“It’s a pity you’re here when the weather is so bad!” I had heard again and again upon arriving in northeastern Italy’s Sudtirol province just as it was getting pounded with three days of rain, more than residents said they had seen all summer.
If ever a region were made for dramatic skies, it was this one. Its landscape is dominated by the Dolomites, which look less like mountains than a crowd of pious giants frozen in stone, some well over 9,000 feet high, reaching heavenward in one magnificent range. The often barren, jagged peaks shine white and gray by day, and glow pink at twilight. Le Corbusier called them the most beautiful architecture in the world.
According to the 1930 folklore collection “The Dolomites and their Legends,” by the prominent regional writer Karl Felix Wolff, these mountains were not always so pale in color. But a prince of the Alps fell in love with the princess of the moon — only to discover that he could not stay in her world because the whiteness was blinding him, and she could not stay in his because the black stone of the Alps was killing her with sadness. Then one day, he met an exiled king with magical powers who offered him a solution: Give the king and his people a home, and they would weave a net of bright moonlight to lay over the mountains, so the princess could return to her husband and never miss her home again.
Science will tell you that the Dolomites look as striking as they do because 250 million years ago they were once coral reefs under an ancient sea. As I toured the region, though — sampling its wines and hospitality, and getting caught in the elements on hikes — the idea of a blanket of moonlight draping over my entire trip didn’t seem so far-fetched at all.
Somehow, on the way from the Venice airport to Bolzano, Sudtirol’s capital, I slept through my stop on an overnight bus and wound up in Austria.
Now this might sound like an amazing adventure — the surprise 53rd place of my 52 Places trip. But, alas, dear reader, it was 4 a.m. when I realized my mistake and only because I was awakened by passport control.
At least a bus got me to the right country in time for sunrise. The overshot made sense. Until the end of World War I, Sudtirol, or South Tyrol, was a part of Austria. Now it is an autonomous province where the majority of inhabitants speak German, having reclaimed their heritage after a dark period of forced Italianization under Benito Mussolini. Sometimes street signs are in Italian, German and Ladin, which is spoken by about 20,000 people whose ancestors began farming these mountain valleys in Roman times.
I had come to Sudtirol right after my visit to Lucerne, Switzerland, another playground for mountain adventurers. Switzerland was certainly easier to navigate, with its all-inclusive public transportation passes. But what Sudtirol lacked in logistical ease, it more than made up for in cost — often a third of what I had spent on similar activities the week before (26 euros, or about $30, for a cable car, versus 70 euros, or about $82, for example).
Indeed, Sudtirol earned its spot on the 52 Places list because, after the Bolzano airport shut down in 2015, the area became a wellness destination. Nearly every accommodation has a spa to ease your muscles after a long day of hiking or skiing. But here “wellness” translates more closely to “living well” than anything you will find on Goop. It is about breathing fresh air, feasting at one of the province’s 26 Michelin-starred restaurants (the highest concentration in Italy) and enjoying lunch on a mountaintop where the conversation typically includes multiple languages — a reminder of the potential for harmony in the world.
The original solo traveler
Before heading into the mountains, it felt important to pay a visit to Sudtirol’s most prominent deceased citizen and fellow solo adventurer: Otzi the Iceman, who lives permanently in cold storage in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.
In 1991, hikers found a corpse frozen in ice in the Austro-Italian Alps that they thought was a lost mountaineer; archaeologists determined that he was more than 5,000 years old, making him Europe’s oldest known naturally mummified human. Otzi is not displayed like a curiosity, but presented with a sort of reverence. Visitors line up to view him through a small window — pictures forbidden — and move on. The rest of the museum is dedicated, movingly, to what his life must have been like: how he might have repaired his patchwork coat of animal hides with threads of grass fiber, how his bad hip must have bothered him so. And then there is the eerie mystery of how he died.
I left feeling connected to this man, this mountain traveler, who had once been alone and so very far from home.
Mountains in the city
Just as I walked out of the museum, the rain I had been swimming through for two days stopped. I rushed to the Renon/Ritten cable car in Bolzano near the train station and was treated to my first breathtaking Dolomites experience for 10 euros round trip.
Of all the cable cars I have been lucky to take this year, the 12-minute ride from Via Renon to the high-plateau village of Ritten in Soprabolzano (translation: Above Bolzano) joins the ones in La Paz, Bolivia, and Kuelap, Peru, for having the most spectacular views. The windows were so big and clear it felt like flying as we swooped through thick cloud cover high above steeply sloped vineyards.
At the top, a family vacationing from Milan showed me how to take a narrow gauge train (or “trenino,” as they called it) around the entire plateau, for 10 additional euros and a view of the mountaintop from every possible angle.
Of families and rebellious sheep
Rain was threatening again and I decided I might as well wait out the weather in one of the wellness retreats I had been hearing about. So I ran over to the Win car rentals office at the train station and snagged a getaway vehicle.
The narrow, twisty drive to the village of Ortisei and my five-star Hotel Montchalet was a tad harrowing, but for 350 euros, I was rewarded with a suite with mountain views, a stand-alone tub, a shower that played music, and breakfast and dinner from a world-class chef. In the morning, I would see deer below my balcony. At night, I had the spa’s great-smelling steam room and relaxation room with blue-lit water beds — all to myself. Montchalet is the smallest of three five-star hotels in Ortisei, with 15 rooms.
My first morning, I was surprised — and pleased — when the hotel’s owner, Kuno Moroder, offered to accompany me on my mountain adventures through the area, known as Val Gardena.
He was wonderful company. His mother’s side of the family is Ladin and they come from a long line of woodcarvers, a tradition at which the people of Ortisei are in the premier leagues of the world. Moroder’s brother runs the town’s largest woodcarving studio and showroom, Conrad Moroder Woodcarvings, an extravaganza of Christmas ornaments and Virgin Marys. Chances are, if you go into a Catholic church in Austria or Italy, and sometimes even in Latin America, its crucified Jesus comes from Ortisei.
The family is also quite proud of their Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer, Giorgio Moroder, who is credited with pioneering electronic disco music. He produced Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You” and Blondie’s “Call Me.” Daft Punk set an interview with him to music and featured it on their 2012 album, “Random Access Memories.”
At Moroder’s suggestion, we took Ortisei’s lesser-known cable car to the top of Seceda Mountain. He met his wife, Barbara, at a restaurant near the top of the cable car, Sophie Hutte (Sophie Hut), founded by Barbara’s mother, Sophie, who used to drive her family’s cows up to this spot. (You will still see plenty of cows.) Barbara grew up here and would ski down to school in the winter. She and her teenage daughter, Carolina, joined us. We gorged on Ladin specialties like spinach ravioli in butter sauce (crafuncins) and a barley soup with a bread dumpling, served by Barbara’s brother, who now runs the place.
After lunch, we hiked along Seceda’s crazily angular peak, which you may recognize from an Apple screen saver photo. The clouds had moved behind the peak, giving the impression of walking next to a void.
Meadow in the sky
Where Sudtirol’s mysticism came home to me most was in Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest high-altitude plateau. I had taken a red cable car that resembled a floating telephone booth from the center of Ortisei, but was not prepared for the panorama at the top: a vast expanse of pastureland surrounded by some of the most famous peaks in the Dolomites.
A hike got me to Adler Mountain Lodge, the super-luxe, 30-room offshoot of the huge five-star Adler Dolomiti Spa Resort in Ortisei’s center. It is designed to look like a lodge in Namibia, with incongruous African totems overlooking meadows, wildflowers and mountains. You can work out, wade in an infinity pool and wake up looking at the Dolomites. With the exclusivity, though, come caveats: Alpe di Siusi is a nature preserve, so cars are forbidden from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (and this is the most remote, barely-reachable-by-car part of the park). And after the cable car shuts down at 6 p.m., you’re pretty much stuck.
But I was having a beautiful day and there was so much to see! One of the wonderful aspects of Alpe di Siusi is that hiking on the level trails there is suitable for all ages — from children to seniors with their walking poles who could outpace me in a minute (and did). I wanted to cross the park to check out the Alpina Dolomites hotel in the village of Compatch, which I had heard was also a big wellness spot. So I took two buses and did a little tour. The hotel was bigger and less personal than Adler Lodge or Montchalet, but a great option if you want easy access to the start of most of the hiking trails, the blue cable car to the valley village of Siusi, and the road that gets you in and out of the park.
I had been trying to be a good reporter with my hotel-hopping, but my own wellness seemed to be lacking. So I took a sweet hike past a lake to the farmer’s hut, Gostner Schwaige, where the proprietor, Franz Mulser, is known to cook with wildflowers. He told me he lives there with his wife, two daughters and eight cows, and sold me an incredible wheel of cheese made from their finest cream of the year.
A day in the sun
My last day in Sudtirol was glorious and sunny — perfect for driving along the vineyard-lined Strada del Vino (Route of Wine) just south of Bolzano. Its wines go by the Italian name for Sudtirol: Alto Adige.
I was most interested in the Elena Walch estate in the tiny village of Tramin, run by a mother and her two daughters. Karoline, the younger daughter, who is my age, showed me around their remarkable cellars, which her great-great-grandfather founded in a converted Jesuit monastery in 1869. She and her sister are the fifth generation, making this one of the oldest family wineries in the area.
The cellar is filled with gigantic wooden barrels, all featuring carvings related to their family history by Ortisei artisans. Their modern history, though, centers on Elena. An architect from Milan, she married into the family and had enough of an outsider’s perspective to realize that when it came to the quantity of wine, Alto Adige was too small to compete with other winemaking regions of Italy.
“She knew how to create things from scratch, have a vision, see the more artistic side of wine,” Karoline said. So, in the 1980s, Elena bucked tradition and started making small batches based on soil type, with a concentration on quality. After initial resistance, the rest of Alto Adige followed. Now it is among the highest-ranked wine regions in the country.
Karoline took me for a walk in one of their steep vineyards high above the valley, and we ate pale-purple Gewurztraminer grapes (the source of the region’s most distinctive white wine) off the vine. This, I thought, is how you live well.
Eat The Montchalet’s half-board dinner, along with farmer’s huts on hiking trails, kept me well fed. But in Bolzano I particularly liked Batzenhausl, which brews its own beer and is open late, and Vogele, which was recommended by locals for traditional food at great prices.
Stay: I was enamored with the Bolzano’s ParkHotel Laurin, built in 1910 and decorated with paintings of its namesake, the king Laurin, who had a belt that gave him superhuman strength. Its breakfast was the most decadent of the trip: mimosas every morning! The second night I was there, the place filled up with people celebrating the region’s St. Magdalener wine, which can stand up to many a pinot noir worldwide.