Südtirol. Alto Adige. South Tyrol. It’s a border region of Europe that confuses and makes complete sense. You don’t know if you should say “Danke” or “grazie” to show appreciation for a meal, but it all comes together when you dive into the history.
But I first dove into the region by the rails, grabbing a morning high-speed train from Berlin to Munich where we transferred to an Austrian line that runs through Innsbruck and down to Bologna. I’d ridden it before to Verona, taking note of the Dolomites outside of my window and vowing to return.
And so I did, this time spending most of my time in Brixen / Bressanone before an overnight in Bozen / Bolzano––the capital of South Tyrol.
A trail race conveniently scheduled after the first month of training for the 2021 Berlin Marathon called us down to the Dolomites. I signed up for and ran the Ladinia Trail 29-kilometer race with nearly 2,000 meters of climbing––the most I’d ever done on my own two feet. But before and after the race, there was plenty to see and do in town.
A bit of South Tyrolean history
The linguistics can easily confound a new traveler to the Dolomites. In Brixen / Bressanone, you “entrata” the bus before you “einsteigen.” It’s the rare instance where Italian seems to get top billing around here. Otherwise, kids go to the Kindergarten and adults do their shopping at the Metzgerei.
Though there are exceptions, and those exceptions are determined by families. At the second hotel we stayed in, I immediately noticed that the typical hotel note about reusing towels to help save the environment was in Italian first and English second––no German. On check out, I asked the receptionist about the mix of languages.
“Most people speak both,” she says in German with an Italian accent. “The owners of this hotel are Italian so they speak Italian first but everyone who works here needs to be able to speak both.”
I ask about schools and what the kids are speaking these days, because anecdotally, it was inconsistent. I saw just as many teenagers carrying on in Italian as I did in German.
“Everyone studies either German and English or Italian and English,” she explains. Basically, if you speak German at home, you go to a German-speaking school and study both Italian and English. Vice versa if you speak Italian at home. “Once you get to Bolzano (Bozen in German), you’ll hear much more Italian.”
This all sent me off into a Wiki rabbit hole where I read that the 2011 census confirmed the German language’s superiority in South Tyrol. Approximately 62% spoke it as their first language. The Germanic nature of the region––linguistically, architecturally, and culinarily––is a legacy of South Tyrol’s Germanic roots.
Remember, though we Americans tend to think of all things Europe as old, the political boundaries are relatively young. Both Italy and Germany are recent political constructs. What is today South Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 20th Century. During World War I, the Allies promised the Kingdom of Italy that they’d get South Tyrol if they joined their war effort. Italy joined in 1915 and ended up on the winning side, gaining a region that would become the wealthiest in all of Italy. Austria reluctantly let go of South Tyrol after the war, though the Austrian state of Tyrol bordering the Italian South Tyrol to the north still exists and they remain closely tied together both culturally and economically.
But tensions between the two regions are more recent than you might think. As fascism took hold of Italy leading up to World War II, Mussolini attempted to Italianize the region and demanded that all South Tyroleans either drop their cultural identity or move into Nazi Germany. Families were torn apart.
More recently, there were terrorist attacks. There was the Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (Committee for the Liberation of South Tyrol) who led terrorist campaigns in the years after the war as more Italian speakers came into the region. A new treaty between Austria and Italy resolved the issue in 1971. The main point was that South Tyrol would be granted a greater degree of autonomy within Italy and that Austria would no longer interfere with the northern Italian state.
But like much of 21st century Europe where border crossing stations sit dilapidated, travel from Munich on the ÖBB (Austrian Railway) through western Austria and into northern Italy is as uneventful as crossing state lines in the US. (That is, uneventful as far as border crossings go. The scenery makes for one of the best train rides I’ve been on.)
Food in South Tyrol, Italy – All Hail Speck
Speck is the name of the game in South Tyrol. You can find dedicated stores and markets to the smoked, cured meat. But for travelers, you’ll find it on every menu in town whether you’re looking for it or not. Unless you’re a strict vegetarian or otherwise prohibited from downing the likes of Porky Pig, you have to try it. My immersion into South Tyrolean Speck came at the Kutscherhof in Brixen topping a pizza after a run in the surrounding hills. Though I’d see it again sprinkled over ravioli at Decantei or on a quiche at Metzgerei Schrott in Bozen.
Speck is certainly a beloved staple of a German meat-eater’s diet but something about this South Tyrolean take tasted different––in a good way. It comes in dark red, thick strips that require a bit of gnashing to get through. There’s an explosion of smokiness and saltiness as soon as it hits the center of your tongue. In short, it’s pretty damn good and I can see why you’d need a whole shop dedicated to the stuff to satiate the local demand.
But it’s not all Speck all the time. Vegetarians or simply meat conscious diners can eat plenty well. In fact, one of my favorite dishes was the Kartoffel Teigtaschen (potato dumplings) with vegetable stuffing at Sunnegg with a glass of the restaurant’s own wine overlooking the grapes hanging above Brixen. I also had a nice plate of basil-pesto spaghetti at Restaurant Fink, recommended to us by the hotel for its use of local and regional ingredients.
For dessert, apple strudel seems to be just as prevalent as Speck is on the dinner menu. It’d pop up everywhere from formal restaurants where you’d want to put on a nicer shirt to the neighborhood café. I’d see it for €5, then €4.50 and even €3.50 as if there was a reverse bidding war going on. (For what it’s worth, 3fiori had the best apple filling where you can also sample a large selection of local craft beer.)
Diving into the Dolomites
My experience with the Dolomites was unique. Unique in that I signed up for a race hosted by the Brixen Marathon. As part of my registration fee, I got a shuttle to the start in San Martino and followed signs to the finish line in Plose––a mountain with several peaks and over 40 kilometers worth of slopes for skiing and snowboarding in the winter season. So you see, my time in the mountains was largely catered, in a certain respect.
After running 29 kilometers, I was ready to spend time and relax in a city. So instead of taking the bus from Brixen into Val Gardena as some had recommended, we took a 30-minute train to Bozen / Bolzano instead. Although there was a Germanic feel to both towns, they lacked the plethora of trail signs that you’d see in, for instance, any Bavarian town where trails are relatively idiot proof. You’ll find a map in the center of town and can follow signs into the mountains.
You can get out of town and into the woods in both Brixen and Bozen, but I relied more heavily on Komoot or my Garmin route planner than I would in Germany when I went for short runs/hikes. Anecdotally, it seems cycling is more the sport of choice––though I have every confidence that hiking would be far more prevalent had we continued into further into the mountains. Val Gardena,Parco Naturale Puez-Odle, Ortisei, and Pragser Wildsee are all already saved for another trip another time.