As so often happens on holidays, the unheralded places and sights you visit sometimes make the biggest impression. My trip to Europe this year was a case in point.
Our itinerary included some pretty big names when it comes to European travel - the villages of Provence, Nice, the Cinque Terre and Lake Como - but the place that I loved the most and the one that was the highlight of my 2015 trip was the Val Gardena area in the Dolomites in northern Italy.
The Dolomites mountain range runs from near Lake Garda to the Austrian border, with the northern half of the alps part of the South Tyrol (Süd Tirol)/Alto Adige region of Italy. I’d previously visited Süd Tirol on numerous occasions as my husband’s father’s family come from around Bozen/Bolzano, but despite seeing The Dolomites from a distance, I’d never actually been up close and personal to any of the peaks.
A quick history of the Sud Tirol/Alto Adige region
The Süd Tirol/Alto Adige region of Italy has a real Austrian feel to it and the reason for that is that it once was part of Austria. At the end of the first World War, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italian troops were able to occupy the region, and post-war treaties saw it annexed to Italy.
During Mussolini’s rule from 1922 to 1943, a forced program of Italianization was put in place. All references to the former Tyrol were banned with names being Italianized and residents required to speak Italian. The German language was also banned from schools.
Then, in 1947, after lengthy negotiations between both Italy and Austria, the region was granted autonomy within Italy and both German and Italian were made official languages. These days, all towns and streets have both German and Italian names and for the most part you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Austria.
Note: where both German and Italian names are referred to in this article, the German name is listed first.
Visiting Val Gardena in the summer
Our stay in The Dolomites couldn’t have come at a better time. We’d just spent two weeks in some of Italy’s tourist ’hot spots’ and boy, were they hot! Temperatures hadn’t dropped below 35C for the past ten days when we headed for our mountain escape and we were really looking forward to some cooler weather.
I’d chosen Selva Val Gardena (called Wolkenstein in Groden in German) as the base for our stay in The Dolomites and as soon as we started to wind our way along the Great Dolomites Road from Bozen/Bolzano, I knew I was going to love it.
Towering, craggy mountains surrounded us as we twisted and turned through lush green countryside on our ascent to Selva Gardena. Each bend in the road resulted in another ooh and aah from the passenger seat as I gazed in awe at the stunning scenery.
Selva Gardena was a great town to base ourselves and it adds another dimension to the multi-language scenario. The native language of this part of Süd Tirol/Alto Adige is Ladin, with 89% of the population speaking the native tongue, so here you’ll find places and streets referred to in three languages!
The town’s name is Sëlva in Ladin. English speakers need not worry, though, as many of those in the hospitality industry (hotels, cafes, etc) speak English.
Our accommodation, Hotel Savoy, was just a five minute stroll from the main street. It’s a pretty alpine town (Selva Gardena is 1537 metres above sea level) and you’ll find an abundance of cafes and shops selling everything you could possibly need, all surrounded by the amazing craggy mountains of The Dolomites.
Things to do in Summer in Val Gardena
The Dolomites really are a year round Alpine resort and there’s no shortage of things to see and do in the Val Gardena region. We spent our first day exploring the nearby towns of St. Christina/San Cristina and St. Ulrich/Ortisei which were busy with summer visitors.
St. Ulrich was much larger than Selva Gardena and I was particularly taken with the beautifully kept buildings, many of which sported frescoes on the outside. There were plenty of opportunities for retail therapy and of course we made time for a coffee and a slice of apple strudel!
At St. Christina, a village steeped in wood carving history, a surprise find was the world’s largest hand carved nativity scene. Numerous other large wood sculptures can be found in both these towns as well as Selva Gardena.
We’d planned to walk one of the many trails that start in Selva Gardena in the afternoon - there are trails to suit all levels of fitness - but a sudden storm meant that we had to turn back after only a few kilometres. We took refuge under the veranda of a hotel on the outskirts of town, only to be invited in to the plush reception area to sit out the storm.
The following day was one I was looking forward to immensely. I’d arranged to meet a friend of mine, Sandra, and her husband, at Passo Pordoi, one of the mountain passes in the Sella group of peaks, for a mountain walk.
The day dawned to perfect clear blue skies so we headed off on the spectacularly scenic drive to meet Sandra and Guido. It seemed that every twist and turn we took revealed an even more impressive site. The varied shapes of the mountain peaks have to be seen to be believed and there were many stops along the way to take photos.
At Passo Pordoi (2239m above sea level), we took a cable car that whisked us up to Sass Pordoi at 2950 metres in just four minutes. When we disembarked and stepped out onto the mountain plateau, I was speechless. Sandra had promised us 360 degree views and we were not disappointed.
On this crystal clear day we could see the Austrian and Swiss Alps as well as at least 12 peaks of the Dolomites, and the famous glacier, Marmalade. I guess that’s why Sass Pordoi is known as The Panorama Terrace of The Dolomites.
After a leisurely walk across the flat mountain plateau of about an hour (sometimes across snow and slush), we reached Rifugio Boe, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch in the sunshine, all the while gazing at the incredible scenery around us.
Refuelled, we headed back to the cable car station but instead of taking the easy way down, we decided to walk down. The path was very steep with loose gravel making it pretty slippery but we took our time, regularly stopping for photos, and reached the bottom in an hour. Not bad considering we had descended 700 metres.
Still blown away by the ridiculously beautiful scenery, we drove back to Selva Gardena on a high.
Unfortunately our time in Val Gardena wasn’t long enough and had we been staying longer there are plenty of other things we could have done. Nordic walking, mountain biking, hiking trails and fixed rope climbing are just some of the outdoor pursuits available.
There’s a nature reserve, castles, churches, museums and wood carving workshops but I think, even if I was staying for a week, most days I’d be taking a cable car to one of the many mountain peaks and admiring the views.
Even now, five months since my summer visit to Val Gardena, I’m still finding it difficult to put into words the wonderful impression this lovely part of northern Italy left on me. I’ll definitely be going back and I encourage you to visit The Dolomites, and in particular, Val Gardena, too.
Getting to Val Gardena
Selva Gardena is situated 48 kilometres from Bozen/Bolzano, 329km from Milan, 331km from Venice and 122km from Innsbruck. A car is recommended for your stay but a limited public bus service operates during summer. The nearest major train stations are at Bolzano and Bressanone (30 km).
Where to Stay in Val Gardena
Val Gardena offers a huge range of accommodation styles to suit all budgets. We chose the lovely Hotel Savoy in Selva Gardena - you can read my review here.
Need to know
Sass Pordoi is open from May to October each year. Cable car tickets cost €17 per adult return (2015 prices).
Winter is an even more popular time to visit Val Gardena. The region offers 500 kilometres of slopes and forms part of the Dolomiti Superski carousel that totals over 1220km of pistes! Val Gardena was voted Italy’s best ski resort at the World Ski Award 2015.
More info: Val Gardena Tourism website