The route northeast from Bolzano along the Isarco (Eisacktal) valley is one of the main routes between Italy and northern Europe, crossing the border into Austria at the famous Brenner Pass (1375m), the lowest in the Alps. Protestant reformer Martin Luther was one of many travellers to have walked over the Brenner Pass on his epic journey to Rome in 1510. A motorway and high-speed train line to Innsbruck now make light work of the distance, and the ancient towns of Bressanone (Brixen) and Vipiteno (Sterzing) are engaging places on the way to stretch the legs. Nearby is the wild protected area called the Parco Naturale Fanes-Sennes-Braies accessible via the Val Pusteria (Pustertal), a side valley off the Isarco. If you are planning to walk any of the long-distance walking trails known as alte vie (literally “high ways”) you will almost certainly visit the Val Pusteria, as most of the trails launch from there. Train is the best way to reach it with a line branching off the main Bolzano–Innsbruck tracks at Fortezza (Franzenfeste) and serving the drowsy settlements of the Val Pusteria, the market town of Brunico (Bruneck) and Dobbiaco (Toblach; from where there are buses to Cortina d’Ampezzo).
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An influx of people from the surrounding villages arrives daily in the otherwise quiet market town of BRUNICO (Bruneck), which is also the transport centre of the region. Brunico was the home of the painter and sculptor Michael Pacher (c.1435–98); his Vine Madonna can be found in the parish church of the village of San Lorenzo, 4km to the southwest. Pacher is probably the most famous Tyrolean painter and woodcarver, straddling German Gothic and the more spare Italian styles; there’s something vaguely unsavoury about this particular Madonna and her pudgy child, gripping a bunch of black grapes, but it’s refreshing to see work in its original setting rather than in a museum.
Brunico Castle, on Schlossweg 2, is home to a branch of the Messner Mountain Museum focusing exclusively on the Sherpas of Nepal. Bressanone-born climber and explorer Reinhold Messner is renowned primarily for having made the first ascent of Everest without oxygen in 1978 and for being the first human to climb all fourteen of the world’s peaks over 8000m. Having retired from the Earth’s high places, Messner has set up an inspiring and engaging museum in his home region dedicated to the world’s mountain ranges and the cultures of the people who inhabit them. The museum is spread over five branches – Firmian at Schloss Sigmundskron, Ortles near Solda, the Dolomites branch south of Cortina d’Ampezzo, Juval in the Val Venosta and Ripa at Brunico Castle – occupying some pretty spectacular and sometimes remote real estate. Log onto wmessner-mountain-museum.it to find out more.