Ortisei: A Gem in the Italian Dolomites
Ortisei: A Gem in the Italian Dolomites
The picturesque village of Ortisei sits in Val Gardena, one of the prettiest spots in all of northern Italy. With foothills rising up to the meadows and jagged peaks of the UNESCO-listed Dolomites, it’s a great hiking base.
But in addition to its dramatic outdoors setting, Ortiesi has a rich cultural heritage. Among other things, many local residents still speak Ladin, an ancient language unique to this region. Add an iconic building style and unique wood carving traditions and it’s a very compelling destination.
St. Antonio Chapel photo (above) and Ortisei photo (below) are © Val Gardena – Gröden Marketing / www.valgardena.it
A Unique Local Language
In Ortisei, you might hear people talking in Ladin, an ancient local language that dates back to the ancient Roman settlements in Val Gardena. Ladin, a blend of Latin, German, and Celtic dialects, is still spoken in several valleys of the Dolomites.
But don’t worry – many local people speak at least some English, and there are many signs posted in English, too.
In addition to hearing a unique local language, you’ll see lots of traditional buildings in much of Ortisei. In fact, two prime examples are Ortisei’s main churches. Both feature bulbous red cupolas in the form of “onion domes.” These iconic domes became popular throughout Austria and Bavaria in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The cute St. Antonio Chapel (first photo in the post) sits in the middle of Ortisei’s main square. It was built between 1673 and 1676. Meanwhile, the larger Parish Church (below) was built in phases between 1680 and 1750. Go inside the church to see its decorative wood carvings, ceiling frescos, and paintings.
Another iconic building in Ortisei’s pedestrian zone is the Hotel Adler (officially, the Adler Dolomiti Spa & Sport Resort). It’s a family-run hotel dating back to 1810, when it first opened as a small inn. Today, you can see drawings on the outside of the hotel that reflect the rich traditions of the area.
To enjoy Ortiesi, be sure to take a stroll in the lovely pedestrian zone and downtown area. There, you’ll see plenty of small shops and handsome buildings.
Gherdeina Local Heritage Museum
One of the most interesting places in the downtown is the Gherdeina Local Heritage Museum. Both a natural history and cultural museum, it displays pretty rock samples and crystal slices from the Dolomites, as well as local paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings.
The tradition of wood carving in Ortisei and the Val Gardena dates back to the early 17th century. In fact, Val Gardena is known as the “valley of woodcarvers” because local people once earned their living making all kinds of carvings from wood.
But as I’ll mention below, the woodcarving tradition is still very much alive today.
Luis Trenker Promenade
Interestingly, the museum also holds a large archive related to Ortisei’s local hero, Luis Trenker. Trenker was a mountaineer, book author, acclaimed actor, and director of many mountain films.
The lovely Luis Trenker Promenade through the Val Gardena is named after Trenker. It begins on the east side of the Parish Church. From there, it takes an hour to walk to Santa Cristina and two hours to Selva Gardena at the end of the valley.
Wood Carvings at Unika
About a mile outside the pedestrian zone, there’s a great local craft cooperative in – of all places – an industrial park. But don’t let the setting keep you away. Unika is a light-filled gallery showing exceptionally fine handmade works by artisans from Ortisei.
During our visit, we spoke with a local master sculptor, Gregor Mussner. He told us that the religious wood carving tradition dates back four generations in his family.
Though we didn’t hear about this during our visit, we later learned that Gregor has a big claim to fame. In 1998, Pope John Paul II blessed a statue he had made of “Mary of Nazareth” before it went on a worldwide “Marian Pilgrimage” through 35 countries.
Three Mountains for Day Hikes from Ortisei
Beyond its history and culture, Ortisei is a perfect base for day hiking. It’s located at the foot of three great places for hiking: Alpe de Siusi, Rasciesa, and Alpe di Seceda.
Even though it was stormy and snowed here at the end of the summer season in mid-September, we still ventured out on the trails. With stunning Dolomite formations ringing the views, this peaceful place felt like a world apart.
Alpe di Siusi
Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest high-altitude mountain plateau, is surrounded by magnificent peaks. Since it’s one of the highlights of the Dolomites, don’t miss it. To get there, take the Alpe di Siusi cable car in Ortisei to the top. Once you arrive, you can explore any number of hiking trails.
When we first arrived, the weather was foggy and windy. As you can see, the Alpe di Suisi was free of snow on our first hike. However, the night before our second hike, the snow arrived. Even so, we trudged through it and got to see the beautiful peaks in solitude.
Rasciesa High Alp
Also in Ortisei, you can take the Rasciesa cable car up to the top of this rugged mountain. Rasciesa has two long loop trails that make an extended figure-eight high above the valley.
While fog and wind-whipped rain kept us on the move, we still had some chances to take in dramatic scenery. In calmer weather, I’m sure the 360-degree views can be stunning.
Alpe di Seceda
The Alpe di Seceda is located on the sunny side of Val Gardena. To get to the many hikes on its summit, take the Ortisei-Furnes-Seceda series of cable cars to the very top.
Despite a snow squall outside our hotel, we took the trip up to the summit of Seceda. Amazingly, the squall stopped when we were halfway there.
Once on top, the wind made things bitterly cold. But luckily for us, the skies were clear above the squall, and we had spectacular views in all directions.
Where to Stay in Ortisei
For a 5-star stay in Ortisei’s pedestrian zone, try Hotel Adler. Conveniently located near the lifts to all the hikes, Hotel Adler offers a welcome cocktail, a five-course dinner, guided tours, spa options, and activities for kids.
Set on a hill above the town, the 4-star Hotel Grones is a reasonably priced, welcoming, family-run hotel that’s a convenient base for day hikes. It’s within easy walking distance of the Luis Trenker Promenade into the village and the lifts. Plus, Hotel Grones features half-board with gourmet four-course dinners and even performances by local musicians.
Getting to Ortisei
If you stay in the nearest big city, Bolzano, you can drive to Ortisei in about 45 minutes. But be forewarned: the route goes through some steeply twisting mountain roads. So, unless you have lots of patience and nerves of steel, you might want to take the bus to Ortisei instead.
If you go by bus, Ortisei is about an hour’s ride from Bolzano. Two different lines run this route, and service is fairly frequent, especially on weekdays.
If you want to explore a small corner of the Dolomites, you can’t go wrong staying in Ortisei. With its pretty setting, local color, complex history, and access to hiking, it offers a lot in a small area.
Nearly all guidebooks say you can hike near Ortisei in early October. However, I’d suggest visiting in August or, at the latest, early September, to avoid an early snowfall.
Whenever you go, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this charming town and the hikes in the mountains above it.