BOLZANO, Italy — German and Italian are both spoken in this picturesque town surrounded by the ragged Dolomite mountains. Bolzano's most famous resident, called "Oetzi" by the locals, speaks neither. But he's forgiven. After all, he's been dead for at least 5,000 years.
"Oetzi," also called the Iceman, is a withered little mummified man found protruding from a glacier in 1991 along Italy's mountainous border with Austria.
Displayed in an igloo-like case of ice tiles, Oetzi is the star of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where people from around the world line up to see him. They gaze at the artifacts found with Oetzi - his longbow, a quiver of arrows, his bearskin hat and goatskin cloak, grass shoes and leather leggings - and wonder what life was like in this rugged corner of the European continent all those centuries ago.
Oetzi - who was in the news again in June because researchers suspect the frozen mummy might have been contaminated by bacteria since its discovery - is just one reason to visit the towering Dolomites.
Are you a history buff? An aficionado of old churches and medieval frescoes? A mountain biker? A rock climber? A lover of wine? A skier? The Dolomites are for you.
The French architect Le Corbusier was said to have called the alpine range the most beautiful architecture in the world. The sun's reflections off the Dolomites' shear-face cliffs are stunning - lighting up the massive rock in multitudes of bright colors.
A range of the Alps that reaches an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, the Dolomites are in northeastern Italy, just south of Austria.
This is the crossroads of Italian and German-speaking culture, where Italian friendliness shakes hands with Teutonic neatness and order - and where you can find tagliolini and schnitzel side-by-side on the same menu.
Much of the Dolomites belonged to Austria until the end of World War I, when the German-speaking country was forced to give it up under the Treaty of St. Germain.
Up until relatively recently the divisions between Italians and German-speakers here have been a source of friction. A separatist movement among German-speakers erupted into violence in the 1960s. A 1971 treaty between Italy and Austria helped overcome ill will.
The western part of the region is called Trentino. It's solidly Italian - the language, the cuisine and everything about it.
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To the east is Alto-Adige, or Sued Tyrol, a region that clings to its Austrian past. Towns have two names in Alto-Adige. Bolzano is Bozen among German speakers. Merano is also Meran, Brunico is Bruneck, and Bressanone is also Brixen.
To the northeast of Alto-Adige are the Veneto Dolomites, home to Cortina d'Ampezzo, a posh ski resort that hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics and is playground for Europe's nobility, captains of industry and celebrities.
Travelers in a hurry might be tempted to head straight for well-known spots in the Dolomites like Cortina. That would be a mistake.
Stretching across the majestic Brenta and Adamello mountain groups is the vast Adamello-Brenta National Park, the Alps' last refuge of brown bears.
Prosperous but quaint little towns dot valleys that lie beneath Trentino's rocky summits. One of them is Tione, which is surrounded by alpine beauty that's easily accessible, especially with a local resident as a guide.
Ours was Franca Alberti, who runs a bed-and-breakfast with her husband in their chalet-style home on a forested hillside just outside Tione. The region is crisscrossed with hiking trails, some of them known only to the locals. Franca showed us one of them.
After switchbacking for several miles up a road bordered by tall larch trees, Franca's little SUV emerged from the woods and came to a stop in front of an old barn, high up on the side of the mountain the SUV had been climbing.
A brisk climb through alpine fields resulted in stunning views, with the Dolomites' summits rising in every direction. A few miles up the track is a wooden hut, provisioned for hikers with a roughhewn table, a hot plate, teacups and even a jar of Nutella.
Farther up the rocky trail are two little alpine lakes. Feeding trout are breaking the surface. Far below are tiny Italian communities dotting the valleys, so far away they seemed like miniature villages in a toy train set.
"Our region was once a very poor region," Franca said.
"With tourism, our lives are changing," and it's for the better, she said.
I wondered whether Oetzi, the Iceman, or his kinfolk ever stood on the same spot, as captivated by the imposing peaks with clouds clinging to them as we were.
Staying at a B&B in remote Tione for a few days underscored a well-worn travelers' tip. When you're dining out, find out where the locals eat, and not necessarily what's recommended in the tourist books. A favorite hangout in Tione is a little pizzeria where the prices are low, the food is terrific and the owner treats you like a neighbor.
Another tip for traveling in the Dolomites. Be brave, rent a car. Tour buses will take you places where tourists tend to go. You'll have far more freedom if you are independently mobile. There is some jaw-dropping driving here.
The best-known drive through these mountains is from Bolzano northeast to Cortina d'Ampezzo along the Great Dolomites Road, a 68-mile wonder that winds through mountain villages and around some of the tallest mountains in the Dolomites.
Another worthy route heads north from Bolzano through a valley called the Eisacktal. Among the treasures on this road is Bressanone, or Brixen, home to a palace dating from the 14th century that was once the residence of bishop-princes who ruled the South Tyrol. Also in Bressanone is a cathedral originating in the 13th century.
To the south of Bolzano is Trentino's capital, Trento, an Italian-speaking city bursting with cultural and historical significance.
This city was the meeting place of the 16th-century Council of Trent, meetings of cardinals and bishops organized by the Vatican to try to keep members of the faith from defecting to the popular Protestant reform movement that had swept across German states to the north.
You can visit the Castello del Buonconsiglio, a former bishop's palace where many of the council's meetings were held, as well as the Duomo, Trent's cathedral.
Back in Tione, Franca Alberti is contemplating what keeps her in the Dolomites. She's a Trentino native - born and raised there.
"I like to hike. I also ride my mountain bike. And in the winter I go cross-country skiing," she says. "The standard of life is good in Trentino. I like living here."
If you go:
Dolomites tourism information:www.italiantourism.com/trentino.html.
Adamella Brento Park: National park tourism information at www.dolomiti.it/eng/zone/comano/parco.htm.
Castello Del Buonconsiglio: Castle located at Via Bernardo Clesio, 5 in Trento; www.buonconsiglio.it/StartHTML_En.asp. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer; 9 a.m. to 12 noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. from October to March and until 5:30 p.m. in April, May and September. Admission, $6.
Cortina D'ampezzo: Ski resort town. Hotel and tourism information at www.cortina.dolomiti.com.
Lodging: Localita Cappeler, a B&B run by Franca Alberti just outside Tione. Phone: (011) (39-0465) 324-562. Nightly rate: about $27.
South Tyrol Archaelogical Museum: Via Museo 43, Bolzano; www.iceman.it. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Thursdays until 7 p.m. Adults, $10; seniors, students, children, $7.
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