South Tyrol: The land that time forgot

These Alpine valleys were Austrian until they were handed to the Italians at the end of the First World War. Hence the locals defiantly guard their traditions. Yet we love to visit just this sort of quaint, closed community. That's why they're raking in the tourist euros, says the novelist Tim Parks

My elder daughter had her first serious crush on a boy in the tiny village of Luttach. But where is Luttach? In the Ahrntal ...

Imagine you've driven down from Munich into Italy over the Brenner pass. Just before you reach the first decent-sized town, Brixen, you get off the autostrada and head east along the Pustertal - tal means valley. There's only one major road, weaving back and forth over the grey water of the river Rienz. To each side are steep slopes of bright pasture topped by pinewoods climbing, wolfish and dark, to where dizzyingly high cliffs of Alpine rock are shrouded in cloud and mist. Stop the car for a moment and you'll be instantly impressed by a strange sweetness in the air: a mixture of cut grass, cow shit and sawn logs, of snowmelt splashing on stone. It's the smell of the South Tyrol.

About 12 miles along the valley you reach the town of Bruneck, which lies beneath the ugly and over-developed ski resort of Plan de Corones, perhaps the only place in the area I try to avoid. Turn left, which is to say northwards now, and you are in the Ahrntal, climbing steadily beside a tumble of white-flecked torrent water back towards the Austrian border, which can only be crossed here on cattle tracks at 2,000m and more.

As the valley closes in, you pass through a string of pretty villages: Gais, Sand in Taufers, Luttach, St Jakob, Prettau. Everywhere timber balconies are flaming with geraniums. At almost every crossroads there is a haggard crucifix with corn cobs hanging beside each nailed hand. After dark, you see isolated lights high up in the Alpine night. Who are these people, you wonder, who live so far from everything? My daughter Stefi was soon to find out.

We were in Luttach to send Stefi pony-trekking, but arrived to find the place full of excitement. The men of the village were hoisting up the Kirchtagsmichl, or "Holiday Michael". This is a full-sized effigy in traditional costume that gets strapped to the top of a huge pine trunk, maybe 20m high. The idea is that each village tries to attack the other's pole and steal their effigy. Falls, fights and heavy drinking are the obvious spin-offs.

Meanwhile, it is not easy to erect a tree trunk weighing several tons without the use of a crane or any mechanical device. A team of about 30 men and boys was relying on ropes, timber cradles, wedges and brute force to heave it up and settle it in a deep hole that looked very much like a grave. Blond and boy-scoutish, they were sporting Lederhosen, blue peasant work jackets, and Tyrolese hats with jaunty feathers. Only one young fellow had dyed his long hair coal-black, wore jeans and satanic trinkets and exuded a Gothic, if not pre-Raphaelite un- healthiness worthy of Camden market. Young Stefi was instantly seduced.

Luttach is called Luttago in Italian, Sand im Taufers is Campo Tures, and Bruneck is Brunico. The South Tyrol was Austrian till handed to the Italians as a trophy at the end of the First World War, at which point Italian names and the Italian language were promptly imposed. Excluded from Hitler's expansionist dreams in return for a military alliance with Mussolini, the area became steadily more isolated and embittered, until, as recently as 1972, a deal was finally struck that gave the German-speaking locals a degree of autonomy and the handsome subsidies required to open the area to tourism. Which they rapidly and brilliantly did.

Every year we stay in the tiny village of Kematen (or Caminata, as an Italian road sign insists), in a small working farm that has been transformed into a flourishing guest house. Luggishof: the name is painted Gothic black on to white stucco with the milking parlour on one side and the obligatory pile of neatly stacked firewood on the other. Indeed, almost every farm has been converted into a guest house there and each façade has its name painted up in the same black gothic hand: Trennerhof, Unterholzerhof, Rosenkrantzhof. Fertilised with subsidies from Rome, the geraniums blaze.

In the big family sitting-room at Luggishof absolutely everything is traditional Tyrolese: the collection of costumed dolls, the Christ corner where Jesus hangs between his corn cobs, the wood stove with the bed on top, the stuffed hunting trophies and little baskets of dried flowers, the vertical red-and-white banners of the Schutzen, a sort of nationalist home guard that still dreams of shaking off the Italian yoke.

Here's an irony then. Politically isolated and culturally threatened for so long, the South Tyrolese are probably more determined to maintain their traditions than any other people in western Europe, determined to keep their children in the area, determined to fight a diaspora into Italy or an influx of Italian immigration. There are endless processions in colourful costumes, whole armies of wood-carved trolls and dolls and Christs and weathercocks.

Yet, precisely because of this determined localism, the place is wonderfully attractive to the international tourist. What does the globalised world of free individuals feel nostalgic for, if not the closed, traditional community? The South Tyrol puts on a show of defiance and gets invaded and showered with cash in return. In any event, there's still a little bit of a frisson when sentiment shoots a spark across the ethnic divide and an Italian girl - for my daughter is Italian born and bred - starts ogling a Tyrolese boy.

His name was Armin. Before the day was out, Stefi had found a girl who knew his mobile number. But she was immediately off on 10 days' pony-trekking. Damn! We watched her depart. A cheerful man called Herbert, tall and blond with a roving middle-aged eye, leads trails of stout little Haflingers up tracks that once served the charcoal burners and their mules. The mountains are wonderfully walkable here. Subsidies and local pride have ensured that they are painstakingly mapped and signposted, as the more Italian areas rarely are. Soon Stefi would be sleeping on straw in high-altitude barns, showering under waterfalls, discovering the strange folk who live on the mountain passes: inarticulate, strong-smelling men in hats and dungarees, intent on the production of the famous local Graukäse. This "grey cheese" is a gritty, fungal-seeming sludge that doesn't really look like cheese at all. You have to be seriously hungry to take the first bite, though mixed with raw onions it does have a certain zest.

Attempting to embark on a text-message seduction of her young man, Stefi discovered that she was beyond any antenna. Down in the valley, guarding the village Kirchtagsmichl, Armin would have to wait. The South Tyrol is one of the few places in Europe where you can get beyond modern communications.

But what was there for parents and younger kids to do while Stefi was up in the clouds, dreaming? Actually, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful or better-priced playground than the Ahrn valley or, indeed, the South Tyrol in general. In winter, there is good skiing - downhill and cross-country. The tourist office arranges long walks on snowshoes through splendidly silent woods and gullies. Nutty young men can be seen climbing frozen waterfalls with ropes and ice-picks.

In the summer when the snow melts there is rafting on the river Ahrn. It's not that dramatic, but it's fun. And if you know how to use a kayak you can do that, too. Just go to a rafting centre for a guide. Over the years I have become excellent friends with a man called Roland who can steer you safely through all the rapids and pull you out of the water more or less intact if you do come adrift.

But don't go without a guide. Sand in Taufers lies at the bottom of a dramatic gorge with a fairy-tale schloss on the rock above. The sections of river above and below are fine. But you have to be expert and mad to tackle the gorge itself. I have stood on a bridge here watching Roland plunge down in a sequence of, to me, impossible manoeuvres amid great torrents of water crashing on stone. I reflected with some amazement that this is the man who tells me how scared he is about the responsibilities of fatherhood. To each his own.

And you can go canyoning or hang-gliding. There are times when the summer skies above Sand in Taufers teem with hang-gliders spiralling down. But most of all you can simply walk and walk and walk. There is so much to discover. If it's animal life you're after, or birds, or flowers, there are organised outings that depart at dawn with solemn, behatted men carrying shepherds' staffs. You'll see marmots and mountain goats and eagles, and there is even a flower that smells like Swiss chocolate.

But easiest of all, just take the ski-lifts up a 1,000 metres or so and follow the signed paths above the tree line and the noise line, beyond any phone call. Only the tinkling of cowbells and the wind in the grass stir the silence. The landscape climbs and falls in ridges of pine and stone, with the thread of the Ahrn glinting between skudding clouds in the valley below. Yet somehow you're never more than an hour away from a plate of dumplings and apple strudel. I love the South Tyrol for this: the abundance of remote eating houses. At the very least you'll find a glass of Apfelsaft and a lump of Graukäse.

Stefi began her text message attack on Armin the moment her pony descended into civilisation. She had two days before we left. The first evening, the Tyrolese boy was inviting his invisible admirer to a dance hall. Should we let our daughter go? The wonder of places like this is you can get a guy's whole CV from almost anyone. He plays in a heavy metal band, our landlady told us, but is quite a nice boy. Be back by midnight, we told her.

And the morning we departed, we were allowed to meet Armin in a café in Sand in Taufers. He was charming and disconsolate. While the guardians of Luttach were getting drunk, a commando squad from some other village had carried off their Kirchstagmichl. It was a disgrace.



Welcome in the hillsides: The high roads and the low roads

SPOOKED OUT

Go straight to the Tourismusverein in Sand in Taufers. They're very helpful. The castle above Sand is a must. There's a café with splendid views and a ghost tour for young kids that'll scare the hell out 'em.

WALK ON WATER

Setting off from Kematen or Sand, take an easy, half-hour walk up the Tures valley to a magnificent waterfall. The little wooden bridge allows you to walk across the face of it. Nice when frozen in winter, too.

HEARTS AND SOULS

If you're around in July, don't miss the night of the Sacred Heart, two weeks after Corpus Domini. Every hillside and mountain top has an illuminated heart to recall a moment in the Napoleonic Wars.

WAY ON DOWN

On a rainy day, it is worth checking out the old copper mine in Prettau. The guides will take you deep into the mountain, along a centuries-old shaft. Perhaps not recommended for claustrophobics.

GRAB A LIFT

In summer or winter all the ski-lift rides are worth their price. The Speikboden, just above Sand in Taufers, and the Klausberg at Steinhaus are both great places to start a day's walk or just sink a few beers while gazing at the view.

My top market

Every Tuesday evening, from July to September, Sand in Taufers puts on the Strassenküche, or "food on the street". Its four main streets and squares are packed with stalls selling traditional food and booze while, spaced at strategic intervals, are a dozen bands. Tackling hunks of pork or sausage, you can move from Tyrolese horn players to African drummers, Irish folk groups, violin duos and South Americans with their ponchos and pipes.

My favourite walk

Here's something we've tried three times and never completed. Take the bus to Rein in Taufers, a remote village north-east of Sand. Walk up the Knuttental toward the Austrian border, stopping at various inns for drinks. Then do the epic climb north toward the Schneespitze. At 2,200m, you can eat at the Brunnerhütte. Then the plan is to go over the top of the ridge at 2,600m, down the other side, and take the bus back to Sand from St Peter. But we never make it. Last time we were overwhelmed by an August blizzard.

My best family trip

One great place to have the kids kill a hot day is the natural river pool between Sand in Taufers and Kematen. The water is drawn from the Ahrn and the swimming part is surrounded by pond areas with rushes and water weeds, so that you sometimes find yourself taking breaststroke lessons from a frog. And the water is very cool. Yet the place is so charming: you can lie on the grass staring up at the mountains. And the bar is excellent.

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