Travel writer Jan Henderson leaves his skis behind and samples the beautiful Italian Dolomites in June.
If, like me, you are a lifelong skier, the only time to visit the Alps is when the temperature is well below freezing and the mountains are covered with a thick layer of snow, right? Well, wrong actually, as I have just discovered during an early summer visit to the beautiful Italian Dolomites in early summer.
Val Gardena, to be precise – a South Tyrol town that is steeped in skiing history and regularly hosts Ski World Cup events (the next is just before Christmas) but, like many other Alpine ski resorts, has another life in the summer months. The snow departs in about May and the hills and valleys spring into vibrant life as the grassy upland meadows play host to a rainbow of colour with flowers of every description bursting forth and the melodic ring of cowbells as cattle wander through the pastures and forest glades.
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If I seem to be waxing somewhat lyrical it’s because it really is a wonderful experience – in its own way quite as impressive as the winter landscape – and all of course set against the unique backdrop of the stunning Dolomite peaks, deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Skis and snowboards give way to walking boots and mountain bikes for you to explore this area, and there really is a massive amount to explore – in South Tyrol there are 13,000km of walking and hiking paths, 2,000km of mountain bike trails and 600km of cycle paths. There are paths and trails to suit the most athletic, daring and energetic to gentle strolls where you can take a pushchair, so there’s no excuse for not getting out and enjoying the wonderful scenery.
We sampled some fairly easy hiking after taking the funicular up the mountain and walking into the beautiful Resciesa forest above Val Gardena in the company of local wood sculptor Ivo Piazza – this is where he finds much of the raw material he turns into stunning pieces of art in his studio back in town. He has the remarkable talent to see a face, a figure or an animal hidden in a fallen branch, uprooted tree stump or tangle of roots deep in the forest and then free them and bring them to life with his remarkable carving skills. Wood sculpting is a family tradition, and Ivo is one of many wood artists who over generations have helped bring prosperity to the area – and there are still many shops selling a variety of woodcarvings by Ivo and his contemporaries to this day.
The woodcarving culture fits in happily with the strong sense of history and tradition that pervades this part of South Tyrol which proudly asserts its Ladin heritage. Ladin is an ancient language with its roots in the Latin language left over from the Romanised Alps – and some 45,000 people in the South Tyrol valleys speak it as a first language, although most will also have Italian, German and often English at their disposal as well. The area has a chequered history, being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1919, when it was annexed by Italy at the end of the First World War, so the Ladin language helps the people of Val Gardena and neighbouring towns and valleys to assert their culture and heritage in an ever-changing world.
For the more daring and energetic visitor, another relic of the upheavals of the First World War are the Iron Paths of the Dolomites – the famous Via Ferrata. These precarious networks of iron ladders, cables, walkways, steps and bridges were mostly constructed to aid the movement of Italian troops through the Dolomites in the First World War, and are now an exciting combination of hiking and mountaineering that can take you to some wonderful and isolated parts of the mountains. While no specific climbing experience is required, you’ll need to be fit and have a head for heights – an amazing experience, but not for the faint-hearted!
For those of us mere mortals, cycling is probably the optimal way to experience the best of what the mountains have to offer in the summer months – and the rapid growth of the ebiking sector of the cycling community means that the hills and climbs that form an inevitable part of this activity in the mountains suddenly become much less of a problem.
There are many keen mountain bikers who use purely their own efforts to scale the mountain tracks and passes – and massive respect to them, too – but if you are less fit and able, older or maybe recovering from illness or injury, the ebike option opens up a whole new experience. Basically an ebike has a battery powered motor attached to the frame that can be activated to give you a significant boost when you need it for going up hills – and it really is a revelation, making light work of gradients where you would normally expect to have to get off and push. You still have to do some pedalling, and on a decent trip will get a good workout, but it opens up huge opportunities for those of us who otherwise would be unable to enjoy this exhilarating way of experiencing the mountains.
We managed a round trip of nearly 30km, much of it on roads or tracks up steep hills, without a great deal of difficulty – and enjoyed an experience I would otherwise have missed out on, as, for me, doing the trip on a conventional bike would literally have been a non-starter. It’s still easier and quicker going downhill, though…
Of course all this hiking and biking in the invigorating mountain air can be a tiring business – and we were fortunate to be staying the luxurious Alpenroyal Hotel and Spa, situated on the edge of Selva Val Gardena. Part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, the five-star Alpenroyal is the perfect place to relax after an energetic day exploring the mountains, with spacious comfortable rooms, large indoor and outdoor pools and a new spa and wellness area that has a variety of saunas, steam rooms, treatments and massages to help soothe your aching limbs and prepare you for another active day ahead.
Combined with wonderful, creative food the Alpenroyal is a cosseting experience where they look after your every need – for example, it’s the first hotel I have stayed at where they have a six-page menu for the varieties of afternoon tea available to guests – and all set against the dramatic backdrop of the awesome Dolomite peaks.
As a diehard skier I have to say I was enchanted by the summer mountain experience at Val Gardena – I shall have to return in winter to see if the snowy version matches up…
Val Gardena Summer 2019 … facts and figures:
- Val Gardena is in the Sud Tirol of Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites and comprises the three villages of Ortisei, Selva di Gardena and Santa Cristina
- the Dolomites have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009 for their great historical and geomorphological significance
- in winter, the Dolomiti Superskipass offers 1,220km of slopes and 450 skilifts across 12 ski areas, including the famous ski circuit of Sella Ronda
- in summer the range of sports and activities covers hiking, mountain biking, via ferrata, e-biking, Nordic walking and climbing
- there is a wide choice of dining on and off the slopes in Val Gardena – from simple rustic huts to fine restaurant dining
- three languages are spoken in the area – Italian, German and the local dialect of Ladin, which dates back to the Roman Empire and is a mix of the ancient Rhaetian language and Latin; Ladin is taught in schools and there is a popular Ladin-language weekly newspaper called La usc di ladins
- Jan stayed at the 5* Hotel Alpenroyal in Selva www.alpenroyal.com/en/ where prices are from 134 Euros per person per night with half board
- The e-bikes were supplied by the Rental Selva shop and prices are from 49 Euros per day; six days from 227 Euros per week
- The Gardena Card gives unlimited use of all operational lifts during the summer and is 93 Euros for six consecutive days
- nearest airports are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo with airlines including EasyJet and BA
- for more information on Val Gardena visit the website