Northern Italy: Alpine Adventures

Russiz Superiore Winery (here) in the Collio wine
region offers the Relais Russiz Superiore, whose spacious rooms afford endless vistas of vineyards and mountains.

When we think of northeastern Italy, we think Venice. Maybe Trieste. But what’s in between?

Two Italian alpine regions that border Austria enjoy a gusty blend of Italian and Germanic traditions and cuisines, as well as a devotion to wellness, eco-tourism and the outdoors. Combine the best of the Alto Adige (Sud Tirol) region and nearby Friuli Venezia Giulia for cool, green summer and fall getaways and sublime winter sports.

With two weeks available to travel in warm weather, it’s possible to drive to some lesser-known spots in these two regions, stopping to taste wines, go hiking, climb a mountain, spend a day on an e-bike, play golf, wander historic sites, enjoy a spa treatment or two, take a boat out to an island restaurant, enjoy Adriatic beaches and — of course — enjoy the cross-cultural dishes that make this region unique. The spectacular alpine scenery, much of which is protected under several UNESCO World Heritage sites, is an ever-present background to fire the imagination and rev up inspiration. Most of the drives between locations are under an hour; there are two that are three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours, depending upon the route. For those who don’t wish to rent a car, professional drivers are readily available. If there is less time, pick and choose from among these possibilities.

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La Piazzetta at Falisia, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Portopiccolo, is an ideal place for an aperitivo, overlooking the marina.

We start by flying into the Friuli Venezia Giulia airport near Trieste, though Venice is an equally convenient starting point. Our first stop (by shuttle, driver or rental car) is one of most innovative five-star luxury properties around — Falisia, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Portopiccolo in Sistiana, along the Gulf of Trieste. At a cost of $245 million, this eco-resort was created over five years from the abandoned Sistiana Bay quarry and designed by Francesco Luparelli to be one of greenest resorts on earth. In addition to 58 luxe guestrooms and suites, there is a three-floor, 38,000-square-foot spa designed by Alberto Apostoli and a yacht basin with 121 berths. Many of the accommodations have marina or ocean views, which is a definite plus. The largest suite at 1,000-square-foot, the Falisia, has a 650-square-foot terrace, with a separate living room, king bedroom, two bathrooms and whirlpool. The suite can be furnished for up to four guests.

Rimming the yacht basin are boutiques, a private beach and a pool with a sea view. Aperitivi are served in La Piazzetta bar and there is an open-air gourmet restaurant, Cliff. There is also Maxi’s, which focuses on local ingredients, along with several other casual dining spots. Underground parking is provided, with easy access to the hotel. The resort is a member of The Luxury Collection; Francesca Picciafuochi ([email protected]) is available to answer questions or respond to special requests.

From the coast, we move to the Collio wine region near Capriva del Friuli, where the Russiz Superiore winery offers the charming seven-room Relais Russiz Superiore in the midst of endless vistas of vineyards and mountains. (There is one suite and one junior suite in the mix). Guests can taste some of Italy’s best wines here, play golf at a nearby course and plan day trips to Gorizia or Trieste. The century-old Russiz Superiore offers wine tastings, brunches, and dinners in their spectacular cellar. Friuli is known for its white wines, but here we also find some excellent reds.

VillaVerde Hotel & Resort has a terrace with views over the golf course and the Julian Alps. 

Offering more golf and an in-depth wellness experience is the Villaverde Hotel & Resort (four-star, luxury), outside the town of Fagagna, where the owners describe the setting as “four floors of eco-sustainable contemporary architecture, where geothermic meets photovoltaic.” Guests come for the 18-hole golf course and expansive spa area and health care center, along with lessons from the pro at the Villaverde Golf Academy. They also play footgolf, go biking, play tennis or ride horses around the Friulian hills (there are facilities for those who wish to bring their own horses).

Villaverde’s 560-square-foot suites have views over the golf course, balconies, a separate bedroom and living room, and two large bathrooms with showers. There are 33 Comfort rooms (some of which can be connected) with small balconies affording views of the golf course and distant Alps. Guests are welcome to bring pets with advance notice. The resort is listed in the Top 100 Golf Resorts in Continental Europe in 2019. Valentina Lualdi is the general manager. To contact the hotel, e-mail [email protected] or call 011-390-432-161-0700, 011-39-043-281-2600; or fax 011-390-432-161-0790. 

From Fagagna to Bressanone (aka Brixen) the drive is through the glorious Dolomite Alps to the Pinot Noir region of Alto Adige, aka Sud Tirol (South Tyrol). Hotel Elephant is one of our favorites, where a 15th-century wine cellar awaits, along with the curious story of the hotel name. In 1551, the king of Portugal decided to send a gift to Maximilian, the Emperor of the Austrian Empire — an elephant named Soliman (no one had ever seen an elephant before). Winter arrived before Soliman could make the journey across the Alps to the emperor and the pachyderm spent the winter in Bressanone. Today, elephant designs, both old and new, add an element of whimsy to the Italo-Austrian décor.

Hotel Elephant, a family-owned property since 1773, has 44 rooms. Shown here is one of the hotel’s 14 junior suites. 

Family-owned since 1773, the Elephant has a total of 44 rooms, including 14 junior suites and 16 rooms in the main building, and 14 rooms with balconies in the Villa Marzari, located in the lush five-acre gardens across the way. Every room is different, given the long history of the building. Extra beds for children can be added to larger rooms.

Due to the active holiday market and ski season, the hotel is open all year. (The Christmas market is amazing.) Benjamin at the front desk tells us that it’s wise to book early; the hotel is often full. In 2019, Gault Millau awarded Hotel Elephant “Hotel of the Year” in South Tyrol.

The Restaurant Elephant, with its Old World atmosphere, is reputed to have the best steak tartare in the region. There is a second, four-table restaurant, the Apostelstube, where Chef Mathias Bachmann designs a five-, six- or seven-course menu for a maximum of seven to eight guests.

In fact, most hotels in Bressanone are family-operated and many have been around for centuries. The Goldener Adler Hotel, owned by the Mayr family, is the oldest property in town (500 years) and has 30 rooms, including six suites. Although the building itself is historic, the rooms are decorated simply with modern furnishings and updated bathrooms. 

The hotel is part of a group that includes two restaurants in the center of town. Should guests choose a gourmet half-board rate, they are entitled to dine in either the Finsterwirt or the Vitis Winebar. Our favorite was Vitis, with its hundreds of local wines. It appears at first to be a typical Austrian-style eatery, but in the back room there is a trendy, Italian-style wine bar and restaurant, with bottles lining the walls, with many ending up open on the tables. Note to wine lovers: Fewer than 10 percent of wines in this region are exported to the U.S., so those who want to enjoy them must do so on the spot in Alto Adige.

Moving on to Merano, the spiritual home of health and well-being, we explored the fairytale Castel Fragsburg, a member of Relais & Chateaux. Run by Alexander Ortner, a third-generation owner, this hidden eden was founded in 1899. How can a place with such serenity send guests on their way filled with high energy? It’s a secret that manager Isabellé Hahn is eager to pass on: Tranquility, natural food, rest, silence, mountain air and the presence of genius in the person of Renate de Mario Gamper, wellness magician, and Chef Diego Sales, whose clever morsels have earned a Michelin star.

The Finsterwirt restaurant, owned by the Mayr family in Bressanone, is housed in a several centuries-old building.

This historic hunting lodge, surrounded by the distant mountains, overlooks the spa town of Merano and is adjacent to the highest waterfall in the region. Every room is different, but the Adlerhorst Suite is the most unusual. Located in the tower, with a balcony with views as far as Bolzano, it’s a two-level suite with the bedroom and open bathtub reached by a spiral staircase. The junior suites are spacious and bring to mind the Victorian period, with flowered wallpaper and wood-paneled walls (bathrooms are marble and modern).

There is an endless menu of wellness options here, from yoga to a variety of spa treatments and tranquillity possibilities. The pool overlooks vineyards and Alps and the gardens provide nooks and crannies for silent contemplation or just reading a book.

Our last stop on this trip around northeastern Italy is Grado. We are back in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, between Venice and Trieste. Driving time from Merano is about four-and-a-half  hours, with a stop for lunch at one of Italy’s most historic spots, Pordenone, or a small detour to Bassano del Grappa to pick up a few bottles. (Those who prefer to skip the scenic route can drive south to Verona, on to Venice and then to Grado, saving an hour.)

Why Grado? A favorite of Scandinavians and German-speaking guests, it’s a picturesque seaside town / island with a strong hint of Venice, due to its location anchoring a massive lagoon. 

The lagoon is a vast ecosystem, filled with tiny islands populated by wildlife, casoni (thatch-roofed fishermen’s cottages), a few small villages and an occasional restaurant reached only by boat. There are four nature reserves in this complex natural system that encompasses the Grado and adjoining lagoon, attracting kayakers, fishermen, bird watchers, bicyclers and hikers.

Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Grado was a favorite holiday destination for the Habsburg aristocracy, who loved what they called the Sea Spa, officially known as the Marine Thermal Baths, where hydrotherapy treatments / thalassotherapy using sea water are popular. Grado is also known as the “island of the sun” because its four beaches face south and are never in shade. There are many small hotels and pensions in Grado, but the four-star Laguna Palace Hotel can be a good base for exploring both the quaint town and the surrounding wetlands and lagoons. The hotel offers a wellness center, spa and heated pool on the top floor overlooking the lagoon, along with 71 rooms and suites. Located on the opposite side of the island from the beaches, it’s quieter and still within walking distance of the historic center with its restaurants and shops, as well as the sand.

The hotel is modern, designed to take advantage of the views. The Executive Suite Kenzo has a wraparound view of the sea, with a long, curved balcony, while the Family / Senior Suite offers a separate living room and plenty of privacy for longer stays. The junior suites, particularly those with a terrace and sea view, are spacious and comfortable. The hotel has organized facilities for children called Baby Club, which attract guests traveling as a family.

This lesser-known part of Italy has long been a favorite of Europeans and is only now being discovered by American travelers. The wines, the mountains, the spas and eco-diversity make this area full of possibilities. Although a two-week trip may be out of reach for some, parts of this itinerary can be added to stops in Venice or Verona, Trieste or the Dalmatian Coast.  

Cstel Fragsburg overlooks the spa town of Merano and is adjacent to the highest waterfall.

Friuli Venezia Giulia Region

Food: The cuisine of Friuli Venezia Giulia (FVG) is varied, with mountain food and coastal dishes accented by multi-cultural traditions. Risotto, 60 million tons of apples, San Daniele prosciutto and other cured meats, patina sausage balls, gnocchi with plums and cinnamon, and a wide variety of fish and shellfish just scratch the surface of what’s available in FVG.

For those starting out in Trieste, Harry’s Grill at the Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta is the perfect place for lunch overlooking the main piazza and the sea. Pick up some Illy coffee from the dozens of local shops in Trieste.

The Ristorante La Taverna (Michelin Star 2019), in Colloredo di Monte Albano, is an excellent example of the cooking around the historic city of Udine. The garden is a beautiful place to spend a long lunch. In spring, the chef is a master at creating asparagus dishes.

Grado is full of restaurants, both in the old town and on the islands in the lagoon. Hidden in a tiny street in the old town, Tavernetta All’Androna (Michelin Guide 2019) offers candlelit ambiance and an innovative take on local seafood.

Ai Fiuri de Tapo in the lagoon of Grado cooks delicious seafood and grilled meats in a rustic island setting (think Margaritaville), reachable by taxi or, a far more interesting choice, by boat. Open every day April through October. 

Wine and Beer: The Friuli Venezia Giulia Wine and Food Route (www.tastefvg.it) includes six wine sub-routes in this diverse region: Along the rivers, on the magredi plains or in the mountains. Seventeen-hundred vineyards produce in eight DOC zones, three DOCGs and two inter-regional zones, including the famous pinot grigio, merlot, pinot bianco, rosazzo, ramandolo, picolit, ribolla gialla, pinot nero, prosecco and more. The world’s largest vine nursery in Rauscedo near Pordenone produces more than 60 million cuttings (barbatelle) per year. Like most of Italy, the open cellar weekend is in late May; there are wine events in FVG throughout the year. (There is a wide variety of grappas available in enotecas and food shops in FVG.)

In days past, industrially produced beers, such as Birra Moretti, Birra Dormisch and Birra Dreher, held sway in the region. Today, craft beers from the Friulian Alps have become appreciated and are available in most areas.

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Castles: Friuli Venezia Giulia is full of castles, including the 14th-century Duino and Emperor Maximilian’s Miramare on the sea between Trieste and Venice. Palmanova, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is actually a fortress enclosed within a nine-pointed star. The medieval castle in Ragogna contains one of the few schools teaching the ancient art of calligraphy.

Historic Sites: Aquileia, where Murano glass originated, is the site of the largest mosaic floor in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site near Grado. 

World War I buffs will find this region full of history in sites where 12 great battles were fought between 1915-1917. In addition to open-air sites, there are museums and monuments in Gorizia and Trieste dedicated to WWI.

Towns to Visit: Udine, Pordenone, Gorizia, Cividale del Friuli

Sports and Wellness

Golf: There are seven 18-hole courses, from coastal settings to vineyards to mountains.

Spas: The ancient Romans discovered the value of mineral waters, originally at the Spa of Arta Terme near Udine. The Aquadea Wellness Centre is open to the public. In Grado, the Thalassotherapy Centre, with its use of sea water in treatments, was a favorite of the Hapsburg royalty. The Thermal Water Park there is open to the public. The Terme Romane di Monfalcone is a natural spring known since Roman times. In addition, there are spas and treatment centers within the hotels in the area.

Water Sports: There is about 90 miles of coastline, in addition to the open sea that rims much of the FVG region. Twenty-five marinas and an equal number of docks are the highest in the Mediterranean; there are 15,000 berths for yachts of all sizes, making this one of Europe’s favorite stops for skippers. Sailing, kitesurfing, swimming, power boating, diving in the WWF Marine Reserve near Miramare Castle, boat and houseboat rentals in Lignano Sabbiadoro lagoon, and the top-level Blue Flag beaches of Grado offer a variety of opportunities for water-lovers. The biodiversity of the Grado and Murano Lagoons is extraordinary.

Hiking, biking, and climbing: Northeastern Italy is an unspoiled region and includes three areas of the Alps: The Friulian Dolomites (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and the Julian and Carnic Alps. There are several trails with stopovers, including the Friulian Dolomites Circular Trail, with four stages for four mountain huts. Cross-regional cycling routes, such as the Ciclovia Alpe Adria Radweg, go from the Alps to the sea.

Active travelers will enjoy rock climbing, trekking, mountain climbing, paragliding, mountain biking, horseback riding, road biking and walking the beaches or back roads.

Skiing: There are seven ski resorts in five FVG regional ski areas, including 60 miles of slopes and 60 miles of cross country ski trail loops, including one open on Wednesday evening for ski mountaineering. There is also a dog-sledding school, a cross-border link, where skiers may cross into Slovenia with the same ski pass; curling, ice climbing and ice skating. Many resorts have facilities for families with children.

Birdwatching: Birdwatching is particularly good on the Grado and Marano lagoons. It’s possible to birdwatch from one of the thatched stone casoni (fishermen’s cottages) in the nature reserves. There are 320 different species in the area.

The Laguna Sky Restaurant at Laguna Palace Hotel provides panoramic views of Grado.

Alto Adige/Sud Tirol Region

Food/restaurants: Sud Tirol is the province with the highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy. The Germanic influence is strong here, with speck (bacon), strudel and dumplings as much a part of the cuisine as pasta and panna cotta. Mountain huts await hikers — the Rauchhütte in the high pastures of Seiser Alm (6,000 feet) is a prime example of the reward at the end of a long trek.  Owned by the fourth generation of the Lageder family, the restaurant offers a wide variety of Austrian and Italian specialties, surrounded by spectacular scenery. In Bressanone (aka Brixen), the Mayr family’s Vitis enoteca is open for lunch and dinner, serving local specialties and wines. Nearby is the sister restaurant, Finsterwirt, located in a centuries-old building and offering a gourmet menu.

Dinner with local wines and a view of the Dolomites can be found at Vinum Hotel Der Weinmesser in Scena. The restaurant specializes in wine and food pairings, guided by sommelier Christian Kohlgruber.

Wines: Sixty-five percent of wine produced at Alto Adige / Sud Tirol is consumed in the region and around Italy. That’s almost 40 million bottles of red and white, plus 260,000 bottles of spumante. The well-known whites are pinot grigio, chardonnay, pinot blanco, gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc. Reds include pinot noir, schiava, lagrein and cabernet. The region has the most DOC-guaranteed wines in Italy.

Only 10 percent of these wines are exported to the U.S., so visiting the wineries and restaurants is the only way to enjoy them. It’s possible to organize a wine safari to visit any or all of the seven wine producing areas of the region. 

Benessere/wellness: Health and well-being in Alto Adige / Sud Tirol begins with the spa town of Meran, but there are public and hotel spas all over the region. There are 32 recognized springs used for healing baths. Other possibilities include hay baths, which promise energy and relief from joint pain; milk baths, apple baths and wine baths.

The locals also recommend what they say is an easy hike to Stoanerne Mandln, northwest of Bolzano, where dozens of centuries-old stone statues recall days of witches and covens, myths and legends. They say magic remains in the air and revitalizes those who visit.

Sightseeing: Probably the most compelling exhibit to see in the region is in the Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, where Ötzi the Iceman resides. Discovered in 1991, he is Europe’s oldest known natural mummy, who lived more than 3,000 years ago.

The region is 80 percent mountains, which means the architecture has been designed to fit into the landscape (and in between the vineyards). Contemporary architects, such as Zaha Hadid Studio and Werner Tscholl, have made the Messner Mountain Museum in Plan de Corones and the Pass Museum on the Timmelsjoch ridge take advantage of the expansive views. Historic towns to visit include Bolzano (aka Bozen), Merano, Bressanone (Brixen), Vipiteno and Renon.

Sports: Hiking at all levels, trekking, mountaineering, biking (a nine-month season) are the primary sports in the warmer seasons. In winter, there are about 30 downhill ski areas to try in the Dolomites and surrounding mountains, as well as spots for snowboarding, cross country, biathlon, ski tours, sledging and snowshoe hikes. Winter visitors also come for the Christmas markets, which are spread across the region.

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