The southern side of the Alps stretches from the Brenner Pass on the Austrian-Italian border down to sunny Barbian in the Isarco Valley. South of Innsbruck, Austria and north of Venice, an area ceded to Italy following the First World War, a journey of delicious discovery awaits. Along the Isarco Gourmet Route travelers immerse themselves in the cuisine and culture of the Italian Südtirol.
The trip was made even better for me since I drove it seated at the wheel of a BMW 1 Series Convertible 123d.
Mediterranean and Central European cultural influences meet here in the beautiful Isarco Valley, which boasts a diverse landscape. Dotted with historical monuments and the medieval towns of Sterzing, Brixen, and Klausen, the area is also well known as the home of Eisacktaler wines.
Along the Isarco Gourmet Route, we found great friends and excellent meals presented by traditional restaurants, of which I can recommend quite a few.
Our route took us through the Brenner Pass, then south on the Brenner Road. The road makes its way through Gossensass and past the vaunted Henrik Ibsen spa.
The cemetery features an interesting place of worship: The Miners' Chapel, with a late-Gothic winged altar, is from the period of mining in Pflerschtal, an idyllic valley at the foot of Tribulaun Mountain that today offers hiking and skiing.
Our tour continued to the medieval town of Sterzing, also known by its Italian name Vipiteno. Traditionally Tyrolian, this important commercial center is charming and romantic. Its elegant main street features one of the prettiest town halls in the Südtirol.
Our first stop was the Restaurant Lilie, deservedly one of the best-known establishments in Sterzing. Five centuries have shaped the atmosphere at the restaurant and the Hotel Lilie, in continuous operation since it was established in 1461. Walking through the inn's heavy, vaulted, iron-enforced wood door, you understand why this property is today a protected example of medieval architecture.
Mediterranean cuisine inspires a first-class menu that promises tempting appetizers, fish and meat dishes with tasty sauces, and delicious desserts from its own bakery.
Hotel Restaurant Lilie, Neustadt 49, 39049 Vipiteno 001-39-0472-760063
Our journey to the south next passed the Castle Reifenstein. Dating to the 12th century, Reifenstein is one of the most valuable castles in the region. The little hamlet of Trens, with its Gothic church of the Holy Mother of God, is also a popular pilgrimage site.
Our next gastronomic stopover was at the Romantic Hotel and Restaurant Stafler in Mauls. This award-winning gourmet restaurant serves many almost-forgotten South Tyrolean specialties, in addition to creative international classics. The ingredients are fresh from the herb garden on the Stafler family manor, and the wines come from one of the best-stocked wine cellars around. Dining here is traditionally elegant.
You can also visit the lovingly restored Eisacktaler Kramer House nearby with a view of the barn. The adjacent four-star hotel combines medieval roots, historic charm, and modern amenities.
Romantic Hotel and Restaurant Stafler, Mauls 10, 39040, 001 39 0472-771136
The main road continues to Fortezza, a community that took its name from the impressive fortress built nearby by Emperor Francis I between 1833 and 1838. Laboriously constructed of massive granite blocks, the fort is open to visitors during the summer months.
High on my recommendation list when visiting this area is the Augustinian Abbey of Neustift near Bressanone. The monastery complex includes a beautiful late-Baroque church, a stunning Rococo-style library hall that houses approximately 76,000 manuscripts and volumes, and the pinacotheca or art gallery, in which items ranging from Gothic panel paintings and altarpieces to liturgical treasures and scientific instruments are displayed.
Afterwards, it is impossible to pass the monastery cellar without stopping for refreshment. Where else could an Eisacktaler white wine taste so good?
Next to the monastery is the traditional Hotel Restaurant Brückenwirt. First mentioned around 1152, this Tyrolean inn offers a varied cuisine and a well-stocked cellar showcasing fine regional wines. Specialties include homemade pasta and Tyrolean dishes from ancient recipes. The shady garden invites you for a coffee and cake break, a cool beer, or a glass of wine.
Hotel Restaurant Brückenwirt, pin Strasse 2, 39040 Neustift, 001 39 0472-836692
As the oldest town in the Südtirol--its history dates back to 901 A.D.--Brixen boasts numerous sites of historical and cultural significance. Gothic austerity and Renaissance and Baroque splendor harmonize in many facades.
Wide alleys lined with shops and restaurants enliven the downtown area. The town square with its church, cathedral, and adjoining cloister is the spiritual center of Brixen. The white lamb, a symbol of the city, adorns the millennium column opposite the Prince Bishop's Palace with the diocesan and Nativity Museum. The pedestrian zone offers a range of shopping opportunities.
At the end of the main street, you'll encounter the Vital Restaurant La Piazza at the Hotel Goldene Krone, another destination for lovers of fine cuisine. Inspiring the restaurant's design was the image of the hustle and bustle of an Italian piazza where people meet to chat, stroll, eat, and drink. At Restaurant La Piazza, Chef Hans Pardeller will introduce your taste buds to the delights of the Südtirol in a setting that is both modern and vibrant.
Vital Restaurant La Piazza and Hotel Goldene Krone, Stadelgasse 4, 39042 Brixen, 001 39 0472-83 5154
Heading 18 kilometers south of Brixen along the banks of the Isarco, we arrived next in Klausen, its narrow, winding lanes and high gabled houses providing an exhilarating drive--especially with the BMW's top down. Chestnut groves and vineyards encircle Klausen and its ancient residences. In his book The Great Happiness, Albrecht Dürer captured this medieval imagery and atmosphere.
Boldly dominating this artistic community is the 10th-century monastery at Säben, which once served as the seat of the diocese before its move to Brixen.
At the southern entrance to Klausen, my recommended destination is the Eagle Room at the Hotel Goldener Adler. The kitchen staff there create excellent meals with a winning combination of traditional Tyrolean cuisine and Mediterranean and international influences.
Don't miss trying a glass or bottle of wine from their cellar. Ask the sommelier for his suggestions, especially from among the lesser-known wineries--and be prepared to enjoy a great meal.
Hotel Goldener Adler, Via Fraghes, 39043 Klausen, phone 001 39 0472-846111
From Klausen, the scenic road winds up to the picturesque town of Villanders. Its village street, captured by the Tyrolean painter Franz von Defregger, is alone worth the trip.
Continuing up the mountain you'll reach the Villanderer Alm, a high alpine pasture with a panoramic view of the Dolomite Mountains--a paradise for hikers.
Returning to the village, we visited the restaurant Capricorn for another gourmet meal. Here--the final stop on our special culinary tour--the historic rooms of the 16th century harmoniously combine history, tradition, and cuisine. The attraction here is the art of von Defregger and Andreas Hofer, and the history surrounding this romantic hideaway. Relax and unwind in the new garden lounge with its expansive views.
Award-winning Chef Alois Unterfrauner understands the presentation of cuisine that is both rustic and Mediterranean in a perfect combination. No wonder the Bertelsmann Big Restaurant & Hotel Guide chose to honor this exceptional establishment as its 2011 Südtirol Restaurant of the Year.
Hotel Restaurant Ansitz and Capricorn, St. Stefan 38, 39040 Villanders, 001 39 0472-843111
We wish to thank Armin Reindl for providing this classic touring feature to AutomotiveTraveler.com. The original version of this article and write-ups on many more delightful itineraries appear in German on his website DaCabrio.com. - Editors