Val di Cembra: Escaping the crowds in Trentino

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Looking down the Val di Cembra

Cembra – Italy. Since the Dolomites were made World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 2009, the number of Alpine hikers and tourists has grown exponentially. But if you tire of the crowds and of finding mountain refuges and valley hotels booked out weeks and months in advance; if your mind spins from juggling the Südtiroler German names with those the Italians have been trying to impose on Alto Adige ever since they annexed it from Austria after WWI (how does Grassleitenpass become Passo Principe?), there is a valley not yet over-run by the international tourist industry and which is pure Italy without the noise, hustle and bustle: the Val di Cembra.

At the western end of the busy Fleimstal/Val di Fiemme, the Aviso river makes a turn, the valley narrows, the wind ceases and the crowds disappear. Two-lane roads wind their way down either side of the Aviso until it hits the Etch /Adige Valley just north of Trient /Trento about 20 miles down stream. The heavily forested Cembra Valley is pinched in by steep mountains cut by deep gorges with ancient villages perched high above. The vineyards on the right, north, side of the Aviso, which take in the sun from dawn to dusk, produce some of Trentino’s best wines and grappas.

Between the industrial Etch/Adige Valley and the vacation wonderland of Fleimstal/Val di Fiemme, the eleven thousand people who inhabit the hills along the Cembra Valley continue to live at their centuries old pace, between the red-porphyry rock quarries and stone cutting mills and the vineyards. The mountains are criss-crossed by dozens of hiking trails up to glacier lakes and albergos which attract those seeking to escape the summer heat.

Altrei, the last German speaking village at the top of very Italian Val di Cembra

There is magic to discover in the age-old hamlets where the streets can narrow to less than two meters fifty, which is difficult for a medium sized car and not to be attempted with a camping-car, and mountain roads which are often only one lane wide but take two-way traffic. Local bus services go practically everywhere.  Each town seems to have its own ancient church which often sits on the ruins of an earlier Christian place of worship dating back to the IVth and Vth centuries. Old men play cards in small bars while sipping Cembra wines. Quarry workers park their giant dump trucks in the middle of the street for a quick drink.

On the right side of the Aviso, once you reach Capriana, very near the beginning of the Cembra valley, you are truly in Italy. The town’s only hotel, the Dolomiti, is a favorite for German motorcyclists and is often booked out. The Bar di Posta, which sits across from the post office, open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning, is a place where the locals meet for their Veneziano, to read the papers and discuss news.  From here you can hike one-and-a-half hours up to Altrei – Alterivo which looks down the valley from high above its beginning and is the last German speaking outpost of the Südtirol/Alto Adige autonomous province. The view from here is spectacular and seems endless. Unlike some of the villages, many of whose ancient homes and bars are boarded up, Capriana is vibrant and busy.

Further down, on the left, or south, side of the Aviso, the Hotel alle Pirimidi in Segonzano is often booked out by those who come to see the local geological work of erosion: the pyramids of Segonzano – a group of pinnacles arranged like organ pipes, the remains of moraine deposits which date back to the last ice age.  You can also visit the ruins of the Segonzano castle, first mentioned in 1216 and sacked and burned by Napoleon’s troops after a battle here against Südtirolers in 1796. From here you see the wine producing villages of Favor and Cembra on the other side of the river.

There are 750 kilometers of dry walls along the right side of the valley where vineyards sit on terraces made hundreds of years ago. The valley’s Pino Nero, Schiava and especially Müller Thurgau wines are award winners. At the end of June, the town of Cembra hosts an international wine competition of Müller Thurgaus from around Europe. The cooperative in Cembra town, two-thirds of the way down the valley, is a great place to taste the local produce, buy a few bottles and talk with wine growers.

Cembra’s wines are among Trentino’s best.

Cembra is a good location to make a base camp.  We stayed at the family run Albergo al Caminetto which is very reasonably priced, a favorite for the locals and has an excellent kitchen, not to mention some of the best pizza crust we have ever eaten.  The late medieval and Renaissance old town on the hillside  is remarkably restored and maintained. Cembra is where the Dürer-way trail begins, named after the German renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer, who painted six of his famous water colors here in 1494. From the hotel you can walk for an-hour-and-a-half up to the peaceful Lago Santo glacier lake, 1,200 meters, and enjoy an excellent beer from a local micro brewery at the albergo (bed & breakfast for 25 euros), escape the heat on the vine-leaf covered terrace where their porc-ribs are to die for. By the way, you can also drive up from Cembra.

High above the left side of the Aviso, in an area known as the Pinè Plateau, are three other glacier lakes very popular with Italians from Trentino’s larger cities of Trient/Trento and Bozen/Bolzano. The Lago di Santa Colomba Civezzano, 926 meters, is small and quiet. Fishermen set up on the banks at six in the morning. The lago sits on a fault between volcanic rock and sedimentary rock surrounded by forest. It is twice as expensive as Cembra’s Albergo al Caminetto and the staff are not the friendliest but the calm is soathing. Further north, the twin lakes of Lago di Sierra, 974 meters, and the Lago delle Piazze, 1,120 meters, are bigger, more crowded and appreciated for their water-sport activities. There is a large choice of accommodation and hiking trails.

The bar in Alviano where old men play cards and argue politics.

One hike you can do from the lakes is up to the Redebus Pass, 1,440 meters, where you can visit the Aqua Fredda prehistoric archeological site and museum. The discovery is one of Europe’s most important late Bronze Age foundries (XIII – XI century BC) where a series of nine rectangular shaped smelting furnaces have been unearthed. This is the point where the Pinè Plateau enters into the Mocheni Valley but that is another story.

A few kilometers further down the Cembra Valley is the time-worn town of Albiano with its 1,514 inhabitants (2015 census). They are at the heart of the regions porphyry rock industry and hold a festival every fall for their renowned chestnuts. The area between the two churches in iazza San Biagio was paved in 1975 so that it could host a permanent exhibition on porphyry rock working in the Val di Cembra. Many of the buildings are crumbling or boarded up and haven’t been used in generations. Parts of the town are currently being rebuilt with the help of an association of young Italian architects but I fear they are going heavy on the concrete.

The roads up and down the Aviso can be noisy during the day with traffic and the bikers enjoying tight turns as they head for the tougher passes high in the Dolomites but the calm higher up cannot be beat. Cembra Valley is a wonderful place to explore for a week or more if you want to enjoy deep Italy, see 2,000 meter high mountain peeks in the distance, hike, sip superb wines, eat well and relax.