A morning espresso at the train station. Farmers dressed in their signature blue aprons sipping a small glass of red wine, immersed in conversations spoken in German. The Italian Alps in the backdrop with the sun peering out over the mountain peaks. Not a bad start to my Tuesday.
It was October, 2013, and I was visiting my brother, Dave, who was living in Ritten Renon, Italy – a small mountain town in the region of South Tyrol, bordering near Germany and Austria. This was not the classic Roman Italy I’d pictured, but instead like a scene out of The Sound of Music – the Austro-German influence seeping through each element of the town.
In a few short days my heart would be stolen by this part of Italy, a region where Sigmund Freud would frequent as a vacation destination.
Ritten Renon is approximately a 3-hour drive from Venice, with the easiest commute arriving to the central piazza in Bolzano. From Bolzano, a cable car is the main method of transportation up to the mountain town of Ritten Renon; second choice being a car driving up the narrow zigzagging roads, resembling Lombard Street in San Francisco.
After traveling a few thousand feet upwards to our destination via car (Dave had a peppy sports car perfect for the winding roads), I stepped outside and could immediately feel the palpable difference in the quality of air. It felt cleaner, thinner, and easier to breathe in. It filled my lungs with an energizing force, plunging me towards some sort of apex of living.
I’d read somewhere that the Nigerian National Running Team traveled to these mountains for their training due to this thin air. That’s some pretty specific/awesome training. And soon, I would also learn that these mountains are, in fact, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Dolomites.
When Dave first mentioned the Dolomites to me, I actually was picturing dolmades – the delicious grape vine leaves filled with rice. Needless to say, I was mistaken. In reality, the Dolomites are a series of asymmetrical limestone peaks, exploding from the landscape. In total, there are 18 points, all which resemble church steeples. Nestled beneath this mountain scape are hundreds of hiking trails, speckled with wildflowers, serene lakes, and woodland creatures scurrying about. So basically, the most magnificent mountain scape you could ever imagine.
The venue we’d be visiting that evening, the Park Hotel Holzner, was sheltered amidst the mountains, whose vista would soar out into these Dolomites.
Arriving at the Park Hotel Holzner just after the sun had set, I wasn’t able to fully grasp the splendour of the site until stepping into the lounge area. I felt as though I was once again transported to that Sound of Music way of life (minus the war), with Alpine Art Nouveau décor restored to its original glory beautifying the space.
Walls were painted bright emerald green, with subtle brass embellishments adorned throughout the perimeter of the room. Oversized ornate sofa chairs were dispersed in clusters atop an impressive Persian rug, which led the focal point of the room – an elegant bar fit for some sort of European Royalty.
Mimi Holzner, one of my brothers Italy friends, greeted us in the lounge and I instantly felt super chic in her presence. I proceeded in ordering my drink of choice of my trip to Italy, a Hugo (see recipe here), and relished in Mimi’s words as she recounted to us the history of the century-old Park Hotel Holzner.
The original hotel, Hotel Oberbozen (which literally means over Bolzano- located in the mountain, so, extremely fitting), was purchased by Mimi’s great grandfather, Hans Holzer Sr. in 1911.
As the second round of drinks made their way to our table, Mimi continued on with the hotel’s rich history, and we all listened with curious anticipation.
The Holzner was actually built in 1906, and Hans Holzner Sr. was hired as the hotel’s manager in 1908 (the year of its opening). In 1911, he was able to acquire the hotel, and had big plans to expand the space and double the number of rooms. This, however, never happened due to the outbreak of World War 1. What would follow next with the history of the Holzner was something from a movie plot line.
During the first World War, Hans was based in Vienna as an officer of the Austro-Hungarian army, leaving his wife Maria to run the hotel. That was, until, it was confiscated first by Austrian, then by Italian army groups. In 1919 after the war, Hans returned to Oberbozen. That same year, South Tyrol was annexed by Italy. Austria was amongst the losers of the war, and therefore had to abandon and cede many of its territories.
In 1920 the hotel was finally reopened for its first season after the war and under Italian administration. The fascists seized power in Italy in 1922, starting the “Italianizing“ campaign in the area, an assimilation process of the mostly German speaking population of South Tyrol. Italian became the only permitted official language, and the German language was banned from schools and all public institutions. Even German newspapers were forbidden. In the course of this process, business names were also “Italianized“. Therefore, the name “Hotel Oberbozen“ became illegal, and was changed into Hotel Savoia. Eventually, it changed into Hotel Holzner for good with more German influence making it’s way into the region.
The second World War brought more colourful stories, as during this time the hotel was used to temporarily accommodate families and refugees from nearby cities. There are also tales of German generals staying there to scan for their opposition traveling via plane. Not to sound too cliché, but if these walls could talk….
Enjoying a cocktail while absorbing such history told by the great-granddaughter of the hotel’s founder was truly a unique experience to begin my time in Italy.
The Holzner family continues to run the hotel, which has regularly been named one of the top boutique hotels in South Tyrol. With the general expansion in the past 10 years, this venue is perfect for vacationers and incentive groups alike, boasting a spa and wellness centre, gourmet dining, and guest rooms overlooking the mountains.
Mimi and family- thank you for this experience and enhancing my visit to Northern Italy! Stay tuned for more travel stories featuring extraordinary places from around the world!