I’m usually more of a beach person in the summer. But having visited the Dolomites in southern Italy only a couple of weeks ago, I was keen to visit the northern end of the range up up towards the Alps. This area, Val Gardena, is one of the most beautiful Alpine areas (unlike the grim high-rise ski resorts in the French Alps). The visitor can enjoy rustically pretty pine chalet architecture, wooden window boxes with cut-out hearts, crowded with pelargoniums, reams of red and white gingham, women wearing ‘Sound of Music’ dirndl dresses and Italian food.
Who are the Ladins?
In the South Tyrol, they speak Ladin, not to be confused with Latin. There are around 45,000 speakers, a newspaper and some TV programs. Ladin language and culture is similar to Romansch in Switzerland and Friuli in Austria, all of which were preserved due to the isolation of these mountain valleys.
The language is a kind of latin slang spoken by Roman soldiers. There are also hints of Bulgarian and Celtic.
What to do in the mountains in summer?
- Look at mountains.
Before this trip, one mountain looked rather like another mountain to me. Mountain addicts don’t feel that way. Sassolungo is Ladin for long rock. The Dolomitian Alps are particularly steep and sheer-sided with plateaux at the top rather than the traditional pointy mountain shape.
There are several ‘gondola’ lifts to summits but the most impressive must be the lift to Forcella Sassolungo at 2,685m. You are required to hurl yourself into a tiny metal cabin, aided by two assistants pushing your bum inside while it’s moving. The views on the way up are spectacular. At the top there is a mountain station where you can eat or drink.
Walking is now hiking, an American term. I went on a so-called easy gentle hike which turned out to be one of the most exhausting mornings of my life. I was with a group of hiking bloggers in day-glo yoga outfits led by a maniac Tyrolean guide who, living in the area and used to the altitude, ran rather than walked, up and down mountains. Five days later and my legs still hurt. The whole group was angry with me, I was kindly informed, for being so slow and getting lost, which was humiliating. It was interesting to see what ski slopes look like without snow however. It can be summed up in one word – steep.
But I am assured that there are easier ‘hikes’, more suitable to us less athletic types. The unfit walker could take a gondola or the Resciesa funicular lift to the top and walk along the flat enjoying the views. This way you won’t twist your knees or break your angle running down a pebble-strewn dormant ski slope.
For avoidance of doubt I really like walking. I just can’t run up mountains.
Mountain biking has now been transformed into e-biking, which is a bike with a little motor in it. Oh I cannot recommend this enough. It’s cheaty cycling. When you go uphill there is like an invisible hand that pushes you up.
The food is Italo-Ladin with a hearty mountain vibe. Expect lots of bread-crumb dumplings (canederli), strudel (but with shortcrust pastry rather than filo-style), stuffed pasta (ravioli stuffed with spinach called crafuncins), risotto, sauerkraut and goulash. Speck, a kind of bacon, is in absolutely everything. My absolute favourite was the apple fritters (recipe below).
Many restaurants still possess a ‘feur’ in the middle of the room, a giant wood-burning oven. Previously this was how houses were heated: the whole family would sleep in the main room around this oven, and the children in beds on top of the oven.
Breakfast is bircher muesli, soaked in yoghurt (so much nicer than the dry stuff), cheese, meat, smoked salmon, pickles, large pretzels, fruit jams and cake. Just like the rest of Italy, they adore sweet cake for breakfast.
The wine is simply fantastic. My favourite white wine, Gewurztraminer, originated here in the village of Tramin. Both the red and the whites are good. Local liqueurs and grappa are made from fruits, herbs and alpine flowers.
My hotel had its own spa including an outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi. This must be a boon in the winter to soothe tired ski-legs. I did lengths while gazing up to the jagged mountains of Sasso Lungo.
7. Alpine flowers:
If you are interested in gardening, plants or botany, the beginning of summer, mid-May to mid-July, is the moment to walk among alpine flowers.
“From this point, and for a long way up, the pasture-land is like a lovely park, rich in grass, and interspersed with clumps of firs and larches. As the path rises, however, the trees diminish and the wild-flowers become more abundant. Soon we are in the midst of a hanging garden thick with white and yellow violets, forget-me-nots, great orange and Turkscap lilies, wild sweet-peas, wild sweet-William, and purple Canterbury bells. Here, too, we make acquaintance for the first time with a grotesque, ugly flower bearing a kind of fibrous crest, like a top-knot of spiders’ legs. They call it “Capelli di Dio,” or God’s-Hair. The forget-me-not is here called Fior di Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy’s flower; and the white clover, known only as a wild-flower in South Tyrol, is the Fior di San Giovanni, or Flower of Saint John.”
From Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys by Amelia B Edwards 1873
Ortisei, the main village in Val Gardena, is the ultimate in chocolate-box architecture – ice-cream painted 19th century buildings, coronated with wooden filigree trelliswork. Rooves and spires in several villages are green and yellow ceramic.
9. Wood Carving:
I visited the workshop of Ivo Piazza, who gathers lightning split tree trunks from the Resciesa forest. Ortisei is known for wood carvings, often religious. There is a wood sculpture gallery which is free to visit.
Although the Dolomites are known as ‘the pale mountains’, there is a local phenomenon known as ‘the burning Dolomites’ when the mountains turn crimson.
I stayed at the five star Alpine Royal hotel, rooms in summer are from £134 a night.
The Val Gardena card gives you access to all the lifts and gondolas, costing 93 euros for 6 days.
E-biking (sometimes referred to as ‘Fat Bikes’) from the Rental Selva shop is 49 euros for one day and 227 euros for 6 days.
Nearest airports are Verona (2.5 hours away) and Innsbruck (1.5 hours away).
Italian Apple Fritters
- 4 apples, cored, sliced crossways thickly
- 100 g sugar (caster)
- 100 ml rum
For the batter
- 250 g plain flour
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- Pinch sea salt
- 3 eggs, separated
- 250 ml whole milk
- 250 ml vegetable oil, clean
- Icing sugar
For the apples
- Prep the apples, leaving on the skins
- Leave the apple slices to marinate in the rum and sugar
For the batter
- Mix the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl
- Add the milk and egg yolks
- Just before frying, whisk the egg whites till stiff and add to the batter
For the frying
- Lay the apple slices on a clean tea towel to drain
- Dip the apple slices into the batter
- Carefully lower into the hot oil
- Fry. until golden both sides
- Lift out and sprinkle with icing sugar
- Eat immediately