice?

More than any other single attraction, they make this city what it is, the destination of the millions of tourists who come here annually. Coursing through the piscine shape that outlines Venice, the canals flow like its lifeblood, rising and falling with the tides of the Adriatic, crossed over by the scores of bridges that connect the many neighborhoods.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off them when we first arrived. They were everything I ever imagined, beautiful, omnipresent, mysterious. They are mainly traveled by motorboats, row boats and vaporettos.

Vaporetto

Vaporetto

But the gondolas are still to be seen, ferrying passengers across the Grand Canal or through the city’s many smaller canals.

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Gondolas “parked” in a canal

They are especially popular at night when Venice is at its romantic best. Our tour guide arranged for a nocturnal ride, complete with a singing tenor—a little stagey perhaps, but still fun.

Besides a boat of some kind, the only way to cross a canal is over one of the more than 400 bridges.

There are over 400 bridges in Venice

There are over 400 bridges in Venice

Among the most famous is the Rialto Bridge, the main one over the Grand Canal.

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

When you first try to navigate the “streets” of Venice, called calles and fondementas, you’ll likely get lost or confused. Our tour guide encouraged us to do some exploring, assuring us that if we should get “lost,” all we had to do was to look for signs posted high on the sides of buildings that point to important landmarks. We did a bit of this with the limited time we had on our own and found these directional signs to be really helpful. On one of these walks, we came across people in period costumes, presumably as part of the Historical Regatta celebrations.

Costumed participants in the Historical Regatta festivities

Costumed participants in the Historical Regatta festivities

It would be nice to return to Venice and stay longer, to appreciate all that this gorgeous city has to offer.

Venice, Historical Regatta (Italy)


Venice in the early morning

Venice, maybe more than any other Italian city, was a destination for us, as it is for millions of other tourists. No tour of Italy would have been complete without a visit to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The attractions are many: the canals to be sure, the gondolas and its storied oarsmen, architecture, art, history, St. Mark’s and its pigeons, Murano glass, and even the mystery that surrounds its dark and narrow streets. It’s no wonder that Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Never mind that we would be part of the problem that is destroying Venice, which cannot sustain the legions of tourists who descend upon it. Even of its own accord, Venice is said to be sinking from global warming’s rising waters. A costly and controversial pontoon system is being built out in the lagoon to control the flow from the Adriatic, scheduled to be completed in 2010.

We arrived in Venice before noon. As we rode the vaporetto to Rialto station, the Venice of our imagination came into view—multi-storied castles, churches and other buildings, built right next to each other almost up to the water’s edge, but for the narrow streets in front of the canals. Gondolas, vaporetti, private boats with outboard motors, and other water craft were plying the waters. From the Rialto Bridge, we walked to our hotel (Pensione Guerrato).

We entered Venice on the Grand Canal by vaporetto

It was our great fortune that we arrived in Venice on the day of the annual Historical Regatta, held on the first Sunday of September, and it was to our guide Robin’s credit that she got us all there before the procession. The regatta is a rowing competition, begun in the 13th century, primarily among the city’s various neighborhoods. After checking into our hotel, we walked but a few blocks to the Grand Canal, next to the fish and produce market, and watched the procession and a portion of the race. There was a lot of color and pageantry.

A rowing club takes part in the procession of the Historical Regatta

Our group dinner featured spaghetti con frutti di mare

After sunset, Robin arranged for all of us to go on a gondola ride, complete with a singer and accordionist. As we gathered at St. Mark’s after the ride, Robin surprised us with a prosecco toast in the middle of the square, a very nice touch.