South Tyrol, or Südtirol, is certainly in the news at the moment, but sadly for all the wrong reasons, with Northern Italy particularly suffering the brunt of the corona virus infection.
However, last summer we spent a couple of magical weeks in this unique region, which straddles the mountainous border region between Austria and Italy. And what a truly beautiful place it is – the soaring peaks of the Dolomites and other ranges, green pastoral valleys, historic villages and towns, vineyards and apple orchards galore and an inviting fusion of alpine and Italian flair. It’s really sad to think how many of these small tourism businesses will be suffering in the coming weeks and months as a result of the present epidemic.
Seemingly, nowhere I’ve been before illustrates the issues of localised over-tourism and concentration of tourists better than Südtirol: we found valleys such as the Grödnertal or Val Gardena which were completely choc-a-bloc with tourists, every carpark, full to overflowing, every cafe terrace bursting to capacity; we turned and ran…
Fortunately, in absolute contrast, just a few km away, we stayed on a traditional mountain farm high above the Eisaktal at around 1,300m. It was an incredibly peaceful and beautiful location at the end of a steep, winding mountain road, a magnificent panorama unfolding across the valley from our balcony. Straight out the door and you immediately enter a timeless and little frequented world of alpine meadows, pine forests and mountain trails – the busy and heavily touristed settlements of the main valley and the drone of the Brenner Autobahn seemingly a world away and out of earshot.
We found our accommodation through a local enterprise called “Rotehahn”, or Redrooster, which specializes in providing authentic holiday accommodation on small family-run farms which produce distinctive local products from the Region. This was an ideal way to experience the area; the family providing the apartment were exceptionally friendly and were keen to show us the varied aspects of day to day life and challenges of running a mountain farm. The kids loved it too, with exclusive access to the cat barn where they could meet and greet the latest litter of kittens to arrive on the scene.
We also found great walks and hikes amongst the ridges and valleys of Sarntaler Alps, far from the madding crowds and traffic congestion of the neighbouring Dolomites, which dominated the view to the East. However, it was convenient as well just to pop down into the valley for a change of tempo and the odd excursion to historic towns and villages such as Brixen, Sterzing and Klausen and to enjoy some of the local Südtirol delicacies and wines. Although there is definitely a slight Italian feel in Südtirol, the everyday culture, dialect and traditions of the Region are generally more alpine in character than Italian.
The locals are also fiercely proud of their homeland and their mountain way of life; over the years there has been a steady undercurrent of opposition in response to the enforced “Italianisation” of the Region during the Mussolini era. During this period local place names were replaced by newly invented Italian ones. As a consequence you’ll often find signs with the Italian names scored out and the original place name scrawled there instead.
And so next time you think about taking a holiday to the Alps; rather than just supporting some faceless multi-national resort consortium, think about how your visit might benefit the local culture, traditional agriculture, landscape and economy. In this respect we found “Red Rooster” to be a great opportunity offering authentic experiences, off the beaten track and real insights into the local culture and traditions of the region.
One of my favourite views was across the Eisaktal towards the Villnöstal and the ever enchanting peaks of the Geislergruppe mountain range, which loom dramatically above the picture postcard village of St Magdelena, the birthplace of Himalayan mountaineering legend Reinhold Messener.
We even found a perfect little pizza restaurant, perfectly framing this view and enjoyed a couple of memorable balmy evenings on the terrace; the last rays of the dying sun illuminating the peaks of the Geisler in a sublime rosy, alpine glow. We look forward to the return of such days and the chance to experience such beautiful places again soon…in the meantime our hearts go out to the people of Südtirol and all those adversely affected by the present crises in the Region and across the globe.