We had been keen to head up to the very North of Italy for sometime, the mountainous region on the border of Austria had temped to its snow covered peaks and delightful villages. But little did we know that upon crossing over into the region of Sud Tyrol we would be entering into a majority Germany speaking area of Italy that’s architecture and culture more resembled that of Austria. This strange and fascinating merging of cultures and identities makes this city, alongside the stunning natural scenery made this a unique and wonderful city to visit.
History of Bolzano
You might be wondering why Bolzano is mainly German speak and yet is part of Italy! Well, that’s where it gets interesting and also somewhat controversial! Before 1918 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and part of what would be modern day Austria. This explains why many of the old buildings are of a style more often seen within the historic borders of the old empire rather than the Mediterranean style traditional Italian style further south.
After the first world war Italy was granted what they call “Alto Adige” in return for backing the winning side in what could be seen as a rather obnoxious abuse of power and status. The people here were and essentially are Austrians, they speak the same dialect, have Germanic names, ancestors and eat German food (with the exception to their whole hearted embrace of Pizza, but haven’t we all!) As time went on it seemed unwise to tinker again with the borders of Europe in this region, it was too unstable during the Second World War for the Germans to demand back as they hoped to keep Italy on side!
The region however has not just settled and accepted its Italian status from that period. There have been several campaigns for the region to be reunited with the North Tyrol area of Austria and others who would like to see the area be an independent country entirely. During the second World War the region was subject to intensive “Italianisation” by Mussolini that included German being band and mass migration from the rest of Italy being encouraged. This of course left many with a lingering sense of being outside and apart from the rest of Italy. Even today the province has a large amount of self control and automony that other areas don’t get. It keeps a large portion of its taxes instead of them being split equally around the rest of Italy and here German has official status.
The atmosphere of Bolzano and Sud Tyrol
Walking around the typically Germanic streets and taking in the architecture that feels at odds with the fact that you know you are in Italy is a strange experience! Often around here you almost feel like you can’t quite place yourself, that you have to double check just where you are! Every street sign might be bi-lingual, but around here, and especially into the more regional places in the area, everything you hear is German! You get used to greeting people with “Morgen”, thanking them with “Danke” than the “Ciao” and “Grazie” we had grown used to in Milan! Yet there were strange cross overs in the culture that make this place truly unique and at the same time see almost too strange to be real!
One example of this cross over of culture was when were were walking though the small town of Oberbozen just about the city itself. Here we stumbled upon a celebration of the town winning what appeared to be an Ice hockey championship, all seems quite normal so far. Then came the crowds of people wearing a combination of lederhosen with Italian flag emblazoned t-shirts, adverts displaying competitions to meet the heroes of the Italian football team…written in German! The the fact that although most speak entirely in German (they are all mostly Bi-Lingial but German is the majority language) they say goodbye with a thick German accented “Ciao!”
The coming together of two cultures – or is it a clash?
Here one can say that the meeting of these two quite distinctive European cultures is something wonderful and endlessly interesting, but for the most part, the locals would disagree! Here the general feeling is that they are separate from the rest of Italy. They are different people with a different language, culture and ancestry, living in the land of their people and yet forced to be part of a country with which they share very little culture. Of course, there are many different opinions in Bolzano and the Sud Tyrol region on what or who they want to be and where.
The solution is a complex one which could alienate and force out many people, one suggestion was to offer the people here the choice to be citizens of both Austria and Italy, to carry both passports to represent their joint culture. Who knows if it will ever be resolved, for most of us it is a silent battle we never hear about, there are no bombs, waring in the streets or active racism here. But there are divides which make this a place where integration isn’t as normal as you might imagine. Despite these undercurrents the city is a wonderful place to explore and a peaceful location in which to explore the Dolomites!
What to see in Bolzano!
The Medieval Streets
Wandering around Bolzano itself is a treat, compared to the rest of the country the architecture here is totally different and exploring the narrow medieval streets is a real treat. Here you can discover the details and craftsmanship that has gone into creating each unique building that makes this city so beautiful. The throughway of Via Argentieri (that we were lucky enough to stay on) or Silbergasse in German is one of the finest examples and most interesting to explore. The facades of the street are the oldest in the city and form a quaint walkway you just have to explore!
Otzi – The worlds oldest human!
This famous mummy is the worlds most well preserved human specimen and a fascinating insight into our beginnings as the human race. It is estimated that Otzi lived around 3,300 BC on the mountains that border what is now Austria and Italy and had been frozen in time until he was discovered in the early 1990’s. The unique place in which he fell and the extreme conditions meant that for millennia this body, tissue and even small amounts of blood and stomach contents were preserved. The discovery of Otzi has allowed unprecedented knowledge of early humans and our behaviour and way of life, much is still unknown about Otzi but their is speculation about how he died and how he lived. Many think he was murdered and that his characteristic tattoos made him a shaman, truly unmissable and located in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
The Cable Cars and Earth Pyramids
The city of Bolzano is not only flanked by the impressive mountains of the Dolomites but many magnificent vineyard and forest covered hillsides more closer to the centre of the city. At least 3 of these have cable cars running up and down allowing amazing panoramic views of not only the town below but a clear line all the way over to the jagged peaks of the Dolomiti. One of the most impressive is the ride up to Oberbozen, here the ground below opens up into lush green pastures lined with vineyards and the backdrop is dominated by the snow covered peaks. Up here the view is nothing short of spectacular and local life is also in full swing. Take the 100 year old light railways trip down to the fascinating phenomenon of the Earth Pyramids too for a unique sight!
Lago di Carezza
An hour away from the city this is well worth the ride, out here you get to experience the heart of the powerful and impressive Dolomite mountain range in all its glory. The lake sits nestled between two sets of the characteristic peaks of the Italian Alps and its turquoise hue is just mesmerizing. Take the 180 bus and a pair of hiking boots for a view you will remember for the rest of your life! Even in winter with a covering of snow and ice the lake is a fairytale of mountain magic!
Right in the heart of the centre of the city is the brightly coloured cathedral. This beautiful gothic church dominates the city and provides a wonderful foreground to the wonderful mountains which surround it. The unique design of the roof is very reminiscent of many within the Austro-Hungarian empire but the beginnings of the church date way to the 4th century. Having been lovingly restored after it was badly damaged during the war this wonderful piece of architecture is a must visit!
The Bolzano Card!
With most accommodation in the city you should received a card that gives you complete access to the city for 7 days. This saved us so much money not only for our stay in Bolzano but for the rest of the time we travelled around the Sud Tyrol region too. The card covers regional transport and entry to museums within the entire province and really gives you the free some of this huge and beautiful area!
Have you been to Bolzano or the Sud Tyrol region of Italy?
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