The old guy’s got class. Wearing a sharp suit, complete with waistcoat and feathered Tyrolean hat, he’s standing enigmatically on a precipice overlooking the piste, singing out a full-throated round of yodels across the mountains. Accompanied by two bearded youngsters — on washboard and brass, respectively — the slight hint of hipster irony is vastly outplayed by the genuine groove. Forget pan pipes, I think, if it sounds like this, yodelling is going to be the next cultural cliche to beguile buskers worldwide.
Or maybe it’s the Gewurztraminer talking. It’s 11am and I’ve already ‘tasted’ my way through this fragrant white, plus a significant percentage of the other 90 or so wines on offer in local mountain rifugi (huts, albeit beautifully appointed ones). A lively signal of the season’s finale, these ‘wine safaris’ take skiers, boarders and snow-shoers hut to hut through the mountains of the Alta Badia region, to drink in South Tyrol’s unique viticulture.
“Barely any of these wines are exported,” says one connoisseur, who’s travelled from Poland for the event. “They come from tiny local vineyards, but most are DOC, and many have won medals.” He has the happily glazed look of a man who won’t be winning any medals for skiing today.
Neither will I, but that’s not going to stop me getting out on the snow. There’s a lot of ground to cover. This is my third ski trip to the South Tyrol, and I’ve not nearly exhausted the region’s piste potential. This time, staying in the sophisticated village of San Cassiano, the local Alta Badia ski pass gives me access to around 80 miles of mostly wide blue and cruisey red runs connecting the quietly ritzy resorts of Corvara, Colfosco, La Villa and Badia. Only marginally more expensive, the Dolomiti Superski pass opens up a whacking 750 miles of pistes, across 12 linked resorts (a small section linked by bus), including the exquisite Sella Ronda, a looped circuit around a particularly wedding cake-like crop (the Sella massif) of the South Tyrol’s uniquely pink granite mountains.
The Dolomites are at their most distinctive here in the South Tyrol, where Austria blends into Italy. Arranged like rows of sugar-dusted panettone cakes, these are peaks populated by the prettiest of mountain huts, redolent of Germanic fairytales inside which you’ll find the requisite retinue of eccentric characters.
I manage to make it all the way to Las Vegas — a neon-lit lodge that’s just minutes away, but is amusingly gratifying to reach nonetheless — and am pleased to find owner, Ulli, is still offering skiers a tow behind his skidoo to make it up the last vertiginous metres to his door. While over at Mauritzino’s, a landmark rifugio crowning the Piz La Ila peak, it is, as it always seems to be, apres-o’clock: the outdoor Ice Bar selling chilled glasses of sparkling Ferrari rosé, patrons stepping up the ante to table-top dancing level, despite it being barely past noon.
Hit the huts
Aiming for yet another mountain hut, I follow the staggeringly beautiful five-mile Armentarola run from the Lagazuoi cable car, through the deep, craggy canyons of the Hidden Valley to arrive at Scotoni. Here, I order smoky South Tyrolean sausages, and a cave-man portion of T-bone, surrounded by a backdrop of pink granite mountains offset dramatically by a blue frozen waterfall. At the foot of this run, a frozen river awaits where a horse-drawn tow routinely drags skiers a kilometre along its length to the cable car. Is there any better way to end a day in the mountains?
In the valley, things are no less characterful. Alongside the 20 or so Michelin-starred restaurants that lend this region its somewhat exclusive reputation, there are affordable, earthy places to eat. Just outside San Cassiano, in the foothills of the Alta Badia where huge velvety cows graze in summertime, I settle down in the wood-panelled stube (living/dining room) at Maso Runch-Hof. From the lovely old kitchens of this family-run farm restaurant comes a convoy of local Ladin cuisine: wafer-thin schüttelbrot (flat bread), punchy with caraway and fennel seeds; barley soup; little golden tutures (fried spinach and ricotta turnovers); cajinci (oversized ravioli); and slow-roasted meats with polenta. Farmhouse bench seating supports the food coma that fairly rapidly sets in. Owner, Enrico Nagler, gives me a knowing grin and a sizeable glass of grappa to help me on my way.
Apres? In these mountains it’s largely characterised by Michelin stars and early-doors bars, neither of which sits well on six courses of farm food. But, modest bedtimes means those rosy sunrises over the Dolomites are rarely missed, and there’s also time for sightseeing between runs. With such class and civility at every turn, it’s easy to forget that these pretty pink peaks are traditionally the toughest of terrains for humans to survive in, let alone thrive in. This is brought into sharp focus at the Messner Mountain Museum, a Zaha Hadid-designed temple to the history of mountaineering, inspired by local boy and climbing legend, Reinhold Messner.
Even if you don’t care a jot about carabineers, crampons and climbing anything over eight feet, let alone 8,000ft, this Bond villain-style lair, hidden under a precipice off the Kronplatz cable-car hub, is a mesmerising place to contemplate the majesty and mystery of the mountains. Here, polished concrete corridors, vanishing staircases and mezzanine floors wind and turn to reveal vast picture window-walls framing, with a gallerist’s perfection, the Dolomite’s gothic pinnacles, spikey spires and craggy canyons. Ancient bits of expedition kit are arranged like fallen heroes behind glass, motifs of mountaineering stories that laugh in the face of bottled oxygen, satellite phones and fixed ropes. Literally half-buried into the cliff face, this museum truly embraces the mountains. “I didn’t go up there to die. I went up there to live,” reads a quote from Messner. From mountain summit to Michelin stars, they definitely know how to live in the Tyrol.
WHO: Matteo Metullio
WHERE: La Siriola at Hotel Ciasa Salares.
WHAT TO EAT: Italy’s youngest chef to lead a Michelin-star restaurant offers a signature cold shrimp pesto spaghetti, plus menus that incorporate a pre-pudding, pudding, petit fours AND a trip to the cavernous chocolate room.
WHO: Norbert Niederkofler
WHERE: Restaurant St. Hubertus, Hotel Rosa Alpina. And, if rumours are correct, this season, a new piste-side venue in Alta Badia.
WHAT TO EAT: Supremely seasonal, local food. Niederkofler’s ‘Cook the mountain’ philosophy has seen him revive almost forgotten local produce. Don’t miss his pressknodle (dumplings) with graukäse (grey cheese).
WHO: Nicola Laera
WHERE: La Stüa de Michil at Hotel La Perla.
WHAT TO EAT: Anything served in this restaurant’s beautiful stuben (15th-century wood-panelled living rooms) is a joy, but don’t miss the slow-roasted meats and wild boar pastas. Laera is a quintessential Austro-Italian chef who combines hearty mountain fare and classic pasta and barley dishes with serious panache. The sort of place where you pray for a snowstorm to set in.
RAISE A GLASS: With 28 varieties (9% are DOC-listed and few are exported) South Tyrol’s wine is a wonder. Take a wine safari to ski, board or snowshoe between rifugi (mountain huts) and sample Gewurztraminer, Pinot Nero and Schiava.
TASTE THE MOUNTAIN: Head out on a Gourmet Skisafari to sample the region’s Michelin-starred dishes on piste for bargain prices — rustled up by chefs at rifugi in Alta Badia. Four courses with paired wines from €40 (£37).
STEP BACK IN TIME: After the First World War, South Tyrol was handed to Italy from Austria. In summer, adventurous travellers can explore vie ferrate (climbing routes), while Ladin Museum traces the history of the valleys.
GO HIKING: South Tyrol’s winter hiking trails allow the uninitiated to hit the mountains without special equipment or training. Try the magical Alpe di Rodengo in the Gitschberg Jochtal region.
LEARN LADIN: Spoken by barely 20,000 people, this Rhaeto-Romance language dates back to Roman times. You can get by in English, German or Italian but the following Ladin phrases will really endear you to locals — bun dé (hello/good day); assudëi (goodbye); prëitambel (please); and giulan (thanks).
The Lagació Hotel Mountain Residence, in San Cassiano, is a 24-room, all-suite eco-hotel with a vast spa (hay beds, icy plunge pool, saunas and steam rooms) and banquet-like breakfasts. From £228 a night, for two, including breakfast, afternoon tea and spa access.
A six-day Dolomiti Superski pass costs €235 (£266).
Innsbruck or Venice are the closest airports.
Published in the Winter Sports 2017 guide, distributed with the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)