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The Dolomites Of Italy

Aug 17, 2007
Residents of the Alto Adige region of Italy will tell you that you cannot claim to be true lovers of the mountains if you have not seen the Dolomites. For while every mountain landscape is beautiful in its own way, the Dolomites are like the precious stones of an old family ring -- they have something extra. Perhaps its 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 is a geographic anomaly. Predominantly German-speaking, it seems to belong to neighboring Austria, but is 70 miles inside 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. Dominating the riverfront promenade is the Kurbad built in 1914, which will open in September 2005, offering a full array of sulfur and radon baths, mudpacks, saunas and bathing pools.

Merano, which traces its history as a settlement some 2,000 years before Christ, 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 Merano a climate mild enough to nurture vineyards as well as palm trees, oleander and fruit trees that blossom against a backdrop of snowy peaks.

Merano has been famous as far back as the1500s 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 until 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. For me, the magic of Merano is the beauty of its historic piazza's and pedestrian areas, including its café-lined river on one side and lush park on the other. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch with a complicated ice-cream dessert that was almost too beautiful to eat, while listening to the sound of the river and gazing at the 360-degree view of the mountains. Later attempted to shed a few well-earned calories by walking on the opposite side in the public park.

Among the many beautiful vacation accommodations is the beautiful Castello Schloss Labers situated on a hill looking down over the vineyards and up at the Alps. For a long time, the history of Schloss Labers remained shrouded in mystery. A castle built in the 11th century, it has been owned by the Stapf-Neubert family since 1885. During World War II, however, it was used by an SS Task Force to launder counterfeit British Pounds. "Operation Bernhard," as it was called, was a scheme to enrich the Third Reich and undermine the British economy by a massive counterfeiting of the Pound Sterling and ultimately exchanging fake banknotes for real ones. At that time, the owners of the castle, the Stapf-Neubert family, were forced out. They took refuge with neighbors for the duration of the operation and were not permitted access to the castle. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, the SS Task Force disappeared in 1945. Apparently, Colonel Friedrich Schwend, the mastermind, was taken into custody by American counterintelligence and avoided prosecution by becoming an Allied informant. After one year in this role, he and his wife slipped out of Europe on false passports and settled in Lima, Peru, where he ultimately lived out his life in the open.

When the Stapf-Neubert family crept back in after the Nazi exodus, they knew not what they would find. It was not surprising that on further investigation it seemed that the Germans had managed to take just about everything. In the following years, the family engaged workers to dig through some of the basement walls of the castle, wondering if they might have hidden any of the counterfeit British pounds, or anything else that might shed light on this intriguing piece of history. Ultimately, all that they were able to find were two cards from a deck of cards, determined by archeologists to have been used recreationally by German troops.

The castle has been a hotel since 1885, surrounded by vineyards, and it was there that we ventured to enjoy a weekend in the Dolomiti (Dolomites). The stout front door opens to a large entrance hall with pikes and muskets on the wall and archways leading to a stone staircase with an iron balustrade. The dining-room is graced by a grand piano and classical music was wafting through the halls, along with the savory smells of dinner as we entered. Our room was "king-sized", spacious enough to swallow up the large wooden beds, tables and armoire that might once have served knights and damsels, contrasted with a modern bath. The view was breath-taking. We looked out over the chapel, which was originally utilized as a chapel, then converted into a pool-room in 1890 and back again into a quaint Catholic chapel in 1990 used for services on Saturday night. Beyond it, was a view of the terrace, with its white umbrellas shading wrought iron tables and chairs with fluffy cushions. And beyond it further still is a spectacular view of the Alps, Val D'Ultimo and the Dolomites. Incredibly romantic and perfect for couples, the castle is also surprisingly "kid-friendly." Our children loved playing chess in the dining room, right next to the Grand Piano and on Sunday had the opportunity to play tennis, ping pong, and billiards, before going on a hike on the Castle's property.

The rest of Castello Schloss Labers' 35 guest rooms and halls also retained a medieval air. There were vaulted ceilings, heavy exposed beams and rooms trimmed in pine and chestnut. The corridor floors creaked, and under the red carpet the wide staircase was of granite. Dinner that night was elegant. A princely atmosphere with vaulted mahogany ceilings that looked like an inverted Scandinavian ship, revealing the Stapf-Neubert family's Danish roots and taste in ornamentation. We began with Lasagnette mit weissem spargel, Prager Schinken, or rather in Italian, Lasagnette con asparaghi bianchi, prosciutto di Praga, or if you prefer the English spelling, Lasagna with white asparagus and ham from Prague. We continued with Scampi with Curry and Pineapple, with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and finished with lemon sorbet. Our choices included other tasteful blends of Italian and Tyrolean cuisine, befitting the region. Dinner was accompanied by the Castle's own label wine, Schiava di Merano, a product of their own vineyards that surround the property and are cultivated by the niece of owners Joerg and Beatrice Stapf.

Indeed, one of the notable advantages of this region is the plethora of fine wines. We sampled some of them at the Enoteca Claudia in the Piazza del Duomo: a delicate Chardonnay 2003, St. Michael-Eppan, a more robust Sudtirol-Alto Adige Eisacktaler Sylvaner 2004, and an equally tasty wine of the same grape by Muller Thurgau 2001. Then on to red wines, a Sudtirol St. Magdalener Classico 2004 and a Sudtiroler Lagrein Dunkel Grieser Reserve that was superb.

Our second dinner in Merano, a significant contrast from the first, was enjoyed at Kallmunz Restaurant right in the center of town at Piazza Rena. It is a combination of Italian and Japanese cuisine, completely uncharacteristic of the region, but surprisingly highly acclaimed by locals. Chief Luigi Ottaiano has teamed with three Japanese collaborators to produce a menu which combines the freshest of Italian ingredients with a decidedly Japanese flavor, and an elegant presentation in a modern, minimalist environment. We enjoyed Patè di asparagi con salsa Alicante e pan brioche agli asparagi , Taglierini di pane al sugo di quaglie e asparagi, Ravioli di piselli con ragù di seppie, Petto di faraona farcito alle erbe con lattuga romana brasata, and Boulangère di rombo alle erbe aromatiche con capperi e cipollotti. Our dinner was accompanied by a white wine, a Sauvignon Graf Von Meran, directly from the vineyards of Merano and it was splendid.

A more traditional alternative, also acclaimed by locals, but which we did not have opportunity to try, would be Leiter AmWaal in the neighboring town of Plars/Algund. A typical Tyrolean menu enjoyed in a historic dining room.

After you've relaxed in a local spa, finished with the pool at Castello Schloss Labers, and you're ready for some adventure, get in the car and drive from Merano to Bolzano. There, by following signs to Canazei, then Arabba and ultimately Cortina D'Ampezzo, you will surround yourself with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Around every hair-pin turn, and there are many, another spectacular scene awaits. We shot no less than ten roles of film, and then only by showing incredible restraint. In May the foliage was literally exploding, green fields of grass, consumed by thousands of wild-flowers -- yellows, purples and whites. Alpine chalet's hanging precariously cliff-side as if they belonged more to the sky, than the earth; glacier-topped mountains in the background, pasture-land and vineyards in the foreground. Then, just past Arabba and onto Cortina, the pink-tinted Dolomites, still tinged with snow, stark and craggy cutting the blue sky. Locals will tell you that the drive is 2 ½ hours. Please count on 5. It's a full day experience. Come armed with a picnic lunch. When you arrive in Cortina D'Ampezzo, have a gelato and look around at the shops. Try to show restraint as the prices are about as high as the mountain chain. Then make your way back to Merano by the quick northerly route that is mostly two lane "highway." You'll get back just in time for a shower and dinner.

Should you be lucky enough to have an extra day, a great educational experience for the kids involves visiting the "old dude," as we affectionately nicknamed him. The old dude, better known as the "Ice Man," is a 5,300-year-old mummy found in 1991 by German hikers on their honeymoon. They discovered him sticking out of a melting glacier high in the Tirol mountains. Scientists have yet to determine whether he was of Alpine origin or merely trying to cross the Alps. His equipment and one of his last meals seem to have come from lower-altitude valleys, nearer Verona. New forensic analysis in 2001 demonstrated that he was apparently shot in the shoulder with an arrow shortly before he died. Was he ambushed? Was it a hunting accident? War? The figure was accompanied by a flint dagger, a copper ax, a quiver with flint-tipped arrows, shoes, some remnants of his clothing and a bear-skin hat. It is a fascinating exhibit for the whole family, but children in particular, will be in awe of this magnificent find.

As family destinations go, Merano is clearly one of our favorites. There is something for every member of the family, regardless of energy level or mood. When you you're surrounded by the Dolomite mountains, all other pleasures are secondary.
About the Author
Denise Hummel is a native of New York, who moved to Italy with her husband and children. She directs a public relations/ communications business focused on intercultural issues."
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