Five hours on a train over the Bavarian Alps, across a thin but very precipitous sliver of Austria, and through the valleys and steep terraces of craggy northern Italy brought me to Bolzano. Or Bozen. Provincial capital of the Alto Adige. Or Sudtirol. You see, borders on a map may be crossed but language is shaped by the contours of the Alps – whether you are in them or out of them, what particular valley you may be in, or which side of the lake you butter your brezel in.
So just because we are in Italy does not mean that German is gone, nein nein nein. Which makes it a bit scheiser for the English-speaking, who are relegated to third in the language stakes and, if my experience is anything to go by, frequently caught out using a mix of all three. Par example (and yes, occasionally I also fall into French as default when any foreign language is involved): “Hallo, una gelato with two scoops, straciatella und caffe latte per favore. Danke.” Surprisingly though everything is understood and luscious ice cream is forthcoming.
As a result I’m not so sure whether you are going to read German or Italian place names in this blog entry. I’m tempted to try and use Italian because they are in Italy, but I am rather fond of Bozen which sounds so pleasingly like a cross between bozo and bogan. Does the name do it justice? Well, I would have said yes at first, as I trudged in searing heat through industrial areas by the river, seeking a funicular to whizz me into the hills, with busy highways and power lines and train tracks crammed into the valley. But I missed the centre at first, an old town with gracious buildings and narrow pedestrian streets, made narrower by market stalls and glass displays for expensive shoes and handbags. Veering toward the Italian, which is naturally less bogan.
Bozen has three mountain cable car and railway combos whizzing you up into the countryside, and the first I took after that uninspiring walk was up to Colle. The top was still in the tree line but (take note other self-proclaimed lookouts of this world) some smart Alec had built a large wooden tower for viewing pleasure, providing you enjoy steps. From here there were views over Bozen and other foothills leading to the more jagged teeth of the Dolomites. And at the bottom a sunny bar for a beer which was disappointingly less German than much else.
The Dolomites were my raison d’être for stopping here really, as I had been interested in visiting for a while…I think spurred on by some pictures in a travel supplement or maybe some footage of crazy climbs in the Giro d’Italia. Bozen was a good base, with its cable cars and other transport links, but the Dolomites were a little infuriating to photograph: wrong light so very glary for most of the day, then thundery clouds bubbling up in the afternoon and difficulty lingering in spots very early or very late because of transportation options. It really needs a week to get close and intimate, preferably in June. It is no wonder that the area is a popular spot for multi-day walks, hiking from refuge to pension along the ridges and plains, getting personal with the mountains.
Still, I had two full days and was very keen to make the most of them and the travel card I had bought. The first day I took another cable car from Bozen, impressively up and up over vineyard terraces and pine forests to the undulating plateau of the Renon. At the top a mountain tramway trundled through the undulating hills, past villages and chalets and through forests and fields. Plenty of walking tracks offered chance to meander and get slightly lost but find your way to another path providing balcony views of the glary Dolomites. With wild meadows and the scent of pine needles, it was nothing other than pretty and nourished enough appetite for lunch in a sunny garden sampling local cheese and bacon dumplings with salad.
It’s incredible to think of these Alpine environments being caked in metres of snow and freezing through several months of the year, and thus surprising how full of life they are. I guess it’s a shorter growing season and everything bursts forth rapidly and in generosity, a perfect manifestation of making hay while the sun shines. The steep hills of the region are decked out in rows and rows of vines, occasionally interspersed with orchards. Many look too steep to harvest by machine and I’m not quite sure how people actually make it to some of the farmsteads perched on their lofty terraces. It seems the cable car is the easiest way to view this hidden world, as I head back down into Bozen.
After a refresh of ice cream and purchasing some dinner time picnic snacks, a bus took me to somewhere in the general vicinity of the Jenesian cable car. Compared to the Renon, which was spacious and flash, this one was pure old school. Which means, by late afternoon, it is a searing glass house on a wire. It has a driver, who speaks to the top on his retro phone with a pleasing old-fashioned ringing bell, and seems happy to squash us in to see if we can all make it without passing out. The relief at the top is palpable, with shade and a beer garden obviously cashing in. In the distance the Dolomites still glare and clouds bubble up high, testament to the heat and humidity of August in Italy.
I was, as I say, keen to make the most of my travel card and, given it runs into the evening, I spent the last section of the day by taking the Renon cable car once more. This was a chance to try and get some good light for pictures and, well, stop on a bench in a forest and eat my bread rolls, cheese and salami sausages. I didn’t stay right until daylight faded, as it had been a long day and I wanted to catch the last bus to my pension, rather than walk up hill for twenty minutes. I had to conserve some energy for tomorrow.
So the second day was an opportunity to get closer to the toothy peaks of the Dolomites and indulge in some wilder, Alpine walking around the Alpe di Suisi. This, apparently, is the largest upland plateau of its type in Europe, whatever that means. I presume it means the biggest expanse of undulating meadows peppered with farmhouse chalets and wooded valleys, a sea of green lapping up to the sheer cliffs of encircling mountains. It looks and feels obviously Alpine with the characteristic and pleasing sound of cowbells a sure sign to the ears that this is genuine high country.
My travel card allowed me to take the sad bus to the town of Suisi. I say sad bus, but it was quite a happy, breezy ride up from the valley, SAD being the name of the local transportation system. This climbed about 600 metres or so from Bozen. From Suisi, a cable car ascended a further 500 metres to Compaccio, and then it was onto a good old fashioned and open to the breeze chairlift propelling me another 400 metres up. What follows from here is an easy, good-natured ramble through the meadows and down past a flower filled hostelry and rustic farmhouses to a wooded valley. Down? Down? Prices may be down, but I want to go up. Up to the Rifugio di Bolzani sitting at around 2,500 metres. Am I lost, or will I need to climb more than I hoped?
The answer was the latter and I have to say it was a bit of a struggle. Once or twice I thought about turning back, the views still wide and grand. Every step up and the view opened up further, but so did the frequency of stopping, ideally in a spot of shade from the sweltering sun. A salami sausage and snatch of pretzel gave fortitude and spurred on by the reward of eating more at the top, I made it.
It’s a bit strange to come up this far and find a fully functioning guest house and restaurant, looking out on the sawtooth ridges of the Dolomites. Washing hangs drying in the breeze and people are decked out with picnics at the outdoor tables. Inside, a team of young people busy themselves cooking and serving food. Curious as to how all this happens, I note a rather archaic looking single wire cable way that must bring up wheels of cheese and kegs of beer. Alas, it does not transport people back down.
That, for me, requires a weary descent of almost 1,500 metres as I plan to go back to Suisi to catch the sad bus. And so it’s down the entire climb that I made, happy that gravity is on my side but my feet and ankles and legs less content with the constant jarring and braking. Some respite takes place as I turn onto a path through a cool pine forest, but this at some point has to hit the river below and, when it does, it veers down in a torment of curving hairpins. The river and forest and beautiful, but after six hours or so, Suisi cannot come soon enough.
Perhaps with a week, at a cooler time of year, I could have taken things more leisurely. There are certainly many other places the SAD network can take you – on other cable cars and post buses into Switzerland for instance. There are great rides for bikes and cultural things to do too. Now being so distant in Australia I wonder why on earth I did not go away every other weekend when I lived in London. A Ryanair flight at 2am to an airport 3 hours out or Barcelona. Or the Wizz Air jet to Krakow. Or even a week in the Dolomites. Now, with time precious, I am falling into that Australian trap of trying to cover off Europe in a few days!
Still, it’s amazing that you can be out of the Dolomites and into another region within a couple of hours. En route to Milan, I stopped off in the city of Verona for six hours. Five Euros seventy for left luggage the price to pay to see another Italian city. Proper Italian, with weisbier and streusels far behind and nothing but average pizza and pasta in every piazza.
I spent most of the morning meandering the streets of Verona, centred around Piazza Baz and its arena. The arena is a bit like a poor man’s version of the Colosseum in Rome (I imagine), and far more modern. I suspect it will look quite a sight in the splendour of an evening performance of – inevitably – Romeo and Juliet, but in the day, with set construction and cranes and limited access, I found 6 Euros entry a bit of a rip-off. Nearby gelato was also expensive, but the raspberry flavour was worth every cent.
Verona is definitely a city for taking turns down random alley ways and stumbling across hidden piazzas and generally making it up as you go along. You will come across tourist trappings, such as the balcony where Juliet (who is, remember, a fictional character) was wooed by a horny young Montague. A nearby archway is bedecked in messages of love; inexplicably many of which are for One Direction. Such romantic prose as ‘Take me in any direction Harry’ or ‘I give you one erection One Direction’. How about you take long walk in one direction off very short pier?
Anyway, you will also pass statues of Dante and come across courtyards and church towers and those colourful terraces with window boxes and shutters in perfect harmony. Eventually you’ll likely come across the Adige River, whose level is possibly heightened by tears shed for someone in One Direction getting a girl (or boy) friend. I presume some of these waters also come down from those Dolomites; indeed perhaps the stream I crossed before that long climb eventually finds its way here.
After many days of mountain or city walking, legs and feet are starting to wear, but one final climb is worth it. Steps and steps lead up on the other side of the river to a castle and views over Verona, a city not without charm. An Italian city where they speak Italian, a chance to be anchored in one language and culture for just a while. For tomorrow brings a train through Switzerland, where Italian becomes German becomes French, all armed with pocket knives. Grazie, Danke, Merci.