AFTER just a three-hour train ride from Munich, I found myself in a small town called Bressanone.
As I stepped off the train, I was greeted with a majestic view of the snow-covered Alps. A few castles sat prettily on hillocks, and the pastel shades and architectural styles of the surrounding houses resembled those I had seen in the German and Austrian towns the train had rumbled past.
Yet, here I was in Italy.
Well, there is a reason why Bressanone appears to have more in common with Salzburg than Florence.
The far north-east of Italy - officially known as Alto Adige or South Tyrol - was actually part of Austria until the end of World War I. Everything from the bilingual signs, the chatter on the streets, and even Bressanone's alternative name of Brixen, are clear indications of this region's Germanic past.
The South Tyrol doesn't feature much on the typical tourist trails of Italy, which usually highlight Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. I made a conscious effort to go there, mostly because I wanted to see the Dolomites - a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps so picturesque that it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A tale of two cultures
The train I took from Munich to Bressanone travelled past stunning scenery along the Brenner Pass, a 1,370m-high passage through the Alps along the border between Austria and Italy.
A key road and rail corridor connecting Northern and Southern Europe today, the Brenner Pass has existed since Roman times. After exiting Austria, the train cut through some small villages on tree-covered hills that were ablaze in fiery autumn colours, before arriving at Bressanone.
The town has a population of around 20,000 and is the third-largest in South Tyrol. From Bressanone's bus station, I took a short walk to the compact old town, which is full of fancy restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. While the architecture was decidedly Tyrolean, the presence of chic boutiques was probably the most telling sign that I was in Italy.
The heart of the old town is the Piazza del Duomo, where the duomo or cathedral - arguably the most important in the entire province - is located.
The interiors are stunning with a combination of rich marble and stucco and a ceiling fresco by noted Austrian painter, Paul Troger. Despite experiencing some church fatigue as it was late into my two-week trip to Europe, I was still impressed by the cathedral's beauty.
What captivated me further was the cloister just beside the cathedral. It was decorated with colourful frescoes dating from mediaeval times.
Aside from the main square, Bressanone has a number of other interesting attractions, which include a most peculiar pharmacy museum and the Hofburg, formerly the bishop's residence and presently turned into a museum.
I found it worthwhile to spend a few hours exploring the town before making my journey to the Dolomites.
I boarded a public bus for the 30-minute ride to the municipality of Val di Funes, also known by its German name, Villnoss. South-east of Bressanone, it comprises a number of villages and hamlets, including Santa Maddalena.
While the Dolomites actually cover a large swathe of Italy's far north, the most iconic image of this mountain range is from the perspective of Santa Maddalena, and that is why I made a beeline for the village.
As I neared my destination, I prayed for good weather so that the beauty of the area would not be obscured by rain. Impossibly scenic, Santa Maddalena and the Val di Funes community look like something out of a fairytale.
After dropping my bags off at the guesthouse, I wasted no time exploring the outdoors. After some pretty steep climbs, I was rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views of my entire life.
The mighty peaks of the Puez-Geisler group of the Dolomites lay before me, their sharp spikes touching the clouds. Below them were rolling, verdant hills, the lush valley and the village of Santa Maddalena, nestled within.
The scenery was so impressive that I just sat there mesmerised for two hours, drinking it all in. Autumn had enhanced the area's natural beauty with highlights of red and yellow.
Later, I dropped by the two churches that are always featured in photographs of the Dolomites - the Church of Santa Maddalena and the Church of St. John in Ranui, which is a further walk away.
The following day, I explored some of the area's hiking trails. While the jagged peaks of the Puez-Geisler group seemed so near to where I stood the day before, the hike to their base actually took a good four hours.
It was already starting to get dark when I returned to my guesthouse to sample some alpine cuisine, with vegetables organically grown within the valley and dairy products made by the community.
What a feast for the senses my visit to the South Tyrol had been.
I flew to Munich via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. From Munich, I took the train to Bressanone. To get to the village of Santa Maddalena, you can take Bus #340 from the bus station just next to the Bressanone train station or from Bressanone's main bus station, which is a few minutes' walk from the old town. Buses usually depart hourly except during weekends when the frequency drops to every two hours.
There are several guesthouses and small hotels around the village of Santa Maddalena in Val di Funes, but the most popular (and perhaps the largest one) is Hotel Tyrol. It has a spa, pool and outdoor sauna.
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