You would think Austrians have enough mountains to keep them occupied for a lifetime. Yet, many have a special fondness for Italy's German-speaking region of Süd Tirol or South Tyrol, which Italians prefer to call Alto Adige. There they enjoy many of the same things they have at home: tasty Knödels, good wine, and beautiful Alpine scenery. Of course, the region does have a few differences, such as a surprising number of palm trees and a darker roast of coffee, but overall it must feel like a home away from home. One reason for the similarity is that until the end of World War I, this piece of the Alps belonged to Austria, forming the southern portion of the Austrian province of Tyrol.
So, why would Austrians travel abroad to see things they already have and eat food they can find at home? The main reason is the differences, which stand out even more among the similarities. The weather is warmer and drier on this side of the Alps, giving the jagged mountain peaks an unexpected Mediterranean character. It is why during Habsburg times, South Tyrol was considered Austria's "balcony to the sun." The craggy landscape also provides a dramatic setting for numerous castles and ruins that attest to its long history as a contested borderland and trade route.
South Tyrol also has a fascinating, contradictory nature. During Habsburg days, it was one of the monarchy's largest producers of wines. Given its southerly climate and attachment to a white wine producing country, Tyrol became known for its warm weather and fine red wines. Then after the First World War, the situation was reversed. Suddenly it was a northerly region attached to a red and white wine-producing nation and began to emphasize its cooler weather and fine white wines. So, while Austrians see it as far south, and Italians as far north, the Tyroleans consider themselves to be right in the center.
For North American travelers, South Tyrol tends to be neglected altogether - I visited in the middle of summer and didn't hear even one American accent. It is an interesting destination off the well-trodden tourist route.
To get a picture of the region's main roads, think of an olive-shaped compass: at the north just below the Brenner pass is Sterzing, at the south the provincial capital of Bolzano, to the east is the former bishopric of Brixen, and to the west is the 19th-century spa town of Meran, with all four points being connected by a ring road. The Autobahn runs over the Brenner down the eastern curve to Brixen and Bolzano, and then around to Meran, while a smaller, two-lane road does the full circle, paralleling the Autobahn and then continuing past Meran to Sterzing. As always, this lesser road is the one to take, as it follows the contour of the landscape and provides a more intimate view of the small villages and the countryside. Ironically, it will get you there faster than the Autobahn, especially in summer when, perversely, traffic and highway construction projects reach their peak.
Like traders and travelers for millennia, I entered Italy via the Brenner Pass, crossing over from Innsbruck. I wasn't alone. It was the traditional start of the European holidays and traffic slowed to a crawl all the way down to Brixen, so I exited at Sterzing and took the narrow, windy two-lane road up the 2094-meter Jaufenpass. The drive takes in thick forests fading into the green slopes above the tree line, and then drops down stunning switchbacks to Meran.
Meran is blessed with three types of buildings: castles, villas and the porticoed, centuries-old houses of the old town. While many European spa towns were spoiled by the postwar construction of massive concrete blocks, Meran has managed to remain relatively free of such indelible scars. The only exception is the '70s-era design of the 'new' spa facilities (the old 19th century one, though still intact and quite beautiful, is reserved for conferences and such).
The town owes its architectural good fortune to strategic moments of both attention and neglect. Until the mid-19th century, it was known mostly as a Kühstadt (cow town). That was when a boosterish mayor decided to transform it into a Kurstadt, or spa town. He was helped immensely when Empress Elizabeth and her court paid a visit in 1870 and again in 1872, initiating a rush that resulted in the construction of one beautiful villa after another. Meran's main attractions were, and still are, the healing effect of the warm climate, and strolls along the town's numerous, manicured walking trails or promenades.
When Tyrol became part of Italy at the end of the First World War, Meran lost its clientèle: Austrians were now part of another country and Italians did not have to travel far to find warm weather. The town's recent success has allowed it to maintain historic treasures while avoiding the negative effects of modern mass tourism. Augmenting the lovely architecture is Meran's setting along the swiftly flowing Passer river and the verdant slopes of the surrounding valley
The drive from Meran to Bolzano is not so interesting in itself, but does pass through one of the area's most important wine regions, Terlan and Girlan. I decided to save the provincial capital of Bolzano for later, and instead continued to Brixen. Here the road follows the contours of the Eisack river valley, winding along the steep, rocky river bed while jagged mountain peaks watch sternly in the distance.
Brixen is the stately home of the prince-bishops who ruled the area for more than 800 years. Highlights include the cathedral, the large square, the prince-bishop's palace, and the narrow lanes of the old town, including two porticoed streets. You will enjoy the town's historical atmosphere, especially when combined with a memorable stay at the Hotel Elephant and a visit to the Neustift Monastery (more below).
The return to Austria was via a different route; up the Puster valley, past Bruneck (a historic town that is also worth visiting) and across the border. The countryside is a bit more rolling and pastoral than other areas of Tyrol and the drive provided the additional pleasure of short glimpses of the Dolomites near the border. Near Vietschach, the sky arranged a wonderful farewell. When I stopped for one last look at Tyrol, the sun broke through a blanket of clouds and sprayed a dazzle of light over the little village.
One of the town's two castle hotels, the Rundegg certainly has the best location, as it is only a short walk above town. This small 17th century structure has a peaked tile roof and windows flanked by the distinctive red-and-white shutters traditional of the region. The hotel has all the features one expects of a castle: thick, whitewashed walls; vaulted ceilings; heavy wood beams and a small selection of antiques. One of the most graceful details is the lovely garden surrounding the hotel, with its small pond and cluster of patios arranged to catch the sun. The grounds are ringed by a cradle of trees, masking the outer wall and seeming to blend into the green mountain slopes away in the distance.
The lobby, lounge, restaurant, and bar occupy a compact ground floor space, and the extensive pool and beauty farm facilities are located below. Thirty guestrooms are divided between the castle, farmhouse and a newer coach-house, all of which are connected by an underground passage. The Rundegg's décor in the public areas as well as the rooms has traditional refinement, as opposed to the brasher elegance of luxury hotel chains like Kempinski. Most rooms have hardwood floors with Persian rugs, good quality classically-styled furniture, and pale aubergine or dark burgundy fabrics.
The white-tiled bathrooms have medium-sized tubs and double sinks with marble counters.
Management and staff are friendly and conscientious, and contribute greatly to the hotel's charm. The food at the restaurant is good although not transcendent. Breakfast, however, was memorable with tender local Speck and a flavorful fontina cheese as the main attractions.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $130, doubles from about $215
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 12/20
In addition to castles, Meran has a number of attractive hotels located in 19th century villas. Some are quite lavish and expensive (such as the Hotel Palace), while others are waiting to be freshened up. One good choice is the Hotel Bavaria (tel +39/0473/23 63 75, fax +39/0472/23 63 71), newly remodeled with a spacious garden and pool. A smaller, more 'homey' option is the Villa Augusta (tel. ++39/0473/22 23 24, fax ++39/0473/22 00 29) located a short walk from the old town. For a double room with breakfast the Bavaria charges from $146, while the Augusta costs from $76.
Hotel Elephant Brixen
Although the weather is warmer on this side of the Alps, one doesn't expect to see many elephants. You would have though in 1551. Toward the end of that year, Emperor Maximilian returned to Vienna from a visit to his uncle's kingdom in Portugal. He was accompanied by an elephant, which the uncle gave him as a farewell gift. The elephant made it as far as Brixen and then decided to stop for a few weeks to rest. The only place with a stable big enough was a small tavern outside of town. When word got around, the tavern was deluged by crowds eager to see the new tourist attraction. When the elephant finally moved on, the tavern's savvy owner commissioned a fresco for the front of the building to capitalize on the animal's historic and profitable visit.
Besides this wonderful story, the place has been blessed with owners whose good taste and commitment have turned a modest, elephant-sheltering tavern into an excellent hotel.
The lobby and public rooms are attractively decorated in antiques, brass and marble, all of which are kept to a bright polish by the attentive staff. Guest rooms come in either a French style with white furniture and green fabrics, or a more preferable Italianate style with stained hardwood furniture and paneling accented by Persian rugs and burgundy fabrics. The white tile baths have been recently renovated and include good-sized tubs and sinks with marble counters. The best rooms have balconies or terraces.
The 44 rooms are divided between the main house and a smaller but still historic dependency located in the garden across the street. The garden itself is one of the hotel's most charming features. There is a swimming pool and an immaculate green lawn with sun chairs if you like lying around, but more impressive - especially considering the hotel's location right in the middle of town - is the long path that goes around the large apple and pear orchard and then under a tall cherry tree, which was weighed down with fruit during my stay. Wrought iron benches along the way encourage quiet reflection, except for one under the cherry tree which was covered with stains.
There is also an interesting little museum displaying cookery, table settings and menus from the hotel's long history, as well as an engraved throne made from the back left leg of its most famous guest.
Daily Rates: From $180 without breakfast, from $210 with breakfast and from $280 for half board a la carte.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 16/20
Hotel Goldener Adler
Owned by the same family that runs the Finsterwirt (see restaurants below), this 500 year-old hotel located in the heart of the old town has been recently and tastefully renovated, offering modern comfort without sacrificing its historic ambiance. The best rooms have small balconies overlooking the river.
Daily Rates: Singles from $55, doubles from $100
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20
Restaurants in Meran
This lively beer garden, owned and operated by South Tyrol's brewery, is just what you would hope for: good beer and hearty food served in an attractive outdoor courtyard under the shade of large chestnut trees. Dishes include Tiroler Speckknödel, racketball-sized bread dumplings studded with diced bacon ($5); Schlutzkraphen, a ravioli stuffed with cheese, herbs, then drizzled with brown butter ($5.50); and thinly sliced veal fried in beer batter ($15). The menu also recommends beers to accompany a multi-course meal: Pils with the appetizer, a pale beer for the main course, and a double bock with dessert.
Contact: Forsterbräu, Freiheitstrasse 90, 39012 Meran, tel +39/0473/23 65 35, fax +39/0473/21 25 35, open Wednesday-Monday 10am-11pm.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 13/20
Meran also has two notable coffeehouses. Located on a cobblestone plaza next to the river and the former Kurhaus, the Italian-style Café Darling (Winterpromenade 5) has a bar that serves wine made from its own vineyards. Café König (Freiheitstrasse 164), an Austrian-type Kölnditorei, is a grandmotherly sort place to go during the day for coffee and a pastry (open Monday-Saturday 9am-6:30pm).
Restaurants in Brixen
In addition to quality accommodations and a tranquil garden, the Elephant also has an exceptionally good restaurant, which provided the best meal of the trip. The menu features Tyrolean specialties served with a gourmet flair. I began with a plate of flavorful Schlutzkraphen ($12) dusted with freshly grated Parmesan. Next came a delicious pile of sautéed portabello mushroom slices stacked on top of a tender venison steak and bathed in a reduction sauce ($24). Both were a delight.
Accompanying the meal was a very good red wine bottled especially for the hotel by a local vintner. Reserve a table on the terrace during the summer or in the centuries-old tavern room in winter.
Open Tuesday-Sunday, on Monday opened for hotel guests only, noon-2pm and 5pm-10pm.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 15/20
Restaurant-Künstlerstübele Finsterwirt-Oste Scuro
This restaurant has two parts. The first serves rustic Tyrolean cuisine in a pretty, tree-shaded courtyard, or indoors in an attractive tavern. The second part offers a fancier, more refined mix of Tyrolean and international foods upstairs in the richly decorated Künstlerstube.
Tyrolean dishes include a creamy and very delicious wine soup with cinnamon flavored croûtons ($6), tender dumplings filled with mushrooms or spinach ($9) and a heavy venison goulash ($17). International dishes include such fantasies as an appetizer of scallops in Riesling sauce with black band noodles and eggplant cakes ($20) and, as a second course, rack of lamb baked in an herbed potato crust ($22).
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value
Gemütlichkeit highly recommends a visit to the 12th-century Augustine monastery in Neustift, known for its excellent white wine. The scenery is lovely, especially on a walk up the vineyards or along the river leading to the monastery.
Tours can be made of the 18th-century library at select times, and visitors are free any time to wander around the courtyards and visit the church and cloister.
Chorherrenstift wine can be purchased either by the bottle in the small wine shop in front of the monastery, or enjoyed by the glass at a small wine tavern just across the way.
In addition to its white wines - the Sylvaner is particularly good - the monastery also serves a fruity burgundy and a dense, slightly bitter Lagrein, a local grape variety. Simple accompaniments include a board stacked with thinly sliced Speck and brown bread ($8).
Contact: Chorherrenstift Neustift, tel/fax +43/01/36 189, open Monday-Saturday 10am-7pm.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 12/20
An Assembled Meal
One of the best dinners in Tyrol was gathered from small shops in Brixen and enjoyed in the evening on the balcony of my room at the Hotel Elephant. Here's where to go to assemble such a meal.
Wine: Stampfl, Trattengasse 18, tel +39/0472/83 60 01, open Monday-Saturday 9am-1pm and 4pm-10pm. Located on a central, residential street, this basement wine shop offers vintages from all over the world, but specializes in the fine wines produced nearby. A selection of wines by the glass is available at a bar in the back of the store.
Cheese: Casa del Formaggio, Domgasse 4, +39/0472/83 60 68, open Monday-Friday 8am-noon and 2pm-6pm; Saturday 8am-noon. A lovely, well-stocked cheese shop tucked away on a narrow street fragrant with the products sold there. The two venerable Italian women proprietors offer cheeses from throughout Italy, as well as a small assortment of Tyrolean mountain cheeses.
Meat: Schanung, Adlerbrückengasse 3, tel +39/0472/83 62 02, open Mon.-Fri. 8am-noon and 2pm-6pm; Saturday 8am-noon. South Tyrol is justly famous for its Speck (bacon) and Kaminwurz (small string sausages so named because they are traditionally hung to dry over the hearth, which makes it look as if the chimney has sprouted roots). Other than local farmhouses, this local chain of delicatessens is one of the best places to sample these Tyrolean specialties, as they still produce them according to traditional rather than industrial methods. They also sell Graukäse, a rubbery, flavorless cheese that must be an acquired taste.
Fruit and bread: The town's bakeries all seem to live up to the high, local standards, so it's hard to go wrong anywhere. Regional specialties include excellent multi-grain breads and Schüttlebrot, a dry, long lasting bread that I found to be about as enjoyable as hardtack.
There are also many small fruit shops selling perfectly ripe Italian produce.
(Editor's Note: When telephoning Italy from abroad, do not drop the zero before the area code as is the case with other European countries).