Draped across the high Alps, where Italy, Austria and Switzerland collide and their cultures blur, Italy’s northernmost region is a major draw for holiday-makers who mostly come for winter skiing, summer hiking and tranquil year-round vistas. However, in past times this region was far from today’s peaceful vacation paradise; a string of castles along the Adige (Etsch) valley bear witness to the cut and thrust of medieval politics, and World War I saw prolonged and ferocious fighting, with Italian and Austrian troops battling it out in the harsh conditions of the alpine ridges. Armies of brightly attired skiers and sturdily booted hikers have long since replaced the troops, invading the sunny slopes on ski and board or marching along one of the hundreds of dramatic trails that crisscross the landscape.
As its double-barrelled name suggests, the region is made up of two areas: Trentino, the southern part, is 98 percent Italian-speaking and the cuisine and architecture belong predominantly to the south rather than the Alps. By contrast, the mountainous terrain around Bolzano – known both as the Südtirol (South Tyrol) and Alto Adige – was only incorporated into Italy at the end of the First World War. Here, onion-domed churches dot vineyards and forests, street signs are in German and Italian and the landscape is redolent of illustrations from the Brothers Grimm. German is the dominant tongue though immigrants from Italy’s south rarely speak anything other than Italian. Both Trentino and Alto Adige enjoy autonomy from central government, along with one of the highest standards of living in Italy.
The region is dominated by the barren, jagged rock walls of the Dolomites. Some of the most eye-catching peaks in Europe, these vast massifs abound in myths and legends and have been eroded over the last 200 million years into a weird and wonderful array of needles, towers and pinnacles. In 2009 the range was added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List for their unique geology – they began life around 250 million years ago as a giant coral reef beneath the ancient Tethys Ocean – and for their diverse ecosystem abundant in rare flora and fauna. Numerous cable cars rising from the small resorts dotted around the region enable you to hike at 2000–3000m without needing anything beyond average fitness or expertise. The web of well-marked trails and detailed, locally sourced maps mean you can easily fashion a trip of any length from a gentle day-hike to a two-week trek.
If hiking gear and ski sticks make you shudder, views of this spectacular landscape can also be savoured from the comfort of luxurious spa hotels, offering first-rate regional cuisine and a unique selection of treatments from bathing in thermal water to elaborate “dry baths” involving lying swaddled in sheep’s wool or mountain hay. Down in the valleys, Trentino-Alto Adige has a flourishing cultural scene, with two cutting-edge contemporary galleries – MART, in Rovereto, a short hop by train from Trento, and Bolzano’s Museion gallery. The regional capital Trento has an atmospheric old centre and mountain views, while Bolzano, Alto Adige’s chief town, has an enviable quality of life and makes an engaging base for exploring the region. The star attraction here, and worth making the trip for in itself, is the famous “Ice Man”, who has a museum building all to himself. Verdant hillsides planted with vineyards can be visited as part of the Strada del Vino wine-tasting route, and the valley floor is carpeted with apple trees which produce the principal ingredient for Südtirol’s delicious strudel.
Both Trento and Bolzano are transport hubs, reachable by train via Verona and Innsbruck, and by bus from Bergamo and other airports. The scenic Great Dolomites Road links Bolzano with Cortina d’Ampezzo. Merano, in the northwest, is another hub, serving the Val Venosta (Vinschgau) and its side valleys which take you deep into the mountains of the Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio, straddling the border with Lombardy.