On the border with Austria and set against the startling backdrop of the Dolomites, skiing in South Tyrol offers a great range of things to do – both on the slopes and off. Lilias Wigan paid a visit.
Once described by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier as ‘the most beautiful buildings in the world’, the Dolomite mountains in northeastern Italy were declared a UNESCO world heritage site only a decade ago. Hemmed in by these mountains lies the province of South Tyrol.
This region was part of Austria until the aftermath of the First World War, and the area remains distinctly Teutonic to this day. Service staff dress in the traditional lederhosen and dirndl; they serve up strudels and canederli (cheese and speck dumplings). Even the language is different to most of Italy: 70% of the local population use German, but natives also speak Italian and the Romanised Ladin dialect derived from Latin, culminating in a unique blend of the finest fragments of Italian and Austrian cultures.
The region prides itself on receiving some of the best weather in Europe, which means ideal skiing and other sporting conditions. There are around 30 or so ski areas in South Tyrol belonging to the wonderfully-named ‘Dolomiti Superski’ association, the world’s largest ski circuit, and the Ortler Skiarena.
Surrounded by spectacularly beautiful mountains, the 3Zinnen (3 peaks) resort offers diverse terrain and skiing throughout the season. Modern (sometimes heated) lifts allow access to 110km of slopes where you may be lucky enough to spy the only free-roaming reindeer herd in the Alps.
In this spellbinding setting, brave the exhilarating dive down the ‘Holzriese’ – the steepest slope in Italy – perfected nightly by meticulous piste-bashers. And if you fancy a change? The efficient Ski Val Pusteria trains connect skiers to a further 200km of slopes.
You can find out more about skiing and other activities at the local tourism website, www.suedtirol.info.
Where to stay
On the edge of the old farming village of Sesto is the Bad Moos Hotel; a perfect base from which to ski and relax. Vivacious and attentive staff greet guests to comfortable, timber lined rooms. Skiers can hop from the breakfast buffet to the first lift of the day within minutes. The hotel has its own efficient ski hire service so there is no dawdling around bus stops or piling equipment into cars. At sunset, weary legs don’t need to carry you far – finish the day at the hotel bar overlooking the slopes for a well-earned aperitivo; a bitter Amaro or Grappa swiftly brings warmth.
Consider starving yourself before arrival – the hotel dinners consist of a five-course banquet with a buffet style ‘appetizer’ that is an infinite smorgasbord of fish, salad, meat, cheese and homemade bread. Dessert is compulsory; ‘You are all having. No questions, please’ a waitress told us with a twinkle in her eye.
The hotel also has a celebrated spa that’s a vast web of extensive ‘wellness’ amenities: steam room, saunas, Turkish baths and a gym are all interlinked. The indoor pool morphs into an enchanting outdoor Jacuzzi, steaming and embedded in snow. Natural sulphur springs – used in regenerative health for centuries – flow directly into a serene grotto.
With a focus on the primordial, this spa is a tranquil retreat worth taking the time to explore. Its approach to wellbeing is holistic and natural; the water has been classified as highly mineralised – carrying with it sulphur, fluoride, calcium and iron said to improve digestion, with anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties. An impressive range of treatments for men, women and teens are on offer.
If you’re feeling plucky, head to the cold sulphur plunge pool for a dip in fresh mountain water. From there, the 90-degree sauna will never be more enticing. Discard your stress (and your swimsuit!) at the entrance.
Things to do
The Balloon Festival
Anyone craving a thrill should consider taking part in the exhilarating annual Dolomiti Balloon festival in January. Seduced by breathtaking views over the Alta Pusteria and challenging conditions, ballooning enthusiasts flock to the region carrying colossal inflatables. Don’t be fooled by the tranquility of these bobbing carriages; lateral navigation cannot be controlled and the balloons are swept by wind currents. Piloting one demands mind-boggling skill and extensive understanding of the conditions.
The balloon, or ‘envelope’, soars 2400m high over mountain peaks and sedate cattle farms at around 50km per hour but can easily travel at 120km per hour, depending on weather. Our German pilot was ballooning in the womb. He has been flying professionally since he was 18 and takes around 80 balloon journeys a year.
An hour long flight might set you back €290 per person, but take into account the €120,000 kit and it all seems reasonable. As for the insurance? ‘I’m not sure how much that would cost’, he replies calmly as we drift past the thorn of the Dobiacco village church spire.
MMM Corones and Lumen museums
South Tyrol has a collection of impressive museums, the most dramatic of which are only reachable by cable car. The late Zaha Hadid’s MMM Corones and the new Lumen museum are perched on the summit of Mount Kronplatz-Plan de Corones.
The Lumen showcases some of the finest examples of mountain photography and its history, set over three floors. Its mesmerising mirror room infatuates the senses, engulfing visitors in infinite reflections of landscape photography.
Lumen museum – entrance €17, details and hours at www.lumenmuseum.it
MMM Corones museum – entrance €10, details and hours at www.messner-mountain-museum.it
Food and Drink
The region is spoilt for other high quality eateries. For fine dining, try the Michelin star restaurant Tilia lead by chef Chris Oberhammer and his wife, the Sommelier Anita Mancini. It is set in an intimate glass building in Dobbiaco at the foot of the mountains.
Drool over a fried scallop on barley with mountain herb pesto, or melting braised ox meat paired with a 2013 bottle of ‘Athos’ vino rosso, from the region’s Ansitz Dolomytos vineyard.
If parting from the slopes is an unbearable prospect, visit the family-run Jora Hut for Alpine dining and be chaperoned by the owner on his snowmobile. Despite its modest name, the superb menu boasts a range of local farm produce.
Beetroot-consommé with suckling pig and homemade open ravioli with potatoes from the valley and indigenous ceps, followed by a delicate mountain rose sorbet are memorable treats. Dishes are sprinkled with alpine flower confetti, charmingly picked by the chef’s grandmother.
Finally, if you head for the eye-catching mountain summit museums, stop in at glass-encased AlpiNN restaurant for lunch while gawping at the panoramic views while gulping down dry Tyrolian wine. We’d recommend the exquisite beef tartare served with traditional rock-hard bread; it’s made without water and used by mountaineers because of its resilience to ice crystals.
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