Tuesday, 22 December 2015

ITALY: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF WHEEZING

It’s not every day that you get to exchange friendly waves high on a hill with a lonely goatherd in a setting straight out of The Sound of Music. Nor do you often have the opportunity to visit a living, breathing cathedral that was planted 14 years ago and go for a cruise on the EU wine lake. These were a few of my favourite things when I spent three fun-filled days in the mountains of northern Italy’s Val di Fassa and on the shores of Lake Levico in Valsugana. I have so many wonderful memories to share, so, as Julie Andrews famously sang, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . . .

My love for Italy reaches new heights, and so clearly have I, during my fab visit to Val di Fassa
DAY 1
High anxiety
I’m 2,200 metres up the side of a mountain when two guys dangling from a patriotic green, white and red parachute float past and wish me a cheery “buongiorno”. A mirage in the Dolomites? I thought they only appeared in the desert.
“Tandem paragliding,” says fit-as-a-fiddle guide Tomazo. I’m fit for nothing after a very late night of Italian hospitality in the chalet-style Hotel Astoria (www.hotel-astoria.net) in Canazei, which resembles something Pinocchio’s oul fella might have carved. It’s the first time I’ve stayed in what looks from the outside like a cuckoo clock.
“You strap yourself to the pilot and jump off a cliff,” adds Tomazo, who I suspect might be suffering from altitude sickness. “It’s very popular.”
Yeah – with lunatics.

Where eagles, paragliders and trekkers dare, in the magnificent mountains of Val di Fassa


Breathtaking scenery – in more ways than one
The alpine scenery of Val di Fassa is breathtaking, which is why the hills are alive with the sound of wheezing – and it’s coming from me. The last time I was this high above sea level, I was in an aeroplane. My lungs are working overtime and, despite having breakfasted only a couple of hours before, my stomach thinks my parched throat has been cut. I’ve long since drained the dregs from my litre bottle of water, and the lump of Juicy Fruit gum on which I’m chewing ceased to be either juicy or fruity ages ago.
Tomazo halts to give us a welcome rest and a pep talk, but no oxygen, which I think is a bit mean. I quickly forgive him, though, because my eyes are struggling to take in the bounteous natural beauty all around.
“This is the limit of—” he begins.
“Human endurance?” I suggest.
“No. The tree line,” he says. “No trees grow above this altitude.”
Edelweiss does, and would do so in greater profusion if trekkers didn’t keep picking the delicate blossoms, which is illegal as they’re protected. Poppies grow here too, but instead of red they’re white because of the lack of iron in the soil.

Edelweiss grows in Val di Fassa, but don't go picking the blooms as they're protected by law


Whip crack away
Moses-like, Tomazo leads us out of the wilderness and down a winding, narrow goat track and says he hopes we’re hungry, because lunch awaits in the farmhouse off in the distance. He’s said the magic word. We quicken our pace from a weary are-we-there-yet to hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to eat we go, and arrive half-an-hour later at the Kasseroller family’s isolated but idyllic summer residence cum daytime restaurant, where the temperature on the terrace is 22C.
It’s even hotter in front of the brick-built outdoor oven from which our host, Karl Kasseroller, resplendent in workaday lederhosen, is extracting freshly-baked loaves of bread. The aroma has me salivating, and the lovely teenage daughter of the house, Franzisca, with a daisy chain in her hair, tells me lunch will be served momentarily. After two-and-a-half arduous but nevertheless enjoyable hours of walking, I can’t wait.
“But first,” Franzisca adds proudly, “Papa will give a demonstration of bullwhip cracking.”
He’ll give a . . . WHAT?
With the greatest respect to Herr Kasseroller, I don’t want to see him cracking a whip, I want to see him whipping up a cracking Kasserole or whatever’s on the menu, because I’m in desperate need of a feed. However, decorum prevails, and I retreat to a seat in the sun.
“You’ll enjoy this,” says Alicia, from the Val di Fassa tourist board.
When I see the length of Herr Kasseroller’s whip, I decide I’ll enjoy it even more by retreating to a safer seat in the shade, fearing that a) he might accidentally take my eye out or b) ask for a volunteer for his next trick.
I’m always game for a laugh, but there’s no way I’m going to stand there with a lit cigarette between my trembling lips while Krazy Karl tells the audience he will now extinguish it with one flick of his wrist. I’m fond of my nose – it keeps my glasses in place – and I don’t want to lose it.

The Kasseroller family's farmhouse and restaurant, a so-welcome refuge for hungry trekkers

Lovely and charming daughter of the house Franzisca Kasseroller delivers another tasty treat
Alexandra the Great
The demonstration, which is pretty impressive, concludes without incident or injury, and Franzisca’s little brother, Peter, plonks down a huge jug of iced water that we’re told contains the merest hint of Amaretto. I look longingly for a moment at the condensation trickling slowly down the side, then quickly fill my glass and down it in one. John Mills does something similar with a glass of Carlsberg in the 1958 movie, Ice Cold In Alex.
Baskets of steaming-hot bread, plates of ham, salami and homemade cheese and big bowls of barley, rice and vegetable stew appear. There’s just about enough room on the table for plates of speck, the traditional south Tyrolean herb-cured pork belly.
As I prepare to tuck in, Franzisca, Peter and other brother Lukas return from the kitchen and somehow find parking spaces for a couple of two-inch-deep serving dishes full of polenta. They don’t stay full for long. Even though it’s not confectionery, for me polenta is the icing on the cake. It’s nothing more than the crudest corn-meal porridge, but I love it.
“What’s that yellow stuff?” asks my right-hand neighbour.
“That? Ah, you wouldn’t like it. It’s a sort of gruel,” I say. “That’s what the poor old peasants used to live on, God love them. Try the speck instead.”
As soon as her back is turned, I ladle great big dollops of polenta on to my plate and shovel it down my neck while nonchalantly whistling The Happy Wanderer, which takes some doing.
Everything served at Herr Kasseroller’s tables is made in-house by his wife, Alexandra. Or, as I will forever fondly remember her after my meal in the mountains, Alexandra the Great.

It's all downhill from here as we set off back to the valley floor after a morning in the mountains
Papa’s grappas
Following a dessert of homemade yogurt with juicy strawberries the size of plums that were plucked from the plants only half-an-hour before, Franzisca informs us that Papa would like us to sample a glass or two of his grappa before we continue on our merry (mainly because it’s downhill) way. It would be rude to refuse.
Fuelled by several generous shots of differently-flavoured firewater of 60pc alcoholic volume, the 6km trek back to the Col Rodella cable car station in Campitello di Fassa, from where we’d set off four hours before, is a doddle.
Across cow pat-scented meadows and through forests we tramp, with a spring in our step, thanks to the bouncy carpets of lush grass and fallen pine needles. In a clearing, an elderly goatherd sitting on a rock and biting bits off a chunk of salami while his bearded buddies chew the cud stands up and we exchange cheery waves.
I’m regretting packing insect repellent instead of sunscreen, because while the midges have been conspicuous by their absence, my exposed neck, arms and legs are beginning to burn. I’ll pay for it later, but meanwhile, I’m in a serene little world of my own – until I step out of the trees and into a field where I’m confronted by a bull with big pointy horns that’s staring straight at me.
My panic is short-lived. Fortunately, the bull is a compatriot of mine – of the shaggy, red-headed Scottish Highland variety, so we’re bound to have an understanding. Even more fortunately, and after closer inspection, the bull turns out to be a cow, which lowers its head and goes back to mowing the meadow.

The bull that turned out to be a harmless cow and, below, lovely Lake Levico in Valsugana

DAY 2
Booze cruise on the EU wine lake
Having experienced the alpine heights, it’s time to take in the lakeside sights. I board a minibus for the journey southwest along dizzyingly-high winding roads with sheer, 1,000-metre drops (so I’m told – I refuse to look out of the window) to Valsugana and Lake Levico.
Compared with superstar lakes Como and Garda, Levico is a mere puddle, but in this case small is indeed beautiful. It also happens to be the fabled EU wine lake, though there’s no sign of the EU butter mountain, which is hardly surprising considering it’s 25C in the early evening. It must have melted.
Levico isn’t a wine lake in the sense that you might stick a straw in it and suck up a mouthful of Merlot. Rather, 18 months before, 2,000 bottles of locally-produced spumante had been deposited on the bottom as part of the ageing process known as aquaoir. I’m venturing into dodgy territory here because my specialist subject on Mastermind would be beer, but apparently, the beneficial conditions of aquaoir are cold temperatures, constant pressure, darkness and motion.
This I learn from Raffaella Patoner and Cristina Eberle, of the Trentino and Valsugana tourism boards respectively, as we potter about on Levico aboard an environmentally-friendly battery-powered boat. They’d been by the pier that morning when the bottles were brought ashore, which is why only 1,998 of the original 2,000 were loaded on to the waiting truck. The couple that remain are emptied in record time, and very nice they are too.

Lake Levico from the boat and, below, yours truly with gracious hosts Raffaella and Cristina

A Lidl misunderstanding
Raffaella tells me that Levico Terme – the town beside the lake – is famous for its Lidl, especially on weekends.
“It’s perfect for picnics,” she says, and I have to agree – why buy your potato salad and pork pies from Tesco when you can get them for half the price from the German discount supermarket chain?
“It attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over Italy,” she adds. “And Austria. From the UK and Ireland too.”
Eh? Hang on there a second.
“You did say . . . Lidl, didn’t you?” I ask, and Cristina, laughing her head off, nearly topples off the boat and into the lake.
“No!” screeches Raffaella, grabbing her colleague’s arm and saving her life while spilling half her spumante over my jeans. “Lido! They come here for the lido!”
I need my ears syringed.

Who needs to travel all the way to the seaside when the lakeside provides just as much fun?
Parliamo Glaswegian
True enough, the lido at Lake Levico – one of Italy’s cleanest bodies of fresh water – is a tourist magnet, and scores of happy family groups are on the beach enjoying the sunshine.
I’m a little tired after my earlier exertions in the mountains (Papa’s grappa’s got a grip on me) and the two-hour drive from Val di Fassa, so I retire for a rest before dinner to my hotel, the gorgeous-looking Grand Imperial (www.imperialhotel.it). A former summer residence of the Austrian imperial family, it’s surrounded by the 150 hectares of Habsburg Park and has a renowned spa in the basement.
The receptionist asks if I’d like to have a half-hour massage on the house, but I have to decline because I’m terribly ticklish. You know when you scratch certain dogs behind the ear and one of their back legs goes into convulsions? That’s me on a massage table. Apart from that, the last thing my sunburnt calves need is someone prodding their fingers into them, so I saunter over to the outdoor pool and settle in to a sun lounger. Next thing I know, I’m being addressed in Glaswegian.
“Hullawrrer! Awrright, pal?” comes the voice from over my shoulder.
Thinking a fellow Scot has sussed me, what with my red-raw legs, I turn and find a distinguished-looking grey-haired gentleman, early 60s, in a suit and tie, smiling and offering his hand.
“Zanoni,” he says, so he’s either selling washing machines or that’s his name. It’s the latter. “Ruggero Zanoni. Ah’m the generral manager. Welcome tae the Grrand Imperrial.”


The Grand Imperial Hotel, my posh home away from home
A handy pizza advice
Despite the accent, Ruggero is as Italian as ravioli, but his late wife was a Clydesider – “a McManus, from Govanhill”, he says, with a fondness and a faraway look that tells me, no further words necessary, that she must have been a wonderful woman. She certainly married a warm, wonderful and funny guy.
Ruggero is a real live wire who’s lived a fascinating life. He tells me that as a young man with a yearning for adventure he hit the road and travelled widely, learning the bar and hotel trades along the way and becoming fluent in English, Dutch, French, German and Russian. I can’t get enough of his tales when he joins me later in the lobby as I wait for the taxi to take me to dinner in nearby Castel Pergine.
Driver Matteo arrives, and Ruggero walks with me to the car.
“Enjoy yer meal, laddie,” he says, “an’ dinnae be drrinkin’ too much beer or ye’ll be peein’ yer trroosers.”
I nearly do pee my troosers laughing.

Castel Pergine, from where no prisoner of war in his right mind would ever want to escape
Escape to Colditz
Perched on a pine-skirted, stand-alone mini mountain, Castel Pergine looks a bit like Colditz, but has much better catering. If you were a POW here, you’d be sending Red Cross parcels home to your loved ones to show them what they were missing.
The 13th Century castle and its raved-about restaurant have been managed for the past 23 years by Swiss couple Verena Neff and her architect husband Theo Schneider, and I think I’m right in saying that the chef doesn’t do his shopping in Lidl. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Lidl, but Castel Pergine offers one of the finest dining experiences in northern Italy.
Madame Neff hands me the menu, which is in Italian, but that’s not a problem – as well as being a restaurateur and hotelier (the castle has 20 rooms), she’s a professional translator in several languages.
“So. Let me tell you about your four courses,” she says, sounding exactly like Joanna Lumley (the actress, not her Ab Fab character). “You’re going to start with freshly-caught trout with hot apple sauce, horseradish and gin and tonic mousse.”
Ah, go on, then.
“The second course is ravioli with caramelised red onion and Trentingrana – that’s a local cheese, one of the best. Then you’ll have crispy pancetta with celery puree, spinach and chestnut honey – the best honey in all of Italy. Finally, we’ll serve an assortment of local artisan cheeses with a selection of breads, all baked in our kitchen. And you’ll drink a different, specially-selected wine with each dish. How does that sound?”
Like I’ve died and gone to heaven, if you must know.
Vegetarians, vegans and those who have to abide by gluten-free diets needn’t fret, because Madame Neff caters for and spoils everyone who steps through the imposing entrance to her medieval castle – as long as they leave their swords at the door. It’s €60 a head with wine and €40 without, and it’s fabulous. (www.castelpergine.it).

Colle delle Benne fort, overlooking Lake Levico, is an interpretive centre and exhibition space
DAY 3
Benny Hill
The grand old Duke of York, who had 10,000 men, had an awfully annoying habit of marching them up to the top of the hill and marching them down again. I know how they must have felt when, early next morning, Cristina comes a-calling and announces that we’re going for a stroll to the Colle delle Benne fort, which overlooks Lake Levico.
The fort, completed in 1882 and now an interpretive centre and exhibition space, is only two kilometres from the Grand Imperial, but it’s 660 metres above Lake Levico level, and in no time at all I’m huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. Blow your house down? I couldn’t blow out a match.
I soldier on up the narrow road, with forest on the left and vines on the right, then stop to remove an annoying little stone from my shoe. While re-tying my lace, I notice an arrowed sign that reads “Colle delle Benne 1km”.
My spoken Italian isn’t great, but I can read and understand quite a bit, and “colle”, I know, comes from the Latin “collis”, which means hill. And that’s when I realise, with a snigger, that I’m walking up Benne Hill. I picture the late English comedian chasing all those scantily-clad young women around a park. Energised by a TV blast from the past, I stand and resume my hike, zig-zagging at a speeded-up pace while deedly-deeing his theme tune, Yakety Sax.
He must have been popular in Italy, because Cristina says: “Ha! Benny Heel!” And all of a sudden, the hill is alive with the sound of laughter.

The Arte Sella open-air gallery in Valsugana has some weird and wonderful exhibits on show

Let us spray
The fort is worth a visit if you’re a military history buff. Much more to my liking, though, is Arte Sella (www.artesella.it), an open-air international exhibition of contemporary artworks in the fields and woods of Val di Sella, a 15-minute taxi ride from the Grand Imperial.
Artists from all over the world vie for the opportunity to live and work here, but you’ll see nothing as delicate as a palette knife or a fine-line paintbrush in their hands. Rather, they’re more likely to be wielding a hammer, an axe or a chainsaw. The materials they use are rocks collected from the fields, timber from fallen trees and dead saplings and twigs, all fashioned into fascinating forms.
The most remarkable installation, in concept and size, is the late Italian artist Giuliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral – or, if you like, Catreedral. In 2001, working off a far-sighted floor plan, Mauri and his team planted 80 young hornbeams on a hillside plot 90 feet long and 80 feet wide. Those rows of saplings, forming five aisles, are now semi-mature trees of up to 30 feet in height. In a few more years, their thickening trunks will be the pillars and their ever-expanding canopies will mingle to create the vaulted ceilings of an organic Gothic church.
I’d love to be at the inaugural Mass to celebrate the Catreedral’s consecration, which they’d be wise to schedule for the winter months when airborne pests are dormant. Otherwise, the bishop might have to open the proceedings by saying: “Let us spray.”

The late Italian artist Giuliano Mauri's living, breathing, ever-growing cathedral, or Catreedral
So long, farewell . . .
I’m no skier (I tried it once, and cruel people pointed and laughed), so a winter visit to the highly-rated slopes of Val di Fassa would be wasted on me. Whizzing down a snow-covered hillside with my bum on a bar tray I can do, and often did when I was a pre-pubescent daredevil, until the day I failed to stop at the bottom and was catapulted into the icy River Levern. When my mother had spent her fury, the seat of my trousers was bone dry while the rest of my school uniform was still dripping wet.
So, for me, the lofty Dolomites and Lake Levico will remain summer destinations, to be visited again when the edelweiss is in bloom and the leafy Catreedral is a couple of feet taller than it was the summer before.
I’ll happily climb ev’ry mountain, as long as the descent leads to a date with a plate of polenta. And when it comes time to head home, it will be with a heavy heart that I’ll say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

GETTING THERE
Mine was a whistle-stop visit to Val di Fassa and Valsugana-Lake Levico, but Crystal Summer has a range of tailor-made packages taking in either or both destinations. For example, seven nights at the Rododendro in Val di Fassa costs from €749 per person sharing while seven nights at the Lake Levico Elite Hotel costs from €709pps, including return flights from Dublin and transfers. See www.crystalsummer.ie

FURTHER INFORMATION
For more information on Val di Fassa and Valsugana-Lake Levico, see www.fassa.com, www.visitvalsugana.it and www.visittrentino.it

Any excuse to stop and point (and catch your breath) in the lofty mountains of Val di Fassa