Holidays in Trentino-Alto Adige
The rather clumsy name of Trentino-Alto Adige conceals a hybrid region, in fact two regions forcibly and sometimes unhappily welded together. That hybrid makes it a fascinating place to visit too ... this is where Italy meets Germany, where the Mediterranean south meets Germanic northern Europe, and you'll see evidence in the food, the architecture, the manners, and in the bilingual road signs.
The main towns of Trentino-Alto Adige are Trento (the capital of Trentino) and Bolzano (or Bozen to give it its German name) the capital of Alto Adige. The smaller towns (and this is a patchily populated region, largely covered by mountains) have often evolved from ski resorts, such as Cortina d'Ampezzo.
Trento and Monte Bondone
Trento lies at the neck of the Adige Valley, and in the shadow of the mighty Monte Bondone. Sitting within a ring of mountains, this pretty and laid-back town dates back to Roman times, when it was known as Tridentum. Trento's partner (administration of the region alternates between the two capitals) is Bolzano, a lovely market town up in the Dolomites.
Rolling back a millennium, this border region was ruled by the the prince-bishops of Trent and Bressanone, who exercised power devolved to them by the Holy Roman Emperor. With the final dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1800s, the region found itself in a limbo-land between the states that were to comprise the unified Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north.
Trentino - the history
In 1815 the region became part of Austria, but The 19th century was, of course, a period of rapidly shifting political allegiances. The inhabitants of the region demanded a role in a unified Italy (which wasn't to come for a few decades more). When it did come, the South Tyrol remained in Austria.
Europe at the turn of the 20th century was a mess of national and cultural politics and borders, a loose and shifting collection of states that had emerged from the collapse of the great modern empires. Things were to come to a head during the First World War. The Great War saw major battles fought in the Alps and Dolomites between Austria and Italy, the prize being South Tyrol.
Italy won, Austria lost and what was to become Alto Adige became part of Italy in 1918 when Austria ceded its region of Sudtirol to Italy. The new Italian region was welded to Italian Trentino, and the pair were renamed Venezia Tridentina. This reference to the former possessions of the Republic of Venice ignored the inconvenient fact that Venice never ruled Trent.
Holidays in Trentino - Tyrolean or Italian?
Mussolini, much given to instant remedies (this is the man who used bulldozers to try to remodel Rome for the twentieth century remember) arbitrarily renamed the region Alto Adige. The 80 years since have seen the pair living with various degrees of accommodation, and shifting political allegiances and leanings. Immediately after 1919, many Tyroleans physically moved to Germany and Austria, while others stayed and retained their German identities within Italy.
The confusion of loyalties was emphasised in World War II. In 1943 the once Italian ally (by now enemy) Germany occupied the region, renaming it Alpenvorland. The Alpine Foreland came to an end with the end of the war in 1945.
Now within Alto Adige there grew up nationalist and separatist movements, such as the Union Fur Sudtirol, variously agitating for reunion with Austria or independence within Italy. Italy and Austria had agreed autonomy for the region in 1946 and it now had two official languages, but friction between the two sides was so great (German-speaking separatists launching a terror campaign) that the UN had to intercede in 1960.
Holidays in Trentino - past, present and future
Finally, in 1971, both countries agreed to bow to the International Court of Justice in The Hague over disputes. Austria agreed not to meddle in Bolzano's affairs, and with Austria joining the EU in 1995, trade and border issues were much eased.
From the 1960s, the Italian and Austrian governments had been working together to construct a package of economic measures (Il Pachetto) to keep both sides happy. Trentino-Alto Adige won semi-autonomy, ridding them from the yoke of the much-maligned Rome government, and got some generous grants into the bargain.
Rightwingers on the Italian side of the region have been equally keen to see their German neighbours go, and to preserve the Italianness of northern Italy. Of course it's much more complex than that, and many in the extreme right Italian Lega Nord feel equally distant from the Mediterranean and Rome. Given the axiom 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', we have a Lega Nord including both Germans from Alto Adige and Italians from Trentino (nobody ever said Italian politics was easy).
Holidays in Trentino - Alpine scenery
But don't let the antics of the right put you off. The atmosphere of this region is one of tolerant and prosperous co-existence. Tyroleans are Tyroleans whichever country they find themselves in, and it adds a delightful flavour to this part of northern Italy. Onion-domed churches, log cabins, precipitously pitched roofs ... you stand with your stein of beer and wurst in your hand and almost expect to see Heidi come skipping around the corner.
And if you love Alpine scenery, skiing and clean fresh air you'll be quickly seduced by Trentino-Alto Adige. Sit at a café in Bolzano and you can gaze out upon the snow-capped jagged edge peaks of the Dolomites. There is superb skiing, great walking and beautiful uplands. When the snows melt in summer, this is fine hiking country.
Hiking, skiing and sightseeing
The Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio is one of the biggest natural parks in Italy, straddling the entire Ortles range and being capped by one of Europe's biggest glaciers (Ghicciaio dei Forni). To the north of Bolzano, the Alpe di Siusi grasslands form the largest Alpine plateau in Europe, stretching over 60km2.
There is excellent skiing of course, with the resorts of Val Gardena (Grodnertal) and Cortina d'Ampezzo, venue for the 1956 Winter Olympiad. And the hiking season fills the rest of the year from midsummer to the autumn equinox, 20 June to 20 September. Hiking is well organised, based on a series of marked trails called alte vie (literally 'high ways').
Viticulture has been a business here since Roman times. Don't assume the grape needs plenty of Mediterranean sunshine, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay grapes are grown here, and the cool slopes, high above sea level, provide marvellous bright, sharp, light and aromatic vintages. You'll find good spumanti or sparkling wines, and the reds from the northern part of the region (particularly the young Schiava wines) are excellent.
Watch out for the language differences by the way. Trentino-Alto Adige is of course a bilingual region, and it's not just the road signs that appear in two languages. One red is known either as Caldaro or Kaltersee depending on whether it's coming from an Italian Italian or a German Italian. St Magdalene becomes Santa Maddalena. And just when you thought you had the hang of it, Schiava is called Vernatsch in German.
Snowy alpine climes don't lend themselves to salads and sparkling water. The cold burns calories and Trentino-Alto Adige cuisine is designed to replace them. And with Austria as a neighbour that gives a distinctly Germanic flavour to the menu (in the northern half of Trentino at least). Canederle are bread dumplings flavoured with smoked ham (speck) and larded with a dressing of molten butter (strangolapreti). Polenta is the carb of choice rather than pasta, and game features large on the menu, with rabbit another popular choice. Gnocchi is also popular, often flavoured with spinach and speck again.
Puddings are excellent, from the familiar German sweets such as sachatorte and apfel strudel, to Soffiato alla Trentina (a trifle) and Zelten Trentino, which is a rich, grappa-flavoured fruitcake (or Christmas cake to you and me) eaten during the festive season. The climate also produces fine orchards, so look out for plum and apple tarts.
We would respectfully suggest that you combine your vacation in Trentino-Alto Adige with some hiking or skiing ... this is not lean cuisine. And you can put the food and wine together in a gastronomic tour along the Strada di Vino, the 'wine road' that wends along the Adige valley.
Trentino must sees
The Strada da Vino - or the wine road. Turn your holiday in Trentino-Alto Adige into a gastronomic and bibulous tour as you sample local delicacies and diverse local vintages on the well-marked Strada da Vino. Maps are, of course, available.
The Dolomites - the stunning, jagged capped mountain range offers superb skiing, excellent hiking and breathtaking sightseeing. Also very popular with climbers of course, though you may choose to sit in the lodge and simply drink in the view (and some of the excellent local wine) during your vacation in the Dolomites.
Trento - the Italian half of the pair of towns that govern Trentino-Alto Adige, Trento is an historic city, famously the venue of the Council of Trent, where the Catholic Counter Reformation was launched. A very pleasant town to spend a couple of days during your vacation in Trentino, or even as a holiday base.
Bolzano - or Bozen to give it its German soubriquet. You could be in Germany in fact, with Alpine architecture and restaurants serving strudel, speck and goulash. A very pretty town, its museum has the Ice Man, a perfectly preserved Copper Age male on display. This is a marvellous detour during your vacation in Trentino-Alto Adige.