Exploring Val Gardena: Summer adventures in the Italian Dolomites

An intoxicating mix of cultures, scenery and high mountain adventures makes Val Gardena in Italy’s South Tyrol the ultimate summer playground

The Italian Dolomites are the kind of mountains you see on Instagram and think, “that must be a filter, nothing is THAT beautiful.” But they are — and not just when the sun is shining. Clouds, for example, seem to magnify the grandiosity of mountains like the Sassolungo and the Sella Rondo, their jagged peaks bursting through them like spears. Even when rain and mist flood the valley, you still get the occasional glimpses of their sheer walls.

Val Gardena 1

Still, if you’re visiting Val Gardena, or any of the valleys in the Dolomites, you’ll want to pray for good weather. This not the kind of place to be cooped up in a hotel room binge-watching Netflix. Those sky-piercing mountains, as well as the valley below them, play host to an incredible range of outdoor activities, from mountain biking over green alpine pastures to clambering around rocky couloirs. In winter, of course, there’s skiing — it’s one of the largest resorts in the Alps with 1200km of pistes making up the Dolomiti Superski area. But it’s one of those rare places that is just as popular in the summer as in winter, and the villages of Selva, Ortisei and Santa Cristina have a real buzz about them, even in mid-August.

Like the rest of South Tyrol, Val Gardena is historically part of Austria, but has belonged to Italy since WWI. The main language here isn’t Italian or even German. It’s Ladin, a language spoken in just five valleys, each with their own distinct dialect. That muddled cultural and linguistic history seeps into everyday life, with lederhosen and schnitzel just as prevalent as coffee and pizza, and every road sign labelled in all three languages. Instead of clashing, though, it works perfectly. Nowhere is this demonstrated more perfectly than on menus, where mountain classics sit alongside Italian stalwarts, so you can take your pick from delicate pasta or cheese-laden dumplings. And there’s no need to worry about the calories — with activities like this on the doorstep, they’ll soon get burnt off.

Via Ferrata

The Dolomites are the birthplace of Via Ferrata (‘iron paths’). During WWI they became the battleground between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, leading troops to build networks of steel ropes and ladders on hard-to-reach mountain walls. Nowadays they are a high altitude playground, allowing hikers to navigate sheer cliffs and needle-thin peaks without hardcore climbing skills.

Scaling the heights: Mary and John brave one of Val Gardena's Via Ferrata routes

Scaling the heights: Mary and John brave one of Val Gardena’s Via Ferrata routes

Instead, you use a harness and a ‘Via Ferrata set’ of two carabiners that stay attached to the ropes and bars for the entire course. Val Gardena is home to one of the best beginner routes: the Piccolo Cir above the Dantercepies gondola. If you’re completely new to the sport, it’s best to get a guide who can, quite literally, show you the ropes (gardenaguides.it). More experienced climbers can try extreme routes like the Pössnecker-Route and Brigata Tridentina, both in the imposing Sella Ronda massif. Either way, incredible views are guaranteed.

Hiking

Val Gardena is a hiker’s paradise. The level can be as testing or as chilled as you like — even the walks along the valley floor can be stunning, like the old railway path that takes you from Selva to Ortisei. Plus, several of the ski lifts are open in summer, meaning you can experience high mountain ridge lines and, yes, more incredible panoramas without putting the leg work in.

Even the meadows are instagram-able!

Even the meadows are instagram-able!

Meanwhile, an impressive network of mountain huts makes it the ideal place to embark on an overnight tour. The Curona de Gherdëina — the crown of Val Gardena — is just as majestic as it sounds. The four-day, 60km trek lies entirely above 2000m and takes in the Sella plateau, Sassolungo and the Unesco World Heritage site of National Park Puez-Odle, with stays in some of the region’s best huts along the way.

Mountain Biking

You could point almost anywhere on the map and find great mountain biking in Val Gardena, but Alpe di Siusi might just be the best place of all. The largest high alpine meadow in all of Europe, it’s accessed by gondola from the village of Ortisei and offers a unique outlook over the Gardena valley and the Langkofel mountains. A series of mountain tracks and gravel paths make exploring its green pastures easy, even for mountain biking newbies.

Cruising past some friendly locals

Cruising past some friendly locals

Getting and staying there

  • Val Gardena is less than two hours from Innsbruck airport, which has regular (four times per week) flights from Gatwick with easyJet during the summer months. Alternatively, Verona airport is 2.5 hours south, with regular flights from Gatwick with either easyJet or British Airways.
  • The 4* Hotel Mignon in Selva is family-run and centrally-located, with excellent food and a wellness area. The owners run regular activities (the cheese and wine tasting is a sensory sensation). Inghams offers seven nights half board there from £754 per person, including return flights from London Gatwick to Verona and transfers, as well as a rep service in the resort.