Situated at the crossroads of Austria, Switzerland, the region of South Tyrol is situated in the northernmost point in Italy – as such, it has trilingual road signs (Italian, German and Ladin) – but most locals speak German as their native tongue. This mountainous area is a big draw for climbers, mountaineers, and skiers, especially when it comes to the area’s most famous landscape: the Dolomites, birthplace of via ferrata.
With an ever-changing landscape depending on the season, the lush fertile valleys are dotted with apple orchards and vineyards, as well as hundreds of medieval castles and churches.
With over 20,000kms of well-marked hiking trails, 1,200kms of ski trails and hundreds of biking trails and climbing routes, there’s no shortage of things to do, whether you’re a hiker, climber, biker or skier.
Most travellers come to this region to explore the infamous Dolomite range – a formidable collection of sharp, fingers of grey rock protruding from the valleys up to 3,000m high. Once a fierce battleground in WWI, troops invented a series of vertical paths comprised of iron hooks and stairs (the ‘via ferrata’ we know today) to get behind enemy lines.
Today, it is a mecca for adventurers, who come here to hike, climb, ski, and tackle the famous via ferrata routes. Throughout the mountain range, mountain huts and WWI relics, like mountain trenches and tunnels, add to the charm.
The gateway to this region is the holiday town of Val Gardena, located just north of Bolzano.
A number of long distance footpaths – labelled from 1 to 8 – traverse the Dolomites. These ‘Alta Vie’ (high paths) require at least a week to complete, with food and accommodations served by the numerous mountain huts that link these paths.
A majority of visitors come to climb the via ferrata routes, as the Dolomites has not only the most number of routes in the world, but also the most interesting ones in terms of scenery and history.
The eastern Dolomites, characterised by the Sella Massif, has many via ferrata routes that range from easy (mainly scrambling) to difficult (requiring experience) climbs.
A mountain guide is required to tackle the Dolomites, and you can hire one from the Association of South Tyrolean Mountain Guides in Bolzano.
The hills surrounding Bolzano are excellent for walks and hikes, and there are plenty of themed walks to choose from. The hills above the city are crowned with pathways bordered by Mediterranean vegetation, interspersed with plots of apple orchards and vineyards.
Situated above Bolzano is the high plateau of Renon (Ritten) with its 17 villages and picturesque vineyards that spread all the way to the Alpine highlands; not surprisingly, it’s an area famous for its summer retreats. The 2-hour long Ritten Theme Walkway traverses the Renon plateau, giving walkers an insight into the characteristics of the high plateau, from fascinating earth pyramids to the old Emperor roads. This scenic walk is accessible from the village of Soprabolzano (Oberbozen), which can be reached by cable car or bus from Bolzano, or via the historic Railway Renon (established in 1907) from Piazza Walther in Bolzano directly to the plateau with an elevation gain of 1,000m.
One of the highlights of Renon are the earth pyramids – soil erosions resembling mud spikes that protrude from the forest, creating a geological feature that is unique in Europe. It’s hard to tell how long the formation of a full-blown earth pyramid actually takes, although it’s estimated that they’re at least 25,000 years old.
The Emperor roads are forest paths characterised by huge stone slabs, created when the original settlers (the Rhaetians) moved to this area, and over the years has become the passage for over 60 Imperial processions to and from Rome.
Walkers can also participate in Törggelen – an autumn tradition along the “wine road” (Weinstraße) that involves long walks from farmhouse to farmhouse, tasting new wine and local delicacies.
Stretching about 80km long, Valle Isarco (Eisacktal Valley) is one of the main valleys of South Tyrol linking Bolzano and Bressanone, and is lined with many picturesque side valleys. Due to its pre-Mediterranean climate, the area has a centuries-old tradition of chestnut harvesting, as well as an fruit farming and viticulture. Among the natural highlights are apples blossoming in spring on the high plateau of Naz-Sciaves, the colourful chestnut trees which line the chestnut trail of Velturno, and the vineyards around the medieval city of Bressanone.
The valley is also known as the ‘valley of trails’ and an interesting one to tackle is the Keschtnweg (Chestnut Trail) which connects Bolzano to Bressanone across Valle Isarco and up to Renon mountain above Bolzano, and into the valley as far as Castle Roncolo (Runkelstein). The route passes many traditional mountain inns and old, sweet chestnut groves along the 60km trail; the trail can be hiked in individual sections ranging from 2-4 hours long. The best time to hike is in autumn during harvest (and Törggelen) season. Valle Isarco is also popular for cycling, with paths that are easily accessible from Bolzano.
The best place to base yourself is in the Italian city of Bolzano (or Bozen in German), which is also the capital of South Tyrol. At 265m above sea level and surrounded by mountains, the city has an Italian-Austrian character, enhanced by its narrow cobblestone streets, Habsburg-era churches and bilingual signages.
Known as the “Gateway to the Dolomites”, it’s located along one of the most important routes running from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, it is an ideal base for an exploration of the South Tyrol region.
Bolzano is also home of the renowned mountaineer Rheinhold Messner who’s conquered all seven summits. He’s since built 5 Mountain Museums scattered around South Tyrol – the closest to Bolzano is in Firmian, set dramatically within the ruins of Castle Sigmundskron.
Bolzano is well-served by rail, as it is at the rail crossroads between southern and central Europe. There are regular train connections between Bolzano and Milan, Rome and Venice, as well as Germany and Austria. Short flights also connect Rome to its local airport.