The 100-year-old Gardena Grödnerhof offers a luxurious base from which to explore the Italian Dolomites. Ben Southan sketches mountains, hikes scenic trails and has a go at cheese making.
Stepping from the cable car at the top of the mountain onto the plateau of the Alpe di Siusi was a moment I was not entirely prepared for. Of all the places I’ve visited in the world it has to be one of the most striking. A rolling alpine paradise dotted with picturesque chalets, forests of tall dark pine and herds of blonde Haflinger horses galloping across the pastures, everything shining brightly against a shadowy cirque of rugged summits; the Dolomites; crowns of stone thrust upwards from the earth pulling the green valley into a silvery sky like cresting waves sweeping over the landscape.
We are four journalists, a group of loyal guests and some friends of owners Hugo and Cinzia Bernardi invited to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gardena Grödnerhof, a five-star gourmet hotel and spa located in the heart of Ortisei, South Tyrol. Opened in 1923 by Anton and Anne Demetz, the Gardena has been a fixture in the valley serving mountain lovers for a century, focusing on wellness and revitalisation in a hospitable atmosphere of comfort and calm.Our group hiked leisurely downhill across the plateau following the footpaths which criss-crossed the meadows until we arrived at the Gostner Schwaige, a mountain hut restaurant with panoramic views, run by Franz Mulser, better known as the Flower Chef. Seated at wooden benches in the sun we were served champagne and wrapped in blankets against the chill mountain air before shaking jars of fresh milk to churn butter and learning the art of making Primo Sale – a soft white cheese topped with green pine oil and violet Malva flowers. Later we bundled into the warm wooden restaurant to sample some of Franz’ specialities, perhaps his most famous being “hay soup” created with 24 different herbs and flowers picked from the meadows and served in a hollow loaf on a bed of hay. Following that, caramelised kaiserschmarrn; torn pancakes served with plum compote and dusted with icing sugar; two dishes which could deserve a trip to the Dolomites for their own sake.
Our day was organised specially by Alex Demetz, revenue and sales manager for the Gardena, and it continued later that evening in fine style after a leisurely dinner in the hotel restaurant when we were invited to watch a film and attend a Q&A with legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner. As a keen rock climber I was interested to meet him and hear him talk. I felt excited to be in his presence and knowing his achievements in the mountains I wanted to learn about his attraction to fear, something I think as an audience we were all curious about, to hear from a man who has deliberately pushed himself towards the possibility of death, who has built a career on surviving in harsh environments and to know what effect courting mortal danger had exposed in his spirit, what had he learned from it all? To some, I suspect his answers were baffling, ultimately they were no less baffling to me because they were mostly in German or Italian and I don’t speak either language! But what I did pick up was his intense love for the Dolomites, the environment and ambitious challenge. I went to bed in a comfortable Tyrolean style room decorated with hand carved wooden furnishings and wondering what Ötzi the iceman would make of all this. Ötzi is Europe’s oldest known mummy who resides in the South Tyrol Museum of archaeology in Bolzano. He is over 5,000 years old and was found in 1991 by two hikers on the east ridge of the Fineilspitze at an altitude of 3,210 metres, and was visited by none other than Herr Messner himself just before being extracted from the ice and delivered to Innsbruck for scientific study.It is said he was well adapted to moving at altitude and would likely have traversed the mountains regularly which was unusual for Copper Age people, so did he deliberately seek out the summits like Messner and other mountain lovers? Would he be amazed to know that over a million people travel to visit him each year? That hundreds of thousands more descend on the Dolomites to explore and hike and ski and bike and climb their majestic features probably much unchanged since his final ascent carrying that fatal arrow in his shoulder? Time moves slowly in the mountains, and in 5,000 years they haven’t changed much, yet the Gardena has seen many changes over its lifetime, no less than in Y2K when it was completely demolished and rebuilt in a record-breaking nine months. Honoring the plan of the original hotel it was reconstructed with 58 rooms including four suites, one de-luxe suite and a state of the art spa and wellness centre. In 2003 it became the valley’s first five-star hotel and is a member of the prestigious Relais and Chateaux. Specialising in mountain holidays, the Gardena offers a wide array of activities ranging from guided hikes to exploring 14km of mountain bike trails of all levels of difficulty connected by lifts and departing directly from the hotel; as well as world class skiing, guided ski tours and snowshoeing in the winter; and access to spectacles such as the annual Ski World Cup which take place on the Saslong downhill run at the head of the valley.
While these may seem like prerequisites for any mountain hotel to offer, there are exclusive opportunities available from the Gardena which set them apart from their competition, such as a unique permit to remain on the 2,500m peak Seceda with drinks after others skiers have departed before making the descent with friends and a guide down the empty pistes.
For the more adventurous thrill seeker another option is to have their skis collected at the end of the day and fly down from the mountain with a local paragliding instructor, landing on the valley floor where the hotel awaits with blazing fires, Turkish baths, saunas, whirlpools, indoor pool, gym and beauty treatment area – the perfect place to rest and recuperate after a big day out in the hills.
For those less inclined to jump off mountains there is always the option to relax and unwind in the tranquil hotel grounds and enjoy excellent food in the Anna Stuben Michelin starred restaurant located within the hotel, run by chef Reimund Brunner. For our meal we were offered a choice of three menus: Dedication, Creativity or Passion. The fourth option was a surprise menu from the chef, which we chose, however, it was the chef who received the biggest surprise when two of us confessed to being vegetarian at the last minute.Needless to say the meal was exceptional, with expert wine pairings from sommelier Egon Perathoner in cosy traditional Tyrolean surroundings. With its Michelin star and four Gault and Millau Toques, the Anna Stuben is famous and attracts connoisseurs from around the world, so it’s a good idea to book in advance as the restaurant only seats 12.
On my final day I took the cable car up to Seceda on the north-east side of the valley to hike for a few hours and whilst I walked I thought about a quote from Søren Kierkegaard: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of wellbeing and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”I spent an hour sketching the peaks of Seceda alongside other people enjoying themselves in the hills: families, hikers, bikers, runners, couples taking pictures. Everyone enjoying the heights, the air, the space and the freedom. Those peaceful moments among the pale mountains have left me with a lingering desire to walk deeper into their heart, to seek out their summits, breathe in their seasons and melt like winter ice into this rare and perfect landscape. What finer place to set one foot in front of the other and walk yourself into wellbeing, knowing the warm welcome of the Gardena awaits you in the valley below.
Rates at Gardena Grödnerhof start from €360 per night on a B&B basis.