A guide to riding South Tyrol: The Scenic Route, Dolomites
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Text and Photography by Samantha Saskia Dugon
After the drive down through the autobahns of Germany and the mountain roads of Austria I crossed the border into Italy. I continued climbing the winding Italian roads, coming across more and more snow on the peaks around me. I was already at the mercy of the weather and had packed for every event, which I ended up being very thankful for, as I seemingly chose the only snowy week of Autumn the region got.
I’d be spending most of my time in Alta Badia, known as the “showpiece region” of South Tyrol due to its abundance of inspiring landscapes, endless award-winning cuisine, a wide variety of sports and welcoming Ladin culture. You know you’ve arrived at the perfect destination for an adventure when despite the region covering over 7,300 square kilometres of land, 80% of that land is all mountains, and they’re not small either, with 350 mountains with summits over 3,000 metres. In South Tyrol alone there are 24 mountain passes just waiting to be tackled.
In Alta Badia, I’d be staying at the family-run cycling Hotel Melodia del Bosco, where hotel owner Klaus Irsara has been running the business with his sister since 2000 and began cycling tours back in 2010 after discovering his own passion for two wheels.
“I started to run the hotel in 2000 when my father, the creator of Melodia del Bosco, passed away and we started to specialize in cycling vacations in 2010. At the beginning, we thought that our cycling guests would be mainly mountain bikers and fewer road cyclists, but it was the opposite! Now we have much more road cyclists than mountain bikers, even better because I also spend more time on my road bike than on my MTB.” – Klaus
The first thing that surprised me during my trip was the language. As I walked up to check myself in using my barely passable knowledge of Italian, it seemed I had not been as prepared as I thought, I had spent all my time preparing for varying weather, but hadn’t thought about what language I’d need, which to my surprise was Ladin. This led to me spend the next few days asking about and researching the history of the area and how it had come to be that the Ladin was the primary language spoken in Alta Badia, a retro-romantic language spoken by 30,000 people in South Tyrol. After I checked in I promptly headed to my room to try and research more about the history of the region, I learnt that the entirety of South Tyrol had long been a part of Austria, but after WW1, became a part of Italy, and since, the primary language has continued to be German, followed by Italian and then Ladin.
On the road
I quickly learnt of the strong cycling community the region has, with many locals taking up road cycling as their summer sport to keep them occupied between winter ski seasons, only to fall head over heels for road cycling, now finding themselves dreaming of warm tarmac all year round. The love for cycling really is universal as once it finds you, it’s never letting you go.
This passion for two wheels is reflected in their summer event calendar. Back when people could meet in large groups, attend races and travel across borders together, South Tyrol was often the host for some of the most renowned cycling events, including the Maratona dles Dolomites, an international cycling race over a staggering 7 Dolomite passes. This event brings together cyclists from all over the world as they set out to challenge themselves whilst sampling some of the best carb-loading food out there; homemade Italian pasta. The region also has several car-free cycling days, including the Sellaronda Bike Day and the Dolomites Bike Day where you can experience the wonderful Sella massif without any other motor vehicles – bliss.
To warm up and give us a traditional Italian kick to be ready to embrace the cold again we stopped off for an espresso and dessert, but despite our best efforts to get back out on the road again in the afternoon, the weather had other thoughts, with a blend of wind, snow and rain bringing the day to an early finish.
With extra rest from the previous days early finish, we were up and at the top of Passo Gardena for sunrise. After waiting patiently for quite some time, we were worried about whether our early morning efforts would be wasted, thankfully though the sun put an end to those doubts when it peaked through the clouds creating one of the most beautiful moody sunrises I had ever witnessed.
We headed back down into the valley for a post sunrise espresso we hit the tarmac, and today we’d be tackling 3 passes to make up for the previous days lack of riding with: Passo Pordoi, Passo Fedaia and Passo Sella.
To warm up and reward ourselves after Passo Pordoi and Passo Sella, we stopped off at Rifugio Carlo Valentini with a stunning view of the Dolomites and the border of the South Tyrol region. We then finished off the day heading back down Passo Gardena and back to the hotel for a beer in the sunshine.
As our trip draws to a close I get chatting to Klaus about his favourite part of the year, he says “The cycling season starts middle of May and ends beginning of October and our winters are quite long with snow from December to April, so to start cycling in the Dolomites in May is the highlight for me. In Alta Badia we have several events during the summer like the Dolomites Bike Day and Sellaronda Bike Day in June, as well as the Maratona in July. These events are really cool because the roads and villages are full of cyclists!”
Having been a UNESCO listed site since 2009, the Dolomites has seen a large increase in tourism as people have flocked to witness these pointing peaks, during this time, the regions love for cycling has grown tenfold, as seen by the array of events the area holds and it’s with good reason. The Dolomites, and South Tyrol in particular, is steeped in culture and history, and Italy itself is a country that is renowned for its love of racing and high speeds, so it’s only natural that these mountain passes see thousands of cycling fans come to challenge themselves, and sometimes their love of the sport as they push themselves from one peak to the next. But aside from the famous tours, there’s a lot more for cyclists to enjoy and discover in South Tyrol. This trip has shown me that it needn’t be all about the elevation gain or the number of passes, but also just about the breathtaking culture of the area and the history of the roads which take you on your adventures.
A massive thank you to Klaus and everyone at Hotel Melodia del Bosco for creating such a wonderful stay and guiding me through some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever witnessed.
And thanks to the team at South Tyrol tourism for having us.
Getting to South Tyrol isn’t difficult. There are major airports in both Milan and Venice, both a few hours’ drive away, and a smaller but closer airport in Verona. For detailed travel help visit Alta Badia, and for updated safety and travel conditions, this site contains all information about COVID-19.
Food and drink
There are endless options for food and drink. Start with the Alta Badia site, where you can book tables and explore options. You’ll want try some typical local Ladin food, found at places like Maso Runch, and at Lüch d’Alfarëi, an old farmhouse with a typical ladin cuisine. They have no website.
Don’t miss the bike events, which happen through much of the spring, summer and fall. There are lots of cultural and culinary events in Alta Badia, like the Nos Ladins initiative, which offers the opportunity to get to know places, people and ways of life typical of us Ladins.
For a bit of exercise (or maybe just a spa day), don’t miss Movimënt recreational Parks. There is heaps of trekking and mountaineering options in Alta Badia too. And, of course, it’s heaven in winter for ski fans
The Climate & Wildlife
Bike shop and repairs
If you run into a bike issue, there are plenty local shops to get you up and running again.