We loved our visit to Bolzano in the Dolomites last year, and we decided to spend even more time there this year.
On the way up, we decided to stop at Ferrara, which had been an important city in the Renaissance era. Several of the city’s main sights remain closed due to the effects of a significant earthquake in 2012. Ferrara’s city center was largely rebuilt in brick after a devastating earthquake in the 1570’s. Bringing these old brick buildings up to modern earthquake codes while maintaining their historic character means that reconstruction proceeds slowly. Fortunately, the old Ducal Palace is open – it is one of the few in Italy completely surrounded by a moat.
Ferrara was a significant center for the Jewish community during the Renaissance era, and the ruling Este family invited Jews expelled from other parts of the peninsula to come settle here. The city recently opened a museum dedicated to the history of Jewish life in Italy. The museum has a strong collection of artifacts from the period of the Roman Empire – the Jewish community was well established in Rome at the time of Christ. The curators have done a particularly good job of not only translating the inscriptions and symbols, but explaining what the inscription might tell us about a person’s life — free or slave, rich or poor, held in high esteem or buried as quickly as possible. Some of the Jewish headstones featured Greek symbols, since Greek was the language used by most 1st Century Jews in Italy – Hebrew did not come into common use until several centuries later. Some surviving tiles, probably from a synagogue, featured a design called a “Solomon’s Knot.” I have seen this design many times in medieval churches all over Europe, but had no idea it was of Jewish origin.
Bolzano, at the foot of the Brenner Pass, was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Sudtirol, which was ceded to Italy after World War I and renamed Alto Adige. After War II, the area was granted a certain amount of political autonomy, and it is officially bilingual. Although German remains the first language of most of the people living in the area, everyone can communicate in Italian and, increasingly these days, also in English.
Because of its strategic location, Bolzano has been an important commercial center since the Middle Ages. The region’s historic prosperity is immediately apparent from the high quality of its art.
The Castel Roncolo, built in the 13th Century, was purchased in the 14th Century by a prosperous local merchant family, who had it decorated with expensive frescoes designed to show off their wealth and taste. Unusually for this era, the frescoes depict mostly secular subjects – hunting and hawking, jousts, and an unusual game in which young men on horseback, armed with clubs, try to dislodge other similarly armed young men from their horses (a very dangerous game, and frequently banned, but apparently very popular.)
Other frescoes feature King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the story of Tristan and Isolde. Centuries before the invention of printing, these stories were already well known in Italy through travelling troubadours and courtly poets.
The church of Saint Mary Magdalene, located in the vineyards above Bolzano, has frescoes depicting the Magdalene in a very unusual (and strikingly modern) guise as a virtual Apostle converting pagans in southern France. According to an extra-Biblical but popular legend, Mary Magdalene traveled by boat from the Holy Land to the Camargues, and landed at a place named Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in her honor. How this French legend would up being the subject of a fresco cycle in the Alps is a fascinating (and unanswered) question. The tiny church also includes a baroque-era statue of Mary Magdalen in her more traditional guise, as a penitent wandering in the desert, but festooned with vine leaves to honor the church’s location.
The frescoes at the Castel Roncolo and the church of Mary Magdalene were done at about the same time, in the latter decades of the 14th C. They seem to have been done by different south German artists, but the limited use of perspective in some of these frescoes (note particularly the hands of noble men and ladies clasping the balustrade) has led some art historians to conclude that the work of Giotto was also known in the area. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a period when most people rarely traveled more than a few miles from the place they were born. But new artistic ideas, like good stories, got around.
Bolzano is an excellent location for exploring the region of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites. Although the entire region is known for its dairy products, the town of Moena, in the Val di Fassa about an hour from Bolzano, is particularly famous for its cheeses, particularly the oddly named Puzzone di Moena. To get to the valley, you cross over into the Trentino region, which is majority Italian speaking. But the first language of the inhabitants of the val di Fassa is Ladin, a Latin-derived language now spoken only in a few remote valleys of the Swiss and Italian Alps. It’s odd that in the space of an hour you can cross three linguistic barriers without leaving the political confines of Italy. The cheese, however, needs no translation.
The Dolomites are known for their ski resorts in the winter, but in the summer, particularly in the Bolzano region, there are lots of mountain hiking areas. The hiking trails are well-marked, and in some of the areas you can do anything from a 1-hour nature walk to a 7-hour circuit. We saw a lot of families hiking as well as older people. You share the hiking trails with local animals pasturing here – sometimes you have to navigate a cow gate. The best thing about hiking in the Alps, though, is that whenever you’ve been hiking for a while, there’s always a hut, offering dumplings, pasta and sweets. The views, of course, are phenomenal.
The Alto Adige is also famous for its wine. Much of the production is white wine – international grapes like pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc, local varietals like Kerner and Muller-Thurgau, and a particularly tasty, non-sweet Gewurtztraminer (which, the locals will tell you, originated in the town of Tramin up the road). There is also some red wine produced, including pinot noir and a local varietal called Lagrein. Much of the wine is grown on steep hillsides that have to be harvested by hand.
When we weren’t hiking, drinking wine or eating cheese, we hung out on the terrace of our hotel, which featured a particularly nice view of the mountain called the Rosengarten, so named because towards sunset the rocks take on a pinkish hue.
This is a wonderful place. We’ll be back.