Hiking and biking are the favourite pursuits of late-summer visitors to Italy’s South Tyrol. Tom Sweeney tests his head for heights in the mighty Dolomites...
It’s hardly a scorcher in the hills above San Vigilio di Marebbe, yet the sweat is bucketing out of me — cold, clammy, terror-induced sweat.
I’m standing on a wooden platform that reminds me of a gallows, because I’m about to drop on the end of a rope into thin air.
Europe’s longest and steepest zig-zag zip line (zipline.it) looked a laugh in the broch-ure, but I’m not laughing now — nor are the three ashen- faced women behind me. Being a gentleman, I step back from the precipice and say: “Ladies first.” They grab each other and recoil in horror.
Down the first of 10 cables I zoom at 80kph, 100 metres above the ground, screaming silently and inhaling midges. I try to imagine something pleasant; instead, it occurs to me that at this speed, if I sent a basket of damp laundry ahead, it would be dry by the time I caught up with it.
I’m dicing with death, yet all I can think of is socks and jocks.
Later, in the bar of the Sport Hotel Exclusive, where I’m staying (sporthotel-exclusive.com), owner Roman Erlacher asks if I found the 3km zip line scary.
“Not at all,” I lie.
Roman excuses himself, but returns almost immediately with a leaflet from the local church — with the confession times underlined.
Saddle do nicely
If you’re going to cycle up a mountain, as I am the next morning, you need fuel, so I wolf down two big bowls of Sugar Puffs and go to the hire shop to collect my bike. Joy of joys, it has an electric motor attached to the chassis, so I won’t end up with a defibrillator attached to my chest.
Despite the pedal-assist, I’m repeatedly overtaken by walkers and my legs are like lead by the time I reach Lavarella Lodge (lavarella.it/en), 2,050 metres above sea level in the Fanes-Sennes- Braies natural park.
Unless your name’s Stephen Roche, take the local bus to the foot of the mountain and hike it, don’t bike it.
The early September views of pastures and peaks from the lodge’s suntrap restaurant terrace are a feast for the eyes that no amount of Photoshopping could improve.
In winter, all around is blanketed in white and you can’t move for skiers and snowboarders, but go in uncrowded late summer and you’ll see many more than 40 shades of green.
A waitress delivers another feast for the eyes, a mini Mount Everest of venison tagliatelle. Bambi’s mammy didn’t die in vain — it’s delicious.
I wash it down with South Tyrol’s favourite tipple, named Hugo (pour 1.5cl elderberry syrup into a wine glass and add 10cl Prosecco, a dash of sparkling water, ice cubes and peppermint leaves). One sip of this stuff and Father Mathew would have gone on the lash.
Fed and watered, I swing a still-aching leg over my bike, happyin the knowledge that a splendid afternoon is about to go rapidly downhill.
After dinner, Roman hands me another leaflet, for the Corones Messner Mountain Museum on top of nearby Kronplatz (2,275 metres).
“You must go here tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll love it.”
Among the bold-print highlights is “a collection of crampons from 1800 to the present”. I try very hard to control my excitement.
Long time no sea
Built into the rocky terrain on the summit plateau and bearing the name of local superstar climber Reinhold Messner, the museum (messner-mountain-museum.it) charts the development of modern mountaineering.
I spend an hour gawking at the exhibits (including the crampons) and admiring the alpine paintings. Roman is right — it’s fascinating, and I do love it.
Back outside, the plateau — which is mercifully accessible by three cable car routes — is the best place in all of South Tyrol from which to marvel at, and take photos of, the mighty Dolomites, of which the honey-coloured Marmolada, at 3,342 metres, is the highest. The name has nothing to do with the stuff you spread on your breakfast toast — it comes from the Latin marmor, meaning ‘marble’.
A little over 230 million years ago, you’d have needed a waterproof camera and a snorkel to capture images here, as everywhere around was a vast coral reef beneath the primordial ocean.
At noon, it’s 22°C (at that hour yesterday it was –4°C) and a TV crew is filming an episode of top-rated Italian drama series Un passo dal cielo (One Step from Heaven), which is appropriate given the lofty, lovely location.
It was in these parts too that Sylvester Stallone spent three months shooting the 1993 action movie Cliffhanger.
He arrived with a lifelong morbid fear of heights, so you could say he got off to a Rocky start, but he quickly fell in love with the Dolomites and became a regular visitor, just stopping short of buying a chalet home.
He was especially taken with my next port of call next day, Val Gardena — but then, everybody is.
A trek in the eye-poppingly beautiful Puez-Odle Nature Park high above the spick-and-span towns of Ortisei, Selva and Santa Cristina in Val Gardena is Roman’s best recommendation yet, showing nature at its most spectacular.
There’s a movie connection here too, as Val Gardena is home to 76-year-old electronic music composer Giorgio Moroder, the man behind umpteen disco hits for The Three Degrees, Donna Summer, Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson and Blondie.
However, he says his proudest mom-ent was winning the Best Original Song Oscar in 1986 for Take My Breath Away (Top Gun).
I’d say he got the title from the view from his window.
Tom travelled to South Tyrol with Italian lakes and mountains specialists Crystal Summer See crystalsummer.ie, call 01 673 3839 or contact your travel agent for prices and details.
For more information on summer and autumn hiking and biking in South Tyrol, see suedtirol.info; valgardena.it; and kronplatz.com.