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Trentino: The fairies of northern Italy

Mountains meet the Mediterranean in this far-flung corner of Italy, full of dense pine forests, emerald lakes and sun-drenched olive groves. Trentino is a land of enchanting beauty, where locals have a deep-rooted relationship with their natural world

Trentino: The fairies of northern Italy
Noris, the 'Alpine Fairy'. Image: Nico Avelardi

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The ash-grey mountains tower above me: a huge fortress, turrets punching skywards, battlements between them scarred and battle-worn. The more I stare, the more my imagination runs away with me. The undulating hills become a heaving ocean, the clouds that linger at their tops huge plumes of spray. I can almost taste salt on the air, see sentinels on the ramparts, weaponry glistening in the sun.

My reverie is broken by my Alpine guide pointing out the differences in the landscape around me. To my right, there’s a glacial valley, with soft hills and dark, still lakes; and to my left, the mighty Dolomites, a mountain range that formed below the primordial seas 250 million years ago. You can still find shells on its flanks, testimony to its watery past. In fact, the scene I’m witnessing seems to sum up the whole of Trentino — a single province where the changes in the landscape are vast. Within 60 miles (a two-hour drive, or 15-minute helicopter ride), you can go from the extremes of the mountains to the sub-Mediterranean climate of Lake Garda.

We continue, passing clumps of foxgloves, bright-eyed ringlet butterflies no bigger than twopenny pieces, and huddles of other hikers equally enthralled by the view, before returning to Chalet Fogajard, outside the town of Madonna di Campiglio. The only thing that eclipses the five-course feast I sit down to that evening is the view: at sundown, the Dolomites burn a deep, transfixing pink.

“I’ve lived in this area my whole life, and still stop five or six times a day just to stare,” chalet owner Edoardo tells me; his normally serene face lighting up as he looks at the mountains. “No two days are the same.” The place belonged to his wife’s parents, and after they passed away he transformed it into what it is today. Not only is the setting stupendous, but the interior is too: walking into my room, with its bare-wood beams and ornately carved balcony, feels like stepping inside the world’s ultimate treehouse, and everywhere the sweet smell of pine lingers.

Edoardo is a ski guide in winter, taking out small groups staying at the chalet and often leading whole-day, off-piste excursions. “I just head out onto the mountains and see where we end up,” he smiles. I make a mental note to come back when the snow starts, as I return to my meal: creamy carrot soup, fresh pasta, beef stew — every mouthful sourced from Edoardo’s land.

I sleep deeply — I’m not sure whether it’s the impossibly fresh air, the silence, or the bottle of local Teroldego Rotaliano that knocks me out — and wake to see the sun struggling to get up and over the mountains. As it inches its way higher, light spills over the peaks, seeming to cascade down the slopes like water. Seemingly with its final breath, it conquers the summit — blindingly bright, jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Trentino-Panevaggio Forest-Nico Avelardi

Panevaggio Forest. Image: Nico Avelardi

Into the wild
That afternoon, I meet Noris. Known locally as the Alpine fairy, she lives deep in the forest, a half-hour ascent from the road through dense pine forest that smells of rain, moss and earth, and spends her days out on the mountains gathering herbs. When we arrive at her house, I’m half expecting it to resemble Hagrid’s hut, but instead I’m confronted with a quaint, white cottage with wooden shutters and potted plants on the sills.

Noris, however, is just as fascinating as I’d anticipated. Her knowledge of plants is unparalleled, passed down from her mother and grandmother. “Look!” she cries, darting from bush to bush like a child on an Easter egg hunt. “This herb is called alchemilla. Legend has it that in the past, the poor men of the mountain would pick it at first light and give it to their wives. There was always a dew drop inside, sparkling like a diamond — a symbol of their love.”

Growing suddenly pensive, she continues: “When I first moved to this house, I stood outside as it grew dark. I found myself immersed in an immense silence. The energy of the mountains was so strong I could feel it pressing against my chest.” Normally, I’d shrug off this idea as the sort thing parroted by people who organise their diaries around silent yoga retreats and wear five years’ worth of WOMAD wristbands. But Noris’ words entrance me. And, suddenly, I too feel the sheer force of the mountains.

The area around Madonna di Campiglio has around 120 hiking trails — not that Noris follows the paths, of course. She tells me she has her own routes and is regularly out for almost 24 hours at a time, and not just when it’s warm. Even in the middle of winter, when the snow is waist deep, she’s out in the wilderness. “When I’ve collected my herbs, I send them to my brother. He deals with the business side of things.” How lovely to have a family-run venture, I coo, as I drizzle her Mugolio pine syrup over thickly buttered bread and anchovies.

Theirs is a small business, although several well-known chefs buy their products and, in fact, Noris says nonchalantly, they used to run a Michelin-starred restaurant. I’m taken aback — imagining her away from the mountains is difficult, and I’d assumed having a top restaurant in such a tiny town would be something of an anomaly. I’m completely wrong, however; there are currently six with the accolade in the town; and indeed, my next stop — the village of Castello di Fiemme, nestled deep in Val di Fiemme — also offers up its fair share of luxury dining.

Ristorante El Molin is really special, inspired by — as with so many things here — Trentino’s natural world. After too many hors d’oeuvres to keep track of come slow-cooked scallops that fall apart on the fork, smoked tagliolini with fontal and black truffle, and venison loin so tender you can slice it with a spoon. To finish, it seems only right to choose the bark crumble. It tastes not so much of wood but of the wild, with juniper berries, redcurrants and spices. I’m transported back to the walk through the Paneveggio forest I’d done that afternoon.

The trees there are like something out of a fairytale: towering conifers rising impossibly straight, impossibly tall. The moss-carpeted floor deadens even the heaviest footfall, and sunlight trickling through the branches falls on the ground in tiny pools of gold. The quality of the wood is such that a select few spruces are felled each year to make musical instruments. Perhaps the greatest testimony to the trees’ peerless acoustic pedigree is the fact that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Antonio Stradivari — the greatest string instrument maker of all time — often travelled to the forest to pick out the perfect tree.

It’s a man’s world
With approximately 60% of the province covered by forest, and a permanent population of only half a million people, nature is clearly the dominant force in Trentino. But while it’s possible to walk for hours through the Paneveggio forest and see nothing but a marmot, hear nothing but birdsong, the modern world is never far away — albeit coexisting harmoniously with its wild surroundings.

This relationship between man and nature is at the very heart of the Arte Sella sculpture park, set in a valley high above the town of Borgo Valsugana and the tranquil beauty of Lake Levico. I arrive the following morning after a two-hour drive south from Val di Fiemme, when the grass is still dewy and the light soft. Since it was set up in 1986, more than 200 artists from countries as far-flung as Azerbaijan, South Africa and Japan have travelled to the park to create organic sculptures. All have a point to make.

One of the first artworks I see is the Living Village, a wondrous collection of woven buildings made entirely of living materials — intended as a reflection on the ecological future of cities in a world where oil is no longer available. Most pieces are left to biodegrade, eventually returning to the earth.

Perhaps the park’s most famous sculpture is the Tree Cathedral, a colossal behemoth the size of a real gothic church, complete with three naves formed of 80 wooden columns. In 2001, a young hornbeam was planted inside each of these columns — the natural aided by the man-made. Eventually, the supports will rot away until only the hornbeams remain. Nature will prevail, and the trees will be free to take their own course.

Piazza Duomo Trento Trentino Nico Avelardi

Piazza Duomo, Trento. Image: Nico Avelardi

Less than an hour’s drive later, I stand looking up at another cathedral. I’ve arrived in Trentino’s capital, Trento, a charmingly laid-back city, where little old ladies pedal by on bicycles and students loll around in squares sipping Hugos (the region’s own version of an Aperol Spritz, made with elderflower liqueur and mint leaves). The cobbled streets of the old town, fanning out from the Piazza Duomo, pass shady porticoes, renaissance fountains and houses adorned with wonderful medieval frescoes .

The air too has changed, the crispness of the peaks replaced with a deep, marvellous heat. But there’s a resounding difference, something that sets the city apart from Rome, Florence or Pisa. Everywhere you look, mountains dominate the background. More than 20,000 years ago, when the Ice Age retreated, it gouged a huge cavern between the peaks. And it’s here that Trento sits, in the Val dell’Adige — guarded by the peaks.

After a visit to the MUSE museum, where Trentino’s mind-bending take on the natural world is covered over six fascinating floors, I head just outside the city to the Maso Poli winery. Covering 24 acres, it’s run by three sisters; the eldest of whom greets me. I’m expecting another Noris, grubby from a day out picking grapes, clambering off a tractor, vines in her hair, but Romina is the epitome of sass. She struts towards me in kitten heels, dark glasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke, and holds out a hand laden with rings.

When I ask whether she’s grown up with grapes, whether she always knew she wanted to work for the family business, her answer is refreshingly, well, sassy: “Yes I grew up on the vineyard, but I was interested in boys, not the land. When my father asked me to work for him, I just said that I’d try it; that if I liked it, I’d stay; if I didn’t, I’d leave. That was back in ’91.” And Romina really knows her stuff. After a tour of the grounds, with row upon row of vines dozing lazily in the afternoon sun, she takes us to the tasting room to try Trentino’s answer to Champagne, Trentodoc.

Almost immediately I make the mistake of asking if it resembles Prosecco, and the outraged response I get is enough to teach me my lesson. No, Trentodoc is not the same as the sparkling wine that we drink like water in the UK. And, Romina is absolutely right. Firstly, it’s made differently, using the metodo classico — the same method used to produce Champagne; lengthier and more laborious, but achieving far better results. The grapes used — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier — are also the same as those of its French counterpart. And then there’s the flavour. I’m no wine expert, but even my inexperienced palate can appreciate that Trentodoc is in another league entirely. Light, elegant and refined, it makes Prosecco feel one-dimensional, flat — ironic, really, as we drink it for the bubbles.

I try the Siris, followed by a more expensive and even more exceptional bottle named simply Maso Poli. After my fifth glass, washed down with formaggio di malga (a soft, creamy, local cheese) and what feels like half a pig’s worth of speck, I stumble outside, surprised to find it’s still light. The sun is setting slowly over the vineyard, turning the sky a thick, soupy red as long rays of light sweep out over the grapes.

Maso Poli vineyard Trentino Nico Avelardi

Maso Poli Vineyard. Image: Nico Avelardi

The magic touch
The drive to my final stop, Lake Garda, again, takes under an hour — at least, it should. Road names are spectacularly confusing and the sat nav’s accent leaves much to be desired, but even two hours later, there’s little to complain about. The drives in Trentino are as inspiring as the destinations. Roads pass under matchstick churches sitting atop massive hills, and through ancient villages where each street seems to have a story to tell.

There are 297 lakes in the region, from Levico, which resembles a Norwegian fjord, and Molveno, whose white bottom turns the water a beautiful greeny-blue, to Garda, the biggest of them all — so big it looks like an ocean. In comparison to its flashy cousin, Como — where George Clooney is just one of several celebrities to own a villa — Lake Garda remains curiously uncelebrated. Its northern shores are ringed by mountains, while the southern end, which I eventually reach, is all open-air cafes, gelaterias and pint-sized boats in a
sleepy harbour.

I check into Hotel Benaco, in Torbole, a stone’s throw from the lake, and after dumping my bag on my bed, make my way down to the shorefront. There’s a slight breeze, shoals of wispy clouds swim through the sky and I stand hypnotised by the light dancing on the surface of the water. Closer to the pebbly shore, children paddle, parents sit around on picnic blankets and hardened tanners slather themselves in carrot oil.

I wander slowly towards the town centre, passing paintbox houses and an eclectic array of gift shops, selling everything from silver trinkets and gargantuan packets of pasta to clothes proclaiming variations on the message: ‘My dad went to Lake Garda and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.’ There’s a citrusy tang in the air — the area is surrounded by lemon as well as olive groves — and reaching the main square, I sit down outside a cafe with optimum people-watching potential. When an elderly gentleman pulls up a chair at the adjacent table, it seems natural to start talking.

Roberto, it turns out, owns an olive grove nearby. It’s been in his family for generations and I note a deep sense of pride in his voice. Olives are obviously more than a profession for him, and with gnarled hands, long limbs and skin a light ash brown, he even resembles the trees he loves so much. “When land has been in your family for years, it becomes a part of your family and it becomes a part of you, something that will go on after you die,” Roberto says passionately. “So in that way, my trees make me feel immortal, I suppose.”

My encounter with Roberto moves me, and an hour later, as I walk away, I realise something — Noris hasn’t been the only fairy I’ve encountered. My stay here in Trentino has been full of them. Roberto too is possessed of the same magical essence. The fairies have come in all shapes and sizes, and from all over the region, but they have one thing in common— the land they love so much. I can safely say I too have seen the magic.


Getting there & around
Verona is the closest international airport to Trentino — Easyjet, Ryanair and British Airways all fly direct from London. Car hire is the best way to traverse the region.

Average flight time: 2h

When to go
In the mountainous north, winter is cold with lots of snow, and summer warm. The south, around Lake Garda has a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and hot summers.

More info

How to do it
The Trentino Guest Card offers free admission to hundreds of attractions, including the Muse Museum and Arte Sella. Time your trip to Madonna di Campiglio to coincide with the annual Sounds of the Dolomites concert, an incredible open-air musical extravaganza that takes place every year between July and August, surrounded by the mountains.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)