Is it Italy or is it Austria?
If you are fed up with going to the Alps to feed your European winter sports fix, try the South Tyrol region in the Dolomites with its blend
of Italian fun and Austrian hospitality
My ignorance flared when an email landed in my inbox towards the end of last year, inviting me on a press trip to explore the South Tyrol region in winter. My limited brain cells started sending messages to each other trying to pin South Tyrol to a specific country, but came up short, and in the end, I turned to Google to fill in the blank.
It turns out that South Tyrol is a wealthy province in the mountains of north- west Italy, on the Austrian border. It only covers an area around double the size of Kent, with a population of around half a million, but within that there’s a host of options for holidaymakers and adventurers, with the blend of Italian and Austrian cultures giving rise to some quirks. When I think about it, it’s fitting that this blend should happen among the mighty peaks of the Dolomites, formed themselves by two tectonic plates butting up against each other and jostling for dominance. While that tug of war may have been the case historically ( South Tyrol has changed hands between Austria and Italy over the centuries, and was occupied by the Germans in World War II), there’s little now to suggest diplomatic discontent. It’s more of a peaceful integration of two distinct cultures.
After flying into Innsbruck, the journey to our hotel in the small comune of Tiers takes just less than two hours, passing by road signs that bear both Italian and German names. Later, when we meet Veronika from IDM Südtirol, which promotes the area as a tourist and investment destination, she explains the choice of language to use depends on where you are within the region: in the province’s capital, Bolzano, Italian is more widely used, but beyond that, in smaller towns, German is more common. There’s even a local dialect, Ladin, spoken by only a small number of South Tyroleans.
Pulling up to hotel, the Cyprianerhof Dolomit Resort, the first thing that strikes me is the great slab of mountain that towers above: a ridge of jagged peaks resembling a sound graph or the side profile of a sleeping giant. But soon my attention turns to the hotel itself, a five- star wood and glass structure with a heated outdoor swimming pool that steams in the cold air, its water
sparkling turquoise in the afternoon sun. Refreshingly, South Tyrol is devoid of hotels owned by chains, and the homogenisation they inevitably bring. Instead, family- run hotels are the modus operandi, and Cyprianerhof is a prime example of what this can mean when it’s done well. Spacious rooms showcase natural materials, and it’s achieved a category A energy efficiency rating, keeping guests toasty no matter what the season, while keeping carbon emissions to the bare minimum. There’s also an impressive set of spa facilities and a wellness focus.
After settling into my room ( read: taking selfies on the balcony, # views), our first taste of South Tyrolean cuisine awaits. We make our way towards Zallinger, a 19th- century lodge that’s midway down a red ski run. Luckily, there’s no expectation for us to carve our way down through the snow in the dark; instead, we’re dropped at the foot of the slope and bundle into a snowcat ( think a minibus on tracks) which whisks us up to our destination, where we’re welcomed by roaring fires, a giant bar carved from a single tree- trunk and a menu that embraces both Italian and Austrian influences. Pasta dishes and polenta take their place alongside schnitzel, dumplings and strudel.
We need the fuel because the following day we're due to tackle a ski tour of the Rosengarten mountain ( meaning rose garden, due to the pink hue the rock takes when the setting sun hits it), but first we make our way back to the bottom of the slope on traditional wooden toboggans.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like trying to a steer a toboggan along a winding route with one hand while the other holds a burning torch, the succinct answer is “difficult”. At one point, I free both my hands by offering my torch to someone else in the group without one, but it soon backfires when they move off at speed and I’m left in the darkness with no real awareness of where the tree line at the edge of the slope may be. My phone’s flash provides temporary illumination, before it succumbs to the cold and dies, but eventually I spy the warm glow of buildings that mark the end of the trail — and safety.
Feeling slightly rosy- cheeked from the cold wind and the wine at dinner, I lie back on my toboggan for a few seconds and find myself gazing at the
clearest, starriest sky I’ve ever seen. It’s mesmerising; a paint- by- numbers of celestial bodies.
After a deep slumber and early breakfast, the next morning we’re back on the snow with skis instead of toboggans. All of the group — six of us, plus Veronika and our mountain guide, Marko — have skied before, so we soon settle into the groove. There are more than 1,000km of slopes to tackle in South Tyrol, and compared with my experience in the French Alps, money’s being invested in all the right places: heated seats on a chair lift — life changing.
Marko, who works at the hotel both as an aufgussmeister ( aufguss is a type of sauna ritual) and a ski guide, leads us around the Rosengarten via blue, red and the occasional black slope, many of which are tree- lined with vistas that almost make you stop in your tracks. While the Alps can feel crowded, always with the risk that someone will misjudge a turn and come careering towards you, I feel calm and in control on the powdery pistes here. The last time I skied, with friends for a week the previous March, I’d left underwhelmed by the experience: the same runs for six days, no fresh snow, a feeling that
I’d not improved, and a much lighter wallet. One day in the Dolomites and
I’d rediscovered the joy of it. I alternate between leisurely criss- crossing the width of the slope and tucking in my poles and bombing it down, feeling the cold air sting my cheeks and the blood pump through my veins.
At lunch time, we ski down to Rifugio Emilio Comici. Although we’re high in the mountains, and a fair distance from any ocean, seafood is king in this restaurant, with fresh fish arriving daily by helicopter. In the home of pasta, I opt for a linguine strewn with shellfish, and my appetite is soon sated.
Thighs burning from effort, we arrive back at the hotel in late afternoon, just in time for Marko to change out of his ski gear and into his sauna robes, after telling us that if we want to join in with the evening’s ritual, then to arrive promptly and to leave our swimwear in the room. There’s a strict “towels or starkers” rule, and while I’m no prude, I was much more comfortable with the thought of baring all in front of strangers than a group of people I had to eat with later. So, towelled and robed, I arrive first and take my place on the outside sauna’s wooden benches with a few other hotel guests.
Before the rest of the group had the chance to arrive, Marko enters, wearing a hooded robe. For the next 15 minutes, Gregorian chants fill the space, scenes from some sort of religious Joseph Fiennes movie play on a screen, and Marko throws scented balls of ice on to the sauna coals with a flourish, using a towel to direct gusts of increasingly hot air towards us. I'm bemused at first, then increasingly relaxed — although I’m still not sure if I inadvertently joined a cult, where naked German men make up 90 per cent of the members. Maybe that’d be no bad thing.
While skiing is one way to burn calories, on our last morning we try another: snowshoeing. It’s part of a two- hour guided hike organised by the local tourism board, with around 50 of us in total strapping snowshoes over the top of walking boots and grabbing poles. It takes a few minutes to get used to it ( stepping over a low fence proves particularly tricky), but before long we’re walking up a slope, working up a sweat. It’s worth it for the sweeping views that only improve the higher we get, but our real reward is lunch at an open- air lodge. It's the one winter edition of the Flying Buffet, usually only held in summer. Taking the conditions into account, organisers have switched things up and it’s a standing affair, with various courses served over several hours. A live band plays covers, and after a few mulled wines and a splash of grappa — we remain foes no matter how many times I try it — we wail along to Wonderwall and Ring of Fire.
With the light fading over the Rosengarten, it feels as if all the best bits of South Tyrolean hospitality have been brought together under one roof, each component — Italian, Austrian or whatever — not jostling for dominance, but shining like the stars of a constellation in the night’s sky.
"One day in the Dolomites and I'd rediscovered
my joy for skiing"
Words Tim Heap "A blend of Austrian and Italian cultures gives rise to some quirks"
ON A SLIPPERY SLOPE: Tim takes to the pisteNOVEMBER 2018
PICK AND MIX: Both German and Italianare spoken in the region
ECO- FRIENDLY: A room atthe Cyprianerhof
PEAKY BLINDER: The Cyprianerhof
SNOW JOB: The hotelhas an outdoor pool