Steep-roofed chalets; wooden balconies overflowing with geraniums; mountains and pine trees, waterfalls and lakes: we’re in Austria or Switzerland, surely. Well, as it happens, we’re not. This is Trentino that, along with neighbouring South Tyrol, is as far north as you can go before leaving Italy.
In fact, the similarity with Austria is not so surprising because until the end of the First World War, this was indeed part of the Austrian Empire. There is still a lot of German spoken alongside Italian (and a unique Latin-based local language, Ladino) and it is this blend of Italian and Austrian that has produced a unique culture. And it is one that is based around mountain life.
The Dolomites are part of the Alps and thickly forested. In winter, of course, they are covered in snow and this is a major ski and winter sports destination. The rest of the year, though, locals and visitors flock to the great outdoors for a wide range of activities: walking or more serious hiking – you can make your way between mountain huts, staying overnight before you trek to the next one; as well as mountain biking and sailing on the lakes.
Or you can simply go out into the forest to relax in some of the cleanest air you’re going to find in Europe. This is nature at its most pristine with nearly half a billion trees over three protected parks where there are deer, chamois, eagles and even brown bears (don’t worry too much – there are just 40 of them hidden in the higher regions).
It’s a place with a lot of history and you can see this everywhere – even in small towns and villages and much of this is due to that Austrian empire. Cavalese is a case in point. With just 4000 inhabitants and perched 1000m in the mountains, you would imagine this could be a remote, sleepy, forgotten spot. In fact, it was one of the places where the Prince Bishop of Trento (the same kind of government as they had in Salzburg) had a summer residence that was also a courthouse.
The Palazzo della Magnifica Comuita di Fiemme belonged to the Prince Bishops from 1398 to 1800 and it is the centre of local government to this day as well as being a museum filled with frescoes, paintings and some rather gruesome prison cells.
Trento itself, the regional capital, has even more magnificent architecture, notably the Buonconsiglio Castle and a beautiful cathedral. The castle made its name during the 18-year-long Council of Trent when the Catholic Church fought back against the rising tide of Protestantism and instituted the Counter Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Trento is, though, perhaps equally famous for its precious spumante, Trentodoc, renowned in Italy but far less known in the UK where Prosecco has dominated the market for Italian sparkling wines. Unlike Prosecco, Trentodoc spumante is made traditionally and fermented in the bottle (methode champenoise) and if you take the opportunity to visit a local vineyard for a tasting tour, your mind will be changed forever on the subject of Italian fizz!
The wine tours themselves are a delight, often situated on the lower slopes with magnificent mountains rising up behind and with historic manor houses at their centre. Some of the best include Villa Corniole where you can taste their sparkling, red and white wines accompanied by local hams and cheeses. At Borgo dei Posseri, you explore the vineyard with a map and a tasting of each wine among its own vines – and all among breath-taking scenery.
This is really what Trentino is all about – mountains and their unique produce. You can eat down on the farm – hearty rustic fare at Maso Sorte just outside Cavalese where all the food has been produced locally and food miles come in at around 10km. Try the speck – a dry-cured lightly smoked ham – mountain cheeses, sausages and creamy polenta. Or, at the other end of the gastronomic scale, there is El Molin, an old mill that takes traditional ingredients to a whole new level. Michelin-starred chef, Alessandro Gilmozzi’s tiny restaurant scours the forests for what sound like the most unlikely foods that turn into magic on the plate. I tried a dessert that included resin sorbet (from the pines) and candied lichen – quite delicious!
It’s a perfect foodie break – and with plenty of forest trails to walk off the calories.
For more information on Trentino, check their website here.
El Molin: www.alessandrogilmozzi.com