If I didn't know better, I would say we have taken a wrong turn. The deeper we head into Alto Adige, Italy's northern-most province, the more I feel we have accidentally crossed a border and strayed into neighbouring Austria. Instead of the rolling hills and fertile plains that characterise much of Italy, studded with baroque cities and charming hill towns, we find ourselves in a very different landscape. Here, verdant green slopes rise to cloud-scraping peaks, punctuated by swathes of pine forests and picturesque Alpine villages.
There is a reason for this distinctly Teutonic vibe. This province, also known by its German name of Sudtirol, was part of Austria until the end of World War I, and German is still widely-spoken. It has long been popular with European skiers; locals will proudly tell you that there are more than 1200 kilometres of ski slopes. However, the area's stunning peaks and high plains – which have scored a UNESCO World Heritage listing for their exceptional beauty as well as their geomorphology – are increasingly drawing summer visitors who have realised that the Dolomites offer some of the most scenic hikes in Europe. Which is why, when we wake up on our first morning in the mountains, the first thing we do is to reach for our walking shoes.
The area is so rich in trails that choosing which one to tackle first is difficult. So we outsource our decision-making to Agustina. Agustina, like most locals, is an outdoors type. Her job involves leading hikes in summer and ski safaris in winter; on her days off, she does pretty much the same thing.
Agustina is looking forward to today's hike. "It's a really beautiful area," she says. I ask her how long the hike will take. "Five, six, seven hours ... it really depends on you," she says.
"Um, I think we're more short-trail hikers," I say, cautiously. "Maybe three hours?"
"We'll see how you go," she answers. "There are always options."
This, it turns out, is not strictly true. For the first part of our walk, there are no options at all. The only way is up – straight up. Living in a hilly area, I am used to slopes, but nothing like this. To describe the gradient as vertical would be an exaggeration, but only a small one. I'm lifting my knees higher than I have ever lifted them outside a yoga studio. To see what lies ahead, I actually have to crane my neck.
I don't bother doing that much, because I have other things to concentrate on. The uneven ground, for one, which makes the whole thing more challenging. Then there is the sweat pouring down my back. It is not a particularly warm day, and I am not a particularly sweaty person. Nonetheless, perspiration is cascading down my back in torrents strong enough to power a hydro-electric plant.
My discomfort has not gone unnoticed. "Let's stop and look at the view," says Agustina. I wipe the sweat off my face and obediently gaze out at the view, a magnificent vista across a ridge of mountains silhouetted behind a sunlit valley. I have other things on my mind, however. I want to know how much longer we'll be heading uphill. "Not that much further," Agustina lies convincingly.
It takes us an hour of steady slogging to reach level ground. Once we do, however, all is forgiven. A whole new terrain stretches out before us, a high plain where wildflowers stud the grass, where the only way to cross a pristine mountain brook is by strolling across a log, where the highest peaks seem to be within touching distance – and where there are no roads, houses or people in sight. It is simply stunning. From here on in, I hike with a huge smile on my face, dazzled by the beauty that surrounds us.
Now that the hard work is behind us, we actually get to chat. In between trading personal stories, we talk about the area's unique history. As well as its German heritage, Alto Adige has another unique culture, that of the Ladins, an ancient ethnic minority that has preserved its own language, identity and culture. Many locals still speak the language – at least, one of its versions. There are no fewer than five different dialects, each confined to one specific valley. The fascinating history of the Ladins fuels our conversation right through our delicious lunch, enjoyed at a mountain hut that offers hearty Alpine food.
So far we have only encountered a handful of other hikers. As we begin the second leg of our hike, we catch up with some familiar faces: a couple of mountain bikers who passed us earlier. More precisely, we catch up with one of them. He is way ahead of us; she is lagging behind, clearly fatigued. As we watch, she loses focus for a moment and falls off her bike. Fortunately, she lands in a convenient patch of springy bush, nothing injured apart from her pride. It takes her partner a while to realise something is wrong. The last we see of him he is unconcernedly doing loops on his bike, waiting for her to catch up. We predict that a blazing row is in the works.
Our day ends much more convivially. After our full-day hike – we have clocked up more than 20 kilometres, Agustina tells us – we retire to our hotel for a session in the spa followed by a feast in a wine cellar. Our hosts at Ciasa Salares, a five-star hotel run by the Wieser family, have noted our interest in the local food and wine, and organised a tasting in their sprawling cellar. The Wiesers are justly proud of their wine collection, which consists of no fewer than 24,000 bottles across more than 1800 labels.
Leading us through the tasting is Jan-Clemens Wieser, a baby-faced 20-something who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of wine. He explains that Ciasa Salares focuses on organic and biodynamic wines from small producers. More than half of its collection is Italian, with a huge array drawn from the area. The local producers prove to be an adventurous bunch: among the wines we sample are albarinos, pinot noirs and Muller-Thurgaus.
Jan-Clemens doesn't want us drinking on an empty stomach, so he has arranged an array of local specialties including fondues, cheeses and salume to graze on. The cold cuts are particularly impressive; the flavoursome speck was made by Jan-Clemens' grandfather, smoked over arola pine and birch wood.
The gourmet delights don't stop there. Jan-Clemens' father, Stefan, presides over the hotel's two-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Siriola, where we experience a superb tasting menu, a cavalcade of delicately-constructed dishes that includes venison done in yuzu and black garlic paired with smoked eel, and red prawns with white asparagus, lime, and rice crisps.
One of the highlights of the meal is a visit to the restaurant's chocolate room, an aromatic haven where guests can take their pick from about 70 different chocolates. There are pralines, blocks of chocolate and unusual pairing combinations including chocolate with pecorino cheese. Choosing what to put on your plate is not an easy decision, but you are welcome to take your time.
Tempting as it is, don't overdo things at dinner; you will want to be ready for action again by the time breakfast rolls around. Jan-Clemens has recommended that we try the preserves made by his grandmother, especially the blueberry. I agree that the blueberry is particularly good but then, so are the others.
However, as I graze my way through the bread basket each morning, I discover that many of the area's traditional breads are best enjoyed either with butter or with savoury topping. My go-to choices are the Laugenbrot, made with pretzel dough, and the Paarlbrot. This local flatbread has a fabulous crunch and a hint of fennel and cumin that makes it ridiculously moreish. If I needed just one more reason to start planning my return trip, I have found it.
The Classic Safari Company offers tailored walking and hiking itineraries in the Dolomites in summer, as well as ski safaris in winter. Phone 1300 130 218 or see classicsafaricompany.com.au
The five-star Ciasa Salares teams the warmth of a family-run establishment with a range of culinary temptations including a two-Michelin-star restaurant and a 24,000-bottle wine cellar. Rates start from €272 per night, including breakfast.
Ute Junker travelled with the support of Ciasa Salares, the Classic Safari Company and Rail Europe.