After a 9-hour red-eye flight into Venice, a hot day dragging my suitcase through various tourist traps and an intense 4-hour night drive to Avelengo, the hotel’s welcoming felt like an Alpine pond.
Beautiful but gelid, MiraMonti Boutique Hotel received us with aloof bell boys and abrasive maître d’s. German street signs and Bavarian-inspired chalets confirmed what our Milanese friend had told us about the former Astro-Hungarian territory, annexed to Italy after the WW1 Treaty of London: “Make no mistake, it’s still Austria.”
The following day, after sleeping like babies and enjoying a delicious breakfast, we had a fresh perspective enhanced by the neighboring sight of the “Sound of Music-esque” St. Catherine Church and the beautiful Haflinger horses pasturing in the contiguous hill.
Legend says a giant constructed it by sharing a hammer with a colossus from an adjacent town that they’d throw at each other in turns. But, following an argument, the neighbor hurled a rock that missed its target, landing in a nearby meadow where it still rests.
We knew from the get-go we’d be barely scratching the surface of this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially when staying a two-hour drive west of the most famous landmarks. But that’s the beauty of the Dolomites; there’s something for everyone: skiers and snowboarders (in winter), hikers, climbers, cyclists, bikers and—us—drivers in the summertime.
And we started our aesthetically orgasmic road trip with a bang: Lake Braies. Also known as the “Pearl of the Alps,” Pragser Wildsee (as it’s known in German) rests at the base of the striking Seekofel mountain. The backdrop of the WW2 climax it’s surrounded by a two-mile trail, which gives a panorama of shifting emerald waters and breathtaking backgrounds.
After Würste and beers, we continued with another picturesque 17-mile southeast drive to the dazzling shores of another wonder: Lago di Landro. Resting between the Braies and the Sesto Dolomites, Dürrensee awards visitors not only with its turquoise beauty but with privileged and Instagrammable views of Monte Paterno and Tre Cime.
Another scenic theater of war during WW1, Lago di Landro witnessed bloody fighting between Austrians and Italians, some of whom were skiing and hiking partners before the conflict. Today, mountain bikers from the two countries—and the rest of the world—can tour the trenches and tunnels that survive as proof of the first global conflict on an industrialized scale.
Lago di Landro is an obligatory stop on one’s way to Cortina d’Ampezzo, the jet set/aristocracy-frequented ski/hiking resort 12 miles southwest in the heart of the Veneto region. Its undeniable beauty has made it film location of movies like “The Pink Panther” (1963), “For Your Eyes Only” (1981) and “Cliffhanger” (1993).
Full of charm and history, Cortina was awarded the 1944 Winter Olympics, but the outbreak of WW2 changed plans. In 1956, it successfully hosted thirty-two nations (the largest number until then) in the groundbreaking VII Winter Olympic Games, which was also the first to depend significantly on corporate sponsorship for funding. Along with Milan, the town will host for the second time in 2026.
After a bit of window shopping and a couple of espressos, our little Fiat 500 rental was about to undergo its major test with a 3-hour drive through the spectacular Great Dolomites Road and another 3 hours back to our digs in the Avelengo/Merano area.
The Grande Strada Delle Dolomiti crosses three alpine passes across imposing peaks, dormant ski resorts and lovely villages. It affords unique views that keep shifting with one’s point of view and threaten to substantially lengthen the journey as one can’t help but stop along the way to take it all in and capture as much content as possible.
It was well into the night when we returned to Avelengo. We barely made it in time for dinner and a well-deserved glass of wine at the hotel terrace overlooking Merano. The weather service forecasted a lousy climate for the next 24 hours, so we decided to park, relax and sample the local cuisine.
Despite a spotty service, MiraMonti’s wellness-geared amenities are outstanding. Aside from the iconic terrace and infinity pool with dreamy views of Merano, the mountain and the church mentioned above, we enjoyed private access to the Hafling hiking trail, which virtually starts at your room’s doorstep in the back of the hotel.
The next afternoon back on the road, we drove 47 miles westbound to Ortisei, a picture-perfect village located in the center of Val Gardena. Famous for the spectacular Seceda Viewpoint and traditional religious woodcarving, 80% of the population speaks neither German nor Italian but Ladin (not to be confused with Latin).
The plan was to take the two cable cars to Seceda, but a combination of poor visibility and reasonable fear of what looked like terrifying rides changed our minds. We made a U-turn and headed 11 miles southeast back to the Great Road, hoping some clouds would dissipate in time for our next stop: the Sella Pass.
Unlike Seceda, one can drive closer to Sella Pass. A moderate hiking trail takes you up close to the glorious peaks after parking. At 7 thousand feet above the sea, the clouds started to clear, and we immediately understood why Sellajoch is a popular spot among cyclists, bikers and everyone who visits this enchanted part of the world.
The mountains between South Tyrol and the province of Trentino that connect the Val Gardena with Canazei forming the Dolomiti Superski resort seemed to greet us. As we approached, condensation dissipated, letting the sunshine on these rocky wonders produce distinctive yellow and pink hues.
The religious experience extended 29 miles southeast into Val di Funes. Hikers completed their pilgrimage to the otherworldly valley surrounded by velvety slopes where St. Magdalena Church stands against the dramatic peaks.
When witnessing the peaceful Dolomites, it’s hard to fathom that over a hundred years ago, they were the bloodiest theater of war the world ever knew. And a forgotten one, as the world keeps substituting it with newer horrors.
George Santayana’s quote, “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it,” is more relevant than ever.