A funky mountain spa that's ideal for soothing skiers' weary legs

SPA towns are not generally known for their thrusting modernity. Merano, in the South Tyrol region of northern Italy, is at first sight just another sleepy town whose glory days are behind it. <br /><br />Indeed, in the second half of the nineteenth century &ndash; when this area was still in the Austro-Hungarian Empire &ndash; it was one of the most fashionable places in all of Europe. You see, Empress Sissi, the wife of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, selected it as her favourite place for taking the waters. Soon the beau monde was flocking here, including the writer Franz Kafka and the composer Richard Strauss. <br /><br />These days the only remains of this life are the flyblown mansions that line the river, and the cosy little bars that nestle in the colonnades, a decent spot for a beer and a plate of dumplings. <br /><br />But the town (which is not to be confused with nearby Murano, which is famous for its glass-blowing) has a trick up its sleeve. It has radically updated itself with the construction of a massive and very cool, all-singing, all-dancing modern reboot of a spa whose waters have, so they say, been used for 5,000 years. <br /><br />Designed by local superstar designer Matteo Thun, it&rsquo;s a stunning place, with 25 pools indoors and out, and eight saunas, treatment rooms a gym, all in a funky, playful style. Some of the pools are built so that you can swim from inside to outside, where you can swim and enjoy the snow-capped mountains which loom over the town. The saunas go from wooden Swedish-style ones to others carved out of grottoes in the rock. There&rsquo;s even a bistro, so you can spend a whole day in the complex, should you please. <br /><br />The best way to experience the Thermes is to check into the slick hotel by the same designer which is right opposite the baths, the Steigenberger Hotel Therme Meran. It&rsquo;s a rather beautiful place, and helped of course by the setting. <br /><br />Merano is not the easiest place to get to &ndash; you have to go to Verona and take trains to Bolzano and then through the valley to the town &ndash; but if you are heading to the Italian mountains for skiing this winter, there is no better way to soothe those tired legs for a day or two afterwards. <br /><br />The Merano thermal baths are open 9AM to 10PM, from &euro;11 for two hours. Ticket for all day entry to baths and saunas, &euro;23, www.thermemeran.i. <br />Rooms in the Steigenberger hotel from &euro;168 per night for a double, www.steigenberger.com