Nova Levante / Welschnofen, 12-27 May 2017
We arrived in Bolzano by train from Verona and were met by Rob and Yvette in their trusty Blue Peugeot. The ride up through the mountain pass was gorgeous, giving us our first taste of the Dolomites, an area so named because of the preponderance of “dolomite”, a rock formed from limestone under pressure. The clashing of the uplift that has resulted in the Alps and an ancient coral seabed has produced this beautiful area, a wonderful mixture of volcanic and sedimentary origins.
Our home was to be in Nova Levante, also known as Welschnofen, a small town situated up in the mountains about 20km ro so from Bolzano. Everything around seems to have two names, one Italian and one German, because the region was Austrian prior to World War I and remains very much a part of the Tyrols, retaining the German language and culture, The towns and villages reflect the alpine style that is present throughout Austria, Bavaria and Swizterland, with steeply sloping roofs, much use of timber for balconies and deeply overhanging eaves. The town is as neat as a pin, with manicured gardens and pretty flower boxes in abundance. Being built on a steep slope, almost everyone overlooks someone else and that may enforce a spirit of pride or it may be the heritage of Germanic organisation. Whatever the reason, the town is gorgeous and the backdrop of the forested hills and snow clad mountains really sets it off.
Rob and Yvette’s apartment is the second floor of a three floor building, the top being unoccupied and the first being a very friendly and cheerful local couple. The apartment is spacious enough for the four of us with a feature being the two balconies that give us an opportunity to watch the comings and goings of the village. The main balcony overlooks the houses below, some of which have small attached fields, running a few sheep and donkeys. The rural smell wafts up on most days but it adds to the great atmosphere more than it offends. We spent a lot of time just standing out on the balcony, watching people, animals or the changing moods of the weather over the mountains.
Nova Levante is overlooked by two large mountain systems, the Latemar and the Rosengarten (Rose Garden), which gets its name from the pinkish hue that it gives off as the sun is setting. Both were covered in a healthy dose of snow when we arrived but by the time we left the Rosengarten had lost most of its cover and the Latemar was showing signs of going the same way. Both mountains provide an excellent range of ski runs during the season and the slopes are dotted with ski lifts. A larger enclosed cable car system rises from Nova Levante to Frommer Alm, on the lower slopes of the Rosengarten and open ski lifts rise to higher points. During the summer, many of these continue to operate, carrying hikers instead of skiers. The beauty of the region attracts hikers in numbers which means the town and surrounds is fortunate in having two major tourist seasons. We were visiting between seasons, with the town quiet in terms of visitors but busy in the sense that everyone was flat out with getting things ready for the summer season.
We made good use of the many hiking trails. The attraction is very often the view but this means a climb. Often, we would plod steadily uphill for a couple of hours, steadily gaining height, only to suffer an equally hard downward march, faster but just as hard on the legs. The rewards were always there, the views and the beauty of the forests combining to produce a great experience each and every time. The forest is a mixture of pine, spruce and fir, with incredibly straight and tall trees covering the steep slopes. They are regularly but sustainably harvested, although just how this is done on some of the mountain slopes defies imagination. There are huge piles of neatly stacked logs dotted all over the place and the locals all have enormous stacks of cut and split timber ready to dry over the summer in readiness for the next winter.
Our first serious hike together was from Lake Carezza up towards the Latemar. We were keen on reaching the snow line and we figured it would not be too difficult because it looked as though the snow was still reaching down into edge of the forest. A relatively easy trail took us steadily upwards, the forest changing from a mix of spruce and pine to just spruce alone. We would stop every now and then to admire the view or have a snack. Finally, we reached the tree line and a couple of huts. A few tiny patches of dirty snow were still in evidence, enough to satisfy the girls but Rob and I pushed on across the broken rock and thorn covered gullies to reach the snow proper. It proved to be fairly tough going, the rock shifting under us a lot. Only hiking sticks prevented a really bad fall, although I went over once and Rob did a couple of very graceful slides onto his bum. We managed to reach the snow. I was so tired I didn’t even feel the snow ball that hit me and could only be bothered throwing one feeble one back, wide of the mark. The snow was light and crunchy right to the very edge, a bit of a surprise really. On the way down, we kept stopping to watch awesome avalanches cascade over cliffs and through ravines. The sound was quite incredible. Fortunately, the avalanches were far enough away that we did not get overly concerned and could enjoy the spectacle.
On one occasion, we took the cable car up to Frommer Alm with the intention of hiking down. We estimated the trip down would take maybe half an hour of relatively easy walking. It ended up taking three hours and was quite challenging in parts. However, the views from the cable car and the hike back remains one of the highlights of our stay. Another highlight was a hike up to Jocher Hof, a farm come restaurant high above Nova Levante. On arrival at the farm, we spied a sign offering home cooked apple strudel and we were very happy to be shown inside the farm house into a cosy room overlooking the Rosengarten to be served cappuccinos, hot chocolate and wonderful apple strudel. Such establishments are dotted across the region, ranging from small local farm houses to large and exclusive resorts. Tourism rules here and it is done to perfection, with smiles and friendliness all round.
Another time, Christine and I headed off on our own to walk to a place called Stadler Hof. The trail seemed to be visible from our balcony and looked fairly benign. Consulting the map, I guessed that we would have an initial sharp climb up to a track half way up the hill then maintain a fairly level grade around the mountain to our destination. Wow! I called that wrong. We climbed up a horribly steep path for two hours. It was testimony to the need to look carefully at elevations when studying a map. The final destination was spectacular, giving beautiful views of both the Rosengarten and Latemar. Along the way, we had decided that the effort involved justified an apple strudel each at the end, no sharing considered, just one big helping each with lashings of cream. Alas, although the Stadler Hof was very beautiful, it was closed for another two weeks. Fortunately, we had packed an apple and a pear to share. Hardly a reward for effort though.
On our first day in Nova Levante, Rob and Yvette drove us out to Lake Carezza, a nearby attraction. It was hardly a lake however, more like a large puddle of water sitting in a depression, although the magnificent setting and the backdrop of the Latemar covered in snow made it into a lovely scene. The water was crystal clear and gave off a beautiful aquamarine hue. Numerous lake char, a trout like fish, swam in its waters. When Rob and Yvette had arrived a few weeks earlier the lake was even lower and surrounded by snow. As the spring wears on and the melt continues, the lake will fill, not from actual run-off but rather from ground seepage. It is probably this that allows the lake to retain its almost perfect clarity. We re-visited Lake Carezza on our last day in Nova Levante, two weeks later and the lake was a little more than half full. The colours were outstanding. When it is full it must be a real show. By autumn, the lake will have reduced down to a large puddle again and the rescue teams will be out working to net and relocate any lake char caught in drying areas.
Life in Nova Levante is dominated by the church bell. All villages in Europe have one or more churches and ringing the bells seems standard practice but in Nova Levante things have got out of hand. The local church has a belfry with what sounds like three bells. Each one will be rung for about a minute then they crank up all of them for several minutes. They ring full peal at 6:30am and again at 7am. Several times, we heard them at 3am, although not the full peal thank goodness. There is a good hammering at noon and a couple of other random blasts throughout the day then one to settle us down around 6pm. Then there are weddings and funerals, which seem to be pretty common.
Christine and I love going food shopping in any one of the three small supermarkets. The assistants enjoy the chance to practice their English and really love helping Christine track down some of the harder to find things (no vegemite though). One time, Christine took two cartons of milk up to a girl to ask what the difference was because they had different descriptions. The girl laughed and turned one carton over to show that they had Italian on one side and German on the other. We always became far more popular when people learned we were Australian rather than British or American. Everyone wants to go to Australia and many have a relative of some kind living there. We found everyone on the town to be extremely warm and helpful. However, Christine did have a fight with a woman in the Post Office, over the cost of mailing postcards to Australia. Christine made the error of saying it was cheaper in Germany so she got shouted at and reminded that she is in Italy so she pays Italian charges. She left without any stamps.
Bands are a big part of the scene in Nova Levante, as they are in many Austrian localities. If there is any excuse whatsoever, the brass band assembles in its finery and marches down the street playing strident marching tunes. They cranked up on two Sundays in a row, headed for the church and mass. It adds a bit of interest.
We certainly dined well. Unlike our time with the Piscicellis in Trisobbio when we did quite a bit of dining out, in Nova Levante we ate in on most occasions apart from ordering in pizza once and having a lunch in Bolzano. Rob kept us in pasta heaven with his incredible creations. He always says it could be better but the truth is it can’t. He cooked ravioli, penne, tortellini with wonderful sauces, tomato, oil and garlic, pesto, marinara and more. Christine fired back with an amazing Hungarian goulash and dumplings, pasties, chicken cordon bleu, a roast dinner and more. Yvette and I were taste testers. We scored it a 10 all draw.
We took a couple of trips into Bolzano, once by ourselves on the local bus and once in the car with the Piscicellis. The bus route was a long drawn out affair up over a mountain and down again using many switch-back roads and hairpin bends. The normal road was closed due to tunnel work, extending the time the trip took but making for a spectacular ride. Bolzano is a small city, pretty enough in places and very much a blend of the old and the new. The central area is mostly blocked to traffic so walking the streets is easy. However, we found that it could quickly heat up, due to its location in a broad basin surrounded by mountains and the thought of being here in the height of summer is a bit much.
Bolzano is the home of Otzi, the famous 5000 year old iceman that was discovered frozen on a glacier in 1991. It was very nearly an Austrian discovery, with the body being found a mere 94m inside Italian territory. We visited the Museum of Archaeology to see the exhibit. The body is preserved in a special chamber under strict climatic conditions and, given its age, is in remarkably good condition. Of more interest though, is the amazing collection of artifacts and clothing that was found scattered on the glacier around the body. There is a backpack, shoes, cloak, cap, belt, dagger, bow and arrows and lots more. Forensic tests showed that he died from an arrow wound in the shoulder and subsequent blood loss. More forensics were able to examine his stomach contents and determine the foods that he had eaten. All this took years to uncover and many times the answers were found to be wrong. They should have done it properly in the first place and called in CSI, who could have solved every mystery in a day or so.
On another trip to Bolzano with the Piscicellis, we took the cable car up to Renon. The Renon is a high plateau overlooking Bolzano. It contains a scattering of small villages, a lot of hotels and hostels and a quaint little narrow gauge rail that links everything together. The cable car ride is the World’s longest single line trip, coming out at around 4.5kms. It provides magnificent views of Bolzano, the Alps and the incredible pattern of vineyard plantings on the slopes below. Most people seemed to be travelling up on the cable then hiking back down, a thought that was not even tempting after all the hikes of the last few weeks. We were still suffering from our last tortuous climb and Rob was recovering from a thigh strain so we wisely booked a return journey. Our ride finished at the village of Suprabolzano (Above Bolzano), which was little more than a scattering of hotels and restaurants. We wandered around for a while, had a drink at a café then rode the cable down again. The ride was the star attraction.
We consider ourselves very lucky to have had the opportunity to experience a little slice of life in the South Tyrols. It is certainly more like living in Austria than Italy and at one point I even made the mistake of starting a statement with “When we get back to Italy….” The people were incredibly welcoming, as they have been almost everywhere we have been. The scenery is amazingly good, especially for the likes of us who used to think Bluff Knoll was a big climb. The culture is interesting, but not that different in the scheme of things. Thanks Rob and Yvette for letting us share in your fabulous Italian adventure.