Touring The Alto-Adige Subregion

Let's see what Alto-Adige has to offer tourists...

Rosengarten in the Dolomites

Rosengarten in the Dolomites

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy on the border of both Switzerland and Austria. Among its tourist attractions are the Dolomite Mountains, that the famous architect Le Corbusier called “The most beautiful work of architecture even seen,” glacier lakes, and Alpine forests. In fact the region is composed of two parts, Trentino in the south and Alto Adige in the north. This article presents Alto Adige; a companion article presents Trentino.

When you live in Alto Adige you have to declare your first language: choices include Italian (26.5%), German (69%), and Ladin (4%). There is a German-speaking majority in fully 103 of 116 communes, and only 5 have an Italian-speaking majority. We won’t go into the sometimes painful history of German-Italian relations in Alto Adige except to say that the relations are now fairly good. As a tourist you’ll be able to enjoy the two cultures.

We’ll start our tour of Alto Adige at Caldaro near the border with Trentino. Then we will proceed basically clockwise and visit the following places in order: Naturno, Merano, Bolzano (the regional capital and largest city), and then pass the following towns and ski resorts which we won’t have time to visit on this tour: Chiusa, Bressanone, Brunico, and Dobbiaco. We resume visiting at Cortina d’Ampezzo, and proceed west to Canazei, Ortisei, and finally to Lago di Carezza only about 22 kilometers (14 miles) from our starting point. We’ll do something here that we haven’t done previously. In addition to the place name in Italian, we’ll supply the German name in parentheses. Don’t forget, Alto Adige, known as Süd Tyrol in German, is still heavily German speaking and retains a distinctive Germanic, or more exactly Austrian, character.

Caldaro (Kaltern) is a village of about 7500 residents that annually attracts over 400,000 tourists. So you know the basis of its economy. Its architecture is a pleasing combination of Italian Renaissance and German Gothic elements as exemplified in the historic Church of Santa Caterina in the town center. The Caldero Lake claims to be the warmest in the Alps and so is enjoyable from May to September. Be sure to visit the Museo Provinciale del Vino (Provincial Wine Museum) located in a princely manor. Caldaro is in South Tyrol’s best wine region and you can walk from the museum to vineyards growing rare and ancient grape varieties.

The horticultural center of Naturno (Naturns), population about five thousand, is near the westernmost point of our tour. Be sure to see the Seventh Century Church of San Procolo, especially its ancient frescoes which are among the oldest in the German-speaking world. Then drive a bit west to the Thirteenth Century Castel Juval now owned by Reinhold Messner, who holds two Mount Everest firsts. He climbed it solo and he climbed it without additional oxygen. The castle now serves as an inn, a winery, and a museum devoted to mountaineering and Tibetan art.

Merano (Meran), sometimes called the city of flowers, has a population of about thirty five thousand making it the second biggest city in Alto Adige. Slightly over one half its residents list German as their native tongue. It’s a spa town, surrounded by mountains with excellent skiing. Merano is known for its grape cure, in which you conquer your ailments by eating local grapes. Is fermentation allowed?

This city excels in a variety of sports, a real variety including horseracing (the number one Italian Steeplechase), handball, ice hockey (its team won two Italian championships), and chess. Merano hosted the 1981 world chess championship and was featured in the musical, Chess.

Merano boasts many beautiful promenades. The famous Cure Promenade meanders between two bridges on the Passiria River. At one point the Cure Promenade splits into two, the shady Passeggiata d’Estate (Summer Promenade) and the sunny Passeggiata d’Inverno (Winter Promenade). The Gilf Promenade leads to Castello Zeno, and you can probably guess what kind of building that is. The Passeggiata Tappeiner (Tappeiner’s Promenade) takes you up from the city center to the base of Mount Benedetto. Our suggestion, stay an extra day and try them all.

Don’t miss the month-long Christmas market with its stalls selling handicrafts and local culinary specialties. Children love the puppet theater and Christmas train. Should you arrive in early November, attend the International Wine Festival, which lives up to its name while honoring Alto Adige’s excellent offerings.

The Gothic Castel Trauttmansdorff is a museum dedicated to tourism in Alto Aidge. Its gardens are lovely. The Museo Agricolo di Brunnenburg (Brunnenburg Agricultural Museum) is situated in a castle that was once the home of the poet Ezra Pound. The museum focuses on rural Tyrol life, but if you are so interested, you can visit a room with his memorabilia.

Given that there are about eight hundred castles in Alto Adige, one could go on more or less forever in a castle-visiting mode. We won’t but proceed to Bolzano.

Bolzano (Bozen) is the capital of the autonomous province of Alto Adige. Its population is about 100,000, many of whom are German speaking. However, Bolzano does have a heavy majority of Italian speakers. This is one city where you will definitely be able to hear two languages and enjoy two cultures.

Perhaps you will start with the Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Adige (South Tyrol Archeological Museum) whose star attraction is Oetzi, the more than five thousand year old iceman discovered in Italy near the Austrian border in 1991. The museum offers many other exhibits, both predating and postdating the world’s oldest naturally preserved body.

The Duomo (Cathedral) was built from the Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries in a Gothic style. Of particular interest are its frescoes and stone pulpit. The Porta del Vino (Wine Gate) on the outside of the building shows peasants at work in the vineyards. Remember, this is wine country. The Fourteenth Century Chiesa dei Domenicani (Dominican Monastery) was badly damaged over the centuries including during World War II. Some of its paintings and frescoes are in bad shape, however others are magnificent.

Other churches to see include the Thirteenth Century Chiesa dei Domenicani (Dominican Church), which hosts Bolzano’s best collection of paintings and frescoes, its chapel Cappella di San Giovanni, and the Twelfth Century Vecchia Parrochiale (Old Parish Church) with a Romanesque crucifix predating the church itself and a Fifteenth Century Gothic wooden altar.

The vine covered Thirteenth Century Castel Mareccio (Mareccio Castle) is now a congress center with a courtyard that can accommodate up to two hundred people. There is even a transparent roof to ensure year round availability. The castle’s frescoes can be seen only on Tuesdays in a free guided tour, either in Italian or in German.

Make sure to see Bolzano’s two main squares. A statue of Neptune, god of the sea, overlooks the produce market in the Piazza delle Erbe. Go there before lunch and make yourself a picnic. The Piazza Walther with its Monument to Walther honors a local hero, the wandering minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide, a sort of Twelfth Century Bob Dylan.

Do you like walking? If you do, there are numerous beautiful promenades including the 8 kilometer (5 mile) Passeggiata del Guncina with its view of the city, the Passeggiata di Sant'Osvaldo (Oswald Promenade) skirting vineyards on the edge of the city, and Passeggiate del Lungotalvera (Lungotalvera Promenade) along the river in the middle of town.

In the neighboring town of Collalbo, easily accessible by funicular and then electric train, are the earth pyramids of the Renon Plateau. This is a naturally formed forest of tall, thin rock pillars, each topped with boulder. The boulder protects the pillar from further erosion. This site is really unique and well worth the trip.

Cortina d’Ampezzo is a fairly exclusive, mostly Italian speaking, winter resort. Cortina was supposed to host the 1944 Winter Olympics but because of World War II had to wait until 1956. Known as “The Pearl of the Dolomites,” it sits in a meadow about 4000 feet (1.2 kilometers) above sea level, surrounded by mountains. Its great location has made Cortina the site of many popular films including The Pink Panther and For Your Eyes Only. Younger Italians seem to prefer Madonna di Campiglio, described in our companion article on Trentino.

Canazei is popular, mostly German speaking, winter resort in the Val di Fassa. Attractions include a lovely little village and slopes satisfying skiers with a wide range of abilities. Be sure to take the cable car up to Col Rodella for a truly magnificent view of the mountains.

Ortisei (St. Ulrich) is a town of about four thousand inhabitants, most of whom claim Ladin as a native language. However, it’s a tourist town, and you can get along there quite well in German, Italian, or English. Summers are devoted to hiking and backpacking, while winters are devoted to skiing with trails for skiers of all levels. There are also cross-country trails, swimming pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and even bowling alleys. Before you leave you may want to buy something from a local woodcarver. Some of the best examples are found in the Museo della Val Gardena.

We finish our tour of this beautiful region at the mile-high glacier lake, Lago di Carezza. In this lake you can see reflections of the surrounding forests and mountains. We’re almost back to our starting point of Caraldo. Don’t you feel like doing this circular tour again? There is so much that we have seen, but there is so much that we haven’t seen yet.

What about food? In Alto Adige the cuisine tends to be Austro-Tyrolean. Some of the most popular foods include wursts, cabbage dishes, dumplings, and potatoes. Pork is big, especially Speck, Austrian smoked ham. One local specialty that I have no intention of trying is salami made from donkey. I’ll stick with the sauerkraut.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Sauersuppe (Tyrolean Tripe Soup). Then try Zuppa al Vino Bianco (Stew with White Wine). For dessert indulge yourself with Kastanientorte (Pureed Chestnut Cake). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We conclude with a quick look at Trentino-Alto Adige wine. Trentino-Alto Adige ranks 16th among the 20 Italian regions for acreage devoted to wine grapes and 14th for total annual wine production. The region produces about 55% red and 45% white wine. There are eight DOC wines of which three are found in Alto Adige (one DOC wine is shared with Trentino and another with Trentino and with Veneto.) DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. A whopping 79.1% of Trentino-Alto Adige wine carries the DOC designation, by far the highest percentage in Italy. The Alto Adige DOC designation is divided into several subzones. The most recent Trento-Alto Adige wine that I tasted was a Vino Novello (New Wine) that probably wasn’t typical of Trento-Alto Adige wine but was typical of Vino Novello wine. The less said the better. However, there are several fine Alto Adige wines. The San Leonardo, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is said to be quite good but is pricey. You may do well with a less expensive bottle based on the local red Lagrein grape, if you can find one.

About the Author

Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.

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