Legend says there once was a haunted castle hidden between the jagged peaks of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. A poor farmer found the castle and discovered a vaulted cellar packed with barrels of the most delicious wine he had ever known. Overtaken by its beauty, the farmer collected some of the wine in a leather pouch. As he did this, three ghosts suddenly appeared. They told the terrified farmer that if he swore to keep the location of the cellar a secret, he could take as much wine as he’d like.
A few nights later, the farmer drank too much at a local tavern and revealed the location of the mysterious cellar. His drinking companions went to the spot, and as they approached, the castle dissolved into thin air. The legend persists to this day; ask about the castle and you’ll be told that it still exists somewhere in these mountains, but you will never find anyone willing to reveal its secret location. Mountains do indeed keep secrets; the imposing wall of snowcapped Dolomites, which acts as a metaphorical bookend, terminating the Italian and Mediterranean experience at its northern extremity, is filled with them. Isolation and geographic extremism have shaped one of Italy’s most rewarding and authentic destinations.
The unique composition of the dolomite mineral (calcium and magnesium carbonate, also known as magnesium limestone) gives the mountains crystalline pink and coral colors with an ability to refract sunlight in a unique way. Often, the purity of light is so remarkable, distant ridges come into startling focus. These geologically young mountains also stand apart for their razor-sharp contours. Over the centuries, glaciers and blizzards have whittled away at the rock to create serrated crags and ragged spires.
The Dolomites, which are part of the Alps, fan across three regions: Trentino, Veneto and Alto Adige (Südtirol). Trentino and Alto Adige enjoy measures of regional autonomy, but in many ways Alto Adige is a nation apart. In its capital, Bolzano, street signs are written in German and Italian and the cityscape is composed of gingerbread houses and cheerful beer halls, many of which produce their own brews. Some 70% of the population prefers to converse in German, and in remote areas, spoken Italian draws blank stares. Mountain devotees will be tempted by the excellent skiing and, in the warm months, the endless miles of hiking trails to explore, with paths that skirt glacial lakes and alpine fields colored by buttercups and edelweiss.
Perhaps the best way to explore the Dolomites is on a food and wine tour of the area’s extensive and well-organized wine roads. In fact, visitors will find a treasure trove of outdoor activities; there’s plenty to explore on foot, and adventures aplenty from biking and horseback rides to parasailing and hang gliding. Detailed itineraries are available online at www.stradedelvinodeltrentino.it and suedtiroler-weinstrasse.it. These excellent sites include interactive maps arranged according to food and wine products. Maps can also be found at the local tourism office.
Chances are, whatever secrets you discover in the “pale mountains,” you’ll want to keep them to yourself.
Most likely you will come to the Dolomites by way of A22, the toll road that heads north from Verona to the Brenner Pass and Innsbruck, Austria. The highway follows the glacial blue water of the Adige River to the charming city of Trento where the sheer mass of the mountains begins to close in on the blue sky above. Trento marks the confluence of three valleys, hence its name, which stems from the word trident, making this city a natural gateway to the Dolomites in general.
Apple orchards blanket the valley floor (Trentino’s Red and Golden Delicious apples are among the best in Europe) and near-vertical vineyards coat the dramatic slopes of the valley walls. If your journey takes you through Trento at lunch or dinner, an excellent breaking spot is Scrigno del Duomo wine bar and restaurant on Piazza Duomo in the center of town. This is an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the local gastronomy. You can try wines made with native varieties such as Marzemino (said to have captured he affections of Mozart) or hearty Teroldego. Ask for an assorted cheese and meat platter with local specialties such as spressa or grana Trentino (two aged cheeses) served with spicy fruit marmalades.
Pour the cubes of dried bread into a large bowl. Add two beaten eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Mix well, cover with a towel and set aside for two hours. During the two-hour period, periodically mix so that the bread absorbs the extra humidity. In a large skillet, fry onions in olive oil and butter. Once the onions are transparent, add the cubes of Speck and set aside to cool. After two hours, pour the fried onion and Speck into the bread mixture. Add the parsley and dash of ground nutmeg. Dust over with the flour and mix well until all the ingredients are blended. Set aside for an additional 30 minutes so the Speck aromas penetrate the mixture and the canederli develops its signature flavor. When the time is up, shape the bread mixture into 4-inch balls. Roll the canederli in flour, then boil them in the broth. They will rise to the surface when they’re ready, about 10–15 minutes. The dumplings are served in chicken broth with grated cheese or sometimes with melted butter and a fresh sage as a garnish.