TO THE HILLS
Discover rest and rejuvenation on a mountain retreat.
For me, there has always seemed to be two types of travel – the kind where the contents of my suitcase are largely taken up by a king-sized beach towel and a stack of muchanticipated novels, and the kind which involves exploring, immersing myself in the culture, the architecture and the history of a place. As much as I enjoy both, when I’m feeling tired and in need of an escape from my urban day-to-day, it’s the beach I’ve always turned to for a dose of rest and relaxation. But as it turns out, rejuvenation can also be sought far from my usual coastal haven: there’s restoration to be found up in the mountains too.
Since reading Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, as a child, the Alps have held a romantic appeal for me, but a pair of dodgy ankles has kept skiing o my agenda and the closest I’ve come to exploring these mountains is in the pages of this enduring novel. My
rst alpine visit, then, is to South Tyrol, northern Italy, and the Dolomites, a range that forms part of the vast Eastern Alps,
spanning Italy, Austria and Slovenia. The Dolomites have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, and arriving in Verona, the closest airport, I soon discover that the two-hour drive to my mountain retreat is a wonder in itself.
As we wind our way nearly 1000 metres up through the foothills, we pass apple orchards and vineyards stepped into the slopes. Our journey is accompanied by the twin rivers of Eisack and Rienz, indistinguishable as they criss-cross our path like braids, their glacial waters a milky blue grey. We are heading to the picturesque town of Brixen/Bressanone, the oldest town in South Tyrol, and the point where the rivers meet. Like the rivers, everything in this region has a twin: a German and an Italian name, an indication of a past less harmonious but now healed.
Once part of Austria, South Tyrol (or Südtirol) was annexed in 1919 and the region underwent ‘Italianisation’ during the Fascist period. In 1923, Italian was made the o cial language, places were renamed and German (spoken by the majority of the population) was banned, along with the regional language, Ladin. Today, South Tyrol has reclaimed its heritage, and the region is a multi-lingual melting pot that draws together the culture, food and traditions of both Tyrol and Italy.
My destination is My Arbor (www.my-arbor.com), a new wellness hotel built on the slopes of the Plose mountain. We round a hairpin bend and the building appears, majestic, resting on a series of tree-like stilts. My room, a ‘Nest’, is cool and airy with a large balcony and comfy daybed with a panoramic view of the valley and the town below. It’s sophisticated and luxurious without being pretentious; the perfect place to wind down and allow yourself a little TLC.
While my usual form of recuperation involves doing a lot of very little, being in the mountains means hiking is de rigueur. There are plenty of well sign-posted trails that you can take straight from the hotel (South Tyrol reportedly has more than 13,000km of natural, marked hiking trails) but if you’re travelling solo, or want to learn more about the region, the hotel can organise a guided walk or you can join a local tour via the tourist board (www.suedtirol.info/en).
On my rst morning, I join a group with a local guide, Veronika, for a 2-hour hike. It’s a 300m ascent from the Passo delle Erbe to Maurerberg lodge (www.maurerberg.com), with spectacular views across the valley to the Dolomites’ snow-topped Geisler peaks. The sky is a painterly mix of cerulean blue and white, with brushstrokes of cloud that provide welcome respite from the summer sun. Our hike takes us along shady forest paths and through valleys populated by leisurely-looking Tyrolean cows, their bells jangling as they amble along.
As we walk, the air is an earthy mix of scents and sounds – birds call raucously across the aromatic pines, and bees hum as they it between blush-pink Alpine Roses, which ourish alongside the sunnier lengths of the path. I can feel a gentle burn in my legs as we ascend the steeper sections of the trail and I reassure myself inwardly that my body will thank me for this afterwards. At the top of each ascent we make a ‘photo stop’ for those of us who need a breather, and I am pleased to note that my ankles are holding up.
When the mountain lodge comes into view, its gingerbread-house exterior makes me feel
as though I’m in Austria, rather than Italy, and I’m reminded that in winter this whole region becomes a ski resort, cloaked in snow. It’s a wonder that this lush, green landscape thaws and is reborn in such splendour each spring. Maurerberg’s owners greet us warmly in English and German, o ering us a Hugo to drink. “It’s the speciality of the region,” Veronika explains. “It’s named for the barman who invented it.” This refreshing mix of elder ower cordial, soda water, fresh mint and a splash of Prosecco is an instant favourite.
The lodge’s menu is a typical Tyrolean blend of Italian and German dishes. We begin with
antipasto – a sharing plate of salami, smoked ham and local hard cheese, served with a spicy horseradish and a basket of schüttelbrot (or ‘shaken bread’) – a traditional farmer’s bread, which is baked then cut into chunks and shaken in the tray as it’s baked again to dry it out and preserve it. It’s delicious. This is followed by hearty German dumplings, made from a mix of crumbled bread, fresh herbs and cheese with a herb butter dressing. It’s a fortifying combination that fuels our descent!
A sauna and a swim at the hotel revive my tired legs and the next morning I wake up feeling energised, refreshed and ready for more of this marvellous mountain air. Plose cable car station is a short walk from the hotel and promises incredible views from the outset –
in less than 10 minutes the car climbs 1000 metres. The view from the top station, which acts as a ski lift in winter, is a heart-soaring panorama across Bressanone, with the beautiful Pusteria valley in the north and Isarco valley in the south.
My guide this morning is Bettina, who takes our group along the ‘Woody walk’ – an easy hour-long trail that follows the Plose mountain on one side with spectacular views across the Dolomites on the other.
Half way along the walk we come to a Kneipp Garten. ‘Kneipping’ is a form of naturopathic water healing, based on the e ects of cold water on the skin, designed to stimulate blood ow and strengthen the immune system. The aforementioned ‘garden’ turns out to be a ladder of small pools created from stones and pebbles. We are encouraged to take o our hiking boots and walk up one side of the ladder and down the other. The water is icy cold and my feet tingle at the change in temperature.
“Every day I try to take a ‘Kneipp coffee’,” Bettina tells me, a practice named for its caffeine-like energy kick. Bettina shows me how it’s done and we sink our bare forearms into a trough of fresh water, feeling the cold sting before removing our arms and shaking them gently to stimulate the blood ow. She’s right. It’s better than an espresso!
The trail ends at the lovely Rossalm lodge (www.rossalm.com), where we stop for another
Hugo and a rest before hiking back to the cable car station. Back at the hotel, I treat myself to a massage, then sit and take in the view with a glass of fresh herb tea. Despite a few achy muscles, my mountain hikes have energised me, and I actually feel rested with none of the sluggishness I sometimes experience after a day spent lounging on the beach.
On my nal morning, there’s just time to take a walk with My Arbor’s forest bathing guide, Marco, before I make the journey back to Verona and onwards to home. During our walk, we pause and Marco leads us through a short meditation. I try to absorb as many of the scents and sounds of the forest as I can before I return to city living. “Trees are like people – they care for each other,” Marco says. “They can identify their offspring and they look after them. Some of their roots are kilometres long and they send nutrients by joining their roots underground.” I think about this, and seeing my own family when I get back, and it makes me smile. I’m already planning my return with them to these soul-soothing mountains, so that they can experience the mountain air for themselves.
As I start my journey home, I’m reminded of the quote from Scottish-American naturalist and author John Muir: “You are not in the mountains, the mountains are in you.” Feeling re-centred and refreshed, I’d like to think that I’m embodying his words, bringing a little of the mountains home in me.
Clockwise from top: My Arbor hotel rests on tree-likestilts; a 'Nest' suite is the perfect place to relax;South Tyrol's picturesque mountain trails are easy tofollow; Kirstie takes a moment to absorb the view.