The Dolomites are ideal for hiking … or thinking about hiking. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

The Dolomites are ideal for hiking … or thinking about hiking. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves on the Italian Alps and lounging in the Dolomites

Stop at the Alpe di Siusi for quintessential views, easy accessibility, a variety of walks and hikes, and a charming nearby village.

Leaning back in my lounge chair, I enjoy the heat of the sun on my skin. A vibrant sea spreads out before me, but it’s a sea of wildflowers. I’m not at the beach — I’m on a farm, looking out on Europe’s largest high alpine meadow, manicured by munching goats and cows. In the distance, stark snow-dusted peaks tower boldly against the blue sky. These are Italy’s Alps, the Dolomites.

My soundtrack is the happy laughter of Italian children enjoying a petting zoo filled with alpine critters. A few yards away, their parents sip wine on the veranda of their chalet guesthouse — thoroughly enjoying that dolce far niente (sweetness of doing nothing) … like me.

The sky-high meadow called the Alpe di Siusi (or “Seiser Alm” in German) seems to float high above the city of Bolzano, separating two of the most famous Dolomite ski-resort valleys, Val di Fassa and Val Gardena. Measuring 3 miles by 7 miles, and soaring 6,500 feet high, Alpe di Siusi is dotted with farm huts and happy hikers enjoying gentle trails. These mountains differ from the rest of the Alps because of their dominant rock type — limestone — which forms sheer vertical walls of white, gray and pale pink rising abruptly from green valleys and meadows.

At the head of the meadow, the Sassolungo mountains provide a storybook Dolomite backdrop. And opposite, Mount Schlern — a long flat ridge ending in spooky crags — boldly stands gazing into the haze of the Italian peninsula. Not surprisingly, the Schlern gave ancient peoples enough willies to spawn legends of supernatural forces. Fear of the Schlern witch, today’s tourist-brochure mascot, was the cause of many a medieval townswoman’s fiery death.

As a nature preserve, the alpine meadow cradled by the peaks is virtually car-free. A cable car whisks visitors up to the park from the valley below. Within the park, buses shuttle hikers to and from key points along the tiny road all the way to the foot of the picturesque Sasso peaks. Meadow walks are ideal for wildflower strolls, while chairlifts serve as springboards for more dramatic and demanding hikes. Mountain bikes are easy to rent, welcome on many lifts, and permitted on the meadow’s country lanes.

The Alpe di Siusi is my favorite stop in the Dolomites because of its quintessential views, but also its easy accessibility and the variety of walks and hikes. There’s also the charm of the neighboring village of Castelrotto, which I use as my home base.

Castelrotto is also a fun dollop of Germanic culture in Italy: There’s yogurt and yodeling for breakfast…Wiener schnitzel and strudel for dinner. The region has long faced north, first as part of the Holy Roman Empire and then firmly in the Austrian Habsburg realm. After Austria lost World War I, its “Sudtirol” (South Tirol) became Italy’s “Alto Adige.” Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region, including giving each town an Italian name (like Castelrotto, also known as Kastelruth).

This hard-fought history has left this northeastern corner of Italy bicultural as well as bilingual. Signs and literature in the autonomous province are in both languages, but there’s an emphasis on der Deutsch. It still feels Austrian, culturally as much as geographically. Germanic color survives in a blue-aproned, ruddy-faced, lederhosen-wearing way. Most locals still speak German first, and many feel a closer bond with their Germanic ancestors than with their Italian countrymen. While most have a working knowledge of Italian, they watch German-language TV, read newspapers auf Deutsch, and live in Tirolean-looking villages. The government has wooed cranky German-speaking locals with economic breaks that make this one of Italy’s richest areas.

I love coming home to Castelrotto after a hike in the meadow. It was built for farmers rather than skiers, so it has more character than any town around. Popping into the church, I enjoy the choir practicing. Then, stepping outside the church at 3 p.m., the bells peal as I witness the happy parade of parents bringing home their preschoolers. These idyllic moments may seem like cultural cliches, but they’re authentic, not performances for tourists. It’s moments like these that make it easy to enjoy this high-altitude Germanic eddy in the whirlpool of Italy.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves ( writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe.” You can email Rick at and follow his blog on Facebook.

Talk to us

More in Life

Marriage basics: How to resolve your relationship conflicts

The top five sources of conflict in relationships? Sex, money, children, in-laws and household chores.

Wintergreen adds a pop of red to the garden all winter long. (Getty Images)
Though they’re cold, fall and winter can be colorful seasons too

You have no shortage of choices when it comes to planting for fall and winter interest in the garden.

Ginkgo biloba "Autumn Gold" features brilliant fall color and scalloped leaves similar to those of maidenhair ferns. (Great Plant Picks)
Great Plant Pick: Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ aka maidenhair tree

This tree features brilliant fall color and scalloped leaves similar to those of maidenhair ferns.

Anthony Brock Group performs during the soft opening of Black Lab Gallery in it's new location Friday night in Everett on October 9, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Everett’s music and art hotspot upgrades to a much larger space

Black Lab Gallery moves a block up Hewitt Avenue, and the new Lucky Dime takes over its former location.

Catapult, the dance company best known for their time on “America’s Got Talent,” will perform on Oct. 23 in Edmonds. (Catapult)
Catapult troupe sculpts shadow illusions with their bodies

You can see the dance company of “America’s Got Talent” fame at two shows in Edmonds on Oct. 23.

The Camano Wildlife Habitat Project will present an “Attracting Birds to your Yard” webinar on Oct. 20 via Zoom. (Mike Benbow)
Home and garden events and resources around Snohomish County

Home and garden events and resources around Snohomish County

This silhouette of a woman, cut by mouth by Martha Ann Honeywell, had an estimated value of $400 to $800 at Garth's Auction, Inc., but did not sell. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
Circa 1800 silhouette of woman in a bonnet was ‘cut by mouth’

Born without hands, Martha Ann Honeywell (1786-1856) could cut and paste, thread a needle, embroider and write using her mouth.

Natick, MA. - February 24: Antonio Loffa of Natick gets his COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site at the Natick Mall on February 24, 2021 in Natick, Massachusetts. POOL PHOTO  (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Doctor clears up common misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines

1. Breakthrough COVID-19 infections don’t mean the vaccines have failed. 2. The shots aren’t a one-and-done solution.

fresh fruits background
‘C’ is for citrus — and that’s good enough for everybody

Among other good things, Vitamin C strengthens saggy skin. Just make sure you get in the form of fresh fruit, not pills.

Most Read