5 mins

It's Italy... But it's Austria

Liz Edwards tastes the best of both worlds in northern Italy's Alpine region of South Tyrol

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Beyond rolling green pastures, snowy peaks graze the blue sky. Walkers wear the local shops’ finest edelweiss headkerchiefs and snack on wurst. Heidi-style chalets dot the countryside and, in town, lederhosen-clad buskers pick out waltzes on their zithers. Welcome to Italy.

The subject of a drawn-out custody battle, South Tyrol has been left something of a mixed-up kid. For much of its history it was part of Austro-Hungary; in 1810 it was incorporated into Napoleonic Italy, but five years later was returned to Austria. Finally, in 1918 it was ceded to Italy, along with its southerly neighbour Trentino, to form an autonomous region. South Tyrol (Südtirol in German, Alto Adige in Italian) is now Italy’s northernmost province – but it retains something of a split personality.

The regional capital has two names: Bolzano (Italian) and Bozen (German). Not too tricky to work out the link there, but its streets – all frescoed four- or five-storey Tyrolean townhouses – also have two names, and where these are translations of each other it can all get a bit more tangled. Piazza del Grano is also Kornplatz, Via Conciapelli doubles as Gerbergasse and to a Deutschophone, Via Grappoli is Weintraubegasse.

As I wandered through the crowds along Piazza delle Erbe (Öbstmarkt), where stallholders sold colourful heaps of tomatoes, strings of garlic and chillies, cheeses, Speck (cured ham) and schnitzel, I wasn’t sure whether my bum would be pinched, signorina-in-the-street style, or slapped in a fräulein-in-a-beerhall way.

Of course I was among civilised people, so I carried on unmolested. Round the corner on Via Museo/Museumstrasse was – surprise, surprise – the Museum of Archaeology. This is home to Ötzi the iceman, a 5,000-year-old mummified corpse discovered 13 years ago in South Tyrol’s Similaun Glacier, along with his clothes and equipment. I queued up to peer through a window at the tattooed body in its climate-controlled resting place, intrigued that it was so old but still so intact.

In a less ghoulish, more educational way, the museum has used the artefacts found with him to construct a fully clothed representation of Ötzi at his Copper Age finest – Sean Bean with a beard and a grass cloak, apparently.

Slightly less aged is Piazza Walther (Waltherplatz). The city’s main square, it’s a real showpiece of everything that makes Bolzano charming. Colourful, white-shuttered buildings, cafés and arcades line three sides, while the fourth side of the cobbled square is completed by the solid-but-delicate cathedral. The diamond pattern on the roof led my eyes upwards to the 16th-century bell tower and lacy pinnacle, and further to the mountains beyond. The whole city is cradled by peaks – they’re visible at the end of every street and give the place a comforting feel.

Of course they also lend a good degree of climatic protection – every good South Tyrolean will tell you about the 300-plus annual days of sunshine – which explains the region’s abundant capacity for fruit-growing, especially grapes.

Driving out of Bolzano the following day I intended to sample this local produce. The road to Kaltern (Caldaro) took me through some spectacular scenery – more mountains, of course, plus acres of neatly arranged vineyards groaning under the hefty weight of their pre-harvest crops and fairytale castles perched improbably on craggy slopes. Kaltern, a pretty village with an extremely Austrian feel, is at the heart of Italy’s northernmost wine-producing region.

I found more mummified exhibits at the wine museum – this time grape seeds, dating the region’s wine production back to 500BC. The huge 16th-century Törggel (grape press), barrels and other practical paraphernalia were grouped alongside artefacts showing the part wine plays in the region’s culture. A less-than-sympathetic portrait of a female wine-drinker revealed a historic disapproval of women enjoying their liquor, while faintly sacrilegious-looking paintings of Christ crucified on a grape press made it clear that even religion was imbued with significance to the trade.

It seemed that people were quite ingenious with their wine-related job creation too. Locals were employed as pre-harvest vineyard protectors, their costume including a huge fur hat decorated with feathers, boars’ teeth, and fox and squirrel tails. Lederhosen, shirt and a stick completed the outfit – obviously these human scarecrows were to be taken seriously. Besides the museum, Kaltern is almost door-to-door wine shops offering tastings, and I came away with clanking bagged bottles of lagrein and vernatsch, the native grapes.

At Castle Trauttmansdorff, an imposing hulk of a 19th-century building in the hills above Merano (Meran), the climate has been put to uses other than viticulture. The castle’s beautiful botanical gardens climb slopes and spread around the lake, with plants from around the world – an Italian Eden Project with mountains rather than domes. A huge bank of sunflowers spread around spindly cypress trees and lavender wafted up from the purple bushes. Indoors is the Touriseum, the castle’s new museum documenting the history of tourism in the region.

It all seemed terribly postmodern – a museum devoted to the thing that would bring in its visitors – but it was actually a surprisingly fascinating and candid look at the industry, even admitting that tourists were sometimes just told what they wanted to hear.

As I left the castle, though, I became more concerned with whether the tourists could survive the culture of confusing, or non-existent, road signs. Aiming to make the short journey from the castle into Merano town-centre sounded like a fairly simple undertaking. But after more wrong turns than right ones (including a hastily abandoned attempt at traversing what turned out to be a footpath), I found myself on the opposite side of the valley, heading away from town on a narrow, winding road with no sensible turning points. Looking in the rear-view mirror gave me great views of Merano but that wasn’t quite what I wanted.

Finally, having found a village with enough space for a three-point turn, I retraced my tracks and found a way in. No doubt this will invite all sorts of women-driver comments, but I defy anyone without large amounts of luck, or a few Paris-Dakars under their belt, to do better. Still, I was there. It was a shame the thermal baths were shut for refurbishment – relaxation was called for – but Orangensaft and gelato have rarely been more welcome.

Merano was the least Italian-feeling place I’d been so far. Its architecture was similar to Bolzano’s, and it too was ringed by mountains, but the people and the shops were decidedly Germanic – one called Runggaldier, on the main, arcaded shopping street, could have kitted out the whole Von Trapp family tree. Dirndls (Heidi-style dresses) and lederhosen adorned the walls (and staff), and edelweiss motifs were everywhere. I was less impressed by the marmot-tooth jewellery, but I did pick up a fine headkerchief to help me fit in with the walkers I knew I’d meet at my next destination.

Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) is Europe’s largest plateau – a huge area of green pastures that ends abruptly at the foot of the jagged Schlern (Sciliar) Mountains. It had thankfully been an easily navigable journey up, along twisting second-gear-only roads that took me past flower-boxed chalets and little steepled churches.

Compatsch (Compaccio) – barely a village, more a collection of hotels and restaurants – sits in the middle of a network of chairlifts that serves skiers in winter and walkers in summer. I opted for the Panorama lift, which whisked me up the slope, feet dangling below. It was disappointingly busy at the top but many paths led away in various directions, and people soon dispersed; those with trainers and tan-friendly tops one way, those with serious boots, peaked hats and knickerbockers another.

I picked a fairly easy route in order to enjoy the view. It really was stunning, with high peaks all around and cloud shadows passing over the landscape. And although it felt panoramic, the view changed with every corner. Chalets seemed to have been dropped randomly over the hillsides; thistles, clover, gentians and other tiny flowers punctuated the green; and the air was filled with the gentle clanging of cow bells.

Unlike the roads around Merano, the paths were well signposted, and my navigation here proved more successful. Numerous chalets suitable for lunchtime stops were easy to find. I paused at the flower-bedecked Mahlknecht Hutte shelter before turning downhill between pine trees and alongside a river to head back to Compatsch.

Another chairlift later – this time brushing my feet over the treetops – and I was up on Puflatsch. This southern part of the Seiser Alm plateau is the site of local myth, and the reason behind the witch motif I’d seen on every menu and postcard. Rock formations here look rather like benches with footrests and, according to local legend, the chief witch likes to sit up here admiring the surroundings before gathering her coven for wild parties (Thursday’s the night, apparently – bring your own cauldron), or to fly screaming over Seiser Alm. I had forgotten my pointy hat, but admired the early evening sun glinting off the mountains nevertheless. The only people flying were the paragliders whooping it up on the thermals below.

The further I’d travelled from Bolzano, the less Italian everything had become, and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in Austria or Germany.

My final town fix before leaving the region was Ortisei (St Ulrich), and it was at its Sunday finest when I arrived. Hanging baskets lined the colourful streets, which were full of people strolling, meeting friends or shopping for traditional wooden carvings. Over coffee at outside tables in a piazza café, I actually began to feel more Italian. When I glanced at the newspaper lying on the table next to me, though, I didn’t recognise the language as Italian or German. I realised it was in Ladin, the indigenous language of the province which evolved from Latin; it’s protected by law and taught in schools, but spoken by only a few South Tyroleans.

Over the past few days I’d grown used to the split personality of the region, and the idea that this is where northern Europe meets the south, so it really shouldn’t be surprising that in a region with such history, traditions and distinctive culture there would be another ingredient in the unique mix. There can’t be many other places where Alpine meets Mediterranean meets Roman Empire.

When to go: South Tyroleans are very proud of their 300+ days of sunshine per year. The best times to go for walking are late spring and early autumn, when daytime temperatures sit comfortably between 20-25°C. Go in winter to combine a city break with snowsports, or aim for autumn to enjoy törggelen – the tradition of visiting vineyards to try the new wines, roast chestnuts, cheese and Speck (cured ham).

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