Discovering the Südtirol

Suddenly my German skills are useful in Italy

2018-07-21 12.39.0318 July, 2018: the 17th was a long day. We woke up at dawn and walked down the hill to the train station in Corniglia (we had to catch the first train, which is before the first shuttle, so walking was the only option — downhill is easier than up, at least). We took the train to La Spezia and changed for a train to Milan. A few sleepy hours later we made it to the main train station, and spent a little while hunting around for the airport bus. Eventually we found it, and a half hour or so later we made it to the airport, where our rental car (a cute little Fiat) was waiting.

Then it was a 4-hour drive into the mountains of northern Italy — a beautiful drive, and less challenging than I expected despite some winding mountain roads. After driving in Croatia, it was easy; though after being burned by that rental car company, I was an absolute tyrant about documenting every single scratch before signing anything this time, much to the chagrin of the car company employee in the airport parking lot, who was dealing with a line of demanding tourists and had exactly zero interest in my liability concerns.

Though the drive wasn’t difficult, I was definitely ready to be finished by the time we arrived. We were staying in the adorable town of Brixen in the Südtirol, the South Tyrol region of northern Italy. As usual at this point in my travels, I hadn’t done much research beforehand, and had even split up the trip planning duties and left our choice of location for this stage of the journey up to Alex. I was, therefore, rather surprised to notice as we drove that suddenly the road signs went from being in Italian to dual-language, with German first and Italian second. I was too tired to think much of it at first.

The town center of Brixen is pedestrian-only, which is fairly common in smaller Italian villages. I love it from a philosophical and daily life perspective, but it meant that the parking for our rental car was a bit of a walk from our apartment. Eventually we arrived and checked in with our very kind host, and were left to settle in.

Our apartment was absolutely perfect. It was a very tidy ground floor apartment with a charming garden, set in a courtyard away from the street. Despite being in the middle of the town, it was quiet and peaceful, with a good internet connection, and I loved it.

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Our garden, where we had breakfast in the mornings

We arrived in time to work a half-day, so we didn’t explore the town much; we had a couple more workdays before the weekend, though, so there was plenty of time for that. The next day we slept in and then headed out to find lunch and wander around. We visited the cathedral during the daily wild midday-mass bell-ringing, walked along the river, and then headed into a bakery, where we were greeted with a casual “grüß Gott” and I did a double-take.

Turns out the road signs were a good indicator; only about a quarter of the population of the region speaks Italian, and German is the majority language and cultural heritage. The area was historically part of the Tyrol state of the Austrian Empire, and was annexed to Italy following World War I, when it was promised to Italy by the Allies as a means of getting them to enter the war. After the war, it underwent a period of forced Italianization under Mussolini, and during WWII, an agreement between Italy and Germany meant that every citizen in the region was given a choice: keep their German heritage and move to Nazi Germany, or stay in their now-Italian home and give up their culture, language, and heritage. Families were divided, resentments grew, and there was significant unrest in the region up until the 1970’s, when the area was granted autonomous status. It’s now mostly self-governing and retains 90% of its taxes, making it the wealthiest province of Italy. Still, to this day the region carries strong anti-Italian feelings and the residents prefer to speak German.

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Wait, where am I again?

I wasn’t expecting to find schnitzel and wurst it Italy, and while I was sad about the sudden shortage of pasta, I was happy that my language skills were suddenly coming in handy — my attempts to learn Italian had been half-hearted at best and it was nice to go back to a language I speak at least semi-fluently. And the food was very good, including excellent bread; far superior to most of the Italian bread we’d had, which is not what I ever expected to say re: German vs. Italian breadmaking. I found some of the best food I’ve had anywhere at a little family-owned restaurant called Fink, which served up incredible soups and dumplings and dishes specific to the region. The town is also full of little bakeries, which offer delicious sandwiches and pastries and bread and pretzels.

The architecture in the area is also very distinct, with lots of Bavarian influence, and window boxes for flowers everywhere:

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The cathedral is lovely, too. The first cathedral on the site was built around 980, but it burned down and was rebuilt in 1200, but then burned down again. The bishop’s residence has been in Brixen since the sixth century, and the cathedral is the main church of the Südtirol. The current building is baroque, and dates mostly from the mid-1700’s. It’s ornate and beautiful, with a huge pipe organ and over 33 different types of marble used inside, and artworks by famous painters from the region:

We explored Brixen for the next few workdays, before venturing out on hikes toward the weekend. More about our hiking adventures coming soon! We also managed to attend three separate festivals during our time in the town, and I’ll post about those separately as well.

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