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Adventures Outside Florence: Biking to Val Gardena

Aug 16, 2018 1:30:00 PM / by Hannah Hardenbergh

Hannah Hardenbergh

Hannah Hardenbergh is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2018, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An American History and Literature major at Harvard College, she is studying abroad in Florence this semester.

In this week's post, Hannah shares how studying abroad has given her a sense of freedom to explore—this time at Val Gardena outside the Tuscan region.

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Ciao ragazzi!

Following one of my previous posts, I’ve been excited to share a weekend trip I took to Northern Italy to mountain bike in Val Gardena. It turned out to be one of the exciting weekends I spent outside of Florence. It was exciting to experience a new region, one that is quite close to the Austrian border and has a completely different feel than being in the Tuscan region. In place of palazzi (palaces) made of pietra forte (a modest stone commonly used in Florence to build large 15th c. palaces and older churches) and loggias—the open areas underneath Romanesque arches in Florentine courtyards—wooden Chalets with overhanging roofs and second-level wrap-around decks, and small barns with paddocks outlined the mountain towns in Val Gardena. I stayed in Ortisei, a small ski town settled between two mountainsides about an hour-and-a-half bus ride from Bolzano (north of Trento and Venice).

Me Traversing Down a Path to OrtiseiA photo of me traversing across a narrow rock path on my bike as we make our way down to Ortisei.

The roads were narrow, and our bus was quite large. We had to wait on a few occasions for oncoming downhill traffic to pass before heading up the hillside from Bolzano. I sat quietly and watched, and listened. I heard German, Italian, and broken English every so often. Most of the passengers spoke German and dialects from southern Austria. The street signs had both the Italian and German translation of towns and locations. It felt more like Austria than it did Italy to me! On our way to Ortisei—also called Sankt Ulrich—we passed through a town and picked up about 10-15 children from school, all of whom I assume were on their way home. Art projects in hand, they scrambled onto the bus while our driver got himself an ice cream cone at a store near the bus stop. I smiled.

Mountains Atop SecedaIncredible views of the mountains atop Seceda.
Green grass in the foreground and snow patches on the mountains in the background.

After getting settled, I met my brother Dylan in Ortisei and we rented bikes together. Among the many bike shops, which also offer ski rentals in the winter, we found some wheels in a neighboring town called Selva, and headed up the gondola the next morning. I was trying to keep my calm on some pretty technical trails and keep up with Dylan, and constantly giddy at the sight of jagged mountains that surrounded us from every angle. We took a couple gondolas up on each side of the valley and biked down the hiking trails covering the grassy ski resort slopes.

Top of Seceda in Ortisei with Views of Sella RondaAt the top of Seceda on the tram above Ortisei.
Views of Sella Ronda, the large rock formations in the middle-right of the background.

The views were spectacular, and rocky mountaintops shot upwards everywhere we looked. Snow still sat wedged in the rock where the sun’s heat could not reach. I reimagined the mountains being formed in front of me, wondering at the energy of this earth as multiple tectonic plates shifted instantly in my mind to produce grassy slanted slopes and rocky cliff ledges. Cows and goats scattered the hillside wearing large bells around their necks that clunked as they grazed. Old cabins stood in the middle of the ski slopes to the south of the valley.

Alpe de Suisi on the Southern Slope of Val GardenaAlpe de Suisi - the southern slope of Val Gardena with a view of Sella Ronda.

The biking definitely took me out of my comfort zone. It felt like a different kind of riding than I was used to, even though the trails probably weren’t that much more technical than the trails at home in Colorado. So, with this surge of vulnerability I aimed downhill and feathered my breaks...a lot. We didn’t really have a plan for the weekend except to try to stay out on the trails for as long as our legs would allow us, which meant we would get to the top of the gondola, pick a direction, choose a trail that looked fun and new, ride down it, see where we ended up, and picked another one on our next gondola ride. 

Atop Passo SellaAtop Passo Sella, a pass at the eastern edge of Val Gardena, at the top of the valley.
The gondolas look very old fashioned compared to those in Ortisei!

The first of two days, we ate lunch at a refugio—a ski lodge midway up the mountain—and ordered pasta on the deck while we watched a curious scene unfold. A small ensemble had begun to set up in a semi-circle outside the lodge, each holding an alpenhorn. These instruments, which were traditionally used for long-distance signaling in the Alps, were very long and straight, with a slight curve just at the bottom end of the horn that rested on the ground.


They began to play at the command of their conductor, and played a couple of songs together for us. The horns made a soft, low-toned pitch, like that of a French horn, and the musicians stretched their notes to make a lasting sound. It was something that I will probably never experience anywhere else, and it made lunchtime in the mountains that much more experiential. I loved the sound!

CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_Summer2018_From Hannah Hardenbergh - Looking Back at Seceda with a Slight RainbowViews looking back at Seceda from the summit of a hiking trail, with a slight rainbow visible!

Unfortunately, the rain caught us for most of the first day we went biking. We didn’t mind too much, and lucky for us the bad weather ended with a fun rainbow that stretched below us as we hiked a very steep section to get to a harrowing downhill trail. To get to the trail we wanted, we sort of improvised a bit and biked from the tram to an access road via the ski slope. There wasn’t a specific trail to get to the intersection below, so we took to the grassy rolling hills, making our own turns—summer skiing!

Downtown OrtiseiDowntown Ortisei.

The weekend was filled with new sights and interesting paths. I explored the valley as much as I could while I was there, strolling through Ortisei at night to check out local art galleries and getting to know other tourists who were also there for the biking (“Güten morgen!”). Putting myself in a new situation each day and looking forward to whatever I was to come across made the weekend that much more exciting. I tried to be as present as I could, enjoying each moment for what it was—an experience in a multitude of passing time frames, vanishing from the current moment into the past as quickly as they came. I felt excited by the mountains around me, and I can’t wait to visit that valley again.

Heading Out from OrtiseiViews of Ortisei as I headed out of the valley on the bus.

I loved traveling north to Val Gardena—it took me out of my comfort zone in many ways, both while riding the steep trails on the mountains and while navigating the dual-language street signs, having to look up some German phrases along the way. Studying abroad this semester has certainly given me a sense of freedom to explore a new culture and environment, placing me outside of my safety net. Traveling to Val Gardena made me feel similarly in the sense that I had to gain confidence, traveling on my own, to reach out and engage with a new community. It has been a very positive experience to place myself in situations where I have had to learn phrases on the go to reach out to locals for advice, or to say hello and learn a bit about their culture.

Thanks Hannah!

Hannah's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned.

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Topics: Travel, Florence, Italy