When we landed in Brunico, I was confused. Not necessarily a unique state for me, but you must understand, Brunico is in Italy – the map clearly says so. Yet, I felt we had taken a wrong turn at a mountain pass and and arrived at a village in Austria. I knew we had crossed no international borders, as I had not flashed my passport, since leaving Milan earlier that day. But German was the language spoken on the streets, and the menus posted outside the restaurants were not only written in German, but also had German dishes sprinkled with a few Italian favorites. Finally, the town’s name was just as often spelled as Bruneck – oye!
According to Wiki, the 2001 census for this area of Italy claims 83% of the population speak German, 15% Italian and ~ 2% Ladin as their first language. (Ladin resulted from Latin melding with the local language, oh about 15BC when the Dolomites were conquered by the Romans) This explains so much. Brunico, I discovered, was in a region that was a bit of a hot potato, bouncing frequently between what is now Austria and Italy, and as recent as World War I part of Austria.
On this lovely May trip, our purpose was not to stalk the Tour de France, but seek the Giro (Italy’s great bike race). Near Bruncio, the drama of the most challenging stage of that year’s race up to Kronplatz/Plan de Corones (part of the Southern Tyrol) was about to unfold. This stage was to be the crowning example of human endurance – practically no expense or attention to detail was spared. The Italian government had build a temporary road up the last 6 kilometers, where only a dirt path had existed before. My husband could barely contain his excitement at the thought of watching such a hell on wheels event. That last bit of grade was so steep, the riders would probably have to dismount and walk their bikes to the top.
The Giro is a three week stage race similar to the Tour de France, but the bikers jerseys are different; where the Tour leader sports a yellow jersey, the Giro has a pink jersey to match the colors of the sponsoring sporting paper.
We stayed in this area for 4 days and the time flew by. The surrounding country side is speckled with wineries, quaint villages and of course an abundance of mountainous scenery. What is not to like? Plenty of hiking, and in the winter, skiing is mandatory. Five star restaurants? Maybe not, but if you are interested in good regional food, you cannot go wrong.
The roads around here are easy to drive and beautifully maintained, but while they look fairly straight on Google maps, they are full of winding S-curves as this town is nestled deep in the mountains. As the crow flies, this town is not far from Innsbruck, Austria; by road little over an hour away. The drives through the nearby towns were wonderful and the surrounding fields held grazing cattle complete with those wonderful copper cowbells draped from their necks. The pastoral scenes were straight from the Sound of Music.
Brunico was founded around 1256, and at that time the town consisted of two rows of houses. In the 14th and 15th centuries a brisk trade developed between Augsburg and Venice, and some of this trade required long term storage in Brunico, which was rewarded for its efforts with prosperity and fame. Around this time the Pustertal painting school was founded by the painter Hans von Bruneck, and included great masters Michael Pacher and Friedrich Pacher who also studied at this school.
After World War I, South Tyrol and Brunico became part of Italy. During World War I, the Dolomite Mountains were the stage of some horrific battles – the Italian and Austrian armies fought many battles in these mountains. For twenty months the soldiers endured indescribable hardship. Consider spending two winters lodged in the mountains, man against man. (Four hours on top of Corones was enough to convince me I had better things to do.) Both armies dug tunnels and trenches to bypass and surprise the enemy. Mines were exploded beneath enemy positions after months of exhausting work excavating the rock.
After the war, the Dolomites eventually returned to their original beautiful state, but not without some battle scars; deep cuts made by bombs and mines. Tunnels can still be found in the mountains – we discovered a few in our exploration.
Brunico was spared damage in World War I, but in World War II the town was bombed, so the architecture is a mixture of old and new especially in the more business sections of town.
Food and Wine
This area is sprinkled with wineries, but I cannot speak to them. We tried to visit a few, during the week, stopping by just prior to lunch time, only to learn that they were open that day but were now closed to the public – it was not yet noon. In fact they seemed surprised to see us, despite the fact that they had a tasting room. (Note to self, “you are not in Napa”.) My advice is to check with the hotel before you head out if your is to check on a vineyard. It was not a wasted trip as we just pulled off the road and enjoyed a flavorful picnic of local sausage, cheese and wine, while visions of returning to the US with bottles straight from the wineries receded to a distant memory.
In the spring they have an asparagus festival featuring those yummy stalks with Spargelwein – asparagus wine, made not from asparagus but Sauvignon blanc. The best wine, and the winner proudly displays the award for wining the competitions for best wine. The asparagus is topped with Bozner sauce – not a hollandaise – which looks to be made with hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, herbs and spices.
Here are some of the regional dishes of the Southern Tyrol, some identified by the Italian Trade Commission. The Austrian influence can be seen in the ingredients and preparation:
Biroldi con crauti: blood sausages stuffed with chestnuts, walnuts and pine nuts, flavored with nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, served with sauerkraut.
Blau forelle: trout poached in white wine with vinegar, lemon, bay leaf and clove, and served with melted butter.
Carne salata: beef marinated for a month or more in brine with juniper berries, pepper and herbs, eaten either raw or cooked in butter and served with beans or polenta
Orzetto or Gerstensuppe: barley soup with onion, garlic, vegetables and herbs simmered with Speck.
Leberknödelsuppe: dumplings of bread crumbs mixed with flour, milk and eggs and flavored with chopped liver and herbs, and served in broth.
Sauresuppe: Tyrolean tripe soup with onion, herbs and nutmeg soured by white wine vinegar.
Speck: a juniper flavored ham – it showed up in about everything, and I am not complaining. It is delicious, as evidenced by the fact that is been around since the 1300s.
Wines of the Alto Adige
While experts agree that the Alpine climate favors white wines, the demand for reds has tipped the scales as they account for ~ 2/3 of the region’s production. The dominant variety of Alto Adige is Schiava or Vernatsch, a source of light, bright reds that head due north to Germanic countries.
The ruby wines from Schiava extend through the South Tyrol along the Adige river fall under the Valdadige or Etschtaler appellation. Alto Adige’s native grape, Lagrein, thrives on the plains along the Adige where the wine achieves full round taste and some bonus qualities with a bit of aging. Given reds appeal, considerable real estate is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region also produces some of Italy’s finest rosés, the most impressive being Lagrein Kretzer. The sweet Moscato Rosa is a rare and prized dessert wine.
But the white wines are starting to demand more attention and growers are planting the whites favored by the altitude: Sylvaner, Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau and white Moscato.
Alto Adige has also stepped up sparkling wine production which cannot be a bad thing.
Skiing in the winter is a given.
Driving and exploring the wineries in the summer is a sure thing, provided you find wineries with hours that fit your schedules.
We were impressed with the trails that covered the area. We discovered was a converted railroad trail that was pristine. It even had a tunnel that cut through the mountain and it was well maintained and lit. Hiking and mountain biking are very popular.
Several national parks are within driving distance and offer amazing vistas.
This graph depicts the stage we intended to see – we were perched at the top of the last peak. Note the dashed line at the top of the last peak – that indicates the new road they built for this stage.
I know you are dying to know what happened in that leg of the Giro. Well, my husband and I got up early because based on our experience at the Tour de France we knew the advantages of a good viewing spot. We caught the lift taking us to the top of the mountain. Did I mention that the Giro happens every May? We got to the top of the mountain and this scene was waiting for us. I was not ready for this one. Nevertheless, we hiked down a ways to secure a cold damp spot so that we secured our location – few other spectators were around, and my husband was convinced it was because no one else had our foresight. I think no one else was as insane. Throughout our stay people stopped and took our picture. I searched the web for “crazy Americans, Giro, Italy” and thankfully no incriminating pictures were found.
We were rooted there for over four hours. I tried to convince myself that drinking wine from the bottle would make me feel warmer, as would the plastic bags we wore on our feet and as vests really added an extra layer of warmth. After a while, I gave up the futility of that internal argument and resigned myself to the fact that I was just darn cold, and the only thing that would improve the situation was climbing on that lift to take me back to the hotel and a hot shower, and meal.
Finally, one passerby alerted us to the fact that the riders had essentially gone on strike – not once – but twice! First they wanted to take out one of the intermediate mountain stages and then they refused to go up that last section I mentioned. So while we were stomping our feed to keep warm and drinking unconscionably cold red wine, the race directors were scrambling to move the finish line seven kilometers down the
mountain. We shakily rose to our feet and made our way down the hill to a rather anti-climatic finish. My husband was stunned that the riders mutinied – I heard repeated mutterings of “this would never happen at the Tour!” Although I kept it to myself, I was relieved – maybe giddy is a better description – to be heading down the mountain to relative warmth.
After the finish we made our way back to the lift and back to the hotel. How many ways can you say bliss? The hot shower was amazing and that Austrian meal of Leberknödelsuppe warmed me from the inside.
The next day we came down for breakfast and confirmed our suspicion that a few teams from the Giro also stayed at our hotel. We were shocked that everyone looked so dejected; the sighs and moans were piteous. Men slumped in their chairs or draped on the breakfast tables with their heads in their hands. While I felt great wearing shorts and a t-shirt – the multiple layers including the repurposed plastic bags now a distant memory. We thought someone might have died and my Italian is extremely limited and what we gleaned from the papers provided no clues. Only later did we find out that a doping scandal had been revealed and the coach of one time had made a dash across the boarder, and another team was ejected from the Giro. We were in the midst of a juicy scandal and this soap opera was playing out in front of us and could not understand a word. Oh – the injustice!
If your are looking for excitement and nightlife, this is not the place, but if you want to relax and unwind and explore some unexpected culture in beautiful surroundings, than Brunico and the Southern Tyrol area are up to the challenge. This section of Italy is wonderful to explore and makes you rethink your preconceived notions of this amazing diverse country.
Side note: The original version of wiener schnitzel is thought to have originated in Milan, but it took the fine folks of Vienna to make it the popular dish we know today.