09 April 2012

Tyrol: Where Germans Get to Be Italians

I must again give great thanks to the Muses for inventing the Alphasmart NEO, the portable no-frills word processor that allowed me to write large parts of this post while seated in the back seat of a packed mini-van traveling through the Alps, or parked at a restaurant crowded in with two overactive young children. I could live in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space as long as I have my NEO.

A few days have passed since I posted last; Internet access isn’t easy to happen upon on the move in northern Italy. I am writing now from the town of Bolzano in Tyrol, a historic region that lies between the spheres of influence of Germanic and Italian cultures and states. Currently, Tyrol is divided between Austria (North Tyrol, East Tyrol) and Italy (South Tyrol). The pre-Roman inhabitants were called the Raetia, whom the Romans conquered in 15 BCE. For the next two thousand years, Tyrol shifted between different nations: the Ostrogoths, the Lombards, Charlemagne’s Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For much of its existence, Tyrol served as an important bridge between Austrian lands and Switzerland. Under Mussolini, South Tyrol underwent heavy forced “Italianization” to increase the population of Italian-speakers.
View from Oberbozen of the Alps
Today, Tyrol is a mixture of German, Italian, and Ladin-speakers. Ladin is a Romance language that only 5% of the population speaks natively, although there are efforts to keep the language thriving into the twenty-first century with special schools and newspapers. Around the capital of Bolzano live the majority of the Italian-speaking population, roughly 73%, a result of pre-World War II Italianization. Despite my ardent search, I never saw any evidence of Ladin anywhere in Bolzano. There are supposedly some tri-lingual signs, but not where I was looking.

Somehow, we piled seven people into a car with luggage and navigated through the Alps without incident. (Keep in mind, this group includes an infant and a toddler.) The road to Balzano passes through the Austrian city of Innsbruck, and the route reminded me of making the descent from the Rockies into Denver, only with far fewer Coors trucks jamming the highway and an occasional castle appearing. This is the first experience I’ve had coming so close to the Alps, and their stern dominance makes me understand why the Romans said, “Hell with it, let’s go around these things and seize Gaul instead.”

On the descent down toward Bolzano, the hills change into endless vineyards. With spring only a few months old, the greens buds are now starting to show along the rows.

Our hotel was in a mountaintop town called Oberbozen (“Over Bolzano”). The town is steeped in the Tyorlean culture, which resembles the Bavarian with unique changes. The feeling is definitely “Germanic Alpine.” The hotel is a Kinder hotel, designed specifically for families with young children. At the local hotel, I got to at last sample Italian wine—not a store-bought vintage from a Ralph’s in the U.S., but a local grape (Lagrine) from one of the vineyards spread across the mountainsides. This is the kind of wine where you can taste the soil and the grape peel even if you have no palate for wine. I downed a half liter of the local red; it’s the best vintage I’ve ever tasted, but no surprise since this is Italy. Most of Oberbozen is filled with German and Austrian tourists this week, visiting for a short trip during the Easter holiday.

It wasn’t until I descended the gondola (passing through mist that turned the world into a perfect void) that I felt I had arrived in Italy. The signs are all in Germany and Italian, but the architecture settled into the classic northern Italian style.
Waltherplatz and the Dom/Duomo
The main church of Bolzano, the Dom/Duomo, sits on the central square, Waltherpltaz, named after thirteenth-century German poet Walther von der Vogelweide. The church was completed in 1420, although it was constructed on the remains of an early Romanesque basilica. When we entered the church on the first day in town, a Good Friday service was in progress. Most of the pews were full—probably one of the few days of the year with such attendance. I walked down one of the side galleries and observed the service, which was held in German. Latin seems like the only appropriate language for such an old Cathedral, but since Vatican II the Great Old Tongue has given way to modern languages.

I had more opportunity to see old Bolzano on Saturday, which shifted between warm sunny moments and torrential downpours. I visited two of the other churches within only a few blocks of the Dom: the Dominican Church (Dominikaner Kirche) and the Capuchin Church (Kapuziner Kirche). The Dominican Church contains the impressive Chapel of Saint John, a narrow chamber off of the main nave which preserves magnificent frescoes from the thirteenth century. As in many European churches, visitors need to slip a few coins into a box to turn the lights on and illuminated the maginificent wall paintings.

The main historic sight in Balzano is Castle Rancolo/Schloss Runkelstein, a small fortress on a pinnacle of porphyry just outside the old town at the confluence of Talvera/Talfer River and the Isarco/Eisack River. A shuttle from Waltherplatz runs to the foot of the castle, although not with any identifiable schedule, which forced me to seek out a cup of coffee to go while waiting for it. Unfortunately, “coffee-to-go” isn’t a popular concept in an Italian tourist town, where they insist you sit down with your ceramic cup and relax, goddammit. After missing two shuttles and searching for an alternate route up to the castle, I finally caught a trip up there. (And yes, I did find a cup of coffee to go, although I’ve yet to see anyone else in the city walking around with a paper coffee cup. I think I found the one cafĂ© where they would let me walk away with their coffee.
Castel Rancolo
Construction on Castle Rancolo started in 1237 to house the nobles Freidrich and Beral von Wangen. But it was two merchants, Franz and Niklaus Vintler who made the castle famous after they purchased it in 1385. The brothers were not nobles, but part of the rising bourgeois class of Balzano, a town growing rich on the trade that passed between Italy and Germany in the valley. The brothers longed for the elite life of the nobility, and to capture it they commissioned frescoes throughout the castle of scenes of secular splendor: Arthurian romances, the story of Tristan and Isolde, scenes of hunting and jousting.

The secular nature of the frescoes makes them stand out: most art from the time period is religious, with crucifixion after crucifixion. Here instead are scenes of daily life among the nobles. This is the largest existing set of secular Medieval frescoes.

By the way, my four-year-old nephew can flawlessly pronounce the name of the dinosaur species Coelophysis. I’m not surprised; young children can handle dinosaur phonetics better than most paleontologists.

Next stop: Verona. I’ll get back to you then.