The Dolomites for Seniors

It  was hot  – too hot – in southern France, and much of the world this summer. Day after day.  Week after week.  I had to escape.  The mountains called.  I chose Italy’s Dolomites, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) from our abode in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France.  We made the drive in two days, less stress for seniors, with an overnight stop in Brescia. 

Brescia for an overnight stop and beer break. City cathedral in background,

As a passionate skier (sadly those days are over), I knew some of the Dolomite’s famous slopes, including the renowned Sella Ronda, a 500 -kilometer ski circuit.  It stretches through four valleys around the Sella mountain which are also connected by road passes.   And, I remembered a challenging ascent to the Adamello, a 11,000-foot peak, many, many years ago.  I was eager to return to these mighty mountains – even without the challenges and excitement of bygone days.

This would be a Dolomites for Seniors trip. I am not as fit as I was in younger days, and husband Bob is struggling with Alzheimer. No overnights in mountain huts for us. No all-day killer hikes. Not even strenuous 1/2 day treks. Been there. Done that. We would take leisurely walks and drive – not hike -through the heights. Thanks to tips from friend Noel and his Italian buddy Fabio, we stayed in a lovely, if not luxurious, apartment in the town of La Villa.  My  friend Karen was with us.

Unlike us, Karen is a very fit senior and dedicated walker.  She set off every morning for two-hour hikes.  Bob does not move too quickly in the morning.  While Karen hiked, I got Bob up, dressed and breakfasted.  When she came back,  we were ready for adventure at a slow, senior pace.

My trusty new Suzuki Swift, Poppy, was the perfect mountain car.  Agile, responsive and fun.  She took those curves like a champ, and they were endless. Not quite like my beloved Porsche, but that too was a different era.

We drove the Sella Ronda route, up and down, switchback after switchback. Fortunately, there are places to pull off for photos.  During our week in these rugged mountains, I went photo crazy.   I could not resist.  Every view was a postcard.

While Bob and I are not up to strenuous treks, we figured we could try a gentle mountain walk.  We followed the advice of a local and set off on a trail  to  the hut/rifugio, Munt Pasciantado. The jaunt was not exactly senior flat as we had been led to believe. There is no such thing in the Dolomites.  Yet, it was pleasant and the goulash lunch at the rifugio was delicious. Goulash, not pasta, in Italy?

We were in South Tyrol, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian.  The region borders Austria to the north, and was part of Austria-Hungary until it was annexed by Italy after World War I. There are three official languages:  Italian, German and Ladin. The latter is an ancient Rhaeto-Romance dialect derived from popular Latin and spoken by just four percent of the population. Ladin is also spoken in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland.

Most everyone in Sud Tyrol is  bilingual, and most Ladins are tri-lingual. We were in the southern part where more Italian than German is spoken, yet there is much that is Germanic, such as the  architecture and food.  

We had another fun and tasty rifugio interlude at Rifugio Valparola at the top of a mountain pass where  more German specials were on the menu: Bratwurst, potato salad and apple strudel. The cozy ambience was 100 % gemütlich, almost like being back in Germany. Hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists savoured their accomplishments and replenished themselves after strenuous activity. We had not earned those calories, but we still enjoyed. I even went for the Italian finale:  Grappa.  The rifugio has 10 different flavors of this fiery brew, all homemade.  I followed the owner’s suggestion and went for Cirolo Zirm, delicious, although I have no idea what the flavor was.

The rifugio was on our route to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort that is part  of Dolomiti Superski, the largest ski area in the world.  We were disappointed. in the town, but the drive was spectacular.

We could not hike to the peaks, but we could ride.  From Corvara, just a few kilometers from our apartment in La Villa, we rode a gondola then a chairlift to a windblown, barren area with super views of surrounding mountains and endless photo opps. Getting off a moving chairlift with no boards attached to your feet and no snow on the ground can be tricky — at least for some seniors. We conquered, but with senior angst.

The part of Sud Tryol around the Sella Massif is Ladinia, the heart of the Dolomites where 30,000 Ladins live. In addition to their language,  they have their own culture, traditions and culinary specials.  Since food is a travel highlight for me,  I was eager to try  Ladin cuisine.

Claudine Saltuari, a manager at our apartment complex (www.dolomit.it), suggested an agriturismo, Maso Runch. We have been to many agriturismi over the years, usually rustic farms which offer simple local food and lodging.  This one was especially popular, and only with Claudine’s assistance could we get a reservation.

It was like no other agriturismo – china, crystal and fine wines – and more popular with seniors than the younger set. The food was copious, course after course.  Following a hearty barley soup, we tasted three different kinds of tutres, pastry filled with spinach, sauerkraut or potatoes. Both are popular in the Ladin kitchen.


Next came a pasta course, ravioli filled with spinach.  And more — multiple platters with goulash, pork shank, polenta, sauerkraut, fried potatoes.   We were stuffed, but could not pass on the dessert: Apple fritters with ice cream.  After all that, a digestif Grappa was in order.    

For more about the Ladins, we visited the Museum Ladin Ciastel de Tor in the town of Badia – good senior activity. The informative and well-presented displays are housed in an ancient, restored castle.    For centuries Ladins lived somewhat isolated in this terrain of steep, rocky slopes.  They were poor, living off the harsh land.  Things began to change with more skiers and hikers discovering the attractions and beauty of the Dolomites.  Tourism brought opportunity for an easier life.  As they began to intermarry and intermingle, preserving the language became challenging. In Ladinia, children learn both German and Italian in school, and Ladin three times per week.

We found cool and delightful temperatures in the Dolomites – and much more.  No need to be a hardcore athlete to appreciate the Dolomites. Even old folks can enjoy this awesome region.

Scroll down for more photos.

When the sun is shining, sunset in the Dolomites is magnificent.
Same mountain as above. Dolomite clouds can also be spectacular.
I had a fun chat in German with this gentleman at a local products market in the nearby town of San Cassiano, a cute and classy village.
Church in San Cassiano
Apple Strudel. We could not get enough of this favorite which the French have not mastered. Several afternoons we did the German ritual, Kaffe und Kuchen (strudel). But, Italians not forgotten. Sometimes we opted for the Italian custom: Late afternoon apero with savoury snacks.

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Italy’s German Accent: Sud Tyrol

blog.st.10Signs advertising “Speck” everywhere we looked: along the roads, in shop windows, at street stands. ”Speck” is German for bacon, but we had just come down the mountains from Switzerland into Italy, not Germany.blog.st.6

This was northern Italy, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian. The majority of the population speaks German – and obviously eats plenty of Speck. Ordinary bacon this regional specialty is not, nor should it be confused with Italian prosciutto (ham). Speck is rubbed with herbs, spices and berries, smoked for different lengths of time with different hardwoods, and air dried in the area’s mountain climate.   This makes it distinct, unique – the echt expression of the region.

Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck -- yummy)
Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck — yummy)

I was on my annual trip to research articles for the magazine German Life, with BB as my chauffeur, Sherpa and trusty companion. After a few days in Leukerbad, a Swiss spa town in the Alps, followed by a visit to Davos, we proceeded to this intriguing part of Italy.

Since German predominates here, I’ll call it Sud Tyrol. Our travels took us to Merano, Bolzano, Brixen, and lovely spots in between. We found it all enticing and enjoyed two fascinating museums, picturesque hikes, the charming towns, blogst.1some excellent meals and a wonderful hotel. BB, who sadly does not do much biking these days but is passionate about wine, was thrilled with the local vintages. I may have to change his name from Bicycle Bob (BB) to Vino Roberto (VR).   Which shall it be?

Merano (Meran) is a marvel, a beauty of a town on the banks of the frisky Passirio River with fanciful flower beds, an arcaded shopping street and a spa center, all surrounded by mountains. The riverside summer and winter blog.st.2promenades  (passeggiate d’Inverno and passeggiate d’Estate) – paths through woods, past flowers and tropical plants, with the sounds of the rambunctious river tumbling over rocks, are glorious. We stopped to watch a kayaker practice on surging rapids.blog.st.13

“North and south meet here. It’s the best of two worlds,” said our Bolzano city guide, Luciano Rech, who filled us in on the region’s history. Sud Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War I during which Italy initially remained neutral. In 1915, as an incentive to enter on their side, the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria and Hungary) offered Italy a chunk of land, all territories south of the Alpine water divide regardless of the ethnic makeup of the regions. At the time, 92.2 per cent of the population was said to be ethnic Germans. In 1919 the territory was annexed by Italy, and has been Italian ever since,  with the exception of the years 1943-1945 when it was de facto annexed to the German Reich until the fall of Germany. Both German and Italian are considered official languages.blog.st.18

It has not always been a peaceful co-existence, marred at times by repression and terrorism. During the 1930s and again in the 1950s Italians were forcibly resettled to the region. According to the 2011 census, German speakers make up 61.5 percent of the population, Italian speakers, 23.1 percent, and 4 percent  speak Ladin, an ancient language derived from Latin. All seems peaceful, and the region has a significant degree of autonomy. However, there are still some who resent being under the yoke of Rome and argue for independence.blog.st.15

“I’m Tyrolean” announces Rech. “I don’t feel we are the same as people from Naples, Rome.”   Many others I spoke too echoed his sentiments.Bolzano (Bozen), a bustling city and the capital of Sud Tyrol, is the home of Ötzi, the mummy of an Iceman discovered in

Recreation of Otzi
Recreation of Otzi

1991 in the mountains at the edge of a melting glacier. The museum where he is preserved behind glass is a must with enlightening exhibits of garb and objects that were found with him. And, extensive documentation, including videos, on the sensational find and what has been learned from and about Ötzi. He died 5,300 years ago after having been shot by an arrow, presumably murdered.

Famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner (first solo ascent of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen) has created the Messner Mountain Museum outside of town on the slopes of a mountain and in the ruins of a castle. It’s blog.st.20a genuine mountain experience, with lots of steps (I felt we were back in Myanmar), skinny walkways, metal ladders and fabulous views.   Follow the itinerary in and out of buildings, up slopes and towers, across bridges, past exhibits on his climbs, mountain terrain, Himalayan artifacts and more. Messner, who is a native of Brixen in Sud Tyrol, has established four other mountain museums in the province.blog.st.19

En route to Bolzano we stopped for an overnight so we could take a hike in the hills and soak in the scenery. We trekked amongst grape vines and apple blog.st.11orchards, and stumbled upon some sexy snakes. We had a wonderful lunch at an eatery under an arbor of grape vines with gorgeous views. The food, especially the apple strudel, was definitely more Germanic than Italian. The proprietors also sell wine, so of course we tasted and bought.blog.st.12

Unfortunately we did not make it to the mighty Dolomites which are part of the province for some real mountain hiking. After Bolzano we spent two nights at an inn, the Ansitz Zehentner, in the town of Lajen (Laion) where a rollicking fest was underway when we arrived. Women in dirndls. Men in trachten (traditional costume). Plenty of beer. And, blasen music (wind instruments). We could have been back in Germany.blog.st.22

Frau Schenk, proprietor of the inn which dates back to 1358, suggested a hike through fields and forests to a well-known hotel and restaurant , Gasthof Ansitz Fonteklaus. Sitting outside under mammoth trees amidst the mountain scenery was perfect — and so was the food.blog.st.21

Our travels ended in Brixen (Bressanone), another gem of a town, where we splurged and spent a night at the classy Elephant Hotel with an excellent dinner in the hotel’s noted restaurant. The 450-year old hotel has been run by the same family since 1773. It was named after the pachyderm which was sent by blog.st.24Suleiman I to Archduke Maximilan as a gift in 1551. The elephant had a long journey from India, to Portugal, then Genoa and onto the Alps where it rested at the inn in Brixen, causing a sensation among the locals who had never seen such a beast, en route to Vienna. The elephant fresco on the hotel’s façade was painted many, many years later by someone who had never seen an elephant but based his rendering on descriptions.   What happened to the well-traveled elephant?   I learned that after the epic journey it only survived another two years.blog.st.17

Before heading back to France I stopped at a butcher shop and loaded up on some very savory sausage — and Speck.

For more information:

Bolzano: www.bolzano-bozen.it

Ötzi : www.iceman.itblog.st.26

Messner Mountain Museum: www.messner-mountain-museum.it

Excellent central hotel in Bolzano (Stadt Hotel Citta): www.hotelcitta.info

Ansitz Zehentner: www.zehentnerhof.com

Hotel Elephant: www.hotelelephant.com

 

Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Rhubarb Streusel Pie.  If you like rhubarb, you’ll love this.  See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While  you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.

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Trip finale -- dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.
Trip finale — dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.