Hotel Engels Park offers the best of Italian and Germanic for Neil Sowerby
MEET the Fuggers. They were Renaissance era Elon Musks, a Teutonic mercantile family that saw off the Medicis to bankroll most of Europe, notably the Habsburg Empire. We are staying in a lavish suite named after them. This is Vipiteno aka Sterzing – the most northerly town in Italy, in the Sud Tirol where German is the majority language. Confusing, isn’t it?
The town band is oompahing the full Tirolean in the main square and some serious wurst troughing is already underway, yet this is still Italy, after all, and there is also a feeling of passeggiata and aperitivo
Our view from the Hotel Engels Park is of mountains now a summer playground for hikers and bikers, with a significant ski presence in winter. In the 16th century they were serious mining territory, monopolised by Jakob Fugger ‘The Rich’ and his covetous brood. In them thar hills there was brass (sic) to be made from copper, alongside rich seams of silver, gold and lead across the 2,000 metre high Schneeberg and beyond. Hence the prosperous aura even today of Vipiteno, strategically placed on the ‘Fugger Road’ north to the Brenner Pass… leading eventually to the family’s Bavarian base in Augsburg.
It’s a 10 minute walk from 4-star Engels Park to the town centre and every step of the way that prosperous legacy is in evidence. Across the road from the hotel is Nostra Signora della Palude (Our Lady of the Swamp), a Gothic church of almost cathedral-like proportions, funded by the town big-wigs whose names are set in stone. After dark its graveyard of elaborate monuments is aglow like a fairy grotto.
Around the corner is another, 18th century, ecclesiastical foundation, The Church of St Elisabeth at the Palace of the Teutonic Order, whose modest, octagonal exterior belies the stucco riches of its interior walls and vaulted ceilings.
Yet it is the ambitious decoration on domestic architecture from the town’s golden age that dominates as you stroll down the pedestrianised main drag, the Via Citta Nuovà. It’s not just the plethora of gilded signs hanging outside taverns and shops; on mansions formerly belonging to the Fuggers and their associates there are ornamental clues – substantial oriel windows, an ore nugget buried in a wall, crossed chisel and hammer carved motifs, faded painted facades. Behind all this interiors and yards stretch back a surprising distance. Designer labels hit today’s Eureka spot. It’s all very jolly.
Ahead of you is a 15th century landmark, the 150ft granite tower, the Zwölferturm, which separates the old quarter from the new (it’s only relative). Just before you reach it check out the Gothic town hall, which displays proof of a more ancient past. Its courtyard houses objects dating back to Roman times, including a milestone and a mysterious relief portraying the Persian sun god Mithras.
We arrive at the tower early Saturday evening when the town band is oompahing the full Tirolean in the main square and some serious wurst troughing is already underway. Yet this is still Italy, after all, and there is also a feeling of passeggiata and aperitivo. We enjoy a Klara Helles from the local craft brewery, St Herzl, which we soon discover is also on tap at the Engels Park, alongside a subtler menu offering, blending Tirolean with Italian, accompanied by wines from the Alto Adige region to the south.
The hotel has two Stuben, rustic dining parlours from the days when it was a mere country inn, but we ate our five-course half-board supper in the airy, light-filled dining room proper. It is rivalled as the heart of the property by the 1,200 square metre spa centre with the added bonus of 6,000 square metres of tranquil parkland, perfect for yoga, aerobics or a contemplative helles or two.
This green space is a reminder that only 30 years ago farming was still going on at this edge of town property as hotel founder Fini Schafer transformed it into a Gasthaus. The heated indoor pool came in 21013 and three years later the property was extended to include the dozen new Fugger Suites.
We adored ours for its spacious comfort plus its angular, timbered quirkiness. I commandeered the balcony to hoover up 800 pages on the history of the Habsburgs while my wife took full advantage of the Wellness Centre. I did eventually attempt a few circuits of the heated indoor pool, whose waters were a perfect 31°C, but left her to the delights of an even hotter whirlpool and the fancy circulation-boosting Kneipp pool. I think she ticked boxes for most or the remaining facilities – a Finnish log cabin sauna in the garden and a plunge pool, a bio sauna, a Turkish steam bath, infrared cabin and two relaxation rooms
Vipiteno is a hub too for a range of outdoor pursuits across the glorious Alta Valle Isarco/Wipptal valley. Dragging ourselves away from the Habsburgs and the steam room we made full use of our activecards (see below), getting a bus up the Ratschings valley then a gondola to the Rinneralm, in winter a ski resort, in summer a family-friendly destination with its ‘Mountain Adventure World Racines’. The petting zoo holding little joy for us, we rambled around its network of panoramic footpaths before succumbing to a beer at a rustic farm bar. Blame the mountain air.
On the way back to town we dropped off to hike the spectacular Gilfenklamm Gorge, where the Ratschings stream turns into a torrent, squeezing through the crevices in a white marble rock face. Two hundred years ago it was the haunt of a handful of lumberjacks. Today, with reassuring footbridges and hand-rails it’s a Sud Tirol must-see. Alas, a storm brewing, we cut our trek short and hastened back to Vipiteno.
One atmospheric bolthole if the mountain weather turns is the well-preserved Reifenstein Castle (main image: Matthias Suessen) on its crag two miles south of Vipiteno. It was in the hands of those Teutonic Knights from the 15th century until the Napoleonic dissolution and, after admiring the frescoed great green hall, there’s a certain frisson to visiting the dungeons and torture chamber. History is everywhere in this melting pot border land.
Hotel Engels Park, Via Deutschhaus, 20, 39049 Vipiteno BZ, Italy. +39 0472 765132. The pool area is open between 7am and 8pm. For summer the all-inclusive ‘activecard PREMIUM’ guest card, is included in the price of your room. It offers a range of DIScounts to museums and attractions plus free bus and cable car travel.
Neil Sowerby flew to Innsbruck with jet2.com, which operates weekly services in summer, with greater frequency in the ski season. Engels Park is an hour’s drive south via the Brenner Pass.
Read his report on Innsbruck itself: Innsbruck – city of the golden roof and burnished codpiece