If you’ve ever been in a foreign country for an extended period of time, you’ve probably hit that cultural wall. You know the one. Suddenly everything that once charmed you about the country begins to grate. That exciting, bustling city is now congested and noisy to the extreme. Those handsome foreign men are now beginning to creep you out with their barrage of shameless compliments. That mouth-watering food you’ve been devouring twice a day, every day, is now the reason you can’t fit into the single pair of pants you packed. This is how I was feeling two months into gallivanting around Italy in full-blown vacation mode.
After being chained to a desk at my corporate Korean job and not having a full weekend off for almost a year and a half, I had decided to quit and head to Italy to pay homage to the country that first captured my heart some eight years prior. I would travel from top to toe, taking in all the lesser-known places I had missed when I was a young college student too preoccupied with drinking wine and falling in love (or so I thought) with my Italian boyfriend Carlo.
I poured over Rick Steves books for months beforehand and scoured the internet, trying to find the most scenic places in the country. I planned my dream trip to a tee, but as a novice on long-term travel, I had forgotten the golden rule: pace yourself. In other words, eating your weight in pasta and gelato every day and never-ending sightseeing is a recipe for burn out (and possibly diabetes).
Thankfully, my burnout seemed to coincide with a visit to the northern village of Castelrotto—known as Kastelruth by locals—a town that is Italian by geographic location, but Austrian in practically every other sense. Austria lost the region to Italy after World War I, leaving it full of German-speaking residents who identified far more with their Austrian than Italian roots (read: lots of lederhosen and yodeling). Today it remains very much that same. I had originally been drawn to the area because of the stunning Dolomites mountain range, but the reprieve it offered from all things Italian came as an unexpected bonus.
Arriving in Kastelruth with my travel buddy Casey on a sunny June afternoon, I squinted against a sun that was high in the sky and took in the quaint bell tower and the colorfully painted cottages. The little village before us was sleepy in the late afternoon hour. We learned that visiting Kastelruth during the short period of time right before the summer tourist season meant a town without crowds, save for us and a handful of elderly hiking enthusiasts.
On the hunt for a meal at 3 p.m., we found restaurants were closed or only serving strudel and other pastries. Our waiter asked us in a thick accent, “Would you like some apple strudel?” which sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger asking us if we wanted some apple strudel. After he left, we stifled our laughter, giddy we could experience an entirely new culture within Italy’s own borders.
Meat & Potatoes With a Side of Yodeling
That night we gorged ourselves on piles of meat and potatoes and dumplings in a nearly empty restaurant, well on our way to a bad case of the meat sweats. Afterward we drank beer at a local pub with the two sons who worked at the family-run hotel where we were staying. They appeared to be the only other two people in Kastelruth our own age, and seemed just as overjoyed by our presence in town as we were theirs.
As we talked with them, the sort of cultural duality present in the small village became even more apparent. The brothers, like many of the locals we had encountered, were extremely kind, generous and polite, but also far more reserved than their more southern Italian countrymen. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed brother even poked fun at the visiting Italian tourists from down south, laughing at their exaggerated gesticulation and the way they drag out their vowels when speaking.
After a while he said, “You are here to see the Spatzen?”
Casey and I exchanged looks. The what?
He explained that the Kastelruther Spatzen is a band made up of seven guys in their 40's and 50’s (and 60’s?) that plays a type of schmaltzy music called schlager. (If you’re familiar with Korean trot music, it’s exactly like that….except, you know, with more yodeling.) The only other tourists in town were older German and Dutch folks there to see an upcoming concert by the Spatzen, he said.
After establishing that we hadn’t come to Kastelruth to see a group of lederhosen-clad yodelers, we asked if the Spatzen were pretty popular.
“Internationally?” I said, skeptical.
“Yes, the Spatzen sold more albums in Germany than Michael Jackson. The German and Dutch people are the groupies,” he said, entirely serious.
At this, Casey and I couldn’t take any more and burst into hysterical laughter that was only compounded when the brothers pulled up the group’s official website and showed us videos of their performances. Evidently they have been around since the late 70’s and used to be total heartthrobs. Rick Steves calls them “the ABBA of yodeling.” They are still famous now, but have traded their boy band days for families and regular day jobs.
“You will go to the concert?” one of them asked.
We shook our heads no. Sadly we already had a hotel booked near Lake Como and had to hit the road. I pictured Casey and I engulfed in a sea of white-haired groupies, clutching giant beer steins and fist-pumping to blaring schlager music. It killed me we wouldn’t be able to stay.
“Next time,” I told them. And while they seemed satisfied, I was frustrated that my rigid itinerary hadn’t left us any time to change our plans.
The Hills Are Alive
The next morning we set out bright and early for a full day of hiking. I had pretty high expectations after spending months staring longingly at Google images of sun-drenched meadows to distract myself from Seoul’s frozen tundra (and the deep depression that comes from having to wear a puffy marshmallow coat for nearly half the year).
Now I was nervous. Not only had I seriously talked up the Dolomites to Casey, but I had pinned my own hopes on frolicking through lush pastures and scaling picture-perfect mountains that maybe didn’t exist outside of Google. Had I set myself up for monumental disappointment?
We took a ski lift up to the base of the mountain range and then hiked two hours to the Alpe di Siusi, the largest high-altitude meadow in Europe, at eight miles wide and 20 miles long. Once there, the air was crisp and fresh and held a chill, the sun warm. Before us, rolling hills were covered in wildflowers and gave way to craggy peaks, gray and formidable, still dusted in snow.
We spent the rest of the day flabbergasted that such a naturally beautiful place existed, and that we were there basking in it. And because we had beaten the summer crowd by a few weeks, the trails were gloriously empty except for a few older hikers. It was almost a little disconcerting being out on the trail with older folks who were not ajummas or ajosshis. No one was scolding me for my inadequate sun protection or trying to force-feed me soju and gimbap. The closest we came to an ajosshi was this very nice, old German-speaking man who offered to take our photo but didn’t know how to use my phone. He ended up holding the shutter button down repeatedly until he had taken a ton of photos, including about 50 awkward, accidental selfies.
Our hikes took twice as long as they should have because we kept stopping to take photos of the eerily perfect mountain range while exclaiming over and over again to each other, “This place can’t be real!”
On our last day we discovered the most beautiful meadow I had ever seen. It was at the top of the Spitzbühl ski lift and had stunning views of the infamous Mt. Schlern. I frolicked to my heart’s delight (…or until I felt like I was going to pass out from oxygen deprivation) and kicked myself for not planning an elaborate picnic worthy of the scenery.
We only spent about 20 minutes in that meadow before we had to catch the ski lift back down the mountain, or risk being stranded overnight. Black storm clouds blew in overheard and it started to rain.
As we rode the ski lift down the mountain with jackets pulled over our heads and laughter on our lips, I felt both invigorated and frustrated. The meadow was the most beautiful spot we had found on our whole trip, but we were only allowed mere minutes to explore it.
The next day we were in an entirely new city, surrounded again by boisterous Italians speaking a language that was welcoming and familiar. As Casey and I planned our day around when we would hit up a well-known gelateria, it was apparent our trip to Kastelruth had been just what we needed to refresh our souls (and stomachs). The restlessness I had felt leaving Kastelruth melted away as I savored my double scoop of pistacchio and baccio. We decided that sometimes the best destinations are the ones you have to tear yourself away from, knowing there are plenty of reasons for a return visit.
What's your anti-burnout remedy while traveling?