I put one foot in the water and immediately have second thoughts about wading in wearing just my underwear. Pity I don’t have a wetsuit on hand. It’s freezing; I’d guess about 20℃. I take a glance around the edge of the water and my reticence is justified: there are clumps of snow by the rocks and one large hunk of ice that looks like the sort of sculpture you’d find at the Tate Modern. But I’m still hot though: after all, it is 26℃ outside, and I have little beads of perspiration on either side of my temples. I dive in. It is like a shot of morphine to the heart. The relief is instant: who needs Red Bull when you can swim in glacial lakes in the height of summer? These dips cool you down, re-energise the system, alleviate pain and give you a new lease of life–welcome side effects when arriving at the halfway point of a six hour climb. A climb that reaches its summit at 2,000 metres and descends via a series of metal ladders with a precipitous fall to the right should one make a single false move.
Such a fall would leave me flying through the empty space that is the Etschal Valley. The mountain itself is part of the Alpine range known as the Dolomites that marks the northern boundary between Austria and Italy. This natural frontier has long been recognised as the gatekeeper between cultures and its ownership has been in a state of flux for as long as anyone can remember. Most recently, the Dolomite region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after World War II, became part of Italian territory and its (official) name changed from Süd Tirol to the Alto Adige. Not that anyone pays much attention to the official legislation. The names of the towns bear witness to the fact that this is the very edge of Italy: road signs are written in both Italian and German. Yet despite it all, the locals are proud of their own culture–Ladin, which is defined by a strong connection to agriculture and nature–and use their own dialect. Now, whenever I follow the River Adige from Verona, I do not feel like I am traveling in Italy or towards Germanic lands, but to a region unto itself.
I first arrived in South Tyrol by chance. It was about five years ago, and I was scrolling the Instagram feed of some boutique hotel agency when I came across an image of a wall. It was a brick wall with layers of peeling paint in shades of grey and cream; I read the caption “Coming Soon” and then kept on scrolling. For some reason though, in the coming weeks, that photo kept coming to mind: there was a sense of history conveyed in that wall and I wanted to know more. Tracking the property down took a while but was worth it: 1477 Reichhalter was the sensitive renovation of a 500-year-old guesthouse. Sold. I booked a two night stay and then set about establishing where in the world I was going…
Lana, it quickly transpired, was not on the tourist map. A sleepy village 20 minutes’ drive from the spa town of Merano, Lana hosts the second oldest cable car in Europe–possibly its only claim to fame. Come winter season, Lana attracts a niche group of skiers who join the locals on the mountain of Hochmuth / Guardia Alta (language choice dependent). In the summer, the village attracts a different set: those looking to hike or to take advantage of the thermal waters that made the town of Merano so famous. In the short drive from Bolzano to Lana on my first visit, I had established that the vast majority of cars had German and Austrian licence plates, and within 10 minutes of arriving in the village, it was apparent that the number of tourists was outnumbered by the local residents. And even stranger, I was perhaps the only English tourist to be found.
Summer in Lana feels like the entry to the Garden of Eden. Even on the hottest of days, the air is fresh and gently fragranced by a mélange of pine, grass and wildflowers that even the finest parfumier could not replicate. Colours remain verdant rather than morphing into the scorched shades that typify most of the Italian lands come mid-August. This chromatic lustre–moss green, persian blue and coffee brown–is thanks to the valley’s microclimate which allegedly boasts 300 days of sunshine a year.
What makes Lana the jewel in the Etschal valley is its lust for apples. The village’s location at the foot of the San Vigilio mountain range provides fertile ground for the apple orchards that have made Lana’s fortune. On many of my hikes up Hochmuth, I find myself plucking apples from the trees, only to discard them when another more vibrantly hued variety catches my eye. The combination of acidity and sugar is necessary “fuel” and detracts my attention from the increasingly steep incline.
That is the reason that I keep returning to Lana: to climb. Skiing is not for me. Instead, I impatiently wait for the sun to melt the snow on the peaks to reveal the trails for my ascents. The higher the summit, the better; the more vertiginous the peak, the greater the rush of adrenaline. That is why, for me, Lana is summer. When there is no snow, the seven hour climb from Lana to the summit passes through thick pine forests, past herds of free grazing Haflinger horses and finally along scree paths on mountain ridges with infinite views in every direction.
Italy, unlike its neighbouring countries within the Alps, is not traditionally associated with mountaineering. Germany and Austria conjure up associations of Lederhosen-clad hikers, while France and Switzerland cap it off with the double whammy of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Yet South Tyrol has a strong Alpine history of its own. Many of the world’s finest climbers come from the region: an expertise that can be traced back to World War II when the peaks of the Dolomites served as the battleground for the fight for territory between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. Tunnels were carved into the mountain peaks, with metal ladders and wires attached to make it safer (for want of a better word) for the soldiers. Once the war subsided, peace was found in transforming these metal paths into climbing routes known as the Via Ferrata. The term “Via Ferrata”, (literally “iron path”) is now used worldwide to describe these challenging routes; the oldest in the world–Via delle Bocchette–is situated between Trento and Merano. Climbing in the Alto Adige feels like a return to the origins of modern-day mountaineering.
Lana’s sequestered location within the Etschtal Valley means that there are three different mountain ranges within reach, and I have explored all of them. The Texelgruppe I love for its glacial lakes, no matter how cold they might be; the Ifinger Peak has an adrenaline busting Via Ferrata with sweeping views from its 2,581 foot summit; and Hochmuth, or Guardia Alta, has the best post-climb restaurant in the valley. After descending the 2,050 metre summit, I always stop for a meal at the Vigilius Mountain Resort. From the sun-drenched terrace of their Stube Ida, I indulge in a generous portion of canederli (the bread and milk dumplings typical of the region and often flavoured with South Tyrol’s signature smoked ham Speck) and a glass of the local Lagrein wine.
The perks of mountain climbing is that you have to start early–7am at the latest–in order to make the summit before the clouds set in. The result? The climb is done by 4pm at the latest and you are free to recuperate in the gentler sunlight of the late afternoon. When I stay at 1477 Reichhalter, I lounge on the roof terrace until the lengthening shadows cast by Hochmuth leave me in the shade. On the occasions when I chose Reichhalter’s sister hotel, Villa Arnica, I head straight for the 1960s pool house and doze under lemon yellow and white parasols, creating a homage to Slim Aarons with the other hotel guests.
No matter how the afternoon pans out, one thing is certain: by the time the sun has fully disappeared behind the mountains, I no longer look like I have spent the best part of the day dressed in lycra and hiking boots. Despite its diminutive population, Lana has a remarkable selection of restaurants. Come evening, hungry from the day’s climb, I can often be found taking another walk just beyond the village confines to Miil. Unsurprisingly, Miil takes its name from its history as the village mill, powered by the babbling stream that now guides the way to the restaurant. On clement nights, dinner is served under the stars: the mountain breeze is a remedy for tired limbs and the unbeatable beef tartare the protein needed for tomorrow’s adventure.
On other nights, when my legs just won’t walk another step, I nab the prime table at 1477 Reichhalter underneath the wooden stairs so typical of the region’s architecture. There, protected from the elements, I sip on the lemon and juniper infused RH spritz and revert to that timeless habit of people watching. On my last visit to Lana, as twilight set in and the light faded, I remember the scene: an elderly couple strolled along chatting in local dialect; a pair of hikers stomped past, ready to take off their boots; a middle-aged man walked by with his gun dog faithfully at his heels. An air of tranquillity pervaded, peppered only by the murmurs of voices and laughter caught on the breeze.