The Dolomites appeal to dreamers, foodies, hikers and history buffs. The Centenary of the First World War is a chance to see these peaks afresh, walking the Peace Path along the former Austro-Italian frontline, past forts, trenches and heart-wrenching memorials. But it’s not a misery march. The crests have returned to their rightful owners. The solitary golden eagles and peachy sunsets make for an uplifting experience. Boisterous Alpine inns face forts overgrown with gentian. Adrift in the Dolomites, you risk coming home renewed - a war bore, fitter but slightly fatter, simultaneously swashbuckling yet serene as a Buddhist monk.
Trentino, the Italian-speaking part of the Dolomites, still has echoes of a Tyrolean Sound of Music, from Alpine meadows to musical feasts in the mountains. But the musical trails are authentic not ersatz, poignant not predictable. This is untamed Italy, not the country colonised by pizza, pasta and package tours. These peaks have powerful fans, from the late Pope John Paul II to the Dalai Lama, who sees Tibet in these mystical mountains. More rationally, Le Corbusier described the Dolomites as the most beautiful natural architecture in the world. As a Unesco World Heritage site, the mountains are inspirational enough to persuade mere mortals to pick up their boots.
The Dolomite peaks were first charted by British gentlemen-mountaineers. In 1864, John Ball put the Brenta Dolomites on the map: he went up a mountain and came down with the makings of the tourism industry. This summer, 150 years later, mountaineering fans will be retracing the route. But for now, in Rifugio Tuckett, above Madonna di Campiglio, muscular mountaineers tuck into steaming bowls of polenta and melted cheese. It’s fuel for a day of cables and crampons, ridges and gullies, ice-fields and iron-ladders. A century ago it was a very different story: the Italians and Austrians fought futile battles on these perilous crags, yet still changed the Dolomites’ history forever.
Camillo Zadro, head of Rovereto War Museum, knows his history: “Trentino has always been a borderlands, littered by forts - these beautiful mountains were a battleground in 1860, 1916 and even the 1960s, during the Cold War.” In Base Tuono (`Thunder Camp’), we tour a decommissioned NATO missile base, and feel both dwarfed by nuclear warheads and distracted by the scenery. “It’s a puzzle, reconciling the peace of the mountains with the menace of these `silent guardians.”