The peaks of the Dolomites...and then some wine and opera
Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Our destination after Lake Garda was Bolzano, Italy, a two and a half hour drive north and an hour from the Austrian border. The drive is an easy highway cruise with countless vineyards on both sides and the occasional hilltop castle along with way. We were looking forward to another very different slice of Italy and we sure got it. Long ago part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Bolzano continued to be part of Austria until it was annexed to Italy in 1918. At that time, German was the primary language of the region and so it is no wonder that a great many of the streets, landmarks, and signage are in German. This isn't a place that's typically on a vacation itinerary, but as we learned, it is well worth the trip.
We quickly discovered that one of the most fun things to do in Bolzano is actually to leave town for the day and head way up into the mountains where we'd not only be dropped into Austrian culture but we'd enjoy spectacular views as well. Our hotel was steps from the gondola in the center of town, so we got on and went up-up-and-away. If you're afraid of heights (or large gondolas precariously suspended on a single cable spanning deep valleys), this is not for you!
The gondola passes over lush green fields and farmland, and even some vineyards, which somehow generates a thirst for a cold glass of white wine. The gondola arrives in the quaint little town of Oberbozen which is a perfect spot to begin a hike through the hills, so that's exactly what we did (even though there is a cute little railway that can also take you across the mountains).
We wandered toward a mountain lake, grabbing a delicious gourmet burger and a beer at a local spot tucked along the way as we made our trek. The walk was spectacularly scenic at the edge of Italy's famed Dolomite mountain range, and the jagged peaks and plateaus were visible throughout our hike - we barely saw any other people on our three hour hike and it was one of the most peaceful places ever.
We had our sights set on finding the local geological landmark known as the Earth Pyramids. After taking a wrong turn on the trail and going nearly three miles out of our way, we finally got back on track and made it there!
The earth pyramids are 25,000-year-old natural structures of clay stone with boulders balancing on top of them. They are formed by erosion that carves away the clay, except directly underneath the boulders that protects the clay from the erosion. Truth be told, I was amazed and wanted to stare at it for an hour and Jennifer was ready to go a lot sooner. We stayed long enough for a few pictures and then we were on our way. Eventually, hot, exhausted, and thirsty, we decided to call it a day and opted to jump on the train and make our way back to the Gondola.
We were there during Europe's record-setting heat wave, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit so we were thrilled that our hotel had one of the only outdoor pools within the city - right beside views of all the mountains we'd just hiked. What an awesome relief to splash in the refreshing pool after a hot day in the sun!
That evening we walked into town, meandering the streets looking for a dinner spot.
We happened down a tiny alley and discovered a virtually hidden restaurant that was clearly a locals-only place - exactly what we were hoping to find! Ristorante Il Tinello is a hideaway with a wonderful ambience and a very eclectic menu. We had lots to choose from, but we opted to begin with the smoked swordfish carpaccio before our pasta dishes - great call, it was out of this world! After a quick lesson on origami napkin folding from the cute Swedish six-year-old girl at the table next to us, we headed out for an after-dinner cocktail, only to find ourselves running the streets of Balzano in a torrential downpour! When we finally sloshed into a bar we were rewarded with some tall drinks and a place to hang out before calling it a night.
After Bolzano we were making our way toward Verona but stopped for one night in Trento. The real delight here wasn't the city (which isn't large, but we did catch a film crew shooting some sort of show with a guy riding a bike...over and over again as he ran through the scene the the Piazza del Duomo). The best surprise was our hotel, Villa Madruzzo, a 16th century former noble residence tucked into the hills surrounding the city. It was a little piece of tranquility and amazing food...which we enjoyed before setting out for a wine tasting at Mas dei Chini winery.
This was another surprise because we thought we were there to taste some wines but ended up, three hours later, stuffed with multiple courses of accompanying local cheeses, meats and snacks. No need for dinner that night!
Next up, Verona. When we were looking into Verona we discovered that we would be there during the opera festival. Score! Since 1913, operatic performances have been given in the Arena of Verona each summer, with more than 17,000 spectators enjoying the show every evening. Aida is the most popular opera of Verona Festival, and the only one performed every year - we were fortunate to be there when it was going to be performed and we were thrilled to experience our first opera in a Roman amphitheatre built in 30 AD.
During the day, the production's scenery was outside the arena waiting to be set up, large sphinxes and parts of pyramids were right there in front of us and we couldn't imagine how they could get it all together for the evening performance. (Aida is a Verdi opera set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt). When we entered the arena for the performance, we found an entire set that transported us to Egypt. it was gorgeous. Our seats were spectacular and we were blown away by the beautiful scenery and performances. It was our first opera, but it definitely won't be our last!
Verona is a beautiful, vibrant city, but watching this performance was the highlight of our visit. Sure, Romeo and Juliet are always associated with Verona, and people line up outside the house with the balcony that supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write about the tragic love story, but for us, Verona will always remind us of the love story between the Ethiopian princess Aida and and the Egyptian military commander Radamès. What a great city!