The well-documented challenges facing tourism in Venice create exciting opportunities for travellers open to discovering other gems in northern Italy. Only a two-hour drive from Verona, Val Gardena, a valley nestled in the Dolomites, invites visitors to experience hiking, gastronomy and culture, with one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges providing a spectacular backdrop.
Less than thirty minutes into the drive from Verona airport to the Val Gardena valley in northern Italy, you begin to catch a glimpse of what makes this part of Europe so unique. The landscape becomes slightly more dramatic as you head north on the Autostrada del Brennero, the motorway which follows the winding path of the wild Adige river.
By the time you get to Trento, halfway into the journey and just south of the Dolomites, farmland becomes hills and hills start to become mountains. You are soon surrounded by sweeping panoramas of (with all due respect) ‘lesser mountains’, lush green valleys and picture-perfect towns. Storybook scenes like these are the joy of road trips.
However, nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of the Dolomites as you approach Selva Val Gardena, one of the three municipalities which make up Val Gardena.
In the spring, Mother Nature shows off her naked beauty as the snowcapped peaks shed their white blankets. This is when ‘The Pale Mountains’ as the Dolomites are also known (their distinctive limestone composition gives them a ghostly appearance) emerge from their winter slumber.
Hiking the Flowering Dolomites
Finding a ‘room with a view’ in any of the towns (Ortisei, Selva, and Santa Cristina) in Val Gardena is easy. The Dolomite peaks of the Sella Group and Sassolungo and some of the slopes which form part of the Sellaronda ski circuit are visible from almost every corner of the valley.
Many hotels in the area, including five-star Alpenroyal Grand Hotel where we stayed, offer seasonal prices (i.e., outside ski season) which make visiting the Dolomites in the summer an even more attractive proposition.
While the elegant rooms are filled with warmth and alpine character, there is something about the Dolomites that will make you want to spend most of your time outdoors. Their pinnacles draw the curious and their exceptional beauty invites introspection.
It turned out that we had a lot of time for introspection when we joined Karin Plancker, a local hiking guide and herbalist to explore the colourful meadows of Val Gardena and learn about the flora of the Dolomites. The period between the end of May and the start of July is the best time to do this.
“Whenever I’m among flowers, I always say, ‘thank you’ to the earth,” Karin said, demonstrating a deep appreciation for nature that she traces back to her childhood. Indeed, a feeling of personal connection to nature is a common theme among the Gardenese.
When not working as a local nurse or hiking guide, she’s studying plants and flowers, learning about their uses in gastronomy, aromatherapy and homoeopathy and showing them off to visitors like us.
Autumn is also a perfect time to hike in the region. This is when the ‘Burning Dolomites’ happens. The limestone crystals play tricks with the sun, and the Dolomites exhibit a chameleon-like character, turning into different shades of red, yellow and orange.
Stopping every few meters to name-check flowers, we hiked up Seceda with Karin, through the Puez-Odle Nature Park. A must-see viewpoint commemorates the designation of the Dolomites as a UNESCO World Heritage viewpoint in 2009.
South Tyrol offers an impressive network of ski slopes connected by cable cars and ski lifts. In the summer, those facilities are equally useful for getting up and down the mountains, something we were grateful for after our long but rewarding hike through the flowering Dolomites.
Replace the Hiking Poles with Electric Bikes
If the prospect of hiking up the side of mountains with spectacular views does not sound appealing, try cycling in the Dolomites. Electric bikes have recently become popular and Val Gardena has wholeheartedly embraced them.
The beauty of electric bikes is that they make cycling so accessible. Going uphill no longer requires as much sweat, thanks to a helpful electric power boost.
During our trip, we ditched the hiking poles and joined local cycling guide Andrea Planker for a sunset whizz around the Vallunga valley before dinner. Be warned. You’ll want to stop every few minutes for a photo of this stunning landscape.
For a more leisurely ride, cycle from Selva Val Gardena to Ortisei, the main village and cultural hub of the valley. There you can sample artisanal coffee and pastries or go shopping in its cosy pedestrian zone.
Wood Carving Tells Another Story About the Dolomites
The Dolomites hold many legends of their own. However, in the valleys surrounding them, you will find another equally intriguing story; one with historical, cultural and economic significance for the region.
Wood carving traditions in Val Gardena (Ghërdeina in Ladin, a distinct and ancient language that is spoken in five valleys in the Dolomites) go back to the 1600s. By the 19th century, the valley recorded over 2,000 woodcarvers creating toys, religious artefacts and other cultural pieces. Their work, including the famous jointed puppets, spread across the world bringing great prosperity to the region.
Ivo Piazza is a local wood sculptor and member of a local art collective known as Unika who hold regular exhibitions. Ivo has spent the last forty years honing his craft and preserving woodcarving traditions. We joined him for a walk into the Resciesa forest where he demonstrated an extraordinary ability to ‘read’ tree trunks and ancient roots.
Ivo would pick up a piece of old wood, fiddle with it and suggest the type of art he could create simply by knowing the texture, following the direction of the grain and leveraging the colour of the wood. As he pointed to a tree stump he declared, “No piece of wood is completely dead.”
His interaction with nature was fascinating to watch. Along the way, we were introduced to different types of pines and gained further insight into ancient woodcarving techniques. Our time with Ivo ended much too soon but not before a visit to his workshop to see his creations, some of which have been featured in exhibitions in cities such as Moscow and Colorado.
Eat Your Way Across Val Gardena
Any hiking (or biking) route can turn into a culinary route when you include rifugis (mountain huts) that serve food and drink. These must-try rustic huts are an excellent opportunity to sample the gastronomy of the Dolomites. The altitude of some of these huts adds to the multisensory experience that is South Tyrolean cuisine.
Culinary stops of note on our hiking/biking routes included Val d’Anna, Baita Ciampac, Baita Troier and Rifugio Toni Demetz – the highest one we visited at 2,685m and reachable via the iconic Forcella al Sassolungo gondola.
At these huts, visitors can sample a range of local savoury specialities including polenta and Canederli (dumplings), and sweet desserts such as Kaiserschmarrn.
For fine dining, we enjoyed the excellent hospitality at the Alpenroyal Gourmet Restaurant. Their six-course summer menu is a blend between alpine wholesomeness and Italian sophistication.
At the end of the meal, if you ask nicely, the barman may whip up a glass of Bombardino. Usually reserved for après-ski pleasures in winter, this ‘bomb’ of a cocktail is made up of brandy and egg liqueur and topped with whipped cream.
Feel the Dolomites
As we headed back to Verona to catch our return flight to London, I realised that I had been to this region before…but only in my imagination.
In my imagination, I had seen the pinnacles, spires and towers of the Dolomites and the vast forests and rolling meadows that surround them. I had imagined the crystal clear rivers, the alpine lakes and the rifugis nestled on their banks. In my dreams, I had pictured the wildflowers that come alive in spring and filled my lungs with the fresh mountain air.
As one of the locals told me, “Mother Nature is more beautiful than anything humans can ever create.” No longer in my imagination. No longer in my dreams. Now that I have had the chance to feel the Dolomites, I know this to be true.
Getting there: There are multiple daily direct flights from London Gatwick to Verona on EasyJet, British Airways and Alitalia. You can also fly in to Innsbruck. Transfers take approximately two hours by car.
Where to stay: The Alpenroyal Grand Hotel offers summer (June) prices from €134 per person per night or €875 per person for 5 nights (half board).
What to do: E-bike rental from Rental Selva starts from €49 per day and €227 for 6 days.
Guests staying in Val Gardena Active member properties can enjoy many free or discounted events and activities.
Getting around: The Gardena Card offers unlimited use of all lifts in Val Gardena in the summer.
Visit Dolomites Val Gardena [valgardena.it] for more local travel guidance.