Fine dining minus the hocus-pocus
The first day is all about building up form – both on the bike and in the mountain huts! As part of our microscopically planned training programme (cough), we booked a table in advance at the Gostner Schwaige mountain hut, one of Alpe di Siusi’s most popular haunts and a real melting pot of cultures.
With German, Ladin and Italian ringing out through the atmospheric ambience the food certainly lives up to expectation; we’re talking Michelin-star standards with a grounded and humble nature (and price for that matter). We gorge on a soup served in a fresh loaf (true story), a salad with 25 freshly picked mountain flowers and herbs, followed by an incredible dessert: Kaiserschmarrn pancakes with fresh mint and apricots. If pushed, we’d probably declare it the best mountain hut in the Alps – and although we should probably keep this to ourselves for fear of ridicule: the Rosé Bellinis make a sweet choice for an aperitivo.
The man behind Gostner Schwaige, Franz Musler, doesn’t just personally look after his guests but also passionately imparts local knowledge over a glass of fiery schnapps – ‘Ride down from Alpe di Siusi and visit the Zu Plun distillery.’ We’re in agreement.
Spirit & Spirits
The route down to the distillery is familiar from the Giro: it’s long, steep and full of hairpins. Fortunately, we take it the opposite way to the pros and head downhill where we are met by Florian Rabanser.
Having revamped the 14th century Plunhof estate, Rabanser now distills his own version of a classic South Tyrolean spirit, mixing in an array of cherry-picked mountain herbs to this notorious beverage. Well versed in gin-making and more than a little scathing over the latest schnapps-hype in the industry, he explains that:
His own expertise has led to five inventive beverages that enrapture consumers, all acclaimed for their tastes and individual stories. The Dolomites gin is a firm favorite for us. Our ears perk up as Rabanser retells the origins of his spiced, exotic-tasting Indian Williams pear brandy that draws inspiration from a legendary elephant:
back when Europe was a hotbed of ruling dynasties, diplomatic relations were often secured with extravagant gifts, one such was an Indian elephant named Soliman gifted by the daughter of the Habsburg emperor to the later Emperor Maximillian II in 1551. Said elephant had to make its way from Spain to Vienna, with the animal and its royal entourage passing by South Tyrol and leaving history and a sense of east-meets-west in its wake.
For all of his drinks, Rabanser has two stipulations: no sugar (“Alcohol isn’t for kids!” he reasons) and the use of traditional and sustainable production methods (“If the apricots aren’t ripe, then so be it.”) But don’t worry; the coming years’ supply is already being prepped in dozens of barrels made of Spanish, French, Italian and Austrian wood.
“Viva il laghetto”
With our bottles re-filled, we head off somewhat begrudgingly to the day’s actual destination: the Laghetto di Fiè/the Völser Weiher. It’s a 3km climb with a 7% average gradient that ramps up steeply towards the end, although the gins we’ve just consumed take away some of the sharpness. The lake is worth the effort, and it’s the ultimate spot to refresh our legs and while away the hours. The sun blazes down on the water all day long, working as a sort of solar-powered water heating system so late afternoons are the ideal time to visit. The return leg to Siusi can loop in some pretty technical trails and you can even test yourself on the time trial route back up to Compaccio. Another option is to catch a lift with family and friends who may wisely choose to relax by the lake.