Wednesday 13 November 2019

Italy: Alpine heights and lakeside sights in the Dolomites

The Italian Insider

Tom on a mountaintop in Italy
Tom on a mountaintop in Italy
The Lido at Lake Levico

Tom Sweeney

Tom Sweeney finds his love of Italy reaching new heights in Val di Fassa and Lake Levico in the province of Trentino.

I was 2,400 metres up a mountain in Italy when two guys dangling from a green, white and red parachute floated past and wished me a cheery “buongiorno”.

A mirage in the Dolomites? I thought you only saw those in the desert.

“Tandem paragliding,” said my guide, Tomazo. “You strap yourself to the pilot and jump off the mountain. It’s very popular.”

Yeah – with lunatics.

The alpine scenery of Val di Fassa is breathtaking, which is why the hills were alive with the sound of wheezing.

Tomazo halted to give us a welcome rest and a little pep talk, but no oxygen, which I thought was a bit stingy.

“This is the limit of...” he began. “Human endurance?” I asked.

“No. The tree line. No trees grow above this altitude.”

Edelweiss does, and would do so in greater profusion if walkers didn’t keep bending to pick the delicate blooms.

In the valley floor far below, the ski resort of Canazei, devoid of snow in late June, had earlier appeared decidedly Austrian with a token nod to Italy during my after-breakfast stroll.

Beautifully ornate wooden chalets of all sizes, many of them hotels, some shops and others homes, had me expecting Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp gang to cycle past. One chalet looked like a giant cuckoo clock that might have been carved by Pinocchio's auld fella. On closer inspection it turned out to be an estate agent’s office, with the descriptions of properties for sale in Italian and German.

Moses-like, Tomazo led us out of the lofty wilderness and down a narrow goat track to a farmhouse-cum-inn where at noon the temperature was 20C on the terrace.

It was even hotter by the brick-built oven where our cheery host, in workaday lederhosen, was extracting freshly-baked loaves of rustic brown bread that would be served momentarily at lunch. Jugs of iced-water with a hint of Amaretto were plonked down on the tables and emptied in seconds.

Plates of cheese, ham and salami and big bowls of barley and vegetable stew appeared, all made in-house and delivered by the inn-keeper’s charming children.

Then came grappa, the local firewater, to fuel our 6km downhill trek to the Col Rodella cable car station from where we’d set out six hours before.

My hike was no stroll in the park, which was down to a lack of peak fitness, but it did show that you don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy the delights of Val di Fassa.

Against a backdrop of soaring mountains and Alpine meadows and with a soundtrack of cowbells, screeching eagles and the whistling of comical jack-in-the-box marmots, summer in and above the valley is special.

I was in Italy with tour operator Crystal, which needs no introduction as a wintersports specialist. However, its middle-months Lakes and Mountains breaks are well-worth getting to know.

The Lido at Lake Levico

The Lido at Lake Levico

Having experienced the heights, it was time to take in lakeside sights.

I headed southwest from Val di Fassa along dizzyingly high winding roads with sheer, 1,000-metre drops (so I was told – I didn’t dare look) to Valsugana and reassuringly low-lying Lake Levico.

Compared with superstar lakes Como – where George Clooney has a villa that he’s reportedly selling – and Garda, Levico is a mere puddle, but in this case small is beautiful.

The Imperial Grand Hotel, where I stayed, isn’t small, but it’s beyond beautiful. A former summer palace of the Habsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire, it’s the most opulent property in Crystal’s Summer portfolio.

Although my aching, sunburnt legs were in need of a good knead, I opted to skip a massage in the hotel’s renowned spa and spend the late afternoon by the pool, where I got chatting with manager Ruggero Zanoni, who was on his rounds.

Apart from his native Italian, Ruggero speaks fluent German, Dutch, Russian and English, the last with a Clydeside accent (his late wife was from Glasgow).

With his love of languages, it came as no surprise to learn he’s busy doing a YouTube crash course in Irish so he can welcome clients as gaeilge.

Castel Pergine proved to be great too. Sitting on its own mini mountain high above the lake and looking not unlike Colditz, it’s a place to escape to, not from.

As well as eat-anything-and-keep-it-coming gluttons like me, gluten-intolerant diners are well catered for and rave about the place, as do vegetarians and vegans.

I was loath to leave, and the idea of staying the night (the castle has rooms) was tempting, but a last-night-in-town nightcap or two with Ruggero won the toss.

With a few hours to kill the next morning before heading to Verona airport, I passed on taking a dip in the lake and opted instead to visit Levico’s 19th Century hilltop fortress.

As I walked up the steep path, I stopped to catch my breath by an arrowed signpost that read “Colle delle Benne – 1km”.

Now, my Italian isn’t great, but three years of Latin under Brother O’Keeffe told me I was halfway up the Hill of Benne.

In other words, Benny Hill.

I chuckled. I could hear the late comedian’s theme tune. I pictured him chasing all those scantily-clad young women around a park.

And all of a sudden, the hills were alive with the sound of giggling.

Get me there

Val di Fassa: Crystal Summer has a week’s stay at the four-star Hotel Campitello, half-board, from €665pps based on two sharing, including flights from Dublin and transfers, departing September 5.

Lake Levico: A week at the four-star Imperial Grand Hotel, half-board, from €779pps, including flights from Dublin and transfers, departing August 29.

See or call 01 433-1080 for more.

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