The Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige is different from the rest of Italy, it’s a bit of Austria, Germany and Italy combined. Popular with tourists who visit in the summer for hiking and in the winter for skiing, it also attracts foodies and wine lovers for its gastronomic reputation.
Bordering Austria and Switzerland to the north and the Italian regions of Veneto and Lombardy to the south, the Trentino-Alto Adige (Sudtirol) region is split into two distinctly different provinces. The southern province of Trentino is Italian in both language and culture. However, the northern province of Alto Adige, also referred to as Sudtirol or South Tyrol, used to be part of Austria. Only becoming part of Italy in 1919, the people living there identify more with their Austrian heritage including their German language. Also living in the Val Gardena in the Dolomites, are the Ladin people, who have their own language, culture and traditions. Germans, Italians and the Ladins have managed to live harmoniously in this northernmost region of Italy while keeping the different aspects of their cultures through language, traditions, folklore and their way of life that truly makes this area of Italy unique.
Some years back, my husband and I drove from St. Margherita Ligure in the southern part of Italy all the way to the Dolomite Mountains of the Alto Adige/South Tyrol as part of a long road trip across France, Italy, Austria and Germany. The Alto Adige or South Tyrol, as it is often called, is a beautiful and interesting region of Italy that is off the beaten tourist path and yet offers so much to see and do that it should be on your list of new places to visit in Italy.
If you are lucky to be in the Val Gardena on the first Sunday in August, you will get a chance to experience, “Gröden in Tracht“, which means dressed to the nines. It is an important festival day where the local Ladin citizens wear “Cneidl and Bagana“, a black hat with a black cape. The traditional garment isn’t part of their everyday wardrobe and is only worn for special occasions and celebrations. The traditional costumes indicate whether a woman is married or not by wearing specific headdresses and men wear green or red vests to indicate if they are married or single.
It has mild, dry climate and over 300 days of sunshine a year and has a unique landscape that is both Mediterranean and Alpine. In its most northern part, it’s dominated by the wild and rugged Dolomite Mountains. In 2009, the Dolomites were added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List for their unique geology and rare flora and fauna. Between Bolzano and Bressanone, there is easy access to one of the most beautiful sections of the Dolomites known as the Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm) and the Val Gardena (Gröden). This section of the Italian Alps offers summer hiking on well established routes with stunning scenery that is within average capabilities as well as good facilities for exhilarating skiing in the winter.
The region’s valleys are planted with fruit orchards and vineyards as far as the eye can see on the sunny hillsides and mountain slopes. There are hundreds of medieval castles, charming towns with onion domed churches and beautiful scenery everywhere. There are wine estates and cooperatives where you can taste some of Italy’s best white wines. The region has many Michelins starred restaurants as well as simpler restaurants in mountain chalets and inns where you can taste the varied food options where Germanic and Italian cultures merge to create a cuisine that is very special.
The food is not what you might think of as typical Italian food. Yes, you can eat delicious pizza with different toppings that are absolutely scrumptious as well as stuffed pasta and polenta served with cheese, meat, sausages or mushrooms. You can also eat local dishes such as schnitzels, dumplings with sauerkraut and dishes made with ham, cheese and apples alongside more modern dishes in line with todays food trends. In the fall you see apples showing up in main courses and in delicious strudels for dessert. Speck, smoked and dry cured ham from Alto Adige is famous throughout Italy. The region also has some of the best pastures anywhere in Italy. Cows and sheep graze on grasses, herbs and wild flowers and their milk is made into over 200 different types of cheese that will certainly please the cheese connoisseurs.
On our trip, we chose to stay in a town called Ortisei, the main village in Val Gardena and just a 20 minute drive from the Brenner Autostrada, at the wellness hotel Gardena Grodnerhof. We have stayed at many famous and fine hotels but I have to say that this hotel was exceptional. The 5 star, family run hotel had impeccable service, excellent food, lovely rooms and a nice spa but it was the friendliness of the owners, Hugo and Cinzia Brernardi and their staff that made it so special. Since our last visit, the hotel has been updated and is now more beautiful than ever. The Anna Stuben, the hotel’s gourmet restaurnat, has a new chef since our visit and he continues the excellent tradition of award winning food and a one Michelin star rating.
During our stay at the hotel, my husband and I joined the two sommeliers from the hotel and ten other guests for a wine tasting along the South Tyrolean Wine Road. The wine route winds along the Adige River valley and is one of Italy’s oldest wine roads. There are many wines made for all palates including some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world. Although Alto Adige produces less than 1% of Italy’s wine, it is well regarded as a high quality region.
We traveled down from the Dolomites to the town of Termeno/Tramin, about 12 miles southwest of Bolzano. The small town’s claim to fame is the grape that originated here, Gewurztraminer, or ‘spicy’ Tramin. During the day, their vineyards get excellent sun exposure and warm winds that come up from Lake Garda just to the south. When the sun sets, the temperature drops as colder air comes down the mountains and cools the grapes. The contrast of temperatures creates balanced wines that are fresh and aromatic.
The sommeliers planned a wonderful day at Cantina Tramin, one of Italy’s most elite wineries, where we met Willi Sturz, chief winemaker at this leading Alto Adige cooperative. He had the honor of being named Italian Winemaker of the Year in 2004.
You can’t help but notice the ultramodern building as soon as you enter the town. The gorgeous geometric green building, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a view out onto mountainous vineyards, was designed to have the color and pattern of grapevines. Cantina Tramin is best known for their Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. One of our favorite wines at the tasting is called Stoan, an extraordinary blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer.
After touring the winery and our tasting, Willi and the sommeliers drove the hotel’s two vans up into Cantina Tramin’s most prized vineyard where the best of their Gewürztraminer grapes were growing. While Willi was explaining the harvesting process, our two sommeliers, Franz and Egon, unpacked a lunch of speck (smoked ham), parmesan cheese, bread and more wine. Willi Sturz and sommeliers Franz Lageder and Egon Perathoner and the Hotel Gardena provided us with a memorable experience.
On another evening at the hotel, we joined three other guests and Egon Perathoner, for a wine tasting in the cellars of Hotel Gardena. Their cellars hold from 6,000 to 18,000 bottles of wine depending on the season, winter being the high season. When Egon explained to the other guests that he would be translating for us, the other guests said that they understood English and to please use it throughout our tasting. We munch on cheese and bread while tasting both white and red wines from the area and will always remember the kindness shown to us that evening.
Without being hikers or skiers, my husband and I filled our days in the Alto Adige region of Italy with amazing new experiences. Alto Adige is indeed a region for nature, food and wine lovers. We don’t speak Italian or German but were made to feel welcomed everywhere we traveled in the region. Once we all can start traveling once more, you might want to put this scenic, friendly and interesting part of Italy on you list of places you might want to visit. I know that my husband and I would be thrilled if we could once more return to this lovely area of Italy.