The Dolomites have great skiing, and great wine
Russell describes a part of Italy that comes as a total surprise to many tourists: The Dolomite mountains that are part of the Alps. I was glad to see that he warns about the price, the best things in life are not always free (or cheap).
If you have never been in the eastern Alpine area of northern Italy called the Dolomites, then now is the time to pull out your trusty Michelin maps of the area and look for Bolzano (Bozen for the German speaking inhabitants). A short distance on the map to the east is Cortina d'Ampezzo; almost due north is Innsbruck. This is where the mountains are called the Dolomites.
This part of Italy was fought over many times and ruled by a variety of entities, empires and republics; Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and eventually the Italians themselves, as it is today. The biggest influence over the last few centuries has been Austria and Germany, with the result that most everyone here speaks German and many wish they were still part of either Austria or Germany. The Tyrol is the western part of Austria, but the town itself is across the border in Italy. The signs are usually in Italian and German and when you approach a local, they will begin in German, then switching to Italian.
Be forewarned, it is one of the most expensive regions in Italy. It has excellent activity-oriented tourist offices, lifts, well maintained trails together with a very good bus system that invites tourists from all over. As a result, in most towns doubles in hotels run 100 Euros at a minimum, B&Bs about 70 Euros, with few alternatives. There is a short tourist season - mid July to late September - so they have to make their year's income in two months.
The best way to tour this area, is by bus, in fact some of areas are only accessible by bus. Start from Venice and get your bus tickets to Cortina, then travel west to Bolzano. That's the short description. Actually there is a route called the Great Dolomite Road. North of Venice there is a town called Belluno, from there north through tunnels and narrow passes to Cortina, then west through two passes, the Pordoi and Sella passes, then through the Val di Fassa to Bolzano.
You can take the easy and short tour by taking the cable car into the hills above Bolzano to the quintessential tourist town of Oberbozan. But if you have the time, take the bus - up from Venice or east across from Bolzano to Cortina, it's well worth it.
In season, the Dolomites bask in the sun almost every day. Bolzano looks like Innsbruck but with much more sun. It's not a big city, only 100,000 or so but certainly has all the amenities you would expect of a much larger city. It has a great open-air market on the Piazza Erbe and has an excellent tourist information centre to get up to speed on this entire area of Italy. Ask them about the 5,000-year-old Ice Man found frozen with his gear a few years ago.
The two most famous Dolomite ski areas are Val di Fassa and Val Gardenna. Between these two valleys, there is Europe's highest and largest alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi. The meadow is five by 12 kilometers and is 2000 meters above sea level. It has a few scattered farm huts, loads of alpine wildflowers and is virtually car-free. There is a very good view of Mount Schlern, a mountain that made middle age peasants think the entire meadow was bewitched and left it vacant for centuries. If you let your imagination run a little wild, Mount Schlern from the meadow top does look like a bat with its wings spread out or a witch with her cape spread wide over her shoulders. If your own broomstick isn't up to flying to the top, there are buses to access the meadow and a couple of chair lifts.
A good base of operations for the area between Bolzano and Cortina is the town of Castelrotto, Kastleruth if your Michelin maps are German in origin. With a population of about 5,000, it has some very nice reasonably priced little hotels and the people here are the friendliest in the Dolomites. Castelrotto has more of that special Italian village charm than anywhere else in this region. It also has very good bus connections in every direction in case you must leave.
During its short summer tourist season, the Dolomites can be crowded and expensive, but it's a part of Italy that you should not miss if you have the time and can afford it.