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The lost art of promenading

27/08/2015

With a recent heatwave baking most of Italy, the one place that guarantees a fresh breeze and a cool evening is the mountains. I had long hankered after a summer trip to the Alps or the Dolomites (above) and, in July this year, I finally fulfilled that wish.

For all that I’ve loved the mountains in winter, nothing had prepared me for their beauty in summer. Snow-covered ski pistes were transformed into lush green slopes abounding in alpine flowers, the russety grey peaks of the Dolomites rising above into clear blue skies. As the sun set, the peaks seemed to glow pink. There were so many different paths that you couldn’t run out of walking options if you stayed for six months: low-valley riverside walks, steep climbs into the mountains, edging along rock faces using just your fingertips and feet for grip – and, sometimes, a mixture of all those things.

It takes only a few hours by car from Innsbruck or Verona airports to reach walkers’ heaven in the Alta Badia region.

Find a base in Cortina, Corvara, Badia or San Cassiano and you’ll be in the midst of well-signposted routes that judge distance in time rather than miles or kilometres, perfectly positioned restaurants and rivers so clean that you can just fill up a water bottle en route.

This area of the Dolomites is known as the South Tyrol; with a combination of Austrian and Italian influence, it’s proudly different. It’s also full of people passionate about outdoor pursuits. 

Five or six hours’ walking is nothing to the people of the South Tyrol. Families, including children and grandparents, will happily hike for two hours with their dog to reach a restaurant or one of the lakes on the plateau, where many will have a dip in the ice-cold water before heading back down again. While I was huffing and puffing up a mountain track, a boy of no more than eight came skipping past me with his father. By the time I’d reached the top and stopped to recover with a long glug of water, they’d already disappeared into the distance.

The Italians love to walk. Whether it’s a hike into the mountains or an evening stroll, it’s very much part of everyday life. Each evening, as we sat sipping a gin and tonic as reward for the day’s efforts, we would see couples or families walking by. The flow of people started at about 6pm and kept up until at least 9pm. They weren’t walking fast, they were chatting to people they met, but they were out there, moving, every single evening.

This scenario happens all over Italy. It is so fundamental to Italian culture that it has a name – la passeggiata. 

We used to walk more regularly here, either to school or to work, and the Victorians even introduced the concept of a promenade walk here to try to improve the health of the nation. This might just be the weekend to rediscover the British version of la passeggiata – take your pick from the local sea front, park or towpath. It’s a great way of enjoying your surroundings, of socialising and relaxing, all the while getting some gentle exercise. You don’t need expensive walking shoes to make it work – and no one is saying you can’t stop for a cup of tea (or something a little stronger). The important thing is to get out there and enjoy it.

Pick up a copy of Waitrose Weekend in store, available for free every Thursday.

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