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.

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