Peak prac­tices in the Alps

A ho­tel in the Dolomites is lead­ing the way in sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ments

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Europe In Winter - PAUL WHEAT­LEY THE OB­SERVER

THEREis some­thing about tak­ing a train jour­ney across the Euro­pean Alps that can melt the heart of even the most hard­ened trav­eller. My 7.30am start from a snow-packed Mu­nich, where I live, is fol­lowed by a five-hour whiz through land­mark stops: Rosen­heim at the foot of the Bavar­ian Alps, Inns­bruck in Aus­tria and the Bren­ner Pass to Italy, be­fore a change at Fortezza, in the heart of the UNESCO World Her­itage­listed Dolomites, fol­lowed by a fur­ther train trip to Brunico.

My ultimate des­ti­na­tion is La­ga­cio Moun­tain Res­i­dence in the small moun­tain town of San Cas­siano, Alta Ba­dia, in the prov­ince of Bolzano-Bozen. A one­hour car jour­ney from Brunico takes me through a mes­meris­ing se­quence of hair­pin bends, in­clines and tun­nels.

I reach San Cas­siano as snow be­gins to swirl down. Gaz­ing up, it is im­pos­si­ble to see the higher peaks be­cause of cloud, but the land­scape is dra­matic. Moun­tains ap­pear to be wrapped around this small town, and when com­bined with the cloud cover the peaks bring to mind im­ages of by­gone cen­turies when in­hab­i­tants of the Alps lived in fear of dragons.

The prin­ci­pal chal­lenge fac­ing the con­tem­po­rary Alps re­volves around sus­tain­abil­ity. When La­ga­cio opened in De­cem­ber 2009, it was cer­ti­fied by South Ty­rol’s Cli­mate House Agency as CasaClima A, the sec­ond-high­est award in a scheme that eval­u­ates the en­ergy ef­fi­ciency of build­ings in this au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Italy.

La­ga­cio uses fewer than 30 kilo­watt hours per square me­tre for heat­ing, com­pared with 120kWh to 220kWh for a typ­i­cal build­ing in South Ty­rol. Not car­bon neu­tral, but for the eco-con­scious tourist, a bet­ter bet than most lodges and ho­tels in the Alps.

‘‘We were not think­ing about cre­at­ing an eco ho­tel,’’ ex­plains Mar­gareth Canins, owner (with hus­band Pio) and the beat­ing heart of the ho­tel. ‘ ‘ The eco el­e­ments — the type of win­dows and so­lar en­ergy, for ex­am­ple — sort of evolved; it was a process. Our ar­chi­tect wanted to use lots of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als, such as Formica, and I re­fused. I wanted woods and slates,’’ she says. ‘‘The ar­chi­tect asked me if I re­ally wanted to use all of this ma­te­rial just for guests. I told him: ‘We are also do­ing it for us, the fam­ily.’ If I come out of my apart­ment [above the ho­tel] I need to feel at home. Only then will guests also feel at home.

‘‘Sus­tain­abil­ity has al­ways been very im­por­tant to me, but most im­por­tant was that ev­ery­one has to feel com­fort­able here.’’

The 29-apart­ment La­ga­cio took just eight months to com­plete. It quickly caught the imag­i­na­tion of Ger­man and Ital­ian style mag­a­zines for its at­trac­tive moun­tain lo­ca­tion, spacious rooms and min­i­mal­ist de­sign, not to men­tion the sub­ter­ranean spa. Mar­gareth in­sisted on us­ing lo­cal ma­te­ri­als through­out, such as pine, spruce and larch, loam and lo­den fab­rics, though the slate for the stairs comes from Brazil, she tells me.

Wa­ter from a lo­cal spring is ‘‘re­vi­talised’’ us­ing the Grander method, a process that claims to add en­ergy to im­prove the struc­ture of wa­ter via mag­netic gen­er­a­tors.

Of the 18 staff at La­ga­cio, seven be­long to the lo­cal Ladin pop­u­la­tion, which has in­hab­ited parts of the Dolomites for cen­turies. South Ty­rol is an area that un­til rel­a­tively re­cently be­longed to that be­he­moth of Euro­pean his­tory, the Aus­tro-Haps­burg dy­nasty. It was only in the wake of Aus­tria’s de­feat in World War I that it was handed to Italy.

The Ital­ian-Aus­trian-Ger­man in­flu­ences are a huge part of the ap­peal of this part of the world and man­i­fest them­selves in the food, ar­chi­tec­ture and lan­guage.

I get a first-hand in­sight into the lan­guage com­plex­i­ties in con­ver­sa­tions with Mar­gareth. She in­sists on speak­ing English (she needs the prac­tice, she says), but we are in­ter­mit­tently in­ter­rupted by her son Mat­teo, who oc­ca­sion­ally ap­pears to be speak­ing the won­der­fully im­pen­e­tra­ble South Ty­rolean Ger­man di­alect; at other times, I haz­ard a guess that he is speak­ing Ladin, a RhaetoRo­mance lan­guage spo­ken by about 40,000 peo­ple in the Alps.

‘‘Ladin is not a di­alect, it’s a lan­guage’’ is a sen­tence I hear of­ten. In ad­di­tion to Ger­man and Ladin, away from the ho­tel, in shops and at school for ex­am­ple, Mat­teo might also speak the third re­gional lan­guage, Ital­ian. Vis­i­tors with de­cent Ger­man or Ital­ian will have no trou­ble, but English is strictly in fourth place here.

As top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion, only food comes close to fam­ily as the most pop­u­lar sub­ject dur­ing my stay. Break­fast is the prin­ci­pal meal served at La­ga­cio, taken in the Stube, the spacious and rus­tic L-shaped break­fast room char­ac­terised by old beams and cab­i­nets. Within the Stube there is a smaller, more in­ti­mate and re­fined din­ing room. All the food is pro­duced lo­cally, which for break­fast means home-baked breads, cheeses, fruits, eggs, muesli, cold meats, lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties and honey.

La­ga­cio’s spacious apart­ments range from dou­bles to fam­ily rooms. My U-shaped apart­ment, Bellerophon (all apart­ments are named af­ter Dolomite fos­sils), has an in­tel­li­gently de­signed walk-in wooden wardrobe near the en­trance, per­fect for dis­card­ing wet clothes and muddy boots, a huge bed and, best of all, doors that lead to a bal­cony from where the moun­tains seem to be within touch­ing dis­tance.

With great food and plen­ti­ful snow added to the spec­tac­u­lar back­ground of the Dolomites, the economies of nu­mer­ous small com­mu­ni­ties have in­evitably come to rely on at­tract­ing win­ter sports tourists.

Alta Ba­dia is nei­ther con­sid­ered the most chal­leng­ing ski area in the Alps (90 per cent of slopes are deemed easy or medium) nor is it renowned for apres-ski ex­cite­ment. While 95 slopes across 130km in a spec­tac­u­lar lo­ca­tion is an ob­vi­ous at­trac­tion, many vis­i­tors are en­ticed by its re­laxed and fam­ily-ori­ented at­mos­phere.

The im­pact on the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, how­ever, of snow­mak­ing ma­chines, count­less lodges perched half­way up moun- tains and nu­mer­ous ski lifts (450 in the Dolomiti Su­per­ski Skipass area alone) is ob­vi­ous. The man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of La­ga­cio, Christof Ir­sara, sen­si­bly does not deny the con­tra­dic­tion, ad­mit­ting that much work needs to be done for win­ter sports to be­come more sus­tain­able. He points to a ‘‘grow­ing trend for walk­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the snow, ac­tiv­i­ties that do not need a ski lift, for ex­am­ple’’.

It is, how­ever, dif­fi­cult to imag­ine tens of thou­sands of pas­sion­ate skiers and snow- board­ers con­vert­ing to the less ex­hil­a­rat­ing sport of snow walk­ing. But it is equally dif­fi­cult to be overly crit­i­cal.

La­ga­cio could be de­scribed as a re­luc­tant eco ho­tel pin-up. Sus­tain­abil­ity has al­ways been just one as­pect of Mar­gareth’s wider vi­sion of cre­at­ing a fam­ily-fo­cused ho­tel built and dec­o­rated al­most ex­clu­sively with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, and one that re­lies en­tirely on lo­cally pro­duced food.

The re­sult should be warmly wel­comed: La­ga­cio is ahead of much of the field not j ust in terms of style and hos­pi­tal­ity, but in sus­tain­abil­ity. Mak­ing a Dif­fer­ence re­turns next week.

La­ga­cio Moun­tain Res­i­dence stands out be­cause of

its fo­cus on sus­tain­abil­ity, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing com­fort

The sub­ter­ranean spa, too, is con­structed of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als

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