Like many travelers, I first went to Italy from Austria, traveling by train under the Brenner Pass. I still have the journal I kept on that trip so long ago, and the first entry for Italy reads, "From afar I spotted a small city (large town?) laid out at the feet of lushly forested, towering mountains. When the train roared through the station I read the name: Bressanone. Must go back there some day."
The train sped on to Florence and Rome, and it was years before I remembered little Bressanone/Brixen, Alto Adige's oldest city. When I did return, I was rewarded by winding narrow streets lined with colorfully painted houses, arched medieval bridges and spotless arcades. On the spacious Domplatz is the city cathedral, whose 13th- and 14th-century cloisters boast extensive frescoes representing a visual history of Tyrolean Gothic painting. Peek into the romanesque chapel of St. John, which may be closed but can be seen through a window. Its walls are covered with beautiful 13th-century frescoes. Facing the cathedral, the church of St. Michael is to the left; more magnificent frescoes adorn its ceilings. In the opposite direction, not far away is the Palace of the Prince Bishops, a Renaissance building with a three-story arcaded loggia in the courtyard. Its rooms are wonderfully decorated, and the ground floor hosts a collection of some 100 nativity scenes, open from 2 to 5 p.m., December through February.
in Bressanone; wander through the streets and see the many painted façades of the stately patrician palaces. If you'd like to stay overnight, you'll find some charming lodgings here. When you're done, venture out into the countryside to visit some of the many castles that dot the area, and also the churches of St. John (in the village of Melluno), St, Nicholas (in Cleran), and St. John (in Karnol), all of which feature wonderful frescoes by local artists. Barely more than a mile north of the city is the 12th-century monastery at Novacella, a lovely baroque structure in an idyllic setting. Slightly further still is Vipiteno, whose stunning baroque church is well worth a visit.
The capital of Alto Adige, Bolzano/Bozen, is the living proof of this region's duality, although in a somewhat surprising way. Here, it is the Germans who are the aesthetes. The Gothic cathedral, with its green and yellow mosaic roof, presides over the Old Town, which is staunchly Tyrolean. Across the Talvera River is the Italian New Town, an austere working-class settlement characterized mostly by "Mussolini Modern" style buildings.
Back in Old Town, near the cathedral is the Dominicans Church, with a chapel frescoed by the school of Giotto. From here, walk back to Piazza Walther, across the Gothic Piazza del Grano and past the elegant Renaissance palazzos of Via Argentieri to the charming Via dei Portici, lined with medieval arcades housing chic boutiques. This will take you past Piazza delle Erbe, with its colorful façades, to the Civic Museum, which houses a great collection of local costumes.
Across the river, just a short walk away is the picturesque suburb of Gries, dominated by a Benedictine monastery, whose 18th-century baroque church boasts some fine frescoes. Lovers of nostalgia should take the cable car from Via Renon (near the station) to Soprabolzano, then transfer to the small electric train that takes them to the earth pyramids, strange geological formations that look like giant anthills, each topped with a bowler-like rock.
Northwest of Bolzano is the lovely old-fashioned spa town of Merano, whose streets are lined with painted façades, flower boxes, wrought-iron signs and porticos. Europeans come here for the mineral baths and other spa treatments; they flock here on the last Sunday in September for Italy's premier horse race; they fill the town in spring, summer and fall to attend the many cultural events and grape festivals. You might like to visit the 15th-century churches of St. Nicholas and St. Barbara, which stand at the entrance to the Stainach, Merano's oldest neighborhood. Another enchanting place to stroll is the Tappeiner Way, lined with Mediterranean plants and spectacular views.
The outskirts of Merano are dotted with castles, including Brunnenburg, where Ezra Pound spent the last years of his life. Nearby is the town of Gratsch, where the 12th-century chapel of St. Peter has ancient stucco and frescoes, along with a romanesque fresco of the Apostle Paul dating from 1080. At the southern end of the Passiria Valley, the venerable 14th-century fortress of Schenna towers over the town of Scena, where the church of St. George is also worth a visit. Its brightly-colored, formal frescoes date from the 15th century.
Heading southward into the Italian portion of this region, stop in the ancient villages of Cles and Sanzéno, in the Non Valley. The Pieve dell'Assunta church in Cles is a wonderful mixture of local Gothic and classical Renaissance elements. The belltower features a charming old clock. Pay a visit to the Franciscan monastery and the very old church of San Vigilio. Outside Sanzéno is the unforgettable Sanctuary of San Romedio, a group of four chapels clinging precariously to the side of a hill.
The 17th-century Della Torre Castle guards the town of Mezzolombardo, which has a picturesque old gothic church. Across the Adige River is San Michele all'Adige, with its elegant and inspiring Augustinian monastery, whose many treasures somehow escaped the sack of Napoleon's troops. The imposing castle of Monreale is just a few miles away, on the way to Cembra. This road is particularly beautiful in winter, when snow highlights the terraced vineyards lining the hills. In town, there are two fine Gothic churches.
On the southeastern edge of Trentino is Castello Tesino, where a delightful stroll up the hill takes you to the tiny church of San Polo. The view from here is worth the climb. Traveling west along the Brenta River, you come to Borgo Valsugana, guarded by the fairy tale castle of Telvana. There is an old sun dial on the façade of city hall.
The capital of Trentino Alto Adige is the ancient Roman city of Trento. You may remember it from history class as being the seat of the Council of Trent, which strove in vain to stop the Protestant Reformation. Largely medieval and late-Renaissance in character, it is a stately place centered around its 12th- and 13th-century cathedral. Inside is the crucifix before which the Council of Trent's decrees were issued. Visit the Castello del Buonconsiglio, which consists of several parts dating from different eras; and the church of San Lorenzo, a splendid example of early 13th-century romanesque architecture. Mainly, stroll through the streets on the lookout for the many wonderful painted façades, including the 15th-century Casa Balduina, the Casa Cazuffi Rella, and the Palazzo Geremia. Just outside of town is the charming village of Sardagna, and of course a host of stunning castles. A few miles west is the impossibly picturesque Lake Toblino, which features the only lake castle in the region.
Almost at the southern tip of Trentino are the sister towns of Ala and Avio. Stroll through the upper part of Ala, a beautiful example of late baroque town planning. In Avio, tour the castle of Sabbioneta to see its famed series of profane frescoes. A few miles north is Trentino's second city, Rovereto, a lovely place with its own castle, which houses an excellent museum of warfare because it was one of the few castles in this region that was actually used as a military fortress rather than a family home. Rovereto's other museum, MART, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, being a world-class collection of 20 th- and 21 st-century art occupying a superb modern building designed by Mario Botta.
by Kristin Jarratt
Groups of 10 or more people can have guided visits of the Abbey of Novacella (pictured at left), April through October, Monday to Saturday at 10 am, 11 am, 2 pm, 3 pm, and 4 pm.
Apart from castles, ski runs, hiking trails and mountain hamlets, Trentino Alto Adige is home to a dazzling array of lakes and national parks.