The secret slice of Italy that reveals vineyards, quiet villages and a fascinating capital

It was barely 11 am and I was down to my third glass of wine, looking down to smell notes of anise – or almond? I needed another double espresso. “A lot of people in this area have a main job and then their hobby is winemaking,” my morning tutor said. Lounging in a tasting room in the basement, within the villa of a wine estate in the village dating from 1885, I wanted to join them.

Have you ever thought about what lies at the foot of the Dolomites? About 100 km north of Verona by car, you will find the capital of the autonomous province of Trento. Skiers may know the area for its slopes. But it’s the lush valleys, picturesque towns and alpine cuisine that should put Trentino firmly on the British autumn holiday map. Then there is the wine.

Wine tourism

A quick lesson from Paolo a Prato, the owner of Barone a Prato, was tempting enough to invest in an €11 bottle of Pinot Nero Castelsegonzano before a climb to the castle ruins perched above the valley.

Paolo a Prato, on the left, in the basement of Barone a Prato (Photo: Barone a Prato)

The valley walls were decorated with criss-crossing vines, a dotted pattern of squat white buildings, and a square-sided tower, topped with an onion dome, that jutted well above the green.

From wandering through the expanses of Norway spruce and watching deer in the Paneveggio Pale di San Martino Natural Park to tasting thick, rich hot chocolate outside Palazzo Benvenuti Caffè in the regional capital , Trento, at a wedding party – bride in pink costume; groom in blue; neat little dog – posed for photos in front of a sports car, I was about to start a new season.

Trento: a fascinating capital

The distinctions of Trentino begin in Trento. It was awarded the title of most ecological city in the country in 2019 and 2020 and was recognized as the best Italian city for “intergenerational” quality of life in 2019. Clean air and urban greenery are among its modern virtues , but it was street art, from the Renaissance, that constantly lifted my gaze and the fossils embedded in the paving that drew it down.

The first were frescoes representing good, evil and nobility, many of which were rediscovered during the renovation of buildings; these were moved to the city when stones were taken from under and outside the mountains to help build it. Visitors can learn about the geology of Italy at Trento’s science museum, Muse.

Buonconsiglio Castle Gardens – History buffs will find plenty to do in Trento (Photo: Christian Kerber)

There is a faded grandeur to Buonconsiglio Castle, where the halls are covered in cycles of frescoes. The prince-bishops, lords of Trento, resided between the 11th and 19th centuries. It would take more than an afternoon to understand the story: the area was already inhabited when the Romans founded a city (Tridentum) there in the 1st century BC.

Today it is fed by the surrounding peaks and forest, with mushrooms, apples, chard and asparagus among the crops. At a market in piazza Vittoria, merchant Giuliana Rossi had a collection of oddly shaped mushrooms, among them cinnamon orange chunks, black shavings and a full-bodied white variety with wide caps. Seven to eight people collect the selection.

“It’s a responsibility,” said Sabrina Depra, my guide, pointing out the expertise required to differentiate between edible and poisonous types. Punters waited for their selection to be weighed and rated.

Cavalese, the center of the Fiemme Valley (Photo: Emma Featherstone)

Local menus

Bringing gems out of the ground is second nature to Trentino. I had seen it for the first time during a dinner at Comune Di Cavalese, cooked by chef Alessandro Gilmozzi. His Michelin-starred restaurant, El Molin, makes creative use of foraged ingredients. A risotto sprinkled with an “ash” of fermented pine cones and a hodgepodge of desert that included candied lichen were among the dishes on a unique tasting menu served at the Excelsior Hotel. “The forest is his farm,” explained another diner.

The region’s signature sparkling wine is Trentodoc, which is created from grapes grown in Trentino and made only in Trentino. The cool temperatures of the Dolomites combined with the milder temperatures of Lake Garda help, in part, to shape its taste.

Some local alchemists find new ways to use grapes. At Pilzer Distillery, for example, a family business that makes and sells grappa, brandy and gin, rum is a work in progress. The new product was supposed to be launched this fall or winter. He first had to pass the approval of a Guadeloupean expert.

Inside the Pilzer Distillery (Photo: Carlo Baroni)

“She tasted it and said there was something missing here; we will try the rum again in April,” said Bruno Pilzer, who runs the business with his brother Ivano. Inside, a copper still revealed a process in action. It was cast in relief in front of floor-to-ceiling windows as Bruno measured powerful pinches; downstairs he discovered some rudimentary fermentation experiments.

Forest and valleys

Back in the Fiemme Valley the next morning, I tried to get rid of my excesses. After a 30 minute walk from my Hotel Cavalese, I was left almost at peace.

Shards of sunlight traced sections of the bottom of the valley, the others circumvented by shadow. With mountain peaks at the edge of my view, all that was in between were groves of forest, patches of vineyard terraces, and squares of mowed green grass.

The higher I climbed, the fewer cars passed. Soon I was only bothered by the occasional cyclist. Aside from the intermittent puffs of some nearby cattle, the air was crisp. I had found the good life – and there was still time for a last glass of wine.

Travel Essentials

Getting There
EasyJet, Wizz Air and British Airways fly from Gatwick to Verona. Ryanair flies to Verona from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Stansted and Manchester.
Cavalais is about two hours drive from Verona Villafrance airport, with car hire available.

Stay here
The Hotel Orso Grigio in Cavalese offers double rooms from €65 pp (£56), per night on a b&b basis,

More information

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