Approximately 10 years ago my mother and I decided to grab our things and do a mother-daughter trip to Italy; but we only had one condition: we wanted to see places that most American tourists do not visit.
One decade later, I based my doctorate on one of the provinces that we explored. Below is the introduction to my thesis to give you some idea…
It was the summer of 2005 when my mother and I decided to take a vacation to northern Italy. As we sat in her kitchen plotting our two-week summer adventure, Eleanor, an old family friend, suggested we visit the Austrian-Italian border. ‘There’, she said, ‘is a place called Bolzano, which I think you may find interesting’. While normally I would have dismissed such a comment and opted to visit Florence or Venice, Eleanor’s manifold stories of her childhood under Nazi rule in rural Austria, not least her tale of being ‘kissed’ by the Führer, made me reconsider. Had she not suggested that we visit the province of South Tyrol, I can say with assurance I would never have known that this region even existed.
With the South Tyrolean capital city of Bolzano in mind, we arrived in Verona and took the two and a half hour train journey heading north towards the Alps. As the train worked its way from the major cities towards the more isolated mountains, I noticed a shifting change in landscape that was different from what I had expected, let alone experienced, as a foreign exchange student living in Florence several years before.
It started with the castles, which began to appear on tiny cliff faces in mountain crevices that with the naked eye looked almost impossible to reach let alone build 500 years ago. From these landmarks I noticed the rise and fall of small mountain ridges as they fell into fertile valleys. As far as the eye could see were rows upon rows of apple orchards, a major commodity that I would later learn supported South Tyrol’s German-speaking farming communities. As I surveyed the landscape, I started to take notice of the uniqueness of the alpine architecture. Distinctive as it was with its angulated roofs and window boxes, a familiarity began to take shape in my mind as I realized how ‘Austrian’ they all looked. Unlike the Florentine houses, which followed a strict code of red tiled roofs with sunburnt yellow walls, it dawned on me that every region in Italy must have its own specific provincial ‘style’.
But as we crept our way further up the mountains towards our destination, I started to realize with some trepidation that this no longer ‘felt’ like Italy. Whatever preconceptions I had assumed before this trip of what constituted ‘real’ Italian life, it did not involve a region with Austrian architecture, let alone farms which grew nothing but apples. Fearful that we may have missed our stop and inadvertently crossed the border I wondered if we would need to turn around, when a rusting PA speaker in the carriage crackled into life and announced our imminent arrival into Bolzano.
As we stood on the railway station platform, I became aware that we were not far from the Austrian border. I heard German and Italian on the railway station’s loud speakers welcoming people just getting off the trains, while German- and Italian-speaking locals eagerly went about their business trying to reach their train before it headed further north or ventured south.
Within 24 hours of our arrival into Bolzano it became quite evident that the city was bilingual. The street signs in the city centre were marked first in German and then Italian while menus in restaurants offered up translations for courses in German, Italian, and if we were lucky, English. Dining options varied from Bavarian Knödel to spaghetti bolognese, with the local wine lists providing a selection of options from the various South Tyrolean vineyards. As I glanced at my surroundings, I noticed German beer gardens set against Italian architecture while old men in blue aprons and Tyrolean hats sold large cow bells with ornate illustrations, as locals drank glasses of beer or sipped the local orange beverage, Veneziano.
An occasional glance would see some young man or woman dressed in the finest lederhosen or dirndl and speaking in German dialect, just as other women wore fine Italian shades and high-heeled shoes and spoke in standard Italian. From the onset it seemed as if I was staring at a contradiction in terms: two cultures and languages were operating in parallel, whether due to history or coincidence, existing separately within the same environment. Italians went to Italian restaurants and Germans preferred to walk to local bars rather than converge in the same social environment. Although linguistic code-switching between German and Italian did occur, most people preferred to use their own language, as I would learn six years later during fieldwork. But at the time of my vacation I was blissfully unaware that language issues were a concern in this small region. Instead I concentrated on the uniqueness of the city, which immediately brought with it a larger question: Despite the existence of national borders, when does one country’s ‘culture’ end before it becomes another?
Below are some links to South Tyrol’s tourism bureau for those who are interested in learning more about the region. Might I also add that the skiing, food and general beauty of the Dolomites are experiences in and of themselves.
From the London Foodie: http://www.thelondonfoodie.co.uk/2013/06/the-london-foodie-goes-to-italy-south.html
South Tyrolean cuisine: http://www.suedtirol.info/en/Experience-South-Tyrol/treat-yourself.html
South Tyrolean cuisine part II: http://www.suedtirol.info/en/Plan-Your-Trip/South-Tyrolean-Cuisine–Recipes.html
South Tyrolean tourism bureau: http://www.suedtirol.info/en/
**The South Tyrolean Christmas Markets!!!*
Posted by ETE’s Founder/ Editor: Dr Ann Wand