South Tyrol in northern Italy is the unlikely home to some of Europe’s most striking design hotels, curious museums and an inspiring foodie scene
If you are looking for a unique insight into a destination, then ask a mountaineer. I learnt this in South Tyrol, a little enclave in the north of Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites, and home to the world’s most famous climber Reinhold Messner. He has a lot to say about his birthplace; so much so, in fact, that he has spent the past decade curating six high-altitude museums, all architectural masterpieces in their own right, to showcase his viewpoint on the region and the world in general.
Born in South Tyrol in 1944, Messner, now regarded as the greatest mountaineer of all time, scaled his first mountain at the tender age of five and eventually became the first climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters. He was the first to get to the top of Everest alone and the first to do it without oxygen. Now aged 72, with 3,500 summits under his belt, he no longer climbs professionally and has become something of a philosopher with a penchant for writing (he has penned some 50 books). “After a life spent in the vertical rock faces of the Dolomites and on the world’s highest peaks, I want to tell what happens to us when we abandon ourselves to the mountains…” he says somewhat mystically.
Not for the faint-hearted, his ‘extreme’ museums are found in remote and precarious positions across the South Tyrol region, seemingly to test the stamina of each visitor. The newest, opened in 2015, is the Zaha Hadid-designed MMM Corones, found on the summit plateau of Kronplatz mountain, 2,275m above sea level. The avant-garde building – a curvy, fluid structure made of concrete and glass – is reached only by cable car or, for the adventurous few, after a five-hour hike.
The largest museum, MMM Firmian, meanwhile, close to the provincial capital of Bolzano, may not be so difficult to get to but it still manages to put visitors through their paces. Carved out of a 10th century castle, it is packed with mountaineering equipment, photography, art and an eclectic collection of Eastern artifacts picked up during Messner’s years conquering the Himalayas. It’s an eccentric experience. Hair-raising elevated paths, steep stairs and vertigo-inducing towers will test your head for heights.
After coming face to face with Messner’s lofty vision of the world, you may well need a good sit down. Luckily South Tyrol is also something of a foodie treasure trove, so you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to pit-stops. This may be down to the region’s cultural mash-up: while it sits in the northernmost part of Italy, South Tyrol has a discernable Teutonic feel to it and is actually a semi-autonomous region. Most locals speak German as their first language, Italian as the second with a few still clinging on to the mountain dialect Ladin, a derivative of Latin. Food, therefore, is a mix-match of cuisines, with schnitzel and spaghetti sitting harmoniously together on many menus.
For something special, head to one of the area’s stand-out restaurants. South Tyrol boasts the highest concentration of Michelin-starred eateries in the whole of Italy (23 across 19 restaurants). Sissi in Merano, for instance, is a charming, Art Nouveau style dining room with just 11 tables (www.sissi.andreafenoglio.com). But don’t be fooled by the homely décor, chef Andrea Fenoglio has earned his Michelin star due to his inventive take on classic Italian dishes, such as his signature liquid pizza, spaghetti Omega 3 and green asparagus with ‘egg in egg’ (an arty, vegetarian take on carbonara only served when asparagus is in season).
With the area boasting 5,000 hectares of vineyards, wine lovers will also be in their element with tons of wineries to visit and wine trails to follow as well as the annual Merano Wine Festival in November. Stock up on bottles of Gewurztraminer, an aromatic white wine which works perfectly as a light aperitif, at the Nals Margreid cantina, where you can tour the cellars and arrange a wine tasting (www.kellerie.it).
The bucolic setting – snow-capped peaks, Alpine meadows and pine-covered hills – and a micro-climate which gives 300 days of sunshine each year – means the area is also ripe for cuisine based on home-grown, organic produce. From the collective of local inns that focus on traditional dishes (www.gasthaus.it) to the network of 169 mountain-huts serving one or two simple meals, such as hay soup and nettle-stuffed pasta, dining here is synonymous with the landscape. Hikers should try out the highest – and most spectacular hut – The Becherhaus at 3,195m and sample the local Marende (a traditional snack of Tyrolean speck, mountain cheese and dumplings) or fried eggs and potatoes (www.becherhaus.com).
After a day of inspiring Alpine encounters, head to San Luis, the latest hotel on the scene. Despite the timeless landscape of medieval castles, dense forests and apple orchards, San Tyrol is also an unlikely setting for a clutch of modernist hotels. There’s the glamourous Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano and the off-grid Vigilius Mountain Resort (only accessible via cable car). With each new opening comes a more imaginative design aesthetic. San Luis is no exception. Designed by local architect Hugo Demetz, it describes itself as a private retreat offering ‘primordial encounters with nature’. Found in a 40-acre Alpine park at Avelengo/Hafling, a few miles from Merano, rooms are either tree-houses hidden in the pine forest or cabins based around a shimmering lake, all built from specially sourced, untreated Mondholz wood.
At its heart is a clubhouse, which houses a cinema, restaurant and spa. While its outlook is heavenly, inside it’s dark, moody and dramatic. This is an urban-style retreat, which gives a nod to its Alpine destination. The country-style spa, for instance, mixes black concrete walls and crystal chandeliers, so there’s an indulgent, cocooning feel. Body massages and facials call on the great outdoors by using oils infused with local herbs and plant essences. Afterwards, you can doze by crackling fires or in the summer months take a dip in the inside-outside pool, with the mountain peaks looming above you.
Your cabin, meanwhile, makes the most of the outstanding views with floor-to-ceiling feature windows and rustic-chic interiors. Pretty, carved Austrian chairs sit next to an open contemporary fireplace, crisp linen window dressings are contrasted with tactile pink-clay walls. French black-pleated wall lights and piles of soft-down cushions and comforters soften the space. The open-plan layout sees the living room flow into the bedroom, which has a feature tub next to it – ideal for hopping from suds to snooze. Walk-in wardrobes, a slate shower room, private sauna and hot tub raise the rough-hewn charm to luxe levels.
Your overall experience here is sensory with an emphasis on ‘quiet luxury’. Order your breakfast the night before and it is delivered to your cabin without any fussing around. (Your cosy kitchen-diner can be separated off by a wooden door so staff can deliver meals without the need for you to even know they are there). Talking of which, the hotel echoes the region’s passion for field-to-fork cookery with Michelin-starred chef Artuto Spiocchi’s daily-changing menus inspired by the abundance of produce found in the nearby valleys, fields and mountainsides. Expect crisp, uber-fresh salads, tagliatelle with porcini and asparagus risotto with onion confit, goat cheese and chives.
This is the sort of place that is magical in winter – with skiing, ice-climbing and Christmas markets to explore on your doorstep. Summer, meanwhile, is an unexpected joy. Dips in the lake, mountain walks and evenings spent al-fresco by the twinkling lights of lanterns make for idyllic memories. But, my money is on what is known as South Tyrol’s fifth season. Törggelen falls at the start of October – a period when the new wines are tasted and typically served throughout the region with local chestnuts, soup and sweet pastries. Even if you don’t climb a summit during your time in South Tyrol, you’ll come away on a high. A natural one.
For more information on South Tyrol, visit: suedtirol.info
For more information on the Messner Mountain Museums, visit: messner-mountain-museum.it
Chalets at San Luis start from €250 per night for full board (excluding drinks) per person. San Luis, +39 0473 279570; sanluis-hotel.com
This article was also published in City AM Newspaper on 30 January 2017