In the northern part of Italy close to the border with Austria lies a group of mountain ranges called the Dolomites. Although it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this portion of Italy remains relatively unknown to people from outside the region. It is just around 200 kilometers from Venice but the autonomous province of South Tyrol or Alto Adige seems like a world apart from the Latin heritage of Italy. German is the lingua franca rather than Italian while the alpine landscape makes the area look like a scene from neighboring Austria or even Switzerland. Sometimes, the sight of a single picture is all it takes to inspire me to go somewhere. This was exactly the case with South Tyrol. I had encountered a picture of some unreal scenery some months back and I knew instantly I had to go there no matter what it took. When I next had a chance to visit Europe, I made sure I allotted some time to venture to South Tyrol.
Bressanone / Brixen
To get here, I had to take a train that criss-crossed some awesome scenery along the Brenner Pass, a passageway that has been around since the Roman times. The train cut through some small villages on the hills while the radiant colors of autumn started to make itself visible. My stop for the day was the humble town of Bressanone, or Brixen in German. With a population of around 20,000; it’s the 3rd largest town in South Tyrol. It’s also not featured in most major guidebooks. In fact, I initially didn’t have any inkling on what there was to see in this town. It was just the idea of encountering some unreal landscapes that led me to this part of the continent.
From the town’s bus station, it is just a short walk to the compact old town which like many old towns in Europe, is filled with fancy restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. While the architecture’s decidedly Tyrolean, the presence of chic boutiques served as a clear sign that I was finally in Italy.
The heart of the old town is the Piazza del Duomo, where the duomo or the cathedral is located. Although Bressanone is not the largest town in South Tyrol, the cathedral here is arguably the most important in the entire province. The interiors are stunning as they have been for hundreds of years.
Beside the cathedral is the cloister, filled with colorful frescoes that originated from medieval times.
Aside from the main square, Bressanone has a couple more interesting attractions which include the Hofburg and a pharmacy museum. All in all, it’s worthwhile to spend a few hours exploring.
Val di Funes / Villnöß
After a morning out on the town, it was now time to venture to some of the most awesome alpine villages of the Italian Tyrol. While there was a bus for the 30 minute or so ride to Santa Maddalena, the village I shortlisted, buses are few and far between and another option one could possibly take is to hitchhike.
Funes, also known by its German name, Villnoss is a community that is made up of several villages southeast of Bressanone. And while the Dolomites actually covers a large swathe of Italy’s far north, the most iconic image that people have of this mountain range is actually found in the village of Santa Maddalena. Impossibly scenic, I was praying for good weather as I got nearer to my destination.
My home for 2 nights was the Hotel Tyrol and I rang up the property earlier to ask for a pick up. After I got dropped off at the highway, Michael, the owner picked me up promptly for the short but steep ride to the hotel.
my room at hotel tyrol
Of all the guesthouses and small hotels around the village of Santa Maddalena in Funes, the most popular (and perhaps the largest one) is Hotel Tyrol. Boasting a spa, pool and outdoor sauna; it’s very popular among tourists from nearby Germany, Austria or from elsewhere in Italy. That being said, the town still remains relatively unknown to people outside of Central Europe despite the community’s picturesque image constantly being used to describe the Dolomites. I suspect it’s due to a lack of information on how exactly to get there.
the village of santa maddalena
I practically wasted no time after dropping my bags at my room to find out exactly where that impossibly scenic area was. Michael pointed me to go around the rear of the hotel. After some pretty steep climbs, I finally made it. If there ever was an image that I could most closely associate with the alps, that was it. The rolling, verdant hills of the valley juxtaposed against the mighty and sharp peaks of the Puez-Geisler group of the Dolomites. It took a while before it sunk in that I was staring directly at what was probably the best view I’ve seen in my entire life, not at some painting in a museum. The scenery was too impressive that I just sat there and admired the scene before me for a good 2 hours. It also helped that I was there during the fall, when shades of red and yellow were most apparent.
church of st. john
I also dropped by the two churches that have always been used in iconic photos of the Dolomites – the Church of Santa Maddalena as well as the Church of St. John in Ranui, which is a bit of a walk from Santa Maddalena.
awesome ravioli from hotel tyrol
There really is not much to do around Val di Funes aside from admiring the scenery, hiking around the Puez-Geisler mountain range or sampling alpine cuisine while enjoying the spa. For me, that was more than enough. It’s not everyday that I get to wake up to a view of a UNESCO World Heritage-listed mountain range. It was just too bad that the weather wasn’t that great during my visit and I wasn’t able to hike my way up. Perhaps another time! But I did get to sample the delicious cuisine, a mixture of Austrian and Italian culinary styles, and indeed it was fantastic – simple yet sumptuous.
one last look at santa maddalena
Tip: If you plan to hike the Puez Geisler range in good weather, your best bet is to do it in the months of July and August. Otherwise, allow for at least a 2 or 3 night stay. To get there and back to the village requires a full day’s excursion.
Bressanone is easily reachable from Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Italy. From the south, the train passes through Verona, Trento and Bolzano before reaching the town. From the north, the train originates from Munich and passes through Innsbruck and crosses the Italian border 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 just a few minutes’ walk from the old town. Buses usually depart hourly except during weekends when the frequency drops to every two hours. Hitchhiking is possible but caution is advised.
Wow. Straight out of a story book that view. So did the photo you saw have a caption that explicitly stated Santa Maddalena? Because of all the alpine towns in Europe, it’s impressive that you found that exact spot. That’s just wow.
No it didn’t actually. But the photo I saw did say that it was taken in the Dolomites. A few searches here and there – including some Italian websites that I translated to English – took me to that town.
wow. beautiful photos!
Hi Bino…I had goosebumps reading your article about Santa Maddalena and Ranui…I also stumbled upon some amazing online photos, and like yourself, spent some time to find out exactly where these beautiful spots are. Thank you so much for your amazing and informative post about your visit to Bressanone, Santa Maddalena & Ranui. I am planning to visit there in late April or early May 2016 (springtime). Sometimes we see beautiful photos but in reality the scenery is not as good, but from reading your article, it seems that Santa Maddalena & Ranui are worth the visit. I was so happy to read your article, thank you! I may have a few short questions, if you don’t mind I will ask in another comment or send you an email. One question for now…did you by any chance also go to Selva dei Molini, Lago di Meggima (north east of Bressanone)?
Hi Tanya, nope I did not go to the other places you mentioned as I had a limited time in Italy. Hope you enjoy your trip! May is perhaps a more reliable time to visit, weather-wise
Hey Bino, thanks a lot for your cool story and those nice pics! I’m going to spend two weeks in South Tyrol in summer and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m still looking for the best hotels in Italy, Belvita sounds great though. Which places do you want to visit on your next trip to South Tyrol? Any more tips for me? Best wishes!
Cynthia Hoch says
Bino, thank you so much for this post. I smiled brightly while reading your story as it was my story. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon the photo of Santa Maddalena, but it took my breath away and instantly became my desktop background. I went on a search, not unlike your own, to learn about the tiny church engulfed by immense beauty. I had been to Italy and to the Swiss Alps in 2007, and with so many beautiful places to visit in the world, I thought I would not ever make make it to this small corner of Italian Alps. In my mind, that beautiful photo was to remain a calendar type pic on my desktop and nothing more. However, a series of events has me on a journey back to Italy and on what seems like a “pilgrimage” to Santa Maddalena. Your post is helping me to piece together my trip and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your insight on how to access this stunning part of the world.
Thank you so much for posting this. I was just searching St. Maddalena and came across your website. I am thinking if I should go here instead of Aberobello for my next trip since I will have limited times in Italy. Would you know if Mid-March is a good time to visit St. Maddalena or is it too early? Thank you! 🙂
Hi Ariel, you can visit anytime of the year. It just depends on what you want to see!
Thank you for the very wonderful write-up. I also have stumbled on Sant Maddalena photo while looking for a side day trip from Innsbruck. We will be in the region early December, and like to add Sant Maddalena to a day trip or a one night stay. On the photo title “the village of santa maddalena”, do you remember in which general direction the photo was taken? I’m wondering if one night stay is necessary to see the Dolomites and all the wonderful foreground, not shadow out by the sun behind it.
Hi Dien that’s a tricky one. I don’t remember anymore but if it’s any consolation, I took the photo in the afternoon.