How does one find the most enchanting walk in Italy — a country blessed from mountain to sea with so much rich history and natural splendor you could wander a lifetime and never cover it all? It starts with a glass of wine. What good story doesn’t really?
Our Italian vacation began in Milan with us wandering over the course of a week through Venice and Verona until arriving for our final chapter in South Tyrol. Venice and Verona were postcard perfect, but we didn’t develop a serious case of jaw-dropping wonder until rolling into Italy’s best-kept secret.
As we drove north, South Tyrol’s dramatic Alpine scenery unfolded into lush blessings of vineyards and orchards flourishing among towering castles, Gothic spires, Roman ruins and the wooing Italian sun.
Vino with a View
A late afternoon mist welcomed our arrival at Hotel Partaneshof. The sight of the hotel did not disappoint. Its chalet-style design charmed us immediately. The hotel’s rich wooden adornments warmly complemented its setting among terraced grape vines tumbling into an orchard. We were smitten.
Located just north of Merano’s medieval center, the hotel offers an ample dose of seclusion with the town’s vibrancy just a short jaunt away. A perfect respite for us after mingling among the pulsating crowds of Venice and Verona.
We checked in and ordered a bottle of wine from the Partaneshof cellar. After hustling a better part of the day, unwinding with a South Tyrolean vino was too enticing to pass up. Our room came with a balcony facing a wide open view of the Texel Mountains and valley. We lounged back in chairs and savored the view over a glass of white wine. If there was a better place to sit and ponder how we were going to spend the following day, we didn’t care. The Partaneshof was too perfect.
Prior to coming, we had read about Merano’s Tappeiner Promenade — a popular 2.5 mile path offering expansive views of Merano and beyond. The reviews touted it as a walk not to miss. By the pictures shared, we agreed. A long walk in the morning along the promenade sounded good to us both.
With our Merano itinerary made, we sat in silence watching the burning embers of dusk magically light the mountain crests. Our wine bottle went dry. Did we order another? You better believe it.
A Morning Made to Wander
In the morning, a delicious South Tyrolean breakfast of mountain-born cold cuts, freshly baked breads and yogurt topped with local berries met a quick end at our table. While it was tempting to linger in the sunlight pouring into the terrace, our wanderlust hearts were aching to explore.
We had no idea where to find the Tappeiner Promenade so we spoke with Mrs. Ladurner at the front desk. Her family has operated the Partaneshof for 14 generations.
She ran her finger across a map showing the promenade running above Merano along the slope of the Küchelberg mountain to the village of Gratsch. Little did we know it was several hundred feet above our hotel.
The map designated multiple places to enter the promenade. Mrs. Ladurner encouraged us to hop on from the southern side of town by roaming the Winter Promenade and crossing the Passer River. From there, Merano’s Summer Promenade connects to the Gilf Promenade and then Tappeiner. Taking this route would allow us to see more than one promenade with the option to venture on various walks beyond.
Into Merano’s Old World Heart
The walk into Merano wound through a quiet tree-lined residential neighborhood. Within 15 minutes we met its historical center and crossed over Laubengasse (Via Portici), an arcaded street dotted with shops and quaint cafes, noting to stroll down its cobbled stone goodness later.
Soon we were near the banks of the Passer River meandering down the Winter Promenade. This walkway is popular at all times of the year but is especially delightful in the winter when its sunny exposure washes away the chill. It carried us past rows of palm trees crowning flower beds, bustling riverside cafes and Merano’s celebrated Kurhaus — an Art Nouveau masterpiece from the 1800s that now hosts concerts.
Just beyond, we found two massive antique ivory light posts supported by an elaborate base with the South Tyrolean eagle emblazoned in shimmering tiles of crimson and gold. This is the entrance to the Ponte della Posta, an elegant bridge with a wrought iron balustrade beautified by sunlit fleur de lis and grapevine motifs.
We crossed over the bridge and saw the Summer Promenade beginning to our left. But the curiously austere exterior of the 14th century Gothic Church of Santo Spirito next to it lured us in for a quick visit. Inside a solemn silence welcomed us. We were alone. Three dimly lit naves revealed masterful wood carvings and frescoes reverently conceived more than 700 years ago. These precious historical treasures lit by candle flame hauntingly held our eyes. Such places have alluring energy — where past and present harmonize in a timeless stillness.
Following in the Footsteps of an Empress
Leaving the church we re-awoke to the liveliness of the morning and found Elisabeth Park where Merano’s Summer Promenade begins. The park is named after Empress Elisabeth of Austria also affectionately known as “Sissi”. She was the Princess Diana of her time; a beloved royal member in the 19th century with a rare independent spirit rivaled by even rarer natural beauty.
Sissi frequently visited Merano to unwind. Her devotion to wellness and beauty helped establish the town as a destination for rejuvenation and relaxation. A pioneer in maintaining a fit lifestyle and a youthful appearance she once remarked: “Children are the curse of a woman, for when they come, they drive away beauty, which is the best gift of the gods”.
Embarking on long strolls around Merano was a favorite activity of Sissi’s. Thus it’s fitting a remarkable marble statue of her graces a park along Italy’s most enchanting walk. Quite often we have seen Merano roses placed within her hands by an unknown admirer.
While the Winter Promenade bathed us in heavenly sunlight the Summer Promenade’s towering sequoia, cedar, pine and poplar trees blessed us with shade. We followed the promenade deeper into the tree cover. Here, nature bestowed on us a bedazzling light show as the sun’s rays danced through the leafy canopy above. Walking along, the path gently sloped closer to the rushing river splashing soothing notes to various birds lost in song.
A Bridge Back in Time
The Summer Promenade is not very long and we were soon at the foot of a sweeping stone arched footbridge called the Ponte Romano (Steinerner Steg in German, which means Stony Plank). It’s the oldest bridge spanning the Passer.
Antiquity rang as we moved on. We were treading upon historic ground…well actually stone. The Ponte Romano has ushered travelers safely over thundering waters for more than 400 years. By the looks of the mighty stonework, it will do so for at least 400 more.
We ambled on the bridge stopping midway to admire the river roaring underneath. On the right side, a medieval spire rose from a rocky spur jutting above the river’s Gilf Gorge. Built in Roman times, the Zenoburg Castle served as a strategic fortification to control entry to the region. It later became one of the first residences of the Lords of Tyrol before falling into ruin.
The castle has been partially restored and is now privately owned. But don’t fret. With 800 castles in South Tyrol, finding another throne to claim is not difficult.
Awash in Lushness
The Gilf Promenade begins after stepping off the bridge. Unlike the Winter and Summer promenades, much of the Gilf Promenade carves upward. Once on the cliff of the gorge, we stepped into another world. The lushness around us was like an open-air conservatory.
Diamond glimmers from the morning’s dew illuminated a myriad of luxuriant subtropical plants, elegantly scented shrubs and exotic cacti. Clearly, the Mediterranean side of South Tyrol sings loudly from this promenade. We paused on a bench off the path and glanced over the gorge to the other side of the river. Vast tapestries of ivy foliage burned bright with autumn colors from the opposite cliff side.
After soaking up the romantically strewn view, we continued on encountering sculptures crafted from moss, ferns and other fauna. This intriguing artwork of an eagle, woodpecker, snake and Atlas holding the world imparted a fun quirkiness to the trail. Further up, we entered the “Walk of Poets”. Verses from poets historically bound to South Tyrol in some way graced the walk’s benches.
Traversing the Tappeiner Promenade
The Gilf Promenade levels out high above the Passer River where it runs into the Tappeiner Promenade. A path with a gentle grade, sun-loving wanderers come for its epic vistas of Merano and the chain of snow-kissed mountains swooping skyward from the valley floor.
It was named in honor of its creator Dr. Franz Tappeiner. His vision is a gift to visitors today. Immaculately manicured flower gardens litter the entire promenade punctuated with giant magnolias, cypresses, olive trees, palmettos and more. A statue of his bust now watches from the promenade’s summit.
Beyond the breathtaking panoramas riddled between the verdant veils, the Tappeiner Promenade offered us more sights to take in as we ventured onward.
The first was a crenelated medieval tower called the Pulverturm or Powder Tower. Once the keep of the imposing Ortenstein Castle, the tower is now the only surviving remnant. In the 1800s, it held gun powder hence its name.
While it was fascinating to gaze at the stout tower from below, the unforgettable thrill came when we circled its stairs to the top. Through its battlements’ commanding views of all of Merano’s majestic old town and natural wonders were ours to consume.
A Steeple to Steal Your Heart
We wandered down and proceeded along the promenade passing through groves of trees flanked to the right by the glacially-sheared walls of Küchelberg mountain. We then came to one of those iconic sights that forever steal a bit of your heart. Rising between palm trees like a bolt of sunlight stood the ornate steeple of St. Nicholas Church.
This Gothic beauty was admired throughout our walk, but from here its bell tower was now at eye level. It seemed as if one could almost reach out and touch it. The tower possessed such a presence that if the sun refused to shine, glorious light would no doubt still fall upon Merano.
From this vantage point, we could discern details of its intricate clock and sundial. Many medieval towers bear a similar look, but the Church of St. Nicholas truly stands apart. The exquisite vision, craftsmanship and artistry it took to build the church in the 13th and 14th century make it a medieval marvel to behold.
After putting our camera into overdrive, we marched on passing a few boutique hotels and stately villas with pools divine for dipping in. While we were not hungry yet, we passed a handful of restaurants and cafes that presented the ideal place to ease back and absorb the surroundings. One particularly charming place was Saxifraga. Enshrouded in lush Mediterranean vegetation, the restaurant’s Alpine design peeks through inviting a seat in a wonderfully contrasting setting.
Savoring Saintly Scents
Our next stop along the promenade dazzled our nose as much as our eyes. Set off the path laid a colorful garden flush with 200+ native and exotic herbs and plants woven into the landscape.
We floated through inhaling aromas of rosemary, thyme and other exotic scents. The fragrant beds had a calming effect slowing our already leisurely pace on the promenade.
This was just fine by us. If there’s one place where you should take your time it is on this walk.
Getting Lost in a Leafy Labyrinth
Eventually, the promenade began to curve north and we gradually lost sight of Merano’s medieval heart. Grape vines now surrounded us from above and below. Unlike the cliche image of Italian vineyards stiffly spanning rolling fields, South Tyrolean vineyards ascend mountainsides in vast arcades, made from rustic porticos with only the foliage of the vine visible.
South Tyrol’s vine painted slopes amid the pure white snow summits makes vineyards one of the region’s most spectacular sights. Especially in autumn.
As the season begins to hint of frost, the leafy labyrinths radiate in a riotous array of brilliant colors. They flood the valleys in molten ruby and gold, descending like a gift from some celestial entity. One’s heart flutters at the sight of such inﬁnite beauty. And when the leaves softly sway you can be forgiven for thinking its the breath of heaven upon them.
A Walker’s Paradise
As we approached the end of the Tappeiner Promenade, South Tyrol’s most revered medieval stronghold, Tirol Castle, loomed from the crest of a distant ravine. Below it, on a glacial moraine, the Brunnenburg Castle beckoned with its multi-turreted tower that looked as if Tolkien himself had written it into the mountainside.
But before meandering to its magnificence, we came across an ivy-clad restaurant perched off the promenade’s edge. It looked straight out of the Shire. We could not resist. Besides we were thirsty.
We sat in Cafe Unterweger’s sunny patio clinging to the cliff side. The bountiful orchards and vineyards of the Merano Basin valley held our eyes. The scent of ripe fruit caressed Alpine winds softly bathing us in the sweet fragrance of harvest. Here, we fell heart first into relaxation while sipping a Veneziano, a regionally-celebrated cocktail.
We looked over the map given to us at our hotel. Our legs made the decision for us. We decided to continue the castle trek later. Now that we were seated, the thought of indulging in another mouth-pleasing South Tyrolean meal held greater enchantment. And by the looks of the menu and view, we had found just the right place for it.
Ready to be Enchanted?
The promenades of Merano are a gift for every age and skill level. The paths ascend easily with plenty of places to take a seat and rest.
We have made this walk multiple times, encountering everyone from hardcore runners to babies being pushed in strollers to elderly-aged people walking their dogs. And if you’re not feeling up to walking back to where you started, no worries. Merano offers several bus shuttles at various points throughout the area. The public transportation in South Tyrol is world class.
If enchantment is in your future, access our free South Tyrol Travel Resource Library. It provides tips on how to get to South Tyrol, where to stay, how to save money and more.