It’s William Tell meets La Dolce Vita when Director goes hiking in South Tyrol. This is Italy, but not as you know it…
The cow is unimpressed. Director has just spent three-and-a-half hours slogging up an Italian mountainside, two of them scrambling a near-vertical precipice, avoiding dizzying, don’t-look-down views at every turn while trying to find a crevice to slot our feet into. But the cow greeting us at the Mastlé meadow is nonplussed. With her fringe swept across her eyes like some surly 1990s indie pop star, she emits a thundering belch that echoes around the mountains.
Unlike our bovine acquaintance, Director was wowed by hiking in South Tyrol. This beautiful region two hours north of Verona is home to the grandiose Dolomite mountains, the pink-hued peaks and crags of which play host to all manner of outdoor fun from cycling to hang-gliding. The hills, though, aren’t alive with the sound of Italian but a unique local tongue called Ladin, an ancient Romance language spoken by the bulk of people living in the Val Gardena valley. The main language in South Tyrol is actually German (this region was part of Austria until 1919) and the Teutonic influences are everywhere, from the beer halls to the “grüss gotts!” (no “ciaos!” here) bellowed in shop doorways.
Nowhere is this cultural mishmash more evident than the region’s hybrid Austrian-Italian cuisine. Tubladel, a wood-chalet restaurant in the town of Ortisei, looks like the kind of place where you can imagine Pinocchio and Geppetto tucking in. It’s also where we laid waste to hillocks of truly excellent food, with its epic five-course dinner spanning speck (a type of prosciutto) linguine, crisp pork knuckle and dark loaves of aniseed-tasting bread, all washed down with Müller-Thurgau wine.
We also enjoyed a cooking lesson at a chalet in the commune of Sëlva, shepherded by a non-English-speaking Italian mama, who animatedly urged us to knead our crafuncins (spinach-filled ravioli) with more gusto and tutted loudly whenever we sprinkled too much cinnamon on our apfelstrudel. Then came the Hugo cocktails – a tastebud-tingling mix of prosecco, elderflower syrup, sparkling water and fresh mint leaves, which we supped in Ortisei’s Vinoteque la Cercia.
South Tyrol offers more than eating and hiking, though. In Sëlva, we visited Pine Lodge chalet to ogle the wood carvings of local artist Aron Demetz. These life-size figurine sculptures, daubed with resin from the nearby forest, regularly fetch €80,000 (£63,000) at auction. Sëlva is also home to Hotel Gran Baita, which boasts sweeping Dolomite vistas from its pinewood rooms plus a beautiful spa, whose hay bath, salt sauna and Fellini-esque flotation pool were perfect for soothing post-hike aching ankles.
Our trek through Val Gardena ended at the Sofie Hut, atop the Seceda mountain. While we drank prosecco, Manuel, our mountain guide, implored us to warble a local song in Ladin about, we assumed, climbing mountains. Gazing out at the meadows – a patchwork of wooden farmhouses, apple orchards and chairlifts – forced even this adamant urbanite to seriously consider hiking as part of future holiday plans.
Hiking in South Tyrol: Getting there
Hiking in South Tyrol: Accommodation
Director stayed at the four-star Hotel Gran Baita in Sëlva, which offers summer/autumn packages from €910 (£710) to €1,330 per person for seven nights’ half-board, based on two people sharing.
Read part 1 of Director’s Hidden Italy series: Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi Coast
Part 2 of Hidden Italy (Sicily) online next weekend