Spaghetti doesn't reach this far

The ancient spa town of Merano may be in the Italian Tyrol but it is very Austrian, writes John Brunton
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The Independent Travel

Meet an Italian in the mountains of Alto Adige and you will be greeted by a friendly " Gruss Gott" instead of " Ciao". Locals prefer roast pork and sauerkraut to spaghetti, and streets tend to be known by their Germanic name - Freiheitstrasse, say, instead of Corso Liberta. Welcome to the Italian Tyrol, a semi-autonomous region of splendid Alpine scenery, fairytale castles and onion-domed churches. The most beautiful spot is the spa town of Merano, an hour's drive from Austria.

Meet an Italian in the mountains of Alto Adige and you will be greeted by a friendly " Gruss Gott" instead of " Ciao". Locals prefer roast pork and sauerkraut to spaghetti, and streets tend to be known by their Germanic name - Freiheitstrasse, say, instead of Corso Liberta. Welcome to the Italian Tyrol, a semi-autonomous region of splendid Alpine scenery, fairytale castles and onion-domed churches. The most beautiful spot is the spa town of Merano, an hour's drive from Austria.

Why go?

It's a picture-perfect medieval town of spires and onion domes. You can get there by train, and walk or ride a horse into the hills and vineyards.

First impressions of Merano tend to come from the main street, Via Portici, a medieval arcade where dozens of alleys shoot off into a rabbits' warren of leafy courtyards, cobbled squares, smoky wine bars, known here as " Weinstuben", craftsmen's workshops and ancient palaces, whose walls are decorated with Alpine frescoes. Both sides of the arcade are lined with speciality shops, selling everything from Tyrolean hats, embroidered leather jackets and jewellery to smoked ham, dried mushrooms and fiery grappa. The arcade comes out in front of Merano's 14th-century cathedral.

Leading from the town are three routes offering unforgettable trips into the mountains. Follow directions to San Martino and the road winds through the spectacular Val Passiria. Head to Lana, and a narrow mountain path to the village of San Pancrazio, in the Val d'Ultimo, takes you past medieval fortresses and tiered vineyards, while the scenic circuit along snow-capped mountains from Avelango to Terlano is so high above the Adige valley that you often drive over the clouds. As the road comes out at Terlan, follow signs for the "Cantina Terlan" (Via Silberleiten, tel: 0471 257135), an outstanding wine cooperative which groups all the village's growers. Be prepared for a marathon tasting, and don't miss the crisp, fruity Sauvignon, recently voted one of Italy's finest white wines.

Why now? Because Christmas comes early in Merano, with a daily Mercatino di Natale beginning on 24 November where children can stare wide-eyed at ginger-bread Father Christmases or roughly carved wooden reindeer. There's not a video game, Barbie doll or computer to be seen. The Christmas market is a celebration of all that is traditional and old-fashioned about Christmas.

The town square looks like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and on every corner there's a stand serving steaming hot mugs of Glühwein. Dray horses pull visitors round in a carriage garlanded with holly and mistletoe, and a special post office is set up for children to send off letters asking for presents - surprisingly addressed to "Baby Jesus" rather than Father Christmas.

There's a non-stop programme of animation, ranging from parades, street theatre, gospel groups, Celtic singers, and Baroque music recitals to performances featuring Alpine horns, puppet shows and clowns. Sunday is the busiest day, attracting up to 100,000 visitors.

Remember this The town is divided by the fast-flowing river Passirio, and on the other bank from the arcades is the renowned Spa, the Terme di Merano (Via Piave 9), set in a splendid, semi-tropical botanical garden, where for half a day you can relax in hot mud baths or try out aroma therapy, massage or Merano's speciality 19th-century "cure" based on eating grapes.

After the market you can ski. Don't miss a great chairlift right in the middle of town (Via Galilei) to the mountain village of Dorf Tirol, which has panoramic views over Merano and the Alps.

Eating out Eating and drinking are two of the biggest reasons to visit Merano, though you will find tasty "canederli" dumplings where you might have expected pasta. Parma ham is replaced by the much stronger "speck", and for desert expect a spicy strudel rather than tiramisu. The best restaurant is the elegant Sissi (Via Galilei 44, tel: 0473 231062), whose chef, Andrea Fenoglio, serves dishes such as gnocchi stuffed with porcini mushrooms and pumpkin risotto, while for a romantic meal, reserve a table in the frescoed Tyrolean dining room of Gasthaus Santer Klause (Vicolo Passiria 34, tel: 0473 234086).

For a fun lunch of typical " bierkeller" fare - sausages, sauerkraut and foaming mugs of ale - Merano's brewery has its own lively restaurant, the Birreria Forst (Corso Liberta 90, tel: 0473 236536), while the best place to taste the region's excellent wines is Enoteca wine bar, (Piazza del Duomo, 13), run by two knowlegeable ladies, Inge and Claudia, who will introduce you to vintages such as Blauburgunder and Lagrein Dunkel. One out-of-town spot that promises an unforgettable experience is Onkel Taa (Via Statzione 17, Tvll village, tel: 0473 967342), run by chef Karl Platino, better known as "The King of Snails", who has more than 30 dishes on his menu devoted to l'escargot. The incredible decor of the restaurant is dedicated to the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef.

Getting there

The best plan is to fly to the nearest international airport, Verona. Trains run regularly between Verona and Merano. Or you can hire a car, and then Merano is a speedy 150 kilometres straight up the autostrada. There is also a direct route, via the picturesque Valsugana, from Treviso airport.

Where to stay The grandest address in town is the venerable Hotel Palace, a pastel yellow mansion set in beautiful gardens, with a luxury thermal and beauty centre (double room from L350,000, Via Cavour 2, tel: 0473 271000, fax: 0473 271100, email: info@palace.it). There are many excellent-value three- and four-star traditional Tyrolean guest houses, like the Hotel Sittnerhof (double room from L260,000 including lunch or dinner, Via Verdi 58, tel: 0473 446331, fax: 0473 220631, email: info@sittnerhof.it) and Hotel Anatol (double room from L260,000 including lunch or dinner, Via Castagni 3, tel: 0473 237511, fax: 0473 237110, email: marie@pass.dnet.it). They are extremely comfortable, with pools and spa centres, though most hotels in this category insist on including lunch or dinner in the deal on offer. For a cheaper bed&breakfast, right in the medieval centre, try Albergo Rainer (double room from L140,000, Via Portici 266, tel: 0473 236149)

Deals and packages For travellers visiting during the Christmas market period there are a series of incentives for those staying a minimum of two nights, ranging from a free guided tour of the city to a surprise Christmas present - full details from the local tourism office. British Airways flies direct to Verona from Gatwick every day. During November you can fly for £99 including taxes on selected off-peak flights. Weekend flights are from £96 excluding taxes. Alitalia flies to Verona via Milan and is charging £99 return including taxes on all Monday to Thursday departures. Bookings must be made before 13 November and time spent in Italy must include a Saturday. Standard flight prices are from £155 midweek and £165 at weekends.

Further information Rather than go through the Italian Tourism Office in London, make direct contact with the highly efficient local bureau in Merano itself, where English is widely spoken. The office has excellent brochures on the city and surrounding region in English, and can advise on hotels too. It also has information on the Christmas markets in all the neighbouring Italian Tyrol villages. Azienda di Turismo Merano, Corso Liberta 45, 39012 Merano (tel: 0473 235223; fax: 0473 235 524; email: info@meraninfo.it; net: www.meraninfo.it).

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