You would think Austrians have enough mountains to keep them occupied for a lifetime. Yet, many have a special fondness for Italy's German-speaking region of Süd Tirol or South Tyrol, which Italians prefer to call Alto Adige. There they enjoy many of the same things they have at home: tasty Knödels, good wine, and beautiful Alpine scenery. Of course, the region does have a few differences, such as a surprising number of palm trees and a darker roast of coffee, but overall it must feel like a home away from home. One reason for the similarity is that until the end of World War I, this piece of the Alps belonged to Austria, forming the southern portion of the Austrian province of Tyrol.
So, why would Austrians travel abroad to see things they already have and eat food they can find at home? The main reason is the differences, which stand out even more among the similarities. The weather is warmer and drier on this side of the Alps, giving the jagged mountain peaks an unexpected Mediterranean character. It is why during Habsburg times, South Tyrol was considered Austria's "balcony to the sun." The craggy landscape also provides a dramatic setting for numerous castles and ruins that attest to its long history as a contested borderland and trade route.
South Tyrol also has a fascinating, contradictory nature. During Habsburg days, it was one of the monarchy's largest producers of wines. Given its southerly climate and attachment to a white wine producing country, Tyrol became known for its warm weather and fine red wines. Then after the First World War, the situation was reversed. Suddenly it was a northerly region attached to a red and white wine-producing nation and began to emphasize its cooler weather and fine white wines. So, while Austrians see it as far south, and Italians as far north, the Tyroleans consider themselves to be right in the center.
For North American travelers, South Tyrol tends to be neglected altogether - I visited in the middle of summer and didn't hear even one American accent. It is an interesting destination off the well-trodden tourist route.
To get a picture of the region's main roads, think of an olive-shaped compass: at the north just below the Brenner pass is Sterzing, at the south the provincial capital of Bolzano, to the east is the former bishopric of Brixen, and to the west is the 19th-century spa town of Meran, with all four points being connected by a ring road. The Autobahn runs over the Brenner down the eastern curve to Brixen and Bolzano, and then around to Meran, while a smaller, two-lane road does the full circle, paralleling the Autobahn and then continuing past Meran to Sterzing. As always, this lesser road is the one to take, as it follows the contour of the landscape and provides a more intimate view of the small villages and the countryside. Ironically, it will get you there faster than the Autobahn, especially in summer when, perversely, traffic and highway construction projects reach their peak.
Like traders and travelers for millennia, I entered Italy via the Brenner Pass, crossing over from Innsbruck. I wasn't alone. It was the traditional start of the European holidays and traffic slowed to a crawl all the way down to Brixen, so I exited at Sterzing and took the narrow, windy two-lane road up the 2094-meter Jaufenpass. The drive takes in thick forests fading into the green slopes above the tree line, and then drops down stunning switchbacks to Meran.
Meran is blessed with three types of buildings: castles, villas and the porticoed, centuries-old houses of the old town. While many European spa towns were spoiled by the postwar construction of massive concrete blocks, Meran has managed to remain relatively free of such indelible scars. The only exception is the '70s-era design of the 'new' spa facilities (the old 19th century one, though still intact and quite beautiful, is reserved for conferences and such).
The town owes its architectural good fortune to strategic moments of both attention and neglect. Until the mid-19th century, it was known mostly as a Kühstadt (cow town). That was when a boosterish mayor decided to transform it into a Kurstadt, or spa town. He was helped immensely when Empress Elizabeth and her court paid a visit in 1870 and again in 1872, initiating a rush that resulted in the construction of one beautiful villa after another. Meran's main attractions were, and still are, the healing effect of the warm climate, and strolls along the town's numerous, manicured walking trails or promenades.
When Tyrol became part of Italy at the end of the First World War, Meran lost its clientèle: Austrians were now part of another country and Italians did not have to travel far to find warm weather. The town's recent success has allowed it to maintain historic treasures while avoiding the negative effects of modern mass tourism. Augmenting the lovely architecture is Meran's setting along the swiftly flowing Passer river and the verdant slopes of the surrounding valley
The drive from Meran to Bolzano is not so interesting in itself, but does pass through one of the area's most important wine regions, Terlan and Girlan. I decided to save the provincial capital of Bolzano for later, and instead continued to Brixen. Here the road follows the contours of the Eisack river valley, winding along the steep, rocky river bed while jagged mountain peaks watch sternly in the distance.
Brixen is the stately home of the prince-bishops who ruled the area for more than 800 years. Highlights include the cathedral, the large square, the prince-bishop's palace, and the narrow lanes of the old town, including two porticoed streets. You will enjoy the town's historical atmosphere, especially when combined with a memorable stay at the Hotel Elephant and a visit to the Neustift Monastery (more below).
The return to Austria was via a different route; up the Puster valley, past Bruneck (a historic town that is also worth visiting) and across the border. The countryside is a bit more rolling and pastoral than other areas of Tyrol and the drive provided the additional pleasure of short glimpses of the Dolomites near the border. Near Vietschach, the sky arranged a wonderful farewell. When I stopped for one last look at Tyrol, the sun broke through a blanket of clouds and sprayed a dazzle of light over the little village.