The off-season seems to suit us. Lately we have been saving some cash by traveling when it’s not popular, when the weather is iffy, and when the flights are cheap. Last week, that meant taking a Transavia flight from Alicante to Munich and renting a car for a week of exploring the Alps. Our primary goal: Südtirol in northern Italy. This isn’t Tirol in Austria and they don’t speak Italian, but it is a magnificently scenic region of Dolomites with a unique comingling of alpine lifestyle, German language and customs, and yet it’s still Italian (well, at least its inside Italy).
Our drive was only a few hours south of Munich, which sat smothered in a cloud layer. When we emerged into the alps – really they do just sort of start – the sun was shining and Austria welcomed us. It’s essential, when driving in Austria, to pre-purchase a vigneitte sticker which is a tax giving you permission to use the highways; it doesn’t mean you’ve prepaid for tolls. One thing we all admired were the numerous castles; whole castles, not just ruins, still perched on small cliffs or foothills guarding the route used since ancient times to traverse the Italian peninsula to Rome. We have lots of castles on hills in Spain as well, but mostly in the form of ruins.
By dark (which was around 4:30pm) we were exiting the Brenner Autobahn for the town of Bruneck. Here we saw our first woo-wees – Christmas lights in Rambling Family terms – and felt the season was upon us. Another 20 minutes past Bruneck to the south and we were driving up and up and up a steepish windy single lane road to our farmstay. It was the first we were glad for the off-season, because while we had hoped for snow and skiing and sledging, it worked better for us to be able to drive without chains up and down this road!
Prior to arriving I had arranged a farmstay with Tolpeihof….the primary farm in the Tolpei hamlet of La Val (Italian name) / Wengen (German name) the hiking village of the Alta Badia region. I highly recommend a farmstay, and the Red Rooster website was our link to finding one. The organization is an offshoot of the Farmers Union of South Tyrol with a single aim: “We put people in touch with the rural world of South Tyrol!” We learned when staying at Tolpeihof that the farms of south tyrol, since the 1400s, have been prevented from being split and must be handed down within the family to a single heir as a whole; this practice has kept the farms large enough to provide realistic and profitable living for the families, but small enough to retain the lifestyle of hands on farming into the modern era.
The kids wandered into the barn that first night and were so excited to see a little newborn calf just hours old. The farmer and his father were busy milking. We helped push the hay and petted some heads before snuggling into our cozy one bedroom apartment above the house. We have been reading Farmer Boy this weeks, so it is fun to see the things Almanzo did as kid here in real life with the added benefit of modernity!
In the morning, we woke to the glory that is the mountains just outside our window. The dolomite peaks are covered in snow, giving them distinct details and texture that can’t be matched in the summer. I love waking to beauty after arriving in the dark. Bryan went into La Val, the village halfway down the hill, for a pop into their grocer to grab breakfast and we planned our day: museum in Bruneck, hike at a lake, and back to Bruneck to enjoy the Christmas market. Perfect!
But first, lets explore the farm. We walked to the church just down the road and looped along the local trails to the next set of farms and back. Just being in the mountain air was fresh and clearing for us all. The kids pushed us to stay out and enjoy the area, and we were happy to oblige!
The Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) Ripa is perched just above Bruneck inside their castle that was originally built in 1250 and expanded over the centuries. It’s focus is on the people groups who live in mountains around the world. Zoe and Avi were enthralled at the unique artefacts from four continents. I could tell they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment as well, as some of the displays were about people they had visited personally…the Tibetans, the Mongolian Steppe herders, the Chaga people of Kilimanjaro, and now the Farmers of South Tirol. Sadly, no pictures are allowed inside the museum.
Let me say, MMM Ripa is quite full of fascinating items from so many different cultures and well worth the visit. It is well organized by region and super extensive. We all especially enjoyed the added value of climbing the tower and descending into the meditation hall. My one critique would be a lack of labelling; each people group is defined and described, but the particular items are irregularly labelled. Sometimes an item has just a title and sometimes nothing at all; I suppose we are intended to get the feels for these cultures – it gets a little philosophical. However, kids (and I) are curious, and I would love to have been able to tell Zoe what the giant woven African basket was for, and describe to Avi how the little wooden alpine box with the odd handle was used. For Messner fans, some of his own artefacts are displayed – ice axes and a lovely tented camp setup showing the gear he used for climbing in the Himalaya.
The sun was shining outside, so we NEEDED to be experiencing it. The Pragser Wildsee (Lake Praigs) is a scenic alpine lake surrounded on three-ish sides by vertical peaks. It was scenic, and cold, and frozen! We could toss a stone on the ice and hear the eerie echoing boing reverberate along the valley. The kids were in love; they wanted to try to cross the lake but we weren’t confident in it’s solidity this early in the season. SO, we stayed along the edge where the ice was thick enough to walk on. They played at collecting ice chunks and throwing stones while I attempted to regulate my core body temperature.
There is a giant pretty hotel along the lake that was a final stop for some high profile prisoners transported out of Dachau concentration camp toward the end of world war 2. The troops moving the prisoners were ordered to kill them should the allies advance, but they were instead protected and then set free and housed at the Wildsee hotel until U.S. troops arrived.
I was solidly frozen, but the kids and Bryan were simply hungry, so we drove back to Bruneck and admired it’s liveability, it’s active people and bike lanes, and it’s adorable Christmas market and downtown shopping street. Bryan and I both bought local made wool shoes at the market, the kids used some of their money for candy, Avi got a snowglobe, and Zoe bought a crafty angel ornament. We finished our day out at a giant sporting goods store called Sportler where Bryan drooled over and tried on expensive ski mountaineering gear.
At night, the kids set their boots out on the balcony landing to our front door! It was time for St. Nickolaus Day! Sure enough, in the morning we heard the farmstay family squealing over thier gifts…four girls live here and they were all quite excited about what saint nick brought them. Our kiddo’s were surprised by their boots of chocolate gold coins and euro’s!
Our second morning at Tolpei was just as beautiful as the first, and toasty warm in our farm apartment. We lingered, and then set off on a full day adventure of a hike. Yesterday the trails had been so well marked, that we didn’t worry too much about details and just grabbed a couple tourist-hiking maps at the info center. But, our day was a bit marred by a rough start; we couldn’t find the trailhead clearly (of all things!), and ended up taking a more circuitious but flatter route to our goal: the snowhole. In the end, it worked fine but the beginning found us a bit frustrated and dragging kids through cold forest land instead of the sunny scenery we hoped for. It made our emergence onto a warm open foothill field all the better, and we stopped for a long while warming our bones and enjoying the mountain.
Proceding to the snowhole didn’t require much prodding after such a wonderful break, and though the hole hadn’t been formed yet (um, no snow) it was super cool to be at the base of the dolomite cliff to see its mass and crawl along the scree. You just don’t understand the ginormity of these mountain when they are just visions out the window. The kids were fairly satisfied knowing they were standing along the floor of what would become over the next few months a snow tunnel, and we started back down.
The way down, we found the trail we orginally wanted to hike along. It was quite steep, so the controlled falling/running technique came in handy and we were glad for our misstep at the beginning having turned the hike into a loop instead. This trail was prettier and open, and had vast areas of fascinating icy crystals that covered everything. They were so pretty and delicate they looked like flowers when we picked them up and crunched like crisps in our mouths.
Back at the farm, the kids spent the last bit of daylight playing with the goats and petting the kitties…. the super nice, super purry orange one especially!
Our final morning found us packing away our stuff, saying bye to the animals, and driving the long way around the mountains back to Innsbruck. Being the off-season, there was no snow on the hills, but this was the first weekend of ski season so the resorts were making snow on some slopes. We had hoped to ski, but decided ahead of time it wouldn’t be worth it for fake snow and limited choices. During our drive we headed south to check out the ski towns of Alta Badia and wondered if we made the right choice but enjoyed the last scenery of the dolomites.
We stopped in Innsbruck for a while to visit the big Christmas markets, take a bit of a rest in the Tirol region, and get some lunch. Tonight we drive on to a new region: Bavaria, but I think Sudtirol really has our hearts.