The gently historic capital of Alto Adige, Bolzano (largely known by its German name, Bozen) straddles the junction of the jade-hued Alpine waters of the Talvera (Talfer) and Isarco (Eisack) rivers. Winter and summer see the town’s 100,000 population swell with tourists, as it makes a good jumping-off point for exploring the surrounding mountainscape. Bolzano’s centre maintains a relaxed pace of life, its highlight for most visitors being “Ötzi” the prehistoric Ice Man.
Located in a predominantly sunny, sheltered bowl, for centuries Bolzano was a valley market town and way station whose fortunes in the Middle Ages swayed as the counts of Tyrol and the bishops of Trento competed for power. The town passed to the Habsburgs in the fourteenth century, then at the beginning of the nineteenth century Bavaria took control, opposed by Tyrolese patriot and military leader Andreas Hofer. His battle in 1809 to keep the Tyrol under Austrian rule was only temporarily successful, as in the same year the Austrian emperor ceded the Tyrol to the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy. More changes followed, as Bolzano was handed back to Austria until World War I, whereupon it passed, like the rest of the province, to Italy.
Bolzano’s top attraction is the Museo Archeologico, a superb and informative exhibition built around the Ice Man, a frozen, mummified body discovered in the ice of the Ötzaler Alps in 1991, just 92m from the border with Austria. At first a policeman estimated the body – nicknamed “Ötzi” – to be around 100 years old; he was out by around 5200 years, as later experts dated the corpse to around 3300 BC. Visitors queue up to peer into the €200,000-per-year, temperature-controlled cell where the surprisingly diminutive Ötzi lies dry-frozen, his complexion that of dry-cured ham and glistening with tiny ice crystals. The rest of the exhibits include possessions found on or around the body – his still serviceable bearskin cap, his longbow and arrows, firelighting gear, a shamanic first-aid kit – as well as an incredibly realistic, life-size silicon model showing what experts think Ötzi would have looked like and numerous displays and films explaining how he came to be preserved on the mountainside. The Ötzi story is one of the most fascinating archeology has ever produced and arguments about who he was and how he died rage on in academia.
Fans of the grape are well catered for around Bolzano, with Strada del Vino or Wine Road enabling visitors to combine with sightseeing with tastings. The 40km route proper begins at Nallas (Nals) just north of Bolzano, but you can also join it at Appiano (Eppan) and wend your way through sunny vineyards to Salurno (Salurn) halfway between Bolzano and Trento. This is one of the oldest wine-growing areas of all German-speaking regions – some claim the tradition goes back to the Iron Age – and it’s also one of the smallest in Italy. Certainly, the wine industry was well established in Roman times, with the colonists from down south finding that locally made barrels with metal hoops were much better for transporting wine back to Rome than their clay amphorae. The vines in the region are often strung on wide pergolas, the traditional method of viticulture here, which allows the Ora breeze blowing from Lake Garda to circulate around the grapes, giving a beneficial cooling effect. Others are on hillsides too steep for machinery, so all work still has to be done by hand.
The route’s main halt is Caldaro (Kaltern), home to many sixteenth-century buildings in Uberetsch style, combining northern Gothic and southern Renaissance architectural details. Wines from the vineyards around this small village have won numerous awards; one of the best places to taste them is Punkt, a wine bar/information point on the main square. Alternatively, two cellars near the village centre also offer wine tasting – Kellerei Kaltern, and Erste & Neue Kellerei. Within walking distance, too, on the Wine Road on the way to Lake Caldaro, the producer Manincor is well worth a visit for its combination of modern architecture and traditional estate buildings, as well as its fine vintages.
Another centre to head for is the village of Termeno (Tramin), from which the varietal Gewürtztraminer gets its name.
A trip up in any of Bolzano’s three cable cars gives a small taste of the high peaks that surround the city; for fares and times, see sii.bz.it. The first ascends from Via Renòn (Rittnerstrasse), a ten-minute walk from the train station, to Soprabolzano (Oberbozen). It’s the longest cable-car journey in Europe, with the largest change in height. Alternatively the San Genesio/Jenesien cable car offers stupendous views of the Catinaccio/Rosengarten massif – the station is at Via Sarentino, 1.5km north of the town centre along the river (bus #12 or #14). On the high Alpine pastures at the top, you’ll see blond-maned Haflinger horses grazing. The third cable car goes to Colle/Kohlern from the station across the river south of the train station at Ponte Campiglio. In operation since 1908, it is the oldest cable car in the world.
Since Europe’s most famous ice man was discovered on a lonely Alpine mountainside in 1991, an entire culture has sprouted around this anonymous Ladin forebear. Conspiracy theories have come thick and fast with some “revealing” Ötzi to be a Peruvian mummy transported to the Alps for publicity purposes. Others have claimed to be his direct descendants, while the “Ötzi diaries”, which appeared in the wake of the infamous “Hitler diaries”, were quickly dismissed as tomfoolery. The “Ötzi curse” stems from the fact that he was found on a palindromic date (19.9.1991), and indeed some people linked with the discovery have since died unexpectedly, while one woman has even offered to bear a child using Ötzi’s 5000-year-old sperm – she was politely rejected.
Bolzano’s museum of contemporary art, Museion, is housed in a strikingly modern building, a futuristic glass cube. The museum has a collection of about two thousand pieces, and exhibitions change every few months or so – check the website to see what’s on.
The route northeast of 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.
This gratis discount pass gives free access to public transport, the Acquarena pool, all of Südtirol’s museums and much more. However it’s only available to those staying at registered accommodation facilities in the Brixen and around. See the Brixen card website for details.
An influx of people from the surrounding villages arrive daily in the otherwise quiet market town of Brunico (Bruneck), which is also the transport centre of the region. Brunico was the home to 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 the museum’s website to find out more.
Highlights in Brunico most certainly include Skiing. Brunico is praised as South Tyrol's most famous skiing area, with snowy peaks and mountains that are ideal for the sport. There are a few resorts that offer packages. For Shopping, Centrale Stadtgasse is a famed street in the area, well-known for it's shops and cafes.
Bolzano Cathedral or Duomo di Bolzano, Italy © saiko3p/Shutterstock