They left Merano to seek their fortune in the big, wide world, but many creatives have now come home to South Tyrol.
In his kitchen on the third floor of a rectangular tower silo in an industrial park, Harry Thaler opens the plywood flap above the brass sink to reveal a gaping hole. “Scared of heights?,” the industrial designer throws over his shoulder as he climbs onto the flimsy fire escape leading to the roof. Thaler has turned the lower stories into office space complete with panoramic windows, concrete walls and a cast-iron spiral staircase. Above his head there’s nothing but the sky, a picture-perfect blue.
Such a scene would be easily imaginable in London, Amsterdam or Berlin, but instead of gazing across a sea of buildings, Thaler looks out at trees, Alpine meadows and in the distance, the city of his birth: Meran (aka Merano). Over 1000 years old, once a South Tyrolean stronghold, then a popular spa retreat, Merano is now a place to which former residents return.
After ten years in the British capital, Harry Thaler returned to Merano in the summer of 2017. Back then, he couldn’t wait to escape the geranium-lined balconies of his hometown, so he left to study product design at London’s Royal College of Art. As a student, he designed the Pressed Chair – “my pension fund,” as he jokingly calls it, a chair made of thin aluminum that now comes in eleven colors and sells worldwide. After graduating, he moved into a studio in Hackney because he thought needed a prestigious address. Today, despite living in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Merano, he has customers in Copenhagen, London and Munich. Why did he come back? The 43-year-old strokes his four-day beard before laconically responding: “Quality of life,” adding that you could leave the big city and still enjoy the amenities it offered, just not at the same level: “good restaurants, a functioning infrastructure, interesting shops.” Innsbruck is only 155 kilometers away, Milan, 300. And tradespeople are easy to get a hold of. Thaler holds up his thumb and pinkie as if talking on the phone: “If I need a carpenter or a blacksmith, I know exactly whom to call.” Many small manufacturers have opened shop near Merano, many of them family enterprises whose work ethic and craftsmanship he can depend on. In London, Thaler says, he couldn’t even find a decent plumber.
Fashion designer Dimitri Panagiotopoulos, 42, had a similar experience. After living abroad for many years, working for Vivienne Westwood in England, and in Germany for Jil Sander in Hamburg and Hugo Boss in Metzingen, where he missed his previous employer’s unconventional style, he went into business for himself “back home” in Merano, starting his own label, Dimitri, not far from the Passer River, on Sandplatz square, where he used to walk as a child, his Greek father holding one hand, his Italian mother the other. Back then, he already knew that this was where he wanted to live some day. Now No. 2, a pastel-colored building with ornamented bay windows, houses his showroom. Most of his main producers are regional; he buys in fabrics from Como and shoes from -Florence. His dressmaker’s studio is right next to the showroom with his form-fitting evening gowns made of, say, flowing pink silk organza.
At first, everyone thought he was a Russian exile creating extravagant gowns far from the motherland – even the millionaires from Moscow, who spend ungodly sums detoxing at the cosmopolitan Hotel Palace before buying a new dress – were convinced this was so, and so Dimitri became a local hero. Panagiotopoulos also shows his creations in Berlin and Vienna, and supplies loyal customers online. In Merano, he is now earning the money to go traveling for a year: Cape Town, Dubai and Mykonos are top of his list, he says.
Like Thaler, Panagiotopoulos left South Tyrol in search of big-city nightlife, anonymity and inspiration. Like Thaler, he returned when the promises dried up. Some people require a bustling environment to be creative. Thaler and Panagiotopoulos prefer clearly arranged order. Merano isn’t too loud, it isn’t too stressful, and it provides space for thought and creativity. In our globalized world, where Skype is used for meetings and people exchange ideas on Instagram, creativity is no longer connected to any particular place.
What makes Merano so attractive are also the different temperaments. Here, Austro-German efficiency and punctuality meet Italian sensuality and flair for style and design. Street names are bilingual too: Feldweg and Via dei Campi, Sandplatz and Piazza della Rena. This lively mix of cultures also appeals to media tycoon Tyler Brûlé. The London-
based, Canadian founder of Wallpaper and Monocle has become a tastemaker for frequent travelers. His preferences have always run toward smaller cities – especially near the Alps. The 50-year-old opened an office in Zürich several months ago and vacations in Bad Gastein. In Merano, he opened a Monocle shop, one of six in small cities. Brûlé even bought an apartment in Merano and had it furnished by Harry Thaler. The city was nonplussed. What drew him to Merano? Evidently the same things that drew Thaler: He loves being close to the mountains and having good restaurants five minutes away, no traffic congestion, uncrowded subways – room to breathe. Like on the terrace of the Meteo restaurant on the banks of the Passer, where guests enjoy succulent venison goulash overlooking the rushing river. Or at Luis Haller’s Schlosswirt Forst that boasts a rustic atmosphere on the outside and modern cuisine, kohlrabi tortelli, truffle risotto and the like within. Haller is a returnee too, of course. After stints in Milan, Tuscany and at the Michelin-starred Vendôme in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, he has been back cooking in Merano for a couple of years.
Linda Egger left Merano in the early 1980s to study art in Florence. Ten years later she returned to work at a contemporary art gallery. Today, sporting short gray hair, a white shirt and rolled-up pant cuffs, she manages the Monocle shop, which sells Japanese bags, French socks and South Tyrolean glassware. To get to the shop from Atelier Dimitri in the lower part of the city, the medieval center with its famous arcades, you walk up to the Obermais district and on up Via Cavour, which looks a little bit like Beverly Hills in miniature with its winding lanes, discreet driveways and ocher-colored mansions. It’s a lovely 20-minute walk past a monument to Sissi (Empress Elizabeth of Austria), who made Merano her summer retreat in the late 1800s and so awakened the city from a century of hibernation.
As the aristocrats followed the empress, so design aficionados make the trip to Linda Egger’s shop. “I often wonder what it’s like to live by the sea,” she jokes, referencing the city’s most obvious flaw. “But then I think about the good life I’m living in Merano.” Every evening, she drives 20 minutes to “her mountain,” telling nobody which one she means. She enjoys
the mild, sunny climate to which Merano owes the exotic flora in the Botanical Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle. “It’s not bad at all,” she says, giving me a wink and a hug. What word would best describe how she’s feeling right now? “Happy!”
Happy in Merano
Spend the night at Landhaus Ottmannsgut and doze beneath lemon trees during the day.
Farm-fresh cooking: Family Obertegger makes delicious food using their own products.
Pop singer Tracy Merano loves performing in her hometown clubs best of all.
Merano has many canals, and a good way to see the city is to walk one of its 11 canal trails.
In March, Lufthansa flies to Milan (MXP) up to six times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to five times daily from Munich (MUC). Austrian Airlines flies up to five times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) to Innsbruck (INN). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app