Tag Archives: Italy

Merano and the Sud Tyrol

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!

The Redentore Festival

I had never been to Venice during the sildenafil citrate 100mg viagra generika Festa del Redentore. It is quite a spectacle. Historically, the Redentore Festival is a celebration of the end of the 16th century plague when 50,000 Venetians died. The Santissimo Redentore Church, on the Giudecca Island, was designed by Andrea Palladio as a mark of thanks by the survivors of the plague. It is a remarkable sight from across the bay. The celebration takes place on the third Sunday in July. As with all ceremonies in Italy, it has taken on a festive air in spite of its melancholy origins. It is basically a party. Venice Redentore collage 2 080714 On the day that I was there, the weather was beautiful and warm and Venice already was bustling with its fair share of tourists. Add all of the locals to this mix as well, along with colored garlands, balloons, and makeshift restaurants around the waterfront, and you have a fun atmosphere. There literally are hundreds and hundreds of boats that come into the water that separates Santa Maria della Salute from the Redentore Church. A pontoon bridge is created to connect one island to another as it has been the way for hundreds of pharmacy online viagra years. At the magic hour of 7:00 pm on the Saturday evening, the bridge is opened. The bridge remains open until the fireworks at 11:00 pm which incidentally last a full hour and are shot into the night air from a string of pontoon boats which sit equidistant from San Marco and the Giudecca. It is semi-casual. People probably get too close to the firework pontoons and goodness knows where the rockets end up landing but no one gets hurt and everyone has fun. Venice Redentore fireworks 1 080714 There is an absolute festival atmosphere both on sildenafil 20 mg tablet the water and in the restaurants and bars that dot the perimeter of the Giudecca and the boardwalk beyond San Marco and down towards the Arsenal. At the end of the fireworks, a siren blows, the boats all free cialis coupon head back to their homes (probably at the Lido or beyond), and the bridge is open again until sunset of the following day. The Lido becomes party-central and restaurants and bars stay open until the sildenafil 100mg chile dawn. The magical 24 hour bridge that connects the Giudecca for a single day in the year is taken down and on Monday the steady stream of traffic flows along the canal once more. It is ironic that the Santa Maria della Salute, a beautiful Baroque church that sits facing Piazza San Marco, was also built to celebrate the end of another plague in nearby Mantova. A ceremony celebrating this church takes place in November and is also symbolized by the joining of the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio to La Salute by a pontoon bridge. Sometimes there is nothing like a plague to inspire great architecture and a fantastic party.

Arma Dei Carabinieri

I confess to not having much to do with the Arma Dei Carabinieri but I have always been slightly curious what role they play versus the polizia in Italy.

Recently, I read an article that helped explain it. As it turns out, the carabinieri are celebrating their 200th birthday this year. In other words, they are older than the Republic of Italy itself which was unified in 1861.

They were founded by Victor Emmanuel I who was the Duke of Savoy and the King of Sardinia. In those days, Italy was a series of regional dynasties each with its own language/dialect and each with its own police force. The name carabinieri actually comes from the rifles they carried — the carabina. When Italy was unified, the royal court became the nationwide military presence and functioned as a duplicate police force in part because of the need to have some unified police presence in a country that was still much divided with towns and regions that saw themselves as more powerful than this entity called Italia.

Not much has changed today. If you are desperate for help, it is not always clear who will show up at your door. In Italy you dial either 112 or 113 whereas in the USA we dial 911. One thing for sure is that two men or women will show up. In Italy, the cops always ride in pairs. This is a change from several years ago when the cops rode in threes and that was in a two-door car!

What is fascinating about the carabinieri is that they are set up a little bit like a military operation. To apply to be a carabinieri, you have to commit to eight years working outside of the province that you live in. Hence the number of southerners that end up working in the north in those carabinieri staziones. Seventy-percent of the entire force comes from four regions in particular – Sicily, Campania, Calabria, and Puglia. These are the same four regions that are the mafia strongholds.

The carabinieri are everywhere. I remember bumping into two of them on a recent ski trip at the top of a station in Cervinia. They were all decked out looking like a couple of Armani models in state-of-the-art ski gear with the words “Carabinieri” plastered all over them. They were keeping an eye on the vigilantes in the mountains no doubt!

They are the butt of many jokes in Italy but the fact is that they represent more than anything the difficulties of integrating all of these diverse regions with different accents, different languages, and different codes of honor under one umbrella. They are not frightening and seem free of corruption. If you ask me who I would rather bump into on the highway, a state cop or a carabinieri, I think that I would choose the carabinieri. Let’s face it – I am less likely to get a speeding ticket that way. It is Italy after all!

Italian Spa Culture

I will always remember the time I went to Montecatini, a spa town outside of Florence. I pulled up to this beautiful gate and saw an elegant driveway that led to one of Italy’s famous spas. Fully expecting hot water thermal springs I was quickly initiated into the non-hot water type of spa. Here it was all about drinking the waters which includes tasting water pulled from taps that looked like beer spigots. You have to taste it to believe that anyone in a sane state would ever believe that this stuff is actually good for you. And so my introduction to the whole spa deal in Italy came full circle, I began to learn about the Italian Spa Culture.

I had previously taken the waters at Saturnia and recently at the delightfully trendy Fonteverde Spa in San Casciano. But here is what is interesting about spa culture in Italy – it is paid for by the government! This is because Italians actually believe that taking in the waters (i.e. drinking awful tasting rotten egg water and lounging in sulfur baths) is going to make a huge difference to our health and longevity.

Italian spa 2 050514

The Italian government allows a week every year to indulge in these ancient spas. Every tax payer has the right for one cycle according to the National Health System. In order to access this, the tax payer needs a prescription by a national health GP. Tax payers between the ages of 6 and 65 are charged a fee of 50 euros for the entire treatment. If your income is less than 36,000 euros, you are entitled to the spa treatment for three euros. Yes, that is right, three euros.

The board and lodging expenses are fully paid by Social Security. It is still not quite as liberal as the “old days” when you could get as many “paid holidays” as you liked within your “nine week vacation allotment.” Also, each spa configures its own scientifically based period for the treatment cycle. Water or mud treatments apparently have a different time period with different spas. So you may be entitled to 14 days according to the specific treatment that you are looking for and who would not look for the 14 day treatment? All hotels located in a spa location have an agreement with Italy’s Social Security to host the tax payers that have been prescribed spa treatment. This includes 5-star deluxe hotels as well as 3- or 4-star hotels. In other words, it is a wonderful paid vacation that even with the chronic economic situation in Italy is still ongoing. Nice!

italian spa gate 050514

Recently at San Casciano, I pulled up to this groovy 5-star retreat and saw a classic Italian moment. There was a wealthy looking guy with his younger companion both in their robes, both smoking cigarettes and with a glass of wine in hand. The notion that spas could have a wellness component that involved working out, yoga, and meditation is a just a mind boggling concept that is not understood in Italian culture. Here lounging in a hot bathtub fed by ancient sulfur springs while taking in the sun and taking time out for a quick cigarette is still all the rage.

So as I was having dinner of pasta with wild boar complemented by the inexpensive and delicious Montepulciano wine, I asked myself, “Who has it right?” I am making my reservations for next year already.

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Another train journey

Across the Simplon pass is the easy way to get down from the cul de sac valley of Zermatt to Italy. But, when the snow is bad and it often is, they close the pass. Its 2108 metres so it becomes impassable frequently. Options then are limited. We took the link from Brig to Iselle, on a car train. Literally, a drive on open train that goes through the Simplon tunnel. Journey time is around 20 minutes and bingo, welcome to Italy. The journey is weird. Total darkness with car upon car jammed together as the train travels at 50 mph. Imagine the relief when the train finally emerges into daylight. Its a short drive to Stresa on Lake Maggiore for a spaghetti! Cost of the train journey is 22 francs per car, about 25 US dollars. Timetables are not much help when the tunnel is the only option as the train just goes back and forth. Wait in between trains is about an hour and a half. Another train journey!

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The Perks of the Dolomites in the Summer

After a minor hassle at the car rental counter in Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, I drove with my Stradale d’Italia Atlas away from the busy tourist town and up through the northern lakes of Italy; making a stop in Sirmione on Lake Garda for a lunch.

My aim was to go on a scenic route to the Dolomites to look at some possible itinerary ideas  for our groups while taking in some cool mountain air and maybe escaping the heat that had engulfed all of Europe.

I have been to the Dolomites to ski a couple of times in the past few years. It has the largest connected network of ski trails in the world. However, I had never visited in the summertime before.

It’s quite something.

The first thing that is clear as you climb north beyond the lakes and across the spectacular vineyards that hang on the lower slopes of the mountains is that the signage shifts language.  Entering the Südtirol, or in Italian “Alto Adige,” named after the river, you have the distinct feeling that you are not in Italy anymore. The shape of the churches, the colors of the buildings, dare I say it — the overall cleanliness of the towns, and the lack of chaos indicate that you may be in Austria or Germany. Guess what? You really are!

After Austria was defeated in the First World War, the Italians grabbed the Südtirol and renamed it the “Alto Adige.”  Every German name was given an Italian name –- Bozen became Bolzano, St. Ulrich became Ortisei, Kastelruth became Castelrotto, and so on.

The government wooed the German-speaking population and their politicians with vast amounts of money and economic incentives. Thus, the Südtirol is the richest area in all of Italy. Needless to say, they do not exactly embrace the Italian side of their heritage. Mainly, because there is none! Political parties often talk of secession but given their relative amount of independence and the money that goes into keeping them happy, these German speakers have a pretty good deal.

The area is absolutely spectacular.

The Dolomites with their pinkish hue are not as foreboding as the neighboring Alps in Switzerland and France. You can stay in towns such as Ortisei or Castelrotto (or as I did in Fiè allo Sciliar) and from there you can take advantage of the highly efficient lift system which connects the various resorts together. Once atop the plateau, there are fabulous walks, mountain bikes for hire, and even lakes to swim in. In the distance, the higher mountains still have snow on them.

However, I focused on the Alpe di Siusi, which is Europe’s largest high-alpine meadow and separates two of the most famous valleys in the Dolomites, the Val de Fassa and Val Gardena. The altitude is not even 7,000 feet, but you are up there in the mountains with phenomenal views that seem to stretch to the horizon.

While I was there, the farmers were busy haying, the cows were grazing with their bells on, and there was a steady flow of serious hikers with backpacks and poles heading to the higher terrain. The colors are beautiful and wildflowers of blues, yellows, and reds are everywhere. From a distance, it appears that the mountains have been carpeted with a gorgeous tapestry.

Alpine huts dot the landscape and are for rent in both the summer and winter seasons. The sun holds along the flat plains for most of the day. There are restaurants discreetly tucked in between the trails and using the system of gondolas and simple ski lifts, you can traverse up to around 10,000 feet.

The walks are incredible, the views are amazing, and at the end of the day, the food is extraordinary, not to mention the glorious wines from the vineyards below. They are some of the best in the world.

This is a fabulous place to wander off the beaten path. Everything works and remarkably we are still in Italy. If you have never been to the Dolomites in the summer, it is a well worthwhile two-day deviation from Venice.

Watch out for itineraries to follow. This is a great winter and summer break excursion.

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