Stop off at this high-altitude haven rich with culinary finds.
By Monica Larner
According to legend, there once was a haunted castle hidden between the jagged peaks of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. A farmer found the castle and discovered a cellar packed with barrels of the most delicious wine he had ever known. The farmer started to collect some of the wine in a leather pouch but suddenly three ghosts 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 not find anyone willing to reveal its location.
Mountains do indeed keep secrets. Isolation and geographic extremism have shaped the Dolomites, one of Italy’s most rewarding and authentic destinations, the northern terminal of the Italian and Mediterranean experience.
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, punctuated by razor-sharp, serrated crags and ragged spires. “They are not the highest, but they are certainly the most beautiful mountains in the world,” says Dolomites native Reinhold Messner, who made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen.
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 riding to parasailing and hang gliding. Detailed itineraries are available online at 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.
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 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. You can try wines made with native varieties such as Marzemino (said to have captured the 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.
Lake Garda falls to the southwest of Trento. It would be a shame to visit this part of the Dolomites without a reservation at Ristorante Al Forte Alto (alfortealto.it) in Nago, on the northern tip of the lake. Located inside the thick protective walls of a massive fortress, this elegant restaurant offers elaborate renditions of local dishes, such as Garda Trout with Brenta Raspberry Vinegar and Caviar. Ristorante Castel Toblino is a fairytale castle restaurant that sits on a tiny point overlooking the powerfully romantic Lake Massenza.
After Trento, the mountains widen just a tad to reveal the Piana Rotaliana, one of the most important wine areas of the Dolomites and—indeed—Italy. The most impressive tasting rooms to visit are Mezzacorona, which also offers winery tours on request, the cheerful Vinoteca at La-Vis, the L’Enoteca di Cavit, and Cantine Ferrari, for those curious to learn more about how sparkling wine is made. Cantine Ferrari also recently refurbished its Locanda Margon restaurant where you can feast on an all-sparkling wine menu featuring Shrimp Moutabbal Dip and Suckling Lamb.