Magazine article Medical Economics

In Italy, Do as the Italians Do-Head for the Hills

Magazine article Medical Economics

In Italy, Do as the Italians Do-Head for the Hills

Article excerpt

Forget Florence. Rethink Rome. Vacation in the Val Gardens, a hiker's paradise.

Tucked away among the skyscraping Dolomites in Italy's northeast corner, the Val Gardena is more Tyrolean than Tuscan. In winter, people ski its surrounding ridges and high meadows. But in spring and summer, the wildflower-studded highlands are a hiker's paradise. At altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, the only breathtaking thing is the scenery.

My wife and I went in May, after the skiers had left and before the tour buses would arrive. The days were sunny, the wildflowers were starting to bloom, and the evenings were warm enough to dine al fresco. Our destination was the town of St. Ulrich, the patron invoked-for some reason-against difficult childbirth, dizziness, mice, and moles.

There is barely room between the mountains for the Easter-egg-pastel stucco houses in this resort village of 5,500 people. Our hotel, the Stetteneck, with only 27 guest rooms, had been owned and operated by the same family since 1938. From the cozy lobby bar to the friendly dog in the foyer, it reflects the attention given to making guests feel welcome. Our second-floor room was spacious and sunlit with parquet floors, hand-painted wooden chests, and a featherbed. French doors opened to a small balcony with table and chairs.

After unpacking and enjoying a cappuccino in the last of the cool sunshine, we had a typical Val Gardena dinner at Cucina alla Veneta, one of the 30-plus restaurants in town. It began with antipasti and ended with strudel. In between were lasagna with fontina cheese, bean soup, Wiener schnitzel, polenta, and bratwurst, along with a local red wine. As we left, the waiter thanked us in German and bade us goodbye in Italian.

This culinary and linguistic intermingling is characteristic of the region, where people speak a Romance language called Ladin at home and conduct business in Ladin, German, and Italian. St. Ulrich is called Ortisei in Italian and Urtijei in Ladin; Val Gardena is Groden in German. Fortunately for American travelers, most adult St. Ulrichers speak English quite fluently

The ethnic inhabitants of the area are descendants of the Roman soldiers sent by the Emperor Tiberius to crush the native Celts. The Val Gardena has been conquered repeatedly by the Austrians, Germans, and Italians. An elderly woman told us shed changed nationalities four times while never leaving the village.

The people we encountered showed a mixture of German reserve and Italian warmth. We asked a man on the street where to buy wine. He could have pointed us to a store, but he said, "Follow me," and took us to a shop. Our host at the hotel spent hours telling where to go hiking and find the best restaurants.

Next morning; we walked the maze of the town's cobbled streets and marveled at the variety of wood carvings for sale, ranging in size from 10 centimeters to 10 feet. Some were finished in natural wood; others had been painted to look like ceramics. Animals, trolls, toys with moving parts, angels, even a life-size creche complete with chickens and eggs, were for sale. Wood carving has been a specialty of the Val Gardena for centuries, and the area is said to have 365 carvers. The local church and museum have permanent collections of carvings donated by the artisans.

Besides wood carving, the village's main business seemed to be maintenance. Never before had I seen a town so well cared for. Everywhere, men were painting or making repairs. Shopkeepers swept their sidewalks twice a day, as a street sweeper patrolled the spotless streets. Even the highways leading to town were swept. One night at 11 o'clock, the manager of the hotel opposite ours was washing the sidewalk in front of his cafe.

We bought cheese, sausage, rolls, and wine (a light, fruity Barbera for $2) for lunch, then headed for the high meadows of the Alpe di Siusi. After an hour, when we seemed almost at eye level with the surrounding peaks, we wandered across a carpet of crocus and blue gentian and ate our picnic on a bench in the sun in front of an unoccupied cabin, one of several built for local shepherds. …

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