Assumption Day is a sacred holiday in South Tyrol and staying in Soprabolzano, a mountain hamlet, which is basically one with the village ‘Maria Himmelfahrt’, I expected some celebrations.
The German translation of Assumption Day is also Maria Himmelfahrt, so this, I guessed, would be the center of all festivities, and it appeared so. What I had not anticipated on this occasion however was a procession of lederhosen and dirndls, and brass music echoing through the valley. We go to Italy often and I know the inimitable feel of this country well. It’s vociferously brimming with joviality, such passion for life, fondness for marvelous food, and generous with kindness. But visiting South Tyrol, you’d never guess that this province in northeast Italy, too, is Italy.
And until 1919, it actually wasn’t. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, after World War I, country borders were redrawn and South Tyrol annexed by the Kingdom of Italy. When Fascist dictator Mussolini came into power in 1922, he banned the German language and traditions, but the forced Italianization and intended relocation of the German-speaking population were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.
It’s not a painless history to look back on, and still today, Italian and German schools remain separated, with many South Tyroleans feeling more attached to Germany and Austria than to Italy. Given the choice, after 100 years of what to many feels like forced political affiliation to Italy, they call for independence or a return to Austria.
What to expect
- The Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps promises great outdoor adventures in iconic alpine scenery of soaring pinnacles and flowering meadows.
- Mediterranean flair and elegant historic city centers in Bolzano & Merano
- Hearty traditional Austrian meals with Knödel (dumplings) and Speck (the local cured ham), finished off with Topfen- and Apfelstrudel (strudel with curd or apples) or the finest Italian gelato
- Haven for outdoor sports – in summer you’re guaranteed excellent hiking, biking and climbing, and in winter equally spectacular downhill and cross-country skiing
- This is Italy, but expect a distinctively German/Austrian ambience
3 days in Bolzano – Itinerary
There’s much talk of an intriguing dichotomy of Mediterranean and Alpine influences to be found in South Tyrol, a unique mix of things Italian and Austrian. Maybe we weren’t visiting long enough, but I thought the latter to be fairly overwhelming.
Which doesn’t mean we didn’t like South Tyrol – on the contrary, we’ve already booked ahead a 5-day stay this winter.
It was just very different to what we were led to expect.
Also, I never thought I’d find a place more pristine than Switzerland, but South Tyrol is a length ahead even. The region retains 90% of collected tax revenues and is the wealthiest in Italy and among the most well off in Europe in GDP per capita. (eurostat 2018)
The geographic location of South Tyrol and its cultural and historical association with its neighbors, are closely reflected in both Italian and German being widely spoken. The province is officially bilingual, and even trilingual in the Ladin speaking Alta Badia and Val Gardena valleys. Ladin is a local Rhaeto-Romanic language, the oldest in South Tyrol, spoken by about 30’000 people here, as well as in the bordering Swiss Canton of Grisons to the west – which demonstrates perfectly the arbitrariness of national borders. (suedtirol-tirol.com)
South Tyrol is unique not just in its conflicting cultural identity but also contradicting landscape. Sheer mountain face adorned with pale pinnacles that color in the orange-pinkish shades of sunset with the last daylight stand guard over this isolated, sincerely welcoming part of Italy. The region’s lush green meadows, renowned wineries and vast apple orchards, which grow about 1 million tons of apples a year, bask in the mild climate with many sunshine hours to the backdrop of the jagged peaks of the Dolomites mountain range.
The Dolomites is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site shared between five provinces, Trento, Bolzano, Udine, Pordenone and Belluno, and numbers 18 peaks above 3000 meters. As you can probably imagine, it’s a haven for outdoor sports and while we did some beautiful runs and walks this time, we cannot wait to explore the famed long-distance hiking trails in the area.
Luxurious, family-run hotel in Soprabolzano on the Rittner plateau with great views of Blozano and a nice, small rooftop spa
Gelateria artigianale – Eisdiele by Nicolas
Piazza delle Erbe, 7
Excellent pistachio gelato
Restaurants & Cafés
Day 1: Discover Bolzano’s Promenades
This scenic 3.5-hour walk combines two charming trails in Bolzano, the Guncina and Oswald Promenades, with views of the city, the Dolomites, and Val d’Adige, and passes by Castel Roncolo, a medieval castle perched on a rocky outcrop. At the end of summer there were wild boysenberries to pick by the side of the trail, the vineyards started to change into autumn colors and we watched farmers cut and rake hay by hand. While this is a very enjoyable walk, it doesn’t quite match Merano’s famous Tappeiner Promenade.
Day 2: Hike Renon Mountain/Rittner Horn
Take in stunning views of the mighty Dolomites to the south with dozens of 3’000m summits on this leisurely 1:45 hour walk on Rittner Horn. We started at Schwarzseespitze, Rittner Horn upper cable car station, and walked to the summit at 2’260m with spectacular 360º panoramic views. Once you’ve soaked up the mountainscape, you can return to Feltuner Hut on a path sweeping west, and once at the hut complete a figure-of-eight loop on the panoramic loop walk (Panoramaweg) passing by Round Table viewpoint, one of the most scenic picnic spots you’ll ever come across.
As many marked hiking paths crisscross this mountain, you can easily vary the length of your walk.
On your way back, you may want to stop at Lengmoos/Longomoso to visit the Earth Pyramids of Ritten/Renon. These conical pillars, some of them still topped by a boulder, are thousands of years old and have been formed by erosion – while most of the soil has been washed away by rain, the stone on top protects the pillar underneath. This natural phenomenom is found at several locations in South Tyrol, also in the valley below Soprabolzano as you can see well on the gondola ride to Bolzano.
Hike Corno del Renon/Rittner Horn Map
Loop walk on Renon Mountain/Rittner Horn / Route: Cimo Lago Nero/Schwarzseespitze - Gasthof Unterhorn - Corno Renon/Rittner Horn - Sentiero Panoramico/Panoramaweg - return to start / Distance: 7.3km / Time: 1:40 hours / Total climb: 315m
Day 3: Merano’s famous Tappeiner Promenade
Merano is a historical spa town northwest of Bolzano and the most tropical location you’ll find this far north in Europe. Its sub Mediterranean microclimate and plenty of sunshine, but also rain, bring forth palm trees, cacti, oleander, magnolias and bougainvillea in beautiful gardens on the Passer river, which offer a fascinating contrast to the surrounding Alpine scenery crowned with snowy peaks. Popular with European royal families, nobility and aristocrats in the 19th century, Merano has kept its elegant glamour and therapeutic traditions to this day.
One such treasured remnant of the past is Tappeiner Promenade, a scenic 4-km walk named after physician and anthropologist Dr. Franz Tappeiner. Starting in the city center, the trail meanders through exotic vegetation along the hillside of Monte di Merano, steadily keeping a hundred meters above the city, to Café Unterweger, one of several restaurants and cafés along the way. From there you can either return to Merano the same way on foot, take the bus, or follow the route we took, through apple orchards and vineyards via Thurnstein castle and Tirolo.
when to visit
Bolzano and its surroundings boast 300 days of sunshine a year, so chances are high you’ll get to enjoy the outdoors at any time of the year. As with most places in Continental Europe, summers are hot and winters cold.
A car is the easiest way to get to more remote mountain hamlets, but public transport is often a viable, albeit slower option too.
Where & Getting there
South Tyrol, Italy
Two autonomous provinces comprise the region Trentino-Alto Adige/Trentino-South Tyrol: the province of Bolzano, known also as South Tyrol, to the north, and the province of Trento, also called Trentino, to the south.
Bolzano is not the easiest place to reach, neither by train, car nor plane. Trains run to Innsbruck in the north and Verona in the south, where you’ll also find the closest airports. We arrived by car via Davos and while crossing several high mountain passes in the Swiss Alps near the border between Switzerland and Austria was fun, it was also rather slow-going.