Anna is teaching me the highly skilled art of Tyrolean cooking at the chalet Luech de Curijel in Selva and she’s not looking best pleased. It seems my Apfelstrudel and spinach crafuncins, two of the simplest of local dishes here in Val Gardena, are not up to standard. Now when your teacher possesses hands with the power to knead dough as if it were mash potato, generating hostility is not a healthy option.
“Again” she tells me, pointing to a new mound of flour and a pile of fresh eggs. It seems Anna’s ruthless efficiency stems from Val Gardena’s melting pot of German and Italian cultures as the South Tyrol makes the most of its almost autonomous status from Italy. And it’s not just in a linguistic sense using its unique Ladin tongue; “We may have the Italian food and culture” she acknowledges, “but it’s mixed with real German efficiency, so please concentrate”
I always do what I’m told.
Considering Val Gardena’s three principal villages Selva, Santa Cristina and Ortisei have a combined population of just over 5,000, it’s surprising to find out just over 200 of these are highly skilled woodcarvers. Born from family traditions since the 17th century, woodcarving is an institution here. But in this particular studio, the art is light years away from Val Gardena’s typically religious based pieces, for this is the studio of the legendary Aron Demetz, a woodcarver who has achieved global recognition through his abstract sculptures of life-sized human form. “I like to use everything there is in wood to make my pieces” he explains to me as we stand surrounded by his intensely graphic wooden creations, “natural resins, fibres, sap and mould provide my colour, texture and drama, while fire charring provides contrast.”
They are incredibly lifelike if not a little creepy too, but there is no doubting the talent at work here, a talent inherited from his proud woodcarving family heritage honed right here in Val Gardena. We walk beside a new delivery of a Giant Redwood trunk he has salvaged “I’m not sure what I want to do with this yet” I perk up, thinking this is perhaps my chance to be immortalised in wood ” but it needs to dry for a year or so first.” my dreams of immortality are torn asunder before I even offer myself up.
Val Gardena has long been a favourite of skiers, the stunning Dolomites offering a majestic backdrop to world class powdered runs. But now it’s summer in the valley and the fun is altogether different, as skis are swapped for bikes, boots are the walking kind and the Dolomites’ famous pale slopes become a blank canvas for the sun to work its full colour palette from dawn to dusk.
It’s morning following a thoroughly enjoyable dinner and night at the delightful Hotel Gran Baita in Selva, I’m taking the Resciesa cabletrain from Ortisei up to the Puez-Geisler Naturalparc for a hike in The Dolomites. There is method to my madness of course, because a well deserved lunch is planned at the legendary Sofie Hut, perched some 2,500 metres up and short listed for best European and North American mountain restaurant in the upcoming Telegraph Ski and Snow awards.
“You have to be back in town by 5pm to watch the sunset with a Hugo” remarks guide Manuel.
“A.Hugo?” I ask, “Is he a local celebrity?
“It’s the custom. Got to be done.”
That’s the kind of local custom I like a lot.
The first few hours is a gentle walk up on the meadows of the Resciesa, the silent necklace of Dolomite peaks are constant foreground companions, a reminder of the drama to come. My other companions are cows, the bells hanging around their necks playing individual concertos as they nibble the mountain grass that gives their cheese such distinct flavour.
The Brogles Hut emerges; a quick pit stop to rest awhile in the sunshine before I tackle the steep ascent up through the dramatic Pana wind gap, literally, a narrow natural gorge across the peak, the only way of navigating is by clutching steel cables bolted into the side of the mountain.
My very own Via Ferrata. Now we’re talking.
The rocky path snakes its way up away from the welcoming arms of the Brogles Hut, gradually narrowing until finally, I reach the cable system deep in Dolomite country. Climbing this narrow gorge is a fitting prelude to lunch and for some reason I ask myself, is there a Ladin word for OMG, as I cling on to a cable and haul myself upwards. Manuel is like a gazelle ahead of me, not even bothering to touch steel in any way.
There is much high fiving and back slapping as I emerge still in one piece onto the Mastle pasture by the Seceda slope, some 2,500 metres higher than when I started out. Manuel tries his best to look impressed but doesn’t fool me for a minute.
It’s a short stroll across to the Sofie Hut but it’s a parallel universe in all honesty. The sun drenched deck is awash with beautiful people, Prosecco and cold cuts. The sound of wine bottles uncorking and much merriment stems from inside and I can’t deny, I’m feeling pretty pleased.
A couple of hours later I’m feeling even better, having sampled some of Markus’s magical pappardelle with mushrooms and a mouth watering beef stew washed down with some spectacular wine from a very impressive cellar. Markus is the third generation host of Sofie and justly maintains its tradition of fine food and wine in my book.
After such a feast, I’m taking a much needed 3 hour walk back down to Ortisei following a circuitous route through more gorgeous valleys and meadows, although there is a gondola service for those too tired (or inebriated ) to walk back.
I cross a meadow and have a moment. Two beautiful horses grazing in the far corner spot me and trot over to say hi. I grab some grass and these beautiful creatures gently nibble it from my hand. Then, with a whinny, they’re off down a path as if to say, enough of this, we have some serious grazing to do.
Back in Ortisei and the Vinoteque La Cercia tucked away at the end of Ortisei’s cosy cobbled pedestrian area, is doing brisk Hugo business as sunset approaches. I grab my drink and join Manuel in the street to watch my mountain turn from pale to a glowing red.
It’s another moment.
All images of Val Gardena and The Dolomites (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about Val Gardena.
The 4* superior Hotel Gran Baita in Selva, which offers summer/autumn packages from Euro 910 to Euro 1,330 per person for 7 nights’ half board, based on two people sharing
Nearest airports to Val Gardena are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo serviced by EasyJet, Ryanair and BA.
Val Gardena has achieved awards in its own right, including Italy’s Best Ski Resort 2014 in the World Ski Awards; Best Value Resort by Crystal Ski; Travellers Choice Award 2013 on TripAdvisor; Best Child Friendly Resort from SnowVole
In winter, the Dolomiti Superskipass offers an incredible 1,220km of slopes and 450 skilifts across 12 ski areas and is the world’s largest ski carousel , including the famous ski circuit of Sella Ronda
Val Gardena’s most famous ski run is Saslong, which is the location of the men’s World Cup downhill race and one of the top five ‘classic’ men’s downhill races
For more information on Val Gardena for either winter or summer stays go to www.valgardena.it/en
Tel: 0039 0471 777 777
Gatwick Express, the non-stop rail-air service between Victoria station and Gatwick Airport, departs every 15 minutes with a journey time of 30 minutes. Gatwick Express is the fastest and best way to travel between central London and Gatwick Airport with return tickets starting from £27.40. With an ongoing 10% discount, it is always cheaper to buy your ticket online at www.gatwickexpress.com