Our holiday in South Tyrol: Beautiful Merano

Merano in South Tyrol entices with Italian charm and a whisper of la dolce vita, while treating the body to mineral-rich thermal waters and a healthy Mediterranean climate.

The banks of the river are luscious and leafy, as if summer has just burst into bloom and isn't just about to draw to a close. And it is a river, but as it burbles along, tumbling over boulders rising from the bed, it more resembles a brook. Arranged on either side is a regal tangle of pastel-coloured villas, archways, church spires and city gates. Beyond, swollen green mountains rise and fall into the distance like the crests of a rolling sea.

We are in Merano, South Tyrol's famous spa resort, to experience, well, what else? The thermal baths. Our drive here from Sulden, high in the Stilfserjoch National Park, brought us through the Vinschgau region's orchards, where apples dangled from branches as far as the eye could see. The scenery quickly changed from romantically Alpine to pristinely rolling. Our visit couldn't have been better timed, with me suffering from exhaustion due to excessive hiking at an altitude my body isn't used to. 

The thermal baths, which contain warm radon-rich water to help cure ailments including pain and rheumatism, are visually stunning: like an art gallery, with high steel-framed glass walls encircled by lawns and filled with buckets of natural light. The indoor pools reach up to 37 degrees Celsius, and feel heavenly, while outside, there is a 35-degrees-Celsius salt bath that allows us to enjoy the clean air. Our spa visit is rounded off by full-body massages in a beautiful neutral-toned panoramic room, and we both feel so relaxed we could nod off afterwards.

Strolling around Merano later, we discover a city that looks a bit like Innsbruck but has a more refined character with a touch of Italian flair. The former capital of the Tyrol, it came to prominence as a Kurort in the 1870s thanks to Kaiserin Sissi, who holidayed here to benefit from the Mediterranean climate. Merano enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year, and thanks to protection from the Texel mountains, palms and cypress flourish. It's a good 10 degrees Celsius warmer than Sulden today, and feels deliciously healthy for the joints and skin. 

In the alleyways, stylish boutiques occupy the spaces under the Lauben (archways). Along the riverside promenade, frothy greenery cascades around elegantly clad gentlefolk out for a stroll. It's a joy for the senses: sweet smells, frescoes, shuttered facades and al-fresco diners. We lunch on excellent pizzas at Hellweger's, off a pretty courtyard in the centre - easy-energy carbs are just the thing for exhaustion - and later settle in a 1930s-style cafe with a polished wood counter full of cakes for a heisse Zitrone and an explosion of cream, pear and sponge cake. 

On our way back to the car, we pass a beautiful organic shop in which to buy our groceries. Pur Alps is an initiative dedicated to South Tyrolean produce that sells berries, sourdough bread, ginger chocolate, no-nasties sausages, herby Sauerkraut ... and sugar and spice and all things nice.  Our bags are fit to burst as we leave. 

The Mediterranean climate seems to have done me good, and filled up on carbs with muscles loosened by the spa, my energy levels have started to lift. How charming that in one holiday you can combine tough, chilly high-altitude with easy peasy la dolce vita.


Sulden, South Tyrol: A holiday at blissful high altitude

Sulden sits in the lap of South Tyrol's highest mountain, Ortler, and charms with yak-filled meadows, a healthy moderate altitude and panoramic walks to invigorate the senses.

We leave Zurich in the rain and it's rain that greets us in Sulden, but the damp doesn't deter from the views on our four-hour journey from Switzerland to South Tyrol, Italy. The Flüela Pass is magical - high, grassy flanks strewn with boulders climbing on each side of the road to snow-dusted peaks - before we drop into Val Müstair, where sweet tangles of sgraffito-decorated houses, all stocky shaped, snuggle together against the cold. Further on, it's bright green in the Vinschgau, and the roadsides lined with orchards dangling red and green apples. Up and into Val di Solda (Suldental), in the heart of the Stilfserjoch National Park, the thickly woven pines are glistening wet. Our base for the next two weeks is in Sulden, at the top of the valley: Mountain Chalet Eberhöfer, and it looks deeply appealing with temperatures now topping out at 10 degrees Celsius. Inside, it's all white paintwork against oak and monochrome historic canvases, with fur throws and a cosy Stube. It faces the region's highest mountain - Ortler (3,905m) - currently lost somewhere in the tightly laced cloud. In the meadow below, yaks brought here by mountaineer Reinhold Messner (who grew up in South Tyrol) are grazing, great hairy beasts with tails like feather dusters.

The next day, rain is still tumbling. Pitter patter. But we venture out, walking past the yaks and Sulden's small collection of ski-resort-essential sports shops and hotels until we climb into woodland on the Kulturpanoramaweg, which leads to a suspension bridge crossing a billowing waterfall. The rocky terrain is peppered with rosebay willowherb, and the Arolla pines, larches and chestnut trees are bustling with red and black squirrels and nutcrackers busily seeking seeds. En-route there are different activities to help connect to nature - wooden chimes, a telescope and a barefoot path. It's too wet for that today, but the air alone feels beautifully good: it's reported that Sulden's moderate altitude of around 2,000 metres above sea level helps the body build more blood cells and can support the thyroid by activating the metabolism.

Overnight, the cloud loosens to reveal an irresistibly gorgeous morning: Ortler has been dusted in snow, its bookshelf-like ridges of mighty dolomite rock polished by sunlight. But to ease our acclimatisation, we drive down into the Vinschgau valley, where blooming orchards are severed by the aquamarine River Etsch, for a tour of medieval Glurns, South Tyrol's smallest city. A once important customs post, it is charmingly enclosed by turreted walls that have at times protected it from battles and floods, and features artfully converted barns, white-painted archways and stocky farmhouses with deep sunken windows. In 1519, it held a remarkable trial, in which local farmers called for the removal of the city's mice, but the latter were granted a lawyer who fought for them to be awarded a safe retreat. Later, we munch locally made Palabirnenbrot (spice bread that is juicy with the region's oldest variety of pears) in the shade of trees close to Lichtenberg, a 13th century castle built by the counts of Tyrol. It is a grand golden ruin, with the remains of elaborate frescoes and halls that would once have been filled with Minnesang.

The mountains around Sulden are excellent for high-altitude walking, though a little limited for easier, non-mountaineering type routes. We nevertheless find a slew of favourites. One day we walk from the Langenstein chair lift station across moraine beneath the North Face of Ortler to the Taberettahütte (2556m), where we enjoy an Apfelstrudel on the sun-baked terrace. All around, rocky flanks are ablaze with Alpine bearberry, its leaves glowing cranberry like hot embers. In every distance, mountains slumber in a blue haze. High above, the Julius Peyer Hut, which marks the start of the final climb to Ortler's summit, looks like the battlements of a Cathar Castle amid rocky towers.

Another route takes us to the Hintergrathütte, with a climb over moraine - plod, plod, gasp, gasp - to a path that is, in my book, perfect: high, panoramic, sheer and flat. It threads along precipitously amid Sulden's shell of peaks, all snow-dusted and magnificent, and pours out at the hut, sitting vulnerable among creaking, moaning ice-blue and pewter-coloured glaciers. We order a plateful of sweet, doughy Kaiserschmarrn for our efforts and at the end of the route, treat our feet to a Kneipp bath in Sulden's 'Bärenbad' park - it's shockingly cold, but fires up the circulation and leaves our feet feeling as if they have had a massage.

Then there is Rosimboden, on the other side of the valley. A basin of pure gushing streams, whistling marmots and bright rosebay willowherb, it overlooks the theatre of Ortler, Zebru and Königsspitz - a trio of summits as spectacular as Switzerland's Jungfraujoch. All three are almost 4,000 metres high, and have glaciers tumbling down their steely dolomite flanks like scarves. Tim alone braves the climb to the Düsseldorfer Hut (2,721m) and higher to the summit of Hinteres Schöneck (3,128m). I, meanwhile, meditate on the mountains: the grass beside our terrace dances in the breeze; cow bells jangle among the Arolla pines; the sun gilds Ortler, while loose cloud tangles and releases the summit like a whimsy silk tie caught in a breeze. Particularly charming is that our friendly landlady, Hanna, comes by later that day with some homemade apricot cake - yum.


We find sensory contrast, too. The Tscharser Waalweg in the Vinschgau is the prettiest of South Tyrol's so-called Waalwege, or routes that follow irrigation channels built by farmers as early as the 13th century. It first climbs through Tschars' shaded village squares, before navigating orchards into woodland of the storybook variety. Oak and chestnut trees with curving trunks design vertical calligraphy high into the sky. Tumbling sun-splashed greenery shelters the fungi-entangled path. The water gushing along the irrigation channel like rapids in a theme park lends welcome cool. Soon, the sandy turrets of Schloss Juval - Reinhold Messner's summer residence - come into view, before we drop past a meadow of geese, ducks and ducklings to Schloss Wirtschaft for lunch. A barn hung with antlers, it dishes up organic, home grown produce in traditional South Tyrolean dishes. My spinach dumplings are served on a bed of salad and bright edible flowers, and are stodgily delicious. The nutty buckwheat cake layered with cranberry jam that follows is equally scrumptious. There's one more treat before we head off: a little bell on the irrigation channel, which once warned the keeper of the Waal when water levels fell too low, wishes us goodbye with a most charming chime.

Back in the mountains the following day, we view Ortler from Trafoi. The summit's appearance is no less mighty - and perhaps even more so - from this time-worn village in the parallel valley to Sulden on the road that switchbacks to the Stilfserjoch. Ortler bookends one extreme of an immense flank of Alpine wall made up of glaciers between sheets of steel grey, so distant, cold and impenetrable. It is an 18-minute journey by chair lift to the Furkel Hut, where we start our walk along a stretch of the Italian Front from World War One. Pillbox remains stand silhouetted against the magnificent mountain wallpaper. We continue towards Stilfser Alm, and find ourselves amid an end-of-summer descent of cows from the high Alpine pastures (Almabtrieb), then later sit on the terrace at Furkel Hut watching what may be a bearded vulture - they were recently reintroduced to the National Park - gliding on the eddies.

Another new perspective on Ortler comes on the shores of Haidersee in Obervinschgau. Seen from this wide green plateau, the mighty summit rises in a sky churning like concrete. It's superbly tranquil here, as we stroll the lake's parametres on boardwalks, though the air feels heavy with imminent rain. Great-crested grebes dip and dive on the petrol-blue water, which has a silver sheen like sealskin. We spent the morning in Mals - famous for its five towers dating from the 11th century and, like many of the towns in the valley, charmingly untouristy with workaday cafes and pretty farmhouse homes in place of twee eateries and boutique hotels - then later continue to Reschensee, a reservoir created in the 1950s by drowning Glauns. All that remains of the village is its church spire, protruding from the bright turquoise depths in an almost optical illusion, in equal parts eerie and beautiful.

Our holiday ends with a fantastic visit to a Schafabtrieb in nearby Stilfs, a tangle of bone-white farmhouses dangling from the steep valley. An event held to celebrate the bringing down of the sheep from the high Alpine pastures, the Abtrieb is an important part of local culture. In a woodland clearing, we find pens full of sheep, jumping, tumbling and jostling; locals with their elbows crooked on the fences, watching the goings-on as if at market day; and farmers amid the woolly masses, selecting one at a time for shearing.

Two weeks have passed in a blur of clear air, perfect quiet and almost uninhibited sunshine. We feel healthy and well fed, having dined on crisp locally grown apples and organic produce from the region (there is an excellent organic shop in Prad, around 20 minutes from Sulden). On our last evening, we sit on our terrace until the sun plops behind Ortler and dusk descends over Sulden. The mountains are sleeping now, waiting for another day. They look mighty, and menacing, in this darkening light, their glaciers freezing on their shoulders. I'm reminded of a beautiful quote from Sulden's Mountain Museum Messner Ortles, a Reinhold Messner project with an underground cavern full of mountain art, Alpine equipment and avalanche sound effects:

"Ice is a living thing: pack ice drifts, glaciers flow, icebergs melt, crevasses open, avalanches descend and ice falls cascade." MMM Ortles

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