Merano is not Murano: Sud Tirol, Alto Adige and the Dolomites

Merano is not Murano.  That seems obvious when reading it, but when told that we are staying in a centuries old hotel that once was a hunting lodge in that location, the immediate reaction was – ‘huh, that is really interesting…’  So I initially thought Murano…canals, gondolas, glassblowing, etc., all of which could not be further from the truth….even if you do fly in to the same airport (Venice)!

As a result of this phonetic mixup, Merano was more than a pleasant surprise – a spa town with restorative waters that people have been visiting since the 1930s.  It is surrounded by impressive peaks and is super quaint but yet cosmopolitan at the same time, Mediterranean influenced but with an alpine feel…  a half Italian, half German gateway to the Dolomites.

In every shop, restaurant, or café one is greeted with “Bitte, Prego” as this area with its interesting history (Italian, Austro-Hungarian… World War challenges and annexation only fully resolved as recently as 1972.. check Wikipedia If interested)  is today almost 50/50 German and Italian speaking.  We did not hear any other languages while there (leaving behind the well-documented tourist masses that flock to the other ‘Merano’ near Venice) – and enjoyed what feels like an undiscovered, un-touristy corner of the world.

Merano along the river

Merano along the river

We’ve come to the conclusion that this region has to be ranked in the list of top unsung destinations in Europe- especially in the non-winter sports months… unknown by all except for the maybe the German and Italian regular visitors who, it seem, very much prefer to keep it that way…

And high above the town sits Castel Fragsburg, the aforementioned former hunting lodge now five star resort that has been sympathetically and thoughtfully restored by the Ortner family. It is almost impossibly located – perched on the side of a South Tyrolean peak among the regions ubiquitous grape vines and apple trees, with views that honestly have to be seen to be believed.

Caste Fragsburg Sud Tirol Dolomites Italy

This small area of Sud Tirol or Südtirol or Trentino-Alto Adige has a microclimate (more mild in the summers, cooler in the summer with 300 days of sun per year) that has lured visitors for over 350 years for various pursuits.  Castel Fragsburg is unique in that it has the feel of one of the top grand European hotels, but yet it has just 20 suites. It initially appears that it may be over the top luxury when you first drive through their entryway, but then the property reveals a mountain lodge feel, which is complemented by a nod to its past with faultless décor, the staff’s traditional regional clothing, and the fact that the Ortner family has instilled a level of service that blends impeccable hospitality with being welcomed as friends.

South Tyrol / Sud Tirol:  where apple orchards meet vineyards

South Tyrol / Sud Tirol:  where apple orchards meet vineyards

On top of this all it has a Michelin starred restaurant, with full 180 degree views of the mountains across and valley below which can be enjoyed from a terrace literally clinging to the edge of the property during the warmer summer months.  A truly fun menu is a reference point for the abundant produce of the region.  It allows you to explore the best of Italian, Austrian andGermanic influences on the local diet, and is complemented by a wine list that highlights the again fantastic but yet somewhat underappreciated (by the rest of the world) wines of the area…  we’d suggest a local Nosiola from the Trentino DOC!

Castel Fragsburg Restaurant Terrace

Castel Fragsburg Restaurant Terrace

I cannot think of another location where we have dined with such a spectacular setting.  The quality and presentation of the food distracts from the amazing views and the fact you feel like you are suspended above the scenery, while the ever-changing light on the surrounding mountains and valley below distracts from the food and wine in front of you…. and then eventually you succumb to the additional distraction of your suite.

Summer Dining - Castel Fragsburg

Summer Dining - Castel Fragsburg

Castel Fragsbug Suite

Castel Fragsbug Suite

Castel Fragsburg is a perfect place for a vacation/holiday. A property where one could stay and rest (and dine) comfortably for weeks at a time without leaving, or alternatively it is perfectly located as a jumping off point to explore the forests, lakes, waterfalls (one of which is just an easy 15 minute walk from the hotel) and the mountains of the Dolomites and Tyrol Schistose Alps with epic day hikes and adventures available within easy striking distance.

One day hike falling in to that category that we might categorize as a ‘must do’ is the often Instagrammed but has to be seen in real-life Seceda, or Seceda-2500m depending on what your search preference is.  Just an hour from Merano and short on time we took the Ortisei to Seceda cable car up and then quickly separated ourselves from the groups beginning their day hikes in this area of the Dolomites.  The geology here is very unique – striated pyramids jutting up from green alpine fields and cliffs plunging off on one side.  In the other direction: panoramic views complemented by the often changing and variable weather conditions that only add to the dramatic setting. 

Day Hiking Seceda 2500m

Day Hiking Seceda 2500m

It continues to amaze us that such spectacular settings are so accessible as day hikes, and that there is such an abundance of hiking opportunities seemingly from every picturesque town that you stumble upon (we’d highly recommend a visit just to see the quaint  Ortisei / Urtijëi and the Val Gardena).  

We are on a mission to explore this area more broadly and further lift the veil on this fantastic region. Each return trip home results in a feeling that we need to go back again soon… and we will!

The Best of the Dolomites: An Unpredictable Weekend Packed with Adventure

After an early morning flight to Venice, and complete chaos at the Avis rental desk, we were on the road headed to northern Italy – which, yes, you can reach in an easy couple hour’s drive from Venice.  Our windshield wipers were working overtime the entire drive, and we kept refreshing our trifecta of weather apps, in hopes that they would reveal that mother nature would have some change of heart for the day.  Not exactly the best start to our Italian Dolomites hiking trip, we thought.  But onward we pressed.  Finally: a weather window appeared on our Storm weather app: 7pm that night. “Fine,” we reasoned. We would hang out in Misurina, 15 minutes away from the hike we had planned our trip around: the Tre Cime di Lavarado.  I’ve never complained about lingering in small town Italy for 6 hours, eating pizza and sipping on Italian wines.... first world problems, right? A sunset hike instead; no problem!

We idled in a parking lot for an hour, trying to decide which restaurant would best suit our long term idle afternoon itinerary.  In reality, the unspoken truth is that we were stalling, convincing ourselves that waiting 6-7 hours for a possibly messy and potentially even dangerous hike would indeed be the best decision.  Finally, as we were about to enter a restaurant to begin our wait, the weather app refreshed again: there would be storms all through the evening, and the thunder and lightning were not going to cease any time soon.  A quick glance at each other and we already knew Tre Cime was not in the cards.

We admitted defeat.  But only for today.  Tomorrow would be a new day.

With our hiking plans demolished, we turned our sights towards the other main attraction of the region: great accommodations, and food & wine to rival any across the globe.  When planning our hiking-focused trip, we had used hikes at Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee), and Seceda in Ortisei, Italy to triangulate our agenda, and help us locate a perfect hotel which would allow us to quickly reach each of our favorite sites.  Our objective was to find excellent accommodations which would not only serve as a good launching pad for each hike, but also provide a tranquil and enjoyable experience after long days on our feet.

Hotel Petrus Adventure Map

Hotel Petrus Adventure Map

But first: despite the rain out preventing us from doing the big Tre Cime hike, we were determined to still hit at least one of our planned destinations the first day.  We would pass the turn for Pragser Wildsee area on our way to our hotel, so we decided to make the quick 20 minute detour over to see if we could at least catch a few views of the oft-Instagrammed Lago di Braies.  The clouds looked like they were clearing ever so slightly in that direction, so we made an attempt.  After all, aren’t some of the best Instagrammed photos a little moody, foggy, and sometimes rainy in all the right kind of emo ways? We had to at least try.  If for no other reason than to prove to ourselves that our driving all over Italy all day chasing views and weather windows was not for naught.

Hotel Petrus - Lago di Braies View

Fortunately, our efforts were rewarded.  Our day was slightly salvaged by the fact that we were actually able to catch a weather window in which we could see the majority of the mountains around the famous lake, as well as capture a few moody rainy photos – overall, not a total loss, and enough to scratch our nature itch for the day.  We considered it a win.

Hotel Petrus - Lago di Braies

A quick hour drive after the rain-out fiasco and the rebound at Lago di Braies, we arrived at Hotel Petrus – perfectly located and central for all of our weekend objectives. 

Before even entering the hotel, we were greeted on the entrance carpet by Lila, the family’s impossibly cute oversized dog.  Lila the dog even has her own page on the Hotel Petrus website, which we think says all you need to know about the love and care the Petrus family has for its staff – dogs included.

After a brief cuddle session with Lila (I never can resist), Petrus’ welcoming staff showed us around their property and invited us to ease our residual rain-out disappointment with a visit to their spa.  The hotel’s many calming spaces soothed our rainy day blues – and provided an oasis for relaxation as we rearranged our next few days’ itinerary.

Hotel Petrus Relaxation Room



Hotel Petrus is entirely charming. The Aichners manage to make it feel like an extension of their home, while providing modern, top-grade facilities in a quiet and compelling mountainside location.  They treated us like family throughout our stay. It is not often that one finds a perfect fusion of luxury hotel blended with bed & breakfast familiarity, and so we found it to be quite strikingly special and unique.  All year round, Hotel Petrus is extremely welcoming of not only couples like ourselves, but of families who are looking for a farm-like, mountain-themed experience. They offer hiking routes of varying difficulty, horse riding / lessons at their very own stables, and the opportunity to spend some time playing with the goats on the Petrus farm.

Upon checking in, we arrived to our lodge-like room to find a selection of vegetables presented to us from that very same Petrus farm.  The radishes were the spiciest we had ever tasted, and it was a perfect way to whet our appetite in advance of our dinner reservation later that evening.

Hotel Petrus Welcome Veggies

Hotel Petrus Welcome Veggies

As we munched away, we perused the Petrus materials and checked out the backpack they make available to guests in the room, whilst taking in views of the slopes of the Kronplatz (the most modern ski area in the South Tyrol region – queue a return visit in winter!) as the weather began to cooperate (we hoped).

Hotel Petrus Balcony View

Hotel Petrus Balcony View

And soon thereafter, we headed downstairs to dinner.

Hotel Petrus’ restaurant was awarded a toques by Gault & Millau in 2016 and deservedly so. And here again the staff at Hotel Petrus manage to achieve that unique feel of both luxury and home.  Our meal provided a sampling of the best of local South Tyrolean cuisine with the taste and presentation of an award winning restaurant. And their wine (something that has strongly attracted us to this region) did not disappoint.  If you choose to partake, get the house red.  We found it to be so good that we brought two bottles back home!


4am: the first alarm sounds.  Dawn Patrol, indeed.

We snoozed until 4:10am, and by 4:15am we were quietly exiting our room and headed for the entrance… After a brief panic and snafu at the realization we hadn’t a clue how to get our car out of the garage before regular hours (thank you to whoever answered our panicked 4:40am call and gave us instructions!), we were off.

It turned out to be a blue bird morning just as we had hoped for, and the alpine start was entirely worth it. We parked in a near empty parking lot, and set off seeing just one other person on the trail to Tre Cime and the Locatelli Refugio.  We couldn’t help but stop every 30 seconds to take photos, as the light was constantly changing on the peaks as the sun rose over the horizon and spilled varying hues of orange and pink over the traditionally white and gray Dolomiti.  And then the full daylight set in, and the peaks returned to their normal hues and the cows were out in volumes to start their grazing.

Tre Cime Hike

Tre Cime Hike

We were a bit ambitious with the hike, veering off the intended path towards another section of the park, often walking in silence as we continued off on side trails, eager to see what was around each bend.

Halfway through the hike, one reaches the Rifugio Locatelli high up in the mountains.  We arrived just as the climbers who had stayed overnight were emerging from their rooms, gulping down coffee by the buckets, and heading out to start their own days’ aspirational hikes and climbs.  We highly recommend a stopover at the Rifugio for a truly unique experience in sharing in mountain and climbing culture at its finest.  No frills (or WiFi) are needed up there and it’s not hard to appreciate the simplicity of it all.  Being mountain lovers ourselves, it was a stark reminder of how little we need to be truly happy: a cup of joe, an incredible adventure, and good people to share it with is really all that’s necessary.

Rifugio Locatelli - Tre Cime,  Dolomites

Rifugio Locatelli - Tre Cime,  Dolomites

Upon returning to Hotel Petrus, we did not need to say more than 3 words before the staff knew exactly what we needed after an early morning of mountain adventuring.  We had missed breakfast in our quest to see as much as possible while in the Dolomites, so our bellies were aching for something nutritious and delicious upon our late return to the hotel.  Within minutes, we were seated outside in the garden with the very best local cheeses and meats (speck is the local specialty) and a couple of beers - perfection.

Hotel Petrus Snack

Stomachs pleased and feeling rejuvinated, we packed up our stuff and headed out of the region, in a state of absolute bliss and with happy hearts.  Our stay at Hotel Petrus as well as the accompanying Tre Cime views had us feeling full of everything South Tyrol had to offer, and left us with only one remaining desire: to come back as soon as possible.

Slovenia, Cormòns Italy and La Subida

Our adventure originated unexpectedly: with a weeknight’s viewing of Netflix’s Chef’s Table…

For us, this innovative documentary series has already resulted in three different restaurant reservations in three very different locations so far (Slovenia, Sweden, and Chile)… and they are often made impulsively during the 45 – 60 minute period of watching the show.

(*hint NFLX – this is an obvious ecommerce tie–in)

In the case of Slovenia and Italy, we were already aware of the region’s natural beauty, but had not really focused at all on the very high quality and distinct food and wine options that were available and equally worth traveling for.  As we watched the episode profiling Ana Roš we intuitively knew that a trip to Kobarid was required and an email to the reservations team at Hiša Franko was sent. 

The perfect foundation to a trip, and an excellent meal was had (the week after we made our reservation Ana was named world's best female chef for 2017 – timing is everything) as we enjoyed Ana’s unique take on reinventing traditional regional dishes of the Soča valley area.

However -  the trip expanded further when we learned a bit later in the episode that Ana and her husband had frequently visited, and were in part inspired by, another restaurant which was just across the border in Italy: La Subida.  “My husband brought me to that restaurant and it would make my heart race,” said Ana, of La Subida. It was at La Subida where Ana’s love and talent for creative food began.

“Let’s drink more shall we!?” was the jocular question posed to us near the end of a thoroughly enjoyable meal and experience at that very restaurant, La Subida, which sits just outside of Cormons Italy and situated on the border with Slovenia.

La Subida is not only a restaurant, but also a rural residence where people come to get away.  It is an entirely unique destination, capturing that ‘country elegance’ or ‘rustic luxury’ that so many properties today attempt (and fail) to manufacture or conjure up from new facilities, while here it is done effortlessly.

La Subida exterior.jpg

While known for years for its restaurant Trattoria Al Cacciatore;  La Subida is now embarking on an effort to refine their image as a destination… spoken best by their own website: “a place where one goes to feel well, relax, stay on a little to unwind!”

The Sirk family is essentially welcoming you in to their country home, opened in 1960 as an inn and osteria, and now a Michelin starred (but this is not necessarily promoted…more accepted humbly) facility with an eclectic-in-a-very-good-way group of dwellings that go by the charming and appropriate names: Countryside, Grandma’s, Of the Wood, Of the Vinegar Factory, The Barn (Kozovci), and The Nest.  There is also no question about the main focus of the area when handed the key to your cottage: wine is what makes the world go round in this region.

Subida Key
Trattoria Al Cacciatore

Trattoria Al Cacciatore

Everything about our accommodations just felt comfortable, from when we arrived and were asked to sit on the courtyard sofa with a glass of sparkling and a local cheese snack before Mitja provided us with an overview of their property and the region, to enjoying the scenery from the terrace of the Osteria with a glass of the local Friuliano white wine (we found a preference for those from the Collio region of Friuli) to exploring the property and the neighbouring countryside before just relaxing and noting just how quiet it is in this part of the world at night.

La Subida Room.jpg

Then there is the food – thoroughly authentic and based on local cuisine (and hyper local produce) but at the same time refined with little touches and bursts of flavor – and a palate cleansing course of vinegar sorbet from their own on-site wine vinegar factory of which I could have easily had seconds (or thirds). 

La Subida Vinegar Factory

La Subida Vinegar Factory

Having eaten the evening prior at Hisa Franko, this was the perfect follow up to that dining event.  The two restaurants are connected by produce, wine, people, and history which is evident but at the same time a very different experience. That sense of rustic luxury again evident in the casual tenor and flow of the meal without any sacrifice on quality – again, in a completely comfortable, almost understated atmosphere.

La Subida Reception

For all the beauty of the Collio / Cormons area, scores of adventures and visual treats are available just across the border… all within a 90 minute to 2 hour striking distance from La Subida which allows you to travel from the vineyards to the snowy peaks of Slovenia (we started our trip in the mountain passes of Kranjska Gora) over the milky turquoise rivers of Slovenia and back in one day if you wish – further enhancing one’s stay in this sometimes overlooked but remarkably attractive part of the world.

Kranjska Gora Hike

We cannot wait to return.