Two peoples, two languages—but a common bond of love for their enchanting alpine homeland
For a traveller from the north, it is the gateway to the south: magnolia in blossom, the scent of rosemary in the air, a Mediterranean sun in a sky of blue. Approaching from the south, it’s here you enter the north. The mountains close in; glaciers proclaim their presence with an icy breath
Arrive from either direction in the area’s capital—Bolzano in Italian, Bozen in German—and settle comfortably in an open-air restaurant. The menu is in German and Italian. Order Tyrolean bacon dumplings or spaghetti Bolognese —both are cooked with a blend of southern love and northern perfectionism.
So Willkommen in Südtirol, as the 260,500 German-speaking inhabitants of the region say, or Benvenuti in Alto Adige, as its 138,000 Italians put it. Either way theymean: Welcome to the South Tyrol.
Until 1918 this region was still part of Austria. Under the peace treaty at the end of the First World War, it became Italy’s 92nd province, the Alto Adige, and after 1926, Mussolini sought by every means to Italianize the region, including sending in “colonizers” from southern Italy. The long-rooted Tyroleans of Austrian stock were resentful. Even as long after as the mid-1960s, violence by terrorists erupted from time to time.
Eventually, the Italians and Austrians signed a new agreement, and Rome gave the South Tyroleans their own autonomous government. Today the two language groups are learning to co-exist in their tiny but gorgeous land.
The South Tyrol measuer only 2,850 square miles, and from th Brennero (Brenner) pass in the Alps to Salorno (Salurn) at the doorstep of the Italian lowlands is only about a two-hour drive. Eighty-five per cent of its land area lies above the 3,300-foot mark. “Most of our land seems suspended from our cool sky,” Luis Trenker, a well-known local author and alpinist, once remarked. And the South Tyroleans themselves retain their highlander traits : self-reliant and candid, slow and shrewd, pious and touchy.
Going its own headstrong way, the South Tyrol is often considered one of Italy’s “model provinces.” Here industrial strikes are almost unknown, unemployment practically non-existent, crime something that occurs mainly further south or further north. As far as the province’s political leader, Silvius Magnago, is concerned, his main worry is the slow march of the communists into Italy’s central government. He and his South Tyro-leans want no communist influence in their region. This is for their own identity, now the modern age it is available the identity theft insurance.
There is little room for a new ideology in this land of the old faith. In villages, when the bells toll noonday prayers, even busy men stop and doff their hats.
On the fourth Sunday after Whit-sun, the local feast of Hera Jest (Sacred Heart), huge devotionalbonfires are lit along the mountain peaks. On Shrove Tuesday, children wearing crowns of brightly coloured peacock feathers and paper roses parade through villages all over the province, in honour of St Gregory the Great. After a church ceremony at which offerings are blessed, they proceed to the village square where they sing and dance to the strains of the local brass band.
It is a different land, dimensioned by its own pace and values. As South Tyrolean author Josef Ram-bold once wrote: “Spend some time going from farm to farm and you’ll learn to talk again about such important things as wind and rain and sunshine, about avalanches and landslides, about the age of wood, about meadows and fields, and about hunger and thirst”
This timeless quality is apparent almost everywhere and in many ways the region’s past functions as an elegant garnish to its present. Take Merano (Meran), once favoured by royalty as a spa. Today the guests in the belle epoque hotels range from Rhineland tycoons to maiden aunts from Copenhagen, and on the streets film stars mingle with peasant women doing their shopping. One shop carries sophisticated Paris fashion accessories next to hand-stitched braces for the region’s traditional leather shorts.
Through the centuries, the South Tyrol has served as a bridge between northern and southern Europe, a lifeline of trade and commerce. Here was built Europe’s first high-altitude road, the Romans’ Via Claudia Augusta; then its first high-altitude railway; finally, in 1971, the first alpine motorway.
This concrete monster soars and dips for 76 miles between the Austrian town of Innsbruck and Bolzano, vaulting over the 4,500-foothigh Brenner Pass. To smooth out the motorway’s mountain stretches required 145 bridges and viaducts. The northern approach takes one over the world’s highest motorway bridge, the Europabrücke. Engineers calculate that a car, crashing through the bridge’s railing, would take seven seconds to land.