As if the Veneto didn’t contain enough variety in the towns between Verona and Venice, it also has a stunning set of mountains: the Dolomites, and reaches as far as a short section of border with Austria.
The "Queen of the Dolomites" is Cortina d’Ampezzo, an expensive ski town that hosted the 1956 winter olympics and is still a very popular destination for both winter and summer outdoor sports, and continues to be a place to see and be seen, for those interested in that kind of thing.
One of the things that makes Cortina such a beautiful setting is its geography – rather than being at the bottom of a deep alpine valley, Cortina lays in an open bowl, surrounded by mountains, which turn various pretty shades of pink and red as the sun sets. From Cortina, various mountain passes open up to the north, west, and east, as well as the valley that rises up towards Cortina from the south. The area has a wide array of options in terms of outdoor sports, from mountain biking to skiing and mountaineering.
I am not that excited about seeing movie stars, dropping huge amounts of money on boutique shopping, or that sort of thing, so that aspect of Cortina is a bit of a negative for me. There’s no getting around that it’s an expensive area, although even for the budget-minded, there are options. We usually stay in a campground (described [here](http://padovachronicles.welton.it/2004/08/19/il-camping)), which for me is a pleasant experience, bringing back memories of my youth in Oregon, despite how crowded the campground is.
Even if it deserves the moniker "Queen of the Dolomites", Cortina is by no means the only beautiful place in the mountains of the Veneto. Other popular locations include Falcade and other towns in the "Agordo" area, as well as Sappada, barely on this side of the border with Austria.
Indeed, one of the interesting things about the Dolomites, both in the Veneto, as well as the neighboring regions of Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli is the cultural mix. The area is now part of Italy, but, for instance, Cortina was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire – you can still see where the old border was several kilometers down the valley leading to the town. The architectural influence is clearly visible, with houses being built in the same style common here in Tirol. Until the advent of skiing, and the idea of vacations, something that has only taken hold and been available to most people very recently, the high mountains were often seen as something of a backwater, unimportant compared to the big, industrial cities of the plains, as economically not much took place high up, other than the cutting of lumber and some mining. Also, many of the towns up there are difficult to get to, and must have been especially so one, two, or three hundred years ago. This isolation led to some very interesting cultural and linguistic oddities. Besides being the area where German and Italian meet head on, the locals have a series of dialects all their own, which are recognized as a language, [Ladin](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladin), which is pretty much incomprehensible to anyone not born speaking it.
The town of Sappada, just below the Austrian border, high up on the ridge north of town, is classified as a "linguistic island" of German speakers, which in many ways is more closely connected to the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The wooden houses would fit right in Heidi or some other tale from the Germanic side of the Alps. Places like this, where cultures mix, are one of the things that make Italy, and Europe in general so fascinating.
Public transportation isn’t as good in the middle of the mountains as it is in the plains, but it’s still quite possible to get to most places if you’re patient and plan ahead. However, renting a car might be a good way to ensure that you’re free to explore some of the mountain passes and remote valleys on your own.