South Tyrol: Snow and rein
Take winter sports to another level by combining your skiing holiday with a spot of horseriding. Adrian Turpin did just that - in the South Tyrol
Saturday 27 January 2007
While it's never good when an airline loses your bags, some holidays are more baggage-handler-proof than others. Beachwear is cheap to replace, city breaks mean the high street is never far away, and naturists are always in the pink. But take it from me, the time you really don't want your suitcase left on the tarmac is when on a combined horse-riding/skiing holiday.
It's hard to know what's worse: shelling out for expensive specialist gear that you might not use for another year, or the prospect of walking around smelling like Desert Orchid's downhill-skiing brother. The woman in the baggage-claims office at Verona gave one of those "What-can-I-do -about-it?" shrugs they must teach Italian children at nursery school and offered me a number for BA in Milan, which didn't work.
After finally getting hold of someone at Gatwick at 80p a minute, I tried to explain that we couldn't pick up the bags from Verona when they were found because we were staying in the mountains of South Tyrol, three hours north by train.
"What's the name of your destination?"
"Olang," I replied. "Well, Valdaora."
"So is that Olang or Valdaora we send the luggage to?"
I could see the chances of the bags ever surfacing recede into the distance.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the man from the airline should be confused about the South Tyrol's place names. Even the South Tyroleans seem a bit bewildered. Until 1918, the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Annexed by the Italians during the First World War, it was renamed Venezia Tridentina - barefaced propaganda given that the area had never had anything to do with Venice or its republic.
Mussolini later insisted not only on having every German place name translated (hence Olang-Valdaora) but on shipping in "native" Italians in an attempt to adjust the ethnic balance. This did not stop the German-speaking majority demanding reunification with Austria after the Second World War, a request that the Allies were (not surprisingly) reluctant to grant. In the following decades, separatists even conducted a terrorist campaign, which only abated in 1988.
It occurred to me, before leaving home, that this kind of cultural cross-breeding might make the region a disastrous place to visit. Albert Einstein supposedly once joked with Marilyn Monroe about having a baby together, to which Monroe replied: "But what if the baby had your looks and my brains?" Could South Tyrol be a similarly unfavoured love child? Imagine holidaying in a place that combined Italian inefficiency and menefreghismo (a great word that has no direct equivalent in English but which politely translates as "the state of not giving a fig") with stereotypical Teutonic charm.
Fortunately, when we got to Olang (Valdaora, whatever it's called), the reverse turned out to be true. Our hotel, the Post, was a case in point. It had the character of the best Italian pensione but is also the cleanest hotel I have ever stayed in. Ever. The restaurant serves fantastic pasta and the basement hides a state-of-the-art spa and sauna, where you can rest your legs after a day on the slopes.
Spread out over three levels - upper, middle and lower - Olang itself is pretty in a whimsical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang kind of way. Yet the ski bus runs like clockwork and drivers stop rather than accelerate at zebra crossings, a phenomenon that would be unthinkable in the rest of Italy.
Thanks to BA's menefreghismo, we would have been stuffed if it hadn't been for Kat Tiefenthal, whose firm, the Riding Company, had organised the trip. Tiefenthal, an Englishwoman married to a Norwegian, is a former British paragliding champion. Little seems to faze her. She arrived just after 9am with a boot-load of riding kit, having driven from her home in Austria. This seemed beyond the call of duty. But she tried to persuade us that no, really, it was a pleasure driving two hours before breakfast because you couldn't get a decent cup of coffee on the other side of the border. Suitably suited and booted, we were back in business.
The riding school, where we were booked in for private lessons, was a five-minute walk from Hotel Post. I have ridden perhaps five times in my life, usually in that very British way where they stick beginners on a nag with the girth of a small petrol tanker and you crawl along a bridleway watching the local snails overtake you. I was sure this would more than prepare me for walking through the frosty fields around Olang.
What I hadn't taken into account was the chief instructor, a taciturn man in a traditional feathered felt cap, who looked like an extra from The Sound of Music. Silently, he watched our horses pace slowly round the school's indoor arena three times before instructing the stable girl to invite us to dismount. It had been a test and we had failed. There was no way we were going outdoors on a horse until we'd done our school work.
This wasn't the best news, especially after the luggage fiasco. The two of us must have looked like Thelwell pony clubbers, teetering on the brink of sulky rebellion. It didn't seem fair. Experienced riders had the chance to gallop through the countryside like Bo Derek in the film 10 but with more snow, while we were confined to the equine equivalent of ski school. But, by the second morning, we were both starting to enjoy a new-found confidence under Marian's patient instruction. Even being indoors didn't seem so bad. The riding hall's huge windows meant we could still watch the low sun splinter on the jagged teeth of the Dolomites as we turned tight trotting circles. Our third day was, sadly, the last. We still weren't allowed to ride outside. In the summer, it would be no problem, Marian explained, but the horses go faster to keep their footing in the frost, making them more of a handful. Not that we really cared any more. Marian's methodical drilling had its own, more lasting satisfactions, while any lingering disappointment was soothed by a hastily arranged carriage ride complete with woollen blankets and a stop for gluhwein.
One of the joys of Olang is how easy it is to get to the slopes. Even after nipping back to the hotel to change post-lesson, we were still able to stand on top of the mountain less than an hour after sitting on top of a horse. Part of the sprawling Dolomiti Superski area, Kronplatz is sometimes nicknamed Mount Kojak, a reference to its giant bald crown. The 100km of pistes include a two-kilometre black run with a 500m drop, if you like that kind of thing. But it is beginners and intermediates that are likely to get the most from Kronplatz. The resort has no dreaded drags to worry about falling off, while a wide plateau of interlinking blue runs is perfect for finding your ski legs. Here you can practise weaving around an endless stream of daredevil bambini and well-preserved Italian pensioners, before striking out into the relative quiet of the woods below to reflect on the glories of nature and when, if ever, BA might deign to deliver your bags.
Of course, there is a price to pay for doing a dual-activity holiday. Skiing is always a balance between extreme pleasure and a modicum of pain. But riding and skiing in tandem rewrites that equation. Each sport makes demands on different parts of the body. I rediscovered entire groups of muscles last seen around 1986. Nightlife? You'll be lucky. By the end of each day, we were wandering around the Hotel Post like zombies, too blissed-out even to notice the sniffs of other guests, as they wondered where that smell of horses was coming from, and why the British never change their clothes.
The writer flew to Verona from Edinburgh via Gatwick with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to nearby Brescia from Stansted. Olang can also be reached from Innsbruck in Austria, which is served by First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk), Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com), Austrian Airlines (08701 24 26 25; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) and BA.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk). The money is used to reduce the output of carbon dioxide.
The Riding Company (020-7870 7834; www.theridingcompany.com) offers four-night ride-and-ski breaks from £521 per person. This includes half-board accommodation, three hours' riding a day, a three-day ski pass, a horse-sleigh ride and airport transfers. Seven-day itineraries start at £833 per person.
Hotel Post, Oberolang, Olang, South Tyrol (00 39 04 74 496 127; www.posthotel.bz.it). Doubles start at €170 (£121), half board.
Olang Valdaora: 00 39 04 74 496 277; www.olang.com
Italian Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk
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