The unexpected early heavy snowfall last November in the Dolomites gave me the opportunity to go back to an area of Italy I had longed to return to for 25 years. Having visited and fallen in love with Cortina d’Ampezzo all those years ago, I remembered excellent skiing, breathtaking scenery and outstanding food. I was keen to see how the area had changed and to visit some of the other resorts in the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which are not as familiar to the British tourist as other parts of the Alps.
I headed to the South Tyrol, a province of northern Italy and to the Alta Badia ski region in the Dolomites. What a unique and fascinating part of Europe this area is – part of Austria until the end of the First World War, it is a curious blend of Italian and Austrian influence. The inhabitants all speak Italian and German interchangeably and in addition there is a local language, Ladin which is taught in school and widely and proudly spoken. Our guide spoke all three languages fluently as do most of the locals. In Bolzano the signs appear in all three languages and I was struck by the pride the people of the Trentino have for their unique culture.
My trip started in San Cassiano, a delightful and smart village with a traditional Italian feel. We stayed in the sophisticated, beautiful and charming Hotel Rosa Alpina, family run, with its warm and inviting lounge and piano bar which was so welcoming that it was hard to tear ourselves away. The rooms were luxurious and vast, each with wood stove fires and wooden terraces overlooking the snow covered forest.
My memory of the high quality of the food in this area did not let me down. On our first evening we ate in the St Hubertus restaurant of the Hotel Rosa Alpina where the 3* Michelin chef, Norbert Niederkofler serves a tasting menu based on his concept of ‘mountain to table’ which means if it does not come from the local mountain it won’t be on the menu (for example, instead of lemon, dishes were flavoured with buckthorn).The food was creative and hearty for a Michelin star restaurant and it felt like going on an exciting adventure , all described in detail by Norbert and the maitre d – it was also absolutely delicious. The highlights being the fish tartare, the succulent sweetbreads in bitter herbs and thyme and the beetroot gnocchi, purple dumplings of pasta which exploded with beetroot filling in your mouth. We were seated at the chef’s table on the edge of the kitchen and it was so amazing to see the chefs producing their dishes in front of us. What I had not remembered from my previous trip was the high quality of the local wine. The people of Trentino are fiercely proud of their amazing wines and every meal in the Trentino started with a magnum of their delicious local champagne, most usually from the South Tyrolian Arunda winery, the highest sparking winery in Europe. All our meals and our tasting menus were accompanied by different local wines for each course (often we had 10 courses!).
Our first day started facing the beautiful pink rock of the majestic Dolomite mountains and we skied the amazing slopes around San Cassiano in the heart of the Alta Badia ski region. Lunch at the Utia de Bioch refuge high on the slopes of Alta Badia made me recall what a culinary affair skiing in the Dolomites is: of course it began with a magnum of Arunda and platters of local ham and cheese, followed by the local speciality of ‘turtres’ (a sort of deep fried ravioli), then mushroom, spinach and speck dumplings (Austrian influence) , a seafood course of giant prawns on a skewered and a selection of home made pasta dishes (Italian influence) with wild mushrooms and speck. We finished the meal with the local grappa which is definitely an acquired taste.
That evening we went to eat at the fabulous hotel Ciasa Solaris in San Cassiano. What an experience! We chatted with the owners Hilda and Paoli Wieser whose children now run the hotel, and who were enjoying an aperitif and reading the paper in the hotel bar, before heading down to the cellar restaurant for the most amazing fondue chinois – chicken, steak and veal cooked in a flavoursome broth. Before the meal we were taken first by Hilda and Paoli’s grandson, Jan Clemens, to visit the ham cellar, a dark room with dozens of hams drying on the ceiling, the likes of which I have never seen before. After dinner Jan Clemens took us to the chocolate room with 40 types of chocolate and a chocolate fondue, and then on to the alcohol strong room next door where we were invited to try brandies and liqueurs from Italy and around the world ! It was an intimate and surreal experience which I will never forget.
The next day we skied the Sella Ronda, the magnificent ski circuit around the Ronda massif, which links the villages of Corvara, Arabba, Val Gardena and Colfosco taking about 4 hours to complete. We were accompanied by a very experienced ski instructor who improved our ski technique while filling us with local knowledge. We obviously stopped at a refuge en route for a bombardino (hot avocaat , brandy and cream) the ultimate apres ski drink! Lunch was another gastronomic affair at rifugio Sofie Hut in Val Gardena a breathtaking setting on the top of the mountain – lunch was more dried ham and local fried cheese pancakes and dumplings and pasta, followed by a mound of apple pancakes and homemade gin! All this while looking out onto the stunningly beautiful pink tinged Dolomite mountains. Our final run home was the most magical 11 km run through the woods down to Ortisei, where we were whisked off to our grand Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof – a really sophisticated and comfortable hotel boasting the most remarkable spa with an outdoor hotpool overlooking the town which was shimmering with Christmas lights. Ortisei is an attractive town which deserved more time than we had to explore.
The next day we discovered the charming town of Bolzano with its bustling Christmas market and regular food market in a stunningly attractive setting. We stocked up in the market, queuing with the locals to buy cheeses, hams and wine to take home for Christmas. Bolzano is also home to the museum of the ice man, Ötzi, over 5,000 years old, whose body was discovered nearby in the 1990s. How moving it was to look at his incredibly well preserved body and fascinating to see how much of his life and his era had been pieced together from his belongings.
We drove a short distance uphill from Bolzano to our last hotel, Terra, also known as the Magic Place. And magical it was indeed. It felt remote and tucked away on its own, from out rooms we could just see forest stretching before us and no other buildings – pure peace. It is a family hotel, run by siblings Heinrich and Gisela Schneider and Gisela’s husband Karl. We were greeted by Gisela and Karl who decked us out with footwear for our snow showing trip. Karl took us on a breathtaking 3 hour round trip hike to the Stoanerne Mandln (stone men), literally ancient piles of stone built to resemble men and shrouded in legend. We didn’t pass a single other person on our trip and when we reached the Stoanerne Mandln, the sun was setting. We gathered round and drank fruit tea and ate salami and cheese in this mystic place as the snow started to fall and it really did feel magical and about as far away from urban life as you could be.
Our last meal was prepared by Heinrich at Terra who also boasts 2 Michelin stars. The stunning restaurant with its vast glass walls and the wilderness as a backdrop was the perfect setting for the 10 course tasting menu (which actually was closer to 17 courses) and which we worked our way through over the course of several hours. The food was spectacular and a form of theatre: the first few courses were exquisite bite sized dishes such as smoked raspberry bomb which resembled a raspberry coloured truffle but was completely savoury and a black taco which was the size of a mouthful but packed more flavours than a plateful of food. Each dish surprised us with its creativity and outstanding flavours, the final offering being the star anise flavoured candy floss served in vases which we didn’t spot was our pudding! We were welcomed into the kitchen well after midnight to say our thank yous and goodbyes to the Heinrich, Gisela and Karl and it was hard to believe that after less than 12 hours it felt so at home.
So it was a packed week of skiing around some of the most beautiful parts of the Superski Dolomiti region as well exploring the charms of Bolzano. We were lucky enough to stay at some of the best hotels in the area but there is also accommodation to suit all budgets from 5* spa resorts to 2* pension garnis. What was consistent throughout was the superb quality of the food and drinks – all sourced from within the region, this is something they are very proud of. It’s also pretty accessible with Venice being the main gateway (with tons of flights from London) plus Verona and Innsbruck as other options.
There are a couple of special unique events in the region with the Gourmet Ski Safari and also the Sommelier on the Slopes. The former unites good cuisine and skiing. Skiers will have the chance to move from one mountain hut to another, where the Michelin-starred chefs such as Nicola Laera, Alberto Faccani and Claudio Melis will be treating them with their delicious dishes. Wine and ski lovers can’t miss the event Sommelier on the slopes – a ski expert and a sommelier accompany participants for a wine tasting on the slopes of Alta Badia. Some of the most refined wines in South Tyrol will be tasted on six different afternoons throughout December, January, February and March. Lastly you can also join a more general ski safari where, hosted by a ski guide, you will ski several different areas, each one an entire ski destination in its own right, while your luggage is transferred to your next overnight accommodation. By the end of the week, you will have covered many miles of stunning skiing; you will have seen many of the highlights of Dolomiti Superski and simultaneously you will have been off the beaten track to discover the many hidden gems of this immense winter playground. You will stay in Rifugios which are mountain huts, interspersed throughout the Dolomites and they offer surprisingly comfortable accommodation and a special convivial atmosphere. They are generally in beautiful and remote locations and from their terraces you can watch the sun set behind the spectacular peaks of the Dolomites, knowing you are the only people on the mountain whilst enjoying local gourmet dishes and wine.
In many discussions with our superb guides, Franzi and Diego, as well as Claudia from the South Tirol tourist board the other message that kept coming over was how summer visits to the region can be just a wonderful. As well as classic walking, climbing and spa holidays there is a big biking scene, both on and off road. Lastly the unique topography and history of the place means you can try out numerous via ferrata. These fixed line routes originated during World War One as a way of moving between and supplying mountain top positions and fortifications – now they are firmly on the visitors agenda as a great way to explore the mountains.
We are coming back this year to ski and also to experience what the South Tyrol has to offer in the summer. I can’t wait.