Mountains meet the Mediterranean in South Tyrol

South Tyrol is a province of many faces — a cultural melting pot, where snow-capped peaks and palm trees stand side by side

Published 24 Apr 2017, 16:36 BST

Place: Contrasting landscapes

The Dolomites dominate the skyline in South Tyrol. The region is home to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on Earth, but look in another direction and gently sloping vineyards doze in the sun.

Bordering Austria and Switzerland on Italy's most northerly tip, the area is an idyllic enclave of wildflower meadows, dense pine forests and pristine lakes. And it all sits under blue skies (the province boasts around 300 days of sunshine a year).

The capital, Bolzano, is a small, pastel-hued city of steepled churches and sunny courtyards. Streets are cobbled and ancient iron signs swing in the breeze, but 21st-century architecture is also making its mark. Futuristic holiday homes boast walls made from mirrored glass, and the innovative Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is a masterpiece in its own right.

People: Cultures collide

Stroll through the streets of South Tyrol and expect greetings that range from 'Guten Tag,' to 'buongiorno' and even 'bon dí'. Today, about 70% of its 520,000 inhabitants speak German as their first language. For 25% it's Italian, and the remaining 5% converse in Ladin, the local Dolomite dialect.

It's a cultural melting pot, and while the region has all the sleepy, laid-back charm of Italy, it comes with a certain speed and precision more associated with its neighbours in the North. The fusion is also reflected in the food — knödel (dumplings) appear on menus next to spaghetti, applestrudel next to bruschetta.

South Tyroleans are renowned for giving guests a warm welcome. While a fifth of the population lives in Bolzano, the number of farms rivals that of hotels and the area is still largely agricultural. It specialises in apples, speck, the local cured ham and wine, and bottles of oak-aged sauvignon are served in a romantic enoteca (wine bars), tucked away in corners of vineyards.

Past: Steeped in history

For more than five centuries the region was part of Austria, often caught in the middle of conflicts between Europe's major powers. It was ceded to Italy at the end of the First World War, although it's autonomous.

The castles and fortresses peppered across the province are evidence of its turbulent history, but this beautiful place seems to have emerged unscathed from the tug-of-wars for its territory. Its fascinating past is on display for all to appreciate — castle ruins have been made safe for visitors and museums are in abundance. Bolzano's South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, for example, is home to Otzi the Iceman — a 5,300-year-old mummy found frozen in a glacier in 1991.

Present: Land of opportunity

South Tyrol is an adventure playground for thrill-seekers. While in winter the skiing is exceptional, in summer there are hiking and biking routes for all abilities — and every one with jaw-dropping views. From Bolzano, a cable-car leads to the Renon plateau, made up of 17 picturesque villages and home to some of the best walking trails (and local wine) around.

For those who'd rather remain in town, there's always plenty to do. The region's isolation has meant that age-old customs have survived and local festivals are frequent, colourful and wine-filled, particularly in autumn. It's not only grape-harvesting season, but the time when cattle are brought back into the valleys from their high summer pastures. To celebrate, brass bands and folk dancers perform to delighted crowds and festivities continue well into the night.

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Getting there
South Tyrol is an easy distance from several airports including Verona, Milan-Bergamo, Milan, Venice and Treviso, as well as Innsbruck and Munich. Flights are available from a range of airports across the UK including London, Manchester, Leeds, East Midlands, Bristol, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Many people travelling to South Tyrol hire a car at the airport, but there are also bus connections.

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