The Hub of the Dolomites

The provincial capital of Bolzano has a long history, rich cultural attractions – and even some lessons for all of us

"In Bolzano, the hub of the Dolomites"

One thing is for sure when you go hiking in the Gardena Valley: sooner or later you will come to Bolzano, in nearly all respects the hub of the province, if only between trips to different resorts. So you’d better know what to expect.

Expect, above all, crowds. Stunningly large numbers of people. We were there in early October, which means late in the hiking season and roughly 6 weeks before skiing takes off in earnest, but the place was packed with tourists. Venice in August cannot be much busier.

This is probably inevitable, taking into account that Bolzano (Bozen) is the capital of a province which mainly lives off its tourism industry. Everybody who visits the Val Gardena or one of the neighbouring valleys will come here at least once, if only to change trains or to board a bus. For most, however, Bolzano is the only place for miles around where they can experience a little urban flair after days out in the Alpine landscapes, where they can inhale some petrol-soaked fumes as an antidote against an overdose of clean mountain air.

The first place you should go to after your arrival is the central Piazza Walther, one short block away from both train station and coach terminal. (Just follow the street signs.) The Tourism Office on the right hand side of the square, opposite the dome, …

"The Dome of Bolzano, the hub of the Dolomites"

… puts a tray out on the sidewalk – at least on dry days – where you can serve yourself with one of their excellent (and free) one-page city maps that highlight the town’s main attractions.

It is probably a good idea to start your walk by exploring the historical town centre straight in front of you, mainly the area between Via Argentinieri and Via Dr. Streiter that also features the famous Portici (the Lauben), a network of busy shopping arcades that was first constructed in the early Middle Ages – although today, the merchants under the colonnades tend to sell designer goods and expensive culinary specialties rather than flour and salt.

"looking through one of the many collonades in Bolzano, South Tyrol"

Continue past the lively fruit and lower market on Piazza Erbe (Obstplatz) …

"Town market of Bolzano, the hub of the Dolomites"

… in the direction of the Talvera river (Talfer) and the grand Mareccio (Maretsch) Castle, which dates – in its present form – from the 16th century.

"Mareccio Castle and its vineyards in Bolzano South Tyrol"

For an even older castle, you may want to follow the signs towards Castle Roncolo (Runkelstein Castle) which is located approx. 2 km to the north on top of a hill. (Follow the signs for the cycle path.)

You probably have not come to Bolzano for hiking, more likely to seek a break from it, but if you really wanted to, you could also take a walk around the periphery of the town, starting at the Talvera Bridge. The city council has laid out altogether 12 routes with a total length of 100 km, and a comprehensive map of the various trails can be found just outside the Cafe Theiner near the Museo Civico.

"map showing walking trails around Bolzano, the hub of the Dolomites"

This could be something you might want to do if you have come here on a daytrip from a more southern city (such as Verona, which is only an hour away by train) to get a first impression – more of a foretaste, actually – of the Italian Alps. (Bolzano itself is only 250 metres high and surrounded by hills rather than snow-capped mountains.)

Alternatively (and less strenuously), you can spend the rest of the afternoon by making a tour of the various monasteries on the western edge of town (Franciscan, Dominican and Capuchin). This a very tranquil, serene walk – and you will be as safe from the hordes of visitors as you would be on the far banks of the Talvera.

"inside a Franciscan monastery in Bolzano, South Tyrol"

Bolzano, finally, is the perfect place to observe the mechanisms of the “landshare agreement” between the German-speaking and the Italian-speaking South Tyroleans because it is just about the only place in the officially bilingual province where there is a rough balance between the two. (Elsewhere, the German speakers constitute a clear majority.)

Once, and not all that long ago, this was a less than happy and not even always peaceful co-existence. South Tyrol had become part of Italy after WWI, and the German-speaking natives were shocked to find themselves, virtually overnight, in a foreign country: no speaking of German was allowed in any official or semi-official function, they had to send their children to Italian-language schools, and, overall, felt very much like second class citizens in the only home country that they knew.

The gradual introduction of a balanced bilingual regime, however, first in 1946 and then in the 1970s, took the sting out of that, and nowadays, it would be difficult to meet a German-speaking South Tyrolean who is not happy to call himself an Italian – and they have all learned to speak the language, too: exactly at the time when they were no longer forced to do so. (South Tyrol may have a lesson or two to teach other Europeans about successful integration.)

The Italians showed the world the way of peace and reconciliation

Come to think of it: South Tyrol is just about the only place in Europe that still has a strong ethnic German minority. Once, Germany was not a country but a concept, almost like Europe today: with an indisputably Germanic heartland, but also with fringes reaching into France, Denmark and across the Alps as well as, specifically, into nearly all countries of Eastern Europe.

As long as Germany was a mere idea, this did not cause too many problems, but as soon as the idea became a state, the “German fringe” provided a constant source of conflict, which it took two world wars to settle. Czechs, Poles and Russians saw the advantages of creating irreversible facts on the ground, answering the German Question once and for all.

Italy, however, does not deal in mass slaughters and expulsions: it went the other way, the way of peace and reconciliation, showing the world that yes, it can be done.

We thank Hotel Adler Dolomitithe premier hiking spa resort in Val Gardena, for the hospitality extended to the Easy Hikers, allowing us to discover the Dolomites while sampling their available services enjoyed by active holiday makers like us. 

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The Hills Are Alive …

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… with the sound of sizzling frying pans on our Selva-to-Monte-Pana hike in the Dolomites Something I forgot to mention in the report from our first hike in the Dolomites: for the hiking guides, that hike served as their “orientation tour”, intended not only to familiarize the hotel’s newbie guests with the landscape but also to sort out the more resilient hikers from those who would probably be a danger to themselves in the hostile world of the high mountains. So what did Pauli and Thaddäus make of the Easy Hikers’ manner of handling a proper Alpine trail?

They were unimpressed, I am afraid, and we were among those who were politely approached and gently nudged towards the “easy walk on next day’s programme” – the one we had laughingly dismissed as a “granny’s walk” when we had first seen it on the programme.

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Made it, Ma: Top of the World!

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In terms of drama, scale and majestic beauty, few areas in Europe can rival the Italian Dolomites

For us, one way of rating the quality of our hikes is simply to count the number of pictures that we have brought home.

On some of our hikes in the past, we have made no more than 20 or 30 shots, sometimes with half of them showing the same motive – a lake or a particularly picturesque water mill, let’s say. After hikes like that, it can be difficult to pick the six or seven photos that are the bare minimum for a viable post – and to find something meaningful to say about them, too.

At the other end of the scale, there are hikes that leave us simply speechless, but for the exact opposite reason.

From our first hike in

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The Premier Hiking Hotel in Val Gardena

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Hotel Adler Dolomiti specializes on guided hiking tours in the Italian Alps

Hiking, skiing and “wellness” make easy and obvious bedfellows for tourist resorts and hotels in the mountains: skiing in winter, hiking in summer and there are spa-type activities, sports and swimming pools any time of the year, to help people rest and recover between more active pastimes.

Easy and obvious it may be now, but this was much less so 30 or 40 years ago. All successful new concepts start with a minority of one, so someone had to think about it first.

In South Tyrol, one of the pioneers for this concept was the Hotel Adler Dolomiti, established in 1810 (by the Sanoner family and now run by the seventh generation) as a village inn and still going strong as a luxury spa/resort hotel two centuries later.

The Premier Hiking Hotel in Val Gardena

Believe It Or Not in Gozo

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Seven outstanding facts about the church of St John the Baptist in Xewkija On our last day in Gozo, we simply had to make the trip to the church we had dubbed the “Sacre Coeur”, a large rotunda a couple of kilometres behind the ferry port: after all, we had lived in the shadow of the “original” for 20 years and were eager to find out whether their close resemblance was mere coincidence or not.

Although our visit failed to shed any light on this question, we found out a great many things about Gozo’s “Sacre Coeur” – such as, for instance, that there are only three larger free-standing domes in Europe: St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and St Maria Assumption on Malta. And this was only the first of many surprises.

Here are seven even more astonishing facts about the church of

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