My connection with Alto Adige began in the 1960s, when my father first visited the small city of Bressanone. Always more drawn to Germany than Italy, he felt a pull to Alto Adige (as un-Italian as you can get in Italy) and continued to return every ten years. One of these trips led to my conception and my middle name of “Brixen,” the German name for Bressanone. This year we decided to rendezvous in Bressanone for our vacation. Alto Adige offered up opportunities to hike, taste wine, and see art – my three favorite traveling pastimes – so we booked a week at The Goldener Adler in late April and headed to the Dolomites.
I didn’t do much sightseeing. I was there to relax, so Bolzano and Trent went unvisited and unmissed. My days passed in a lazy stream of hikes, wine tastings, and asparagus. Though the tourism high seasons are winter, for skiing, and summer, for the lakes, late April is a wonderful time to visit the Dolomites. Apple orchards are in bloom and every restaurant has a special asparagus menu. Yes, I am the kind of person who plans vacations around asparagus menus.
The most distinctive thing about the region is its hybrid nature – evident in the sheer number of names it goes by: Alto Adige, Trentino, and South Tyrol all refer to the same mountainous strip nestled on the border between Austria and Italy. After several years of Italian-German clashes, Alto Adige is now peacefully integrated. In the streets of Bressanone, German barrages your ears with occasional smatterings of Italian. Shopkeepers and waiters always greeted me in German but effortlessly and cordially switched to Italian.
In some ways the cuisine of Alto Adige mirrors the best of this duality – fluffy sponge cakes slathered in whipped cream abound, as does good, high quality espresso. It was one of the only places in Italy that I encountered vanilla gelato (One of the great sadnesses of my gelato-life here is that Italians don’t perceive vanilla as a fundamental taste, hence the classic American flavor is almost impossible to find. The closest substitute is the mild and sweet “fior di latte” which is all well and good when served on top of cake but leaves a girl wanting something more.)
I had a bit of trepidation before my trip as my Venetian flatmate, Fede, had described the cuisine of Alto Adige as “contaminata.” He argued that while fusion cuisines were acceptable when influences evolved together over time, as in Sicily or my region of the American South, in the Dolomites Italian cuisine had been sullied by its brush with the Austrians. I must admit that after my first day in Bressanone I stopped ordering pasta, which was often brought to the table regrettably limp and overcooked. But this was more than compensated for by the endless varieties of flaky strudel and the rich wine soup, served with toasted cinnamon croutons (sounds strange but is addictive).
Even Fede praised the wines of Alto Adige. Their whites are known throughout Italy and in any bar in Bologna you can order a Gewürztraminer from Trentino. But what blew me away was the variety and quality of local reds, many of them DOC. Most of the producers are so small that it’s just not economically feasible to export out of the region so I had never tasted an Alto Adige red until the trip.
My father and I walked the half-hour trail through apple orchards to the Abbazia di Novacella, a convent dating back to the twelth century and one of the largest wine producers of the region. The abbey had unexpectedly closed two hours early – we were still in Italy after all – but the enoteca, a shadowy basement lined with crucifixes and gleaming dark woods, was open. We made our way through seven of Novacella’s whites and seven of their reds, nibbling on pretzels and dark seeded breads in between. Dad leaned towards the Sylvaner, for which they are best known, while I preferred the velvety St. Magdalener. I returned to Bologna with a case of my new favorite red and am already plotting a return to the mountains…
Bressanone is a direct train ride of a little over four hours from Bologna. To reach the center of town from the station, walk downhill towards the river. Hotels’ rates jump for the month of August and the weeks of Easter and Christmas. Pleasant nearby hikes include the trek from San Pietro to Santa Maddalena in the Val di Funes. Also worth visiting is the nearby spa town of Merano, though Bressanone has its own share of “centri di benessere” including the gigantic Acquarena.