Born in Castelrotto on December 27, 1914, Zenzi Glatt came to live in Merano when she was 10 years old because of its better schools and has lived here ever since. She is a pioneer of hospitality. In 1948 she opened Pension Mignon and soon opened up a beauty department there. In 1967 she bought land across the fast-flowing Passiro River, a five-minute walk from downtown Merano and built the 5-star deluxe Park Hotel Mignon & Spa. Fifteen years later, in 1982, she purchased the 4-star Adria, a lovely Art Nouveau villa, uphill from the Park Hotel Mignon. She runs both hotels with her daughter Irmgard Amort and her grand-daughter Sissi. Lucy Gordan, a devoted guest and Epicurean-Traveler’s European Bureau Chief, interviewed her in the Park Hotel Mignon’s elegant library in late August, just a week before the Glatt/Amort families inaugurated a small chapel in the hotel garden, which will be available to guests for weddings, baptisms and anniversaries.
What was Merano like when you were a little girl?
In 1918, when Italy was one of the winners of the First World War, the South Tyrol was her war prize. Before that it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We farmers didn’t speak a word of Italian. We spoke only German. Mussolini sent thousands of people from southern Italy—they were mostly very poor and uncultured-to be public servants in the South Tyrol. His goal was to “Italianize” the Daitsch as we German-speakers were called. So our teachers were all southern Italians; they were not very nice to us. At school we were only allowed to speak Italian, which we didn’t know. If we said a word of German, our teachers pulled our hair. It wasn’t a pleasant time.
When we were older and a group of us friends would go hiking in the mountains, the Fascists followed us. If we sang a song in German, they beat us with clubs. The Fascists also confiscated our property, our produce and our land. Mussolini did some good things; he built factories and created jobs, but he should not have confiscated our farmers’ land. He thought he was clever, but he wasn’t. It wasn’t the way it is today in the South Tyrol where we are one big family with German- and Italian-language schools. Mussolini made a big mistake. He should have let each group continue to speak its own language. Since I’ve lived under eleven popes, two kings, and two emperors, I have seen a lot.
So you learned Italian in school?
Not really. When I was sixteen, my father Hermann Weiskopf, who was a baker and a very enlightened man, said to me, “We live in Italy now. Therefore you must speak correct Italian,” so he sent me to Florence for a year to study and immerse myself in Italian. I was so so homesick. These days I don’t have many occasions to speak Italian because we speak German and our local dialect here in Merano, so I make mistakes in Italian.
Tell me about your hotels?
My first hotel was under the portico in the center of Merano. It was called Mignon like this one. Now it is a residence called “Désirée” because in 1967 I bought this land and built a new hotel, which I named “Mignon”. My guests associated me with the name “Mignon”. I changed the name of my first hotel to “Désirée”. I also have a second hotel uphill from here which is called “Adria”. Winner of a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence 2015, The “Adria” had been a hotel since 1885; since 1970 it’s been home to Merano’s first indoor swimming pool. As you know, my grand-daughter Sissi and her mother Irmgard run the “Mignon”; Sissi’s husband, Florian Ellmenreich, runs the “Adria“. Sissi’s son Philipp, who is still a student, (he left today for a year in Arizona) also helps out so we are four generations of hoteliers in the family.
Was your husband also a hotelier?
No. My husband Engelbert Glatt and I started the hotels and for many years they were run exclusively by the female members of my family. When I married, my husband was a butcher with his store under the portico downtown. I felt sorry for the cows. Poor unlucky animals! I didn’t like working in the butcher shop. I didn’t like my husband’s profession, but I loved him very much. Our wedding date was June 16, 1938. We were married for 72 years. He died six years ago. He used to get cross at me for drinking white wine. He would tell me that it was not good for my kidneys and bladder. So I’d answer so “I’ll drink your red wine, because I don’t want you to drink that poison”. I‘ve never liked red wine. You see, I‘ve always been somewhat of tease. Someone who says what they think. Outspoken!
When Hitler came to power, he invited us Daitsch to move to Germany or Austria. He promised us the same amount of land as we had here and comfortable homes. 70% percent of the German-speaking population accepted and left. It was tempting, but we chose not to go and thus became known as Dableiber. We stayed here, but not without suffering. My husband was almost immediately drafted into the Italian army. First he was sent to fight for a year in Abyssinia, then an Italian colony and now Ethiopia. Then, when the Second World War broke out, he was sent to the Russian front. He was away for five years.
After the War the Italian Government allowed the population to choose which of the two languages was their mother tongue and whether to go to school in German or in Italian. We bought a small hotel above my husband’s shop, which today is the “Désirée” Residence. I ran the hotel and poor Irmgard had to help her father in the butcher shop. When she married, we sold the shop.
What are the essential qualities to be a top hotelier like you?
The most important thing is the atmosphere. You and your staff must be hospitable, must welcome your guests with open arms. The second is the cuisine; everything should be homemade. Thirdly, cleanliness and orderliness. I’ve always had a sixth sense about new trends and about my guests’ special requirements. The staff must keep records of each guest’s preferences, favorite foods, brand of whiskey, hard or soft mattress etc. so they will be on hand when the guest returns. Ideally a top hotelier should know how to do everything, so, if an employee is sick for a day or two, it’s not a problem. I am a businesswoman, but I never made a bed.
Do you like to cook?
Yes, but never professionally. They say I’m a very good cook.
You are well-known as a top hotelier, but also as a painter. Did you always paint?
No, in 1973 I decided to make my own Christmas cards and send them to my guests. Many wrote back to me that they were beautiful and that I should continue to paint. That’s how I started. I would go home at around 11:30 PM and paint until around 2 in the morning. But I’d come back here every morning at 6:30. You can’t make something out of nothing.
Your favorite color?
Whatever comes to mind at the moment, but I prefer bright colors.
Your favorite painters?
Renoir and Picasso.
What is your style?
Abstract. I‘ve painted around 680 paintings in all sizes and shapes. One is in the Museum in Bolzano; another is in the museum here in Merano. I paint on canvas, cardboard, and wood wit oils and acrylics. But occasionally I also add marble dust, and sand.
Where do you sell your paintings and how much do they cost?
I‘ve never sold my paintings for profit. I sell them at auction for charity. For example, before Christmas there’s an auction to benefit the elderly population of Merano, between 500-600 people, who cannot otherwise pay their bills. Before this I sold them for our children suffering from cancer, then for the children of Chernobyl, then to build a school and a little wooden church in Mozambique. I don’t determine the price. I don’t put a price tag? I like to paint small canvases so they can cost less and thereby make more money for the cause. If they are too big, the price has to be high and not everyone can spend so much. Besides the museums, my paintings hang in lots of banks, doctors’ offices, union halls, in my hotels… Just look around, in the entrance, here in the bar, in the bedrooms…
Art and helping others are the keys to having a long life.
So you sell only at charitable functions?
People commission my works, but I don’t let them tell me what they want painted. I paint what I want and if they like it, fine. Otherwise they don’t have to take it. I used to go to the auctions incognito. Now I don’t have the strength. Again the money I make goes to charity.
But you still paint?
Yes, I still have a commission from the Bank of Bolzano to complete. I didn’t want to accept because I‘m not as strong as used to be, but the bank director insisted so I got a second wind.
If you hadn’t become a hotelier, what other profession would you have chosen?
I was a very vivacious child, but I don’t remember having any particular professional goals. We were five sisters. I’m the oldest. Three of us are still alive. One died when Bolzano was bombed on December 15, 1940 at age 22; the other married a man 15 years younger than she. She died of a heart attack. We sisters—catty as sisters often are–said that she was too fragile to marry a man so much younger than she. One of my sisters, who lives in Baden-Baden, is 94; the other, who lives here in Merano, is 99.
My youngest sister doesn’t see well anymore. This morning she came into my bedroom with a very bright blue sweater on. I told her it wasn’t appropriate and to go and change.
Your father wanted a son?
You bet. That’s for certain. The first-born was a boy, but he died.
You may not be as strong as you once were, but you still work. I see you here in the office everyday. What do you like best about your work?
Working is my medicine. It keeps me alive. I don’t have to take pills. My secret is to walk up and down stairs at least ten times a day, to make my bed and, while I‘m doing so, to say a prayer thanking God that I’m not bedridden.