South Tirol, Südtirol, Trentino, Alto Adige . . . however you call it, this incredible vacation land is one of the most overlooked areas of Europe, especially for North American travellers. So many books these days are extolling the virtues of Provence or Tuscany, completely missing this Dolomite playground of northern Italy (“northern Italy” in most travel guide books seldom gets north of Milan). Rarely does one find such an enticing combination of a Mediterranean climate coexisting with one of the world’s greatest ski areas, together with some of the most spectacular mountain climbing, hiking, or just beautiful strolling paths, great food, incredible wines from miles of vineyards, orchards, gardens, palm trees and wonderful accommodation with some of the friendliest people around.
Our first real exposure to this area happened by accident. You know, one of those rare times after a long, exhausting day of travel you happen upon an oasis, a gem you instantly recognize as genuine. This happened to us several years ago when my wife and I were traveling in Europe with another couple. After a tiring but rewarding day of magnificent sightseeing through the Alps from Bavaria, taking some of Austria and Switzerland’s little mountain passes, we eventually descended into the beautiful garden city of Merano. At first, we could not believe we were still in the Alps (actually the Dolomite Alps), as we were surrounded by palm trees, miles of vineyards and a warm Mediterranean climate.
As we continued southwest toward the city of Bolzano, the sun dipped close to the western mountains ahead of us, reminding us to find some accommodation. As we had no telephone with us, a local tourist map and hotel list pointed us toward an interesting looking guesthouse several kilometers up a local mountain slope.
Eventually finding the little road almost hidden in the bushes near the lower station of a mountain cable car, we started our trek up the mountain. Our little rented car strained on all four cylinders to keep moving with its load of passengers and luggage, winding back and forth through miles of vineyards and forested areas. At times the route was not much wider than a cow trail, shored up with rock walls from the level below. Each switchback took us higher, expanding our view of the Adige and Eisack valleys below with some rugged Dolomite peaks in the distance. As we ascended, the air became noticeably more comfortable, several degrees cooler than the heat of the city below. Soon, the ground started to level off as several beautiful farms appeared, cows grazing peacefully over rolling green hills, their bells clanging in the distance as we approached the summit. The fresh perfume of new-mown hay mingled with a lightly scented breeze from the forest. Onwards we drove, wondering if we had taken the wrong road. Around a few more bends and we spotted some buildings. A tiny white church with a red steeple sat on a knoll under some shade trees, overlooking an ancient stone and wooden barn with an incredible view of the valley and mountains in the distance. Beside the church a larger building had “Gasthof Kohlern” written on its side. We knew we had arrived, but did they have rooms?
We entered the hotel, each breathing a silent prayer. As the old world decor, homey atmosphere and heady aromas from the kitchen surrounded us, we knew instantly that we really wanted to stay here. A rustic, knotty-pine panelled old country “stube” adjacent the kitchen supplied us with cold drinks on the shady stone patio outside, overlooking the valley below.
Before long, we were greeted by Josef Schrott, the personable young man who runs the hotel with his mother, Paula. Josef’s easy but professional manner soon put us at ease as he promptly showed us two well appointed, reasonably priced rooms with large balconies that looked out over the entire valley, Bolzano laid out in miniature far below. We later learned that the hotel had been in the Schrott family for many years, and Josef’s hotelier skills and his wine cellar were evenly matched by his mother’s wonderfully delicious cooking.
It is difficult to explain the sense of relief, calm and tranquility we experienced as we settled into our rooms, eventually staying for a few days. We later discovered the suspension cable car we had seen at the base of the mountain. It was busy carrying commuters, children to school, and tourists like ourselves up from the valley floor, saving the long drive. A plaque and replica of the original gondola commemorates this site as the first such mountain cable car in the world!
The cable car down to the city also provided many opportunities for sightseeing without the bother of a car. On one day, we visited Ötzi in the new “Iceman” museum, a very interesting and emotional experience as you look at this man up-close and personal, thinking about his life, death and the questions he left us after spending 5000 years frozen in a glacier. On another excursion, we descended the mountain, walked a few blocks to another cable car which headed up to the “Ritten” plateau, a beautiful area studded with small villages and hundreds of tourist facilities. A 100-year old electric train runs through the area from the cable car location at Oberbozen to the famous “Earth Pyramids,” an interesting and unlikely geological phenomenon worth seeing.
Over the years and subsequent return trips, we realized that our initial feelings that first day were not just those of some exhausted travelers, but that here was a location that was not only a great base camp from which to explore the entire area, but a real gem where you could pause to “charge your batteries” and leave with a genuine “feel good” sense of satisfaction.
P.S. Since this was written (over twenty years ago), Josef now has a lovely wife, Christina, to share all this with. His mother Paula is now retired from the cooking chores and can relax and enjoy life. We’ve been back many times, and have also brought friends and relatives to enjoy Kohlern’s beauty and hospitality.
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