So many times I’ve passed by Bolzano, heading either north or south. Never did I think, seeing the town from the freeway as I zoomed by, that there was much other than the neat, bright almost German factories, buildings and roads. How wrong I’ve been.
Yes, this is definitely Tirol in Italy, not the Italian Tirol. The first language of choice is German, not Italian. After all, Italy has held this land for less than a hundred years, and it shows. The language and the signs of Italy – banks, post office, some stores – look quite out of place. The old part of Bolzano still called the Altstadt (Old Town), is so obviously part of the wider Tirolean culture and style of living. The cathedral multi-coloured tiles take after that in Vienna, the ridged and rounded copper rooves also. The same colours of buildings, similar frescoes, identical windows. Straightaway you are in another story.
The extensive car-free centre is so lovely to walk through. When I passed through there was a bright and colourful street market, large stalls on either side with interesting things to buy, not cheap throw-away clutter. In the bright morning sun, walking through Bolzano felt like the way such towns used to be before we lost the pleasure of street shopping to crowd into soulless malls and outlets. So many street cafés and restaurants! And full too, for the food is wholesomely good and the prices very acceptable. You can see these places are well cared for and loved by the people who run them – it’s the details that count, and in Bolzano, each establishment is cherished.
What brings people here is mostly as a jumping off point to travel into the Alps – snowing in the winter, hiking in the summer. The mountains rise quickly, so very soon even Bolzano is a world away. One traveller who might have seen the valley long ago was Ötzi, the man found in the ice a short distance from here. Bolzano now holds his body, which is housed in a museum you can visit quite easily.
There’s always a good time to be in Bolzano because there’s always something to do and see. Whether it is snow skiing in the winter, kayaking in the spring, mountain climbing in the summer or enjoying the fruits of fall, Bolzano is always attractive.
Every year the Südtirol Jazz Festival brings together internationally renowned jazz musicians. In May the worthy burghers enjoy eating smoked ham in the “Festa dello Speck” while in August they wash it down with wine in a street fair, then go back to more food with the Pumpkin Festival in October. On 11th of November (Martinsnacht) the children walk in a procession with lanterns singing songs about the light; then in the weeks before Christmas, there is the classic winter market (Christkindlmarkt) where you can but decorations, eat lots of sausages and drink mulled wine.
Too soon my time in the Tirol was over, and I began my drive down the ever-widening valley, south into the sun and heat of an Italian summer. How refreshing to have finally seen Bolzano!
A little bit of history
Way back when, the Rhaetian people, who older than the Etruscans, threw a few shacks together by the banks of the Adige river, high in the Tirol and called it Bauzanum. It was a good place to settle and live from its good location on the north-south trade route. Augustus Caesar’s grandson (check Nero Claudius Drusus) came along and decided the river needed a bridge, so Pons Drusi (Drusus’ Bridge) was built and the Rhaetians became Roman, like it or not. Bolzano (Bozen in German) is their child.
The Lombards and the Franks didn’t get to do anything here, because the Bavarians got to Bolzano first, so it fell within the German-speaking world, not the Northern Italian or Frankish one. And so it firmly remained, until the end of World War One, when it was given over to Italy as spoils after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In reality, it is as much a trade and cultural crossing point now as ever it was. Bolzano won a special deal with today’s Rome, which permits it to not only keep its distinctive ways but most of its tax revenue. Not coincidentally, it ranks number two in ‘quality of life’ statistics for Italy, nearby Trento being number one.
Article © Carl Ottersen