I’m still in Italy — but only technically. In my mind, I’ve already crossed into Austria.
At Italy’s mountainous northern reaches is the region called Alto Adige — or, to many people who live here, Südtirol. That’s the southern part of the Tirol, a once-mighty alpine region now divided between Austria and Italy.
Traveling here, you’re constantly aware that you’re straddling a cultural and linguistic divide. Driving on the highway between Bolzano and Innsbruck, I pass alternating crops of grapes and hops. One town has fantastic pasta and rotten strudel, and the next town vice-versa.
The region is officially bilingual. In the big cities in the valley, most locals speak Italian first. But up in the mountains, people speak German in their homes and in their bones. As someone who speaks a bit of both languages, I find the place hopelessly confusing. It crosses my linguistic wires. I try to ask a restaurant, in German, which days of the week they’re open…and half the words come out in Italian. Montag, Dienstag, mercoledì, giovedì, Freitag, and the Wochenende. Sonntag aperto?
My home base is in the pretty alpine village of Castelrotto — a.k.a. Kastelruth — with a gigantic bell tower that dwarfs everything around it. When I planned this trip, I knew that my timing was close to the very start of the season. And sure enough, to reach Castelrotto I have to drive through a frigid drizzle.
As I check into my hotel, the hotelier notices me shiver. “You’re here for the Eisheiligen,” she says sympathetically, using an unfamiliar German word that means, roughly, “The Ice Saints.” I ask her to explain. “We get nice, summery weather in late April, early May. But then, in mid-May, another jolt of winter hits for about a week. We call it the Eisheiligen. These are the feast days of some early Christian martyrs — and they bring along frigid weather.” She leans in close with a local gardening tip: “And you never put your flower boxes out until after the Eisheiligen. If you’re careless, the ‘Cold Sophie’ will kill them with her frost on May 15.”
I ask her how long this cold snap will last, and, with pinpoint precision, she promises that summer will return in two days. Sure enough, two days later, I wake up to glorious sunshine. (Even in our age of dual doppler radar and 15-day forecasts, sometimes the old folk wisdom is still the best way to predict the weather.)
Greeting my only sunny day in the Dolomites, I make a beeline for the gondola up to the Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm in German). The lifts just started running yesterday, which makes me a little nervous. Nobody wants to be on the first gondola of the season. And sure enough, as I soar silently through the air to a high-mountain pasture, I keep hearing a rustling underfoot. Finally I figure out that a stowaway mouse is batting around a little ball of paper in the vents.
Reaching the Alpe di Siusi, I find it swarming with early-bird hikers getting a head start on the summer. Aside from a few persistent snowbanks in shady gullies, the pasture is coming back to life. A few fields are even fuzzy with the earliest blossoms of miniature wildflowers. A month from now, it’ll be a Crayola wonderland. But today, on the heels of the Eisheiligen, it’s sunny and inviting…I’ll take it.
The lifts to the upper trailheads aren’t quite running yet, so I ask around for tips. People suggest that I simply ride the bus to the other end of the pasture. So, in the shadow of the long ridge called the Schlern, I hop the bus and ride 15 minutes to a sweet little mountain hut, the Rauchhütte. A breathtaking panorama of the Alpe di Siusi’s twin peaks — Langkofel and Plattkofel — spreads out before me. It’s an unbelievably picturesque spot for a lunch and Apfelstrudel.
The other tip for hiking on the Alpe di Siusi before the lifts are fully operational is simply to hike up to an upper lift station and follow the trail from there. With a typical European optimism, the tourist office told me it was about a 20-minute hike up to the Puflatsch lift station. Forty minutes of heart-pounding, near-vertical ascent later, I reach the station. Wondering whether it was worth the effort, I begin one of the most stunning hikes of my life — circling the perimeter of the Puflatsch plateau and along the “Witches’ Benches,” with 360 degrees of majestic alpine panoramas.
So…yeah, it was worth the effort. And it was also worth the damp shoes from having to hike through a few melting snowbanks.
I wouldn’t necessarily advise trying to do summer hiking in the Dolomites before mid-May. The weather is just too iffy. But if you arrive with the Eisheiligen — like I did — you’ll be among the first hikers on the trails…and have this pristine alpine meadow all to yourself.