To get here, you can take a train from Milan or Venice (through nearby Bolzano) or you can drive up from either city in 2-3 hours. If you'd rather come over from Austria or Switzerland, it's a gorgeous 2-hour drive through the Alps, with vistas of cows or sheep grazing in lush meadows, 16th-century monasteries and solitary chapels, teensy weensy hillside villages and myriad bridges flung across raging mountain streams. Several of the latter come together to form the lively Passirio River, which runs right through the heart of Merano.
You will enter the old town through three 13th-century gates, about all that remains of the original city walls. Just inside one of these, Porta Venosta, is Piazza del Grano, site of a wonderful outdoor market where you can see the luscious fruits and vegetables grown in the valley. From here starts Via Portici, Merano's main street. Off-limits to cars, it is lined on both sides by pastel-colored buildings, interspersed with five medieval drinking fountains. You can step inside the private courtyards to see how the architects solved the problem of getting sunlight into the otherwise dark homes. The sidewalks here are sheltered by 900-year-old porticos to keep rain, snow and hot sun off anyone strolling or pausing at an outdoor café or restaurant. Nestled beneath those porticos is a wide assortment of shops. Our favorites without a doubt are the salumeria, which feature an astonishing array of local sausages, salamis and cured meats. Remember, Merano is in Alto Adige (also known as South Tyrol), a region that was Austrian until 1918. German is still the language of choice here, and the delicious food is influenced more by Innsbruck than by Imola.
If you turn briefly off Via Portici onto Via Cassa di Risparmio, just a block
away is the Castello Principesco, considered one of the best-preserved and
most interesting castles in Alto Adige (which may be the Italian region that
has more ancient fortifications than any other). Built in the 15th century,
it has often been home to royal families, including Ferdinand I of Austria,
who brought his court here to wait out an epidemic raging to the north. Like
many mountain strongholds, it is hardly a Versailles, but rather a somber,
rustic fortress which looks exactly as it would have 500 years ago.
Of course, like any self-respecting Italian town, Merano has its Duomo (cathedral).
However, like most of the buildings, it has a decidedly northern appearance.
Erected between the 13th and 14th centuries, it is clearly Gothic in style
and features some great examples of the primitive wall frescoes that are
indigenous to alpine churches. Inside, the wooden altar is a 16th-century
masterpiece: this type of intricately carved and delicately painted composition
of figures and settings is very typical hereabouts, and you will find stunning
specimens in almost every church or chapel (notably the Last Supper in the
church of Santa Barbara, the Holy Family manger scenes in the church of Santo
Spirito, Saint Ursula and the Virgins in the church of San Giorgio in Scena
and perhaps most memorable of all, in the nearby town of Lana di Sotto, stories
from the life of Jesus in the church of Assunta).
Between the Duomo and Porta Passiria is a tiny neighborhood called Steinach. Here you will find ancient whitewashed houses joined by arches hung above the sidewalk-less streets. Pretty bas-relief sculptures and colorful flowerboxes are about the only embellishments, so that you can really feel you've stepped back in time when you enter here. 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 locals' favorite way to enjoy the flowers, the river and the views
is to take a stroll along the Merano Promenades. An impressive case of wise
urban planning, these are paved sidewalks lined with benches that lead from
the heart of the city to the wilderness of its outskirts, in only a few minutes.
The Passeggiata Lungo Passirio splits into two paths, the Summer Promenade
and the Winter Promenade (which are both available year-round, by the way!).
The former wends its way beneath gigantic shade trees, and the latter leads
past a covered Art Déco portico lined with original paintings and ends
up at the feet of an ancient castle, where you can admire a rock garden, waterfalls,
ponds and streams. Here the Passirio River thunders beneath a 16th-century
bridge nicknamed ponte romano because of its shape. A longer walk is along
the Passeggiata Tappeiner, which leaves the city center and wends its way upward
through more gardens to the base of Mount Benedetto.
Apart from its breathtaking setting and perfectly maintained town center, Merano really became a famous vacation destination in the 1930s, when the local waters were discovered to have very unique healing powers. Overnight a spa industry blossomed and thrived here. Of course, in those days the spa business was centered around "taking the waters," which involved imbibing and soaking in smelly liquids for a prescribed number of days – something we would find pretty unappealing! But today we know that those same waters can be used to prepare miraculous beauty treatments such as facials and massages, so a world-class state-of-the-art spa center opened in December of 2005, offering yet another reason to take a healthy break from your marathon vacation. During many months of the year, you can also enjoy an unusually busy schedules of musical events in the Kurhaus, widely considered to be the loveliest concert hall in the Alps; as well as folklore evenings along the Promenades. Two big draws are the International Wine Festival held every year in early November (featuring the local stars as well as vintages from almost every country in the world) and the month-long December Christmas Market (where dozens and dozens of merchants sell colorful local handcrafts from outdoor stalls).
Even if you can't make it for the Wine Festival, which runs simultaneously
with Culinaria, where you can taste the local food specialties, you should
still be sure to try to the local vintages while you're here. Although
Alto Adige produces just 7% of Italy's wine, the region won 18 prestigious
wine awards in 2004. The secret is a wine-growing savoir-faire that dates back
3000 years, a micro-climate that guarantees 300 days of annual sunshine, and
varying altitudes from the hot valley floor to cool, vine-covered slopes as
high as 3000 feet above sea level. Choose from full-bodied reds or delicate,
fragrant whites, but don't forget to try the aromatic grape variety for
which the region is known: Gewürtraminer.
One very entertaining way to see the area is by funivia, or aerial tramway. These abound, and range from the big gondola type all the way down to wire cages for one or two people each. One of the latter, called a cabinovia, goes from Lagundo up to the Alpi di Tessa, soaring rather terrifyingly (but safely!) over countless quaint alpine farms and a little white chapel. Whether you reach these dizzying heights by aiming your car upwards along an unknown dirt road, or stepping into a funivia or cabinovia, or taking a bus excursion, we urge you to do it, for you will be rewarded by some of the best views in the world, no matter what time of year you choose to visit Merano.
By Kristin Jarratt
Merano: The Facts
There is now an airport in nearby Bolzano.
Buses arrive in Merano from all over northern Italy. Click here for a very helpful website with information ranging from cable car to long-range coach. There is also a shuttle bus from Munich, which runs every Saturday from March to November.
Rail connections exist from all points in Italy, as well as from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Click here for timetables and reservations.
On Tuesdays and Fridays there is an outdoor market in Via IV Novembre, next to the rail station. Via Galilei is the site of the farmers' market on Saturday mornings.
If you are here in the summer and you're interested in brewing, you can visit the Birreria Forst, where one of Europe's most successful beers is made. It combines the world's most modernistic brewery and a picturesque setting in a pretty 19th-century castle. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Castello Principesco is open April-October, Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-12 and 2-6 p.m., and 9 a.m.-12 on Saturdays.
If you don't mind walking for about half an hour, Castel Tirolo is truly worth a visit. Not only is it a perfectly preserved medieval fortress, but it contains a fascinating historical museum and offers breathtaking views from its perch halfway up the mountain right outside town. Open March 16-November 30, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. You can drive or take a bus to the little hamlet of Tirol and from there, the walk is clearly marked.
The Christmas Market opens on the last Sunday in November and is open daily 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Food and drink stands, offering hot mulled wine and spiced cakes, stay open an hour longer, and everything is even open on December 24, until 3 p.m. It is closed on December 25 but reopens again December 26-30.
The Botanical Gardens are at Via S. Valentino 51a and can be reached by car or by train city bus from Merano station (#4 or #1B). They are open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (March 15-May 14 and September 16-November 15) and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (May 15-September 15). Tel. 0473/258-819 or visit their website.