South Tyrol: Where Alpine Meets Riviera | SUITCASE
Published in Vol. 24 of SUITCASE and on suitcasemag.com, September 2018.
Images also by me.
Until it happened I’d never considered that at some point in life I’d find myself lying naked on a slate platform, shrouded in apple foam and being rubbed down by a stranger with a brick-coloured beard and armed with a loofah. And yet here I am, giggling clumsily not only because of the absurdity of the situation, but also because said foam is tickling my back and in an attempt to spin onto my front I’m flailing wildly. “Don’t worry, no one has ever fallen of the table doing this,” my apple assailant assures me as I cling to the sides like I’m sinking with the Titanic. We share a loaded look – much like Jack and Rose, neither of us is convinced.
Prior to this episode I’d been wandering the impossibly pretty medieval town of Merano in South Tyrol, which despite its location on the north-easternmost tip of Italy, exudes Viennese charm. Characterised by lush, lined streets, gorgeously ornate buildings and the Passer river that rushes furiously through its centre, it’s made a name for itself as a spa-seeker’s paradise – a reputation I decide to explore first-hand at Therme Meran and which leads to my graceless transformation into an unappetising human dessert. You know the rest.
There is some degree of method in the madness of my curious-sounding treatment. Therme Meran is just one of South Tyrol’s many wellness spas. It houses 25 indoor and outdoor pools filled by water that trickles all the way down from the summit of nearby mountains – consequently it’s said to have medicinal properties. Traditional apple peeling is its signature treatment and is rooted in the holistic benefits of the locally grown, organic fruit, which is used to exfoliate and hydrate the skin. It may sound dubious, but it genuinely seems to have merits.
South Tyrol lies on the outskirts of common knowledge, so here’s a fact to get you started – it has no shortage of apples. In fact it’s the largest apple-producing region in the entire EU and yet its flourishing orchards define a mere portion of the landscape. A colossal collision between the South Tyrolean Alps and the Dolomites, the skyline is pierced by the jagged spikes of towering peaks, juxtaposed at ground level by a kaleidoscope of tropical trees and vineyards that blossom thanks to the area’s sunny microclimate. The combination makes for baffling vistas almost everywhere you look – it’s equal parts Alpine and Riviera – and serves as an accurate metaphor for the contradictions posed by South Tyrol itself.
Once an Austrian territory but an Italian province since the First World War, this diminutive enclave exhibits a bizarre mish-mash of cultures unlike anywhere else in Europe. With the majority of residents speaking German, 25 per cent speaking Italian and a tiny percentage reverting to Ladin, the local dialect, it’s a real patchwork of language and living that’s both beguiling and perplexing for those seeking to root out its essence. This place doesn’t reveal its secrets easily, but that makes it all the more rewarding when you successfully unearth a few.
Over four blissful days I slowly uncover the spirit of the region, shaking of everyday stresses and strains. The process begins as soon as I touch down in Innsbruck in neighbouring Austria (you can also fly into Verona). From the airport it’s roughly a two-hour drive to where I’m staying but it’s one that swings past unnoticed, a blur of rolling green hills smeared with a butter-like smattering of dandelions and chocolate-box churches with steeples reaching towards the divine. Gazing out of the window it’s easy to release yourself from the confines of time.
Switching of becomes even more simple when arriving at San Luis, a tranquil, family-run mountain spa retreat near the hamlet of Avelengo that effortlessly creates the optimal conditions for attaining peace. The location does a lot of the work – clusters of wooden chalets and tree houses are built around a glass-still lake encircled by ancient forest and mountain peaks, and the air is so crisp you could bite it – but the entire resort immediately lulls you into a state of total relaxation. None of the clocks at San Luis work, for example, and there’s absolutely no desire to fix them. Meanwhile everyone walks around wearing fawn-coloured robes and looking like zealous members of a cult, except they’ve chosen to be here of their own free will. Time is abstract and silence omnipresent. Even the fervent sound of a fire crackling can be startling, and in the comfort of your room, the only noise you’re likely to hear is that of the hapless bumblebees who’ve taken a wrong turn and accidentally come tumbling into your window.
I float in a blissful haze among the foothills, hypnotised by their gently undulating lines and the hodgepodge inconsistencies of the local architecture. I stop for lunch at Onkel Taa, a quintessential South Tyrolean restaurant where the food is plied with love and snails find themselves at the forefront of the action – on the plate, in ornament form and unfortunately underfoot. I’m given a dose of climatic therapy at the base of the majestic Parcines waterfall, in which the targeted use of cool air, warm sunshine and controlled exercise boosts the immune system. Finally I roam among the 12 acres of exotic gardens at Trauttmansdorf Castle, home to 15,000 tulips, a 750-year-old Sardinian olive tree and most recently Larry the iguana, who I’m wryly informed is lonely and looking for love.
Back at San Luis I spend precious time just being present. One rainy afternoon I eat local cheese in front of my own badly constructed log fire and savour a long, muscle-softening soak in the tub while poring over a good book. I take al-fresco dips in the pool, sip on blanc de blancs – the frighteningly moreish fizz that happily comes to precede every meal – and eat plates full of spargel, a delicious, in-season white asparagus. I even come to reassess my status as a non-pancake lover – one taste of kaiserschmarrn, the South Tyrolean version, and I am lost in a void of gluttony.
On the final morning I rise early, determined to breathe in the last of the clarity on a ramble along one of the many hiking trails that snake through the swaying grass encompassing the hotel. Along the way I come across a set of swings and before I know it I’m soaring through the air, hair swishing behind me and feet kicking out joyfully above the snow-topped horizon. Since being here I realise I’ve unthinkingly relinquished reality, instead becoming absorbed in a kind of restorative reverie. If I were Jack or Rose now, I think to myself, I wouldn’t need a lifeboat. My buoyed spirit would keep me afloat.