Part III of V: Merano – A Visit to the Rooftop of Italy
Each year the Italian Tribune brings the Publisher’s Tour to our readers. Buddy and Marion Fortunato have made many visits to Italy and over the next several weeks, we will feature segments of this year’s fascinating tour. With each journey by the travelers, the sights and culture of the places visited are retold. They bring to you reviews of restaurants and places to stay. You’ll learn about historic figures, the cuisine of different regions and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty that permeates the world’s most exciting country.
Merano – Italy’s Northern City of Flowers
The next stop on the Publisher’s Tour took the travelers to the far north of Italy and the region of Trentino Alto Adige. Known for its glorious mountain peaks, the region forms the border between Italy and both Austria and Switzerland. It is located high in the Alps and Dolomites of the northeast corner of the Italian peninsula. Its territory stretches from the Adamello-Brenta Range and the peaks of Ortles and Cevedale to the most striking mountains in Europe – the Dolomites of the Fassa Valley, Brenta, the Gardena, Fiemme Valleys and Pale di San Martino.
In the province of Bolzano in the South Tyrol is the picturesque town of Merano. It is one of the most northern towns in Italy, situated a mere ten miles south of the Austrian border, at the entrance to the Passeier Valley.
In such an alpine setting, those who do not know Merano are often surprised to find that it is called the “City of Flowers.” Although Merano is completely surrounded by snowy peaks that reach dizzying heights of over 10,000 feet, the town sits in a lush valley at an altitude of only 1,000 feet, creating a sort of Italian Shangri-La. The difference, of course, is that Merano is no myth. The air feels crystal clear and the Rococo-style streets have little vehicular traffic, yet all around are flowers, in beds, pots and window boxes.
Although it provides an easy drive to the excellent downhill slopes, cross-country trails and hiking paths, Merano’s sheltered climate keeps it mild in winter and cool during the summer. When the Publisher’s Tour visited in late October, everyone was delighted by the beautiful weather. The people are friendly, the food is hearty and the wine is renowned.
The old town is entered through one of three 13th century gates. At Porta Venosta, you will immediately find yourself in the lovely Piazza del Grano, the site of a wonderful outdoor market. It takes only a minute to stop and pick luscious fruit that was grown right there in the valley. The piazza also marks the beginning of Via Portici, Merano’s main street. Since it is off-limits to cars and buses, the travelers made their way through the streets on foot, which was the best way to take in pastel-colored buildings, beautiful grounds and numerous medieval fountains. The sidewalks are sheltered by 900-year-old porticos to keep rain, sun and winter snow off those strolling the streets. Although the porticoes were not necessary during the group’s stay, nestled beneath are a wide assortment of shops and this provided plenty of interesting stops and window shopping.
Turning onto Via Cassa di Risparmio, just a block away is Castello Principesco, considered one of the best-preserved and most interesting castles in Alto Adige. Built in the 15th century, it has often been home to royal families. Like many mountain strongholds, it is rather a somber, rustic fortress, but it appears today exactly as it would have over 500 years ago.
The Duomo of Merano has a decidedly northern appearance. Erected between the 13th and 14th centuries, it is Gothic in style and features outstanding examples of wall frescoes that are very different in style than are found in the more populous areas of northern and central Italy.
Between the Duomo and Porta Passiria is a tiny neighborhood called Steinach. At the far end of this quarter is the crenellated Torre della Polvere, which you can climb to gain a wonderful view of the whole town, the vast valley, and the surrounding peaks.
The group spent time at the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle, a museum and botanical garden nestled into an ancient amphitheater. The castle had been the summer residence of Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) of Austria and contains the South Tyrol Museum of Tourism. But the real attractions are the gardens. Arranged as different themed landscapes, with more than 80 in all, the colorful plants from around the world thrive and bloom. A walk through the various gardens is exhilarating. On the southern slope is the sun garden, with meandering walking paths leading up the hill and offering spectacular views of the surrounding Alps. Below the castle is Italy’s northernmost olive grove and the gnarled silhouette of a 700-year-old specimen makes quite an impression. During the summer, thousands of sunflowers bloom. There are even succulents from the Mediterranean, including cactus, aloe and agave.
Not to be missed is the water garden and terraces. Stairs and water features connect the various levels, but the star attractions are the carefully manicured boxwood, geometric plantings and maze that evoke a classic Italian Renaissance garden, uncharacteristically set amid the Alpine landscape.
Merano became a famous vacation destination in the 1930s, when the local waters were discovered to have unique healing powers. Overnight a spa industry blossomed and thrived here. Today those same waters are used to prepare beauty treatments such as facials and massages and a world-class, state-of-the-art spa center opened in December of 2005, offering yet another reason to take a vacation to Merano.
No visit to Merano would be complete without time spent exploring the area around the town. The travelers found it remarkable how different the climate became when traveling only a few miles from their hotel, the magnificent Hotel Park Mignon & Spa. Just across the river in Maia Alta were lush gardens and impressive castles. The highlight was viewing the area by way of the funivia or aerial tramway. There are many that surround Merano which range from large gondolas to ski lift-type seats; the view from the top afforded some of the most incredible views imaginable. Even though the Publisher’s Tour visited Merano in October, there is no wrong time to visit Italy’s own Shangri-La.