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Weekend Wanderlust: The secret valley in South Tyrol that's perfect for summer

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Weekend Wanderlust: The secret valley in South Tyrol that's perfect for summer
A view of the Gsieser Valley from our room at Hotel Quelle. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
17:13 CEST+02:00
If you thought South Tyrol was only about ski slopes, think again. Here's how I learned to relax, South Tyrolean style, at a spa hotel in a secluded corner of northern Italy.

I'm sitting stark naked, sweating profusely, as a woman in a bikini enthusiastically wafts steam infused with the scent of cinnamon in my face with a towel. It's taken me two days to work up the courage to enter the infinity sauna, or “show sauna”, where my very British anxiety about naked sauna-bathing is not being lessened by colourful lights and loud music.

This is aufguss, a sauna ritual where the host – that's the woman with the towel - pours water and essential oils over the hot stones and then fans the scented steam onto the rows of naked people sitting on the stadium-style seating. The modern version is set to music and incorporates lighting.

The infinity sauna. Photo: Hotel Quelle

It's a slightly surreal experience for this first-timer, though seasoned sauna-bathers insist that regular aufguss sessions are extremely good for your circulation and overall wellbeing.

Afterwards, as we eat fruit kebabs with our fellow aufguss-goers in the garden - most of us still naked - after a minute in the snow sauna (which is exactly what it sounds like; a room filled with snow where you can cool down after the sauna) a couple of fellow Brits admit it took them almost a week to get used to the hotel's naked spa area, “but now we love it.”

The Austrians in the group find this all very amusing, while the lone Italian - my husband - after some initial doubts, has quickly embraced the concept despite never having encountered it before.

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It's hard to believe, but we are still in Italy – just about. 

This is South Tyrol, a region in the northeastern corner of the country renowned for its dramatic natural beauty, with rugged, silvery mountain peaks rising above lakes, skies and valleys coloured in hyperreal blues and greens.

Hotel Quelle. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Better known for winter ski holidays, South Tyrol is actually a year-round destination - and we've come to escape the worst of the summer heat.

While many parts of the region do become crowded in summer, the quiet Gsieser Valley, right at the northernmost edge of Italy, remains a bit of a secret. Hemmed in on three sides by forested hills, the valley and its village of Santa Maddelana, where our hotel sits, is a charming cluster of wooden Alpine houses and tiny baroque and gothic churches, giving it a very central European feel.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Nowhere is this Alpine-Mediterranean cultural mix better represented than in the hotel's restaurant, where the ever-changing menu might feature both tagliatelle or traditional tyrolean dumplings - a tough choice.

There are light, superfood-packed choices on the menu too, and the kitchen will whip up adapted dishes for those following particular diets. The hotel offers a pretty amazing choice of breads, butters, milks and other items to suit all health requirements.

But you're free to indulge, too. And personally, apart from opting for the occasional avocado salad starter, I'm feeling a bit too relaxed to worry about healthy eating. Instead of detoxing, here we just feel extremely well-nourished - all the ingredients used are fresh, locally sourced, and often organic, after all. Here, even the cream-filled dumplings and tiramisu we're scarfing daily seem somehow not to be that bad for us.

And it's several cuts above anything you might expect from an "all inclusive" hotel restaurant. When our host, Andrea, talks us through the five-course dinner menu, I'm not sure what impresses me more – the variety and obvious skill in the kitchen, or Andrea's ability to switch, effortlessly and flawlessly, between Italian, English, and German.

While this valley, unlike some others in the region, doesn't have its own official language, children here study several languages at school and most people seem to speak at least two, if not three or four, languages almost fluently.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Things weren't always this harmonious, and the valley wasn't always italian. Until the end of the first world war, South Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1919, as a reward for joining the allies in 1915.

There was also brief period of German occupation during of the second world war, as evidenced by the many war memorials dotting the mountain valleys. But after all this political turmoil, the region has not only recovered, but prospered in recent decades, becoming one of Italy's most popular destinations for sports and wellness breaks.

Eating all this hearty Alpine (and Italian) food at the height of summer should probably feel wrong, but it doesn't. Mainly because I've developed the appetite of a horse during our stay – very probably because of all the swimming, hiking, and sweating through exercise classes we've been doing.

The day before, we'd joined activity leader Barbara on a hike up to the hotel's mountain hut - lured, predictably, with the promise of lunch.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

I was really glad I'd made the effort, as this hike turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip - along with an improvised yoga class courtesy of instructor Marco, during which I managed to get into poses I'd never even imagined, while also laughing a lot more than I'd thought possible during a yoga class

Up on the mountain, the man single-handedly barbecuing enough meat to feed an army turns out to be the owner of the hotel, Erich Steinmar. Not only am I stunned to see a 67-year-old man working so hard, but I couldn't imagine the owner of many other five-star hotels trekking up a mountain and manning the barbecue himself, every single week.

Erich at work. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

He prepares a feast. Locally-butchered sausages, steaks and chicken breasts are served with heaps of cheesy polento and potato salad, and Barbara appears at our table brandishing the wine bottle so regularly I think we'll be rolling back down the mountain.

Full to bursting, we sit back and enjoy the view and the accordion music. Some of the Austrian women we hiked up with are really getting into the local folk songs, and we cheer them on as they start dancing and singing at the front. Barbara soon breaks out the local liquor.

I'm never sure exactly what's meant by the term “wellness”. But at that moment, I was pretty sure we'd found it.

Happy hikers. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Less strenuous but equally awe-inspiring is a short hike to see the nearby Tre Cime, or three peaks, probably the region's most iconic sight.

You can do this by taking a surprisingly efficient - and green - public bus (tickets are 15 euros per person) which takes you an hour's walk from the best vantage points. It's a surprisingly good alternative to paying the 30 euro fee imposed on cars passing through the area – one of the measures put in place to restrict heavy traffic thought to be endangering the landscape.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Overall, this autonomous Italian region is about as eco-friendly a place as you could wish to find. Green transport is almost the default – bikes and ebikes are everywhere, quiet, efficient buses and trains will be a refreshing sight to those living elsewhere in Italy. There's also been huge investment in sustainable energy sources in the area recently.

Back at the hotel, relaxing by the river with a book, I notice owner Erich wading knee-deep in the rushing water, hauling boulders from one part of the river to another.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

He tells me he's shoring up the riverbank, and I don't bother asking why he's doing it himself when any of the hotel staff (and my husband, who is now anxiously trying to get involved) would happily help him. Just like my Italian father-in-law, still hauling crates of vegetables around the garden in his seventies, Steinmair evidently takes a lot of pride in a place that's been so important to his family for generations.

His father Benedikt opened the hotel 69 years ago, and his son Manuel is now reception and marketing manager while daughter Julia runs the hotel's spa. And the fact the family really cares about the place can be seen in every little detail.

It stands in stark contrast with a now derelict hotel across the road, which opened around the same time but now stands empty as, a neighbouring farmer tells us, the owner's children left to find work elsewhere – a sadly common story in the mountain valleys of northern Italy.

But the staff at Hotel Quelle say, with genuine enthusiasm, that there's nowhere else they'd rather live and work. Most are from the surrounding area, meaning they have an unrivalled knowledge of – and love for – the place.

“This is the best valley in the world, and I want everyone to know it,” Barbara tells me as we look out over the landscape. And I'm not about to disagree.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

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