“I will make you reach your full potential”, says Erwin, clutching his mini-vans steering wheel with only one hand, going fiercely. His piercing blue eyes are almost never on the road and it adds to our general nervousness about this experience.
“You’ll enjoy yourself and learn how to trust your physical and mental abilities in extreme situations.” I turn around to look at my friends’ faces. They’re all glaring at me. I had promised them a lazy, wholesome spa vacation.
Apart from Juli, who is originally from Munich and thus immediately becomes our simultaneous translator, the rest of us hardly understand Erwins thick Tyrolean dialect. Sophie, our token Australian, just stares into what I assume is the void of German gibberish. South Tyroleans acknowledge English speakers by shouting at them in German and adding “YES?!” after every sentence. Over the course of our vacation, Sophie simply retreats to her mental happy place whenever we’re accompanied by locals.
Erwin is convinced that he can make us defy our fear of heights and general disinterest in any physical activity. Erwin is our Tarzaning guide – he takes groups of people to climb rocks and trees across a beautiful, crystal clear stream in the Passeiertal – and he is really passionate about it. He built his climbing track all by himself. He tells us that he usually takes children and families out, or work departments who want to develop a sense of trust and teamwork.
But I don’t think he’s ever had to deal with 4 stubborn, slightly hungover women, who certainly do NOT want bungee jump off a makeshift suicide course.
Erwin, used to compliant German tourists and power couples, has to endure crying, shouting and cursing women for more than 2 hours. By the time we zipline across the cliff, they all break up with me, as I was responsible for all the “fun activities” on our holiday schedule.
I’m pretty sure Erwin cried himself to sleep that night, too. And that’s how I canceled my big holiday surprise for the girls: paragliding.
Eat, drink, sleep, repeat – Muchele
After the 10 hour car ride from Berlin and the “thrilling” Tarzaning experience, we decided to go full wellness mode.
The quaint and picturesque mountain region of Merano in the Italian Alps is breathtakingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that Merano used to be the place where Austro-Hungarian Habspurg Empire royals and nobility built their second homes. Sounds like my kind of lifestyle.
The nearest travel hubs to Merano are either Verona, Munich or Innsbruck, which explains why tourists in South Tyrol are usually Italians, Bavarians and Austrians (with the occasional Swiss sprinkled on top). Furthermore, the typical visitor is either in an elderly couple or a nuclear family, loves hiking and goes to bed early.
In summary, the absolute polar opposite of us: four (arguably) young women from Berlin who would not describe themselves “adventurous” in their online dating profiles.
We decided to soothe our tormented souls in the renowned MUCHELE wellness hotel. In the typical South Tyrolean fashion, this 4 star hotel effortlessly and elegantly combines tradition with modernity. Everything – from the custom made Moroso furniture to the selection of regional premium wines – is designed with taste and class, but without uncomfortable decadence.
Merano is known for its awareness of architecture and design, and most hotels cater to Europes upper class. Even your hosts might be descendants of royal blood. It doesn’t matter though: at Muchele, for example, you can dine with the head kitchen chef at her kitchen table if you can’t stand another night at the restaurant.
It’s not the first time I experience this very deeply anchored sense of familiarity, friendship and hospitality in Merano, but it keeps surprising me. No wonder Germans love South Tyrol: people here share the same dedication to quality (think German engineering), but without the stiff technicalities (think dinners at your Italian friends’ house).
Modern traditions – Prennanger
No trip to South Tyrol is complete without at least 2 or 3 nights in a mountain cabin. We choose the Mountain Lodge Prennanger.
On the mountain, the definition of luxury is more refined than in a common hotel, as even simple amenities aren’t self-evident. Traditionally, Alpine cabins were merely stop-over shelters for hikers and mountain guides.
But more and more, glamorous mountain cabins in South Tyrol are the reason for traveling so far up. Christoph, our host at Prennanger, tells us that plenty of lodges are in the process of becoming decadent spas and luxury boutique hotels.
“But that’s not what I want for our lodge”, he says. “People visit South Tyrol because they seek the tradition of the mountain. It would be bad for business to change anything about that.” And he repeats the Merano-Mantra, which we had already heard from Tarzan-Erwin before: Germans are the best tourist. All his regulars are German. “Italians, for example, they don’t understand what is so special about our product.” As for other nationalities – there are none.
“We had a few Americans last year, a couple of French. But yeah, it’s Germans all the way.”
Christoph inherited the Prennanger from his parents and wants to stick to the traditional look and feel that people want when they travel to South Tyrol instead of creating another generic, modern high-tech facility. But that doesn’t mean development is on hold: we all agree that Christoph let his guesthouse grow gracefully into something contemporary.
Instead of rustic, dark wood, the new rooms are furnished with a light and friendly oak. The balconies are spacious, and dinners lean to the fresh and delightful Italian side rather than the typical mountain fare.
Naturally, the view is phenomenal.
Will hike for food – Gompm Alm
Speaking of simple, but high quality things: Christoph recommends the Gompm Alm. “It’s the next level of gourmet mountain food”, he says. We take the cable car up the mountain, then hike for another hour to have breakfast at Gompm Alm.
But breakfast isn’t the right word for the opulent, first class fine dining menu that awaited us. Gompm Alm owner Heli prides himself in having some of the best ingredients and chefs of the Alps, and it’s hard to disagree. Every dish is made to perfection: the delicious bread, the butter, the porridge, the ham, the croissants. The gourmet breakfast of the Gompm Alm has 3 (in words: three) courses, including dessert.
“This ham comes from one of only four pigs”, Heli explains. “My friend gave me two of the pigs. The ham had to hang for three years, it is premium. When it’s gone, there will be nothing like it anymore.”
Like Christoph, Heli wants to steer away from the dusty image of the mountains while preserving its cultures. The quality of the food is as close to fine dining as you can get with Knödel and Kaiserschmarren.
Our day was a total write-off after that. We rolled back down to Prennanger, just as a storm came up. A perfect excuse to simply enjoy the lightning and thunder, followed by another bottle and another dinner and another mumbled threat (“Swear Sara if I have to eat one more thing on this trip I will kill you”).
Mediterrano Merano – L’Alessandra
But back in Merano, it’s still storming. Although set in a micro-climate with approximately 300 sunny days per year, the rains follow us wherever we go. Merano is otherwise an amazingly tropical place, with palm trees flanking the picturesque fin-de-sieclé architecture.
But we aren’t lucky this time. The town is flooded for a couple of hours, so we retreat to our suite at the beautiful Bergmann Villa and wait for dinner time.
Here, away from the mountains, life feels decidedly Italian. Pasta Vongole, mi amore. At L’Alessandra, the menus have pictures and are laminated with plastic, the waiters shout at you in Italian and everything is oddly messy. I feel like actually being in Italy for the first time: I don’t understand anything and there’s a lot of pasta on the menu. And so we eat again.
Battered and fattened, we drive back to Berlin the next day – or rather, we stop and go through congested holiday traffic.
While driving, I think about how much those regular visits to the South Tyrolean mountains have changed my perspective on traveling. More and more, I consider destinations to be products of different values. That doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but a holiday usually isn’t: it’s something that needs to be well chosen and planned, it costs money and it’s always challenging to get the right balance of spontaneity and predictability.
Like weddings, holiday plans have a reputation for breaking even the tightest couples apart.
Merano is an exceptionally high quality product, not just because of its incredible landscapes and unique climate. Everyone we meet is actively engaged in improving the country and the experience of guests. From hospitality to design, from cultural values to regional produce. It’s this mentality that keeps the country beautiful and regulars returning.
I am excited to see if (and when) South Tyrol will be discovered by travelers from beyond Europe, and how palpable the changes will be then.
As for me, I’m already planning my next trip.