Sunday 23 October 2016

Italy: Lakes and Mountains fit for a king in Tyrol

Published 03/08/2015 | 02:30

The hills are alive: Carol Hunt releasing her inner Julie Andrews in the spectacular surroundings of Tyrol
The hills are alive: Carol Hunt releasing her inner Julie Andrews in the spectacular surroundings of Tyrol
Map showing Austria
Carol Hunt sipping spumante on Lake Levico

The Italians on the cable car beside us were geared up as only Italians - who know the importance of the "bella figura" - can be.

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Even if you do happen to be 2,000m up a mountain.

As we were.

Not that they weren't adequately dressed for the occasion. Quite the opposite. They had all the latest body-hugging mountain attire for the discerning yet experienced, hiker. We, on the other hand, looked like gauche city novices, who had mistakenly arrived onto the wrong set, clad in summer wear and trainers - lacking heavy rain gear and those all important mountain sticks.

But no matter. The sun was up, the clouds were few and, as we alighted from the cable car we had taken from Campitello di Fassa that morning, the light glistened off the rugged beauty of the Dolomite mountains, the clouds lifted and we saw that we were surrounded by a panorama fit for a king.

Indeed, the King of Saxony, Friedrich August, was so impressed by the singular view of the Dolomites from Alpe di Siusi in South Tyrol that his name was later given to this very hiking trail.

And so off we went, heads high, shoulders back, marching between the Austrian and Italian mountains, while breathing in great dollops of the pure fresh Tyrol air - faintly scented with cow manure and the odd edelweiss flower. (Edelweiss is now a protected plant - so don't pick).

It took us about two hours of easy, enjoyable hiking to get to our refuge in the centre of the mountain peaks. Despite the fact that it was still mid-morning we were starving.

Waiting for us on a picture postcard farm is the handsome Kasseroller family; Karl, Alexandra, Franziska, Peter and little Lucas. From June to September the entire family move to their tiny farm in the mountain valley, where they take care of 200 milch cows and 400 goats.

Carol Hunt on Lake Levico

The children don't seem to mind that there's no WiFi for miles around. The kids in our group are enchanted with the goats, cows and the odd sighting of a marmoset. Despite the two hour trek they are all full of energy. And boy, will they sleep tonight.

The Kasseroller children serve us delicious treats of freshly baked bread and cheeses, (all produced by them) a barley risotto and "speck", a traditional type of pork belly which is cured and dried. Freshly made yogurt and just picked strawberries follow.

To drink we have apfel juice and a jug of what looks like water with mint leaves but on inspection reveals itself to have a liberal dollop of sambuca added.

If you secretly harbour an inner Julie Andrews - and let's be honest, who amongst us does not? - this is the trip where you can fling your arms skywards, twirl on your heels and roar that "the hills are alive" while the nearby mountain goats shake their tinkly bells and mutter "tourists" under their breath.

Just two hours south of the mountain range lies Lake Levico, where the Grand Hotel Imperial awaits in all its Belle Epoch glory. And if it was good enough for the royal Hapsburg family then it more than suffices for the discerning Irish tourist.

Set in 150 hectares of royal parkland, this beautiful building is famous for its spa facilities - which if you stay here you'd be mad not to avail of. But first, a boat trip across the enchanting Lake Levico, where, we are informed, 2,000 bottles of the best local spumante had been lifted that morning from the dark, cool depths of the lake bottom, where they had lain undisturbed for the past 18 months.

From there they will go to the local wineries where they will each be turned until they are ready for consumption in November.

We open a couple of bottles of last year's crop and toast the ingenuity of the vintners. Meanwhile, on the lake bank, families soak up the sunshine, couples ramble through nearby forest glades and children compete with each other in paddle boats.

It's as if we've encountered a hidden oasis which may very well disappear when we leave its magical shores.

But leave we must - and in keeping with our royal pretensions, we have dinner at a medieval castle: the nearby Castel Pergine to be precise - a 13th century fortress, nestled on a hill in the rugged western Dolomites, with dramatic views of the upper Sugana Valley and Lake Caldonazzo.

The castle was built in the 13th century on an essential Roman trading road - as one of the only historical buildings left on the road, the castle literally appears like it did over 500 years ago.

The rooms are warmly rustic, with carved-wood trim, lace curtains, and wooden beds, some even have canopies. Do they cost a king's ransom to stay in? Amazingly, no.

The Swiss owner, Verena Neff (her husband is the architect Theo Schneider) tells us that a room (shared bathroom) can be booked for as little as €50 a night.

Fantastic news for princesses on a budget. And the food? The candlelit dinner in the renaissance hall is Michelin standard, the wines from the local vines that we can just about see across the hills.

As well as breath-taking scenery, mountains and lakes, this part of northern Italy is steeped in history and culture.

A visit to the nearby Colle Delle Benne fort which overlooks Lake Levico is a must for history and military buffs alike. The fort belongs to the "Tenna barrier", an important section of the complex Austrian system of fortifications on the Italian border.

For art lovers, the impressive open air, natural sculptures at the nearby Fattoria de Celle (Celle Farm) will enchant. Artist Jacomo tells us that he was a bio-chemical engineer before he decided to dedicate himself full time to natural art.

He made the right choice, he says. And as we wander through the extraordinary installations, made of trees and earth, grass and leaves; set in lush, quiet fields, we can only agree with him.

Getting there...

Lake Levico: Crystal Summer (; 01 433 1085 ) offers a week at the four-star Grand Imperial - Half Board from €779 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Dublin and transfers departing on August 29.

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