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Hiking heaven

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?"

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.

It takes four to six days, staying overnight in alpine huts, to do the whole thing. But multiple access points let you bite off a small section, and we walked the one between Naturns and Parcines.

We took a funicular up to the trail, gliding through mist. When the clouds burned off, we were looking down at the valley from an altitude of 4,500 feet. It was like the view from an airplane window.

The walk and the views were mind-boggling, as were the goats. And it was on this hike that we comprehended the genius of alpine huts.

Just as we were starting to tire two hours into our walk, we came upon an Alpine hut named the Pirch hut. We settled into a cozy room decorated with stuffed marmots and equipped with German Monopoly (you can land on the Reichstag) and relaxed over a delicious lunch of house-made sausage, roasted potatoes and apple strudel.

When we set out again, I was so rested it was like starting a new hike.

And after we climbed 100 steps up and down a ravine, there was the Hochforch hut, with a sunny patio, English-speaking fellow hikers and the next apple strudel. By the time we finished our hike, 51/2 hours after we started, we were tired but well-fed, and I had a German email pen pal.

Our final hike was through what looked like heaven.

After taking a funicular up from Ortisei, Amy and I — the others having headed off to nearby Venice — walked to an overlook above the trail's start and were dumbstruck.

The Alpe di Siusi, or Seiser Alm, the largest meadowland in Europe, stretched out before us, a vast open land rolling out toward jagged Dolomite peaks silhouetted against a perfect blue sky.

We walked across the expanse, past white cows grazing on green grass and periwinkle-blue butterflies flitting over small purple flowers, the sun drenching it all and turning the gray Dolomite rock into a subtly changing color show.

Did I mention that the entire walk is downhill?

I wanted to stop time.

I'll settle for coming back.

If you go

Getting there

The nearest airports are Munich, Venice and Milan. You can take trains to the larger cities like Merano and Bolzano and either stay there or go on to one of the countless charming small towns.

We rented a car in Bolzano but consider doing without. Most hikes are accessible by the excellent bus system known as SAD.

Information

The Sud Tirol tourist agency (suedtirol.info) has extensive resources, from interactive lodging searches to hike recommendations. For information on Merano, including accommodations and the Merano High Mountain Trail, visit meranerland.com.

The spa city of Merano is a worthy destination on its own. We loved our lodgings at Bamguat, a working apple orchard with mountain-view balconied apartments and a pool (bamguatmeran.it).

A tip

Hiking shoes are highly personal. Guidebooks urge ankle-high boots, but Dianne was perfectly happy with hiking sandals. And use trekking poles. European walkers all do, and after our hilly mountain trek we understood why.

blbrotman@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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