Bolzano, capital of the Autonomous Province of South Tyrol, always ranks on top of the chart of the “most liveable cities in Italy” and it’s mostly known for the Christmas Market and Ötzi-the Iceman. But there’s more than that. Bolzano is a city literally split between its Italian and German soul and often misunderstood within its own country. Want to learn more about its history and discover what there is to visit? Keep reading!
Writing about Bolzano is a difficult task and I can’t really hide the sense of uneasiness I feel in trying to describe such a multi-layered city.
Capital of South Tyrol, the autonomous province located in the Northern part of Italy, it’s quite misunderstood and poorly known even among the inhabitants of this country. Before actually trying to list for you the different things there are to experience as tourists, an analysis focused on its history is, frankly, very necessary.
BOLZANO AND SOUTH TYROL’S RECENT HISTORY
South Tyrol became officially part of Italy after the end of WW1, as a result of the division of the spoils of war among the countries. Local language, customs and culture belonged to the Austrian heritage, as they were formerly part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and it was obviously not an easy transition to accept for the population.
The hardest part for locals, however, was to be faced during the fascist era – starting from the 20s – when a forced policy of Italianization was carried out within the territory with the suppression of German schools, press and toponymy.
When Italy became Germany’s ally, the local population was obliged to choose between becoming German citizens – and consequently moving to the Third Reich’s territory – or remain and giving up the status of linguistic minority. At the same time many Italians were “imported” in the area to make them work in the newly founded local industry.
After the armistice, Nazis persecuted Italians and part of the German-speaking community who had refused to move to the Third Reich’s territory when given the choice. Another part of the latter, on the other hand, perceived the Nazis invasion as a “liberation from the Italian oppression” and even asked for South Tyrol to be annexed to the Third Reich.
After the end of the war, the majority of those who had moved to Germany returned to South Tyrol and a first treaty between Italy and Austria was signed: the Italian rule over South Tyrol, the administrative autonomy of the latter and the safeguard of the German linguistic group were established.
All seemed clear on the paper, but the alleged autonomy wasn’t effective for the German-speaking community. Problems arose because the autonomy wasn’t just granted to South Tyrol, but also to Trentino, the territory located south of it and populated by Italians. The region of Trentino Alto Adige/South Tyrol was founded and, consequently, the representatives of the German-speaking population within the regional council became a minority. This fact enraged “the Germans” that felt like Italy, once again, was trying to force the Italianization.
From that moment a very scary period began, characterized by terrorist attacks carried out by separatist groups against Italian-speaking citizens, police forces (several of them lost their lives) , monuments and pylons.
At that point it was necessary to do something. ONU was involved and in 1969 Italy finally found an agreement with Austria and signed the so-called “Pacchetto per l’Alto Adige” which allowed the proper political and linguistic autonomy of South Tyrol.
Nowadays the situation is surely much better, but the tension is still palpable: the German-speaking community is still angry for what happened, and, yes, it’s also quite prejudiced toward “the Italians”. The Italian community, made of “Italian expats” who have come from all over the country during the course of the years, probably feels like they have to pay the consequences of past bad actions they are not responsible for. It’s not always an easy coexistence.
WHAT TO SEE IN BOLZANO CITY CENTRE
The duality of this city, the juxtaposition between its German and its Italian soul is evident even if you’re just a tourist walking the streets of its centre.
Piazza Walther / Walther Platz
Let’s start from Piazza Walther, the main square of Bolzano, famous especially for the Christmas Market and the city’s Dom, characterized by a majestic roof made of green, black and ochre tiles that form a peculiar pattern.
At the centre of the piazza stands a statue that represents the first symbol of the mentioned split: the monument dedicated to Walther von der Vogelweide.
It was first erect in 1889 by the Autro-Hungarian government to honour the greatest medieval poet and minnesinger of the German language. During the fascist dictatorship, specifically in 1935, it was moved and the square renamed after the king, Vittorio Emanuele III. It was brought back only in 1982, after “an exile” that lasted almost 50 years.
Via dei Portici / Laubengasse
Via dei Portici is a street which is 350 m long that nowadays houses countless of high-street shops. This is part of the most ancient corner of Bolzano, built in the XII century by the Bishop of Trento that wanted to found there a market town. The typical building along the porticos is very narrow (less than 4 m) and deep (50 m) in order to take advantage of the little room available. It consisted of the shop, accessible through the portico, the storage and the dwelling, located above.
During the course of the time several architectural styles were overlapped: you can see medieval facades, baroque stuccos and the characteristic “erker” (bay windows), typical of the Northern European architecture.
The opposition between the German and Italian soul of the city is visible also here: on the left side stand in fact the Welschen Gewölbe, the Italian porticos, on the right side, the Deutschen Gewölbe, the German ones.
Via degli Argentieri/ Silbergasse
Until 1277 here there used to be the city walls. Nowadays it’s a posh street among the most popular in the city. Worth a visit in this street there’s surely Palazzo Mercantile, which used to be the seat of the Mercantile Magistrate, founded in 1635 by Archduchess Claudia de’ Medici and meant to resolve quickly and in an effective way the commercial disputes that arose between merchants during the trade fairs held in the city.
Via dei Bottai
Via dei Bottai is one of the most peculiar streets in Bolzano, characterized by several restaurants, hotels and historical botteghe decorated with pretty iron store signs and colourful facades. In Italian the word “bottai” means “coopers”. They represented the most powerful corporation, giving that wine-making and wine-trade were the main income for the city.
Other things to see in the city centre
- South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: it’s without a doubt Bolzano’s main attraction, as it hosts Ötzi – the Iceman, the oldest mummy in Europe;
- Piazza delle Erbe/Obstplatz: that’s where the vegetable market takes place. There’s a beautiful Neptune’s fountain, built where, in the past, there used to be the pillory. Given that Neptune holds the trident, it’s nicknamed by the locals “Gabelwirt”, literally “the innkeeper with the fork”;
- Chiesa dei Francescani/Franziskanerkirche: the Franciscan Church and the annexed cloisters, decorated with a succession of frescoes of the Giotto school, are not to be missed.
WALKING TOURS IN BOLZANO’S NEIGHBOURHOOD
1) Walking tour Bolzano-Gries
Gries is the “posh district” of Bolzano. It used to be an autonomous comune and Kurort (spa-town), which economy was based, mostly, on agriculture and wine-making.
Gries lost its autonomy in 1925, during the Fascist era, and this bring us back to the infamous rivalry between the Italian and the German-speaking community. The former spa-town of Gries was incorporated within the city of Bolzano “thanks to” the newly founded Italian district.
Leaving from Piazza delle Erbe, you’ll have to walk down via Museo. Once crossed the Talvera Bridge, you’ll find yourself in front of another monument, symbol of the previously mentioned enmity: the Siegesdenkmal or better known in Italian as Monumento della Vittoria (Monument to Victory).
Built in 1926 to celebrate the Italian victory over the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WW1, it’s a fascist monument created by the dictatorship also as a symbol of its supremacy and strategically placed at the entrance of the newly founded Italian district.
During the course of the time this monument has become very controversial and it often represented a scapegoat, a symbol of the tension between the two linguistic groups.
German separatist groups asked for its dismissal and in the late 70s it was even vandalized (that’s why it’s still surrounded by fences).
Another rise of tension between the two groups was caused by a decision of the “German” administration to rename the nearby square Piazza della Vittoria (Victory Square) into Piazza della Pace (Peace Square). The Italian-speaking community wasn’t very happy about that and, thanks to a referendum, they were able to bring the former name back. The extremists among the German-speaking community saw this as the proof that “Italians are fascists”, when it was pretty clear that the Italians, at this day the current linguistic minority within South Tyrol, had just considered the decision of the administration as an interference of “the Germans” in their “territory” (the Italian quarter).
In all this there’s a positive outcome, though. In recent times the administration has decided to “re-contextualize” the monument and made it the seat of a permanent exhibition named “BZ ’18-’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships” that explains the history of the monument and tries to free it from political ideologies.
Once crossed Piazza della Vittoria and visited the notorious monument, you can walk along Corso Libertà and finally reach the historical part of the district of Gries.
There, you can admire the Church of Sant’Agostino and the Benedectine Abbey of Muri-Gries, very famous in South Tyrol for the production of wine. The monks have run a winery since 1788 and their Lagrein wine is one of the most noted.
2) Trail nr. 1 – Firmian/Sigmundskron
Trekking through trail nr. 1, leaving from Bolzano South, you can reach Sigmundskron Schlöss, also known as Castel Firmiano/Firmian.
In this castle, located on top of a hill, the biggest protest of the German-speaking community against Italy took place. It happened in 1957 and the leader Silvius Magnago, along with a massive crowd of 30.000 people, asked for a “proper autonomy” of South Tyrol and voiced against the forced unification with Trento mentioned before ( the motto was “Los von Trient”/”Away from Trento”).
Nowadays the castle is administrated by the most famous personality of South Tyrol, the alpinist, extreme climber and record-man Reinhold Messner.
Firmian Castle is the main seat of the Messner Mountain Museum, a project that consists of five different museums scattered in Northern Italy, which common theme is “the mountain”.
The museum of Firmian Castle focuses on the man’s relationship with the mountain – from the religious significance of mountains to the history of mountaineering and alpine tourism – but an area of the castle, the so-called “white tower”, is dedicated to the history of the castle and the revolt lead by Silvius Magnago.
How to reach Bolzano: check this page.
Events: South Tyrol’s Christmas Markets
Mercantile Museum: main entrance in Via Argentieri, 6; other entrance Via dei Portici, 39. Open: mon-sat 10am-12pm. Ticket 4 € (adults).
South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: entrance in via Museo, 43. Open: tue-sun 10am-6pm. Ticket 9€.
Messner Mountain Museum – Firmian Castle: seasonal opening: 3rd Sunday of March – 2nd Sunday of November. Open. 10am-6pm, closed on Thursdays. Ticket: 12 € (adults).
In the past years I’ve been checking the blogosphere for articles about Bolzano and South Tyrol and, I have to say, I was quite disappointed. Info were lacking and views were frequently partial. Given the past history of this corner of Italy, it’s probably quite comprehensible. I tried to write an article different from the ones floating around the Internet and I hope I was able to provide you with reliable info. A special thanks to my bestie from Bolzano, who was the first to introduce me to this city many years ago. Thanks, hun!