The scenic exterior of Hotel Quelle.
Where nature rules

Where nature rules

Italy's South Tyrol, with its stunning scenery and Alpine villages, is the ideal destination for an activity holiday

Mark Nayler

Monday, 11 November 2019, 15:56


As a keen cyclist, I'd always been a little sneery about e-bikes, believing that battery-powered ascents are cheating. But on a recent trip to South Tyrol, gliding up and hurtling down hills in the gorgeous Gsies valley, I abandoned that attitude. E-biking is a great way to appreciate the unspoilt landscapes of South Tyrol, Italy's northernmost province - a place that could make even the least outdoorsy traveller want to jump on a mountain bike (whether battery-assisted or not) or dust off their long-neglected hiking boots.

Boasting around a third of the Dolomite mountains, which also span the provinces of Belluno and Trentino, South Tyrol is dramatically beautiful - the ideal destination for a nature-orientated holiday. Named as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2009, the Three Peaks of Lavaredo (Tre Cime di Lavaredo) are amongst the Dolomites' most iconic peaks.

Towering almost 3,000 metres above sea level and rooted in a light bedrock, they look like gigantic daggers. From the Auronzo hut near the village of Misurina, located a two-hour drive from the regional capital of Bolzano, you can take a circular trek of about four hours around their bases, craning your neck as you go.

Just over 40 kilometres northwest of the Tre Cimes is another of South Tyrol's key natural features. Lake Braies - known as the "pearl" of the Dolomite lakes - is so picture-perfect that every photograph of it looks like it's been heavily Photoshopped; but in spring and summer, its water really does reflect the surrounding mountains with such crisp perfection. A walk of about ninety minutes takes you around the perimeter of the lagoon, which according to myth is the location of a gateway to the underworld. Legend has it that if you visit Braies during a full moon, the mountains split to reveal a princess on a boat, ready to transport you to the magical kingdom of Fanes.

There's no shortage of accommodation in South Tyrol, but for an activity-based holiday, one place stands out. Family-run Hotel Quelle started out as a seven-room guesthouse in 1952 and is now a five star, 69-room complex with seven pools and ten saunas. It's stunningly appointed outside the small village of Santa Magdalena, on a fertile confluence of the Casies, Pusteral and Gsies valleys, 1,400 metres above sea level.

Led by General Manager Manuel Steinmar, who represents the third generation of Quelle's founding family, the staff are demonstrably proud of their region's beauty, and ensure that it forms the focal point of a stay at the hotel, which takes its name from the German for "source".

With connotations of renewal and returning to nature, "quelle" is just right. Activities for guests are arranged every morning and range from e-biking and trekking expeditions to sunrise and snow-shoe excursions. There was no snow when I visited in June, so as part of a group led by Quelle's charming fitness instructor and wellbeing guide Barbara Felderer, I was treated to the aforementioned e-biking trip instead.

Hilltop reached, with a little (OK, a lot of) assistance from our battery-powered mounts, Barbara gave us a yoga class overlooking the mountains, after which we headed to Quelle's Alpine Hut, perched among rolling greenery at an altitude of over 2,000 metres.

Cold cuts of local ham, cured sausages, rustic bread and beer proved ideal fuel for the return-journey - a downhill blur that would have satisfied even the most committed of adrenaline junkies.

Sports enthusiasts now also have a new range of action-packed holidays at Quelle to choose from: launched this year, the hotel's all-inclusive "Active Weeks" will run every autumn, featuring everything from hiking races to summit challenges.

Direct flights from Malaga to Venice or Innsbruck

  • Easyjet fly from Malaga to Venice's Marco Polo airport, from where it's a three-hour drive to either Hotel Quelle or the South Tyrolean capital of Bolzano.

  • Easyjet also fly from Malaga to Innsbruck, which is a two-hour drive from Hotel Quelle.

Staying indoors at Quelle, you can unwind in the Alps' only snow sauna, or have yourself pampered in one of the thirteen treatment rooms, as I did when I reluctantly submitted to a full-body massage. Up until that point, a very British aversion to being touched by strangers had put me off the idea; but after an hour under the assured hands of my masseuse, with her mysterious and aromatic oils, I realised what I'd been missing. My skin tingled for hours afterwards, as did the sensation of having had all physical tension removed from my body.

Split identity

During the three-hour journey between Santa Magdalena and Venice, from where I flew back to Malaga after my South Tyrol immersion, I contemplated the region's fascinating history, which has resulted in a split cultural and linguistic identity.

Nestling under the austere peaks of the Austrian-Italian border, South Tyrol was a German-speaking Austrian-Hungarian princely territory until annexed to Italy in 1919 - an important strategic gain for the Italians, who had wanted to secure control of the Alps.

Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini launched an aggressive "Italianisation" of the region throughout the 1920s and 30s, encouraging Italians from the south to settle there and banning German in schools and workplaces.

The Italian-Austrian divide was further widened in 1939, when Mussolini and Hitler gave South Tyroleans a choice: either stay and fully integrate into Italian language and culture; or leave for the German-speaking Third Reich. World War Two prevented the complete implementation of this initiative, but South Tyroleans still say that it left a divisive legacy.

Evidence of this mixed heritage is plentiful. Until it joins the motorway about an hour outside of Venice, the road from Santa Magdalena weaves through the countryside like a giant serpent, slithering between mountains and pretty Alpine villages.

Despite having been officially Italian for a century, South Tyrol still feels predominantly Austrian, with chalets and cows in the fields and lots of German signage. When I'd walked up the road from the hotel into Santa Magdalena one afternoon, the barman had asked me what I'd wanted in German, not Italian: caught off guard, I had to use my rusty GCSE "skills" (I think I scraped a C) to order a beer. The conversations going on around me were all in German, too. Was this really Italy?

Today, although most South Tyroleans' first language is German, the majority are content to be part of Italy, albeit one which gained considerable powers of self-governance when it was declared autonomous in 1972. But there is a separatist movement, comprised of several political parties, which wants to divorce the rest of Italy and/or reunite with Austria's North Tyrol.

As Italy's wealthiest province, South Tyrol has been called upon by Rome to support the poorest regions in the south, which separatists say violates their cherished autonomy: currently, 90% of taxes paid in South Tyrol are spent in the same region. Catalan separatists make exactly the same complaint about Madrid, arguing that the central government takes too much tax revenue from one of Spain's most prosperous and independent regions.

As well as a rich cultural legacy, there is a tremendous sense of space in South Tyrol, as if the notion of a big city has not yet arrived in this part of the world.

It's one of those places where nature, not humanity, dominates - like Granada's Alpujarra or the wild, remote beaches of Cadiz and Almeria. I hope it doesn't change.

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