Val Venosta Italy

From 4,500 feet above sea level at the Passo di Resia, this valley, drained by the river Adige, stretches first south and then east to the handsome town of Merano. Most of the Alto Adige valleys cut deeply through the mountains, so their modest height above sea level doesn't give you a good idea of ​​the height of the surrounding peaks. At the southern end of the Val Venosta are the massicci (massifs) Ortles and Cevedale, about 12,000 feet above sea level, while at its northern end the Palla Bianca and Similaun are more than 11,000 feet above sea level.

The Val Venosta is remarkably wide and green, with a dozen small centers in which you'll frequently encounter medieval churches and castles (we follow the valley down and east to Merano). Every village offers a choice of hotels and guest houses, most of which are consistently reliable in terms of quality and price. At Curon Venosta, near the northern end of the valley, restaurant Stocker is a fine example of the cuisine and courtesy of the Alto Adige, moderately priced, it offers a good selection of regional dishes and specializes in venison.

Five kilometers (3 miles) out of Malles Venosta, near the village of Burgusio, is the 12th century abbey of Monte Maria, an imposing compound that was the highest above sea level of any Benedictine abbey in Europe. Although largely rebuilt in the 15th century, the abbey retains some of the original features, among which is a fresco from 1180. Both the monastery and its chapel are open to visitors. A good restaurant in Malles is AI Moro (Tel: 047381222; closed Tuesdays and November), informal and inexpensive and next door to the very pleasant Hotel Plavina, which also has a garden and an indoor swimming pool. Just below Malles is the village of Glorenza, still surrounded by its medieval walls (rebuilt in the 16th century).

Up above the town of Sluderno the Castello di Coira, built in the 13th century, is the most interesting among the Val Venosta castles because of its excellent state of conservation as well as the variety of precious objects it contains (open March to October, 10 : 00 AM to noon and 2:00 to 4:30 PM; closed on Mondays) see the armor room in particular. The church of San Sisinio in the village of Sisinio also dates from the 13th century; the Coldrano castle near Silandro dates from the 16th century.

About 16 km (10 miles) farther along route 40, the Schloss Kastelbell at Castelbello has been accurately re stored to its 13th century appearance. The interior is closed for restoration, but is scheduled to reopen in the spring (call 0473624193 for details). A good hotel in Naturno is the Sunnwies, and just 2 km (1 mile) outside of Naturno, on the road to Passo Resia, you'll find the Wiedenplatzer Keller, an excellent, moderately priced restaurant rich in Alto Adige specialties (Tel: 047387431; closed Tuesdays). In this valley perhaps more than in others, the contrast between the luscious greens of the lower slopes and the snowcovered peaks above is particularly striking. In the spring this region offers a totally magical spectacle of flowering trees, since it is an area given mostly to the growing of pears, apricots, and especially apples of which the Alto Adige is the largest regional producer in Europe.

As you approach Merano from the west, the valley widens and a quantity of vineyards start to appear next to the fruit orchards. The gentle landscape and climate of Merano have attracted tourists and vacationers since the 18th century first the Austrian nobility, then the Viennese and European bourgeoisie. An important feature of its climate is the lack of humidity and the mildness of its temperatures (it is the northernmost part of Europe where palm trees can grow). To its luxurious 19th century hotels Merano has added a great number of newer accommodations, and it is now booming with winter as well as summer tourism because of the splendid skiing facilities installed on the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

The medieval town, on the right bank of the river Passirio, is centered around the Gothic via dei Portici. Nearby are the Castello Principesco, a castle built in 1470 and furnished mostly with authentic antiques (open 9:00 AM to noon and 2:30 to 4:30 PM; closed on Sundays), and the Duomo, a Gothic building from the 15th century with a curiously crenellated facade. Along the river Passirio there are two pleasant walks, called Passeggiata d'Inverno and Passeggiata d'Estate (Winter Walk and Summer Walk); the first faces south, the second north.

The restaurant tradition in Merano pivots around internationally famous chef Andreas Hellrigl. Unfortunately Mr. Hellrigl decided to retire in 1990, and his restaurant and hotel Villa Mozart is now open only as a high level cooking school, offering one week courses to students and food lovers from all over the world (Tel: 047330630; Fax: 0473 211355). Exceptionally good restaurants are the expensive Andrea (via Galilei 44, Tel: 047337400; closed Mondays and most of February) and Flora (via dei Portici 75, Tel: 0473 31484; dinner only; closed Sundays and February).

The former is perfect in decor and service, while the latter is a bit less formal but also slightly more affordable, serving salmon, trout, venison, and great pasta (a specialty in season is the ravioli filled with Pfinfferle mushrooms).

In addition to restaurants, some of the region's best lodgings are to be found in and around Merano. Among the truly remarkable first class hotels are the Palace, on the via Cavour, with a large garden and swimming pool, and the Castel Labers, a couple of miles outside of town on the road to Scena (with a swimming pool and a striking garden ).

Another outlying hotel is the Castel Freiberg, a converted 14th century castle 8 km (5 miles) south of Merano in the town of Freiberg. The medieval atmosphere is still strong here, in spite of the modern conveniences, and the views are incredible. Good walks are to be had in the surrounding hills.

About 3 km (2 miles) north of Merano and a short distance from the village of Tirolo is the Castel Tirolo, built in the 12th century by the counts of Venosta, who later became the rulers of the entire region. It was in 1363 that their last descendant handed their possessions over to the Hapsburgs of Austria, who were to rule until 1918 (in 1420 the capital was moved from Merano to Innsbruck).

Although still inhabited, the castle can be visited from March 1 to October 31, 9:30 AM to noon and 2:00 to 5:00 PM (closed Mondays); guided tours are available every hour. The most interesting things here are the Romanesque chapel, with its 14th century frescoes; the main entrance door, with 12th century sculptures; and the sala del Trono (throne room), which also affords a magnificent view.

The main road, route 38, leads southeast out of Merano directly down to Bolzano.

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