A good way to get a feel for Val Gardena and the Dolomites is hopping on a mountain bike and exploring all 600 kilometres of trails that the region has to offer. But that’s not the way we choose to approach it: we’d rather bike up to the Alpe di Siusi and lie down on the grass. The Alpe di Siusi is Europe’s highest alpine meadow. The rolling green hills are dotted with small sun-blackened woodsheds, weathered crucifixes, benches for the weary traveller and clusters of larches, a special type of conifer whose needles will turn a fiery orange come autumn.
Lying on the grass, arms behind our head, feet crossed, not a care in the world, we look up and admire what might be the most beautiful peaks in the world. The white rocky cliffs tower over the trees and meadows like giant tusks, the lower Sassopiatto with its smooth slope seemingly holding up the higher Sassolungo. The long Sella massif behind them with its horizontal rock bands looks like it belongs in the Grand Canyon; and many other Dolomite peaks are just as strange and unique.
South Tyrol – where opposites meet
The quietly towering mountains are mighty, yet intimate; they are ancient, yet eternal; they are cheerful and not oppressive at all. They inspire joy and gratitude. The Dolomites will make your heart beat faster, even after seeing them for the hundredth time. Being here, in the meadows, among the trees, under these slopes, is a gift. Dusk is approaching, though, and the grass is getting moist – time for a snack!
The high alpine plateau has several huts to choose from. The innkeeper, sporting the blue apron typically worn by South Tyrolean men, welcomes us with a ‘ciao’ and hands us the menu. We respond with ‘hoi’, a common exchange in the region. Everyone in the Dolomites is bilingual, and many people also speak the traditional Ladin. Val Gardena and the Alpe di Siusi are in South Tyrol, where Germanic culture meets Mediterranean flair, forming a beautiful whole: German and Italian, efficiency and laissez-faire, reliability and dolce vita – South Tyrol has all of that, plus fantastic infrastructures and much more sunlight than the north side of the Alps. The local hotels offer perfectly maintained saunas alongside aperitivos – what more can you wish for?
Alpenglow and Pinot grigio
The kitchen is where the two worlds come together in the most beautiful way. Our cheese dumplings arrive covered in a thick layer of grated Parmesan, and the apple strudel comes with a cappuccino. The wine menu offers a choice of Pinot noirs, Lagreins and Pinot grigios, quite an exquisite selection for a simple Alpine hut – but not surprising, considering the grapes grow down below in the valley.
The temperatures have dropped when we step outside after finishing our meal. The last rays of the setting sun are bathing the Sella and Sassolungo peaks in a soft pink light. The Ladin word for alpenglow is enrosadira. Geologists say that the Dolomites used to be a tropical ocean in prehistoric times, full of colourful fish and shells. Today the mountains are home to chamois, ibexes and deer, and we have a good chance of spotting one of them now that darkness is falling. We’re keeping our eyes peeled as we ride back down to Val Gardena. The gravel path takes us through rolling meadows, cool, dark forests and over rushing streams. What a gorgeous day this has been.