Escape: Meran in Südtirol

After getting lost on the steep mountain roads twining through the orchards and vineyards, it was a strange feeling, stepping out of the car and looking out over the darkened valley below, lights all atwinkle like some Tyrolean city of angels. Night had fallen as we went up, and a brook crashed loudly downward somewhere nearby. The farmhouse where we had parked didn’t look stereotypically Tyrolean, but then again, it also didn’t look like it dated back to 1318. Inside, we’d find the dining room papered in newsprint from to the 18somethings. But we didn’t come to the Schnalshuberhof for history, we thought, we came here to törggel. And there’s no other way to törggel but to törggel hard.

Törggelen, for all of you unfamiliar with this South Tyrolean practice, is a seasonal phenomenon which requires you and your family, and you and your friends, and you and your other friends, and you and your church choir or soccer team—think: Christmas parties, and you’ll get the feeling of urgency and excess—to meet up at a working farm perched on a slope somewhere to sit around large tables and drink and eat, ultimately shutting the place down with schnapps distilled right there on the farm and peeling jugglingly hot chestnuts, fresh from the fire.

Invited on this trip by MGM—not the movie studio, but the lovely people at Marketinggesellschaft Meran—we enjoyed insider tips from expert locals, and we arrived in time for a nigh impossible-to-get second seating, joining a table of people from a very intense-sounding South-German wine town obsessed with night-time carnival parades. At the Schnalshuberhof, there is no menu, only Christian Pinggera, the ruggedly handsome farmer with a notepad to take down just how many Knödel you are willing to take down. We ordered the, we were told, customary mountain of sauerkraut and meat (all from the farm itself), but were soon served an appetizer in the form of a thick slice of home-cured Speck (a kind of cold-smoked bacon), which Pinggera proceeded to clean and slice in the thinnest of slices, fat included, for me to devour alongside a few quarters of the farm’s own juicy apples and glass of Fraueler (an indigenous grape forgotten everywhere else, but not nearly as sour as legend has it) as if in a trance. Soon there would be a hearty barley soup and a beet Knödel stuffed with melty cheese, not to mention that big plate of sausage and sauerkraut, but the main course would prove to be the history of South Tyrol (which you might know under its Italian name, Alto Adige), which Pinggera regaled us with until the last guests had left, and we had blackened our fingers with chestnuts peels after biting into the thinnest, airiest of Krapfen pastries with a surprise filling of poppy seeds, plums, or apricots.

The whole story of South Tyrol is too complicated to repeat here, but its conclusion explains both why we went to Italy to have Austrian food (and stock up on Italian supermarket staples), and why we could sit there under palm and citrus trees while snowy peaks formed a protective barrier to our north. Until 1918, this land was part of Tyrol, a subsection of the immense Austro-Hungarian empire, but various shady diplomatic maneuvers ensured its annexation by Italy, where (after decades of repression and discussion) it now enjoys special legislative privileges and official status as a trilingual region (German, Italian, Ladin). Shielded from the cold by the Alps and protected by ancient laws, South Tyrol has managed to preserve a way of life that matches its manifold historical and geological roots. The region’s variegated soil types and terrain make it ideal ground for all kinds of grapes (and a large percentage of Europe’s apple production), many of the resulting vintages to be enjoyed exclusively at tiny wineries or törggelen venues like the Schnalshuberhof.

The region first became a tourist destination at the dawn of tourism itself, as Empress Sissi took her doctor’s advice and brought her sickly daughter Marie Valerie to the region for the frische Luft. Telephone lines, electricity, and other Victorian-era infrastructure soon followed, as did streams of aristocratic hangers-on, and before long there were Grand Budapest-type hotels scattered around the charming city of Meran. Only few of those are still in use, but you can easily imagine Stefan Zweig or Franz Kafka (who worked here on The Trial and wrote his letters to Milena) pausing on the palm-lined panoramic paths around the town to take in the breathless views.

Though there is now a Zara and an H&M in town, and the city streets see plenty of crowds even on an ordinary Friday, we didn’t spot any of those dreaded umbrella-led tour groups or other signs of mass tourism, as the city is clearly aiming for a more sophisticated visitor. Aside from a Monocle pop-up shop where you can pick up local honey and the latest issue of Lucky Peach, this means there are several independent shops selling locally sourced products—from the classic Schüttelbrot (a bubbly big round cracker redolent with aniseed) to liqueurs steeped in high-altitude herbs (get them at the charming Seibstock or the more comprehensive Pur Südtirol, which serves delicious sandwiches too)—but also that there are fewer signposts to find your way around. Restaurants are spread out, more likely to be located inside an old mill than along a splashy boulevard, so having a car is recommended. Similarly, with the South Tyroler spoiled by great food grown locally, reservations are in order for most fancier restaurants. We enjoyed the inventive fare at Miil and Kallmünz, but there’s also a shocking number of Michelin stars secreted in these valleys.

Luckily, no such planning is required to visit the many farms of the region, as many sell their produce, meats, and cheese from their own barns, and we had a chance to find out at Edith’s Ziegenkäserei in nearby St. Nikolaus in the Alpine cul-de-sac called Ultental. With a no-nonsense attitude and a love of hard work, Edith Breitenberger uses the milk of her 60-odd pearly white goats to make pillowy soft goat cheese that tastes, well, un-goatily delicious. We were introduced to the animals by a woman from lower Saxony, working in the creamery for a week as a volunteer Bergbauernhilfe (a matchmaking service between city folk looking for a total change of pace and scenery, and local farmers needing seasonal assistance in exchange for room and board). As the goats craned their necks in order to get a look at us, we suffered cute overload and were very nearly convinced some farm work would be THE solution to our probably wi-fi related struggles—did I mention the region is supposedly endowed with superquick fiber internet?

Plenty to think about as we decided to take a hike, using one of the area’s many cable cars, the Meran2000, to zip up to 2000 meters above sea level (Meran itself is only at 325m). Though the car was busy, the other (more serious, or at least more seriously dressed) hikers soon dispersed and our paths were clear, as was the autumnal view over the glowing valley and the Alps rising all around us in ochres, greys, and whites. Far above the palm trees, terraced vineyards, and organic groceries, the air was crisp and the sky largely spotless, occasional banks of snow eerie reminders of the winter just around the corner. Preparations for the skiing season were all around us, but we preferred to bask in the sun instead, stopping to eat at one of the restaurants distributed at generous intervals on these mountain paths for some more bacon and the yolkiest-looking Kaiserschmarrn I had ever seen—we were hikers now, and we deserved a hearty snack.

There are many ways down, even via a futuristic Mittelstation, where the cable car can stop and connect to a vertiginous metal drawbridge, but we chose the easiest way down, rejoined by those other hikers (now all glowing with a healthy alpine blush) on the cable car that would would take us all the way down. You see, I kept the best part of our visit for last, so if you take but one thing away from this, it’s that there’s no more restful, no more soothing a hotel to be found than the Ottmangut. Minutes outside the city gates of Meran and pressed against the steeply terraced vineyards that creep up the mountains all around, this family hotel not only charmed us with its perfectly framed palm trees and citrus weighed down with fruit, but with spacious, simple rooms that seemed the perfect shade of peaceful. Eschewing the anonymous uniformity of most hotels (or a 24-hour concierge), the rooms offer all the comforts (though its flatscreen TVs are discreetly covered in cream fabric) plus bonus views of the vineyard or terrace.

The absolute highlight though, it has to be said, comes in the form of breakfast, served in the elegant orangerie overlooking the terrace. Every morning, you sit down not to a buffet, but to a hand-made meal that is as elegant as it is surprising. Using exclusively local ingredients, this means your little plates and bowls are different every day, but we particularly cherished the chestnut soup, blood-red fresh juice from Vernatsch grapes, a beautifully tangy lemon jam, a char tartare—all served with grace and attention by chef Ivo De Pellegrin, uncoincidentally also the president of the local chapter of the Slow Food movement. The perfect start to any day, whether you spend it hiking, strolling, or törggeling.

All this to say: Auf Wiedersehen, arrivederci, adio, Meran, we’ll be back.

Text: Florian Duijsens, Photos: Mary Scherpe

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