Whoever coined the word “breathtaking” must have done it somewhere on the road between Bressanone and Bolzano, Italy. Blanketed in lush vegetation, craggy rock formations tower above the winding road just a hundred meters on either side. You might think you’re driving through a rainforest in Equador or the Fiordland in New Zealand until the noble Säben Cloister rises out of the vineyards in Chiusa. This area was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful places and was settled as early as 4000 BC.
But these are mere hills compared to what’s coming. You’re entering the Dolomites of South Tyrol, Italy, which were recently added to the list of Natural World Heritage sites. Dolomite—a sparkling pink, white or gray stone that makes magic with the setting sun—is found around the world, but here in South Tyrol there are literally mountains of this magic stuff.
The Germans, Austrians, Swiss and Italians are lucky to have this treasure at their doorsteps, but if you’re traveling from outside Europe, it’s a bit more difficult to get here. You could fly into Milan or Venice, but then you wouldn’t have that stunning drive from Austria through the Brenner Pass. To experience South Tyrol’s magnificence to its fullest, fly into my hometown, Munich, rent a car with GPS and drive to South Tyrol. It will only take about three hours—the same time it would take from Milan.
If you travel late spring to early fall, spend a couple of days in Munich recuperating from the flight. Kick back in one of my city’s many biergartens. Visit the Deutsches Museum if you’re interested in technology, take a walk along the Isar river, and then enjoy Munich’s vibrant nightlife in Schwabing.
The next morning, explore the quaint streets of the Altstadt. That intoxicating fragrance coming from every corner bakery is pretzels fresh from the oven. Grab a warm one or have a “Butterbrez’n” (my favorite) and head to the English Garden, one of Europe’s largest city parks. Go window-shopping along the exclusive shopping street Maximilianstrasse. Or shop in the world’s most frequented pedestrian zone, “Die Fussgängerzone: Kaufingerstrasse.” For most budgets, Munich is a perfect place to start a tour of southern Germany, Tyrol, Alsace, Switzerland, and South Tyrol.
Once you’re rested, hire your car, set your navigation system for Meran/Merano, Italy. After you’ve gone through the Brenner toll barrier (€8, credit cards accepted), get your camera ready. If you don’t say “Wow!” at least a couple of times before you get to Bolzano, then for goodness sake wake up.
At Bolzano, the road flattens out to a straight “fast” road to Merano. Settled by the Romans in 35 BC, this “Mediterranean village” is nestled in a basin at the entrance to three valleys and is stunning from any angle: the snow-capped pink and gray mountains in the distance, the Tyrolean village in the foreground, flowers and palm trees everywhere. With chalets and apple orchards, as well as the meticulously groomed botanical garden that winds up the promenade along the Passer river, the village is a living postcard.
Merano’s main attraction, arguably, is the 30-acre Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens located on the southern outskirts of the village and well worth a visit at any price. Expect to spend most of the day exploring the paths that wind in and out of themed gardens and up the mountain to two observation platforms. You don’t want to miss this view.
Back in the center of Merano, the attractions are the modern thermal spa and the promenade where the locals socialize (and eat tons of gelato). If you like being in the middle of the action, grab a table at a café in the center; if you want a bit more privacy, walk a few hundred yards upriver where the restaurants and cafés are more sedate. Once you’ve found your perfect place to relax, you’ll ask yourself what that orange drink in the red wine glass is that all the South Tyroleans are drinking. It’s a Veneziano: a refreshing mix of aperol, prosecco and sparkling mineral water. Or try the local beer, Forst, which is brewed right around the corner from Merano.
The village is famous for its year-round calendar of cultural events. From horseracing in the spring to the Merano Jazz Festival in July. The town is a cultural mecca for young and old around the world. In the middle of June, Asfaltart turns the entire old town into a stage for countless performance artists.
But that’s just half the year. South Tyrol is also famous for its wines and its culinary tradition—more Austrian than Italian. If you’re a food and a wine lover, the Merano Wine Festival at the end of October/beginning of November is the place to be in Europe to enjoy fresh ideas in European cuisine.
If you brought your hiking boots, strap them on and head up the mountain over Dorf Tirol a few miles from Merano. The hike will take you between two and three hours depending on your condition; the cable car will take just a few minutes regardless of how fit you are. Either way, at the mountain hut near the top you’ll be rewarded with great—and reasonably priced—Tyrolean food: braised lamb and soft cheese from the restaurant’s own farm, as well as fresh, surprisingly interesting salads. The small mixed salad for around three euros was so good and varied I ordered a second one. Be sure and try a “Vinschgauer,” a traditional rye sourdough bread spiced up with fennel, caraway, fenugreek and coriander.
Need more mountains? South Tyrol boasts more than 13,000 kilometers of trails for hikers, from hobby to hardcore. You could spend your holiday soaking in the natural beauty of the Dolomites and then drive back to Munich by way of Bolzano, Bressanone and Chiusa (for a second look at this amazing landscape). Or you could integrate your visit to South Tyrol into a tour of northern Italy. Lake Garda, Verona and Venice are just a few hours’ drive away.