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Italy is not quite itself. As we climb the Dolomites from Venice, snaking our way up precipitous mountain passes and through tranquil towns, their verges blanketed in spring greenery, it's apparent that something strange is afoot. Where are the hectic piazzas and the ramshackle houses? Where is the laundry strung from windows like jaunty flags; the dashing Romeos preening on scooters; the old men sitting out the front of bars, smoking, drinking, gesticulating and arguing as the passing cars kick up whorls of dust? Where, in short, is the chaotically joyous sturm und drang we foreigners so fondly attribute to Italian life?
This is not that Italy. This Italy, the Val Badia region - a verdant little corner at the very top of the boot snuggled up against the Austrian border - owes more to its South Tyrol pedigree than it does to the clichés of any La Dolce Vita fantasy. In fact, winter is when this region really comes into its own: the mountainous topography makes for some of Europe's finest skiing and its most thrilling scenery. By the time we arrive, though, the winter snow is melting and life has slipped into the pleasantly sleepy rhythms of spring.
The villages are spectacularly - almost unnervingly - immaculate. Imposing Tyrolean buildings, with their distinctive triangular eaves, wooden balconies and, in spring, flowerboxes full of red geraniums, line the highway. Lawns are kept closely clipped. Smartly dressed villagers walk well-behaved dogs on leashes. Even the pine trees that cover the mountains are dead straight, as if drafted by an exacting Nordic architect. It's breathtakingly beautiful and a little, well, disconcerting. We press on towards the foothills of the Dolomites, in pursuit of this trip's quest: to discover a lesser-known side of this storied country.
As it turns out, the Badia Valley has plenty of stories of its own. Thanks to its forbidding mountainous topography, the area is very tight-knit and proudly regional. It even has its own language, Ladin (Ladino in Italian), a form of Latin introduced by Roman soldiers in 15BC that thrived through the centuries, thanks to the valley's isolation. At home, most locals speak German and Ladin (which changes subtly from town to town), and most are also fluent in Italian and English.
That's certainly the case with our multilingual host, Hugo Pizzinini, the third-generation owner of the Rosa Alpina hotel in the picturesque village of San Cassiano. He switches easily back and forth between languages as he greets guests in the lobby of his hotel, a 50-room Relais & Chateaux property built in 1850.
Hugo's grandfather, Engelbert Pizzinini, took over the running of the hotel in 1940 after the South Tyrol region was annexed to Italy as part of an agreement between Mussolini and Hitler (the hotel's name had already been changed from its original Austrian name, Alpenrosen, to its current, more Italian-sounding one). Under his tenure during the '50s and '60s, the hotel became a fashionable winter base for ski-mad tourists before the torch was passed to Hugo's father, Paolo, in 1968. Now Hugo and his wife, Ursula (whose newborn baby Jacob carries the hopes and aspirations of this enterprising family), are running the show.
These days, San Cassiano has two personalities: its off-season one, when the close-knit community get on with the business of raising families, socialising and communing with nature; and the high season (the short summer and the winter ski seasons), when the town becomes a bolthole for fashion editors and the well-heeled set from Milan, who come to enjoy the scenery and breathe the bracing mountain air.
After being greeted by Hugo and Ursula, we settle into our room, a bright whitewashed suite that's almost monastic in its simplicity. Each room is subtly different - some are open-plan and modern, others feel sweetly old-fashioned, with religious iconography on the walls and spare, blond wood furniture. Ours has a breakfast nook and a view of the street - a liability, perhaps, in other hotels, but in this case the street life is quiet and leisurely.
Just as this part of Italy feels, well, not quite Italian, Rosa Alpina certainly doesn't feel like your standard five-star hotel. It has the distinct air of a family-run operation, an increasingly rare find in the hospitality world. Our room key, for instance, is an old-fashioned, weighty object (no electronic pass cards here). The walls are lined with archival family photos and grainy black and white shots of the lodge. Even the spa - reputed to be one of Europe's finest - is run by Paolo Pizzinini's second wife, Daniela Steiner.
Over cocktails that evening, Hugo and Ursula give us some insight into San Cassiano life. Although they are urbane and sophisticated, it's obvious they cherish their small-town existence. Every second person in town, it seems, is a cousin. Hugo mentions a recent family reunion at which 200 people turned up. So, exactly how many residents of San Cassiano, with its population of 800, are related to the Pizzininis? "Not many," Hugo tries to bluff, then adds, "Enough."
The town - and Rosa Alpina itself - also attracts the odd celebrity: George Clooney has stayed here, as have Prince Albert of Monaco and nightclub owner Rande Gerber. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes spent the day at the Pizzinini family baita, or mountain cabin, a while back. "Tom devoured eight of the blueberry pancakes," Hugo confides with a chuckle. But Hugo and Ursula seem more interested in their loyal clientele: an impressive 85 per cent are return guests, booking the same room and table each year.
That night we eat at one of the hotel's three restaurants, which brings us to another anomaly of this part of the country. Val Badia has not one, but three Michelin-starred restaurants. St Hubertus, at Rosa Alpina, is one of them, picking up its second star in 2007.
But we've opted for the more casual eatery, the Wine Bar & Grill (there's also a delightfully kitschy fondue bar on the premises). The décor is somewhat schismatic - cowskin banquettes share space with crystal chandeliers and linen tablecloths - but the food is extraordinarily good, in the honest, uncomplicated way a global gourmand dreams of. The wood-fired pizze are perfect in their single-ingredient simplicity; a salad of micro-greens is transcendent in its peppery freshness; the catches of the day are wheeled over on a trolley and displayed whole for diners to choose. The restaurant is open all day and, during the course of a week, I find myself stopping by often for a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. Thanks to the warmth and knowledge of the staff, the experience strikes a perfect balance between rusticity and sophistication.
The next day we do something else not entirely Italian: hiking. Hugo and Ursula meet us in the lobby, dressed in outdoorsy gear with hiking sticks and an anticipatory glow on their faces. We drive up into the Fanes-Sennes-Braies Nature Park, a series of hills and pastures that form a natural amphitheatre with the craggy peaks of the Dolomites towering behind.
This is not like walking in Australia, or the United States, where to hike is to set yourself against nature and the vagaries of the wilderness, with all its attendant dangers and challenges. I've done walks in both those countries where I didn't see anyone else for hours. Here, hiking is a gentle, even sociable, activity. Far from feeling like a solitary endeavour, the hills are crawling with day trippers, from five year olds to grey-haired pensioners (both groups, I'm ashamed to say, sprinted past us with cheery derision). The walking is easy and there are ample rewards: undulating meadows of springy grass; gentle, warm sunshine; vistas composed of mountain ranges that seem to stretch to the end of the world (beyond the Dolomites are, of course, the Alps, brooding off in the misty distance).
Dotted throughout the landscape are small huts, rifugi, designed to provide rest for wanderers. As we get into the valley proper, these give way to larger structures, the traditional mountain chalets that most families stay in during the summer. We arrive at the Pizzinini cabin early in the afternoon, famished and ready to unwind. A small army has beaten us there: several chefs have the grill fired up and are working industriously to create an alfresco feast. We start with hunks of hearty bread stuffed with hard sheep's milk cheese, followed by steaming plates of wild mushroom risotto cooked from scratch. Seared lamb chops and fried potatoes follow, after which there's no room left for anything but two - oh, okay, maybe three - of the famous blueberry pancakes, cooked on a griddle out in the open. Glasses of Dolcetto d'Alba in hand, we wave languidly at other parties enjoying the day from their own cabins in nearby hills.
Given the bracing crispness of the air, it's not such a stretch to imagine these slopes and valleys covered in snow and the colourful hiking gear replaced by equally vivid ski outfits. Winter is by far the most popular season here, and even in spring there is the ever-present hint of frost in the air and patches of ice at the top of the higher peaks.
It becomes apparent why so few of San Cassiano's inhabitants ever permanently leave the village. Hugo drives us to the nearby town of Armentarola to meet his cousin, Stefan Wieser, who runs another Michelin-starred enterprise, La Siriola restaurant. After Champagne on the terrace, we repair downstairs to a romantically lit cavern for a lavish multi-course dinner prepared by a precocious young Sardinian chef, Claudio Melis. We taste regional dishes such as mountain hay soup with speck-wrapped char, reindeer ravioli with truffled butter, and potato dumplings with porcini mushrooms.
The next few days are spent exploring the area. We take a funicular up Mount Lagazuoi, 2800 metres above sea level; its peaks haunted by black crows that screech and wheel in the mist. On the way back, we follow cliff-hugging hairpin bends, occasionally stopping for bovine roadblocks: the biscuit-coloured cows stare nonchalantly at us beneath impossibly long eyelashes before sauntering away, the big brass bells around their necks creating a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack in the still afternoon air.
We visit the town of Corvara, home to the third of the Michelin-starred restaurants in the valley, Stüa de Michil at the Hotel La Perla. We don't dine, but we do get a tour of the wine cellar - a mind-boggling multi-sensorial experience that might cause one to wonder whether the region's famous wild mushrooms don't get mixed up with their more psychedelic cousins. Each new room contains something unexpected, from "dancing" Champagne bottles to holograms, and the tour culminates in the "temple" room, complete with a wooden pew at which the waiter kneels while a recess magically opens in front of him to reveal a backlit 1968 II Tempio Del Sassicaia. Phew.
On our last night we're booked into St Hubertus to try some of chef Norbert Niederkofler's famed cooking. We meet in the kitchen for some amuse bouches and a toast to Niederkofler, an affable gentleman with fine-rimmed glasses, greying temples and a permanent expression of wry goodwill.
The restaurant itself is elegant without being stuffy: the décor riffs on the upscale ski lodge theme with mounted antlers and silver candelabras. Hugo joins us as we savour Niederkofler's hearty yet delicate dishes, from lobster with peach and verbena jelly to a braised deer shoulder with foie gras. I ask him what it was like growing up in a hotel. "It was fun," he replies. "We went to work from the beginning… in the kitchen, wherever we were needed." He and Ursula met at the hotel when she came with friends for a drink. "When I saw her I thought… that's the one," he recalls with a smile. He tells many more stories as the night wears on and it's clear that this region, and this hotel, is in his blood.
Obviously, running Rosa Alpina isn't a livelihood, it's life itself. So what about the arrival of the fourth generation of Pizzinini? Does he hope that his son, in turn, loves the hotel and ends up taking a turn at the helm of the family business? Hugo smiles, holding his wine glass up and watching the light play through the blood-hued liquid within. "We'll see," he says softly. "I hope so."