This city is an absolute wonder and alot of fun. We have spent the few days here in the medieval city which is packed with things to see. Another time we shall explore the newer city. It is definitely a family orientated city (and dog friendly too!).

We arrived in the afternoon and were quite confused as to where to go. My research warned that there is no parking in town (height barriers in operation) and the best spot was beside the train tracks. We tried to find this site but ended up in the middle of the city for which I was unprepared and found quite stressful. Italian drivers are fearless, cutting me off right and left. Then there are the brazen bikes and pedestrians. After a few white knuckle moments we found a car park just outside the old city, on the river, beside a park and bike route, near a playground, free parking and already containing several crusty motor-homes – perfect!

I would recommend our parking spot. It is on via Sarentino opposite the funivia san Genesio (a cable car that take one up the mountain).

The Old city is built on the confluence of two fast moving rivers (12 cubic meters per second). Within its walls is a maze of pedestrianized alley ways and tiny streets, with a few piazzas where the people congregate. Historically this was to trade, which is how Bolzano built its wealth as a merchant town, now the piazzas are used for fruit and veg markets and exhibitions. Looking upwards some of the walls have ancient murals and statues giving the city its medieval flavour. There is lots of iconography, a reminder that in Italy the church is big player. There is also a Franciscan monastery, Cathedral and Synagogue. There was a large Jewish community here until the war.

The scenery here is quite different to the higher Alps. There are stunted Oak (a lack of soil restricts root growth), lots of Chestnut, Rose Hip, even some cacti and sedum amongst the rocks. For me the tall Juniper is what makes this landscape feel most like Italy.

Bolzano has three castles. The first is Runkelstein, with its secular murals. The second is a ruin and site
on top of a mountain accessible via cable care – or an exhausting walk. The third castle is a beautifully restored schloss with sandy coloured stone and four towers with pointy roofs on each of its four corners. This castle has been tastefully restored to be used as a conference centre, theater and arts space. Inside it retains its Romantic atmosphere with wooden features, tapestries and fireplaces, but with double glazing and central heating.

Whilst in Bolzano we attended several festivals. We went to the International Storytellers Festival held in the castle and saw two shows (e6.00 each). The first was by an elderly Austrian lady about witches, dragons and princesses (in German). The second was collected folk stories by Graham Langley and the folk musician Pam Bishop from Birmingham. Unfortunately Anika was rather badly behaved and we had to make an embarrassing exit!

We also went to a performance by a local artist in the municipal theater (Trans Art Festival). He had eight sewing machines each with a tungsten filament bulb attached. The sewing machines bad all manner of amplified electronic noise with the intensity of the bulbs synchronized to the sounds. This created an awesome light and sound-scape that at times flashed brilliantly, at other times drifted serenely. The artist seemed to be trying to gain control of his sewing machines whom had broken free. We loved the show! However not everyone did. The Italian gentleman beside us was gasping loudly whilst sticking his fingers in his ears to block out the sounds and covering his eyes. All I can say is that he was expressive and honest – I can not imagine someone doing the same in the UK.

There was also an innovation festival going on across the City. We visited the ‘Peoples University’ to see some of the exhibits (these were mainly for the kids and were free). There was a glass panel bee hive, preying mantis that Anika had placed on her arm. She was very interested in the microscope and insects set in acrylic – particularly the butterfly. There was a live performance by two circus artists. There were digital puzzles, computer games, exhibits on solar and central heating. In all the exhibits were to demonstrate advances in technology and the sources of inspiration for these advances.

There is a Film festival on too. Themed around mountains. I am not sure if it is always about mountains. The program was packed with mountain stories from all around the world, some documentary, others feature length film.

Bolzano is big on bikes. There are bike routes throughout the city. Everyone is on a bike. What a relief that we brought ours! People rarely lock their bikes too. In London I had to use two heavy locks and still never be sure if I would see my bike again. The bike route along the river is also used as a family day out. The city is big on family. There are plenty of playgrounds, shows for kids, the International Children’s Festival, a plethora of kids clothes stores, toy stores etc. I feel there is a strong community here too. Walking along the river families wave at each other. The Coffee bar has five elderly wheel chair bound people sipping their espressos, accompanied by their sons or daughters. On the bridge two men in suits stop their bikes and exchange greetings.

This city is also big on ice cream and pizza! We indulged in some ice cream made by a Peruvian. His is the most famous icecream in south Tirol as testified by the awards, and TV and radio interest. His parlour is very inconspicuous, being outside the old city just past the memorial arch on the right side. He has no tables, just a few chairs outside and always a large crowd of locals licking icecream out of cones.

Now it is time to move on… not sure if we will get any internet until Genoa – that is sometime away!

Ciao from the family

South Tirol – a brief Fact Sheet

South Tirol is one of those odd European enclaves alongside Andorra and Monaco (though not ‘as’ independent), and Basque country (which is not as independent yet as South Tirol). It is an autonomous state within Italy. It is a mixture of ethnicity, as the result of being traded at the end of the great war. This mixture has, after some turbulent times, become one of Europe’s most successful stories for multi-cultural integration.

During the medieval period South Tirol was ruled by family members of the Holy Roman Emperor (Charlemagne and later, our man from Moosburg, Arnulf). The people of South Tirol however were Ladins (Altoatesini) and spoke Ladin. It was of economic importance as Italy’s export route for goods into the German earldoms, and in reverse the route taken by Kings and armies on their way to Rome. Gradually the Germanic culture took hold as administrative powers were handed from the last Holy Roman Emperor to the Hapsburgs of Austro-Hungary. At the end of the first world war Italy annexed South Tirol and for twenty years ran a policy of suppressing Ladin and Germanic culture whilst populating the State with Italian immigrants. By the end of the second world war the people of South Tirol organized to campaign for autonomy. This came in three packages over the next five decades so that in 2005 they gained near-enough self rule.

South Tirol has had to juggle its ethnic mix, some groups fiercely independent, some wishing to rejoin with the newly created Austria and others fiercely Italian. The question of the ‘right to self determination’ was an ongoing problem as each ethnic group wished to exercise this right. However, in exercising it the country would surely implode. So the ruling coalition reinterpreted the meaning of the ‘right to self determination’ to mean the right to determine the preservation of the self [ethnicity] rather than in terms of Sovereignty. This was accepted by the people and has proved to be very successful. All public events take place in both languages. Menus and newspapers are in both languages. Signposts are in both languages, with the primary language of the neighbourhood coming first. Watching a compere at the Story-telling festival speak in both languages, I am sure I detected a self satisfying smile in his face. These people are proud of their success and as ever, the youth lead the way towards complete ethnic mixing.

South Tirol has three languages, Italian (official language and dominant in Bolanzo), German (dominant in most of the Alpine valleys) and Ladin (dominant in a few enclaves). Pizza houses and ice cream parlors, bakeries and delis make up the high street. South Tirol brews alot of beer but is also has a reputation for wine. Weiss wine comes from here – a thick sweet desert wine, sometimes flavoured with herbs. The weiss wine vine is grown purposefully close to the rock face at high altitudes. The rock absorbs the heat of the sun and keeps the grape growing into the late autumn. The objective is to hold off the harvest until the first frost freezes them.

Geographically it borders Switzerland and Austria and is largely contained in the Dolomite mountains. The south is of a lower altitude and much warmer – hence the vineyards whilst in the Dolomites we experienced temperatures of 18C and rain. It was cold at night, the truck getting to 12C come early morning. Bolzano is warmer at 26C with night time temperatures of 24C. The truck has dropped to 18C come early morning. On writing this a low pressure front has moved in to Bolanzo bringing rain and temperatures of 20C. Winter in Bolzano is short but harsh as it drops below freezing whilst in the rest of Tirol winter drags on.

In all Tirol seems an interesting place to be with alot to explore that we have not even began to touch on. I am excited and would come back here to explore further. I particularly want to ascend a glacier.

Castle Runkenstein

For those with an interest in medieval life this castle is an absolute treasure. There is not much for kids here, Anika enjoyed running along the ramparts until we were ready to move on. The castle is located just outside Bolzano going north on via San Antonio, along the Talvera river and opposite via Sarentina. Entrance is e8.00 for an adult and kids are free.

This castle is special because its owners in the 1300’s covered it inside and out with murals depicting secular life. It is the largest collection of secular medieval art in the world and its value is priceless.

There is a quiet beauty to the murals, many of which are very well preserved. One room is called the green room and is painted in many shades of green with motifs. Another room, the bathroom, is a beautiful ochre with wood plank floor and ceiling. The ceiling is painted dark blue with golden stars. The most amazing room depicted a joust, banquet, hunt and dance of maidens and nobles accompanied by minstrels. The clothes, large chests, trim waists, pointy shoes, funny hats, men in tights, are all that one imagines life to have been like. The enormous hunting dogs, bears, boar and stags, the knights jousting, feasts of food on banquet tables, its all brought to life with vivid colour and one of the first known uses of individualized facial expressions.

There are also depictions of heroes of the time, King Arthur, Godfrey of Jerusalem, Charlemagne, as well as biblical characters and knights of King Arthur. There is a mural of his round table too. One room is dedicated to the tale of Tristran and Isold retold in the manner of the Bayeux Tapestry in one long narrative frame.

The castle was once a fortress but later converted into a home. Its owners, wealthy merchant brothers the Vinters, who bought the castle in 1385 commissioned the works. It was painfully restored over the last ten years. I was particularly impressed with the wood work, beautiful doors, iron handles and latch locks, ornate carvings, enormous stone fireplaces and those classically medieval windows with little round glass panels in a lead frame. Beautiful!