Cows along a hiking trail in South Tyrol, the southern Alps of northern Italy

Cows along a hiking trail in South Tyrol, the southern Alps of northern Italy (Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune)

MERANO, Italy — A line of goats walked toward us, their bells ringing. A waterfall gurgled. The steeply pitched mountain farm angled down sharply below us. The goats headed downhill, then leaped over a stream through the grass, which looked like green velvet.

"Really?" Julia said, voicing our communal disbelief. "Really?"


Not that it looked real. In fact, the snow-dusted mountains towering over verdant meadows, the medieval castles and the riotous colors of flowers tumbling from Bavarian guest houses looked so perfect that my friend Amy, an artist who paints theater sets, took to claiming it was the work of a colleague.

That's what you see in South Tyrol (English), Alto Adige (Italian) or Sudtirol (German), all names for the same spectacular province on the south side of the Alps that was part of Austria until the end of World War I, when it became part of Italy.

What it seemed I didn't see were Americans — whether because it's an additional half-day's travel from the nearest airport or because it's simply off our travel radar.

Americans who do go are welcomed by some of the friendliest folks I've traveled among.

Those who don't are missing a walker's paradise.

If you wanted to create the best walking trip on Earth, you would come up with South Tyrol. In addition to scenery worthy of "The Sound of Music," the region is laced with a stupendous number and variety of trails for everyone from relaxed ramblers to expert rock climbers.

But it is ordinary walkers who are in the most amazing luck, because South Tyrol, which includes the craggy rock spires of the Dolomites, offers a rare dream: mountaineering-level trails that can be done by the nonmountaineer.

No climbing up mountains is necessary; you can be whisked up by funicular instead. No backpacking required; even if you want to do multiday hikes into backcountry, you can stay overnight in an alpine lodge and carry just a day pack.

And there are so many trails, many accessible from main roads serviced by the excellent SAD bus system, that you can pop into eye-popping scenery for just a few miles, then pop out and take a bus back to your home base for dinner.

Your biggest challenge will be choosing hikes. I tormented myself for months over the choices and still made last-minute changes during our trip.

For my three gal pals and myself — this is a safe and superb trip for women friends — I sought out the best of several kinds of walks. I can only imagine the ones we missed. But look at the ones we walked.

We strolled the roads around Tyrol Castle, the ancestral seat of Tyrolean counts, which loomed high above our lodgings in the spa town of Merano. The roads were lined with so many wildly fertile blackberries, hops, vineyards, fig trees and apple orchards that "we could just graze our way to the castle," Dianne remarked.

Another day, while the others were shopping in Merano — hey, shopping is walking too — I walked the famed Tappeinerweg, a lush promenade overlooking the medieval town and dotted with palm trees and scuttling lizards, courtesy of the city's Mediterranean microclimate. The path is so easy that people walk it with baby strollers.

But Merano was only our base. From there, we headed out for other hikes.

Being obsessed with cows wearing bells, I had to have an alpine farm walk. So one day we drove to the tiny hamlet of Pfelders and hiked up a hill beneath the shadow of snow-patched mountains.

We passed a farmer cinematically scything a field, and 45 minutes later were sitting at a farm walkers' hut eating apple strudel as cows grazed, their bells clanging.

We had to have a serious walk too. For that one I picked the Merano High Mountain Trail, a spectacular 62-mile trail through the mountains of the Texel Group Nature Park.