San Cassiano in the Dolomite region of northern Italy wasn't what I was expecting. On the map, west of Cortina d'Ampezzo, north of the mountainous hump of Marmolada, it looked a small village, surrounded by plenty of nothing – good for walking. But it's on the move, San Cassiano. Five huge yellow cranes hung like praying mantises over new building sites. Parked outside our family-run hotel was a daunting line-up: Aston Martin, Ferrari, Maserati and Porsche. "Crumbs," I thought. "What are we going to do with our boots?" Mud, unless provided at a cost in the hotel's Daniela Steiner Spa, seemed to have little place here any more.
But we found superb wild flowers, which was the reason for coming to this part of Italy. By mid-June, the steep pastures that pull up from the village to forests of pine and larch are already thick with creamy oxlips and pink ragged robin, rusty orange arnica and the wide yellow daisies of goat's beard (Tragopogon pratensis). On our first evening we wandered out to the east end of the village (effectively there's just one long street) and turned left up a track by the Pension Plang. At this stage I hadn't any idea of what to expect and the lower pasture didn't offer much except buttercups and moon daisies.
But higher up, where the grass got less lush, the scene changed completely. Pale yellow globe flowers balanced on steep damp slopes by the larch trees. Martagon lilies pushed through an underpinning of dwarf alchemilla and vetch, white bladder campion and heartsease. It was thrilling to see these lilies growing in the wild. When we left for Italy they were in full flower in our garden and of course I'm grateful to them for settling there. But to see them in the alpine pastures, surrounded by their natural companions, with the pounding sound of a waterfall close by, and the terrifying scree slopes of the Dolomites above – that was a kind of apotheosis.
Martagons are easy to recognise, because they have very distinctive whorls of leaves at intervals up the stems. And relatively few lilies grow wild in Italy. You don't have to rattle through much of your mental index before you pull out what you need. But where do you start with a wild flower that you've never seen before? If you are lucky, it will remind you of a garden flower you know. Spread at intervals through the alpine pastures were searing spreads of deep blue. The spikes providing this intense colour were too big and important to be bugle, but the flowers were made in the same way, a hood above curving over a lip below. A salvia perhaps? I checked out the salvias in my wild flower book and there it was: Salvia pratensis (meadow clary).
The only guide we had was Riconoscere i Fiori by Giuliano Fanelli. The pictures are wretched little things, but the book (a Muzzio Pocket Guide) is not much bigger than a bar of chocolate and is laid out briskly, giving flowering time and most likely habitats of about 600 wild flowers. That's scarcely 10 per cent of the total to be found in Italy, but it covers the things you are most likely to see. At home, I checked out other finds in Wild Flowers of Britain & Northern Europe with illustrations by Marjorie Blamey and impeccable text by Christopher Grey-Wilson.
Habitat is very useful as an indicator. Whenever I saw 'Alpi e Appennino' in my Italian book, I felt I was on the right track. Height gave less of a clue. The same flower, growing in different habitats varied greatly in that respect. The higher we climbed, the more dwarfed plants became.
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) spread thickly in the high parts of the pastures rising up from San Cassiano. It's often recommended to gardeners trying to establish a meadow garden, because it's a parasite. It feeds on the roots of grass, reduces its vigour and so helps wild flowers establish themselves. We've used it in Foxpatch, the orchard we planted below the house, and it is very effective, spreading itself about by seed.
The rattle I know has bright yellow flowers, but the San Cassiano version was a tart lemon colour: much more desirable. Unfortunately none of it had set seed...
Each walk we did gave us new discoveries: Clematis alpina with pale lilac-blue flowers, pulling itself up into the lower branches of pine trees, the pleated leaves of veratrum pushing up through short turf, intense spots of spring gentian, deeper, more purplish blue clumps of the clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata).
On each day's walk (we were in San Cassiano for just four nights) the flowers were subtly different. The basic meadow mix was made up of a dozen or so things: the blue salvia, white moon daisy, purple knapweed, pale blue scabious, a delicious plantain with fluffy pink pokers, various vetches in purple and magenta, harebells, yellow daisies, buttercup, forget-me-not, blue-flowered cranesbill (Geranium pratense), dwarf alchemilla, thyme, pink cow parsley, fat pink clovers and a beautiful round-headed flower of bright blue that I had never seen before and which wasn't in the Italian flower book. Christopher Grey-Wilson gave me the answer. It was a rampion. Just once we saw its dramatic cousin (Phyteuma nigrum), with flowers as black as the tulip 'Queen of Night'.
But the background mix changed all the time, with one flower dominating, then another, so the view drifted from a blue haze to a pink one, then yellow as goat's beard took over. Orchids with spotted leaves favoured the damp hollows. Insect-eating butterwort clustered by boggy moss, both the blue-flowered kind which you see in Scottish bogs and one with a white flower (Pinguicula alpina), extinct now with us. Italy has good footpaths, well mapped and numbered, and though our forays were completely random, each gave memorable sights. We avoided the ski areas. The machinery gets in the way of the view.
All our walks were of the there-and-back kind. In terrain as steep and intricately valleyed as this, it's difficult to plot a circular route. The best walk (to Spescia Dessot) took us through high farms and hamlets where huge wooden barns, cross-braced in an intricate way, still sheltered Limousin cattle. At Aiarei (Footpath no 8) the wooden houses, jettied out over stone bases with carved doors and balconies, were more like those in the remote villages of Arunachal Pradesh than anything I've seen before in Europe. This part of Italy used once to belong to Austria and I tried both German and Italian on the farmer that came out to greet us. Neither was any good. Anyone born in these parts speaks Ladin and, on the ground, Ladin place names – Ju, Ciablun, Coz, Biei, Runch – take priority. Unfortunately, on the map we had (Touring Editore Trentino Alto Adige 1:200,000) they didn't. Look for local maps of the Alta Badia. For more information on the area go to altabadia.org.