Our shelter for the night is a simple wooden hut, 6,560ft above sea level. We’ve no electricity, scant phone signal, no wi-fi. The dim light of a log fire and a few candles casts spooky shadows on the walls around the decorative skulls of long-dead deer. A frog the size of a pigeon hops about outside the front door. What kind of night are we going to have?
We arrived in San Cassiano two days before — me, my husband, John-Paul, and our daughter, Nancy (12) — having flown to Innsbruck then crossed the border into the Italian South Tyrol, then up, up, up into the jagged peaks of the Dolomites — snow-topped even in high summer but golden in the setting sun.
We planned an active holiday, with some luxurious relaxation built in, courtesy of Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, a five-star in San Cassiano that’s been run by the Pizzini family for generations.
San Cassiano is best known for skiing (it has an impressive 80 miles of slopes) but in summer it offers us the chance to go hiking, climbing, and to enjoy high-end cooking lessons — not to mention spend many joyous hours flying about on cable-cars and chairlifts.
On our first morning, the hotel’s mountain guide, Diego, takes us on a hike into the mountains. I’ve rarely seen a man as happy as the sprightly Diego, who almost skips as he walks. In his time, he’s guided many notable people through the hillside meadows — media moguls, presidents and now, er, us.
We’re here in mid-July: perfect to enjoy the mountains in full bloom with blues, pinks, yellows and whites; clover, forget-me-nots, primulas, orchids, globeflowers, mountain avens, indigo gentians. Many of them are edible, and Diego regularly dives into the tangle of vegetation to pull out tasty morsels of wild spinach, or garlic, or violas to eat.
I’d been unsure about having a guide with us — worried Nancy might get bored with endless facts. But she’s entranced by Diego, and together they walk his beloved ‘pale mountains’ and hunt the wilderness for more things to eat.
This being Italy, there’s always something tasty around the corner. After a short walk, we arrive at Bioch, a mountain refuge with stripy deckchairs to relax in as you gaze at glacier-topped Marmolada mountain in the distance. We’re greeted by Markus, Bioch’s exuberant host, who wears Austrian-style lederhosen. His wife, Suzanne, is resplendent in a green dirndl. This is border country and Diego explains how the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the South Tyrol to Italy after World War I. Everyone speaks German as well as Italian (plus Ladin, the local language). Much of the cuisine is Austrian but with an Italian twist (or is that Italian with an Austrian twist?). We tuck into hearty barley soup and tutres (crispy pancakes filled with spinach and ricotta or sauerkraut).
Bioch is part of the Giro d’Italia dei Sapori, a culinary scheme involving 10 mountain huts in the Alta Badia ski area working with Michelin-starred chefs. Thus I find myself lunching on steamed Arctic char, infused with aromatic herbs — a dish created by Norbert Niederkofler, the head chef at Rosa Alpina’s two-Michelin-star Restaurant St Hubertus.
Diego decides Nancy has done so well hiking that she should try a climbing lesson the next day. He arranges for fellow guide Filippo to take us to the area’s highest mountain pass. “Climbing,” says Diego, “is like dancing.” And he does a little shuffle to demonstrate.
The next day, Filippo kits us out with hard hats and climbing shoes. It may be mid-summer but it’s freezing up here in the mountains and Filippo kindly lends Nancy his fleece and hat.
We start our climb amid snow and ice and there’s a chill northerly wind blowing. Filippo scrambles up the sheer cliff attaching the guide ropes for us. At this point, Nancy’s face becomes white and pinched. She holes herself up in a little nook at the bottom of the cliff and refuses to move. Considering it a mother’s duty not to let the side down — despite feeling pretty pinched myself — I allow Filippo to put me into a harness and I begin to climb, with another guide shouting instructions below. I’m terrified but my attempt isn’t too embarrassing: I scale half the cliff before bottling out. The second time round, I almost reach the top. Nancy, I’m afraid to say, refuses to budge.
Afterwards, Filippo takes us to the Museum of the Great War. Up here, 100 years ago, the Austro-Hungarians fought the Italians in bleak trenches, tunnels and on the rocky precipices in sub-zero temperatures. It was also the site of fierce mine warfare. The remnants of the conflict are everywhere on the mountainsides — twisted barbed wire, canons, stone hideouts… And in the museum, we find helmets full of shrapnel holes piled into heaps. Soldiers’ remains and belongings are still occasionally discovered as the glaciers retreat during summer.
On our final afternoon, we’ve booked a five-course cooking lesson with Norbert Niederkofler. Pushing through the swing doors into the kitchens, we meet the great man and are soon kitted out with our own aprons. Norbert explains his philosophy of seasonal, local food, which he describes as ‘cooking the mountains’. The idea is to be at one with nature and to use everything available. It’s a privilege to hear his secrets and watch him effecting them, not least because each course comes with a specially chosen wine. A salad is constructed like a mountaintop with flowers at the peak. Another dish comprises beetroot gnocchi, beer soil (a heady mix of bread, beer and charcoal) and cream of cress. And after the savoury courses, pastry chef Andrea Tortora shows us how to make a sublime tarte tatin — a row of hot panettone temptingly hanging upside down above us from the ceiling to cool.
But what about that mountain hut? Did we survive our night up there? Of course we did. The only danger, it turned out, was from overeating. Splendidly isolated, though it is, the hut is owned and managed by the hotel, and they’d laid on a hearty barbecue (complete with chef), followed by generous slabs of their famous strudel.
When bedtime came, I worried about leaving Nancy alone on a bed by the fire, so I sent her up to one on a raised platform, where she complained the air was a bit hot. Getting down the rickety stairs to the loo, in the dark, was a challenge for all of us. And the water for washing was mountain-freezing. But the overall effect was bracing and life-enhancing. Next morning, we awoke to glorious sunshine and sat on the seat outside, heedless of the oversized frogs, sunning ourselves and soaking up the silence — interrupted only by birdsong, and distant clangs of cowbells.
Harriet Green travelled with husband John-Paul and daughter Nancy, 12.
Kids who enjoy walking and outdoor adventures.
“I loved sitting next to the roaring fire in the darkness of our mountain cabin.” (Nancy)
“It was too cold for rock climbing and I didn’t want to do it anyway.” (Nancy)
Need to know
Fly to Innsbruck Airport then drive to the Dolomites (90 minutes). Or fly to Venice (2-3-hour drive).
How to do it
Power Byrne’s seven-night Air & Space adventure programme from £1,745pp, based on a family of four people travelling in July, staying on a B&B basis in a Deluxe Double room at five-star Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano. Includes return airport transfers.
Published in the 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)