The hills are alive, and it’s not just music…

I’m not the sporty type. I’ve never been the sporty type. In fact, it’s surprising that I took up skiing in the first place. (I was dragged kicking and sulking to Les Arcs by an ex-boyfriend and almost immediately fell more in love with the mountains than with him.)

So, when I was invited on a ladies’ activity weekend to Val Gardena I was torn. Torn because I love this part of the world like no other but the word ‘activity’ was looming large and more than a little off putting. “Relax” I was told, “it’s a ladies’ trip… there’s even an afternoon looking at herbs and things growing in the wild”.  The fact I had a knee operation scheduled less than a month later was also brushed aside.

So, I duly bought walking shoes and walking poles, packed my sunscreen and a hat (English rose that I am) and arrived in the beautiful valley of Val Gardena.

Welcome to the mountains

It turned out to be one of the most memorable weekends of my life. If you have a love affair with winter mountains, you really owe it to yourself to see them in the summer. Those of us that dash about the mountains in the winter months, have no idea what lies beneath our skis and snowboards. Juniper berries…wild carrots…wild herbs…edelweiss…

Val Gardena is in the Sud Tirol of Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites and comprises the three villages of Ortisei, Selva di Gardena and Santa Cristina. The Dolomites have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009 for their great historical and geomorphological significance and not least for their outstanding beauty.

Day one the agenda started with a hike in the mountains. We headed up the mountain in a gondola (no queues!) and all of us getting used to seeing pistes with grass instead of snow.

Straight on the gondola and hands free…

The pistes, sans snow!

We were led on our walk by Pauli – a charming and knowledgeable guide who also turned out to be a dab hand at yodelling. He told us about the seven national parks in the South Tyrol thereby protecting one fifth of the region. Within the parks there are no permanent structures or construction allowed and there’s also a rule against using the water sources for industrial or hydroelectric purposes. All of which means you’re as close to nature as you can be with no distractions.

As well as the stunning scenery, we were surprised and charmed by the ponies, the grazing cows, the marmottes (they really do whistle) and the flora.

Ponies sharing the path

Some friendly locals

We tasted juniper berries (they really do taste of gin) marvelled at how edelweiss grow in the most precarious places, but mostly we just relaxed and felt at one with the mountains.

Gin berries – coming along nicely…

The difference between the summer and the winter were brought into focus at one point as we stopped for drinks at the Daniel Hut. Six months earlier I’d skied to this restaurant in a matter of minutes and we arrived here after four hours walking…

Our winding walking route

The next day we woke to rain… not the most auspicious start to our first outing on ebikes.  The Dutch ladies on our trip were undaunted so, not to be outdone, we pulled on waterproofs and headed out.

Ready to ride

The ‘e’ in the ebikes had a lot to do with this enthusiasm, as did the promise of a hearty breakfast at our destination. I already mentioned ‘not sporty at all’ and I must say that ebikes are life changing. My friend and I kept pace with the Dutch girls and, as we all know, the Dutch are practically born on bikes. You still have to put in some effort – it doesn’t work unless you’re pedalling but the extra oomph the motor provides means that no hill will ever again defeat you. That’s quite a feeling. We cycled to a lovely restaurant called the Costamula hut, by which time the rainy start had turned into another lovely day.

Our afternoon programme involved a walk discovering herbs, other wild plants and their traditional uses. Our guide, Diego, was an experienced herbalist and took the time on our walk to point out how we were surrounded with natural and wild sources of food and medicine. We tasted some of Diego’s home-made pine honey made from young pine needles sugar and sunshine, and all went home with our little pots of home-made sage salve.

Identifying wild carrots

The walk finished with a visit to the enchanting and fascinating homestead of Gemma Paratoni – the Farm Inn Paratoni. Gemma and her husband’s home dates back to 1232 and is a real insight into how people lived in this valley. Today their home is open to guests for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Limited to just 28 diners, the menu is dictated by what’s available that day with a focus on fresh, natural and organic fare, all presented beautifully. We had a whole host of delicious dishes including deep fried nettle leaves, cheese crispbreads, wild spinach, dandelion and nettle breads and, piėce de résistance, dark chocolate dipped mint leaves. Oh – and did I mention the grappas flavoured with pine, yarrow, camomile…

Much better than an After Eight

We had an extraordinarily good weekend and felt healthier and closer to nature than I could have expected after just a few days. This could be habit forming.

For our active weekend, we stayed at the 4* Hotel Savoy. The hotel team hand out activity programmes for each day at breakfast including a thought for the day. One from our stay was “You haven’t really been somewhere until you’ve been there on foot” *. (Johann Wolfgang van Goethe)

* Or ebike!

Travel details…

Kate stayed at the 4* Hotel Savoy in Selva di Gardena which offers special packages in both summer and winter seasons. The week in September that Kate stayed was € 735 per person per week half board, including four guided walks, a leg massage, sunrise tour with picnic breakfast and participation in the Selva Active summer programme.

Kate took part in the Val Gardena Active “Special Ladies” programme.

Ebike hire thanks to Intersport Nives in Selva Val Gardena. They also offer tours starting at €60 or €95 with a guide.

Contact them here: + 39 0471 794247, www.valgardena.bike, nives@valgardena.bike.

The nearest airports are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo, with airlines including EasyJet, Ryanair, Monarch and BA.

Inghams and Crystal are the main UK tour operators to Val Gardena in summer.

For more information about Val Gardena go to www.valgardena.it email info@valgardena.it or call 0039 0471 777 777