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.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Alto Adige cuisine has unreservedly Germanic traditions, while Trentino cooking blends mountain influences with more recognizably Italian flavours. The hearty traditional food is great for refuelling after a day of hiking or skiing and the quality of produce is exceptional, even in the simplest mountain hut. For finer dining, adventurous chefs are reworking old recipes to fashion much lighter dishes, and it is well worth trying out some of the pricier restaurants we list for a new take on local specialities.
A traditional meal starts with some kind of salami (lucanicche in local dialect), often paper-thin slices of salt beef, or Tyrolean canederli – bread dumplings spiked with speck (smoked ham) often served in broth (brodo). You’ll also see strangolapreti (bread and spinach gnocchi) and schlutzkrapfen (spinach-filled pasta) on the menu. Fresh lake and river fish, game and rabbit are popular as secondi, as are venison goulash or boiled cured pork with sauerkraut. Desserts are often based on apples, pears or plums, readily available from the local orchards. Other sweet treats include apfel strudel, sachertorte and kaiserschmarren, a scrambled pancake with raisins.
A highlight of the year for food- and wine-lovers is the autumn Törggelen season, when everyone heads for the hills to sample the new vintage and snack on mountain ham and roast chestnuts, followed by a walk to work it all off.
Vines have been cultivated here since before Roman times, and Trentino-Alto Adige produces more DOC wines than any other region in Italy. Most famous are the Pinot Grigios and Chardonnays, which are bright and aromatic from being grown at high altitudes and in cool conditions. These also provide wine makers with the raw material for some outstanding traditional-method sparkling wines, often marketed under the spumante Trentino Classico label. Despite the excellence of the whites, local wine makers actually make more reds often with local varieties like Teroldego and Schiava (known as Vernatsch in German-speaking areas). Red wines made from Schiava are good when young: look out for the pale-red Kalterersee (Caldaro) and the fuller, fruitier St Magdalene (Santa Maddalena); those made from the Lagrein grape variety are more robust, such as the strong, dark Lagrein Dunkel, or the Kretzer rosé from Bolzano’s vineyards at Gries. Also worth seeking out is the rare vino santo (not to be confused with vin santo from Tuscany) from Trentino’s Valle dei Laghi – a luscious dessert wine made from local Nosiola grapes.
Festivals and events
Festivals and events
Wine-related festivities abound across the region with almost every village celebrating its vintages, harvest or related traditions – ask local tourist offices for details. However, the biggest wine bash, the Festa in Vino takes place in the sixteen towns along the South Tyrolean Wine Road from mid-May to mid-June, with tours, music, tastings and myriad other events. The month of events comes to a climax with the Night of the Cellars when wine producers throw open their doors on the final night. See wsuedtiroler-weinstrasse.it for further details.
There are plenty of summer concerts, but possibly the best event is the Suoni delle Dolomiti series of jazz, folk and world music concerts by artists from all over the world: the concept is an original one – you hike (sometimes with the artists) to the chosen location – a wood, perhaps, or a rocky gully – and then listen to the concert. Performances are in the evenings and sometimes at dawn. Visit wisuonidelledolomiti.it for details of concerts, local accommodation, and walking times to venues. On a yuletide note, vast Christmas markets in the best Central European tradition take over the historic centres of Trento and Bolzano, attracting visitors from miles around.
Trentino-Alto Adige is home to many of Italy’s top ski resorts. Popular with families, and with a fairly laidback atmosphere, skiing is often not top priority – it’s more a case of long lunches on a sunny terrace after a morning of piste-bashing. Italian tourist offices overseas, and the regional offices in Italy, have details of Settimane Bianche (White Weeks). These are bargain package deals offering full or half-board and a ski-pass, although be wary of deals very late in the season – the downside of all those south-facing slopes is that the snow deteriorates fast in the warmer spring weather. January and February are the best months to come; March can also be good, although by mid-April the winter season is over.
The Italianization of the Tyrol
The Italianization of the Tyrol
The South Tyrol (Südtirol) was Italy’s reward for cooperating with the Allies during World War I. But when Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in 1923 the region was renamed Alto Adige after the upper reaches of the Adige River, and despite the fact that German speakers outnumbered Italian speakers by around ten to one, a process of sometimes brutal Italianization was imposed on the area. Cartographers remade maps, substituting Italian place names (often made up) for German; people were forced to adopt Italian names; the teaching of German in schools was banned and stonemasons were even brought in to chip away German inscriptions from tombstones. World War II then intervened, and by 1946, Austria and Italy came to an agreement ratified under the Paris Peace Treaty that Austria would give up its claim to the region on condition that Italy took steps to redress some of the cultural damage perpetrated under Fascism.
Successive governments have channelled funds into the area allowing both more independence than ever before and much greater say in local law. Over the last few years, Italy has moved closer into the European Union, and its central and regional governments have become more tolerant of ethnic diversity and, increasingly, German is the language of preference in Südtirol.
This section of the italian Alps offers some exhilarating hiking, often subject to snow, ice and scorching sun in the same day. There are plenty of opportunities for day-walks: routes are well established and well signposted, and there are suggestions in this chapter for walks in some stunning scenery that are within average capabilities. For more ambitious walking over a number of days, you might consider tackling one of the longer trails, known as alte vie (literally “high ways”). Four of these run north–south between the Val pusteria (pustertal) and the Veneto; four from the Val d’isarco (eisacktal) south; and two from Bolzano, with plenty of mountain huts along the way for meals and overnight accommodation. Some of the initial ascents are strenuous, but once you are up on the ridges the paths level out and afford stupendous views across the valleys and glaciers. parts of the trails are exposed, or have snowfields across them, but there are usually detours you can take to avoid these.
A network of mountain huts – rifugi (refuges) – allows you to stay at high altitude without having to dip down to the valley for meals or accommodation. Solidly constructed, usually two- or three-storey buildings, they provide dormitory accommodation (and often double or quad rooms if you book well ahead), meals and a bar. These days, most have hot showers. Blankets are provided, but you must bring your own sheet sleeping bag – if you don’t have one, you can usually buy one at the hut for around €10. Run by enthusiastic and dedicated staff, rifugi are open from 20 June until late September, and many also operate in the skiing season; we’ve given opening periods as a guide, but these are still subject to weather conditions. if you’re planning a long trek that relies on rifugi for accommodation, you should definitely call ahead; at the same time, you can check that the place isn’t likely to be packed out by a large party – nobody is ever turned away, but overflow accommodation is either on a mattress in the bar or, in extremis, the hen house.