I was treated to a wonderful surprise botanical garden in Merano, Italy, this summer while traveling in the South Tyrol, the Southern Alps in northeast Italy.
Merano, or Meran in German, (not to be confused with Milan), is a town of 38,000 people in a lush valley surrounded by scenic peaks. For years it’s been known as a health spa due to its mild and warm climate.
I thought it odd to have a name like Trauttmansdorff in Italy, but I soon learned that this area used to be part of the Austrian (Hapsburg) Empire until it was annexed to Italy after World War I (1918) when the Allies redrew the map of Austria. Seventy percent of the people still speak German, and the castle and town look and feel more Austrian than Italian.
The 29 acres of gardens were developed in 2001 by the local province on the grounds of the Trauttmansdorff Castle, built in 1850 by Count Trauttmansdorff on the site of medieval ruins dating to 1300. Plants from all over the world make up the 80 different natural and cultivated “garden worlds” in the amphitheatershaped bowl that extends up the hill beyond the castle.
Upon entering the garden, I had the distinct feeling that I was in California, with palm trees, crape myrtles, impatiens and zinnias lining the stone walkway. There were four distinct walking circuits to choose from, so I started with the coolest, the “Forests of the World,” as it was a very warm August day.
North American deciduous and evergreen trees, including redwoods, surprised me, as did the bamboo and Japanese conif- erous forests loaded with Rhododendrons. A wide variety of ferns lined a shaded river cascading down the slopes, and a modern glass house was home to a world of exotic and tropical varieties.
From the forest I walked to the “Mediterranean Sun Gardens,” where fields of sunflowers lined the paths crisscrossing the hill below the castle. Many of our California favorites were there — lavender, sages, bougainvillea, lantana, agapanthus — along with olive trees and arbors covered with grapevines. The featured flower of the South Tyrol is the hydrangea, followed by dahlias and rudbeckia.
The main event, though, was “The Water and Terraced Gardens” featuring a lake full of water lilies and koi reminiscent of Monet’s paintings. Colorful waterloving plants such as Thunberg’s bush clover and ornamental rhubarb lined the lake’s edge. All around the lake were various sitting areas that invited visitors to stop and absorb the view of the castle, the gardens skirting the terraced hill, and the distant peaks.
After rejuvenating with a lunch at the café on the lake, I headed for the fourth circuit, “Landscapes of South Tyrol.” This area resembles a walk through the alpine countryside, with streams, a small lake and original native vegetation.
In addition to the vast collection of plants, the gardens offer 10 “experience stations,” such as an adventure bridge, botanical underworld and “grotto and multimedia show” for visitors of all ages.
Artist pavilions throughout were designed by artists to incorporate one element of nature into a structure, as in the canoeshaped shade covers at the lake pavilion. At the top of the property, a see-through viewing platform offers a panoramic view of the entire Merano valley. Several “adventure” options are available for children, while the works of art along the pathways add depth and interest to the experience.
Trauttmansdorff Castle’s garden, although relatively new, has received much recognition in its 14 years. It was named “Italy’s Most Beautiful Garden” in 2005, and No. 6 in the Top 10 Gardens of Europe in 2006. It was named the “International Garden of the Year” in 2013 at the Garden Tourism Conference in Toronto, Canada, and was given a Certificate of Excellence for commitment to hospitality excellence by Tripadvisor in 2014. Open from April to November, the garden welcomes more than 400,000 visitors a year.
What impressed me the most at this surprise garden were the number of families, the many languages spoken, and the immaculate care shown in the stewardship of the grounds and facilities. This is a true reflection of the garden’s brochure, which states, “At Trauttmansdorff, the main focus is our visitors. And good service is vital to us.”
Don’t miss this spectacular garden on your next jaunt to Italy!
IF YOU GO: MERANO, ITALY
Plan on at least three hours to visit, more to enjoy one of the two restaurants.
Merano is a two-hour drive north from either Milan or Venice, Italy, and two hours south of Innsbruck, Austria.
Combination tickets are available for the Gardens and a Wine Experience every Thursday from August through October.
Highly recommended: Combination ticket to Gardens and Merano Thermal Baths (use of pool for 3 hours, towel, changing rooms) where a modern facility on a park has 25 pools, indoors and outdoors, saunas.)