South Tyrol offers great hiking, local cuisine in the Dolomites

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My first trip to South Tyrol, a mostly autonomous province in northern Italy, was decades ago. I was an exchange student in Austria and my host mother, who was born in South Tyrol, invited me to join her family for a visit. During the roughly two-hour drive from Innsbruck, Austria, my host siblings and I joked around in German as the jagged mountains of the Dolomites loomed up around us. Today, I remember excerpts from that trip: the picnic table where we drank mineral water against the backdrop of the green hill, the playful kitten that walked back and forth and the heavy Austrian dialect that I was trying to decipher.

South Tyrol — South Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian – has long been a popular holiday destination for Europeans. According to the South Tyrol Sustainable Tourism Observatory, more than 7.7 million people visited the region in 2019, the majority from Germany and Italy. Among American tourists, however, he is relatively unknown. “It’s remained a hidden gem,” said Vin Bossany, who visits there regularly with his wife, Kate. After falling in love with South Tyrol on their first visit, the Bossanys created a travel website, Throne & Vine, and now offer travel planning services focused on the region.

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This summer, I returned to South Tyrol with my husband and our daughters, aged 11 and 13. We timed our trip to coincide with my host family’s visit there, booking rooms in a small mountain retreat (the area offers a variety of accommodations from spa resorts to rustic “cabins” alpines, which are mountain inns offering hot food and a place to rest). With scenic views, proximity to hiking trails, and hearty regional fare, traditional alpine cabins can be ideal for travelers seeking adventure, relaxation, and connection to nature.

Since there are no direct flights to South Tyrol, we decided to rent a car and start from Innsbruck, building a stop at a rest area along the highway. Rest stops in Italy serve the best cappuccinos, my host brother told us, because the espresso machines are running non-stop. While our children wandered off to get snacks, we stood at the coffee bar and sipped our drinks from delicate cups balanced on saucers.

Formerly part of Austria-Hungary, South Tyrol was annexed by Italy after World War I. The area “was quite brutally Italianized in the early 1920s,” said Diana Garvin, assistant professor of Italian at the University of Oregon. “It was almost a testing ground for the Italian fascist party because it had just come to power.” But small acts of resistance have helped preserve South Tyrol’s Germanic culture. Italian authorities were less present in rural communities, where most people spoke German, said Martin Schennach, professor of legal and Austrian history at the University of Innsbruck. There it was “quite easy to escape the eyes of the Italian authorities, who cannot be everywhere, and who cannot count on the cooperation of the local population”, he said.

Today, the majority of South Tyroleans speak German, with Italian and Ladin also being recognized as official languages. Unlike other parts of Italy which are popular with tourists, English is not widely spoken in South Tyrol. Restaurant menus, street names and road signs are in German and Italian. (We found Google Translate and DeepL to be helpful in a pinch.) Ethnic groups tend to live in their own culture and language spheres, Schennach told me. During our stay on the Villandro mountain pasture, a large mountain pasture, we communicated in German and mainly heard the Austrian dialect. However, had we ventured to Bolzano, South Tyrol’s capital and most populous city, we would have heard more Italian.

Hut to Hut Hike in the Italian Dolomites

As the road narrowed and began to climb, I gained a greater appreciation for my foster mother’s driving skills. After a slightly strenuous climb up the mountain, during which my husband had to navigate several very thin gaps between our car and oncoming traffic, we were happy to arrive at Almgasthof am Rinderplatz (Rinderplatz Hut). There we met one of the owners, Maria Huber, whose family has owned and operated Rinderplatz for many years. The cabin’s five pine rooms are simple and unpretentious, and its restaurant offers traditional South Tyrol dishes to overnight guests and visiting hikers. Due to a requirement by the country’s authorities, hotels in Italy request passport information from overnight guests; some will inspect passports upon arrival and even keep them for a few hours. Rinderplatz sent an online form which we completed in advance so check in was relaxed.

Once settled in, we walked a short distance to another hut, Mair in Plun, where our girls enjoyed bouncing on the large outdoor trampoline and meeting the resident goats, rabbits, guinea pigs and cows. Then we feasted on the terrace: Knödel (dumplings), local cheeses, meats and vegetables, and Kaiserschmarren, a sweet crepe topped with powdered sugar and served with cooked fruit. To finish the meal, the adults had glasses of grappa, a type of Italian brandy that locals consider medicinal. The idea, Garvin said, is for the drink to put a hole in your stomach so you have more room for dessert. Well fed, we descended the mountain to explore the pool and hot tub at our hideaway. While the Bossanys had warned me to prepare for public nudity, I was still surprised when a guest came out of the sauna completely undressed.

On the mountain, plants and animals are closely linked to everyday human experiences. After our eldest accidentally stepped on a bee, my foster mom pulled a leafy weed out of the ground and put it on the stinger. The plant – called broadleaf plantain – is said to relieve pain, my foster mother said. We were skeptical, but within minutes our daughter said the sting no longer hurt. At breakfast the next day, our server gestured to a shimmering honeycomb slab on a nearby table and invited us to taste it; the honey came from bees just down the road, she said. On another occasion, we carefully passed two sheep that somehow got out of their pen and wandered along the main hiking trail. They looked at us with what I assumed was boredom, then continued to graze.

People say that South Tyrol is close to paradise. We noticed that the increased altitude and sun made us feel tired faster than usual. If our kids had been older, we would have considered more strenuous hikes, like Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Three Peaks). The full hike takes four to five hours and features an “amazing” amount of scenery, Vin told me. Instead, we opted for shorter hikes. My host family had rented a cabin about a 25 minute walk north of our cabin. Finding our way was just hard enough to be satisfying. Along the trails, we encountered groups of hikers equipped with gear, families with young children who stopped to splash around in nearby streams, and adventurers hurtling down the mountain on e-bikes.

While the vast landscape of South Tyrol may seem remote, we never felt alone. Coming down the mountain from my host family’s cabin on the last night of our trip, my eldest daughter and I took a wrong turn. I joked that we might end up sleeping under the stars with no camping gear. Soon we crossed paths with a group of partying Italians and exchanged a friendly “buon giorno” (have a nice day). Their music and laughter echoed across the meadow as we retraced our steps, the rugged Dolomites to our right and the herds of cows to our left. Before the sky darkened completely, we were back in our cozy rooms, already dreaming of our next visit.

Rich is a Wisconsin-based writer. His website is lovehopeandcoffee.com. Find her on Twitter @ginarichwriter and Instagram @lovehopeandcoffee.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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