Summer was officially over and we were officially into Autumn, however the Alps had one last surprise in store before the winter descended upon its peaks. Our destination was to be Val Gardena in the Italian Dolomites in the South Tyrol. Now Autumn can be a strange time when it comes to weather depending where you are and the Alps are no exception, the previous year had seen some early snow, but this year a heat wave seemed to be on the menu and we were to find ourselves enjoying the delights of the Dolomites under blue skies and some barmy temperatures. Being a Tyrolean destination the nearest airport was Innsbruck in Austria, just a 90 minute road trip. Val Gardena is stretched out across three villages: Santa Cristina, Selva di Gardena and Ortisei, where we would be calling home. Now it is no surprise that the area is steeped in history seeing as humans first moved into the area 8000 years ago, from the Rhaetians, Lombards, Franconians to the Bavarians and the Romans and now the tourists, it seems to have been a popular place despite not being fully accessible until the 18th century. This variety of settlers all added to the cultural pot, even up to the last century when the South Tyrol moved from Austrian rule to Italian; but as a result the area is rich with tradition, art and language. As well as German and Italian being spoken the ancient Rhaeto-Romansh language of Ladin still holds strong with 90% of the inhabitants being of Ladin decent. Historically I have spent more time skiing and hiking in the French and Austrian Alps so it felt good to be exploring more of the Alps.
A warm welcome was awaiting us at the 4* Wellness & Spa Hotel Alpenheim in Ortisei, from the Hotelier Georg Vinatzer to the very loveable and fluffy hotel dog Eika, the the female Australian Sheep dog. Georg gave us the low down on the area over some rather large Gin & Tonics from the bar; the hotel has a homely quality which explains why some many guests return year after year. The views are stunning, make sure that you visit the outdoor swimming pool for views down the valley and spectacular views of the Sasso Lungo mountain, try to time it as the moon appears – quite the photo opportunity. Talking of photography, there is a very good reason for visiting the Dolomites during autumn for this is when the mountains put on their fiery display. It is hard to comprehend, but 2.5 million years ago the area began as a giant coral reef sitting in a primordial sea, what a great way to start life; this created the white-grey Dolomite rocks and over an age of constant volcanic activity and regular flooding the steep; rugged peaks that are unique to this region. These ‘Pale Mountains’ act like a canvas as the sun begins to set and paint its orange glow onto the gargantuan faces of these behemoths. The mountains are set alight against a backdrop of deep blue skies, quite a feast for the eyes and the soul. In 2009 the area became a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so, for this is surely one of the natural wonders of the world.
As one can probably guess, the mountains and valleys of this region have some of the most picturesque hiking. On one occasion we hiked in the Nature Park Puez Odle, taking the Col Raiser Gondola from the valley up into the mountain environment, we were immediately immersed in classic Alpine meadows. Like a film set the trail took us through little hillocks, past streams, clusters of Pines and past little herds of Alpine ponies and cattle with their clanging Alpine bells; an environment that one can only dream about. Onwards up the trails we climbed past more Edelweiss than I have ever experienced, I thought it was rare but here it seems to grow like weeds! Eventually once under the Odle peaks, a collection of jagged, high peaks formed like a curved wall it was time to yodel; the quintessential setting for yodelling the mountains appeared to yodel back to us four, five, six times… eerie yet beautiful, as if some kind of spirits were calling back to us. The trail took us on up to the Trojer hut for some classic Alpine fair and tipples. This lunch destination presented views fit for a Disney movie, as if each rise, dip and peak were designed to please the eye of the beholder. If you are in this neck of the woods then definitely hike up to Croce del Seceda to photograph the mountains known as the Odle Group- Ladin for ‘needles’, a line of peaks and meadows that photographers, Instagramers would give their Leica lenses for.
Besides hiking, the area has been classed as the only ‘Approved Bike Area’ by “Mountain Bike Holidays” in the South Tyrol, for the possibilities seem to be endless. Based on categories such as Tour & Trail, Easy & Family and Enduro & Parks the area achieves a whopping 296 out 300 points. We took to E-mountain bikes to cover more ground and made for the Puez-Geisler Nature Reserve, an area of stunning, gentle rolling hills filled with glades, working farms and little villages. The miles passed under our wheels with some speed as our eyes struggled to take in the constant changing beauty of the landscape. For a classically Alpine experience we stopped at the Tirler hut for a delicious lunch of venison and Bombardino’s, a hearty drink made by mixing Advocaat or eggnog and Brandy, it is served hot and with whipped cream on top. We whiled away the hours here taking in the calming atmosphere before heading off again on our E-bikes. Val Gardena really does cover a vast area, I will certainly return to further explore its stunning scenery from the back of a bike. There are a plethora of bike trails and tours to explore including the famous Sella Ronda circuit which can be skied in Winter. The whole circuit covers 55 to 58 km and can take between 5 and 9 hours depending which way round you travel, so make sure to leave enough time and eat a hearty breakfast.
One experience not to be missed is the ‘Dolomites Sky Dinner’; one takes the Gondola up to Mont Seuc where aperitivos are served with a few nibbles on the veranda overlooking the Sassolungo Langkofel and Sassopiatto Plattkofel mountains, if the weather permits then the ‘Burning Dolomites’ can be observed in all their glory and considering that the are gets 300 days of sun a year then the chances are pretty good. Once the sun starts to extinguish for the day then it is into the Gondolas where the tables are set for dinner and the oddest experiences await one. Up to six people per gondola are served a four course meal from four different chefs whilst riding up and down the mountain, with food being served at the top and Italian wines served at the bottom. This is quite the surreal dining jaunt, with the hilarity of super fast service, waiter nearly getting trapped in the gondola with us and holding all of the crockery down each time the gondola thunders into one of the stations. Make sure you pack some warm clothes and do not drink too much beforehand for there are no toilets until the end. Val Gardena has certainly left an impression on me and one trip is certainly not enough to take in all that the area has to offer, I sense that I will certainly be going back again and again. If one was to design the ultimate Alpine environment with towering peaks and rolling meadows then this certainly has to be it, I can not wait to return in winter to see these mountains covered in snow- surely it will be Disney on steroids.
For more information on the Hotel or to book visit: Wellness & Spa Hotel Alpenheim
For more information on Val Gardena visit: Val Gardena