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The Winter Magic of the Dolomites

Aug 17, 2007
Residents of the Alto Adige region of Italy will tell you that it is impossible to understand the true majesty of mountains until you have seen the Dolomites. For while every mountain landscape is spectacular in its own way, the Dolomites have something extra. Perhaps it's their position in the heart of Europe, or it may be the pink hues of their sunsets caused by the fact that they were once coral formations that rose up from the seabed 25 million years ago. Maybe it is the host of stories and history they have played witness to, invasions and exodus, as the portal to and from Austria. The colors of the Dolomites make it akin to an enchanted garden: the fresh, verdant meadows framed by the darker greens of the woods, the pink hue of the mountains against the white of the glaciers at their peaks and the sky that resembles a cut canvas with the sharp outline of the peaks against blue sky and white cotton-candy clouds.

Merano, the heart of the Dolomites, is a geographic anomaly. Predominantly German-speaking, it seems to belong to neighboring Austria, but is 70 miles inside the border of Italy, a consequence of the redrawing of borders after World War I. Many street and shop signs are bilingual, but to Germans and Austrians, Merano is still Meran. The architecture of the region is decidedly Tyrolean, with wrought-iron balconies making way for classic wooden carved ones characteristic of the Austrian and Swiss alps, a change in shape of church bell-towers that is almost Byzantine, and food that leans towards Italy's northern neighbors rather than the traditional Italian dishes.

Bisected by the Passirio River, which pours into the Adige, the city of 32,000 residents combines red-roofed arcaded buildings, historic churches and flower-embroidered parks, Merano, is tucked into the intersection of four mountain valleys spilling down from lower Alpine ranges. Its protected location, about 1,000 feet above sea level and shielded from the north, east and west, has given it a climate mild enough to nurture vineyards as well as palm trees, oleander and fruit trees that blossom against a backdrop of snowy peaks.

This Alpine town has been famous as far back as the 1500s for its milk cures in the spring and grape cures in the fall for digestive disorders. These recuperative remedies kept a constant flow of tourism into the region, especially during the 1800s when Sisi, beloved empress of Austria, became enamored with these cures. Subsequently, Merano was ravaged by World War I and II and the tourism trade did not return until sometime in the 1960s.

In summer, the mountain peaks are alive with wildflowers and pasturing creatures. But it is winter here that has captures my fancy. The peaks are snow-capped and still, but below the passegiata along the river is bustling with the Christmas mercatino, and every street is strewn with decorative no stunning holiday lights as charming as a Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale alla italiana. True to their Italian and Germanic roots, the merchants sell everything from the colorful sarcastic-looking befana, the satirical witch who brings candy to Italian children who leave their shoes by the front door on the eve of the Epiphany, to the weihnachtspyramide, a Germanic wooden Christmas decoration that moves and twirls with the natural thermo-dynamic heat of candles. Shoppers sip warm vin brule, a lovely mulled wine with blended spices, and eat huge salted pretzels. Children ice-skate to the tune of a Tyrolean band, and the smell of roasting chestnuts wafts through the air.

There are so many hotels in this area, one for everyone's taste and pocketbook, but I was on a mission to find the one that had it all. I was searching for an ambiance of old-world charm with modern amenities, a staff trained to sophistication, but friendly and unassuming, a restaurant with healthy, but sumptuous cuisine, and perhaps even a small spa as a respite from holiday shopping.
Talking to locals, I was surprised and pleased to find out that a hotel fitting my description existed. It is called Castel Rundegg Hotel & Beauty Farm, and it is, indeed, a castle, a hotel, and if you think the "beauty farm" connotes something old-fashioned, think again. The Chinese philosophy upon which most of the treatments are based, is obviously of ancient origins, but the spa and treatment area itself is renovated to the most modern and elegant of standards.

Descending the stairs from the ancient castle to the bright new spa, is like transcending instantaneously from the 16th century to the present.
Many of the treatments, from facials to massages are based on bioenergetic Tai Yang principals that use acupressure to combat a multitude of ailments. These are no warm and fuzzy weekend-getaway "relax" treatments. They are real, honest-to-goodness curative treatments that leave you feeling as if you explored some kind of long-term anatomical improvement couched in pleasure from scalp to toe. Above all, and this is my favorite part, these are treatments, the results of which, transcend the treatment room and stay with you for days, weeks, or if you're lucky enough and open enough a life time.

A dream-stay would be the Rundegg "Get in Shape" week which includes seven days full-board, six massages, a hydrotherapy treatment, a facial, a peeling, and a manicure and pedicure. Picture beginning every morning with acqua gymnastics, followed by a healthy, but sumptuous, breakfast. Every meal eaten in their elegant dining room will be the height of haute cuisine, but carefully tailored to your needs. Should you chose, you may have a complete medical and diet evaluation. But either way, guests enjoy unlimited use of the indoor pool, Finnish sauna, steam bath, Kneipp pool, Scottish shower, and yoga classes. The entire package is 2,100 Euro per person, per week. A month sounds good to me. Best of all, you'll be in the loving hands of Peter and Adriana Castelforte and regardless of your age, they will treat you like their own son or daughter while you are entrusted to their capable hands.

Brand new to Merano are the thermal baths and spa at the Therme Merano. The Merano Thermal Baths offer 25 pools and treatment baths for a full spa experience, from the cold dip pool for the sauna to a warm whirlpool with its clouds of vapor. You'll be carried by water-power through the current-pool, swim with the buoyancy of the sea in the brine pool, and enjoy the 240 meter pool, where you may start indoors and simply swim out to the mountain scenery. There are also two steam baths, a solarium, a hay bath, a caldarium and an outside Finnish log-cabin sauna. If the cold water dips aren't adequate to cool you off after a hot sauna, try the Snow Room, where it literally snows from the ceiling, the walls and floor are snow-packed, and you have the feeling of being in the midst of the glaciers of South Tyrol regardless of the season.

Lastly, you'll have a myriad of restaurants to choose from in addition to the one at Hotel Rundegg. For variation, I highly recommend at least one dinner at Restaurant Sissi, named after the Empress herself, where owner-chef Andrea Fenoglio will mesmerize you with cuisine that is modern in its presentation, but respectful of Tyrolean tradition, sauteed with a bit of playful imagination. My favorite dessert was called www. quattrobanane.com, but don't try to look it up on the internet, it's strictly for human consumption, not for your computer's search engine. Literal translation, four bananas; culinary translation is that you will just have to try it for yourself.

More idyllic than this, you'll have to create your own fairytale.
About the Author
Denise Hummel is an American, who moved to Italy with her husband and children for a one year cross-cultural experience that has expanded to two. Denise Hummel directs a communications business focused on tourism called Imagine Communications.
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