Friday, February 02, 2007

The Sud Tirol

It looked like a typical Tyrolean village of western Austria, with gable-roofed buildings, whitewashed and timbered, clustering around a tiny town square. Gaily painted shutters festooned many of the houses, doing double duty as picture frames to the purple impatiens and hardy red geraniums trickling out of the ever-present window boxes. Some structures even featured elaborate medieval, religious, and regional scenes painted on their facades. Completing the picture was a classic Austrian onion-dome bell tower that rang out all through the day and night.

Road signs, restaurant menus, and the availability of newspapers in Deutsch reinforced the Germanic feel of the town of Kastelruth, population 2000. Each morning at our hotel, the Gasthof zum Turm, our fair complexioned and tawny-haired hosts, Gabi and Günther, greeted us with a hearty Guten Morgen. Clad in seemingly everyday attire, as opposed to a uniform strictly for their jobs, Günther wore a distinctive Tyrolean-style vest; Gabi an ankle-length dirndl dress. For our weekend stay, I’d even brought along a German-language celiac dining card to help me navigate the traditional and gluten-laden fare of this mountainous area along the Austrian-Italian border. Funny thing, though. My family and I never crossed the political border that separates the two countries. We were still in Italy!

Kastelruth is also known as Castelrotto. The former is the town’s Tyrolean name; the latter the Italian name. Hidden among the peaks of the mighty Dolomite Mountains in Italy’s most northern region, the community’s ties with its neighbors across the border was evident everywhere. Even the region’s name, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, speaks to the duality of the area. Trentino is the Italian-speaking southern part of the region. They call the northern Tyrolean part Aldo Adige. The largely German-speaking Tyrolean north calls itself Südtirol, meaning South Tyrol. As in, they are the southern part of the province that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that existed until the end of World War I when it was annexed by Italy.

An intensive Italianization of the area followed on the heals of annexation, including mandating Italian as the official language. In 1938, a program was started to move German-speakers out of the area, but the outbreak of World War II limited the full actualization of the plan. After the war, German-speakers sought reunification with Austria; an idea that was rejected by the Allied Powers. Through years of continued pressure for more control of their own affairs, though, the South Tyrol sub-region today, with nearly 69% of the populations declaring German as their language group, is mostly autonomous. Both Italian and German are the official languages, and nearly all towns are dual named.

Bozen, or Bolzano (the more common Italian name), is the main city of the South Tyrol, sitting at the crossroads of the two cultures. It’s also considered the “Gateway to the Dolomites” because of its location on the main autostrada that runs north through the mountains and up to the Brenner Pass that connects Italy and Austria. A more fun and scenic drive to Bolzano, however, is found on the Great Dolomite Road, a 65-mile narrow path that takes on the peaks, valleys, and ridges of the characteristic sheer limestone walls of the Dolomites. It runs between Bolzano and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

We started in Cortina, which was a two-hour drive from my home in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of northeast Italy. Just getting there had us passing between the borders of two large, wild and beautiful parks: Parco Naturale Dolomiti Fiulane (a regional park) and the Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi (a national park modeled on the U.S. version). Both function to protect the country’s natural resources, offer environmental education, and provide outdoor enthusiasts with miles of hiking, and even some mountain biking, trails. It’s not the Italy most people think of!

Cortina d’Ampezzo is an internationally known winter sport resort that was the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. We stopped to gander at the Olympic ski jump visible from the road, gas up the minivan, and grab a cup of coffee, but otherwise didn’t linger long - unless you count the three times we drove through the town center looking for the right route to put us on the Great Dolomite Road. Apparently, you have to know the names of the mountain passes you want to cross – Passo di Falzerego, Passo di Giau, Passo Podoi – to know where to turn.

Thinking the trip from Cortina to Bolzano would take about three hours, we drove slowly, sharing the road with tour buses, drinking in the alpine scenery, and stopping for a picnic lunch. Four and a half hours later, we emerged from a narrow canyon, on the outskirts of Bolzano, with just enough time left in the day to see the city’s main attraction: Ötzi the Iceman at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Promising my boys they were going to see the remains of a 5000-year old man was probably the only way I got them into the museum. After living in Italy for over a year, being dragged into museum after museum, they say they’ve seen enough. But this one was different, because it was all about Ötzi. The main floor, which had no English translations, consisted of static displays that set the stage for Ötzi. We were introduced to the hunter and gatherer lifestyle, learned about grain cultivation, and shown primitive tools and weapons. Upstairs, we met Ötzi. Found amidst a melting glacier in the Ötzal Alps by two hikers in 1991, he now lives in a specially built freezer to preserve his remains for future researchers and tourists. Around him, large displays explain Ötzi’s discovery, recovery, and the methods used for his conservation. There are also exhibits of his clothing and implements, with descriptions how each was used. The next floor up held items from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and a temporary show on the top floor featured creepy bundled mummies from an ancient Peruvian culture called the Chachapoya.

Back outside, we found the city of Bolzano in full swing as people browsed the numerous shops and open-air market, or just relaxed at outdoor cafés, savoring the end of a warm autumn day. Several outdoor vendors were roasting chestnuts, the nutty aroma filling the air. Munching a bagful, we also purchased supplies (cheese and fruit) for the following day’s picnic we planned to have while hiking in the mountains. With darkness approaching, we drove about 45-minutes north, the final few miles up an unnervingly dark, twisty-turn road, to Kastelruth.

Late fall is one of the least crowded times of the year in the Dolomites. The summer and early fall alpine hikers and climbers left with the last of the wildflowers, while winter downhill and cross-country skiers were waiting for the first snow. So we had the town mostly to ourselves, and received special attention at our hotel’s restaurant with regard to my gluten free diet. When I made our hotel reservation, I asked if my special needs could be accommodated, not expecting them to do more than perhaps adapt a dish or two. At the first meal, however, I learned the chef was familiar with celiac, and that he’d bought gluten-free flour, pasta, crackers, and breakfast cereal specifically for me. For one dinner I ate a local specialty, Tiroler Gröstl, which is pan-fried beef with potatoes and onion gravy; it was an easy dish to adjust. The second night I enjoyed an omelet served with bilberry jam. Dumplings and strudel I had to do without, but I didn’t feel deprived.

While visiting in the off-season seemed to afford more personal attention at the hotel, I was in contact with a fellow celiac listserv member who stayed in Kastelruth for an entire week during the summer high-season. She’d traveled with a hiking group from the States, staying at the Post Hotel Lamm, and offered up only praise for the special gluten free meals that were prepared for her at that hotel’s restaurant.

There were some disadvantages to being in the area in the off-season, however. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops were closed, their owners and workers taking a well-needed break before the onslaught of winter skiers. Likewise, not all of the mountain lifts and rest huts were open, limiting the scope of our hiking. Still, the main gondola in the Alpe di Siusa area, near Kastelruth, was open, whisking us up to the base of Europe’s largest high-alpine meadow at 6,135 feet. From there, we rode a ski lift further up to 6,500 feet, and began our hike. As we walked along well-marked paths, the sky changed color from soft baby blue, to gray and menacing, dousing the mountaintops in thick clouds. Scattered raindrops joined us for our picnic lunch, but then quickly moved on, the sun once again shining on our boys as they laughed and rolled down gentle mountain slopes.

According to the Bolzano Tourist Board, the sun shines 300 days of the year in the Dolomites. It’s no wonder, then, why the area is a magnet for seasonal outdoor activities. The skiing is supposed to be phenomenal, with 12 large ski resorts encompassing 800 miles of slopes included in the Dolomiti Superski area. There are also numerous medieval castles, spa resorts, and wine roads in the area. What’s more, the Alto Adige/Südtirol is home to the Dr. Schar Company, one of the market leaders of gluten free food in Europe, with over 80 different gluten free products. I couldn’t arrange a tour of the company on this particular visit, but I’m hoping there’ll be a next time!

Most travelers to the Alto Adige/Sudtirol seemed to be either Italian or German speakers, and both appeared to be at ease in the bicultural region. We were a little confused at times, actually forgetting which country we were in, and wondering whether to speak Italian, German, or English, but somehow it all worked out. Which it usually does.

Helpful Information:
Gasthof zum Turm (In Italian, Albergo Torre), Kofelgasse 8, Kastelruth, Italy. +39-0471-706-349.

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