They say that if you blindfolded a stranger [THIS IS CONFUSING...SHOULD IT BE A NATIVE?] and abandoned him or her in the Dolomite mountains of South Tyrol—called Südtirol by locals, it is Italy's northernmost province—he or she would still know where they were. The Dolomites are that recognizable. And though we knew exactly where we weren't blindfolded, still nothing could compare to the genuine sense of surprise of walking beneath the jagged, ancient structures, which seem to shoot from the Earth like antediluvian, Bunyanesque pipe organs.
"The Dolomites were once coral reefs at the bottom of the sea," said Leonard Holzer, a climber and the native South Tyroler who sold us our South Tyrol Alpine Club memberships (see tips). "The rock is a special limestone that was created through a chemical reaction under the water." With regard to the striking appearance of the peaks, he said: "When the plates that came together broke off millions of years ago, they broke off in a very steep way. That's why there are so many straight, dramatic north faces here.[THIS QUOTE IS CONFUSING...IS THERE A WAY TO MAKE IT READ EASIER?]"
A well-known area for climbing (there are pictures of the province's most renowned climber, Reinhold Messner, in nearly every hut), it's possible to see and feel the whole history of mountaineering experimentation and exploration—from first ascents to technical routes—layered in the famous crags.
With regard to trekking, Holzer gave us a three-pronged explanation for South Tyrol's popularity: 1) the culture and history—though officially Italian, it was once part of Austria and today has heavy influences from both sides; 2) the valleys are more "u"- than "v"-shaped and for that reason they are more open; and 3) the hikes are not so long: you go from dramatic mountain to valley to mountain in just a few hours.
For us, that drama and the wide-open landscapes were immediately obvious. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the folks at Via Alpina HQ had the good sense to start the Dolomitic part of our trek under South Tyrol's calling card attraction: the stony towers of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which stand like proud bouncers protecting the chain of mountains that fade into the distance beyond. As it turned out, the sinewy guardians with their fetching good looks couldn't have appeared at a better time
we needed a little inspirational pick-me-up.
Though there's no question we were having the time of our lives on this megahike, our spirits were a little dampened by the fact that around August 1 the rain started to come down heavy. It continued for an entire month, making it the wettest and coldest August in generations. And just to get all the boo-hooing out in one pathetic whine: we were, truth be told, a little beat up. We looked like Via Alpina's version of the Minutemen marching down the trail after battle as we made our way into South Tyrol.
Actually, only Carly looked like a Minuteman. Besides the fact that she's not a man nor does she, to my knowledge, play the fife, she had taken to wearing a knee brace following the rafting accident on the Isel River in Austria. To make matters worse, to celebrate our entry into the third Alpine country along our trek, she promptly slipped and, with a sort of cartoonish gutteral moan, knocked her head on a rock. As I scrambled to her side with the ease of a newborn fawn on ice skates. With blood rolling down her face, Carly proved her superior toughness once again by stating, and I quote, "Ah, geez." She then started sporting an old blood-covered rag wrapped about her skull.
So the sight of Tre Cime was much welcomed. And even though the power of those spiny rock towers couldn't completely stop the rain, the weather abated for a brief spell
like on our first evening, which was a flash of dusk-fueled pink streaks of the sort that only come with the beginning or end of storms—or in our case both. The sun strummed the stone striations of the towers in lavender, red, white, and grey, and then it quickly sunk beneath the horizon. The next morning—August 4—three inches of snow had fallen and the same striations were invisible in a mid-summer blizzard. It was the reason you hike across the Alps.
But beyond the temperamental weather patterns and the inspirational geography, the area's story resides in its borderland mentality and temperamental history. And though nearly all areas of the Alps we've visited thus far could fit into this description, perhaps no other section of the trail represents the strife that occurred in Europe last century as much as tiny, controversial, and powerful Südtirol. Walking here was just another reminder in the reoccurring theme of how lucky we are to be carelessly walking along paths that just a few generations ago were considered no-man's land.
Basque-ish in its pride and independent spirit, South Tyrol was part of Austria until the end of World War I, when the Italians annexed the province as part of its spoils. Since that time, the area has been somewhat culturally ping-ponged back and forth.
Prior to the World War II, Mussolini implemented an Italianization policy to change the names of towns and families in the German-speaking area. In the decades after the war, the anti-Italian sentiment—including bombing of buildings by "insurgents"—in the area ran high.
Today, 70 percent of the province's inhabitants still speak German and South Tyrol is largely autonomous governmentally and economically and is seemingly only Italian because of the inconvenient necessity that it has to belong to the invisible lines that bind it to the country. When one considers that South Tyrol enjoys some of the highest tourism numbers in the entire country, the true power of the province's autonomy and its level of financial security can be understood. This is not just a situation of the squeaky wheel whining for special rights and getting an extra dose of grease. South Tyrol feels, to a great degree, like its own self-sufficient country.
"Taxes paid in South Tyrol stay here," explained Gerhard Mair, a South Tyroler, who attends university in Vienna but works at his family's B&Bish mountainside hut—Dürrensteinhütte; see Places to Stay—during the summer. "That makes it one of the richest regions in Italy," he said proudly as he served me a second glass of grappa. "There were lots of conflicts in the 60s and 70s between the German- and the Italian-speaking populations, but now we are autonomous and have the best of both worlds," he continued and asked if I wanted another shot—assuring me that it would make me more of a real Südtiroler. "I think that we've found a good balance here."
And with regard to striking a balance, let me just say, I think the good folks of South Tyrol—which sits like a little piece of flair tacked to the beret the Alps form across the top of Italy—have done a whale of a job. Though I should state, for the record, that no one has really asked my opinion
and I just finished that third glass of grappa. Regardless, here are the facts as I see them: South Tyrol is lathered in the magnificence of the Dolomites with exceptional climbing and trekking and a well-established string of mountain huts servicing both. It also boasts solid red wine. Did I mention the grappa? And, it shares a big Italian culinary influence so that one is free to enjoy a traditional South Tyrolean pasta dish called schlutzkrapfen, which is a yummy ravioli with spinach, which packs back in what hours on the trail have taken away. Or if one is in a more Italian mood—as I often am—one can down a bucket of spaghetti with a bowl full of beer
So, to review: South Tyrol = Dolomites + food + culture. And, the province, which has 80 3,000-meter (9,843-feet) peaks and nearly 11,000 of hiking tracks[IS THERE SOMETHING MISSING HERE?], sticks to my new Via Alpina diet plan: "Want to shed those extra pounds and say goodbye to them forever? Just walk 15 miles-a-day (24 kilometers-a-day) and kiss those love handles goodbye!" Commercials for the diet plan will appear, of course, on my new cable station: Via Alpina TV
All classics all the time. Back to South Tyrol ....
"People here like to get up into the mountains because we live in valleys and are narrow-minded," laughs Gottfried Leitgeb, the manager of the Rieserferner mountain hut, which sits at more than 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). It's worth the steep climb up to this hut just to visit with Leitgeb, who found what he claims to be the world's oldest socks in the scree near his hut. "But what I'm worried about with the Via Alpina in Südtirol is that it will be like other European trails that became popular but then were largely forgotten." The window behind his head framed snow-capped mountains, which were silhouetted by a full moon. The soft lunar light flooded across the sturdy, dark wooden interior of the hut and reflected golden in our beer mugs. "The reason it might work though is because the Via Alpina people went to the locals to find the best places." He smiled and we all touched glasses.