In a remote mountain cabin 2,000 feet above sea level, a high altitude barbeque is underway. Wild mushroom risotto and Kaiserchmarrn – a buttery Austrian pancake served with jam and caster sugar – are devoured fresh off the grill amid clutches of pine trees and the majestic peaks of the Dolomites. Alpine grasslands peppered with purple and yellow wild flowers spread out as far as the eye can see and there’s a lingering smell of wood smoke in the air.
This is South Tyrol, an enclave of northern Italy so ridiculously bucolic that even without consuming vast quantities of seasonal wine, you’ll expect a yodelling Julie Andrews to appear around every valley bend.
Nestled on the Austrian border halfway between Verona and Innsbruck, it’s an autonomous province that draws its charm not only from the surrounding Dolomite mountain range (a UNESCO world heritage site) but also its fusion of Austrian and Italian cultures.
There are three languages spoken here; German (the majority language), Italian and the local dialect, Ladin. Hearty Mediterranean fare and locally produced Grappa is served in Austrian-style inns with wooden balconies and window boxes filled with cheery red geraniums. It's a land of plenty with astonishing landscapes and delicious Tyrolean cuisine.
South Tyrol In Figures
- 300 days of sunshine per year
- 800 fortresses, castles, museums, stately homes and hotels
- 1200 kilometres of ski pistes
- 18 Michelin stars
- 380 kilometres of mountain paths
- 20,500 Ladin speakers
- 900,000 tonnes of apples produced per year
Where to stay
The small, mountain village of San Cassiano is a three hour drive away from Verona round a series of hairpin bends and steep valley gorges. Here you’ll find Rosa Alpina, a five star Relais & Chateaux property that has been in the same family since 1940. Owner Hugo Pizzinini runs the place with his wife and two young children and the upper floors are laden with black and white photos of his relatives over the years. In fact, the whole place carries the sense of a large family home – albeit one where your bed gets made for you.
Rooms, while luxurious, retain a cosy feel with cow bell keys, log fires and soothing pine wood furnishings. There’s a Hamam area with alpine-scented lotions to wind down after a day's strenuous hiking, biking or skiing in the mountains.
One of the best spots for chilling out is on the balcony, where you can soak in glorious alpine views and forest scents from the comfort of your fluffy hotel dressing gown.
Or there’s the hotel spa, with a giant Jacuzzi and indoor swimming pool overlooking the mountains. Treatments here include the Essence of Dolomites Garden, a luxury body massage with warm oils and pine needles.
Grab breakfast on the hotel terrace, with lovely views of the hotel itself (a traditional Austrian-style villa) and surrounding pine trees, meadows and mountain ranges.
South Tyrol: Must-Try Dishes
- Schlutzkrapfen: Tyrolean spinach and ricotta filled ravioli
- Spek: regionally produced ham made with "a little salt, a little smoke and lots of fresh air"
- Kaiserchmarrn: an Austrian pancake dish served with red berry jam and sugar
- South Tyrolean apple strudel: a firm favourite in the region
- Caffè corretto: espresso with a dash of Tyrolean Grappa
Dining here is a rollercoaster experience of unexpected flavours inspired at every level by the local landscape, from herbs foraged in summer pastures to regionally sourced meat and fish. Pike perch is smoked on a bed of grassland hay and served with delicate beetroot shavings and oven baked ricotta. There are potatoes flavoured with regional Grappa, melt-in the-mouth horseradish mousse and Velvet Pioppini mushrooms. Risotto made with apple vinegar braised onions is served with Graukäse cheese foam, and ravioli is created from liquid goat’s cheese.
This is gourmet alchemy at its most impressive, right down to the lemon and mountain pine infused chip. For less fussy cuisine, Rosa Alpina also has a wine bar and grill where you can grab a wood fired pizza or cheese fondue, made from Fontina DOP cheese.
South Tyrol: Top Culture Spots
- Tyrol Castle: the one-time ancestral home of the Counts of Tyrol dating back to the 11th century
- South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: see Ötzi the Iceman, one of the world's best-known Neolithic mummies, in this Bolzano-based museum
- Lake Kaltern: one of the most picturesque wine villages in Europe, with its own wine - the Kalterersee - and a fleet of vineyards to visit
- Churburg Castle: an imposing Renaissance castle, with a Romanesque chapel and a world-famous Hall of Arms
- The Kurhaus of Merano: a masterpiece of Art Nouveau, this fine building houses rotundas, a ballroom and ceiling paintings by Austrian artist Rudolf Jettmar
- Museion of Bolzano: Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art with 4,500 works in the beautiful city of Bolzano
- Fortress of Fortezza: an enormous fortress in the Tyrolean village of Franzensfeste used to hide Nazi gold during World War II
Things to see and do
Tourists flock to South Tyrol during winter months, but summer is the hidden jewel in its crown. With less tourists and balmy temperatures, it’s the perfect time to explore the labyrinth of mountain trails that spread out across the Dolomites. By bike, on foot or with the help of trusty Nordic walking sticks; these routes are a treat to behold, with acres of pine forest, picturesque lakes and dramatic alpine vistas at every turn.
Feeling tired? Take a pit stop at one of the many great ski huts, including Rifugio Scotoni. This wooden tavern is a 40-minute hike up from the San Cassiano Valley and during ski season, it becomes so crowded that punters gather at the perimeter and throw their hats in to bag tables.
Summer months see a more relaxed feel, with plenty of time to enjoy wooden sharing boards (above left) heaped with mashed potato and Speck - a regional ham produced with herbs such as rosemary, bay leaf and juniper – and award-winning wine.
Around 5,000 hectares of vineyards flourish in the area and wine lovers have plenty to shout about here, with famed varieties such as Gewürztraminer, an aromatic white wine, and Moscato Rosa, with hints of wild rose.
Dessert wine is delicious alongside a giant dish of Kaiserchmarrn, the Austrian pancake-meets-scone mixture (above right) that serves as a hearty reviver after a morning trek. Other specialities to grab a taste of here include Schlutzkrapfen, Tyrolean spinach and ricotta filled ravioli, and good old apple strudel, South Tyrol’s most popular dessert.
To learn more about the region’s flora and fauna, book into one of Rosa Alpina’s tours to its own alpine hut, situated high on a mountain plain. On the two-hour meander up, you can learn all about aromatic herbs, berry fruits and flowers that are unique to South Tyrol – such as the alpine moon daisy and hairy alpenrose – before rewarding yourself at the top, with a buffet of fresh cheeses and wine chilled in the improvised cooler (below left).
South Tyrol: Know Before You Go
- The currency used here is the Euro
- There are three official languages: 70% of the population speak German as their first language, 25% speak Italian and 5% Ladin
- Entry points include Verona, Venice, Innsbruck, Milan and Munich airports
- The book: Dolomites and Eastern South Tyrol by Dietrich Hollhuber with 24 walks (plus maps) and 150 restaurant recommendations
- The app: South Tryol Trekking, free from iTunes, has detailed GPS maps of the region's best mountain treks
Getting there and away
Venice, Verona, Milan and Innsbruck airports are all in easy reach of South Tyrol, with flights available on Ryanair, easyJet and other major airlines, and daily bus and train transfers to destinations across the region.
For a truly decadent experience, however, you could also travel aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express on its regular forays to Verona or Innsbruck.
This two-day trip is all about the journey rather than the destination, as its whisks its guests back to a golden epoch of train travel.
It's all style and less speed with an adventure that starts at the vintage style check-in office at London Victoria. Here, guests travel aboard the iconic British Pullman to the coast, accompanied by Bellinis on tap and a sumptuous brunch of scrambled eggs and salmon on crumpets.
Across the Channel at Calais Ville France station, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express awaits. This beautiful train is infused with Art Deco detail at every turn, with narrow, wood panelled corridors, stained glass window designs and plush burgundy and gold reading lamps.
Individual cabins come with their own china wash basin closets that have barely changed since the Orient Express heyday of the 1920s and 30s. A plug socket hidden in one corner and a toiletry kit filled with spa goodies seem to be the only nod to modernity; it really is like stepping into a different age.
This time travel effect continues in the bar carriage, where a pianist dressed in a tailcoat trots out retro hits - think Fly Me to the Moon and Girl From Ipanema - as ladies in cocktail dresses drink gin gimlets before dinner. All you need is Agatha Christie thrown in the mix and the vision of vintage glamour would be complete (the train actually serves an Agatha Christie cocktail in homage to the author's hit novel).
Meal times really are a highlight on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and it's apt that a train heading to the gateway of South Tyrol - a foodie lover's paradise - should serve up such wonderful grub.
Over in some of the narrowest (and sway-able) kitchens known to man, an army of chefs work like magicians to create dishes such as steamed turbot filled with seaweed tartare and saffron risotto accompanied by a rosette of scallops - not to mention the dark chocolate ganache dessert with salted toffee sauce.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express by night is another unique experience, as the train steams its way through little stations dotted across southeast France. Spend the night in the cosy confines of your cabin (especially made up for the evening with bedtime mints, slippers and even a midnight blue dressing gown) or head once again for the bar, which stays open until the last guest leaves.
With morning comes the breath-taking landscape of Switzerland and your cabin transforms into a personal theatre of incredible mountain and lake scenery. High tea (pictured above) arrives in time for Italy, just hours before disembarking at Verona for South Tyrol.
Rosa Alpina offers double rooms from €355 per night including breakfast, based on two adults sharing a Double De Luxe room. For further information and reservations please call Rosa Alpina on + 39 0471 849 500, email email@example.com or visit rosalpina.it
The beautiful vintage carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express travel all over Europe while guests, dressed up in their finest, dine on a sumptuous cuisine accompanied with fine wines and champagne. The 2014 season will run from 20 March 2014 to 1 November 2014. Journeys are available from London to Verona or Venice or vice versa, prices start from £1,975 per person. Reservations: vsoe.com / 0845 077 2222