During our honeymoon travels to northern Italy, we stayed for a few days in Merano, a town in the South Tyrol mountains. As an Italian citizen, my husband always looks forward to practicing his language skills (especially in front of me), and was unpleasantly surprised to be greeted at our hotel with a “Guten Tag!” However, the German in me loved infiltrating his country with wiener schnitzel. 😉
Originally an Austrian territory, South Tyrol became an independent Italian province after World War I, but the culture has remained predominately Austrian, as 70% of its inhabitants speak German and 5% speak a local dialect called Ladin. The dichotomy of German and Italian cultures colliding is a little strange, as they seem to have little in common, but somehow it’s a perfect combination, just like my husband and me. Him with the Italian roots, me with the German roots. Mix ’em together and voila– you have the perfect tortellini and dumplings. Trust me, you’ll see below.
Despite the fact that I was plagued with an uncomfortable post-wedding stress cold, we had the most amazing time exploring the area, partially by ourselves, and partially with my parents and some random people we met at breakfast at the hotel. What a romantic honeymoon, eh?
After my parents left and we successfully (but with difficulty) ditched our new friends (they were foreign and I am chalking up their eager beaver-ness to the fact that they did not understood the concept of a honeymoon), we hit the beautiful winding roads to a gondola that would take us up the South Tyrol mountain.
As we piled into the gondola, we were perplexed by the wintery outfits of our counterparts; parkas, gloves, boots, hats, hiking sticks, backpacks. We were dressed in Lululemon pants and longsleeve tees (with none of the aforementioned accessories). After a ten minute ride up the mountain, we disembarked from the gondola and could immediately understand the ski garb– the wind was whipping and it had dropped at least 30 degrees. We figured we’d better warm up and fuel up in the restaurant/lodge a few steps away.
After a snack of noodles and broth, we made our way down a marked trail, shivering, but pretending not to. About a mile down the path, I saw a sign for Gompm Alm, which I had seen mentioned on a travel guide at our hotel. I figured it was a lookout point, so decided to follow the sign for a photo op. We walked a bit further, and rather than finding some crappy old vantage point (actually, that would have been beautiful, but this was better), we came upon a storybook forest. I am being quite literal when I say this. The scene was a perfect mash-up of every sweet nursery rhyme ever told. The grass was as green as Mary Quite Contrary’s garden, and her little lambs were peacefully grazing (that’s a different Mary though, right?) Their fleece were as white as snow. By the way, what is the plural of fleece? Fleeces? Jack and Jill were also somewhere nearby fetching a pail of water from the water wheel. Yes, there was a water wheel to drink from.
A storybook landscape would not be complete without an adorable wooden house, enticing all those who pass to have to find out who resides inside. Was it the Big Bad Wolf? Perhaps Snow White’s Seven Dwarves? Fortunately, we didn’t have to risk being eaten alive because its lederhosen-donning, strapping inhabitant came outside to invite us in. He is the chef and owner of Gompm Alm, a cozy restaurant that can only be reached by cable car and then on foot, as it sits at 1800 meters. The Gufler family has owned the property since the 1930s and has since converted it to an alpine restaurant.
Despite the fact that we had only burned 15 calories since we had last eaten, we could not possibly turn away his offer to cook us his specialty dumplings and try his homemade grappa made with fruits he collected on the mountains. It felt like winter in such a good way on that mid-September day as we huddled in that tiny Bavarian cottage, complete with tiny wooden Bavarian chairs. The scent of fresh-baked rolls that were tucked into little wooden cubbies along the wall filled the air. Visualize the seven dwarves in their house in the woods again. Got it? Ok that was us.
There were a few other tables of mid-hike diners, all of who seemed astonishingly unimpressed with their fantasy-like, pinch-me-is-this-really-happening surroundings. We only ordered coffees (organic made with fresh milk bought from a neighbor farmer), and the rest was a sampling of the chef’s finest: local mountain wines, homemade grappa, dumplings with truffles, ravioli with local trout, tortellini with mushrooms, creme brulee and baked figs, strawberry dumplings, and wild berry ice cream; all made from ingredients right from the mountain and garnished with adornments from right outside the door. A wildflower, tiny pine leaf, or whimsical piece of grass. At the end of the meal when he brought us wildflower iced tea, made from a collection of thousands of wildflowers he had picked on the mountainside is when things got real. It must have been the culmination of the wine, the grappa, the food, but mostly the fairytale fantasy that truly hit me. Yes, I cried. Oh, to add insult to injury, there was a St. Bernard lying casually in the corner of the restaurant and the waitresses wore traditional German aprons. At this stage in the game, who wouldn’t cry?
It wasn’t until hours later that it dawned on us that we had come to hike, so we reluctantly (I had to be dragged out of there) headed out. On the way down the hill we came across another cottage, but even tinier and more hidden. It had a little water wheel and picnic table outside and its door was about 4-feet tall. I know one of the dwarves lives there and was waiting for the woodland creatures to emerge singing like in the classic claymation version of Rudolph. It was truly that magical.
We did take a bit of a wrong turn and go a couple miles out of the way, but it worked out for the best as we had plenty of fuel to burn. When we reached the path again, we came across some wild miniature horses. They were not, in fact, very cute at all, but it was so fitting with the day and I felt a burning desire to hug them. I cornered the black one closest to me (who actually looked meanest and most mangy), and was going in for the kill, when he came at me with a mouth full of grass and nipped my leg. Whoops. Fairytale over I guess.
As we made our way down to the gondola, we saw a herd of cows grazing in the distance, and the sound of their cowbells clinging in perfect discord was more soothing than any coordinated church bells I’ve ever heard.