Forget pizzas and piazzas — South Tyrol in the north of Italy is dominated by the Dolomites, says Suzanne Harrington.
THINK Italy and this is probably what comes to mind — pizzas, piazzas, gondolas, gelati, spaghetti, and Sofia Loren. But that’s all down south.
Go north and you find yourself in a province called Alto Adige in Italian, Sudtirol in German, or South Tyrol to you and I.
Where instead of canals and lagoons, there are the marble and granite Dolomites in a mountainous multilingual area surrounded by Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Flying into Innsbruck on Easyjet, I am driven 90 minutes south to the Val Gardena — a series of valley ski towns in winter which in summer are perfect for taking in the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
It is one of the most scenic 90 minute drives imaginable, becoming more breathtaking with every mile.
I am the guest of Susanna Scott, an English interior designer married to a local hotelier.
The couple run a family hotel in the valley, and in January 2015 Susanna opened a luxury fully serviced lodge, primarily for the winter ski season, but also available during the summer when the snow has melted to reveal lush meadows, gritty mountain tracks and towering forests.
Which is why I am here — to visit a place whose local economy is based on snow, but which in summer comes alive with a whole range of alternative non-snow based things to do, all of which involve gadding about in the mountains gasping at the sheer beauty of the place.
It’s not hard to see why it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Indeed the Val Gardena is so beautiful — wooden chalet-style houses whose balconies overflow with fresh flowers, fairytale village squares, soaring pine trees, a backdrop of jagged moutain tops, all with a magical soundtrack of cowbells — that you feel you have wandered into a vast film set and at any moment someone is going to shout “Cut!”
Which of course you have not — the customs, culture, and way of life in these mountains is very much grounded in the reality of long standing traditions and small, close knit communities who have evolved and adapted to their high altitude surroundings with considerable vigour and panache.
It is fresh air, stunning views, bracing excursions, all followed by deep comfort, and really good food.
Such is the excellent health and fitness of the local mountain population that there is an over 70s football league which plays once a week.
Although a sporty region — off season, when the mountains are green instead of white, there are still many cyclists and Nordic walkers of all ages — there is also a strong local tradition of wood carving.
Lots of the wooden religious carvings you see in churches all over Italy come from the wood carvers of Val Gardena; the tradition is centuries old.
Two of Italy’s most renowned artists, the cousins Gehard and Aron Demetz, are from here.
I am invited to visit Aron’s studio, full of enormous scultptures made from the wood and resin from surrounding forests; both Aron and Gerhard are friends of my host, and their work is dotted around the luxury lodge where I am staying.
The history of South Tyrol, where over the past century saw it pushed and pulled between Germany and Italy, means that while its culture is robustly Alpinesque, its identity has been something of a tug of war.
The richest region of Italy — the town squares have underground heating so that nobody slips on snow — used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; it was annexed to Italy in 1919 as part of war reparations.
Then in the 1920s and 1930s, Mussolini encourged southern Italians to settle in the previously German speaking area; German was banned in schools and German place names were Italianised.
During World War II, Hitler and Mussolini ordered German speaking citizens of South Tyrol to either adopt the Italian language and way of life, or move to Germany and lose their homeland.
Obviously, this caused all sorts of linguistic chaos and cultural resentment.
In the 1970s, the region was granted autonomy, and things settled down a bit.
But the German and Austrian influences remain far more visible than anything traditionally Italian.
This is a place where people wear lederhosen, eat strudel, and the fat mountain cows all wear clanking bells — it’s The Sound Of Music with tri-lingual road signs.
Neither Italian nor German, however, is the native language of South Tyrol – the mother tongue is Ladino, an officially recognised language spoken by many of the region’s citizens.
ENGLISH is widely spoken too — the popularity of the Val Gardena ski area, about an hour’s drive from the Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, is such that despite its three small towns having a total population of just under 10,000, the area has an equal number of tourist beds, and host 1.3 million overnight stays per year, with a winter/summer ratio of around 60/40.
And while the entire area is chocolate box perfect, Pine Lodge, where I am staying, goes beyond picturesque into proper luxury.
It is a four bedroom private lodge with its own butler, housekeeper, chef and masseuse, outdoor hot tub, sauna, infinity pool, private cinema, small gym, art collection, and every conceivable comfort.
The chef rises astonishingly well to the challenge of preparing vegan and vegetarian food for me, despite the predominance of venison and veal in the region.
There is even a claw foot bath in front of the fire in my bedroom with fabulous mountain views, and faux fur throws everywhere, all of which makes leaving the house quite hard, even when there is so much to do outside.
Like mountain biking. But what if you are definitely not Bradley Wiggins, and the very idea of steep mountainous terrain makes you gasp and wheeze?
FEAR not. You can be Lance Armstrong instead and cheat with a the cleverest invention since the wheel — the electronic bike.
Fitted with a battery, the e-bike is a regular mountain bike, except when you are faced with a killer hill, instead of changing gears, you choose from the eco, tour, sport, or turbo options, and the bike powers you up the worst bit.
For normal people — that is, non-MAMALs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) — this is the future of cycling.
Guided by Andrea, our very own Adventure Concierge, whose services are included when you hire Pine Lodge, means that mountain biking around the Dolomites is utter heaven.
First, you put your bike in a gondola, which is what they call the ski lifts; these run in summer as well as winter, so that you don’t have to actually scale the side of a mountain to reach the top.
Once you’re up there, it’s all crisp high altitude air, jaw-dropping views, and a stop for lunch at one of the many mountain ‘huts’ — restaurants — that would be filled with skiers in the winter, but now are full of walkers and cyclists.
Andrea can also arrange quad biking by moonlight, as well as snow related activities in winter.
We visit a mountain hut called the Gostner-Schwaige, a gorgeous wooden chalet run by a man called Franz who wears a felt mountain hat and lederhosen. For real.
Franz has eight cows, from whom he makes many kinds of cheese (I take a detour via the cowshed, and there they are, huge and mellow, calmly chewing hay).
Franz serves his homemade cheeses with local edible mountain flowers in what is possibly the best cheese board in the world. (Having met the cows, I feel it would be rude not to sample their produce.)
I try knudel — delicious warm dumplings — and apple strudel which comes with fresh rose petals, and there is homemade schnapps for those who need warming up — flavoured with honey, pine, rose, and melissa.
After a 30km cycle, it is the best lunch ever. Thankfully the way back involves freewheeling down the mountainside at what feels like breakneck speed past scenery straight out of Heidi.
I have to restrain myself from bellowing out a Julie Andrews number as I whizz downhill.
The next day we take a gondola to the top of Mount Kronplatz, South Tyrol’s highest mountain, to visit the Museum of Mountaineering.
This is the final museum in a series of six opened by mountaineer Reinhold Messner, a demi-god in the world of climbing; he was the first to reach the summit of Everest without oxygen supplements, and has climbed all 14 of the world’s mountains that are over 8,000m.
NOW in his seventies, Messner enlisted starchitect Zaha Hadid to design his latest, which opened in August.
Like the lair of a particularly stylish Bond villain, it juts from the side of the mountain and inside is a fascinating collection of mountain-related art and climbing memorabilia, plus a spellbinding film about the compulsion to climb.
Messner’s museum is a monument to the mountains, and our relationship with them; even if you have never climbed anything higher than a step ladder in your whole life, you cannot help but be transported by it all.
Had it been located further down in the valley, and not 7,500m in the sky, you’d wonder if it would have had the same impact. It’s worth the journey up.
As is the Val Gardena worth a visit. You don’t have to be a skier — off season, it’s ideal for nature lovers, food lovers, cyclists, walkers, ramblers, and anyone who has ever loved being up a mountain without actually having to climb one. And if you can afford it, stay in Pine Lodge.
Goster Schwaige restaurant phone Franz on 347 836 8154
Museum of Mountaineering www.mmmcorones.com
Nearest airports - Bolzano or Innsbruck
The entire lodge, which sleeps eight (plus two children), costs from £1,500 per day (minimum three-night stay).
Pine Lodge Dolomites, Selva Gardena,
South Tyrol, Italy (00 39 333 770 0581
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