My New Favourite Non-Country
by Simon Posner, Italian:-
It was early afternoon in Northern Italy, and I was already on my fourth train of the day. Ever since Mussolini famously “at least made the trains run on time”, Italy has been unified by the rail network Trenitalia, a fleet of questionable locomotives with blue rubber seats, broken air conditioning and bearded ticket inspectors that rattle their way into every corner of the peninsula. I was heading to Vipiteno, a small Alpine town about 200km North of Verona. But while the setting of Romeo and Juliet lay far behind us, the view out the window was becoming increasingly dramatic: the train slowed for some sharp bends and as we emerged from a long tunnel, snow-topped cliffs appeared in the distance. We were approaching the South Tyrol, a peculiar corner of the world with a mighty landscape and turbulent history.
A breeze of old mountain air greeted me on the platform at Vipiteno, in a cute little station that seemed to have been lifted straight out of a model railway set or The Sound of Music. No constant announcements, no frantic commuters, no noise, no smell, no humid heat – this was clearly not the typical Trenitalia station. There was nobody on strike. All in all, Vipiteno seemed about as genuinely Italian as a Domino’s pizza. Why? This wasn’t really Italy; in fact, strictly speaking, it wasn’t really Vipiteno.
Instead, I had arrived in Sterzing, an Alpine town that developed under German rule in the 15th Century but was annexed by Italian Fascists in 1920, and since then has belonged rather incongruously to the Italian state, who have given it the token official name Vipiteno, which is only used in the rest of Italy, while everyone who actually lives there calls it by its German name, Sterzing. Sterzing is at the extreme Northern tip of the South Tyrol, this mountainous and semi-autonomous region between ‘proper’ Austria and ‘proper’ Italy, making it the ideal spot for me to meet up with an old friend of mine, who has been spending his year abroad in Vienna, while I’ve been relaxing (ahem, teaching English) by the Italian lakes.
We left the station, eager to see as much as possible in the few hours we had, and wandered along narrow tree-lined streets that emerged regularly at little bridges over mountain streams, the largest of which is the River Eisack; the Eisack is also known as the Isarco in Italian and as the Isarch in Ladin (yes, Ladin, not Latin, which would be Isacrus). It’s all pretty confusing; Sterzing is both culturally and physically disorienting. In fact we soon realised that it only really has one main street, but boasts a bewildering maze of suburban side-streets, meaning that just when you think you’re right by the centre, whoops, there’s a sheep in your way.
With the livestock ushered off our path, we stumbled out of a back-lane and into Sterzing’s high street of late-Gothic townhouses with interspersed municipal buildings that hark back to the region’s more illustrious past. The South Tyrol saw its most eminent era in centuries gone by, when it enjoyed an advantageous position for trade between Central Europe and the Mediterranean via the Brenner Alpine pass. Today it retains one of Italy’s highest standards of living, and an atmosphere of cultural independence: public buildings fly the South Tyrolean flag, which just so happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to the Austrian one. The EU flag is also displayed, as is currently the Italian tricolore, though the latter with far more controversy. Around us we could hear a range of languages, but the dominant tongue was South Tyrolean German, a dialect thick with aspiration and consonants that mimic the coarse local landscape. I listened to everyone with the same attention and fascination as when I started my year abroad in September, and had to get over the excitement of real Italian in Italy. Now, here in South Tyrol this almost-ridiculous dialect of German, previously known to me only through Youtube videos and stand-up comedy, was the linguistic norm.
Apart from the scale of the mountains surrounding us, Sterzing didn’t really offer anything overwhelmingly impressive to tourists, yet paradoxically, that was its charm. Most Italian towns throw their cultural sights straight into your sweaty sun-blushed face, as though they too are irritated by the heat and the sheer burden of cultural history on their urban shoulders: the countless churches, galleries, and palaces, not to mention the ubiquitous Roman ruins. Sterzing is more quaint and unassuming, but no less beautiful. All in all, I was rather liking it, but by this point the evening was closing in, and we realised that for all its daytime splendour, Sterzing has less nightlife than a Welsh mining village, and so it was time to track down our accommodation.
Following much procrastination on Tripadvisor in the previous weeks, we had booked to stay the night in a small, family-run place called the Maibad Hotel. I didn’t think the name sounded very promising but it turned out not all that ‘bad’ at all; the owner greeted us enthusiastically in some indecipherable German dialect and cooked us a four course meal of local specialities. The number of umlauts on the menu rendered it beyond my comprehension, but whatever we had it was delicious and I think when it was alive it used to go ‘oink oink’. Back in town we had bought an additional bottle of the local Gewürztraminer to enjoy afterwards in our room, but without a bottle opener, we were forced to keep true to our Geordie roots and uncork it with our room key. We switched on the television to find it was all broadcast from Austria, but remarkably appropriately, it was evening of the final of everyone’s favourite musical extravaganza, the Eurovision Song Contest, live from Vienna. A steady supply of wine made Great Britain’s entry more bearable and allowed us to relish Slovene dance music at its best.
Early the following morning we decided we had time for a quick mountain walk before heading home. The Rosskopf (horse head) mountain cable car whisked us up to an altitude of around 1900m, with spectacular views over the Austrian Alps, and from that point we were told we would reach the Rosskopf summit with a short walk of moderate difficulty, although thanks to the previous evening’s festivities it felt like we were on the North face of the Eiger. Nevertheless, the sheer magnificence of the landscape and the fresh glacial air provided the energy we needed, and when we got to the top it was apparent that South Tyrol is best seen from above. Clouds whirled around peaks of jagged rock dressed in snow and the green valley was lost far below us. We had to go back down for the train, but I knew that I’d be back for more; South Tyrol includes four national parks and the UNESCO World Heritage listed Dolomites, making it a serious rival for Swiss tourism, albeit with less cheese and chocolate, but far more favourable prices.
We scrambled back down to Sterzing and headed for the station. I was relishing my final moments here and taking selfies along the way, not because this is an iconic region of Italy – it’s not – but because it’s not like anywhere I’ve been before. There’s no Coliseum, no canals, no beaches and no leaning tower, yet the South Tyrol abounds in character. Now, as my train meanders along the valleys on its way back towards Verona and the Italy we all imagine, and I’m making notes for the article you’re about to finish reading, I keep asking myself what place I am leaving. Is this Austria? Is this Italy? The answer is that it is both and it is neither. It’s the South Tyrol, my new favourite non-country.
To read about Simon’s ‘lazing around’ and why this is culturally justifiable, see his previous article An Evening of Dolce Far Niente. Or, for more stories of countries affected by more than one culture see Katie Graham’s Crossing Borders.