“To Bolzano or to Bozen, that’s the question.” Not necessarily something to ponder about as if you were Hamlet, but when you visit this Italian town you will notice that this is where northern Europe meets southern Europe, giving the city its unique charm.
First a bit of recent history: Ruled by Austria from the Middle Ages until 1918, South Tyrol – along with other Austrian regions south of the main ridge of the Alps – became Italian as a result of the Treaty of Saint-Germain at the end of World War I. After the fascist coup by Mussolini in 1922, Italy began its forced Italianization of the German-speaking population, while attracting Italians from southern Italy to move into this region. In 1939, Hitler and Mussolini decided to evacuate the German-speaking South-Tyroleans to Tyrol in Austria. However, WWII slowed down and stalled the process. After the war, the German-speaking people are promised minority rights and more autonomy which were gradually awarded during the next five decades: a slow and often frustrating process, but finally with good results.
For Germans and Austrians, a visit to “Südtirol” resembles an extension of the “Heimatgefühle”, while for Italians the “Alto Adige” (Upper Adige Valley, as they refer to this region) is a step into a foreign world with different architecture, life rhythm and customs.
Bolzano/Bozen (population 100,000) is the capital of the province of South Tyrol and is built on the confluence of the three rivers Etsch (= Adige), Talfer and Eisack. The inhabitants speak both German and Italian, whereas the rest of the province speaks mainly German. What is so attractive about Bozen is the atmosphere, a mix of Austrian and Italian traditions. This is most clearly demonstrated at the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market). The old town center with the cathedral and the main street Laubengasse (= Via dei Portici) with their frescoed facades seem very German. On the other hand, the Italian flair can be found in the town quarters that were built during the 1920s and 1930s on the other side of the Talfer.
The cathedral (Duomo), which stands on the southwest side of the lively central square, Piazza Walther, was built in red sandstone, topped by a pretty multi-colored tile roof. It reminds many of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. As a curiosity, on the north side of this church is the “porticina del vino” (small wine portal). The decoration refers to the days when this church held the monopoly on the sale of wine, which took place in front of the portal.
The town boasts numerous museums. Undoubtedly the most interesting one is the Archaeological Museum, nicknamed the Museum of Ötzi. On the second floor you will find “the man from the ice”, the famous Ötzi, who was found near a glacier by a few German alpinists. Ötzi lay under the ice for about 5,300 years until he was discovered in 1991. According to forensic research, he died when he was about 45 years old, killed by an arrow. The mummified body is kept in a special refrigerator at a constant temperature of 20Â°F and can be seen through a glass window, in his original attire with axe. The museum does a fantastic job of explaining everything we have learned about Ötzi and his time. You will be absolutely amazed, and will probably agree this to be one of the most fascinating museums you’ve ever visited.
Are you looking for an open-air market? Then visit the Obstplatz (=Piazza delle Erbe). Goethe even described it in his “Italian Journey” when it was already the venue of a picturesque fresh produce market that since then has expanded to include flowers and other local food specialties. It is open every day of the week except Sunday.
Bolzano is also the front door to the Dolomites as well as the geographical center of South Tyrol. Therefore, it’s the natural starting point for hiking excursions. Three cable cars (Colle, Renon, San Genesio) take you from the city into the mountains in a matter of minutes. The Colle cable car is the world’s oldest of its kind.
Furthermore, 30 miles of cycling paths form a close network of trails that touch all of the city’s main junctions and allow cyclists to reach their destination quickly and safely. Once out of town, you can link up with several long-distance bicycle trails in all directions: a true heaven for cyclists.
A few more reasons why you will find it difficult to resist Bolzanos charm: the natural hospitality of its numerous cafes and inns, as well as the twinkling of its traditional and modern shop windows. My favorite overnight is Hotel Laurin, an elegant Art Nouveau jewel in the heart of the town, with a private park and outdoor pool. Its restaurant (with tables in the garden for “alfresco” dining) has excellent Mediterranean and local cuisine, while the hotel bar as live jazz on Fridays.
Hope to see you soon!
p.s. Click here to learn more about the Austin AdventuresÂ Italy: South Tyrol and the Dolomites tour. My wife and I will be leading the July 26, 2015 departure in honor of my 40th year of guiding!