ITALY’S MOUNTAIN COUNTRY offers a glittering contrast to the wide open spaces and Palladian splendours of the Veneto, just a few hours to the south. Those who love their sun-and-snow fix make a beeline each winter for the chic ski resorts of the Dolomites and Valle d’Aosta, though as any sports aficionado will tell you, spring and autumn are often the best times to enjoy the regions’ great outdoors.

There are definite shades of Austria in the pristine towns and villages of the Dolomites, where early summer brings a carpet of mountain flowers and crystalline air fresh enough to bottle and take home, while autumn brings its filigree of early snow, clear skies and brilliant colours. Serious hikers will find testing trails threading up granite hillsides, while fair-weather strollers can roam through pine-clad slopes and pastureland, picnic on mountain meadows or go wildlife spotting.

Cortina d’Ampezzo – the St Tropez of the Italian Alps – draws its fair share of glamorous stars and big spenders, not to mention thrill-seeking heli-skiers, who are ferried to the upper slopes by chopper for the ultimate in off-piste daredevilry. Around the town, jagged rocks soar over daisy-covered meadows, while the sunsets are legendary.

Roadsigns are in both Italian and German in Bolzano, stuffed with historic monuments. A short drive brings you to Merano, ringed by Tyrolean peaks, and with all the appeal of a fin-de-siecle spa resort, with lush gardens and semi-tropical plants. The surrounding mountains are a hiker’s haven, while those into more indoor pursuits can pay their respects to “Otzi”, the Ice Man said to be 5,300 years old who now resides in the new Messner Mountain Museum.

Diehard adventurers can get a real taste of mountaineering on the Via Ferrata – the Iron Way – constructed by climbers in the late 19th century. This network of ladders, bridges, chains and cables allows keen amateurs – helmeted and harnessed – to tackle some awesomely steep slopes that would otherwise be out of their range.

Valle d’Aosta, tucked into Italy’s far north-western corner and fringed by Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, is another outdoor lover’s nirvana. Courmayeur boasts Europe’s highest golf course, while the cable car ride to the Aiguille du Midi – the highest point of Mont Blanc – is a stunner. Feudal castles dot the river banks, while the cobbled streets of the capital Aosta offer great shopping and hospitable hostelries.

Lace up your walking boots for a visit to the valley’s awesome Gran Paradiso national park. If you’re lucky you might spot rutting ibex late in the year, shy chamoix or soaring golden eagles. Adrenalin seekers can even scale frozen waterfalls during winter in nearby Cogne, shinning up vertical pillars of ice with picks and crampons. Drink a warming vino caldo later in the fire-lit bar of the Alpine-style Bellevue hotel.

All that mountain air is sure to give you an appetite, and gastronomes will find plenty of culinary delights here. Rich fondues, bagna cauda (a rich warm sauce for dipping), venison stew made with a dash of grappa, white truffles, and brasato al barolo – beef or veal braised in local Barolo wine –  will ensure you don’t go hungry.

Pair your dishes with some of the heady red wines grown in Europe’s highest vineyards – Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Barbaresco – or a frothy glass of Italy’s top sparkly, Asti Spumante. Peak perfection indeed.   


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