The Val Gardena in northeastern Italy is a sight to behold, no matter how you look at it -- or from what height. When people talk about beautiful landscapes, they generally mean one of two different, in fact totally opposite things.
On the one end of the spectrum, there is the "trees-water-and-a-meadow" variety of beauty: landscapes that invite you in -- to bathe, to lie in the shadow of a tree or to enjoy a meal in one of the quaint coastal towns or hillside villages that you can see in the far distance, huddled around a church steeple. This is a concept of natural beauty that people in antiquity would have understood, and its tradition in the history of art reaches at least as far back as the Fête champêtre. The motto is "beautiful is what is good for me."
But there is also the beauty of the wild, of icy rocks, angry seas, and jagged cliffs. This is a relatively new concept, invented by the Romantics (who called it "the sublime"), during an era when humans had become free to like untamed nature because they (at least some of them) were no longer shackled to her. A storm over the ocean may be beautiful to the poet or painter who follows the spectacle from the window of his inn, but will be far less enticing to the fishermen in their boats out at sea. For the Romantics, beautiful is what scares them -- or, more to the point perhaps: what gives them a pleasant shudder.
Is it possible for a place to have one foot in either camp, to mix the idyllic with the sublime? Crossing Portofino with the Grand Canyon, say, would be akin to squaring the circle of the tourism industry, to finding its Philosophers Stone that can transform any base resort into gold.
Probably, no place on earth can fully manage to combine these two concepts of beauty, but the Val Gardena in the Dolomites (South Tyrol) certainly comes close.
Up to a point, the beauty of the Val Gardena lies not so much in the eye of the beholder but in his willingness to climb: down in the valley, you can look at pretty Alpine villages (equipped with all the modcoms of modern tourism: fancy restaurants, resort spa hotels and their pools and Jacuzzis).
... and at pastoral scenes a little further up (cows are left to graze on the large Alpine meadows from May to October) ...
... until you finally reach the bleak and barren beauty of the High Alps beyond the tree line of approx. 2000 m.
But only up to a point: in fact, the Val Gardena is so steep that the mountains look close even when seen from the bottom of the valley. This means that you can sit in your hotel's outdoor Jacuzzi and watch nature's repertory theatre that features a new drama every day, depending on the weather and ranging in mood from The Sound of Music ...
... to Twilight of the Gods.
If you want to take a closer look at all the Val Gardena has to offer, I'm afraid you will have to leave your cocktail by the side of the pool, put on your hiking boots and go out for a walk. But here is the good news: you won't need Sherpas to take you into the Alpine landscapes and can safely leave your oxygen masks at home.
Most resorts have mountain lifts to take you up, almost all the way to the peaks, and from there, not all trails are difficult - some are actually fairly level, and you can climb some proper Alpine summits such as the Rasciesa (the Raschötz, 2170 m high and marked by a proper summit cross) without getting out of breath.
On top of that, many hotels make it as easy as possible for their guests and feature easy hiking tours in their daily programmes. The valley's premier hiking hotel, the Hotel Adler in Ortisei (St Ulrich), even offers two guided hiking excursions on most days, including one which is relatively easy, so the less experienced hikers do not have to be constantly afraid of losing their way and can concentrate on enjoying the views.
And then there is Bolzano, easy to reach by public transport (which is excellent) from most resorts in under an hour: for that meal in a "quaint hillside town," with elegant shops and cultural attractions thrown in as additional extras. After all that nature and clean air, a little urban flair will feel like the icing on the cake.
(Michael Schuermann aka Easy Hiker accepted the invitation of the Hotel Adler Dolomiti, to be a guest of the hotel, the first in Val Gardena to offer free guided hiking excursions to its guests. Read more about the Dolomites in his blog.)