July 19, 2013 6:14 pm

Spa towns and schnitzels

The curious mix of the Germanic and Italian in Merano is a very appealing cocktail that has nothing to do with Switzerland

It’s week two of the Fast Lane summer holiday grand tour and I do hope you’re enjoying the view from the back seat as much as I’m enjoying playing chauffeur/guide/concierge/deejay/diplomat up front. If you’re only joining us now (and missed last week’s column), let me bring you up to speed. Unlike other columnists who go off on holiday and leave their loyal readers in the lurch with stand-in scribes, I’ve decided to take all regular readers along for the ride. We’ve just left the little Alpine city of Chur and found it in desperate need of some greenery on the streets, better haircuts for the residents (why are purple and burgundy rinses and mullet cuts still an acceptable combination for both men and women in Switzerland?) and more independent retailers (a few more shops like the furniture store Abitare would be a good start).

In a little over an hour we’ll be winding our way down the Julier Pass and making our way into St Moritz. Just before that we’ll be passing through the rather unfortunately named town of Cunter (time for a rebrand perhaps?) and passing some of the happiest-looking cows in the world. If you’d like to take pictures we can make a brief pit-stop but be advised you’ll have to fight through the crowds of Japanese pensioners who’ll already be snapping, sketching and painting the beasts.

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Tyler Brûlé

St Moritz might be better known as a winter destination but should be just as famous in the summer given all that’s on offer. Aside from the grand hotels, the hiking and biking trails, the chilly lakes for goosebumpy dips and the good food, there’s that perfect combination of crisp, cool air mixed with sunshine. Plenty of Italians drive up to escape the August heat of Bergamo, Milan and Como but the town fathers would be wise to market their attractive climate to others looking for an alternative to the sea. While they’re at it, they might also want to think about how they can make the place a bit more authentic and balance all the luxury goods stores with some well-packaged local produce and smartly curated local handicrafts. I’m not sure all the tourists from Asia, or even Italy, are looking to purchase a Roberto Cavalli evening gown. As there is no shortage of apartments and hotel rooms at this time of year, companies with HQs in particularly hot cities could even move their staff up to the mountains for a few weeks of fresh air, group hikes and long lunches featuring earthy regional wines.

Two hours down the road and across the border, the scene couldn’t be more different in the Südtirol town of Merano (or Meran if you prefer the German moniker). If St Moritz is more than a little quiet, the spa town of Merano is heaving, the streets filled with locals going about their daily routine and visitors stocking up on smoked “speck”, Alpine hats, hiking boots and herbal teas. Along the shopping arcades and side streets people are out in the sunshine sipping their tall glasses of locally brewed Forst beer, tucking into plates hidden by massive schnitzels or sticking forks into fancy cakes. Near the river, a beautifully designed store called Pur Südtirol sells an array of regional specialities from apple juice to chopping boards and the whole thing is done without the slightest hint of kitsch. Just beyond the city centre, tall villas and solid apartment blocks look like they were drawn up by the same architecture firms responsible for some of the finer housing stock in Vienna and Innsbruck – but then they sit alongside more brutal blocks with bright awnings, which feel like they could be in Treviso or Torino.

This curious collision of all things vaguely Germanic mixed with the Italian is a very appealing cocktail that has nothing to do with Switzerland or even Tyrol proper across the border. Back in the car and bound for Bolzano (or Bozen), you see all the upsides of being an autonomous region that doesn’t have to send all taxes to Rome. Alongside the highway there is a perfect bike path connecting the two cities, farms look like they’ve sprung from the pages of an architecture magazine – all modern timber barns and concrete box-style houses – and small factories make specialised components for various industrial sectors – very Mittelstand-style.

If Merano is a mostly German-speaking affair, Bolzano is a proper mix of Italian and German with one side of the river very much part of the old empire and the other side a perfectly preserved example of Mussolini’s preferred urban aesthetic. While it’s not particularly fashionable to like the Fascist architecture and more modern face of the city, part of what makes Bolzano such an appealing place is the sense of one empire literally colliding into the ambitious plans of Mussolini. We’re going to stay in Südtirol a bit longer, so put your hiking boots on as we head up to the Hotel Briol. More next week.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

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