In an unusual rain pouring cold morning Mayor Paul Rüsch, a rather non-political bonhomme, guided us through the history of his town and along the Passirio – Passer.
Merchants from Verona on their way to Augsburg were stopping in long passed medieval times at the church by the river to touch the fortune bearing statue of St. Christopher patron of traders.
Ex-capital of Tyrol, Merano lost its boom-times in the 15th century for the benefit of closer-to-the-Danube, Innsbruck. One of the reasons was floods, the mayor underlines. Even today, the promenade by the river is being sided by big red gothic style numbers reminding wanderers the years of the mountain sustained floods.
“After the Napoleonic wars people started to come here in winter because the air is dry. Rich people started to come in waves. Slowly, slowly they were accepted by a rather closed-in Catholic society. In 100 years five new churches of diverse denominations sprung up expressing acceptance: amongst them, a Russian orthodox church, and a synagogue,” adds Rüsch.
People came from all over the place with money but also with new ideas. So this catholic stronghold became quite a liberal one. After WWI, and the subsequent Treaty of St. Germain, the whole area was attached to Italy. Despite the rough times during Mussolini’s reign, the fascists accepted that tourism has to be promoted. Even today, sustainable tourism is a cornerstone of the town’s development.
In contemporary times, politicians started to understand and cope with the idea of autonomy. Now the area is proudly peaceful and South Tyrol is not a problem between Italy and Austria, but a successful region in an ever-developing European context.
“We try to bring the people to the river since it was leveed. So we have these “beaches” by the town’s promenade,” completes Madeleine Rohrer, local councilor of Merano. She recalls some sort of Stefan Zweig-ian times when the Sanatorium’s patients and mid-19th century tourists were strolling by the river and relaxing on the sun-bathed chaises-longues.
“We want to do this again, make Merano a walking city,” she adds. The promenades of the past made many people walk for their health. Sissi of Austria came over in the second half of the 19th century, gave the whole ambient an aristocratic twist and, moreover, an incentive to develop on a touristy strand.
Johannes Ortner from Heimatschutzverein Meran showed us the Neuwaal canal, and explained the regulations for using the water canals that linger from the 16th century and are still perfectly valid. Essentially public, they sustain the irrigation for the famous South Tyrolean apple trees.
Why so many historical irrigations? “Because we are far from the valleys and winds from south are dry. Rains are not enough as they barely bring 450 mm rainwater. Just like Peruvian in the Andes or other mountain civilisations, this is a typical adaptation to the harsh mountain conditions.