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TRAVEL: Das ist.. bella! MERANO'S GOOD EITHER WAY.

Byline: TIM CURRAN

AH, the Mediterranean life. Olive groves, citrus trees, hot sun ripening grapes in the vineyards - and the sound of cow bells on alpine pastures.

Yes, cow bells. For while palm trees thrive in the pretty Italian spa town of Merano, just a few miles to the north you run into a wall of towering snow-capped mountains.

And not just a smattering of them. Here in South Tyrol, 80 peaks soar above 3,000 metres. That puts lowly Ben Nevis in the shade at just 1,344 metres. And the ski centre of Innsbruck, in Austria, former home of the Olympic winter games, is just 70 miles away.

So south-facing Merano, a Shangri-la sheltered from icy blasts, has led a charmed life and even won a royal seal of approval.

The grand Empress Elisabeth of Austria - known to her friends as Sisi - introduced her ill daughter Valerie to the spa waters and fresh mountain air here in 1870. She travelled with 100 courtiers, so word spread like wildfire it was a chic place to be.

You can see what caught the royal fancy. A fast-flowing river bubbles down from the Dolomites to form the backbone of the town. On the southern bank there is now an impressive spa complex and on the northern bank a long, leafy walkway - called Sisi's path - which strikes eastwards out of town to the magnificent botanical gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle.

They're big on walking in Merano. You'll find ramblers aged 50-plus all along the trail. It's fun to guess whether "gutentag" or "buon giorno" is the right greeting as many Austrians and Germans come here to enjoy a warm Italian welcome.

They feel especially at home because all official signs are in both German and Italian and more than half the residents speak German. In fact, the town used to belong to Austria until 1919 and it has a dual name - German speakers call it Meran. Restaurants serve food from both cultures plus Tyrolean dishes, such as schultzkrapfen (ravioli filled with spinach and cheese), speck (cured, salted ham) and strudel stuffed with apples or pears, nuts and raisins.

We went to Restaurant Sissi (Galileistrasse 44, tel: 00 39 0473 231062) and, after a sampler selection of starters, had asparagus risotto, and guinea fowl with mustard pear jam and potato. It cost pounds 25-pounds 30 plus wine - so anyone fearing a diet of sauerkraut in the Tyrol is wrong.

Another good restaurant, at Trauttmansdorff Castle gardens (Cafe-restaurant Schlossgarten, Via S Valentino, tel: 00 39 0473 232350) serves a fine lunch of Tyrolean dishes, with main courses around pounds 5 and a bottle of Alto Adige Pinot Bianco around pounds 10.

The gardens (tel: 00 39 0473 235730, www.trauttmansdorff.it) - voted Italy's most beautiful in 2005 - are a must-see. You could spend most of a day here looking at the museum of tourism and exploring the acres of exotic plants. The museum reveals that the Tyrol first became popular with the British in the early 19th Century - idyllic Tyrolean mountain scenes were hot property in the Victorian art world and tourism boomed until the disaster of the First World War.

But tourism is the great hope of the future again, and millions have been spent on the town's newly-opened thermal spa centre. We stayed at the stylish Steigenberger Hotel Terme Merano (1 Piazza Terme, tel: 00 39 0473 259000, www.termemerano.it/hotel/), designed by renowned Tyrolean architect Matteo Thun, which has its own underground link to the spa.

Thermal water bubbles up from around 2,000 metres below ground and is rich in minerals. You can swim in 25 various-sized pools at different temperatures or go for water treatments.

The therapy centre gives massages - my 20-minute back and neck massage was hugely relaxing - and the state-of-the-art fitness centre was truly impressive. Tourists can buy a fitness day ticket and trial session for EUR15 (pounds 10) and a thermal baths taster package, which includes a massage, for EUR55 (pounds 36), (00 39 0473 252000, www.termemerano.it) or enjoy the thermal baths for two hours at EUR8.50 (pounds 5.60).

If you have any energy left after all this, you can take up Nordic walking - it's like crosscountry skiing in the summertime with-out snow. Or hire a bike and take it out of town by rail, then cycle back in. The Merano tourist office has details (tel: 00 39 0473 272000, www.meraninfo.it/Home. 26.2.html)

Our final trip was to see the masterpiece of architect Matteo Thun - the 35-room Vigilius mountain retreat in nearby Lana (tel: 00 39 0473 556600, www.vigilius. it) by cable car. It's worth it for the view of the Merano valley with its green fields, orchards, and the clouds which rise up you from the mountain slopes below.

GETTING THERE..

TIM flew Ryanair from Stansted to Verona Brescia. BA flies from Gatwick to Verona and Innsbruck, or from Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham to Milan. EasyJet flies from Stansted, East Midlands, Gatwick and Bristol to Venice Marco Polo, and from Gatwick and Stansted to Milan Linate. South Tyrol is roughly a two-hours drive from these airports. Visit www.suedtirol.info

CAPTION(S):

RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: The spa town of Merano' ROOM WITH A VIEW: Outlook from Steigenberger Hotel' EXOTIC: The stunning Trauttmansdorff Castle gardens' IN BLOOM: Gardens
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 27, 2007
Words:892
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