Bolzano, Italy – June 2015
Otzi, as the Neolithic mummy is known, was discovered 24 years ago by two German hikers (imagine that surprise!) in a glacial resting place in the mountains nearby. Since the discovery every element of his existence has been steeped in drama. From the less than accommodating mountain weather wrestled by archaeologists for his extraction to a battle between two countries – Italy and Austria – over his domain. His story is the stuff of legend.
Scientists estimate that Otzi lived between 3350 and 3100 BC. His official website (yes, he’s adapted to the modern age rather well) puts the time of his death on the mountain in perspective by saying, “The Iceman had already been buried in the glacier for 600 years when the Egyptian pharaoh Cheops ordered the construction of the pyramid that bears his name. Stonehenge in England would not be built for several hundred years after his death.”
So, with images of frozen immortality dancing in our heads, we took a bus thirty minutes from Vattaro to Trento, then a train another thirty minutes to Bolzano to visit Otzi in his (relatively) new home, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.
Leaving the train station, we walked through a lovely tree-lined park leading to the town’s main plaza, the open air living room of Piazza Walther, aka Waltherplatz. The vast piazza, surrounded by homes of distinctive Tyrolean architecture (wood beams, colorful frescos, enclosed balconies) and capped by the strikingly-tiled Duomo, pulled us in with magnetic force.
It was Saturday and the plaza was alive with music, people, and art…on wheels. Bolzano was playing host to a vintage car rally. How could we resist checking out all those sporty Fiats? And, oh, the glorious people watching.
Lingering over a macchiato and letting the city’s sounds and sights orient us – we were still in Italy, but this is a predominately German-speaking region. It’s the language heard most in the piazzas, signage is in German and Italian, the people are tall and fair, the buildings scream “Welcome to Austria!” We needed a few minutes to adjust.
Soon we were Otzi bound once again. Until, we spotted it. A beacon in the night. (A long 30-day night stuffed full of pasta, risotto, and pizza.)
The sign for Bamboo Sushi glowed brightly. Friends who live just outside of Bolzano had raved about this place a few weeks earlier. It’s no secret that I love Italian food, but sometimes those little taste buds can be heard screaming for sashimi, ginger, and wasabi. Ah, wasabi. How could we pass up this chance?
As we were discovering, this city boasts a wide variety of international flavors. Geographically situated at the crossroads of Austria and Italy, Bolzano and the surrounding region, which became part of Italy after WWI, has long been a fascinating mix up of Central Europe and Mediterranean cultures.
Today, the mix continues and expands with what many refer to as an “alarming rate” of immigration – it’s an unsettling topic of conversation with almost every Italian we’ve met. The streets, restaurants, and shops of Bolzano reflect this expanding international mix, adding to the city’s cosmopolitan feel.
Sushi fix sated, we were back on the street with antenna pointing in museum direction. With a few twisting alleys and the turning of a corner, we suddenly discovered a wide avenue of colorful market stalls laid out before us.
For blocks and blocks, we were offered a glorious display of the region’s acclaimed apples, fresh cheeses, pastries and breads. It turns out that markets are a tradition in Bolzano. The area has been a trading post for centuries.
A stroll along the wide avenue, around Piazza delle Erbe, tells visitors a good deal about the city’s soul. You find strudel stands beside gelato shops, freshly baked pretzels competing with pizzerias, menus of wurst, cabbage, and potatoes posted next door to shops selling prosciutto and formaggio.
What traveler could resist checking out every stall, sampling the goods, and making a few purchases? Really.
As we snacked on a perfectly baked and salted pretzel (yes, we like to eat!,) we realized the afternoon was slipping away. It was time to get serious. Now, we were hot on Otzi’s trail.
Unfortunately that trail wasn’t a straight path. Stopping at a corner to check Google maps, my eyes were drawn away from the screen to a lush garden across the street. Matt followed my gaze and I heard a guttural noise coming from deep within him.
He was being called home. It was a beer garden.
Were we strong enough to resist the siren call?
From the street, we could see inside to heavy wooden beams encasing the bar’s brassy fixtures and friends lifting hefty pints in toast. Laughter spilled from every corner of the pub and garden.
We would be strong and keep walking. Otzi awaited.
Just then a group of revelers in medieval costume turned on the street, walking past us and into the bar.
Was there a historical reenactment today, a play or festival, or was this just part of their normal Saturday?
We wouldn’t have been surprised by any of those options in this (wonderfully) odd city, but we knew we had to find out. Let’s face it, passing up an opportunity to drink a toast with a fairy princess in what looks like a fairytale city? Nope, that’s just not our style.
He’s been holding tight for 5,000 years, I doubt Otzi will mind waiting a few more weeks for our visit.
From his lofty perch in Bolzano, I think he understands this city’s mysterious allure better than anyone. He knows we will be back, and very soon.
More things to do in Bolzano:
Shop – For every season and day of the week, Bolzano offers up a market! I guarantee you’ll find this extensive list hard to resist.
Go Medieval – A beautiful hike leads to Castle Roncolo and rewards visitors with a great view of the city.
Look up – As soon as you see cable cars soaring above head, you’ll want to go for a ride. Hike up to the quaint village of San Genesio, then grab a cable down.
Taste the Traminer – Follow the South Tyrolean Wine Road to the lovely little town of Tramin to taste fruity Gewürztraminers on their home soil.
Let your nose lead – A stroll along the edge of Bolzano’s historic core offers the most amazing mix of scents from honeysuckle bushes, magnolias, and geraniums lining the wide avenues. From here, it’s easy to see – and smell – why Bolzano consistently ranks in the top for quality of life among Italian cities.
It’s easy to reach Bolzano via train in less than 4 hours from Milan or Venice (with a train change,) and direct from Munch in 4 hours and Innsbruck in 2 hours.