Edge Zone Alert: Bolzano (Bolzen)

Those of you who know some of my historic and cultural interests are aware that I am fascinated by “edge zones,” a term originally suggested by YoYo Ma in his Silk Road Project (http://www.silkroad.org/) to describe places where two or more societies collide and intermingle with varying results. It appears in this age of increasing “populism” that some countries are doing everything they can to minimize these contacts, but the fact is that they have been and continue to be sources of inspiration for me as well as many others and include places like Jerusalem and Sarajevo, for example.  I have just had occasion to stumble onto an edge zone new to me, and that is the charming town of Bolzano, tucked up in the Südtirol (South Tyrol), an autonomous province in Northern Italy that runs along the Austrian border.

Like most of Europe, Bolzano and the region has had a long and complicated political history; key for this post is that Bavarians moved into the region when the Romans retreated in the 7th century and the area later entered the Holy Roman Empire. When the HRE dissolved in 1806, the region and its German-speaking population see-sawed back and forth between the Italians and the Austrians until World War I when they were secretly promised to the Italians and an intense campaign of “Italianization” began. It was during this period that the train station was rebuilt, so my first sight in town was this slightly daunting reminder of Mussolini’s attention to architectural detail:

Could discourage travel

A bit foreboding, as if to know that things would not go well for the good South Tyroleans for much of the next few decades. Bolzano was the site of a concentration camp in World War II as well as the center of fierce fighting between the Allied and Axis powers. After the war, Wiki tells us “in the 1960s a series of terrorist attacks and assassinations were carried out by the  South Tyrolean Liberation Committee– a German secessionist movement – against Italian police and electric power structures after which the United Nations intervened to enforce the start of bilateral negotiations between Italy and Austria. After 11 years of mediation and negotiation the two countries reached an agreement that would guarantee self-government to the newly created Autonomous Province of South Tyrol.” I certainly didn’t have this on my radar…did you? Wiki shares with us as well that the Dalai Lama has visited the city on several occasions to study a possible application in Tibet. Officially the region is ~75% Italian speakers, ~24% German speakers, and ~1 percent Ladino speakers (more about that later).

Well. I didn’t know any of this so I just went there because I sat next to someone on a plane once who said it was great, so I had to check it out.

Bolzano looks exactly what my ten-year-old mind had imagined all of Europe to be – winding stone streets with gingerbread buildings, open-air markets, cafes filled with happy people, churches, and castles. I felt like I had stepped into my own fairy tale. Only the African sunglasses salesman in the lower right strikes a slightly incongruous note:

My first day I wandered as if in a dream, pinching myself. I ate roast chestnuts. I walked along a beautiful river park and saw a castle. I decided I must be in heaven.

The next day, I got serious about trying to understand a bit more about the city and its history. First stop was the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology, a place dedicated exclusively to the Bronze-age Ötzi the Iceman who was found in the region in 1991. I remember his discovery well – and the research and information about him has only improved over the past quarter century. He is now believed to have lived 5000 years ago, and only the oddest possible combination of meteorological conditions kept his body as intact as it was when found. Visitors are not allowed to take a picture of his corporeal remains, so I use this book cover to jog your memory:

Besides his age at death (45), his last meal (bread and a kind of elk), and some of his various ailments (osteoarthritis), researchers have discovered that he was murdered. The evidence for this is that there is an arrowhead deeply implanted in his shoulder, possibly the reason for his arm at such an odd angle. His skull also appears to have been hit consistent with blunt force trauma (do I watch too many episodes of Bones?). One of the reasons for his trip into the mountains, it is now speculated, was to evade his ultimate fate. Not to leave you with such a gruesome tale (and picture), here is what his DNA suggests he looked like before the elements turned him into a mummy. Kinda cute…

As I was on my way to the next museum, I passed this sign attached to one of the aforementioned beautiful gingerbread buildings:

And what precisely, you might ask, is Ladina (Ladin)? Not to be confused with Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language used by the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian peninsula, Ladina (Ladin) is a separate Romance language consisting of dialects spoken by people in provinces in the South Tyrol and somewhat related to the Swiss Romansh and Friulian dialects. (I think it’s the first line above.) Although only spoken by 20,000 people or so, it is an officially recognized language in the region, taught in schools, and used in public offices both verbally and in written form. No wonder the Dalai Lama was impressed.

Next stop was the Civic Museum of Bolzano. Now usually these are among my favorites, but this one let me down. The permanent exhibit was just a bunch of wooden religious statues and some nice old frescos, the kind of airless creaky rooms that you walk through just slowly enough to make it appear to the dozing man in the corner that you respect what they are trying to achieve. Then you skedaddle. BUT the temporary exhibit caught my mind and heart. It was a display commemorating “Writers and Artists in the First World War.” As we now know, WWI was nasty for the South Tyrol as well as everywhere else, and I realized looking at the pictures of the artists in their formative years that their wartime experience would naturally shape their subsequent career. Here’s a photo entitled “Artistic action of the Italian prisoners of war in a prison camp:”

From what I saw on the exhibit walls, some painted out their pain and others what they saw around them in nature, or possibly in their mind’s eye. I was struck by a photograph of the writer Robert Musil in uniform; his signature work is “The Man Without Qualities,” set in Vienna just at the outbreak of the war and dealing with the moral and intellectual decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I wondered how his military service in Bolzano may have affected it.

Next I headed to the cathedral where, instead of dazzling you with pictures of its amazing Romanesque and Gothic architecture, I will rather share the list of the priest’s names who are giving services on any given day in October. Take a moment to look at some of those monikers – what amazing combinations of Germanic and Italic influences! I’m not really sure how Fr. Manoz Kumar made it into the mix, though.

Nearby still in the cathedral is a small monument to a local citizen, Josef Mayr-Nusser (1910-1945). The name didn’t ring a bell, but anyone who is memorialized in a cathedral is probably worth finding out about, and so he is. A particularly pious member of the community, Mayr-Nusser served as President of the local Saint Vincent de Paul Conference but was drafted into the SS nevertheless. After his basic training, it is alleged that he said to his commanding officer, “‘Sir Major-General’, he said with a strong voice, ‘I cannot take an oath to Hitler in the name of God. I cannot do it because my faith and conscience do not allow it.'” Not surprisingly, he was jailed, sentenced to death for treason and ordered to be shot by firing squad at Dachau. He died en route to Dachau due to the rigors of dysentery and his remains were returned to Bolzano in 1958; Pope Francis announced his beatification (the level below saint) in 2016 and it was celebrated in Bolzano just this past March 18, 2017.

This is the prayer book that was found with him. And the gray shadow is an unintended selfie.

Well, that was about all the heavy I could take for one day — mummies who get killed, men without qualities, men with so many qualities they get killed for them. Time to lighten up, and speaking of light, today is the last day of European daylight savings, so I decided to celebrate with…a cable car ride up the Renon mountain to the village of Oberbolzen.

Leaving every four minutes with room for 30, the cars appear miracles of modern engineering…so…off we go…

Escaping the summer heat of the valley by traveling into the mountains has been a tradition in Bolzano for a long time, and now it’s happily just a matter of hopping a cable car and taking the 1000 meter (3000 feet) trip up the hill, which takes just under 15 minutes. It is truly spectacular. I took WAY too many pictures and most of them aren’t that dramatic, but boy, what a ride. Once at the top, I hopped into the local two-car train and took it through a few other villages and then back and back down. Speechless.

What a glorious day, what a glorious view.

One last stroll through town before giving my dogs a rest (17,000 steps) and setting down these thoughts before they all blow away. Bolzano has beauty, it has history and culture, it has incredible surroundings, and it also has….shopping. OMG. Just picture the beautiful winding streets and the lovely gingerbread buildings…filled with the most amazing array of stylish and inviting clothing, shoe, and leather shops you have ever seen. It is a.very.good.thing that I am on a budget and I travel with a small backpack, because those were the only thin threads holding me back from having a major retail therapy relapse. So I enjoyed the window shopping and I enjoyed watching the shoppers…and I enjoyed watching the dog watch the shoppers….and here’s a faithful pooch and his bemused holder:

“Mom said she’d only be a minute…”

So there you have it…although you may not have ever heard of it, I hope I’ve convinced you to consider coming for a visit. Truly a beautiful place with a fascinating history and a social experiment still in the making. Thanks for taking the trip with me.

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1 Response to Edge Zone Alert: Bolzano (Bolzen)

  1. Janet Stebbins says:

    I’m hooked! Their PR dept should employ you!

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