It is one of those wonderful Italian moments that you pick up in Northern Italy.
You are driving along the Autostrade, stopping at an auto grill here or an auto grill there, the bathrooms are okay but not brilliant, but the further north that you go, you start to see the signage change.
If you trace the River Adige to its source high up in the Alps, you suddenly uncover a different Italy — Austrian Italy. The signs are in German, the bathrooms are perfectly spotless, and everything is organized. Plus you even get a few Alps thrown into the scene so you know that you are close to Switzerland.
At Bolzano, which is home to the now famous 5,000 year old man, named Ötzi, I chose to take the Autostrade to Merano situated in the Italian Alps and specifically not in the Dolomites which are on the other side of the ridge near Bressanone and Ortisei.
What an incredible place Merano is. First of all, it is the apple capital of Europe. I have never seen so many apples in my life. There are fantastic wines around here as well, notably the white wines. Because of the thermal springs in the area, it has become a world-famous spa resort made famous by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria during the great Hapsburg reign. Nowadays there is a large, modern spa (not offensive) near the center of town on the Passer River. It is great fun with the kids or on a rainy day as there are a series of huge hot baths both indoor and outdoor.
Everything is terribly well organized as it would be in the Sud Tyrol. From the baths, you can stroll through the lanes along the river front to the castle. There are also the most famous botanical gardens in all of Europe just outside of town.
The town itself boasts several fabulous restaurants. Scattered in the hills around the town are standout resorts – some of them with Michelin-starred chefs. My hotel, the Castel Fragsburg, had amazing food, a brilliant chef, and I could not resist the spremuta of apples and celery with olive oil for breakfast in the morning.
About a 10 minute drive from the hotel is where you can pick up the cable car called the Merano 2000. It takes you up to around 10,000 feet and from there you can bike or hike with views across the Alps and the Dolomites in the distance.
This place is amazing. It is an hour and a half from Innsbruck, Austria and three hours from Munich, Germany. You can visit Ötzi in Bolzano or discover the Dolomites on the other side of the valley. It takes an easy three hours from Venice. All you do is take the Autostrade all the way to Verona and then head north.
For my two cents, during the heat of an Italian summer, you cannot beat the diversity and openness of the Italian Alps and Dolomites. There is plenty of sunshine, clean air, fabulous food, and everything works. The Italy of dreams, Merano and the Sud Tyrol!