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A plant-based hotel in the Italian Dolomites

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Can you imagine a vegan-friendly hotel filled with Christmas cheer, snow falling gently outside, a restaurant serving multi-course regional dishes each night, a strudel cooking class, all set in a picturesque town in the Italian Dolomites? You too can have your very own northern Italian experience. Winter, summer or any time of the year. I share my 3 day experience at Cavalese's Eco Park Hotel Azalea.


EDIT: Park Hotel Azalea is now under new management (as of mid 2023). It is still listed as a 'vegan friendly' hotel - but please check before booking.


I arrive on a crisp blue-skied day, the sun enriching the alpine colours. High in the Dolomites of the Trentino-Alto Adige region is the quaint ski-town of Cavalese. This is the Italian-speaking part of the region. However, unlike most visitors, I am not here to ski, but to spend three inspired days at the plant-based Eco Park Hotel Azalea.



Finding a vegan-friendly hotel in the north of Italy is no easy feat in winter, particularly nearer to Christmas. Most 'veggie hotels' are closed come December. So when I find that Azalea is not only open, but also includes four course vegan dinners AND a Christmas pastry cooking class - it is exactly the experience I am looking for. After a few emails exchanged with Manuela and the staff, the hotel personally curate a program for my stay.



THE HOTEL


After catching three trains and a bus to get to Cavalese, all the way from the north west in Turin, I already have had quite the journey, albeit, a surprisingly smooth one. I push open the hotel entrance door and my energy shifts. I peel off my mittens and release a sigh. Warm interior colours, calming music and incense burning - it’s all so comforting. I arrive just after 2pm, before the check in rush. Later it’s a flurry of activity: families, toddlers, couples and cute dogs arriving by car from the outside world, ready for their three night stay. I seem to be the only English speaker and solo traveller. Most are Italian. Most have ski gear. I let my expectations melt away. I am here to relax, rest and taste. Anything else is a bonus.


When travelling alone, you can feel a little isolated at times. There’s a desire to share a thing or two with another human. The friendliness and warmth of the hotel staff allows me this connection. Yet the word ‘staff’ misses the mark…they seem more like a family.


Perhaps this quote from Azalea's website articulates it better:


“There are no employees and no customers: in fact, we call them collaborators and guests respectively. At Azalea, in our family, we go in search of kindness by serving smiles and cuddles for the future of our planet.”



THE RESTAURANT


A sure-fire way to make your guests feel welcome is to have a special table, set beautifully just for them throughout their stay. It’s the thoughtful little details, don’t you think? I am greeted with such affection by the waiting staff, and each night I seek out their conversation, their knowledge, their kindness. A special ‘grazie’ to Daniele, Angelo and Andrea, as well as Barbara and Manuela at Reception for looking after me.



One by one, guests arrive and by 8pm the restaurant is filled with a soundtrack of happy chatter. Four courses, which include an antipasto, entree, choice of two mains and a dessert. The menu heroes the vegetables with nourishing, local ingredients. We go on a journey. The first night begins light and fresh, as if cleansing our palates and our bodies. The chef honours the iconic fruits, vegetables and grains of Trentino. In two consecutive courses we are taken through apple orchards and cabbage patches, including a northern style waldorf salad and a serving of sauerkraut. I’m excited - we’re not in southern Italy any more Toto. It’s an Italian cuisine I’ve never been acquainted with. Only read about in books. I’m experiencing something new. I write down the names of local produce. The traditional use of segale (rye) in bread, a pate of cardoncelli from Alto-Adige (king oysters mushrooms) that are reminiscent of porcini. Do I taste caraway seeds in some of the dishes?



The organic wine goes down like cordial; too easily. The earthy onion soup with chickpea flour chips and mountain thyme wakes up my taste buds. I’m ready to leave it there, but I give into temptation with a small serving of strauben (‘fortaie’ in Cavalese dialect) a squiggly fried donut with a dollop of berry jam. The curly shape is created from the batter poured from a funnel straight into hot oil. Are you picking up the Austrian influence yet?


By the second night in the restaurant I already feel a familiarity creeping in, a belonging. I get comfortable at ‘my’ table. The familiar faces across from me. I am the only one dining alone. But with the warmth of the space, my journal, the friendly banter with the waiting staff and my attention on each dish, I feel full, complete. Though I do think how nice it would be to have my husband sitting across from me. Next time. Tonight’s antipasto buffet platter seems richer. And this is a good thing. Remember, we are in the mountains, where hearty food is the signature cuisine, traditionally to survive long, extreme winters. Butter beans, bruschetta, fermented carrots and a creamy bake of soft root vegetables. To balance, a light winter root salad follows with a zingy dressing and dried apricots. Roasted cauliflower for the following course. Next, a dish of filling fibre-rich toasted buckwheat and lentils. This is mountain fuel, which is ideal if you’ve had an active day in the slopes, or chopping wood for the fire or shovelling snow off your driveway. But my day has consisted of strolling in the snow, taking photos of the snow, visiting a Christmas market in the snow and, basically, just marvelling at the snow. If I wasn’t such a lightweight diner this night, I would have stuck around for the poached pears in local Teroldego wine. A decision I will regret forever.



The final night is the night to end all nights. A themed dinner 'Magia d’Avvento' (the Magic of Advent) - a celebration for the beginning of the Christmas season. I wear my red turtleneck, the most festive colour I’ve packed. My table has a new setting for the special occasion. The entree is a moreish serve of cooked savoy cabbage interwoven with stewed onion and topped with slices of smoked tofu. Next, I love the theatre of the 60cm-long (my guesstimate) handmade grissini breadstick being placed on each diners’ table.



I wiggle in delight when a bowl of soft locally-grown wholemeal polenta arrives with a generous helping of mushrooms and almond pecorino. Only days later I see ‘integrale’ polenta sold at a Christmas market in nearby Trento. Polenta is another beloved northern ingredient. Sadly, very sadly, my stomach is filling up fast. But it's important I have room for what comes next: canederli in brodo. Traditional bread dumplings with chard and leeks in broth. It’s not necessarily the most sophisticated dish, nor should it be. But to me, it is the recipe that typifies the region and the province. In peasant tradition, canederli were made with whatever was available, stale bread and herbs, cooked in water. Like most of the recipes that arise from poorer times, in later years, cooks added richer ingredients. Now you’ll find cheese or speck (cured pork) added to the dumplings. Trying this dish gives me a window into the past, of hardship, necessity and invention. And I am given this experience as a vegan. This is what Azalea offers us - vegans looking for an authentic northern Italian foodie experience.



The final meal of the Advent dinner is a classic. Dolce is none other than an apple strudel (strudel di mele). I’m rather chuffed to say, I helped make this strudel with two other hotel guests in our cooking class earlier that afternoon. A huge GRAZIE to Head Chef Pravas and Sous Chef Lucia for this gift of experiencing the plant-based northern cuisine of Trentino.


Breakfast and dinner (excluding drinks) are all included in your stay, as well as a daily afternoon snack ‘merenda’ in the form of freshly baked treats like vegan brioche and Christmas biscotti.



Note for children:

If you are travelling with children, there is a special menu with dishes such as lentil ragu tagliatelle, baked potatoes, penne with carrot cream. There are also hands-on activities to keep them busy and creative.


THE COOKING CLASS


What better way to experience the food of Italy than by taking a cooking class from the experts. A major personal motivation for staying at the hotel was the opportunity to take a cooking class. To learn the local recipes. So when I saw my name on the cooking program, my heart leapt with delight.



We are led down the stairs, into the depths of the hotel. This is where the magic happens: the kitchen. It’s a privilege to enter this work space, a world reserved for the chefs and kitchen staff. Joining me is a mother and young daughter (both guests, who share my love of cooking). Head Chef, Pravas Guido Feruglio is leading our strudel class and his warmth and humour makes for a delightful experience. Something happens when you are taught by someone with such expertise, there is a relaxed flow to it, no bravado, no stress. And Pravas is a natural teacher.



Next, sous chef Lucia teaches us how to make spiced biscotti. Her wonderful energy and knowledge adds to the class. The lesson is hands-on, collaborative and informal. We take turns making the strudel dough. I learn how not to use a rolling pin. Pravas and Lucia explain in English the details I don’t understand in Italian. What a great way to discover language through the act of cooking.



The strudel we learn is to be served for dessert that night. And the biscotti for an afternoon tea. What becomes abundantly clear to me is that Christmas spices and dried fruit are universal ingredients - particularly in the Anglo-European world.



SUSTAINABLE & ECO-FRIENDLY


If you care deeply for the environment, this is another reason to stay at Azalea. An eco hotel with sustainability at the core of its mission. From its raw materials, commitment to low energy consumption, renewable sources, organic vegetable garden, zero km food products, and of course, its plant-based cuisine. Rooms vary from single, superior and family rooms and are bright and cheery, but minimalistic. It’s about connecting back to simplicity, to nature, to relaxation. Each room has a balcony with a view and bathroom. It’s a space to unwind and I find myself retreating here often. When I first lay my head on the pillow I am surprised by its unusual feel - not your ordinary hotel puffy pillow. It turns out, the pillows are made of a variety of natural materials such as organic spelt and stone pine to promote deep sleep and comfort. And I can wholeheartedly attest to this, I sleep deeply and soundly.



HOLISTIC


You wouldn’t be staying in an alpine hotel if you didn’t get some kind of holistic experience. Culturally and historically, the European mountains have been a place to heal, to ‘take the waters’ and rejuvenate with health and wellness therapies. Whilst some hotels or modern ‘sanitariums’ will go all out with their thermal spas and treatments, Azalea gives you a wellness program in line with their own philosophy, leaning towards the alternative. Meditation, yoga, sound healing, forest bathing, Ayurvedic massage, as well as sauna and Turkish bathing. You can opt in for this as part of your individualised program.



THE TOWN OF CAVALESE


Only a few minutes walk into the centre of town, a little exploration of Cavalese will give you a chance to immerse yourself in an authentic northern village. You won’t be hearing a lot of English spoken here. It's an area more frequented by Italian, German and European tourists. Away from the hotel, you may find it a little more challenging to find vegan-friendly options. Though, you won’t need to eat a single morsel after enjoying breakfast, an afternoon snack and dinner at the hotel. But if you are in the mood for a coffee or snack, pop into L’ortica bar, a cosy spot to relax with a cappuccino of soy, almond, oat or rice milk and a cornetto (croissant).



Cavalese is a picturesque town in the Fiemme Valley, surrounded by mountains, beautiful buildings in pastel shades and a fast flowing stream running through its centre. If you’re there in winter, you’ll often find it blanketed in snow. In December, there’s a small Christmas market (mercantino di natale) with a few classic wooden stalls filled with ornaments, small gifts, socks, mittens, liqueur, vin brule. The town is a great base to explore the Valley in both winter and summer. It truly is a pristine corner of Italy.



PLAN YOUR STAY


If you're considering a northern Italian mountain holiday - be it winter, summer or any other season - click here on the Eco Park Azalea Hotel website to find out more. Get in touch, let Manuela and her lovely staff know what kind of experience you're after. And if you need any tips on how to get there from another town in Italy without a car, just ask me, I might know a thing or two!


This is an experience etched in my memory, one I will never forget, nor the kindness of the Azalea team.

 

Want to see a behind the scenes video reel of my stay at Azalea?



It might be worth mentioning that I was a full paying guest at Azalea and am simply sharing this blog so that other travellers can experience a vegan experience in northern Italy too and/or learn more about Trentino-Alto Adige cuisine!

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