Travel writer Amy Laughinghouse escapes London for the hills of Italy’s South Tyrol, where she developed a new toast: “May the Forst be with you.” (Try the local beer; you’ll see what she means).
There’s a man with a pick-axe following me silently down a grassy slope, his white mustache twitching in a sunburned face, blue eyes ablaze beneath a peaked, gnome-like cap. He bears such a resemblance to a villain from a pantomime that I half expect a chorus of candy-addled children to scream out, “Look behind you!”
It might seem an inauspicious start to my first day on the Venosta High Alpine Trail, which snakes 108 kilometers on the sunny side of the Vinschgau mountains in Italy’s South Tyrol. Inghams is launching walking holidays here next spring, and I’m hoping to preview some of its most scenic stretches…if I live to tell the tale.
Fortunately, this fellow in the leather braces is actually mending fences (literally, not as in achieving peace in the Middle East), and he’s just part of the local colour. Although the trail is technically in Italy, the culture is decidedly Germanic, from the architecture to the language to the clothes. (Here, lederhosen is a legitimate fashion statement, not fancy dress).
The food, however, has a decidedly Italian flair. So forget schnitzel and sauerkraut. In South Tyrol, it’s all about antipasti, polenta with black truffles, and mouth-watering chocolate mousse. We feast like kings (or fattened calves, of which there are plenty on the menu) not only in Merano, the stylish little town tucked among apple groves where we begin and end our journey, but also in the pine-paneled lodges nestled in tiny alpine villages where we bunk along the trail. Dinner is washed down with glasses of local Gewurztraminer and my new favourite red grape, Lagrein, or pints of deceptively strong Forst beer, and perhaps a shot of the innkeeper’s grappa. (It would be rude to refuse, wouldn’t it?)
My companions and I have plenty of opportunity to work off those calories and blow away the cobwebs on the trail, which threads through hushed evergreen forests and fields of wildflowers and past streams which rush by with the urgency of London commuters headed to the pub after work for happy hour.
Beneath the snow-capped peaks, I feel worlds away from the city. In the South Tyrolean countryside, a traffic jam is defined as a herd of llamas blocking a path, and the only deadline is making it out of the mountains by dark—not a problem, given the long summer days.
I’m back in London now, looking out at leaden gray skies, but my head is in the sun-drenched hills of South Tyrol.
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