Bolzano, where Italy Meets The Sound of Music
Located in Italy’s most northerly province, Bolzano is the capital of South Tyrol, which the Italians know as the Alto Adige. Until the end of the First World War, this was Austrian territory, and Bolzano still prefers to think of itself as something other than true red, white and green Italian. German is the lingua franca, “Guten tag” is the standard greeting.
Bolzano is the base for hiking, biking, skiing and mountaineering trips in some of Europe’s most sensational alpine country. Most travellers who pass through Bolzano are looking for adventure, but it’s well worth pausing here just to catch your breath and take in the sights.
Much of Bolzano’s charm comes from its age. In the city centre, nothing much has been built since the late 19th century and the cityscape is dominated by bell towers and church spires, the most impressive of which is the Cathedral, which sits under a decorative tiled roof at the city’s medieval heart. The daily produce market brings life to the cobblestones of Piazza del Erbe, where open-fronted stall sell everything from strawberries to wines, speck and kaminwurzen, the local smoked sausage. Cafes spill across the cobblestones of Waltherplatz and along Muster-Gasse is a series of baroque facades that were once the homes of the city’s wealthiest merchants and bankers.
Poised photogenically on a sharp crag overlooking Bolzano is the 10th century Castle Sigmondskron, part of the Messner Mountain Museum, created by local lad Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest mountaineers ever. In contrast to the stone walls of the thousand-year-old castle, the museum is a surprisingly modernist steel and glass construction furnished with symbolic objects, quotes and memorabilia from various mountaineering expeditions.
If the Messner Museum proves inspirational, you can easily follow the great mountaineer’s footsteps in modest fashion by taking the cable cars that hoist you from Bolzano to some outstandingly luscious mountainsides. The Colle Cable Car is the world’s oldest funicular, built by an enterprising hotelier to haul his guests up to his mountain lodge. The Renon Cable Car connects Bolzano with Soprabolzano, from where a historic narrow-gauge scenic railway completes the journey to the glorious Renon Plateau, through flowery meadows set against spiky peaks of the Dolomites.
One thing that no right-minded visitor would want to miss is Otzi the Iceman. Housed in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Otzi is the mummified corpse of a Stone Age man who lived in this region a little more than 5000 years ago. The discovery of his body by two German hikers in 1991, in a rock gully filled with glacier melt, changed the way we think about Stone Age life in Europe. The museum is mostly a reconstruction of Otzi’s life and times, a snapshot of Stone Age life in Europe, complete with clothing and equipment and a scarily life-like reconstruction of what Otzi looked like in his prime. Otzi’s corpse lies in a sealed, darkened room and you only get a glimpse through a tiny window, but it isn’t every day that you get the chance to see a man snap-frozen from 5,000 years ago.
The better city hotels in Bolzano are comfortable but for real character and home-cooked, regional cuisine, the family-operated guesthouses in the surrounding hillsides are far preferable, and better value.
Hotel Greif is the city’s best, a stylish establishment in a premium location with 33 sculpted rooms accented with original artworks.
Gasthof Kohlern sits high above Bolzano in a spectacular location among pine forests and meadows, with impressive views. The world’s oldest cable car links the guesthouse with Bolzano.
Drei birken is a small and wonderful guesthouse situated in the tiny village of Oberbozen. Cheapest rooms are small, so pay a modest premium for something larger.
A hire car is essential for anyone who wants to make the most of the many adventure opportunities in this region.
See the official South Tyrol website