We usually think of northern Italy as the hill country of Tuscany and Umbria, or perhaps cities like Florence and Milan

But the alpine province of Trentino-Alto Adige gets scant attention from the standard travel guides.

Even its hyphenated name suggests a region both remote and confusing.  

Is this "sunny Italy" or some misty hinterland co-habited by Austrians?   Could it be true that a handful of natives still converse daily in Ladino?

Typically jagged peaks of the
Dolomites in Trentino-Alto Adige.

Of course some travelers find fascination in this sort of complexity.  For them the blend of culture and language characteristic of alpine Italy has much to offer. Surely it has a history of strife, from the ancient clash of Roman and barbarian down to the cataclysm of two world wars.

Indeed, my recent trip through Trentino-Alto Adige corresponded to November days which led up to the Armistice ending World War I. The 1914-18 struggle left thousands of casualties on this section of the Italian Front.   That conflict prefigured a Second World War which wreaked still more havoc in this part of Italy.

Trentino-Alto Adige is a beautiful landscape drenched in blood.  Among other reasons, I went there to visit the museums and battlefields which tell the story of its darkest days.

Vineyard in the Adige River Valley.

As you en-train into Trentino northward out of Verona, a thoroughly Italian city, the landscape changes dramatically. 

The Dolomites quickly rise up on both sides of the Adige River Valley. Sunny vineyards and orchards occupy the lowlands, but the rocky heights cast deep, brooding shadows.

Trentino is the southern half of the province, and the more Italian.  For five centuries up to 1918, however, it had been part of the Austrian Empire.   That experience made it no less Italian. In those days the word “Austrian” referred less to a specific language or culture than to a political dynasty of the Hapsburg emperors which embraced many cultures—Germanic, Slavic, and Latin. 

The bucolic Adige River Valley.

It takes only one look at the Adige River Valley, coursing southward into the heart of Italy, to understand why the Austrians prized Trentino-Alto Adige.  The Valley is the main artery between north and south, between a Germanic world beyond the Alps and a Latin sphere to the south. 

To control access through the Valley was to leverage the political, economic and military realities of a vast area reaching down through Italy to the Adriatic.  Accordingly, in the nineteenth century Emperor Franz Josef acted to fortify Trentino-Alto Adige as well as the mountain passes stretching eastward toward the Balkans.  He created a Maginot-type line of forts and battlements a hundred miles across which, he reasoned, no enemy could penetrate.  This later was to become the Italian Front of the Great War. 

Fortified castles surrounded by vineyards and
orchards are a common site in the province. 

Nowadays Trentino seems a tranquil place.  Winter ski resorts bolster an economy otherwise dependent upon agriculture. The capital city of Trento (pop. 112,000) is best remembered as host of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), an ecumenical gathering of the Roman Catholic Church which redefined Church teachings, thus becoming a signal achievement of the Counter-Reformation.

How came obscure Trento to occupy central stage in such momentous affairs?  It seems that even in the Sixteenth Century the region had attained symbolic value as a meeting ground between Lutheran North and Catholic South.  One can still wander among churches, castles, and public buildings where the Council convened and, at the Diocesan Museum, view paintings of the assembled dignitaries. Most sites are clustered around the Piazza Duomo, in itself a delightful open space amid surrounding mountains.

Sigmundskron Castle overlooking Bolzano, where the
impressive Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) opened in 2006.

In 1915 when Italy entered the Great War, bent on "redeeming" Italians from foreign domination, the frontier between Italy and Austria-Hungary lay just north of Verona.   The strategic high ground of Trentino was manned by Austrian troops trained for Alpine warfare.   Although Italy chose to concentrate the bulk of its military effort further east, Trentino did see its share of fighting.  Italian infantry had little success attacking the mountain bastions of the Austrians, while the Imperial Army, preoccupied on other fronts, opted for a relatively defensive, counter-punching campaign.

Near Trento the town of Rovereto, throughout the war an Austrian garrison, now hosts one of the best war museums in Italy.  Dedicated to wars which impacted the region—the Napoleonic campaigns as well as World Wars I and II—Museo Storico Militare della Guerra primarily features the weaponry, photography, resplendent uniforms and historical analysis of World War I.

Give yourself at least a couple of hours to wander through the score of rooms exhibiting everything from the horrors of trench warfare to a Nieport 10 biplane that saw action up to 1918.  Above the castle which houses the museum is the Ossario del Castel Dante, with the remains of some 20,000 Italian and Austrian troops who died nearby during the War.  The Campana dei Caduti (Bell of the Fallen) still peals across the Adige Valley each evening at six.

In Trento are two smaller war-relevant museums.  The Museo Storico della Truppe Alpine documents the region's "Penne Neri" (so-called for the "black feathers" in their caps).  Then Museo dell' Aeronautico Gianni Caproni, named for the aviation pioneer, exhibits around twenty aircraft, some of which were outfitted for belligerent activities in both world wars.

New home of the Museion, Bolzano's fine arts museum.

From Trentino I continue about thirty miles northward along the river valley into Alto Adige and its bilingual capital, Bolzano (pop. 103,000).  The area managed to avoid heavy damage in World War I (Bolzano and Trento did suffer bombing raids both from German and Anglo-American forces in the last years of World War II).

Tied nationally to Italy since 1918, the majority in Alto Adige identify with Tyrol.  Especially in the villages you are likely to hear only dialects of German.  These folk call their province "Süd Tirol" and its principal town "Bozen".  They cure their ham, known as speck, in the Tyrolean way and are as likely to eat meals of wurst and canderli (local dumplings) as to work over a plate of pasta al sugo.

Over the centuries Italo-Austrian diversity has worked itself out reasonably well.  In Hapsburg times, Italians in Tyrol were part of a long tradition.  After World War I, however, the Versailles Treaty awarded Tyrol south of the Brenner Pass to Italy.  Mussolini's government attempted to Italianize its new province, eliminating German language education and "encouraging" Austrians to relocate northward across the border. 

In 1938 Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria further muddied the waters.  Hitler could never quite decide whether to welcome South Tyroleans into the Heimat or encourage them to stay where they were, thereby providing an excuse to expand his empire still further southward at the expense of his "friend", Il Duce.

Today the most visible symbols of the cultural divide between Trentino and Alto Adige is “the battle of the poets“.   

The statue of Walther von der Vogelweide
& the cathedral's filigree sandstone steeple.

In a prominent park of Trento rises a  statue of Dante, fashioned in the Hapsburg era by sculptor Cesare Zocchi as a proud reminder of Italian culture in Trentino.  The great architect of The Divine Comedy appears to gaze northward toward a countering likeness of the German troubadour poet Walther von der Vogelweide which bestrides the Waltherplatz of Bolzano. 

Most everyone in the province agrees that fanciful poetic competitions are a decided improvement on the warrior rumbles of old. 

In recent decades Trentino-Alto Adige has evolved into a model of tolerant autonomy.  Parents may send their children to either Italian or German language schools, although a long-standing tradition has been to teach a child primarily in the language of its mother. 

A robust embrace of mixed marriage helps populate the province with a good number of German-speaking youngsters with surnames like Martinelli.  Conversely, don't be surprised to discover that the Klinghofers have been a thoroughly Italian family for several generations! 

To get an idea of the atmosphere in South Tyrol during the last 150 years two museums are particularly helpful.  Just outside the spa town of Merano,  Castel Trauttmansdorff maintains a delightful garden complex much visited by tourists.  Along tiered walkways once favored by Franz Josef and his glamorous Empress Elizabeth are displayed hundreds of plant species from around the world.

Castle Trautmansdorff near Merano offers both
fabulous gardens and the excellent Tourimuseum.

Inside the castle the Tourimuseum exhibits a history of the South Tyrol as a destination for northerners in search of mild winters.   Photos of the World War I era reveal the sumptuous hotels of Merano refitted as hospitals for wounded Austrians.  Early newsreels capture alpine troops positioning heavy cannon on the mountainsides, and, during the 1930s, smiling Italian ski-vacationers marching along to the tune of Fascist songs.

Reinhold Messner at one of the
mountain museums, doubtless
perusing one of his own books.

The second museum, also a few miles outside Bolzano,  is the MMM Firmian.  Alpinist/writer Reinhold Messner has opened five "mountain museums" in the province, each dedicated to an aspect of life at high altitude.

The Firmian includes paintings and graphics depicting the history of Tyrol from the days of Andreas Hofer, revered patriot of the Napoleonic era who was martyred in the struggle for Tyrolean independence.  Described are the various ethnic influences—German, Italian, Austrian, Ladin, Swiss, even French—that have marked the history of Tyrol.  Through his museums and walking tours of Hapsburg fortifications, Messner has been a voice for cultural diversity in Trentino-Alto Adige.  His motto: "Unsere Waffe dabei sei das Wert."  ("Here and now let our weapon be the Word.")

Visit "Otzi the Ice Man"
at  Museo Archeologico.

Other Bolzano museums not to be overlooked are the Museo Archeologico, which houses “Otzi” the 5,300 year old glacial mummy of an Iron Age hunter discovered in the nearby Val Senales in 1991, and the Museion,  displaying an important international collection of fine art in spacious new quarters on the Via Dante.

And as for food and drink, the regional traditions of alpine Italy continue strong as ever.  Their distinctive quality is partly a reflection of geography.  Pastas and seafood of the South combine with hearty roasts, cream sauces, and dumplings characteristic of central European cooking.  There are plenty of seasonal vegetables to go with local game.  All of which creates, to my way of thinking, the best of two worlds.

Vintages of the Alto Adige compete internationally with those of neighboring provinces.  One only need cite names like Lagrein and Gewürztraminer to get the attention of serious vinophiles.  And since Germanic taste weighs in considerably, good beer is everywhere.  Alto Adige’s Forst brewery rolls out the barrel both hereabouts and all across Europe.

Apfelstrudel, the national
dessert of Trentino-Alto Adige. 

Historic restaurants specializing in regional cooking offer a good chance to enjoy the local atmosphere.  In Alto Adige I dined well at several such establishments, including Bolzano's Wirtshaus Vögele, a 13th century inn where risotto with truffles and savory veal chops topped the autumn menu.

Along the Adige near Merano I spent half an afternoon at Onkel Taa Bad Egart.  “Onkel Taa” the colorful owner, raises his own snails and  serves up all manner of schnecken (snail) dishes—soups, risottos, snail-stuffed ravioli, etc.—then invites you into his extensive gallery of memorabilia dedicated to the Hapsburg monarchy.  Wunderbar!

Local vineyards support many rural wine bar/restaurants like Vinothek Pillhof near the aforementioned MMM Firmian museum.  No better place to sample the rich variety of regional wines, cheeses und Speck. 

Inexpensive dives where you can mingle with locals and students?  Most good-sized towns of the province offer brewery pubs specializing in simple fare like goulash, pasta bolognese and dumplings.

Typical mountain village in Trentino-Alto Adige.

In Trento there are two such birrerias near the Piazza Duomo:  Pedavena, serving its own Lag's Bier; and Forst, which dispenses the popular regional brew.   At old wooden tables you can chow down on pappardelle con coniglio (flat noodles with rabbit) or strangolapreti (a thick, wiry pasta known as “priest stranglers”).   A light snack?  Try some schüttelbrot (a seeded rye flatbread) with speck.

By the way, anyone from these parts will tell you that speck is emblematic of the region’s cultural history:  smoky, to suit the Austrian taste buds, yet sweet enough to satisfy the prosciutto lover of Italy

The mountain foliage at its most beguiling in autumn.

Any time of year is a good one to visit Trentino-Alto Adige.  Winter sees the greatest number of tourists, when the ski resorts of  Val Sugana and elsewhere are going full blast.  Late spring and summer are wonderful for mountain hiking and biking, although note that valley towns like Trento and Bolzano can heat up considerably (which is good for the wine grapes).  My favorite time is autumn harvest, when fiery color splashes across the mountainsides and the best game/mushroom/truffle dishes are featured in the restaurants.

Since tourism plays a major economic role, especially in winter, excellent bargains in lodging are available—from bed and breakfasts to five star resort hotels—at other times of the year.  During November in Bolzano I stayed at the ultra modern and tastefully appointed Hotel Greif, a four-star just off the central Waltherplatz.  In Trento, right on Piazza Duomo, I opted for the modest two-star Hotel Venezia, run by the friendly Tabarelli family.  Both were superb and reasonably priced for the off season, which I have most always found to be the rule in alpine Europe.  

Additional information about travel to Trentino-Adige can be found at a variety of websites.  Among the most helpful:  www.suedtirol.info;   www.altoadigewines.com; www.museodellaguerra.itwww.trauttmansdorff.itwww.greif.it;   www.messner-mountain-museum.it

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor; all photos are courtesy of Südtirol Marketing Gesellschaft.


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