BRIXEN-BRESSANONE, ITALY — The conversation with my coworker went something like this:
“Oh, Northern Italy; up in the mountains.”
“Ah, so South Tirol.”
“No, no, not Austria. Italy. Northern Italy.”
“Right, that’s South Tirol.”
Sure, I know everything in Europe is close. Especially in this corner of Europe where Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy all face off against the backdrop of picturesque snow peaks. But we were going to Italy–on the map it was clear. Or was it?
Everything here is living a double life; one decidedly Germanic, one tenuously Italian. Like the college freshman insecurely wavering between the course of study he wants and the one his parents are paying for, the area of South Tyrol is facing an identity complex. In fact, every town, every river, every road has two names. One Austrian, one Italian. It gets confusing. Especially when asking for directions.
That’s what we discovered as we took off from the shores of the Starnbergersee in Bavaria a day after our cousin’s wedding. My parents, bright and chipper and highly caffeinated sitting up front in the little Peugot; Molly and I safely sunglassed and holding onto our biscuits for dear life in the back seat.
The view made the hangover slightly more bearable. Rolling green foothills quickly turned to icy peaks as Austria came up and swallowed us whole. Just an hour south of Bavaria, we slid between two slopes and down into legendary Innsbruck–a deep, green valley completely surrounded by the Alps.
We stopped for lunch and to grab some air. This medieval town is like a minature version of Munich–without having to be rebuilt 60 years ago and with a much better backdrop. After a cold Augistiner and a final look at the mountains and we took off again–direction: up.
The Brenner Pass is legendary in Bavaria, especially in August–the jaw-dropping view of the craggy Dolomites ahead and the powdered peaks of the Austria Alps in the rearview mirror are generally tempered by a long line of Audis and BMWs inching their way to holidays in Lake Garda or further south. But luckily–thank the lord–on this day, the pass was clear.
We slipped over the border and things began to change–albeit subtly. Rows and rows of hops turned to rows and rows of grape vines. The grey limestone mountains turned to stark white granite. The town names doubled in length and grew hyphens.
We rolled down into Bressanone or Brixen or Bressanone-Brixen or whatever you want to call it in the late afternoon. Things seemed to still work on the Germanic wave length; traffic generally obeyed the signals, the streets were clean, the stores were closed like good Christian establishments on a Sunday should be. But, still, there was a undeniable touch for the Italian; the directional signs seemed to point back the way you just came, the garbage cans looked like they hadn’t been touched in a couple days, I saw hand gestures–true hand gestures.
Despite being stranded in a sort of European purgatory, we found our way through several confusing roundabouts and made our way up into the mountains again–the Navi leading us to the “Panorama Hotel” somewhere above town with a great view of the valley below. Little did we know.
After going what seemed like several kilometers and tens of thousands of vertical feet too far, we rolled into the center of the little town of St. Andra-S. Andra. The Panorama Hotel stood in the middle, next to a impossibly tall granite bell tower. Checked in, made our way to the hotel annex up the hills and opened the dusty balcony doors. The view was spectacular.
Below, the little granite town spread out along the bottom of a long, soft green valley. Above the town and below our view, whipped white clouds floated up from the Adriatic like fluffy rafts on their way to the Alps. We settled in, grabbed dinner at the one and only restaurant in town and rested our weary bones.
That is, until the bells starting ringing and didn’t stop ringing. Every fifteen minutes. All. Night. Long.
In the morning we woke with bells–literally–ringing in our ears and made our way further up Plose mountain. From just above the hotel, you can catch a cable car that takes you further up the slopes past the tree line.
From here we hiked most of the rest of the way to the peak–stopping for a bit of wine, prosciutto and fresh cheese–taking in the view along with a little troop of sheep that apparently summered up here.
The views were spectacular, but it was the ride down that took your breath away. Rather than hitching a ride back down on the cable car, we opted to rent giant, adult-sized tricycles and take the fun way. No pedals, just breaks; we followed a winding, bumpy, utterly exhilarating 10km of trails down the side of the mountain, leaning into hairpin turns and bouncing over boulders. The sound of giggling followed us the whole way.
I would have taken the cable car back up to do it all again, but instead we opted to explore the little medieval town of Brixen, with its beautiful Duomo church and rushing river.
We made our way out to the local Augustiner kloster, set in the vineyards that lined the foothills. Again, it’s the little things that change–no hoppy bier to be had, but instead a delicious local white wine. We brought a bottle back to the hotel to watch the clouds roll in with the night and soaked up the last of the mountain chill.
Sometimes an identity crises can be a bad thing. In this case it was wonderful.
Part Italian, part Germanic; part city, part nature. Regardless of its different parts — or maybe because of them–this country is wholly beautiful and haunting.
No wonder so many peoples fought to call it home — even if home takes on a few different names or you have to pay for a few extra hyphens. It’s worth it.