Off to Italy with a German phrase book? Well, it makes sense if you’re visiting the South Tyrol and, with place names in both Italian and German, you get double your money’s worth. We were told shortly after we arrived that ‘The British discovered the South Tyrol – and then forgot about it!’. In just a few days, we discovered just what a loss that oversight has been.
A stop-off in Bolzano on our way from the airport at Verona to the heart of the region offered the opportunity to visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Not an obvious place for an outdoor trip but the Iceman exhibition was the big draw.
This 5300-year-old body, preserved in the ice was found complete with clothing, footwear, tools and weapons. The exhibition was a fascinating insight into life thousands of years ago – a far cry from Gore-Tex and Polartec. It set the scene for a journey of exploration of the mountains, culture and food of the area that never disappointed.
There is no shortage of brochures and advice available on the area with plenty of info, maps and services to help you make the most of a visit. A wealth of opportunities for just about all outdoor pursuits in a dramatic context with a variety of accommodation standards and superb meals – sorted.
Our base for a few days was the Sport&KurHotel Bad Moos, near Sexten. A programme of walks, mountain biking, climbing and via ferrata had been arranged in advance so an early dinner and bed seemed in order.
Bright and early, our mountain guide, or ‘bergfuhrer’, Michi Andres drove us up into the mountains to park at the Rifugio Auronzo for a walking circuit of the stunning Tre Cime or Drei Zinnen. These sheer rock towers dominated the landscape, providing unforgettable images etched against the blue sky.
A lunch break in the sun was enlivened by the antics of marmots below us, full of their own business and leaving us to enjoy watching them unnoticed.
Whilst the route-finding was straightforward, the advantage of a guide became obvious as Michi fed in history, wildlife and culture to the easy conversation as well as brushing up on his English and our German and some Italian.
Our faster than anticipated pace meant we had time to explore, that is fall off, the climbing wall in Sexten before enjoying a superb meal of local specialities and wine – an angle we enjoyed more than once.
To mix up opportunities, our next day had us mountain biking in the morning and climbing in the afternoon. With hire bikes sorted, we drove onwards and upwards to a high point way above Toblach in the main valley.
Mile after mile of fast downhill and some tricky sections had us exhilarated – and a little bruised where enthusiasm exceeded ability – and ready for the miles along the valley floor to return the bikes. The sight of the Tre Cime from the valley floor reinforced the scale of the area.
A picnic lunch on a variation of home fare – tasty speck und kase instead of ham and cheese – saw us set off for crags above a mountain lake – Pragser Wildsee. Some easy climbing with superb views over the lake was rounded off by a trial run on a cable-protected route or via ferrata.
There was just time to visit Michi’s Globalpin office in Toblach and meet some of the team who organise guiding, ski tours and climbing all over the world for individuals and groups. As well as being so knowledgeable about the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area, Michi was a warm personality who definitely added extra dimensions to our forays into the mountains with his insight and good humour. He shepherded us along the trails at a pace that suited us and had a seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories and huge reserves of patience.
Being based at Bad Moos meant we had a wide selection of walks from the hotel itself. In the morning, we strolled down to the cable car in Sexten to gain some height on our target – the Hornischegg, 2550m – before returning to the valley via a long loop along the ridge. Spectacular views across the valley to dozens of arrowhead-like peaks offered an ever-changing perspective that never palled.
Our final day in the valley only allowed us 4-5 hours before moving on so we swung out of the hotel early to walk up the valley before turning off to ascend to the mountain refuges at the high pastures. Snow started to fall as we neared the tops and the terraces of the refuges were full of hungry walkers enjoying the food and live music.
As the snow turned to sleet, we dashed for another cable car for the return to the valley floor. These cable cars and chair lifts really make a difference in terms of getting to do far more than you might manage just on foot, avoiding retracing steps, easily gaining height or avoiding long knee-crushing descents.
Nestled on the southern slopes of the Alps, South Tyrol is Italy’s most northern province providing the perfect location for a year-round holiday experience. Whether travellers are looking for a unique winter sports destination or a summer alpine retreat, South Tyrol offers something for everyone.
The pleasant climate and varied landscape offer an ideal backdrop in which visitors can enjoy a wealth of activities from skiing, mountain biking, climbing, hiking and riding to white-water rafting and paragliding. Experienced walkers can take advantage of an extensive network of mountain footpaths and Alpine huts, whilst novices can seek guidance from one of the many Alpine schools and local guides.
Historically, South Tyrol’s location has meant that it has enjoyed a key role as a major European trading route. As a result, the region now boasts more than 400 ancient buildings including fortresses, castles and churches, with many of the former offering accommodation to guests.
Torggelen is a local custom of visiting local farms and country inns to sample the young wine (Torggl refers to the wine press); this is accompanied by traditional foods such as chestnuts.
© John Traynor – from the Journeys of a Thousand Words series