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Alpine Escape: A vintage ride in South Tyrol

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12 Sep 2018
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

With 80% of its surface area covered in mountains, 300 days of sunshine every year and 150 wineries dotted throughout the region, South Tyrol whispers a seductive siren song to cyclists around the world.

In this autonomous province of northern Italy, an undulating land of monochrome peaks, sun-baked meadows and fruity wines, riders can pedal from tranquil vineyards to the turreted pinnacles of the Dolomites within just a few hours.

Italian cycling greats Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi sculpted their legendary reputations on the steep climbs of the Dolomites, which have featured in the Giro d’Italia over 40 times since the race’s first visit in 1937.

And the region’s expansive system of cycle tracks invites riders of all levels to explore further afield, from buzzing meadows and sleepy orchards to ancient abbeys and historic towns.

I start my ride in the luxuriously languid town of Tramin, which is marooned in an endless green sea of vineyards.

This area marks the southern tip of South Tyrol's Wine Road, a 150km wine-tasting route which sways and stumbles through a dreamy valley of grapevines, apple orchards and palm trees.

South Tyrol is famous for its white wines, and with the growing area of the Wine Road spanning 4,249 hectares, cyclists won’t lack options for mid-ride rehydration.

My companion for the day is Pierpaolo Macconi, a spaghetti-slender rider who is as quick to laugh as he is at powering up climbs.

He insists that however beautiful this landscape is in the summer, I must return in the autumn when the vineyards and forests erupt in a blazing riot of red and yellow. He makes a compelling argument.

We begin by taking the Oltradige cycle track through the Oltradige valley to Bolzano. The path weaves through rolling hills coated in grapevines, which stand in neat rows like spectators lining the terraces of a stadium.

We pass Cantina Tramin, one of the oldest cooperatives in the region, whose striking green headquarters mirrors the shape of tangled vines.

This modern steel and glass construction, which houses storage cellars and wine-tasting rooms, was built in 2010 by renowned local architect Werner Tscholl.

All along this route you can take playful detours up the steep, coiling roads which climb through the vineyards at formidable gradients.

To break up the flat of the valley we dash up one such climb into a vineyard and enjoy a delicious cooling blast from the hidden sprinklers, which refract the sunlight to paint dazzling miniature rainbows in the air.

From up here we can see Lake Caldaro – the warmest body of water in the Alps. The temperature of the water in the lake once topped 28 degrees, but today it’s a pleasantly refreshing spot for a dip on a hot summer ride.

At the town of Bolzano we change onto the Valle Isarco cycling track (the region’s bike paths interconnect so you can mould your own favourite routes) and head northeast, past picturesque churches and farmhouses.

We travel by Chiusa, an old town of stone houses and shaded alleyways watched over by the elegant white-walled Sabiona monastery, which sits on a rocky spur 200m above.

The journey from Bolzano to the medieval town of Bressanone is around 42km long and involves a gentle 300m ascent. On our arrival we cross a bridge and roll past hotels painted pink and green and fitted with colourful wooden shutters.

The main landmark in Bressanone is the majestic twin-spired Bressanone Cathedral, but to a hungry cyclist the surrounding street stalls, which are stocked with thick slabs of speck, bowls of porcini mushrooms, and huge packets of pasta, nuts, honey and local cheese, are just as compelling.

Food is an important part of local culture and South Tyrol hosts festivals and fairs celebrating everything from milk to apricots.

A few kilometres past Bressanone is the 12th century Abbey Novacella, a handsome cluster of monastic buildings, fountains, libraries, wooden doors and stone archways surrounded by forests and vineyards and intersected by white paths.

We ride down and enjoy the cool shade afforded by the old walls and alleyways before grinding back up to the cycle path. Soon we pause for a quick lunch of speck rolls and fresh orange juice.

Visiting cyclists should also make the most of the traditional South Tyrolean afternoon snack of Marende, which consists of cured ham, flat bread, cheese, sausage and a glass of wine – the Italian version of a ploughman’s lunch.

Refuelled, we tack east onto the Val Pusteria cycle route and travel through green fields to Brunico, then on into the grey and white jaws of the Dolomites.

A Unesco World Heritage site, the Dolomites are a unique range of mountains. 250 million years ago these jagged pinnacles and spires lay underwater, forming part of a spectacular coral reef. But tectonic activity and volcanic eruptions turned them into the majestic mountain range we see today.

Thousands of cyclists flock to the region each year for sportives such as the Sellaronda Bike Day and the Maratona Dles Dolomites, and the Dolomiti di Sesto region we’re passing through is home to the famed Tre Cime di Lavaredo peaks.

We ride beneath grey turrets of rock topped by moon-white lumps of snow safe in the knowledge that we won’t be taking on those challenges today.

The paths are clearly marked – simply follow the colourful whirl of Pierpaolo’s luminous orange shoes, which guide the way.

We soon arrive at the sumptuous Lake Dobbiaco. Nestled between forested peaks, the setting inspired composer Gustav Mahler to create several pieces of music when he visited more than a century ago.

A short ride along its shores sees our day finish in the market town of San Candido, surrounded by dark forests and serrated grey mountains. We ride high up above the town to enjoy the views and discuss the final challenge of the day: where to find the biggest apple strudel in town.

Sunshine and vineyards

All the wineries and mountain detours you could wish for

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/alpine5. This 130-140km route connects South Tyrol’s Oltradige, Valle Isarco and Val Pusteria bike paths, travelling from Tramin to San Candido via Bolzano, Bressanone and Brunico.

Most of the journey is on dedicated cycle paths but with a few stretches on valley roads. All the paths are listed in excellent detail on the tourism website (suedtirol.info/en), complete with pictures, maps and places to visit.

How to get there

Travel

The nearest airports are in Innsbruck and Verona. EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester to Innsbruck and from Gatwick to Verona.

British Airways also offers flights from Heathrow to Innsbruck and from Gatwick to Verona. There are car rental services, shuttle buses and taxi services available at both airports.

See suedtirol.info/en for more details. 

Where to stay

We stayed at the friendly Hotel Traminer Hof (traminerhof.it) in Tramin, which offers comfortable rooms with outdoor terraces and (surprisingly) Dyson hairdryers, a bike storage garage, and a popular restaurant.

The hotel has indoor and outdoor pools, as well as a sauna, solarium and gym.

More info

For information on the South Tyrol region, flights, accommodation and places to visit, see the tourism website (suedtirol.info/en).