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).