South Tyrol: A melting pot in northern Italy
The Jakarta Post
“Gruess dich! Wie gehts?”
As you walk across South Tyrol, Italy don’t be surprised when hearing this kind of conversation. The first line in German, while the response is in Italian; it could of course be the other way around.
In the South Tyrol capital Bolzano, people normally use both languages to form one sentence. This northern part of Italy is bilingual due to its different history and culture from its southern neighbors.
It was part of Austria until being handed to Mussolini’s Italy after World War I. The local inhabitants of Tyrol stayed, thus the language remains. Austria and Italy are now separated by the Brenner Mountains in this province, and the northern part of Tyrol still belongs to Austria to this day.
The province is well connected by public transport, both land and air, especially to the capital city. I saw people prefer to ride a bike instead of a motor vehicle to get around Bolzano, but for me as a tourist the nicest way of travel was to wander on foot. It is not a big town anyway, and every corner of it is easy on the eye.
Bolzano is surrounded by the Dolomites mountains, and the Isaac River flows through it. The beautiful scenery and vast outdoor market located in the old town, make it a favorite tourist destination in Italy. In summer, people come for mountain hiking, while in winter they come to ski.
This makes Bolzano the second most expensive town in Italy after Milan, but top of the league in terms of economic stability and workers’ income, according to an Indonesian Missionary, Mansuetus — Tus for short, who has served in Bolzano parish for the last three years.
In the old town area, as I walked in front of the landmark of the Maria Asunta Cathedral, I saw some mothers wearing the hijab playing with their kids in a park next to the church.
I asked the priest whether there was a mosque in town or maybe in another town nearby. He answered, “No. Even though there are more than 5,000 Muslims in the area, the local authority has not given them permission to build one”.
However, the fact remains that Bolzano is multicultural. Aside from being 75 percent Italian, the second biggest ethnic group, the Pakistanis, manage to thrive there.
Lined up on Garibaldi and Marconi Street are the Pakistani shops, which vary from clothes shops, barber shops and Asian grocery stores to international money transfer services, even a sex shop. Okay, the last one is owned by a local, not by them. It became clearer to me then why I had found some buildings with mosque-like roofs around the region.
It is indeed a melting pot of cultures, furthermore different cultures are celebrated. It is brought into action in June when foreigners in Bolzano present their own culture in a festival. Meanwhile in February, intercultural tolerance is also commemorated at a festival of immigrants.
Those efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding are, as Father Tus admitted, because Tyrolese don’t really fancy plurality, even though they have never actively worked against it.
Yet Bolzano is growing, more and more people are coming. The Tyrolese have to learn fast facing the reality of multiculturalism in their land.
Another color in the melting pot is the Ladin people, who can be traced to the historic valley of Ladin, about an hour’s drive north east of Bolzano.
The autoban or highway is a faster way to reach the area than the normal road. It was constructed in 1973 as there was a swamp fever epidemic down in the Isaac River.
Along the way to Badia, the district where the valley is located, I could view 270 million year-old red volcanic rocks, as explained to me by senior Bolzano geologist, Ludwig Noessing. He is also the one who constructed the safety barrier along the way to prevent landslides.
Ladins look like Austrians physically. They have existed as a community since before the Romans. There are currently thirty thousand people who still speak Ladin in South Tyrol, and they even have their own channel on local television. All Ladins I met were proud of their heritage, as it is one of the oldest civilisations in Europe, believed to date back as far as 9000 BC.
Previously it had been a bishop’s castle, until a Ladin farming family bought it and turned it into a house. For the last 10 years “De Tor” Castle has been the Ladin Museum. They have maintained the structure of the castle while somehow managing to install modern multimedia equipment throughout the building.
Every visitor is issued with a headphone set that automatically relays a story once one enters a room. There were theater-like rooms to follow the history of this ethnic group.
One particularly interesting exhibit was a room with pictures of key figures in the history of the Ladinian kingdom, talking to each other with moving expressions. Visitors should climb the three-story tower to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the whole valley. Of course there are multimedia binoculars installed, which convey images of the valley in the old times.
According to suedtirol.info, there are 12 features to explore in South Tyrol: the castles, garden landscapes, country and people, customs and traditions, mountain farmsteads, mines, cuisine, monasteries, medieval townscapes, wine, history and the UNESCO world natural heritage Dolomites.
Unfortunately, my short trip did not allow me to experience everything. However, I do suggest you find the house of Saint Giuseppe Freinademetz in Oies, a peaceful green hilly area, or the world famous cross-country ski resort, the historic St. Ulrich.
— Photos by Florence Nathania
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