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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

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