Is this ‘Sissi’? Or rather ‘The Lord of the rings’? Welcome to the Apfelhotel, a family farm turned into an architectural enclave thanks to the fourth generation. We let our inner hobbit, apple grower and aristocrat flourish.
If there was one person a trendsetter in the wellness area, then Sissi. The Austrian Empress had an insatiable obsession with her appearance, which led her to spas from Greece to Madeira. But one place she kept returning was Meran / Merano: a mountain town with a glorious microclimate in South Tyrol, Italy’s northernmost province.
Sissi was an influencer avant la lettre, because not much later almost the entire Austrian bourgeoisie came to bathe in the thermal water, stroll along the Art Nouveau pearls and pose by the palm trees against a mountain backdrop. Even writer Franz Kafka once tried to recover from his tuberculosis, and composer Richard Strauss also regularly celebrated his holidays there.
Much has not changed in Meran in the past two hundred years. Visitors still eagerly drink at the 69 marble water fountains and the valley is dotted with beneficial hotels. The ideal setting for making a girl’s dream come true: a weekend in Sissi’s track, the 2020 edition.
I don’t go to the Palace or Kurhaus for that, the somewhat dusty luxury hotels where the beau monde once stayed. But to the Apfelhotel, a brand new spa with the same allures as the aristocratic hotspots of the time. This is thanks to Martin (28) and Maria (31) Pichler, two born hoteliers who took over the Gasthaus Torgglerhof from their father five years ago.
Almost immediately the duo came up with a complete restyling, good for an investment of about half the family’s capital. The cozy chalet atmosphere had to make way for a modern building with 18 suites and lofts. There was a new restaurant with large glass areas and garden pavilions, a design-proof reception and a cocktail bar. And above all: an architectural spa buried under two hills, most comparable to Tolkien’s hobby laires from ‘The Lord of the rings’.
Their guts did the family no harm, because less than six months after completion, the spa of the Apfelhotel, as the Torgglerhof was renamed, has been nominated for no fewer than three design awards. ‘We wanted a new wellness building, without it hindering the grand feeling of the landscape. It was Noa, a young architectural firm with studios in Berlin and Bolzano / Bozen, that eventually came up with the idea of an overgrown hill, completely embedded in nature. ‘
On a golf cart, daughter Maria shows me around the domain, located in a postcard valley 8 kilometers from Meran. No superfluous luxury: no less than 5 hectares of apple orchards surround the hotel, here and there seasonal pickers are busy harvesting a fresh load of Granny Smith. ‘
For five generations, our family has been cultivating fruit here, an important regional product of South Tyrol. Today, the farm and the hotel go hand in hand here. For example, many of the ingredients that we process in the restaurant are from our own cultivation. We also sell our products directly to the guests, sometimes long after their stay via the webshop. And even in the spa, our apples play an important role. ‘
Armed with a bathrobe and a glass of apple prosecco, I am dropped in front of the wooden door of the spa hill. Waving it open for the first time is an almost magical experience: on the spot where only a small, dark cave appears to be hiding, there is actually a light-filled lounge full of cozy hanging corners. In the center is the thermal spring from which the mountain water splashes directly into the foot baths, drinking fountains and the heated outdoor pool.
In the sauna you can participate in an infusion session with no fewer than nine apple aromas.
But the eye-catcher is the Apple Sauna, an apple-shaped sweat lodge with panoramic views of the misty mountain peaks and – jawohl – swaying apple trees. If you want to immerse yourself completely in the apple cult, you can participate in an infusion session with nine apple flavors, to recover with a cup of apple tea afterwards. ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’, although a double dose seems more like the mantra here.
I myself go for a facial treatment with local herbs, which fortunately includes a somewhat more varied range of scents. I am subsequently scrubbed with a lotion of wild chamomile, greased with a mask of aloe vera and lulled to sleep with a compress of wild lavender.
‘We have a long tradition of natural care in this region. That’s why we only work with organic ingredients from South Tyrol, ‘says the beauty therapist while massaging my temples with precise circular movements. When I look in the mirror afterwards, I see two blushing apple cheeks, completely in line with the decor.
I hear from the youngest member Martin why the banal apple plays the leading role in a trendy boutique hotel. He takes me to his ultimate man cave: a barn where he brews apple cider, apple juice and apple soda himself. ‘When people drink a good bottle of wine, they sometimes remember it years later. But you eat an apple and forget about it. Here we want to boost the reputation of traditional cultivation – for us, the apple is a luxury product. ‘ With that in mind, Martin also founded his cider label Anderdog. Last year it was voted the best in Europe.
The next big thing
Just as agriculture and luxury coexist in the Apfelhotel, tradition and refinement have long fused in South Tyrol. While the Austrian Alps are still engulfed in mountain hut culture, the Italian influence creates a more mundane atmosphere here. You notice this in the architecture, but above all in the plate: copious meals full of Knödel and Käse give way to fresh truffles, hand-turned pasta and home-grown vegetables.
“The South Tyrolean cuisine could well become the next big thing,” says Christian, Maria’s partner and head chef of the Apfelhotel. ‘There is not only a long list of local recipes that young chefs are now fiddling with with Mediterranean ingredients. We also attach great importance to the so-called ‘zero kilometer food’ here. ‘
In the Apfelhotel, Christian does not simply give his guests a daily menu or buffet: they can compose their own seven-course menu every morning from a list of options. Scallops, wild mushrooms and the occasional apple chutney: here you can recover from a day in the mountains without any cheese induction.
Slow in the snow
With a daily program of wine tastings, yoga classes and beauty treatments, you could easily stay in hiding in the Apfelhotel for a week. But that would be a shame, because the area around Meran has everything a mountain heart desires.
Coming here on a winter holiday is a completely different experience than in the major ski resorts elsewhere in Italy – bearing in mind the corona fireplaces not an alluring idea anyway. This is partly due to the smaller scale: Meran 2000, accessible by a cable car from the center of Meran, has only 40 kilometers of slopes and is little known to the general public.
Moreover, it is one of the few ski areas where wild nature has not yet been chased away by the tearing slats, thanks to an extensive sustainability policy. For example, the plateau is still home to native Haflinger horses, who roam freely across the mountain pastures. You don’t come here with the aim of stringing together as many slopes as possible, but rather to make time for the smells, the sounds, the snow scenes. Slow skiing, as it is called nowadays.
There are four other (small) ski areas in the vicinity of the Apfelhotel, although it is worthwhile to leave the skis aside for once. For example, the hotel regularly organizes snowshoeing excursions in the wake of an experienced mountain climber. Just as well, elongated cross-country ski runs wind through the pine trees, connected by vintage cable cars (one of which is less than a kilometer from the hotel).
Cyclists can then rejoin the Passeiertal Cycling Trail, a long-distance route through meadows and vineyards. Finally, an old-fashioned ‘passeggiata’ cannot be missed at the Meran Christmas market, where the kitschy chalets gave way to architectural cabins.
However, I opt for what the sporty Sissi liked most here: walking. From the hotel door, I follow the path along the canal that irrigated the Trauttmansdorff Castle, the residence where the Austrian it-girl stayed several times. I follow her footsteps path after path, to end with a greeting to her statue in the Elisabeth Park.
Sissi may never have found peace in Meran, but in any case I have no complaints about my imperial cure. Although I’ll let that apple basket at the office pass by for a while.