Bolzano: German or Italian? Yes.

The Italian town of Bolzano has a strong German streak, from the language to the food. Above, the Castle Mareccio frames the snow-capped Dolomites.
The Italian town of Bolzano has a strong German streak, from the language to the food. Above, the Castle Mareccio frames the snow-capped Dolomites. (By Robert V. Camuto)
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Surely you've heard some version of the Heaven and Hell joke.

In Heaven the Italians are either the cooks, lovers or entertainers, and the Germans are mechanics or organizers.

Conversely, in Hell the Germans are entertainers or the police, and the Italians organize things.

In real life, when you mix Latin and Germanic you get Bolzano, the meticulously preserved town wedged in the uppermost thigh of the boot of Italy between the Italian Dolomites and the Austrian Tyrol. Bolzano and the surrounding region known as the Alto Aldige or Suedtirol are indeed Italy, but the first language is German. Yet Bozen (the city's German name) doesn't fit squarely in either camp. It's a place where you can dine on pasta and, if so inclined, shop for those designer wraparound sunglasses as large as windshields. And the buses actually run on time.

"It's German organization with Italian elegance," explained one fellow traveler, a Greek businessman who said he returns to the region every year for cross-country skiing and hiking. "If you go one hour away from here near [distinctively Italian] Trento, it's completely different -- it's chaos."

In fact, the Southern Tyrol was won by Italy from its Austrian homeland as a strategic war trophy of World War I. At the end of World War II, the region was joined to the Italian Trentino as an autonomous bilingual region with both German and Italian public schools. The shotgun wedding of cultures hasn't always been harmonious, but except for a period of violence by German-speaking separatists in the 1960s, it has been peaceful.

Not surprisingly, the region produces many of Italy's winter sports champions, like the German-speaking bronze medal luger Gerard Plankensteiner, who created controversy at the Turin Olympics when he admitted not knowing the words to the Italian national anthem.

The lush mountain landscapes, dotted with medieval castles, wooden chalets and onion-domed churches, are right out of "The Sound of Music." Bolzano is built on medieval Alpine architecture with, seemingly, an Austrian-style beer pub around every corner. On the other hand, there are signs of fusion most everywhere. In Bolzano, Viennese tarts and Austrian rye bread are sold next to Italian olive oils, pasta and cheeses on streets named after Dante and Goethe. Speck, the regional cured ham, is a cross between the sharper varieties of middle Europe and the mellower Italian prosciutto. The steep hills that spread out from Bolzano produce wines from Gewuertzrtraminer to pinot grigio.

On my family's first stumble into this region two years ago, I'd felt I'd lost my geographical bearings. Where, I'd wondered, were we? We'd eaten spaghetti for lunch, bratwurst and sauerkraut for dinner, and strudel and tiramisu for dessert. We'd gotten lost trying to figure out the bilingual road signs. At our hotel, the German-speaking maids couldn't wait to get into our room in the morning to scrub up and pound the bedcovers. When I spoke my rudimentary Italian in public, I had the odd feeling that the old-timers in lederhosen were eyeing me suspiciously.

"It's typical of Americans who come here," explained one small hotel operator outside of Bolzano. "They arrive and they say, 'My God, I thought we were going to Italy!' "

It is probably because of this culture shock that Bolzano and its province remain largely under the radar of American travelers. That very fact makes it one of Italy's most fascinating regions.

My wife, son and I recently finished our second trip here; this time we were much more prepared for the culture shock. Whether we were greeted with guten tag or buon giorno, we answered in kind. In fact, I found that German speakers preferred it when we spoke English (I improvised a German accent to feel like I was speaking a foreign language) rather than Berlitz Italian. In cafes, restaurants and old Bolzano's pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares, we played a family game of guessing which visitors were Italian and who were the Germans.

Hint: It's generally German men drinking beer in quart-size glasses. And if the woman is wearing sensible shoes, she's probably not Italian.

Old World Made New

Bolzano is a small city simply laid out around one immense public square -- the Piazza Walther, or Waltherplatz, lined with cafes, shops, hotels and an imposing sandstone Gothic cathedral topped by a multicolored tile roof. In the center of the plaza -- animated throughout the year by events ranging from squash, flower and Speck festivals to one of Italy's largest Christmas markets -- is a fountain with a statue of the place's namesake, the 12th- to 13th-century wandering poet Walther von der Vogelweide.

We stayed on the piazza in the Hotel Greif, Bolzano's most famous hotel and itself a study in contrasts. The Greif -- mentioned twice in one of Ezra Pound's cantos (written by the American-turned-Mussolini-propagandist when he was held in an American detention camp) -- is not typical of medieval inns owned by the same family for nearly 200 years. A renovation completed in 2000 turned the Greif's interior into one of Italy's sleekest modern hotels, in glass and steel and polished woods. Each room is designed around a modern artist's original work. Our "room," the size of a two-level apartment and wired with state-of-the-art electronic controls, featured oversize abstract prints by a photographer whose work hangs in the Museion, Bolzano's museum of contemporary art.

"I think it's the best village I've seen for restoration," my son, a well-traveled European, commented that afternoon as we strolled along the Via dei Portici, Bolzano's principal shopping street. "The buildings are old, but everything is new."

Lined with centuries-old arcades and often elaborately decorated buildings, the Via Portici is home to boutiques that sell Prada accessories next door to edelweiss-inspired crafts or Old World landmarks like the Apotheke zur Madonna (or Farmacia alla Madonna), an antique pharmacy adorned with sculptures of the Virgin Mary.

We turned up the wide street of market stalls -- the Piazza delle Erbe, which was shuttered on Saturday afternoon -- and stumbled on one of Bolzano's many small hidden treasures, the 13th-century Franciscan cloister and its Gothic courtyard.

That evening we found our one disappointment in Bolzano, and the first substandard meal in this region, when we ate at one of the town's most locally touted Tyrolean restaurants: Ca' de Bezzi or Batzen Haeusl. My wife's ravioli arrived cold and at the same as her appetizer. The soup I ordered never came, and our discombobulated waitress wearing a barmaid's dirndl offered to bring it after my main course. Then she went to the kitchen and accidentally knocked over some dishes. We later learned that the management had recently changed. From our experience, it seemed no one knew what they were doing.

Bolzano's Iceman

Our mission Sunday morning -- after wading through a bicultural breakfast buffet where mozzarella met a platter of Bavarian-looking ham -- was to look in on Bolzano's oldest resident. Oetzi the Iceman is the well-preserved mummy -- believed to be about 5,300 years old -- found frozen in ice by German hikers in the Alps along the Austrian border in 1991.

Oetzi's home, Bolzano's South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, has mounted what is one of the world's most fascinating archaeological exhibits detailing his remarkably preserved clothing, tools, and hunting bow and arrows. Oetzi himself -- looking like a human-size dried fig -- is viewed through a small window that looks into his refrigerated case. Multimedia exhibits detail everything from Oetzi's rescue to an autopsy revealing his stomach contents to a 2001 study that concluded the 45-year-old was killed by an arrow wound.

One aspect that's glossed over is Oetzi's long journey to Bolzano. Though it was Austrian archaeologists who recovered him, the location was determined to be Italian soil, touching off a diplomatic tug of war that lasted seven years until Oetzi was transferred from Innsbruck.

International experts have since examined everything from tooth samples to the pollen and dust covering Oetzi's gear to determine whether he was pre-Austrian or pre-Italian. The operative conclusion is that Oetzi was from north of Bolzano in what is present-day Italy. Which means that he's probably a bit of both, and not really one or the other.

Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about the wine bar Caves Petrissans in Paris.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company