For the past two years, I’ve been repeatedly invited to discover the beauty and individuality of the South Tyrolean landscape, culture and cuisine under the direction of the Merano region and as part of the #meetmerano campaign. Every time I make the journey, I feel as if coming back home, and yet there’s always something new to explore, and plenty of first times for me (like paragliding and tarzaning).
On my most recent trip to the Merano region in January, I decided to try skiing for the first time. Luckily, we enjoyed plenty of (real) snow during our stay – maybe even more than we asked for.
Skiing in the valley of Ulten
Our first stop was in the quaint Ulten region. Its a very small district of Merano, and the valley, shaped like a cul-de-sac, is still pretty sleepy in comparison to other winter sports centers. Here, on the Schwemmalm slopes and with our lighthearted ski-instructor Herbert, I fought my way through dense fog and snowstorms and actually learned how to ski in like, 3 hours. And I wasn’t even half bad at it, although I was 100% aware of my imminent death. Well, the good news is that I made it and I wasn’t even like super bad at it. (I may have to add that this particular ski region is especially great for families and their children, and my self-esteem definitely took a hit seeing effortless snowboard stunts performed by 2 year olds while I was, well, perpetually dying on my skis.)
Herbert and pretty much everyone else on the slopes were rooting for their ski superstar Dominik Paris, an Ulten native who was then competing at the world cup in Austria’s Kitzbühel. While everyone feverishly watched the screens at lunchtime, I suddenly felt empowered, and grateful, and somehow like I’d always been a part of the Paris’ fan club. Like when you suddenly transcend from the pure role as a visitor, a stranger who just dips into a foreign culture for their own purpose, to someone who’s part of a bigger thing; who becomes friends with their hosts, and starts looking at things from the inside. “Winter sports is our thing”, says Herbert. “Skiing is part of most lives here, and we’re always proud of our kids when they make it up on the big screens.”
I’m definitely going skiing again.
During our visit in the Ultental, we stayed at the family-run Waltershof hotel, which has expanded over years to include a very impressive spa with many saunas, indoor pools and a heated jacuzzi al fresco.
We immediately fell in love with the spacious rooms and the regional materials used for the interior design (especially the wood). But it was the spa, indeed, that made us rejoice: after a soothing massage, we hung out in the various landscapes of relaxation, with stunning panoramas across the valley. During one of our jacuzzi sessions, we met Victoria and Hannes, two next door neighbors who were celebrating their 10 year anniversary at the hotel’s spa. “It’s very convenient to have such an amazing place in the village, especially because locals get special deals”, Hannes says. Both are in their twenties and tell us a little bit more about the life in the valley of Ulten, about learning how to ski on the Schwemmalm slopes, about playing music in the village’s big band orchestra, and about partying really, really hard with the owners of the Waltershof.
“You wouldn’t believe the parties we’ve had here”, Victoria laughs. To me, it seems so odd – but also really refreshing – to be in a hotel, as a tourist, and to actually meet locals.
“Oh no, we do like to travel away from here – far away, actually. New Zealand, Australia”, they explain. “Most South Tyroleans go to the beach in the summer, but in the winter, if it’s snowing, then the best place to be is here.”
Considering the amazing vistas, it’s kinda hard to disagree.
4* Waltershof Erlebnishotel, Dorf 59, 39016 Saint Nikolaus, Bozen, Italien; can be booked summers and winters with half board deals, wifi and spa; website
The winter sports center Schwemmalm is only 3,5 km from the hotel; lunch recommendation: Innere Schwemmalm (2000 meters), 10-20 minute hike from the Kuppelwies funicular
Eating out at the Raffeinhof
South Tyrol’s cuisine isn’t a secret anymore – nowhere else in the European alps will you find the typically hearty cuisine of the mountains as fine and qualitative as here. And booking at a star-spangled restaurant isn’t required to enjoy a festive (and affordable) meal; all it takes is the high quality produce, meat and dairy of the local farms to give you an idea of what great food is.
Granted, you will have to like pasta in any variant, and it helps if you enjoy cheese and meats (and butter, lots and lots of butter). At the Raffeinhof, the simplicity of native South Tyrolean food – from the classic Knödel to a juicy beef gulash – is completely homemade by a lovely couple who’s discovered their passion for agriculture after they retired from their jobs as teachers. Franz Kaserer tells us about how his family is the backbone of his new calling as farmer, cook and innkeeper. “Don’t even think about doing something like this if you don’t have a family to count on. It’s tough work.”
But his endurance is paying off: the Raffeinhof, although still an “underground” establishment – not many tourists make the pilgrimage from Merano, and the whole of Ulten only has 1000 beds, so it’s rather quiet around here – has been featured time and time again in the top rankings of the “Red Rooster” brochure, which is “the Michelin star of South Tyrol.” Inns and farms are strictly monitored for their authenticity, quality and certain standards (no advertising for big name brands, only certain opening times, etc).
And what can I say? It was definitely one of the best meals I’ve had in South Tyrol, so there must be something to it.
Reach the Raffeinhof at Raffein 467 St., St. Walburg, Bozen, Italien – definitely make reservations, as opening times aren’t transparent. telephone: +39 348 312 4887; for more ideas on where to eat high quality South Tyrolean food, visit the Red Rooster website; for combination “food tours” (usually longer hikes), download the Echte Qualität am Berg app that will guide you through the best hiking routes with recommended food stops on the way
Exploring the Schnalstal
I’ve already summed up our 4 day lockdown in a mountain cabin on the Schnalstal glacier in another, more elaborate posting, but there’s more than getting caught in a blizzard to this particular valley.
For example: the wonderful Tonzhaus, an idyllic hotel with a natural spa and an infinity pool with an uncontested view across the valley. The family-run establishment has recently refurbished their rooms with a down-to-earth ambiance and loads of natural wood and thereby transformed the old house into a great resort of modern bliss. During our stay, a 15-person ski club from Germany was doing their annual trip. They’ve been coming to the Tonzhaus for a decade, and they’re not going to stop anytime soon – understandable, considering the wholesome spa and the spectacular view.
The Schnalstal – when not covered in knee-high snow – is actually one of the most remarkable regions for winter sports. The glaciers slopes are covered from the beginning of the season in thick, perfect snow, and make great training grounds for the participants of the Olympic games. The glacier is also where Ötzis remains were found. In summer and in winter, active visitors can hike the trail that leads to the exact place of discovery.
All in all, the Schnalstal is perfect for energetic winter holidays, and if you’re lucky enough to get snowed in, you may find that this is all you needed in your life to unwind and get a good (but active) rest from, well, life in general.
On our way back to Munich (where we would catch our return flight to Berlin), we also stopped up on a mountain to pet a herd of Alpakas. Because when life gives you Alpakas, you pet them until the shepherd gently reminds you that you’re a 30 year old woman who should probably have a baby soon.
The 4 star hotel Tonzhaus in Schnalstal can be reached at Unser Frau 27, 39020 Senales, Bozen, Italy, website; visit the Alpakas (and Llamas) at the Oberversanthof, Oberversanthof in 39025 Naturns, telephone: 0039 3206914208 – better to call ahead