Monday, 20 March 2017

ITALY: HIKING, BIKING AND LIKING SOUTH TYROL

When the snow has melted and the skiers and snowboarders have gone home, hikers and mountain bikers head for the verdant alpine valleys and pine-skirted peaks of northern Italy’s South Tyrol. You can join them and test your head for heights in the Dolomites.

Everywhere you go in the Dolomites, you'll see hand-crafted wooden crucifixes
Zip-a-dee-doo-daaaargh!
It's hardly a scorcher in the hills above San Vigilio di Marebbe, yet the sweat is bucketing out of me – cold, clammy, terror-induced sweat. I’m standing on a wooden platform that reminds me of a gallows because I’m about to drop on the end of a rope into thin air.

Europe’s longest and steepest zig-zag zip line (www.zipline.it) looks a laugh in the brochure, but I’m not laughing now – nor are the three ashen-faced women behind me. Remembering my manners, I step back from the precipice and say: “Ladies first.” They grab each other and recoil in horror.

Down the first of 10 cables I zoom at 80kph, 100 metres above the ground, screaming silently and inhaling midges like a basking shark inhales krill and the occasional dopey diver. I try to imagine something pleasant; instead, it occurs to me that at this speed, if I sent a basket of damp laundry ahead it would be dry by the time I caught up with it. I’m dicing with death, yet all I can think of is socks and jocks.

Later, in the bar of the Sport Hotel Exclusive (www.sporthotel-exclusive.com), where I’m staying owner Roman Erlacher asks if I found the 3km zip line scary. “Not at all,” I lie. Roman excuses himself, but returns almost immediately with a leaflet distributed by the local church – with the confession times underlined.

Riding the zip line above San Vigilio di Marebbe is not for the faint-hearted, but it's fun
Forty-plus shades of green
If you’re going to cycle up a mountain, as I am the next morning, you need fuel, so I wolf down two big bowls of Sugar Puffs and go to the hire shop to collect my bike. Joy of joys, it has an electric motor attached to the chassis, so I won’t end up with a defibrillator attached to my chest.

Despite the battery-powered pedal-assist it’s tough going, and I’m repeatedly overtaken by people walking, including dads with toddlers perched on their shoulders and mums pushing pre-schoolers in strollers.

By the time I reach Lavarella Lodge (www.lavarella.it/en), 2,050 metres above sea level in the Fanes-Sennes-Braies natural park, my legs feel like lead weights. This is Giro d’Italia terrain, so unless you have the super-human stamina of former winner Stephen Roche, take the local bus to the foot of the mountain and hike it, don’t bike it.

The early September views of pastures and peaks from the lodge’s suntrap restaurant terrace are a feast for the eyes that no amount of Photoshopping could improve. In winter, all around is blanketed in white and you can hardly move for skiers and snowboarders, but go in uncrowded late summer or early autumn and you’ll see many more than 40 shades of green.

I cycled up to the Lavarella Lodge (below), but you can always take the bus and then hike

It’s all downhill from here
A waitress with a winning smile and wearing a traditional dirndl delivers another feast for the eyes, a mini Mount Everest of venison tagliatelle. Bambi’s mammy didn’t die in vain – it’s delicious. I wash it down with South Tyrol’s famous favourite tipple, Hugo: pour 1.5cl of elderberry syrup into a wine glass and add 10cl of Prosecco, a dash of sparkling water, ice cubes and mint leaves. One sip of this stuff and even the most committed teetotaller would happily tumble head-first off the wagon.

Hugo was first concocted in 2005 by South Tyrolean barista Ronald Gruber in the San Zeno bar in Naturno, 40km northwest of Bolzano. He originally used lemon syrup, but one night he ran out of it and added a splash of elderberry. The new version was an immediate hit, and is now the most-ordered aperitif-cum-cocktail in Italian and Austrian mountain resorts.

Fed and watered, I swing a still-aching leg over my bike, happy in the knowledge that a splendid afternoon is about to go rapidly downhill.

After dinner, Roman hands me a leaflet for the Corones Messner Mountain Museum on top of nearby Kronplatz (2,275 metres). “You must go here tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll love it.” Among the bold-print highlights is “a collection of crampons from 1800 to the present”. I can hardly contain my excitement.

South Tyrol's favourite drink, Hugo. Below, the Messner Mountain Museum

Long time no sea
Built into the rocky terrain on the summit plateau and bearing the name of local superstar climber Reinhold Messner, the museum (www.messner-mountain-museum.it) charts the development of modern mountaineering.

There are only 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 metres, and Messner, who’s now 72, was the first person to climb them all, losing six toes to frostbite and his brother and fellow adventurer Gunther in the process. I spend an hour gawking at the exhibits (including the crampons) and admiring the alpine paintings. Roman is right – it’s fascinating, and I do love it.

Back outside, the plateau – which is mercifully accessible by three cable car routes – is the best place in all of South Tyrol from which to marvel at and take photos of the Dolomites, of which Marmolada, at 3,342 metres, is the highest. A little over 230 million years ago, you’d have needed a waterproof camera and a snorkel to take photos of Marmolada as it and the rest of the range were part of a vast coral reef beneath the primordial ocean.

At noon it’s 20C – at that hour yesterday (March 19) it was -4C – and a TV crew is filming an episode of top-rated Italian drama series, Un Passo dal Cielo (One Step from Heaven), which is appropriate given the lofty, lovely location.

It was in these parts too that Sylvester Stallone spent three months shooting the 1993 action movie Cliffhanger. He arrived with a lifelong morbid fear of heights, so you could say he got off to a Rocky start. However, he quickly fell in love with the Dolomites and became a regular visitor. He was especially taken with my port of call next day, Val Gardena – but then, everyone with an eye for beauty is.

Views like this in Puez-Odle inspire Oscar-winning songwriter Giorgio Moroder
The hills are alive with the sound of muzak
An excursion to the Gardena valley with a hike in the Puez-Odle Nature Park high above the spick-and-span towns of Ortisei, Selva and Santa Cristina shows nature, South Tyrol-style, at its most enchanting.

Wherever you look, there’s a sight that makes you stop and gawp, but none more so than the mountains themselves. In the cool light of mid-morning they’re grey; by mid-afternoon they’ve turned an alluring honey colour, reflecting the warmth of the sun; but the truly magical transformation comes in that half-hour dimmer-switch period as dusk descends and the Dolomites begin to blush, at first an almost imperceptible pink and then, gradually, as if aware that everybody’s staring at them, pomegranate red.

There’s a Hollywood connection here too. Val Gardena is home to 76-year-old electronic music maestro Giorgio Moroder, who wrote umpteen disco hits for, among others, Donna Summer (On The Radio), Limahl (The NeverEnding Story), Blondie (Call Me), The Human League (Together In Electric Dreams) and Beyonce (Naughty Girl).

However, he says his proudest moment was when he won the Best Original Song Oscar in 1987 for Take My Breath Away, from the film Top Gun. The title must have come easily as he sat composing in his mountainside studio – it describes perfectly the view from his window.

There are as many shrines to the Virgin as there are crucifixes throughout the Dolomites

GETTING THERE
I travelled to South Tyrol from Dublin with Italian lakes and mountains specialists Crystal Summer. See www.crystalsummer.ie, call 01 673 3839 or contact your travel agent. In the UK, see www.crystalsumer.co.uk

FURTHER INFORMATION