The Italian Alps, where four languages are spoken (Italian, German, French, and Ladin) and cultures meet, is home to some of the country's most spectacular scenery. A link between central Europe and the Mediterranean, South Tyrol in the northeast traces its history from the stone age. Roman emperors, Bavarian farmers in the 8th and 9th centuries, and European royalty all left their mark.
Crossing into the Dolomites via the Brenner Pass is a vacation for the senses. In summer, colorful flower blossoms carpet the meadows. Travelers on foot behold the ancient limestone peaks as they stroll past farmhouses, tiny villages, and onion-domed churches. Along the way they can unwind at spas nestled in the foothills, sample trans-Alpine cuisine from risottoto apfelstrudel, and sleep peacefully under fluffy duvets in elegant mountain hotels.
Le Corbusier called the Dolomites "the most beautiful architecture in the world."
Surrounded by these pale-colored mountains, Trentino is a land of 300 lakes formed by glaciers. Experienced hikers who reach the area's high-altitude waterways can camp overnight or stay in inns. A large concentration of lakes in the Adamello-Brenta range lie within the park of the same name. The Lares and del Madrone lakes appear at the feet of glaciers more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
Lake Garda, ideal for fishing, swimming, windsurfing, sailing, canoeing, and yachting, has long attracted writers and thinkers. Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Sigmund Freud all holidayed here. Today's arrivals find modern facilities for golf, tennis, mountain biking, paragliding, and horseback riding as well as aquatic and amusement parks for the young at heart. At night, pubs and discos are vibrant with live music. High spirits continue along Weinstrasse, a route that winds through terraced vineyards to a number of Italian wineries.
The city of Bolzano, ringed by ancient castles, offers insights into the Dolomites' rich history as well as its sophisticated pleasures. An ancient trading town once overseen by Tyrolean archduchess Claudia de Medici, it is today distinguished by its elegant shopping streets, gourmet shops, and colorful markets. While Italians visit it to "go abroad," northerners come to enjoy its Mediterranean climate.
Inspired by the fragrant orchards and lush vineyards of the city north of Bolzano, Kafka wrote: "Merano is the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen -- unforgettable, freer, broader, grander; the air is clearer and the sun stronger." Nearby Tyrol Castle, the ancestral home of nobility since 1140, dominates the valley. Nearby palatial hotels treat travelers royally.
Val Gardena, another summer retreat of kings and emperors, is located in a valley where flame-hued sunsets illuminate the mountains that overlook the town. In this secluded spot, the ancient customs of Ladin culture are still practiced, and visitors can take cooking lessons to fully experience the gastronomy of the region. The Ladin Museum displays minerals, archeological finds, and religious treasures.
While the ski resort Cortina d'Ampezzo may be the area's best-known destination, summer vacationers have access to historic hiking trails that lead to the Dinosaurs Route to Monte Pelmetto, the Iron Route, and the medieval Castle of Andraz. Collectors of contemporary souvenirs will find a glittering assortment in Cortina's fashionable boutiques.
In the west, Aosta Valley is girdled by Europe's four highest mountains (Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and Gran Paradiso). Its French cultural heritage is evident at traditional carnivals and parades, marked by bountiful food and drink.
The Lombardy Region
North of Milan, Lake Como stretches fjord-like for 50 miles from Lugano to the Bergamo Alps. Villas and vineyards are clustered at its southern end, and boats sail from picturesque lakeside towns such as Bellano and Como, Varenna and Lecco.
Considered by many to be Italy's most beautiful body of water, Lake Maggiore, sheltered by an Alpine ring, has long drawn romantics. Its magical sky-blue waters are belted by velvety green hills that rise to the rugged and mysterious Val Grande.
Parks and the Sacro Monte della Trinita nature reserve in Ghiffa provide ample space to savor the scenery together. In the evening, cruise under the stars on an historic paddle steamer. Reach Isobella, the main island within the lake, by taxiboat. Visitors are welcomed to its 17th-century Borromeo Palace, whose terraced garden slopes gracefully down to the lake.
The Piedmont Region
Northwest of Milan, Piedmont is best known for its capital, Turin, host to the XX Olympics. Splendid architecture, cuisine, and the beauty and activities on the Po River make this a popular destination in the Italian Alps.