Travel: Why not harvest a little September break

Missed out on a holiday this summer?

Monday, 9th September 2013, 4:53 pm
The scenic Graslei area in Ghent's old town, Belgium. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.
The scenic Graslei area in Ghent's old town, Belgium. Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

Beat the crowds - and save a few pennies - with our recommended autumn short breaks say Sarah Marshall and Polly Weeks.

Go hiking in the Austrian Tyrol

I thought only actors in stage productions of The Sound Of Music still wore lederhosen, but standing at the breakfast buffet of the Hotel Edelweiss & Gurgl in Tyrolean village Obergurgl I’m proven wrong.

Next to me, filling his bowl with Bio Krauter muesli, is a man in short leather breeches with braces.

Admittedly, he is alone.

Other hikers preparing to tackle one of the 21 3,000m peaks in the scenic Otztal Valley have made the more sensible choice of wearing Windstopper jackets and Gore-Tex shoes.

But his outfit’s a reminder that hiking, like lederhosen and even Julie Andrews singing ‘The hills are alive...’, is a distinctly Austrian pastime. And if you want to join the thousands of walkers who revel in Alpine beauty during the hike-friendly months, this is the place to do it.

As I take the Hohe Mut cable car skywards, the village shrinks away and jagged mountain tops meet my eyeline. Wrapped in wispy plumes of cloud, it’s as if they’re puffing smoke rings from a cigar.

The sound of clanging iron bells echoes through the valley as herds of sheep and cartoon-like Tyrolese grey cattle graze on thick rugs of grass, and at times I swear they’re running through the scales of Do-Re-Mi.

I choose a trail running alongside a milky-grey brook of glacial melt water, stepping over clusters of tiny blue and violet star-shaped flowers.

Due to a combination of altitude and shamefully poor fitness, my pulse races faster than the Autobahn speed limit and I feel the urge to relieve an Austrian hiker of her very attractive-looking walking poles.

But when my heart almost stops, it’s for a different reason.

Sparkling icy blue in the sunlight, the Gaisbergerferner glacier tumbles from the jaws of the Hochfirst and Liebenerspitze mountains. Faced with this mighty landscape, I suddenly feel as small as the dainty Alpine flowers I’d passed on my way.

Our journey ends at the Hohe Mut Alm restaurant. Built like a giant gingerbread house and filled with sheepskin rugs, I bet it’s a real delight in winter. But the outdoor view from the summer terrace is a masterpiece; nature’s paintbrush has worked its magic here.

My aching limbs may be yearning for the saunas back at Hotel Edelweiss & Gurgl, but I’m far from beaten.

While I won’t be purchasing a pair of lederhosen any time soon, summer mountain hikes are an Austrian tradition I’ll happily be adopting in the future.

Sarah Marshall

:: Doubles from 85 Euros pp. Visit www.edelweiss-gurgl.com

:: easyJet fly to Innsbruck from Bristol, Liverpool and London Gatwick from £95 return. Visit easyjet.com

Enjoy harvest season in Puglia, Italy

Few hotels can boast of having a bar built around a national monument. But rather than being made from bricks and mortar, the treasured centerpiece of Masseria San Domenico’s al fresco dining area is a living, photosynthesising organism.

I’m sipping espresso and nibbling homemade taralli (small, circular breadsticks) beneath the heavily-laden boughs of an ancient olive tree.

According to an official census conducted earlier this year, there are 66 million olive trees in Italy’s southern state Puglia, some of them more than 2,000 years old.

“We consider them national monuments,” says the hotel’s marketing manager, Genny Mansi, explaining the trees were first introduced to the region by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC.

Nearly 50% of Italy’s olive oil originates from the region, and the autumn harvest period is one of the best times to visit. Locals pick fruits to make the pungent oil, or crush grapes for dark, inky primitivo wines; the sky is still a rich indigo blue and temperatures are in the high 20s.

Roughly an hour’s drive from either Bari or Brindisi airports, Italy’s agricultural bread basket has been criminally overlooked by British visitors, who have traditionally opted for holidays in Tuscany or the Amalfi coast.

But that’s now changing.

Food and hospitality are the region’s biggest selling points and the wonderful family-owned Masseria San Domenico offers both in abundance.

Surrounded by 200 acres of olive groves, just 500m from the Adriatic coast, the luxury adult-only hotel has its own olive oil production for use in the excellent kitchen and Thalassotherapy spa. Nutritionist Dr Agostino Grassi has even devised a diet championing the health benefits of olive oil, where pasta and red wine are both allowed.

But with so many memorable dishes on the restaurant menu - a creamy fava bean puree, fresh orecchiette pasta, and an indulgent ricotta cake - even an eating plan as liberal as this feels restrictive.

Puglia is also a region rich in history, something I’m reminded of on a visit to UNESCO village Alberobello, decorated with white conical-roofed buildings, and Polignano, the birthplace of Domenico Modugno best known for his international hit ‘Volare’.

Even the Masseria dates back to to the 15th century when it was used as a watch tower by the Knights of Malta.

The hotel’s owners tell me they are currently involved in a project to restore nearby cave dwellings, carved from the porous limestone rock in the 11th century.

To visit the Lama D’Antico site, I walk through a shallow valley filled with the thick, twisted trunks of olive trees, some with branches embroiled like lovers.

Some of them must be as old as the caves. No doubt past inhabitants would have benefited from their health-giving properties, just as locals still do today.

Sarah Marshall

:: Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9315/www.classic-collection.co.uk) offers 7 nights from £1,571 pp this October. Price (based on two adults sharing) includes breakfast, return flights from London Gatwick to Bari and private transfers.

Cycle through Flemish town Ghent

When Ghent’s city centre was declared car-free in 1997, there were more than a few grumbles. But 16 years on, the city’s become a cycling mecca, and there is little to complain about.

Although I’m not a cycling enthusiast, Ghent appeals as a laid-back, culture-packed city that’s easy to reach by Eurostar. When I arrive, though, I can’t move for bikes!

Whether you’re a commuter, OAP, or humble tourist, two wheels are the best way to get around town.

Keen to live like a local, I head for bike hire shop Max Mobiel, which sits between the towering Belfry of Ghent and Saint Nicholas’s Church.

Bike hire is really cheap: a half-day rental costs just 7 Euros. However, you can also bring your own bike on the Eurostar from 15 Euros each way.

Pedalling at a gentle pace, I weave in and out of the central streets, passing local ‘Ganda’ hams which hang like a modern art installation from hooks in the Great Butcher’s Hall, on my way to the imposing Castle of Counts.

As I ride along the canals, I make a beeline for the marvellously graffiti-filled Tweebruggen Street and head into Ghent’s Old Quarter. From there, I take in some more culture by cycling to St. Peter’s Abbey and its pretty gardens.

Back in the centre of town, I head for Graslei and Korenlei - two streets divided by a canal, where friends meet and socialise.

Despite a few wobbles about getting my front wheel stuck in a tram line - the trick is to cross them horizontally, apparently - I find cycling in Ghent a breeze. The fact there are few hills is helpful, but the ease of my journey is mainly down to the friendly, respectful attitude towards cyclists.

Before I return to the train station, I enjoy a plate of waffles at cafe Max, then visit the lanterns on Sint-Veerleplein. Built as an art instillation, the candles are said to flicker whenever a baby is born in Ghent. Unfortunately I witness no flickers, but I still raise a toast to my first - albeit accidental - cycling holiday.

Polly Weeks

:: Eurostar (08432 186 186/eurostar.com) offers a weekend package to Ghent from £234 for two people travelling in standard class with one night’s accommodation at the NH Belfort. For more information about Ghent, visit www.visitflanders.com