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Destination: Italy : Inn-to-inn trekking in the Dolomite Alps, near the Austrian border, gives rise to an eclectic itinerary of rugged walks and gourmet meals

October 16, 1994|BARBARA ANDERSON | Anderson is an art historian in Los Angeles

BOLZANO, Italy — We were sitting in the Piazza Walther, eating pasta with beer. Our waiter greeted us with buon giorno while the busboy wished us a guten tag. Welcome to the town of Bolzano in the Alto Adige, Italy's northernmost province. Bolzano is situated at the foot of the Dolomites, the Eastern Italian Alps, which rise from the Venetian Plain about 100 miles north of Venice, and separate Italy from Austria. We were in Italy, but not the Italy of terra cotta tile roofs or ocher stucco walls.

The notion of a Mediterranean Italy is so ingrained, it was hard at first to grasp this place, its gloomy arched portals leading out to pale blue and yellow stucco walls embroidered with lacy rococo arabesques. But border cultures have their own seductions, and it would become apparent in no time that this blend of Italian and Austrian was no different, with food, language and custom all its own.

Even the mountains are a fusion of rock found nowhere else in Europe. Spectral battlements in the morning mist, fluted crowns reflecting pink by the late afternoon, they combine gray dolomitic limestone (named for its 18th-Century French discoverer, Deodat de Dolomieu) and dark brown volcanic rock in the plateaus. They tend to erase any lingering nostalgia for the Italy of the south. The mountains, I reminded myself, were the main reason we had come here to a place we had barely heard of to join 15 strangers on a weeklong hiking trip.

Other aspects of the trip had some importance. We were going with Butterfield & Robinson, the Toronto-based touring company well known to a certain brand of sybarites who enjoy the idea of several hours of biking or walking in between sustained bouts of eating and drinking. From a previous biking trip with B&R, to Provence, we knew they also understood how to make group travel appeal to group-travelphobes. There was no artificial intimacy force-fed by relentlessly chipper guides. We suffered through no singing of "Auld Lang Syne." Instead, the guides had encouraged people to get up when they pleased and go at their own pace.

Ranging in age from 45 to 65, we were business and professional people from Minnesota, Kentucky, Florida, Texas and California. We were not all made for each other, but we managed a shipboard camaraderie. After meeting over drinks on the veranda of a Bolzano hotel, we boarded a bus for the two-hour ride to the mountain hamlet of Corvara in Badia. Sloping down a broad, green valley bracketed by huge mountains, Corvara was typical of towns we would see. Each had a doll-sized stucco church with slender onion-domed campanile, houses of whitewashed stucco and unpainted wood, and window boxes full of neatly pruned red and pink hanging geraniums. Ski chalets and quaint woodcarvers' shops were everywhere--Gepetto and Pinocchio could have stepped out of any of them.

We would spend two nights at a local hotel, take an exploratory day hike and then move on, by foot, to our next destination. The pattern would be repeated at each of our four hotels with one exception. We spent just one night at a rough hewn rifugio high in the mountains, where some of us, or at least my husband, could happily have spent the summer.


Our first night in Corvara was a festive one, begun with a hearty, eclectic meal of South Tyrolean and North Italian cuisine--risotto followed by pigs' knuckles topped off by the boiled custard and meringue desert known as floating island. Much beer and wine. Toward the end of the evening, Signor Costa, the hotel owner, and his sons regaled us with local songs--yodeled with virtuoso vocal agility in Ladin, a Latin-derived Romansch language still preferred in much of the region to the Italian and German also spoken by most natives. Their accompaniment was a Spike Jones-like instrument called a violina del diavolo , or devil's violin; a stringed post with knots carved into gnarled faces, and an attached tambourine.

The first full-day hike turned out to be a thriller. After the threat of rain and fog caused our two leaders to scrap the planned itinerary, a local mountain guide was recruited to take us on what was supposed to be an easier route. Maurizio, the guide, proved to be the soul of Alpine cheer and competence, even if his idea of easy was open to question.

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