South Tyrol is fabulously beautiful, and offers a unique fusion of cultures. This is where the proud traditions of northern Italy collide with those of the Austrian Tyrol, just across the border, and where the majestic Dolomite mountains reign supreme, their jagged peaks towering over delightful green meadows sprinkled with pretty villages and onion-domed churches.
There’s so much to enjoy here, and so much to love. But here are 12 aspects of the region that illustrate its rich variety, and keep us coming back, time after time.
1. THE DOLOMITES - PALE MOUNTAINS & JAGGED PEAKS
The architect Le Corbusier described the Dolomites as the world’s finest example of architecture. ‘Built’ by the crashing together of tectonic plates, forcing 250-million-year-old fossilised algae and coral reef skywards, these peculiarly pale mountains are jaggedly and spectacularly beautiful. Among the pinnacles and peaks, icy gullies and razor-sharp edges, the Drei Zinnen (or ‘Tre Cime di Lavaredo’ in Italian – pictured) are justly famous; but the foothills, valleys and flowery alpine meadows have an allure all of their own.
2. MYTHS & LEGENDS
A combination of the mountains’ fantastical shapes and the awesome power of Mother Nature doubtless contributed to the belief in mysterious powers hereabouts: spirits which turned the milk sour, wild men who challenged the gods, and witches casting spells from alpine meadows. The colours of sunrise and sunset help to create some of the most glorious – and mysterious – scenes imaginable.
3. A FUSION OF CULTURES
South Tyrol’s modern history began following World War I when the area to the south of the Brenner Pass was taken from the Austrian Tyrol and given to the victorious Italian allies. This new frontier separated a region that had belonged to Austria for five centuries, but the intertwined languages, histories and cultures that resulted – blending those of the Italian, Germanic and Ladin peoples – make the area especially fascinating for visitors.
4. WINES & VINES
Few of the world’s wine regions can offer a more beautiful backdrop than South Tyrol; and Bolzano, the provincial capital, boasts a splendid situation, bordered by a wave of vine-clad hills. But viticulture is not easy between 250 and 1,000 metres above sea level, and the soil composition and micro-climates can vary enormously.
So, although yields are relatively low, the wines themselves – most commonly produced from Lagrein, Vernatsch or Gewürztraminer grapes – are invariably of an excellent quality.
5. KNÖDEL DUMPLINGS
South Tyrol boasts the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, and the local cuisine is no longer the simple-but-substantial fare needed to sustain mountain farmers as they toiled on the steep slopes. But certain ‘poor man’s’ dishes created from leftovers have become delicacies, and Knödel dumplings, traditionally made from stale white bread, are now served in myriad variations – Speck, ricotta, spinach or even beetroot – and are to be found on many a high-class menu.
6. INGENIOUS FARMERS
Before the advent of modern irrigation methods, farmers living in the rain shadow of the 4000-metre-high Ortler Alps, in the westernmost Venosta Valley, faced a challenge in dealing with their semi-arid climate. Their solution – an intricate system of water channels complete with weirs and sluice gates (and sometimes even chiming bells to indicate an appropriate flow of water) – showed remarkable ingenuity.
7. FRESH APPLES
There are around 40 million apple trees in South Tyrol, making it Europe’s largest self-contained growing area for the crunchy fruit we’ve all come to know and love. An average of 300 sunny days a year provide sweetness and colouring, while chilly nights lend the requisite aroma, flavour and texture. Springtime, when the orchards are filled with apple blossom; and autumn, when almost a million tonnes are harvested, are the key times of year; and there’s more than enough to go round!
8. ALPINE FARMERS
Almen (or summer pastures), often above the treeline, are summer holiday homes for thousands of sheep, goats and cows, driven up here by farmers to enable haymaking to take place on the lower slopes and valley floors. The animals graze up here for three months, watched over by herdsmen who live a simple and secluded life.
Like their departure in June, their September return is marked by considerable fanfare, with lavish festivals, parades, and decorated cows.
9. REINHOLD MESSNER
Any serious appreciation of South Tyrol cannot exclude the amazing mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who made the first solo ascent of Everest without supplementary oxygen and who has made a career – and a life – out of completing near-impossible climbs. He grew up surrounded by the Dolomites and was introduced to mountaineering by his father when just five years old. Although a proud South Tyrolean, this craggy-faced and bush-bearded man-mountain once declared: “I do this for myself because I am my own fatherland, and my handkerchief is my flag.”
10. BRASS BANDS
With the year’s first concerts traditionally performed in the town or village square in spring, brass bands set the tone in South Tyrol. No fewer than 10,000 men and women are band members, and standards are high (band directors are often top professional musicians). The traditional, hand-made costumes are a feature, too, with a bespoke design for each village; and the Sunday concerts –always free of charge – are delightfully colourful and tuneful occasions.
Brennende Liab or ‘Burning Love’ is the poetic name South Tyroleans affectionately give to their geraniums, and the crimson flowers filling every balcony and window ledge from early June are truly a sight to behold. They are also a poignant reminder of the period of turmoil in 1939, when Hitler and Mussolini agreed on the relocation of South Tyroleans to the German Reich. Most people decided to leave, while the geraniums flowered between them and those who stayed. At the end of World War II, many of those exiles returned to face the long period of reconciliation, ever since when this ‘burning love’ has forever remained a symbol of home.
Südtiroler Speck was another ‘poor man’s’ innovation from hundreds of years ago, whereby ham was cured out of a necessity to keep meat preserved over the winter months. These days, just about every mountain farmer in South Tyrol produces his own Speck, with the meat generally milder than northern European smoked ham, yet more savoury than Italian prosciutto. Now, as in the old days, virtually the entire pig is used, and nothing goes to waste.
13. THE WALKING & CYCLING
We need hardly add (but we will anyway!), that to travel Slowly on foot or by bike through such stupendous scenery – with so many time-honoured traditions, fabulous views and intriguing stories to capture your attention – is an experience that can scarcely be beaten. If you don’t immediately add South Tyrol to your list of future holiday destinations, we’d be very surprised.