Crisp alpine air, impossibly picturesque walking trails, storybook villages and luxury retreats… it’s easy to see why a week or two in this North Italian haven is a balm for both body and soul.
Italian? Austrian? Or both?
On the map, South Tyrol is part of Italy. But culturally, it’s a unique Alpine-Mediterranean mix. Also known as Alto Adige, South Tyrol has quite a complex political history – it was an Austrian territory for hundreds of years, but became an Italian province after the First World War. This explains why even most Italians feel as though they’re in another country when they visit. The region is predominantly German-speaking, with road signs in German, Italian and in a language called Ladin, spoken by about 30,000 of the residents. Expert’s tip: When you walk into a café or restaurant, take a moment to consider whether you need a “Buongiorno” or a “Guten Tag” or even a “Gruss Got”.
(Well) Off The Beaten Track
South Tyrol can seem an impenetrable place to reach, but therein lies the charm. An hour and a half’s drive north of Verona, the region is nestled entirely within the Alps, with the Austrian border to the north and Switzerland to the west. The scenery is dramatic and distinctive, with towering mountain peaks, dense forests and wooden gabled farmhouses. This idyllic enclave is also home to medieval castles, narrow cobblestone streets, steepled churches, Gothic town halls and bell towers, as well as apple orchards and vineyards.
Nature’s On Your Side
It’s hard to imagine a place more conducive to healthy living than South Tyrol. The air is perfectly clean and fresh, the water pure, the walking and cycling trails invigorating to say the least – and the locals are unnervingly fit. To feel better, you really don’t need to do a whole lot more than stumble out your front door every day and explore some of the countless hiking trails.
Happily, the full wellness experience in South Tyrol is slightly more sophisticated than fresh air and a good mountain walk. First class spa hotels and genuine hospitality are the region’s specialty.
Merano, Baroque Spa Town
Merano stands out as the premier spa town in South Tyrol. Following Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s visit in the 1870s, Merano became a popular spa resort for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie from all across Europe. Today, the town’s original spa has been transformed into a state-of-the-art wellness centre with a dozen different pools and mud baths, incorporating aromatherapy and therapeutic massage using traditional treatments with chestnuts and apples. In addition to the main wellness hub of Terme Merano, the town is home to a surprisingly large number of top class spa hotels.
Fie allo Sciliar, Home of the Hay Bath
Also known as Vols am Schlern (or Vols for short), this village, which just happens to be in a breathtakingly beautiful location, has evolved into a world-class resort town. Its signature therapy is the hay bath, based on a 110-year-old farming tradition: during haymaking season, the farmers who fell asleep at night in the hayloft reportedly awoke in the morning feeling totally replenished. Whether that’s true or not, locals swear by the rejuvenating powers of the hay bath, using healing herbs of thyme, arnica, cinquefoil and gentian, in combination with hay cut exclusively from unfertilised meadows in the early morning or late evening in order to ensure that all the essential oils are preserved.
Bressanone, the Oldest Town in Tyrol
Perhaps the most beguiling of the towns in South Tyrol, Bressanone (or Brixen) is famous for its lavish cathedral, built in the 13th century with the baroque façade added 500 years later. The old town, with its arcade lanes, well preserved town houses and window boxes hung with geraniums, is a pleasure to discover on foot. Take time out to enjoy apple strudel and a cappuccino – all at the one café. Spa hotels are in abundance, so take your pick.
In Between Spa Treatments, Don’t Miss…
The lone 14th-century bell tower emerging from the perfect, blue-green water of Lake Resia is the only visible remnant of Graun, an entire town that vanished underwater more than 60 years ago when a power company decided to turn two natural lakes into one giant artificial one. It’s a breathtaking sight, and when the lake freezes in winter you can walk right out to the bell tower.
With scenery to soothe the spirit, hikes and bike rides to get the heart pumping and more wellness options than you ever thought possible, South Tyrol is a unique haven of health and wellbeing. Whether you choose to stay in Merano, Fie allo Sciliar, Bressanone, the South Tryolean capital of Bolzano, or indeed any of the picture-perfect villages in South Tyrol, you’ll find that attention to good health, exercise, relaxation and rejuvenation is practically the way of life. If you fancy a luxury spa experience surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on earth, time spent in South Tyrol may be just what the doctor ordered.