For the first week of June, we rented a car to explore the northern region of Italy called the Alto Adige. We headed northeast of Emilia Romagna past Lake Garda up towards the Dolomites, a dramatic mountain range that stretches across Italy from the Adige River in the west, to the Piave Valley in the east.
It takes about two hours if you take the autostrada and don’t make any stops. However, a stop at Lake Garda is highly recommended. This large and scenic lake is one of three major lakes within easy reach of Reggio. The other two are Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. All of these popular lakes are worth a visit and another blog some day.
For our quick break, we stopped in Torbole, a small village on the north-east end of Lake Garda. On the first of June, this small town was already crowded with sports enthusiasts of all kinds. There were large groups of mountain bikers and hikers using the scenic biking and hiking trails that wind along the lake. This windy part of the lake was also filled with windsurfers and a few sailboats. Even though it was a bit chilly with morning fog, Torbole was full of activity. We took a short walk, grabbed an espresso and headed north towards the Dolomites.
For our week of hiking, we chose the Val Gardena, a beautiful valley just north of Bolzano. There are three major towns in this valley and I found a great apartment in the smaller one, called Santa Cristina. Because of the long and colder spring in Italy, we arrived a bit early for their hiking season. In our little town, most hotels were still closed and only half of the lifts (for hiking) were running. But we found a few good restaurants, a great pastry shop and homemade gelato, so we were weren’t disappointed.
For the first week of June, which is considered early in the season, there were several lifts or funiculars open in each town. The lifts are a fun ride and gave us a great starting point for our hikes. At the end of your ride, there are many choices for hikes, and often, there’s a small refugio along the way that provides delicious food, German beer and squeaky clean, modern bathrooms. After some hiking in the higher altitudes, you can choose to return via the funicular or hike back down into town. If the closest town is not your home base, there’s an efficient bus system that will transport you almost anywhere in the valley.
A typical Refugio with great food and drinks
If all of this efficiency is not sounding like the Italy you know, you’re right. The Alto Adige or South Tyrol seems like a smaller country within Italy. Before WWI, this area was part of Austria and many towns had few roads, which kept them isolated from other regions. In fact, in this area, most people still speak Ladin, their ancient language based on Latin and German. After WWI, Italy gained control of this area and the Italian language was introduced. After WWII, the locals hoped to become part of Austria again, but it didn’t work out. However, to avoid the continuous protests of the people, this region was granted more autonomy, which allowed the local governments more power. To make things a bit more confusing for us tourists, most signage and city names are in three languages—Ladin, German and Italian.
A home in Val Gardena
There’s definitely a different feel to this area. Driving along country roads, you see buildings and towns that remind you of Switzerland or Bavaria. When you walk into a store or a restaurant, you hear more German and Ladin than Italian. The menus in restaurants feature Tyrollean cuisine with dumplings, schnitzel and strudel. But, you can also find pasta and good pizza. And all of it tastes just fine after a day of hiking in the spectacular mountain range of the Dolomites. In my next blog I’ll describe some of the wonderful hikes we discovered this past week in the Val Gardena.