Valsugana: Italy’s ‘Middle Earth’
The Valsugana begins a few kilometres east of Trento and is the doorway to a real ‘Middle Earth’. A fertile plateau dotted with vineyards and in the distance high mountains, snow-covered all year round – heaven for skiers. Castles look down from the hills and bell towers with their onion-shaped domes rise above the towns. The magical scenery is reflected in the waters of rivers, alpine lakes and fast-running streams.
A holiday here is characterised by fresh, clean air, breathtaking views, walks and open air activities. But there is also plenty of culture, history and great food. From the ancient Romans to the First World War, events and peoples have left their mark. In winter it is a magnet for skiers and winter sports enthusiasts, while in summer the shores of the lakes are packed with tourists swimming, boating or simply getting a tan.
Trentino’s Largest Lake
The geography of the area is unusual. Two lakes, Caldonazzo and Levico, are separated by a long narrow ridge known as the Tenna. Coming from Trento you first see the larger Lake Caldonazzo surrounded by gentle slopes with wide roads along its shores. It is the biggest lake situated entirely in Trentino, 4735 m. long, 1870 m. wide and with an average depth of 27 m. Many small villages face its blue waters, such as San Cristoforo al Lago, Calceranica, Tenna and the largest, Caldonazzo. It is a typical Trentino village lying in a broad valley, its narrow streets lined with old houses with frescoed walls, small windows and massive wooden shutters. Smoke rises from the chimney stacks, its evocative scent blending with the sweet smells from the apple trees which dot the valley.
Opposite the 13th-century church dedicated to San Sisto in the historic centre of the town stands the crenellated silhouette of the Magnifica Corte Trapp where at one time justice was meted out. The Corte di Caldonazzo, or Castle Trapp, was first mentioned in the 11th century and has been the possession of the von Trapp family since 1462.
Shades of Northern Climes
On the other side of the Tenna ridge is Lake Levico, smaller but more attractive (it is 2840 m. long, 900 m wide and has an average depth of 11 m). It is long and narrow and, being surrounded for the most part by wooded hills, it has the feeling of a Norwegian fjord. The small cave-like opening in the rocks at the side of the lake is in fact the ancient ice-house. In the past, as winter came to an end, the ice of the lake was piled up here to preserve food for the rest of the year.
Many parts of the lake, indicated by signs, are protected to preserve the biotopi or areas of great natural value, such as the cane-brakes. The lake is rich in fish, especially pike and carp, and fishing is one of main activities.
Lake Levico has only one shore suitable for bathing but it is very picturesque. It is separated from the road and hotels by a path through trees and meadows. There are benches where you can sit and relax, or you can simply walk, or try to feed the ducks (make sure they are in a good mood!). Along this lake shore runs Via Segantini where the majority of the hotels and a large sporting complex are located. You can walk around the rest of the lake where the paths are narrower. Here in autumn, people go in search of mushrooms.
Another charming footpath leads from the lake directly into the heart of the little town of Levico. Crossing a wooden bridge, you arrive at Corso Garibaldi, the main street, with shops selling typical Tyrolean stoves and local handicrafts, and lined with bars and hotels in the classical Liberty style for which the town became famous in the last century. These include the Grand Hotel, which the Habsburgs chose as their favourite holiday accommodation. The hotel is located in the centre of an extensive park. All the town’s streets are elegant and colourful and you can find food shops selling mushrooms (boletus, finferli and chiodini), polenta, sausages and speck (smoked ham).
The thermal spa park is full of beautiful, towering trees, and was created at the end of the 19th century at the same time as the construction work for the bathing establishment and the Grand Hotel which also began in autumn 1898. More than 12 hectares of countryside were transformed into parkland, designed and created by Giorgio Zill, a first-class gardener who was brought from Berlin for that purpose. In June 1900, the Austrian archduke Eugen visited and inaugurated the new spa and Grand Hotel, the park, the villa for the management and the mineral water bottling plant.
The water that supplies the thermal spas of Levico and Vetriolo (a nearby village) contains arsenic and iron and emerges from two springs at an altitude of 1500 metres in a cave above the town of Levico. The water is said to cure debility and exhaustion caused by stress. This cure, together with fresh air and relaxation in the high mountains, stimulates the recovery of vital physical and psychic energy.
If all this relaxation makes you hungry, then try the Valsugana cuisine. The dishes are simple, but very tasty and interesting, ranging from freshwater fish to sliced sausages, from mushrooms to handmade pasta. Pike and trout make the finest fish dishes, either al cartoccio (char-grilled) or in pies they are the real taste of this area, as are strangolapreti (green gnocchi, literally meaning ‘choke the priest’ because the pasta is cooked al dente, i.e. not very soft, and because priests were reputed to be rather greedy), canederli (dumplings) with venison or tomato sauce or with lucaniche, a local sweet sausage. In the winter you will often find your dish filled with polenta dressed with mushrooms, melted cheese (vezzena), lucaniche or other meat and crauti (sauerkraut). A typical dessert is apple strudel. All these dishes should be accompanied by excellent Trentino wines made from grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Müller Thurgau, Traminer, Teroldego, Marzemino, Merlot and Cabernet.
An entire article could be written about all the typical Trentino products: the mountain honey, apples, pears, cherries and mushrooms. The pastoral tradition has ancient roots in the Valsugana, and the inhabitants have long produced choice cheeses with the sweet aroma of the mountains. The most famous are vezzena fresco (a young, asiago – type cheese), mature vezzena for grating, farm-style ricotta, poina and poina fumegada (ricotta and smoked ricotta used fresh as a filling for ravioli, or matured). In summertime, cheese products can be purchased in the malghe, mountain structures for the tending of animals at high altitude during the warm weather.
The Secret of Speck
Trentino’s pork products and cured meats, some of which are made by hand in Levico, are particularly prized, such as the spicy, peppery prosciutto and a delicious capocollo ham. Also unequalled are game products like prosciutto made from wild boar and venison; delicately smoked salami made from capriolo (roe-buck), camoscio (chamois), wild boar, deer or goose; not to mention speck, the most prized cut of pork prosciutto which is first marinated in salt and spices, then left for a month before being expertly smoked over juniper wood and berries, and finally left for months and months to age before reappearing in all the most typical Trentino dishes.
To work off all that lovely food, take advantage of the almost infinite sporting opportunities of this region. You can go rowing, sailing and swimming in the lakes, walking and jogging on the footpaths or hire a mountain bike. Winter in Valsugana means skiing, thanks to the ski trails of Panarotta 2002 which has 18 kilometres of easy and medium-difficulty trails, four lifts, a ski school and equipment rental.
Whenever you choose to visit the Valsugana, you’re sure to find something to your taste.