In Rome I caught a train north. I was going to another Italy. One by one, all the familiar bits of the country fell away – Rome’s old Justinian walls, an Umbrian campanile above tiled roofs, Tuscan farmhouses adrift in olive groves. In Florence, Brunelleschi’s dome sailed past. Somewhere near Bologna a man waited at a crossing with boxes of grapes piled on his tiny van.
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Perhaps I dozed as we crossed the flatlands of the Po, with that hot slab of sun at the window. Because when I looked again, somewhere beyond Trentino, there were suddenly mountains, sheer precipices, the colour of ash, a strange new vertiginous world. I sat up.
Half-timbered houses clustered around needle-thin church spires. Men with scythes cut hay in high meadows, castles with conical roofs sat astride spurs and paths led into dark forests. And the mountains, rearing now on all sides, were innocently impossible, not the round, shouldered colossi of the Alps, leaning together like tipsy companions, but the peaks a child might draw, jagged, sharp-toothed, sheer-sided, individual, the great summits and massifs all standing apart from one another.
The whole thing was strangely familiar. I wondered where I had seen this before. And then I realised. These were the mountains of a storybook. This was a landscape where tales unfold.
South Tyrol is the cuckoo in the Italian nest. Unlike the rest of the country, there are no crumbling ruins or must-see masterpieces, no cathedrals the size of counties or guides steering groups from the Renaissance to the baroque in whispered tones. In a nation composed of city-states, there are hardly any proper cities here. In much of the region, people are not even speaking Italian. In a wood-lined bar in the small town of Lana, the burly chap next to me greeted me with ‘Guten Tag’ and ordered a strudel with his coffee.
Carved out of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, South Tyrol was awarded to Italy for supporting the Allies. Known to Italians as the province of Alto Adige, it is autonomous like Sicily and Sardinia. Both German and Italian are spoken here as well as Ladin, a marvellous linguistic fossil, the mother tongue for more than 20,000 people and said to be a mash-up of Latin and mountain Celtic.
Compared to the elegant symmetries of the Italian peninsula, or even the grown-up predictability of Austria, South Tyrol feels as if it’s a youthful tearaway, fresh-faced and eager, turning its back on all that dreary musing about duomos and statues of David. It may be steeped in its own Alpine traditions, but the province still manages to feel edgily contemporary, more progressive, more forward-thinking than the rest of Italy.
A big part of this is the region’s green credentials. It’s been ahead of the curve not just of Italy but of most of Europe in its concerns about sustainability. Renewable sources – hydropower, wood, biogas, solar, wind and geothermal – make a major contribution to energy here, while more than 85 per cent of the country’s houses that have been certified as energy efficient are in South Tyrol. Hotels have always been at the forefront of this focus, opting for local produce, local materials, even local architects, while vegan and vegetarian menus are so common you might think it was still Veganuary. As for spas – so central to the relaxed pace of these mountains – they are driven by traditional treatments; you are more likely to be using products harvested from a Tyrolean forest than manufactured in a Parisian lab. Even the wines are conscientious. Vineyards such as Alois Lageder, Manincor and Loacker are not just organic, they also are rooted in biodynamic principles, a method that treats animals, crops and soil as part of one ecosystem.
It helps that life here is so physical, so connected to nature. In winter it is about skiing, of course – the Dolomites have some of the longest continuous runs in Europe – but it is the warm summers that I love, when the high meadows blossom and the region becomes a magnet for hikers, climbers, cyclists, swimmers, hang-gliders, abseilers and a dozen other kinds of fitness enthusiasts. Though it is not all adrenalin rush. There is a slower, more meditative, less frenetic side to South Tyrol’s physicality. This is a place of the senses – the unexpected flavours of food and wine, air so clear it seems to fizz, the scent of forests and wildflowers, wellness and yoga retreats with mountain backdrops.
But the first sense that is engaged in South Tyrol is sight. I could not take my eyes off those towering, cloud-shredding summits. By common consent the Dolomites are among the most beautiful peaks on the planet. Their famous massifs – the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the rest of the Sexten Dolomites, the Cristallo group, Sassolungo and many others – are monumental. Yet they convey a sense of movement – perhaps it is the shifting light, the drifting clouds’ shadows, the way summits come and go, reorientating themselves with each curve in the road. They are the dancers of the mountain world, a theatrical ballet of dark granite and stratified limestone. UNESCO has declared them a World Heritage Site.
In summer the cable cars still run, like huge beanstalks, lifting people into the lap of the mountains, to high Alpine pastures where sweet-faced cows stand in for giants. You can hike for miles, or for days, staying at rifugi, refuges that range from large dormitories to small huts. Often run by dedicated guides, they provide a space to sleep as well as food and a bar. More intrepid hikers can follow the famous via ferrata – literally ‘iron ways’ – a series of dizzy metal ladders and bridges built by mountaineers and soldiers during World War I to connect some of the high ridgelines.
In the town of Ortisei I had boarded a cable car, rising 3,000ft to the pastures of Alpe di Siusi. In winter, this is a skier’s paradise, with bright figures whistling down slopes, but in summer it feels as if it’s a lost world. There are no cars and barely any villages. Ramshackle barns and log cabins are marooned in seas of velvety grass, wood piles lean against their weathered walls. The only people were other walkers, a handful of distant figures silhouetted on skylines. Wildflowers grew in profusion along the tracks. Dark pine woods flooded across slopes. On all sides an arena of spectacular summits rose among clouds – the sheer-faced Denti di Terrarossa; the anvil-headed plateau of the Sciliar, on whose heights Bronze Age people performed ceremonies; the vertiginous massif of Sassolungo; and Mount Bullaccia, on the lower flanks of which are ancient sites of pagan worship.
A half-hour walk across the Alpe di Siusi brought me to Franz Mulser, farmer, cheese-maker, gardener, storyteller and chef. Standing outside his mountain hut, in his apron and little felt hat, he looked like a cobbler from a fairy tale. Had he been one of the gang in Snow White, he might have been Bashful. ‘May I introduce you to my cows?’ he said shyly.
There were eight of them, grazing in the meadows below the cabin. ‘Rita, Bebe, Pia, Anna…’ said Mulser, naming them, his voice trailing off. Each cow wore a bell with a different note, and as they drifted across the pasture they created strange random melodies. It was the only sound, the muffled tinkling of bells, in the colossal silence of the place.
Inside Mulser’s small restaurant, known simply as Gostner Schwaige, about eight small tables were laid for lunch. ‘I used to spend summers here with my grandfather,’ he said. ‘He showed me all the edible things around here – wild spinach, bear’s garlic, forest onions, camomile – so many. And I have my cows and sheep. That is what I cook. The food of these mountains.’
What followed was as astonishing as a conjuring trick. First a platter of cheeses and meats with a basket of schüttelbrot, made fresh that morning, served with butter and flavoured with pine emulsion. Then a gorgeous bowl of edible flowers to be dipped in infusions with chopsticks, followed by an earthen crock of heublütensuppe, a delicious soup made of hay, blooms and herbs. The main course was slivers of beef drizzled with a grape sauce and the sweetest carrot purée. Finally, there was saffron ice cream and dumplings with plums hidden inside. Almost every ingredient had come from the pastures around us. At Gostner Schwaige, food transport is not measured in miles but in metres.
The mountains seem to attract people who are looking for something. They are restorative. There is an idea that they can cure issues – mental, physical, emotional – that the lowlands have caused. Gurus live on mountain tops. Doctors recommend mountain air. Away from the rush of lower altitudes, there is the hope that a less cluttered life here will offer peace, serenity, wisdom. In South Tyrol the mountains offer a kind of Tyrolean hygge. At Rosa Alpina hotel in San Cassiano, it is the cosiness of the stube, the wood-panelled drawing room with its crackling fire. At huts in the high meadows, it is the comfort of a steaming bowl of soup after a morning’s hike. At Miramonti Boutique Hotel, far above Merano, it is the stillness of the forest where you can pause and listen to wind and silence.
The Empress Elisabeth of Austria travelled to South Tyrol from Vienna in the 1800s to improve her health, taking the mineral waters of the famous spa town of Merano. She would be astonished by the state-of-the-art, 21st-century Terme Merano that now stands in the middle of the town with thermal pools, a snow room and treatments using everything from organic whey to sand from Venosta marble. Meanwhile, at Adler Spa Dolomiti you can opt to be covered in meadow hay.
For a century or more, the Dolomites have been a connoisseur’s retreat, drawing legions of writers and artists as well as those hikers and ardent skiers. Amelia Edwards, one of the great women travellers of the 19th century, who came here in 1872 when the mountains still felt as remote as Easter Island, described them as mystical before offering a few hot tips about side saddles and difficult innkeepers. Mahler composed his Eighth Symphony here, the soaring summits momentarily distracting him from his usual ill-tempered funk. Kafka enthused about Merano and the simple clarity of its light. In his final years, Ezra Pound was brought to the region; it was hoped that the sheer beauty of these peaks might cure his madness. When Le Corbusier arrived in 1907, he famously and simply declared the Dolomites ‘the most beautiful natural architecture in the world’.
In the past 30 years, a new generation of local designers – Gerhard Mahlknecht, Matteo Thun, Peter Pichler, Martino Gamper and award-winning Armin Pedevilla – have helped South Tyrol escape a chocolate-box reputation with stunning buildings that would make Le Corbusier proud. Part of this structural sophistication lies in the region’s DNA, that marriage of Italian style and German technical proficiency. And part lies in its attachment to nature, and the new generation’s respect for the remarkable landscapes with which they are blessed.
This wave of architecture knows its roots. There may be echoes of rustic huts in its use of traditional materials – stone and blond woods – but this is tradition reimagined by players with international influences, such as the late Zaha Hadid. Their contemporary flair is impressive. For a thrilling example, take the cable car heavenward from Obereggen for brunch in the remarkable Oberholz. Created by Pilcher and Pavol Mikolajcak, the restaurant’s three ‘branches’ – astonishingly complex constructions of wood as grand as a cathedral – shoot up towards a trio of colossal windows that bring the mountains to your table along with the coffee and the baskets of fresh pastries.
On top of Kronplatz, at almost 7,500ft, I went in search of three more architectural delights. The first was the new Lumen museum. Inside, exciting spaces flow vertically into one another. A giant lens shutter opens and closes on a beautiful panorama and a lighted mirrored chamber bewilders visitors with countless reflections of themselves. Ostensibly, the museum charts the history of mountain photography. But leave aside the early plate cameras and heavy tripods, carried to the summits by porters, and you realise its story is really about how we view these peaks, about what they have meant to us as a borderland, a war zone, an arena of scientific enquiry, a romantic escape, an adventure playground, a spiritual retreat.
I had lunch next door at AlpiNN restaurant, a glass box spectacularly cantilevered over the edge of the crest, with wraparound views from the Dolomites over the Puster Valley to the heights of the Zillertal Alps. The design is breathtaking and as local as the ingredients, the risotto was divine, and the sensation of the room was that I was airborne, like the paragliders sailing past the windows.
AlpiNN is overseen by Tyrolean chef Norbert Niederkofler, whose kitchen at St Hubertus in Rosa Alpina has earned three Michelin stars. There is no shortage of great chefs in South Tyrol, but Niederkofler is the godfather of them all. Drawing on Austrian and Italian traditions, his mantra is ‘cook the mountain’, something Franz Mulser would recognise, a commitment to the produce of these valleys.
After lunch, a five-minute stroll across the plateau brought me to another building, one of six Messner Mountain Museums. Born in South Tyrol, Reinhold Messner is a leading modern climber with an astonishing list of achievements, from the original solo ascent of Everest to being the first man to scale the world’s 14 peaks higher than 26,250ft – he’s an emblematic figure in these parts.
Messner’s museum on Kronplatz is dedicated to the history of mountaineering. Designed by Zaha Hadid, it is buried into the edge of the plateau with three great viewing windows emerging from the rock. Among the prosaic picks and climbing boots, the antique crampons and the ropes of the exhibits, I stopped by a quote from Friedrich Hölderlin, the German poet, etched on a wall – ‘when [the mountain] carries me on its powerful shoulders, when the rarefied air enchants all my senses… then I become as an eagle… liberated from the earth.’ Messner wants us to think about our relationship to mountains, the way they both humble and inspire us. He sees them not just as a physical pursuit but as a spiritual quest. For everyone here, they are a glimpse of the sublime, a place of enchantment and magic.
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