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Hot Spots of Italy's Dolomite Mountains

A gondola in the Passo Gardina section of the Dolomites, in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige.

Photo: Jose Bernad

“Either you must be deeply in love,” Hugo Pizzinini said with a little smile, “or you must bring a good book. That, or you kill each other. There is no other way.”

Love or distraction. That was all we needed to pack for an overnight stay in his baita, or mountain hut, on a grassy slope high above the village of San Cassiano in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites. The cabin serves as a remote outpost of the family’s hotel, the Rosa Alpina. Here, guests who seek the romance and serenity of true Alpine isolation (or just have a good book they want to finish) can enjoy the pleasure of hiking up in the air and having a piece of the mountain all to themselves. The log cabin has a large living room with sleeping lofts, piles of wool blankets, and fuzzy slippers, deep reserves of wine and firewood. That and a genuine sense of having momentarily slipped free of the earth’s orbit and found a place to sleep closer to the moon.

The Dolomites sit at the top of Italy, where the jagged, skyscraping spires and electric-green valleys of the Trentino-Alto Adige shoulder up against Austria. The air is like a cold drink of water, crystalline and restorative. In summer, the fields are thick with edelweiss and pink rhododendron. Stuck to the sides of mountains like little toy houses are the rifugi, wooden huts where a skier or hiker can stop for fragrant pork sausages with soft polenta or a simple plate of cheese and speck, the indigenous cured, smoked ham of the region. Digesting on the deck of a rifugio at cloud level (if there were ever any clouds around), a glass of local Lagrein red in hand, it would be easy to feel sorry for all the peaks of the world that aren’t as unrelentingly beautiful as these and all the hikers and skiers who aren’t as well fed.

The Pale Mountains, as they were once known, owe their special qualities to the unusual mineral makeup of the dolomite rock. In the light of late afternoon, the mountains take on a distinct pink glow, turning redder as the sun descends. The rocks trap light and play strange tricks with it, an effect known locally as enrosadira. History, too, is ensnared in these precipitous passes. Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed brutally here in World War I. The mountains are laced with tunnels and chiseled with the vie ferrate, or “iron roads,” man-made narrow climbing paths, evidence of the struggle for control of this notoriously hard-to-master aerial borderland. The people of the valleys are, like the rocks that surround them, separate and unique. Despite the comings and goings of various empires and armies, the locals here are neither Italian nor Austrian. They are Ladin (pronounced lah-deen), and speak a language descended from Latin, preserved by isolation and protected by nationalistic pride.

Pizzinini and his family are Ladin. They converse with their guests at Rosa Alpina in a variety of languages and manage to make the hotel feel like an intimate, unpretentious Alpine chalet (even though someone’s parked a Bentley out front and the gift shop carries vintage Berkel meat slicers that sell for the price of lesser cars). Pizzinini grew up in the hotel and is adept at the kind of predictive mental-telepathy helpfulness of the innately suave hotelier. He is always rushing off somewhere soundlessly and then, just as suddenly, reappearing at your side with a map of the exact terrain you want to hike or precisely the right prescription for where to drive for lunch.

I’d met Pizzinini once before. It was winter, high season in the Alta Badia. For a few snowy months each year, San Cassiano and its sleepy neighbors become very fashionable. For skiers looking for a balance of refined and relaxed, something less showy than the more internationally famous Cortina d’Ampezzo the next valley over, this is the place to be. (And Rosa Alpina, as well as Hotel La Perla, in nearby Corvara, are the places to stay, if you can find a room amid the loyal returnees.)

Over dinner at St. Hubertus, the hotel’s Michelin two-starred restaurant, Pizzinini had confided in me a secret of the Dolomites: they were prettier after the thaw. Could he sense by my line of questioning that I was a less than stellar skier and might prefer a different season? (“Can I hike up to a rifugio and eat sausage and polenta?”) The locals, he continued, favor the spring and summer, when the mountains are revealed, flowers bloom, crowds thin out. Come back when it’s warm, Pizzinini said, almost conspiratorially. “Come back and you’ll see. Bring a special girl and you can go up to our cabin and nobody will bother you.”

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