Nein, das ist Italien
8 November 2023
Snow continues to accumulate upon the surrounding peaks, its icy chill is in the morning air. I am thankful the white stuff is up there, not down here on the city. As the sun warms Bolzano, and me, I find myself wandering its streets and arcades.
At first, walking about Bolzano, I was not overly impressed. There is an abundance of shopping, name-brand shoppes, and a lot of people. I discover Bolzano is an interesting mix of Austrian and Italian cultures. However, the more I explore, the more I like it. It may be Bozen for German speakers, but it is Bolzano to me.
Piazza Walther is one of two main squares. It has a few frescoed facades, lots of modern shopping, and many sidewalk cafes. Much construction is ongoing. The city is preparing for its Christmas markets and decorations are being hung about the streets. It appears the entire town will be hosting kiosks for Santa’s hoards.
Within Walther Piazza is Bolzano Cathedral of late-Gothic stone design. The interior is unadorned. However, its green, white and red marble roof and decorative bell tower are very photogenic. The bell tower has a new carillon of 25 bells which plays on weekends. Much restoration has occurred since the 1300s, so overall the church is quite modern.
More interesting and lively is Obstplatz, the historic city center of Bolzano. Piazza delle Erbe and adjourned streets are a lively mix of restaurants, bars, and a colorful street market. There is lots of activity and place to mingle with local shoppers or choose a restaurant for lunch or dinner. While the Piazza Walther is modern and open with its statue and fountain, the Obstplatz area is more historic. It even has its own little Neptune fountain.
Most of the in-between streets are covered arcades which hint at protection from bad weather. Much of the area is pedestrian only. There are many sites of interest in the Obstplatz including Ötzi, Maretsch Castle, Victory Monument, and the start of the wonderful Wassermauer Promenade.
Civico Museo is free and worth an hour. Its exhibits include paintings and artifacts documenting the city’s history. The landscapes and early maps of the area are interesting. Explanations are in German and Italian. The top floor in the tower affords a wonderful panorama of the surrounding valley and mountains, especially beautiful around sunset.
A Plethora of Castles
This area has always been a popular spot for the rich and powerful. Spread over the region of South Tyrol are some 800 castles and mansions. There are at least a dozen within minutes of Bolzano.
Within easy walking of Obstplatz is the the 13th century fortress of Maretsch. In reality, Maretsch is less a fortress than a castle residence. It is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, not but a few feet from the Talvera River. Throughout are painted ceilings and frescoes dating from the Renaissance. Animals, cherubs and flowers decorate the curved walls of the tower’s loggia. The tower also has spectacular panoramic views over the Tyrol.
Just north of Maretsch is an even more impressive castle. The beautiful Wassermauer Promenade follows along the Talvera/Talferbach River to Runkelstein/Roncolo. It takes about 30-minutes, mostly along the promenade. The last few meters is along the road and past the Eisackwerk hydroelectric plant. Ultimately, there is a climb but it’s worth it.
Perched high atop a steep rocky outcrop with imposing walls and tower, this fortress was built by brothers Friedrich and Beral, Lords of Wangen. The castle is situated in an ideal strategic location and was easily defendable. It maintained the power and influence of the lords of Wangen until it was lost in 1277.
Descendants, brothers Niklaus and Franz Vintler bought the castle in 1385 and expanded and decorated what was already a pretty spectacular abode. There are several spectacularly frescoed rooms.
On the façade of the Summer House, built about 1400, are the Triads. These historical and legendary figures were supposed to serve as examples to follow and depict the Nine Worthies, a theme especially popular in 14th and 15th century Europe. Among those represented are Julius Caesar, King David and King Arthur. The remaining sets of people are made up of figures connected with Teutonic legend and the tales of King Arthur, as well as giants and dwarves.
Another room of frescoes illustrate the story of Garel. The frescoes are the only known illustrations representing this theme. The story starts with Guinevere’s abduction from the court of King Arthur. Garel sets off to rescue her. During his long adventure, the hero fights a series of knights who decide if they can’t beat him then join him. He also fights two ferocious giants, freeing the dwarves from their palace and receiving in return a sword and a ring that makes him invincible. Next, in order to save Queen Laudimia, who later becomes his bride, he faces the monster Vulganus. Garel ultimately rescues Guinevere and earns the respect of King Arthur. Celebrations take place around the famous Round Table during which Garel is knighted.
In an adjoining room, the story of Tristan and Isolde is depicted using the terra verde technique. This is a painting process using natural earth. In its original form, it is considered an organic pigment which can produce a range from blue-green to yellow-green. The effect is strikingly beautiful. And some of my favorite murals.
The Drama of Tristan and Isolde
The story begins with the duel between Tristan and Morholt, during which Morholt is killed. Tristan, himself mortally wounded, then sets off on a journey to be cured by the Irish Queen, Morholt’s sister. It is at her court that Tristan first catches sight of Princess Isolde. Once Tristan is cured, he returns to Cornwall, where his uncle Mark asks him to return to Ireland to ask for the hand of the young princess Isolde on his behalf.
Once back in Ireland, Tristan battles a terrible dragon. After killing it, he cuts out its tongue and, unaware that it is poisoned, hides it under his tunic. Princess Isolde, finding the young man unconscious, has him taken to her castle where, after examining Tristan’s sword, she discovers that the missing part corresponds exactly with the shard extracted from the head of her uncle, Morholt. The young woman wants to kill Tristan, but her maidservant stops her. Despite the fact that Tristan is her uncle’s killer, Isolde still agrees to go to marry King Mark. However, during the journey, the two mistakenly drink a love potion intended for the king and the princess, and so fall desperately in love with each other.
Once in Cornwall, Isolde marries King Mark, but continues to conduct a hot relationship with Tristan. When the king grows suspicious, he forces Isolde to undergo trial by ordeal: touching a red-hot iron bar, she must swear that she has not been held by the arms of any man but King Mark and the pilgrim who had escorted her to the place of judgement. This pilgrim, however, is Tristan and, thanks to this lucky circumstance, the young queen is able to swear her oath in all honesty without getting burnt and thus demonstrates her innocence.
All great drama and beautiful terra verde frescoes.
Cable cars operate between Bolzano and the upper villages including Soprabolzano (Above Bolzano)and Colle. The rides offer spectacular views, when they operate. Unfortunately, this week they are not operating. Weather is definitely getting colder. Perhaps it is better I stay on the valley floor.
Tomorrow I ride the rails north. My train will take me to the Italian/Austrian border where I will travel through the Brenner Pass. If Ötzi could walk these mountain valleys and peaks in winter, I can easily accomplish it in a train.