They say that Antonio Stradivari used to come to Val di Fiemme to choose wood for his violins. Chilly nights, warm days and fresh glacier water give the spruce trees here a springy, unblemished quality considered ideal for the instrument’s body.
Unfortunately my own body is far from springy (and the less said about the blemishes the better), so I took a ski lift up into the hills rather than join the hundreds who were hiking up. We were on our way to a mountain meadow at 2,000m, where we would sprawl out on blankets, share picnics and listen to Scottish folk music.
Yes, Scottish folk music. It’s true the Celts have history in northern Italy, but that wasn’t the reason for this little Alpine ceilidh. The performance was part of the Sounds of the Dolomites festival, an annual programme of classical, jazz and world music concerts staged in spectacular natural settings around Trentino, a province north of Verona and Lake Garda.
A cellist makes his way to a mountaintop stage
Alasdair Fraser wasn’t using a Stradivarius, but the Scot’s fiddle sounded perfectly at home in the north Italian highlands, where he was performing with the Californian cellist Natalie Haas.
“Everyone has to work hard to get here,” Haas told me afterwards. “But they are rewarded with this amazing setting and special experience.” I nodded in agreement. No need to mention the ski lift.
“The sound up here is incredible,” she said. “It just kind of evaporates into the mountain air. It’s such a thrill.” It’s true. There was a peculiar clarity to the music as it wafted over the thousand-strong Gore-Tex throng before disappearing towards the heavens. And what views!
Fraser and Haas’s concert in the hilltops was three years ago, before Covid put paid to the 2020 festival and quarantine regulations put last year’s shindig out of reach for all but the most determined British visitors. This year, however, the festival is back, with 16 late-summer concerts scattered around this bewitching corner of the Italian Alps. The performances are free and you can either make your own way up the mountains or pay to join guided hikes if your map-reading skills are not all they could be. (Or you could always use the you-know-whats.)
This year the acts range from the Barcelona-based HalliGalli Quartet, a string ensemble who will play their swing and gypsy jazz at 2,560m on the San Pellegrino Pass, to the National Chamber Choir of Armenia, who will perform traditional folk songs at 1,260m in the natural amphitheatre of Malga Brenta Bassa. How do the musicians get up the mountains? No idea, but I’d rather play the triangle than the piano.
While the summer months in the hills and valleys of Trentino belong to walkers, climbers, cyclists and, since 1995, music lovers, in winter this is very much ski country. Some 500 miles of slopes crisscross the region and Austria’s winter sports playground of Innsbruck is only a couple of hours’ drive away.
Trentino has long had strong ties with its friends in the north and was part of the Austrian county of Tyrol until the First World War, after which it was formally clutched to the bosom of Mama Italia. Indeed there are still plenty of little villages dotted around the hills where the dialects are more or less Deutsch and leather shorts are de rigueur.
The Austrian influence is also clear in the provincial capital, Trento, a handsome, peaceful city of 120,000 on the banks of the Adige River. Renaissance palazzos combine with wooden Alpine flourishes in the cobbled streets, beer halls vie with wine bars, and crispy cannoli sit alongside sugary strudels in the bakeries.
Walkers enjoy the view over the Dolomites
It’s a city that seems at ease with itself, happy to play to its strength in catering to visitors who want to get out into them thar hills rather than to the tour groups and high-rollers that have made so many big-hitting Italian destinations unbearably crowded and expensive. Its hotels are mostly functional three-star affairs, the non-mountainous variety of sights are charming rather than showstopping and the food is . . . well, it’s Italy; the food is bloody lovely.
As is the wine; specifically the local sparkling Trento DOC. The high altitude and cool climate in these parts are perfect for the chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot blanc and meunier grapes used in Trentodoc, as the drop is widely known. I enjoyed a glass of citrussy, lemon-nosed, slightly honeyed millesimato from the powerhouse producer Cavit before an indulgent lunch of steak tartare and dark chocolate duck breast at Scrigno del Duomo, a wooden-beamed restaurant on the city’s main square. It’s an impressive venue, with Roman foundations, frescoes in the cellar and the kind of staff who solemnly nod as you mangle their beautiful language (mains from £15; scrignodelduomo.com).
The cathedral that dominates Piazza del Duomo, San Vigilio, is largely unremarkable, save for a beautiful rose window in the northern transept and an interesting crypt that harbours ruins of Tridentum, the Roman precursor to modern-day Trento. The Romans seized the settlement from the Celts in the 1st century BC, naming it after the three toothlike mountains (tri dentum) that loom over the city and dedicating it to a famous trident-wielder, Neptune.
The other thing that’s remarkable about the cathedral is that it hosted the Council of Trent, the mid-16th-century gathering at which the Catholic church formulated its response to the pesky Reformation and codified the Tridentine Mass, which remained the go-to Mass liturgy until the late Sixties.
Southwest of the piazza, just by the Adige, the Renzo Piano-designed Muse science museum is one of those fabulously expensive buildings that are all about being in harmony with their surroundings, echoing the flow of nature and channelling the spirit of the land. In other words, if you squint your eyes a bit and imagine you’ve never seen mountains before, it looks a bit like mountains. It’s very nice inside, though, especially if you’re into taxidermy and 3D printers or want to know lots of stuff about glaciers (Tue-Sun, £10; muse.it).
If, however, your tastes lean more towards gothic masterpieces, the imposing 13th-century Buonconsiglio Castle may be more up your strada (Tue-Sun, £8.50; buonconsiglio.it). It’s only a ten-minute walk northeast of Piazza Duomo, but it’s worth an afternoon-long meander, which I chose to do while stuffing my face with gelato and ducking down a million enticing side streets.
● 10 of Italy’s most delicious food cities
● Top luxury villas in Italy
Slipping through the Galleria dei Legionari to Via San Pietro, a pretty little church stands opposite a huge mosaic titled Victory of the Empire. The image depicts a woman (representing victory) set above a quote about defending the empire with blood. Towards the end of the Second World War, the bundle (fascio, from which the term fascism derives) of sticks that the woman was carrying and Mussolini’s attribution on the quote were chipped off by liberated locals.
Of all the treasures that fill the 13th-century Buonconsiglio Castle, all the fabulous frescoes and beautiful rooms, none is quite as captivating as the view from the first-floor loggia. From here you can look out over the city, past the beer halls and the palazzos, past the dome of the cathedral and the peaks of the Muse museum and out to those wonderful, musical mountains. And if you look carefully enough, you might even see a particularly grumpy pianist.
Mike Atkins was a guest of Trentino (visittrentino.info) and British Airways (ba.com). The Hotel America has B&B doubles from £66 (hotelamerica.it). The Sounds of the Dolomites festival takes place from August 22 to September 23 (isuonidelledolomiti.it). Fly to Verona
Three more fabulous Italian festivals
1. La Sagra del Pesce, Liguria
Since 1952, on every second Sunday in May a massive fish fry has fired up the pretty harbour town of Camogli, known for its photogenic toffee-tone architecture (and proximity to superstar Portofino, 45 minutes by ferry along the coast). La Sagra del Pesce — the festival of the fish — honours San Fortunato, patron saint of fishermen, and involves the frying of whole shoals, locally caught, in a pan the size of a small spaceship. Come lunchtime, head to Piazza Cristoforo Colombo where, for €6 (which goes to charity), you can buy one of the 30,000-odd portions dished up.
Details Two nights’ B&B at Hotel Sant’Andrea in Santa Margherita Ligure, 15 minutes by train (£2.15 one way) from Camogli, from £613pp, including flights (expedia.com)
2. Expo del Chianti Classico, Tuscany
Halfway between Florence and Siena lies Greve in Chianti, a medieval valley town rich in churches and polychromatic religious art. As you might have guessed from the name, it’s the place for a vino beano — aka the Expo del Chianti Classico, every second weekend of September (plus the Thursday and Friday before). It’s the 50th anniversary in 2022, so there’s more in store the week before (expochianticlassico.com). Piazza Matteotti is the heart of the action, milling with merry drinkers sampling regional varieties from riserva to gran selezione. Entry is €15, which buys half a dozen tastings and a souvenir wine glass.
Details Seven nights’ B&B at Villasanpaolo Spa Resort & Spa in San Gimignano, an hour’s drive from Greve in Chianti, from £797pp, including flights (citalia.com)
3. Festa della Sensa, Veneto
Over the weekend of May 20-21, 2023, the annual Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension) will bring masses of commemorative vessels to the waters of Venice. This regatta of rainbow hulls salutes the ascension of Christ and the 12th-century recognition of La Serenissima as supreme ruler of the Adriatic. On the Sunday, look out for boats from city rowing associations gathering in St Mark’s Basin at about 9am — they’re here for the ceremonial voyage out to the Lido, originally led by the Doge. After Mass at the Church of San Nicolo, a raucous rowing competition is your Instagram moment.
Details Two nights’ B&B at All’Angelo Art Hotel in Venice from £299pp, including flights (ba.com/venice)
Sign up for our Times Travel newsletter and follow us on Instagram and Twitter