I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going when I said yes to a summer mountain trip to the South Tyrol region of Italy. I’ve been lucky enough to go to many of the better-known European ski areas in the winter (Courchevel 1850, Alpe d’Huez, Morzine) but never in the summer. Also, as few of the UK’s tour operators go to the area, which is part of the Dolomites range, it’s not (yet) high on Brits’ radar.
But it is well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive north of Verona to Ortisei, a small town in the valley of Val Gardena and 1,200m above sea level. The banks above the town are covered with pine trees, and slope down to the village with its gingerbread-style houses, 5,000 inhabitants and three Michelin-starred restaurants.
We’re only an hour’s drive from the Austrian border, and the towns here have German names too: St Ulrich in Gröden is Ortisei’s alternative moniker.
Italian food, Austrian culture
This is a magical part of the world that has its own special language and customs: Ladin is the language spoken by around 20,000 inhabitants of the valley, along with Italian and German, and there is a curious mix of the two cultures: in one restaurant we had excellent Italian food served by women wearing traditional Austrian dirndl costume.
Along with the language and culture, the landscape creates a feeling of being in another world. On our first day, we catch the cable car up to the Alpe di Siusi, and find scenery I have rarely seen the like of. The green rolling hills and meadows of summer flowers contrast with the spiky and dramatic grey of the mountains: it’s a cross between Sound of Music country and Middle-earth.
Our guide for the morning is Hubert (known as Hubi) who is in his 70s and has lived in the region all his life. There is the option to go hiking or biking and I’m torn between them, but Hubi persuades me to go walking with him. “These are my mountains,” he says proudly. “This is the beautiful heart of the Dolomites and in two hours you can see everything.”
We take another cable car and reach the top of the Bullaccia mountain, which has spectacular views of the valley below, as well as across to the Sciliar peaks where, if you’re lucky enough to get the right weather, you can stay overnight and watch the sunset, then start out the next day before dawn to watch it rise.
We hike for three hours, through fields of flowers, past palomino ponies, cattle and farmers’ huts, and watch the sun break through the clouds creating bright patches across the landscape.
Lunch is at the Adler Mountain Lodge, a new hotel which has been ten years in the making because of the World Heritage status of the area. It’s warm and welcoming but spacious; the pale local wood gives it a minimalist yet luxurious feel.
The hotel has activities daily, including ‘foto-hiking’, wine-tasting and yoga, though I could quite happily sit on the terrace all day and take in the staggering views of the Sassolungo and Sassopiatto peaks beyond.
The food is exceptional but the vibe is informal: guests help themselves to Prosecco, local wine and grappa from the open bar at lunchtime, and to delicious cakes in the afternoon. Public spaces are decorated with wood-carved dragons and eagles (adler means eagle in German).
A view with a room
Afterwards we see what we’re missing at the Lodge (we’re staying at sister hotel the Adler Balance down in Ortisei, which is lovely, but not as spectacular): an amazing glass-ceilinged spa, again with mountain views, and a secluded infinity pool surrounded by private chalets. Each has an upstairs balcony and terrace, an infra-red or traditional coal sauna, and a fireplace.
Back at the Adler Balance, we enjoy its heated outdoor pools, grotto-like spa, saunas and salt caves. On our first night we try a tasting menu which includes salmon tartare, chanterelle mushroom and saffron tagliolini and crispy octopus with polenta. By breakfast time I’m still full, so opt to make my own juice (smug!) of celery, apple and carrot.
In spite of the big meal the night before, the focus here is on a healthy balance and along with daily outdoor activities and indoor workouts, there is a full medical centre which provides health assessments, nutritional analysis and stress management.
A Second World War cheese bunker
The next day we explore further afield, to the town of Bressanone (Brixen in German), first heading for one of Mussolini’s Second World War bunkers, now – extraordinarily – turned into a store for maturing cheese. They’re laid out in rows, in various stages of ripeness, and some are matured in hay or in whisky barrels for up to three years.
There are all types of cheese: pecorino, blue and buffalo milk, as well as two flavoured with cumin and pepper, and one called caciocavallo, which is ripened in a tear-shaped round tied with rope. We taste them at Degust, a shop run by Michelin-starred chef Hansi Baumgartner and his wife Edith for the past 20 years.
Just outside Bressanone is the beautiful Abbazia di Novacella, a 12th century monastery and vineyard that produces around 700,000 bottles of wine a year. We try four whites, ranging from a light and fruity Omnes Dies, a mix of Müller Thurgau and Kerner grapes, to a full-bodied straw yellow Gewürztraminer.
Bressanone is a laid-back Alpine town. After exploring its 18th-century cathedral and cloisters with beautifully painted frescos we enjoy a ‘Hugo’ aperitif of Prosecco, mint, elderflower cordial and sparkling water, followed by dinner at the excellent Restaurant Finsterwirt, run by the Mayr family since 1870.
On our final morning, we fit in a bike ride with a difference. We take the path from Ortisei to San Cristina, a few miles up the valley, not on skinny-tyred road cycles but on e-bikes, which have thick tyres and an electronic pack to make you go faster.
We’re here on a day many roads are closed for a ‘proper’ MAMIL-style ride, and I love pressing turbo on my handlebars and cruising past the road bikers as they puff up the hills. We cycle back to Ortisei down a track lined with cornflowers, before the transfer to Verona.
It’s been a brief but fun trip to the magical mountains of the South Tyrol, and I want to go back in the winter. But selfishly, I wish this corner of Italy could be kept secret forever.
Lucy Handley was a guest of the Adler Balance hotel, Ortisei. Rooms start from €518 per person sharing a double room for a weekend break (Thursday to Saturday inclusive) and include half-board Adler Balance vitality cuisine, Alder Fit sports and leisure programme and underground car parking. Daily guided hiking and biking tours are also included. Visit Adler Balance to book.
BA, Easyjet and Monarch fly from London Gatwick to Verona, daily. Fares from £100, plus a private transfer, hire car or public transport (train and bus) to Ortisei.
Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Innsbruck, on specific weekdays. Fares from £100, plus a private (75-minute) transfer or hire car to Ortisei.