One of the places that has long been on my bucket list to visit is the Dolomites. I probably would not even have been aware of this region if it weren’t for modern technology and social media. One day while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I caught a glimpse of some amazing photos of the most breathtaking mountain landscapes, and an infinity pool with a view of these same mountains. That was enough to get me started on researching the area and booking my next trip.
Located in Northeastern Italy, near the Austrian border, the Dolomites are some of the most beautiful and dramatic mountains in the world. Their rock type, dolomite, is different from the rest of the Alps, and has a characteristic blend of white, pink, and gray in vertical walls arising from the green valleys. This mountain range was named after Dolomieu, a French mineralogist who first described the rock type in the late 1700’s. The mountains in this region are easily accessible, thanks to a system of rail lines, parks, roads, and lifts.
Fast forward to the day I finally arrived to this mountain paradise. It took me a bit of travel to get there; as I had flown from Dallas to Milan first (with a stopover in Miami) and from Milan took the Trenitalia to Verona, from Verona to Bolzano (more on this city later), then from Bolzano to Merano. What a pain! Why, you ask, would I travel so long?! I will show you why… see below 😊
In my Instagram feed I had seen photos of this infinity pool overlooking the mountains…. To be honest I was ready to go through hell and high water just to swim in that pool (pretty genious marketing from the hotel eh?). And it turns out, the train travel really isn’t bad at all. I had the option to rent a car and drive myself from Milan to Merano, but knowing how bad a driver I am, how crazy the Italian drivers can be (sorry guys), and the fact that in winter there is snow and ice on the narrow winding mountain roads, the easier (safer) choice was to take the trains. Personally, I love riding the train; for me its relaxing to look out the window at the scenery and let someone else handle the driving. And the trains there are quite efficient, so not much drama involved. The only snafu I ran into was when I almost took the wrong train in Bolzano (platform 1 is not the same as platform 1A!), but thanks to the help of a good sumaritan, a panic attack and delays were averted. “Buon viaggio!” he shouted to me as I scurried off to get on the correct train 2 minutes before departure. Whew! I will write more about using the trains in Europe in another post.
I had arranged with my hotel to have a private taxi driver pick me up at the Merano train station. As soon as I arrived, upon exiting the train platform I spotted my driver Stephan, holding a sign that said “Miramonti”. Into his clean and comfortable Mercedes van we went, and spent the next 20 minutes together as we climbed higher and higher along the narrow single-lane winding road making our way to Avelengo. Stephan took the tight turns with the precision of a pro, at times passing other cars on the two-way traffic road, making me glad once again that I was not the one driving…wheeee! My ears popped and my heart pounded during the ascent, as I realized I was really finally here in this breathtaking place that had been on my bucket list for so long. We passed apple tree groves, beautiful castle-like houses, and small churches perched on picturesque mountainsides. Then at a gorgeous spot just past the Saint Kathrein Church, we arrived at the Miramonti Boutique Hotel in Avelengo.
I was warmly greeted at the reception, and was given a glass of Prosecco as a welcome drink, which I enjoyed while staring in amazement at the panoramic view of the dolomites from the terrace. Next, I was shown to my room, where my luggage was already waiting. Room 203 was a gorgeous room bigger than most Manhattan apartments, with a separate sleep and study area, a well-equipped bathroom, and best of all, a private terrace with its own jacuzzi for my private use. The room had sleek modern décor, and the mini-bar was well-stocked with local south tirolian wines, beer, mineral water, juices and snacks.
Since I had been traveling on the train all day and had not eaten lunch yet, arriving around 3:00pm, I was hungry. I visited one of the three hotel restaurants and had a plate of cured meats to tide me over until dinner. This plate had two local antipasti- Speck (cured pork ham) and “Hirsch-schinken” which is deer ham. Both were delicious, and I would soon discover that Speck is very frequently used in the local cuisine. (More on South Tyrolian Cuisine up next).
South Tirolian Culture & Cuisine
If you are coming from another place in Italy, on your arrival to the Dolomites/ South Tyrol, your first thought might be “We’re not in Kansas anymore”. (Or, we are not in Italy anymore basically!). This is because you have now entered a region that feels a bit more like Austria than Italy. The people who come from this area speak German and the signs on the roads will be in both German and Italian. There is some history to explain this… At the end of World War I, the region was ceded by Austria to Italy; Austria’s South Tirol became Italy’s Alto Adige. Mussolini did his best to suppress the Germanic cultural elements and praise all things Italian, even giving each town an Italian name. Over the years secessionist groups have rallied for more autonomy, with some success. Gradually, Rome has granted increased local control of the region’s daily operations, education, roads, water, communications, etc.
Not surprisingly, the local cuisine centers around a more “Alpine” style and takes advantage of the local offerings in terms of meat/wild game, cheeses, produce, and grape varieties (yay, wine!). One thing you will notice when traveling in Italy and in most of Europe, is that the menu offerings will represent local specialties using locally available, meat, fish, game, and only produce that is in season. In the U.S., this represents the “locally sourced” “farm-to-table” concept; but here it’s just the norm.
Now for a few Tirolean foods not to miss! Speck, is a raw ham smoked for 5 months and served thinly sliced as an antipasto; you will also find it in other dishes to add flavor for example to soups, or in dumplings (Specknodel, see photo below). If you enjoy prosciutto, you will enjoy this (maybe even more, I could not get enough of it!). Canederli are large dumplings made with bits of speck, liver, spinach, or cheese, and may be served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. I tried these at more than one restaurant, and really loved them in broth as the ultimate warm comfort food on a cold snowy day. For me it was reminiscent of a matzo ball soup; but not at all kosher given the speck.
Wild game is a big part of Tirolean cuisine, and even if you aren’t the adventurous type of eater, do give it a try. You will be surprised by how “not gamey” these dishes will be. Selvaggine (wild game) may be capriolo (fawn), Cervo (venison), or camoscio (chamois/antelope). One of the most tasty antipasti I tried was a deer ham (Hirsch-schinken); if you didn’t tell me it was made from deer (cervo) I would never have known, so delicious! You will encounter game in pasta dishes as a meat sauce (ragu), stuffed in ravioli, or roasted or grilled and served with a rich sauce (spezzatino).
Whatever you do, do NOT skip dessert! The strudel reigns supreme in this region, and the apples are freshly picked from the local orchards. Depending on the season, the cakes and pies will be filled with locally grown fruits and nuts. Who can really resist a piece of warm strudel served with a side of vanilla gelato?!
Surely with all this amazing food you will be thirsty! Not surprisingly, beer is popular here and you will enjoy the local brand, Forst, brewed in Merano. As a wine lover, I was super impressed with the wines I tasted from the area, so much so, that I will write a separate post about South Tirolean wines. Suffice it to say that you will have many excellent choices, which include Magdalaner, Lagrein scuro, Gewurztraminer, and Weisburgunder, in addition to sparkling varieties such as the Arunda Rose Brut. Please stay tuned for my upcoming post about south Tirolean wines, a must-read for wine lovers.
The Miramonti Boutique Hotel
As mentioned above, I picked out this hotel kind of on a whim, as it looked so inviting in the photos I saw online. I am soooo glad I decided to splurge and indulge in this whim. WOW!
I usually try to be budget conscious when traveling in order to be able to do more things in more places; so for me this was a little more than what I would normally spend on a hotel. Do check their website, as they have promotions that you may be able to take advantage of with discounted pricing. But that said, this is the kind of place you go to treat yourself, to relax, unwind, and really disconnect from your hectic everyday life. Not only is it located in one of the most beautiful, peaceful, breathtaking places I have ever seen; but it also offers the kind of warm, welcoming hospitality you expect from a boutique hotel and spa. I could not have been happier with every detail of my stay. From the moment I arrived, I knew that everything would be taken care of. The food at the 3 restaurants was 5/5 stars, with each dish as beautiful in presentation as it was delicious. I especially looked forward to breakfast each morning, with my own freshly brewed carafe of coffee, homemade whole milk yogurt, berries from the local forest, house-made muesli, pastries, locally-made cheeses and cured meats including speck. The staff took every opportunity to make me feel welcomed. The housekeeping staff even left fresh flowers in my room each day, and made the bed in an artful way making a little fan of the extra blankets. And the owners, Klaus and Carmen, make an effort to meet each guest personally and even do activities with the guests such as wine tasting and snow shoeing.
During my stay at the Miramonti, the front desk staff arranged several activities for me. They set up a massage for me at the hotel spa and left a note to remind me of the appointment time in my room. They also reserved a spot for me at the wine tasting with Klaus, the owner. And they even called to reserve horseback riding at the stable located next door at the Hotel Sulfner.
Miriam was the massage therapist at the hotel spa and she did a fantastic job on the Verbena Porphyry massage, making sure to check with me from time to time to ensure I was still comfortable (this massage uses oil and hot stones, super relaxing!). The hotel also offers an on-site gym, a dry and moist sauna, two different relaxation rooms with views of the Dolomites, afternoon tea with complimentary sweets (get your strudel here!), and that out-of-this-world infinity pool that got me there in the first place- so worth it! I think I spent several hours in that pool, only getting out when I had stage 5 prune fingers; it was just so perfect. The pool is heated, and they have designated kid splash times. If you’re looking for a little quiet adult time, not to worry; they have you covered. Oh and don’t forget, there are a few rooms which include your own private jacuzzi on the terrace, which I took full advantage of; so keep this in mind when booking.
I did the Forest walk (the hotel provides you with a map and the trail is well-marked) which was also a must-do activity. One thing I did not do which is offered as part of your hotel stay, is visit the Meran Thermal Baths; I will definitely hit this next time. The Miramonti will give you a ticket to use during your stay. Other available activities in the immediate area include hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and many fine dining opportunities. You can also visit the city of Merano and do some strolling and shopping there.
Before I knew it my 3-night stay at the Miramonti was coming to an end; but I was able to squeeze in a one-hour horseback riding session at the stables next door before leaving Avelengo. After that the staff at the Miramonti gave me water for my journey, and the always punctual (early) Stephan arrived to drive me to the Merano train station where I would embark on my next adventure, to Bolzano. During our ride down the mountain into town, Stephan even gave me some restaurant recommendations for Bolzano which were on point. If you prefer not to drive yourself, he is an excellent and professional driver in the Merano area that I would definitely recommend. http://www.taxistephan.eu +393477523424
Horseback Riding in Avelengo
My last activity before leaving Avelengo was a once-in-a-lifetime privately-guided ride through the mountains, thanks to the horse stables at the neighboring hotel, Hotel Sulfner. The Miramonti staff kindly arranged my appointment, and it just happened by chance that I was the only person signed up for that time slot. So, I ended up going on a ride with Katia as my guide, and we spent an hour riding along the narrow path up and down through the mountain forest. To be quite frank, this ride is not recommended for inexperienced riders. It involves steep, narrow riding paths, (at this time of year snow-covered and icy), and even though the horses are very tame and well-trained, one mistake or spooking of the horse could result in unfortunate consequences. Norbert, the director of the stable, even told me, despite my past riding experience, “you are not very good rider! You can walk but not trot! Normally, you cannot go; but because you are lonely, we make exception”. Lost in translation LOL, but I know what he meant. I was the only rider, and we would go slowly and carefully. This was ok with me, as I wanted to take in the beauty of the forest and the fresh snowflakes as they fell on us. It all felt so surreal, like I was in a storybook; or better yet, a poem. I couldn’t help but recall the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening as my little horse Francisca so carefully carried me on our journey through the woods. If you are an experienced rider, this should be on your list. If not, you can still stay at the base of the mountain and get some lessons in.
The horses we rode are a breed called Haflinger, and this breed is native to South Tyrol/ Alto Adige. They were bred for mountainous regions, which explains why they can skillfully and gently navigate the steep icy paths of the mountain forest with ease. Interestingly, all purebred Haflinger horses must be able to trace their lineage back to one stallion named Folie (thought to be a colt which resulted from crossing an Arabian stallion with a mountain pony from Austria and Northern Italy). Haflingers are always chestnut in color, have a small but solid build, and are known for their good temperament (some call them the “golden horse with a golden heart”). My horse Francisca had a wonderful temperament indeed, and was impressively athletic in her ability to balance even on the steepest winding and slippery pathways. Not sure if there are any horse lovers reading this, but if you are one, you will adore this breed and this experience!
Contact: Norbert Walder at Reiterhof Sulfner +39 339 5030381
This beautiful town of approximately 100,000 is the perfect place to land if you are relying on the trains, as I did. If you are arriving by train, be sure to get out at the Bolzano station (not Bolzano Sud). The train station is centrally located very near to the main town plaza (Piazza Walther/Waltherplatz). There is a tourist information center on the side of the square.
From Bolzano you can take the trains to other towns in the region, such as Castelrotto and Merano, and you can also take a lift from Bolzano to the top of the mountain for a ridge walk. This region is busy for tourism during hiking season (mid-June through mid-October) but is busiest during ski season (December through Easter). For an excursion in the surrounding area, take the cable car from the Bolzano train station up to Ritten Oberbozen, to enjoy the beautiful landscape and a bit of “alpine chic”. Wineries that you may visit in Bolzano include Abtei Muri Gries, Pfannenstielhof, and the Cooperativa Winery St. Magdalena of Bolzano.
I spent two nights in Bolzano and enjoyed a very leisurely pace there. I spent most of my time strolling around, doing a little shopping, and a lot of eating; savoring the local specialties which I would soon be leaving for a more traditional “Italian” style cuisine when I headed south. Two of the highlights of this town were my visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, and the walk along the Talvera promenade. Other sites to see in Bolzano include the open-air produce market at Piazza Erbe/Obstplatz (get a bratwurst & pretzel at the little stand here), the Cathedral (Duomo), the Dominican Church, the main square (Piazza Walther/ Waltherplatz), and the Runkelstein Castle (which you can walk to with a stroll down the Talvera promenade).
A good day walking around could start out with coffee/breakfast at one of the many cafés at Piazza Walther, followed by a visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which will place you right near the Via dei Portici, a very nice shopping street with many international as well as Italian brand stores. Some recommended shops to visit include: Parfumerie Thaler, Maximilian Boutique, and Victorienne Boutique; all of these are located in the Lauben Arcaden. Here you will also find more than one shop where you may buy Speck, Hirsch-schinken, and other local specialty foods that are vacuum-sealed to take home.
Museums to visit in Bolzano include the Messner Mountain Museum, and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is the home of the corpse of Otzi the Iceman, whose body was frozen in a glacier in the mountains on the Italian/Austrian border for more than 5,000 years. I visited this museum, and can tell you it is well worth the 9 euro admission ticket. History was my least favorite subject in school; but despite this, I found this exhibit fascinating. I do not want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you that even if you are not an archaeology or history buff, you will still enjoy this museum. The sensational story alone about how Otzi was discovered by a German couple in 1991, and the events that followed had me hooked. At first, they thought they had stumbled across a hiker who had gotten lost and frozen to death. But after years of further investigation using technology, carbon dating, and the analysis of the articles that were found along with Otzi’s body (his entire outfit, gear, hatchet, shoes, tools, etc.) the researchers realized that they had in fact the mummy of a man who was alive some 5,000 years ago (between 3350 and 3100 BC). The more questions they were able to answer, the more questions came up about how Otzi perished, and what life was like during his time. There was some debate about what to name the mummy, and finally the nickname “Otzi the Iceman” won, making these remains seem less grotesque and more media-friendly. Keep this museum on your list for Bolzano sites!
The Talvera promenade is a wonderful place to enjoy a leisurely stroll and some good people-watching. You can start this walk just west of the Museum of Archaeology, heading north and following the river. You will have some nice views of vineyards and the Maretsch Castle to your right. When you reach the bridge of St. Antonio, cross it and keep following the river to see the Runkelstein Castle (after about 20 more minutes walking).
Eating in Bolzano was another highlight of this town. A few restaurants to consider trying are Italia & Amore, Wirtshaus Vogele, and Laurin Restaurant. I loved my dinner at Vogele, which was packed with locals and offers an authentic south Tirolean menu. I had their specknodel in broth followed by a local river trout served with seasonal veggies; simple and delicious! Another fun restaurant is Gasthaus Batzenhausl, a historic spot, as it is Bolzano’s oldest inn. It has a casual atmosphere, a lengthy beer list, local wines, and hearty dishes such as the braised lamb shank which I enjoyed one day for lunch (a fancy looking dish that only cost around 14 euros).
All in all, if you enjoy a mountain landscape and amazing panoramic vistas, great food and wine, outdoor activities and a relaxed atmosphere, put the Dolomites on your list, you won’t regret it.
Buon viaggio and Cheers! 😊