IT was quite a May night. A fox broke into Fabrizio’s wire coop and stole two prized hens. Out of the blue up the valley a mother bear and her two cubs tore apart an old donkey. Oh, and a heavy snowfall descended suddenly on Monte Bondone.
I was oblivious to all this, woken only briefly by the rain lashing my hotel balcony down in Trento. My sleepy sense of well-being owed much to a supper of spinach gnocchi called Strangolapreti (priest stranglers) and venison collops with blackcurrant, all washed down with local wines Nosiola and Teroldego. There was a hefty strudel in the mix, too.
Next morning I had the chance to work all this off – in that unpredicted white-out that added to the spectacular allure of the peaks stretching north to the Austrian border.
Our three-hour ascent was tough going, but we were rewarded by tracing deer and fox tracks in the snow, while overhead ravens strained to distract an eagle away from their nests and grouselike “blackcocks” scooted for cover. Vivid blue gentians and other spring alpine flowers peeped through the dusting of snow.
Ironically, during the ski season, the Dolomites had suffered poor snow levels, my mountain guide Fabrizio Conforto briefed me, along with all that nature red in tooth and claw stuff at the top.
Also a German climber had damaged himself in a fall off a neighbouring via ferrata (literally “road of iron” – a climbing path with fixed cables, increasingly common throughout the Alps and Dolomites).
I’m glad Fab told me that news after our vertiginous off-path descent from the 2,180m peak (just the one) called Cornetto. Resembling a jagged tooth, it’s the highest of three summits (Tre Cime) along the ridge of Bondone, an iconic yet accessible mountain dominating Trento, capital of the self-governed Northern Eastern Italian province of Trentino.
This area really is one of Europe’s surprise packages. A stunningly beautiful mountain playground in both summer and winter with abundant opportunities for outdoor pursuits, it boasts a distinctive wine and food culture and charming townscapes, none better than Trento.
It’s deliciously walkable. Along the pedestrianised streets every third building seems to be a Renaissance palazzo, with frescoed exteriors and colonnaded courtyards, all this against a fresh mountain backdrop.
There are few Italian squares to rival the airy Piazza Duomo. It is home to the flamboyantly baroque Neptune Fountain, behind which two houses, the Case Relle, are painted with allegorical scenes, a fabulous Michelin-rated restaurant, the Scrigno del Duomo and the imposing bulk of St Vigilius, the town’s Romanesque cathedral with a surprisingly Gothic interior.
Not to be missed in the north transept is an allegoric rose window known as the “Ruota della Fortuna” (Wheel of Fortune), dating from the 13th century. The “Cappella del Crocefisso” (Chapel of the Crucifix) houses a group of wooden sculptures, at the foot of which the decrees of the Council of Trento (1545-1563) were promulgated. The sessions of the great Catholic Council were held in the presbytery of the cathedral on a special mobile wooden structure built over a crypt.
The nearby Santa Maria Maggiore church is brighter, crafted from white and red stone. A manic organist was pulling out all the stops – literally – when I peeped in.
Cross the wide, powerful River Adige, which once ran through the centre of Trento and you find an altogether different church. Sant’Apollinare has a high steeped roof that disguises two high octagonal domes inside. It’s being restored and has fragments of original frescoes dating back to the 14th century
Trento’s real architectural must-see, though, is the Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier gothic-Venetian loggia.
The Castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. The adjacent Historical Museum of the Alpine Troops brings to vivid life the war of attrition in these beautiful mountains. The legacy of trenches can be found all along the great border ridges.
After this darkness, it’s a relief to contemplate the supremely civilised cycle of large paintings representing the months (“il ciclo dei mesi”), which live in the Torre del Aquila, reached by a long gallery along Buonconsiglio’s ramparts.
They are a stunning evovation of courtly life, usually outdoors across the seasons, contrasting it with the harder lot of the peasants, depicted in a smaller perspective. March is missing – a new doorway replaced it at some point!
The Castle was the atmospheric launch venue for this year’s Mostra Vini del Trentino, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used.
Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).
I’d already tasted some of the area’s best Vino Santo out at the Pisoni winery in the idyllic Valle dei Laghi (Valley of the Lakes, of which little Toblino is the pick, big brother Garda is half an hour further on).
They also make excellent grappa – that fragrant spirit distilled using the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over after pressing the grapes for winemaking – usually enhanced by various botanical flavours.
Grappa settles the stomach after a meal. Perfect for the Trentino where portions are substantial and the cuisine marries Italian with Germanic – noodles, dumplings, sauerkraut and the like.
My first lunch, though, was atypical – at Trento's excellent Ristorante Ai Tre Garofani, where chef Joanne Linardi brings a delicate but intense touch to local ingredients and her sommelier husband Niko runs a fine cellar of local wines. Garofani was bettered, though, by the Scrigno del Duomo, where a stuffed courgette flower dish and and an apple and pine nut strudel were exemplary.
Food can be as much an adventure as the mountain trekking. In one agriturismo canteen up on Bondone, I was served a vast plate of horse meat and tortel del patate (a grated potato cake). Alas I never got to try another local Slow Food Movement fave, the poor peasant sausage called Ciuga del banaie, which ekes out the pork content with turnip.
Maybe that’s a niche dish, but this Trentino region is full of surprises. A different kind of Italy, definitely worth seeking out.
Monarch Airlines run a twice-weekly service from Manchester to Verona, with with fares, including taxes, starting from £27 one way (£64.98 return). www.monarch.co.uk.
You can save £10 on return fare with a Manchester Confidential special offer. http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/Offers/Monarch
From Verona Airport there is shuttle to Verona’s railway station. For there there is a train (almost every hour) that will bring you to Trento in one hour.
From December to April there is a special Fly Ski Shuttle coach transfer service from Verona, Bergamo and Venice airports directly to Trentino’s ski resorts. 30 euros return and 18 euros one way. Free for children under 12 accompanied by two paying adults.
Where to stay:
Neil Sowerby stayed at the centrally-placed albergo, Hotel America, Via Torre Verde, 38100 Trento (+39 0461 983010, www.hotelamerica.it/lang/EN/pagine/dettaglio/6/11.html).
Single room from 72 euros, doubles from 112 euros, triple from 129 euros, quadruple room from 140 euros.
If you want an out-of town base try the Hotel Villa Mandruzzo, via Ponte Alto 26, 38121 Trento (+39 0461 986220, www.villamadruzzo.com). It’s housed in a 16th century summer palace built by a Prince Bishop of that name.
Where to eat and drink:
Ristorante Ai Tre Garofani: http://www.aitregarofani-tn.it.
Scrigno del Duomo:
Out in the Valle dei Laghi, the Osteria Ca dei Giosi in Covelo is highly recommended for traditional specialities with a twist. Try their rabbit with sauerkraut (+39 (0461) 862110).
The place to learn more about Trentino wines year round is the beautiful Palazzo Roccabruna, on Trento’s Viale San Trinita, which houses the Enoteca Provinciale del Trentino. www.palazzoroccabruna.it/it.
The Pisoni winery at Pergolese di Lasino is well worth visiting, too. (www.pisoni.net/english/english.html)
For Trentino tourist information visit: www.visittrentino.it/en.
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