Südtirol/ South Tyrol – North Italy! Or South Austria, or Tirol, or… well they speak German and Italian, have great food and some pretty nice mountains called the Dolomites and some awesome mountain bike trails that you can get to with a gondola.
It's our first time here and we're obviously pretty excited. After two weeks in Switzerland we thought it'd be pretty hard to impress us but this place rocks you between the eyes with stunning mountains, friendly people and the food...did I mention the food?
Dolomites and Marmolata views.
Introduction Because it's Europe, and travelling here is as much about the culture, first a history and geographical lesson for typical North American short attention spans. Südtirol is a province of Italy enjoying considerable autonomy. It's 7400 sq km so about the size of Delaware (ie, it's not big). 510,000 people live here.
Before World War 1, Südtirol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Following that war (to the victor goes the spoils), Südtirol was annexed by Italy. Despite numerous attempts by the Italians to encourage immigration to their northernmost province, the majority of the population is Austrian-German and mainly German speaking (although many people here also speak Italian and, particularly in the tourism industry, English). For various economic, cultural and political reasons (read about it more here if you are interested) the Italians have largely used a hands-off approach in dealing with Südtirol. If I may be so bold, it means that Südtirol is basically Italy run by Germans, everything works efficiently and on time. Yet the Sudtirolians seemed to also have adopted some of the best parts of Italy; they are fun-loving and warm. And their food....mama mia.
For some reason, when people think about the Dolomites they think of Cortina (in Trentino province just south of South Tyrol). We investigated the possibilities of riding there briefly, but it seems that most of the trails are there are inundated with "James Bond" tourists and quite crowded. The biking trails near Cortina are mostly double-track and while the views are no doubt impressive, we did not fly halfway around the world to ride gravel roads or pretty but wide cow paths. If we're wrong about this then we'll have to come back to check it out, so please let us know.
When we heard about Südtirol/South Tyrol we thought it was too good to be true...the Dolomites with beautiful trails that were legal to bike and an infrastructure friendly for biking? It gets better. We also found that the exchange rate was very much in North America's favour as the Euro has tanked against the Canadian and US dollar, so prices were very reasonable (although we explicitly note that we travelled in September which is the off-season).
A general map of the Bruneck area. The Hotel Innerhofer is in the village of Gais. We rode a loop to the west of town. Look how close we are to the hordes of people at Cortina yet the trails we rode were basically deserted!
Top:the proud flag of Suedtirol. L bottom: Location with respect to Italy, L right: A small but super cool place
Kronplatz - Passo Furcia - Fidura - "Trail 24"
We were here on behalf of Suedtirol tourism who had us on a tight schedule. They really wanted us to see a lot of the region so we only had time to do one ride in the Bruneck area. It bears mentioning that the map shows we could easily have done 3-4 days of riding alpine loops of legitimate alpine singletrack. As is normal in Europe, the maps are excellent; you can get them from bike shops or bike hotels. The differences between singletrack and wider trails (doubletrack, rural roads etc) are easy to see, so it's easy to avoid doing "marathon xc" loops (ie non-technical and to us, boring) and focus on the interesting singletrack. However, even one short session with someone familiar with the area is tremendously useful; local knowledge seems to be very useful to figure out how to link trails together. The Suedtirol public transit system (bus for the most part) is also very good so its entirely possible to get elevation assist or skip long road rides by using transit. It is also worthwhile mentioning that every one of the Suedtirol bike hotels have guided rides; here is the selection from the Hotel Innerhofer for example.
We had a fantastic dinner (more pictures of that later) with locals Peter Rabensteiner, Markus Irschara, Michaela Zingerle and Wolfgang Toechterle of Suedtirol Tourism; expressed our interest in riding cool interesting trails with transit assist and they took care of the rest.
We started our ride by going up the Kronplatz gondola. Riding off the Kronplatz we ride along a ridgeline then on our first 800m descent and take in the views.
Down through valley singletrack towards Furcia Pass
Now we earn back some elevation. A big 750m climb up a loose dusty Dolomites road. Snow fell three days ago. Smells like winter, but summer hangs on.
The top of the pass at 2293m. A multilingual country means lots of names; its known as Kreutzjoch (German) and Fidura (Romansch).
Peter checking out the map looking down towards Trail 24 (great trail names guys).
Then we go on Trail 24; 9km long descending 800m.
Trail 24 meanders west to east and drops into a valley of views.
What views! Typical Dolomites.
The Dolomites are known for the quality of the marble quarried. That makes not just for impressive sculptures but also for trails that dry out quickly. Our descent is on loose trails strewn with chunks of white marble.
From Dolomites spires to a meadowy pumptrack.
Kasa Knodel (Cheesy dumplings mmmmm) at a conveniently located alpine hut.
Our good buddy the South Tyrol big horned cow.
Kronplatz and the Herrnsteig freeride trail.
After this first trail we shared a cab back to the village of Olang thus avoiding a 10km roadride. A gondola at Olang took us back up to the Kronplatz where we got to check out the freeride trail that Markus helped build. The Herrnsteig was not what we expected. Frankly, because we live in North Vancouver and Whistler, we don't travel to ride freeride or downhill park trails and have to admit that we usually think the purpose-built bike trails in Europe are beat up and pretty underwhelming.
Well, we sure were proven wrong. The Kronplatz freeride just had work done it by the trail crew. We were pretty much the last people on it that day after there had been over 60 riders from a bikefest that very day. And even then the 1500m descent over 18km was super fast, super smooth and had some of the nicest sculpted berms one can imagine. Awesome work on this trail; lot of Euro park builders could learn a thing or two from the crew in Bruneck. We both agreed that it was by far the best mountain bike park trail we’ve ridden so far in Italy and Switzerland!
Back up another Gondola to the Kronplatz for coffee before riding down the Herrnsteig Freeride trail.
Berm, berms ...
Berms, berms and flow everywhere
The Bikehotels Suedtirol product and the Hotel Innerhofer
We were invited here by SMG - the Sudtirol Marketing Group. They are a public/private entity and have created a Bike Hotel concept that has to be experienced to be believed. Take it from a couple who live in Whistler/Vancouver (two hotbeds of biking and tourism) and who have travelled to many places around the world. Many tourism organizations and tourism operators could learn a thing or two from the South Tyroleans.
The key to their product is the Bikehotels Sudtirol concept (a tip of the hat to Wolfgang Toechterle for this) is the people. The most important element are the hotel owners all of whom are mountain bike fanatics. This passion extends to the superlatively good customer service they extend to their guests and the quality of accommodations; the owners attitudes percolates to the staff. All of the Bikehotels with which we stayed include breakfast and the option of half board (ie dinners included) and guided rides. It's a small but important detail but all the hotels had spacious well lit bike rooms with bike stands, tools you could use and washing materials. Basically, you were pampered and you could also pamper your bike. It seems that the Bikehotels Sudtirol concept was almost like a "quality seal " for certain hotels; stay with them and you could almost say you would be guaranteed a quality experience.
The Hotel Innerhofer in Gais, just north of Bruneck. The Bike room and Agnes Innerhofer (one of the two sisters who own the hotels at Reception.
Food of Hotel Innerhofer. Agnes sat with us. The chef came out and greeted us. Boy we felt like royalty.