A Stroll Around Bolzano

With its two rivers, surrounding hills, expansive greens, and medieval center, Bolzano is an extremely appealing city that seems to effortlessly meld urban sophistication with an appreciation for nature. The compact medieval Old City is still the heart of town, and at its center is Piazza Walther, honoring a 12th-century wandering minstrel. The piazza captures the mood of its lighthearted historical associations with a fringe of cafe tables to one side and the brightly tiled roof and lacy spire of the Duomo on the other. The interior of this 12th- to 14th-century edifice is far more plain, enlivened somewhat by some much-faded frescoes and an intricately carved pulpit (tel. 0471-978-676; Mon-Fri 9:45am-noon and 2-5pm, Sat 9:45am-noon; Sun for services only).

A far more enticing church is the Chiesa dei Domenicani (tel. 0471-973-133), just a few steps west of the Duomo. Inside the 13th-century church are two sets of frescoes, the city's greatest artistic treasures. One from the 15th century, on the walls of the cloisters, depicts court life. The other, in the Capella di San Giovanni (under the arch behind the altar and to the right), is a 14th-century religious cycle attributed to the school of Giotto, including the Triumph of Death. In these rich frescoes, you can see the beginnings of the use of such elements as perspective and foreshortening, suggesting the influence of the early Renaissance. It's open Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 6pm, Sunday for services only.


There is one more church to see in Bolzano, but before you reach it, you will be distracted by the considerable worldly pleasures this city offers. If you walk north from Piazza Walther, you will soon come to the lively clamor of Piazza dell'Erbe, actually one long, wide street that winds past a statue of Neptune through the Old Town and is so called because it has hosted the city's fruit-and-produce market for centuries. The piazza is lined with shops selling bread, cheese, strudel, wine, and other comestibles, which spill into stalls along the pavement to create a cheerful, open-air supermarket. At the north end is Bolzano's atmospheric main shopping street, Via dei Portici, also closed to traffic and lined with 15th-century houses whose porticoes overhang the sidewalk to create a cozy effect that is definitely more northern European than Italian.

The Chiesa dei Francescani (tel. 0471-977-293) is across Via dei Portici on Via Francescani. Inside there's a sumptuously carved altar from 1500, one of the Gothic masterpieces of the Trentino-Alto Adige. The 14th-century cloisters are charming -- intimate, frescoed on one side, gracefully vaulted, and beautifully planted -- and are open Monday to Saturday 10am to noon and 2:30 to 6pm, Sunday for services only.

Bolzano's most popular attraction by far is the thoroughly modernized South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Via Museo at Via Cassa di Risparmio (tel. 0471-320-100; www.iceman.it), better known as Ötzi's House, since it was remodeled in 1998 to house the famed 5,300-year-old "Ice Man." This mummy made headlines in 1991 when a pair of German hikers discovered him sticking out of a melting glacier high in the Tirol mountains -- though whether he was of Alpine origin or merely trying to cross the Alps is still being debated. His equipment and one of his last meals seem to have come from lower-altitude valleys, nearer Verona.


Forensic analysis brought the surprise revelation that, apparently, he was shot in the shoulder with an arrow shortly before he died. Further research, published in 2003 (and based on blood samples, microscopic fibers, and re-creations of wound placements -- real CSI kinda stuff) revealed that the Ice Man was killed in a battle or skirmish of some sort -- shot in the back and then carried off by a companion who must have removed the arrow for him.

Along with the mummy were preserved remnants of clothing (including shoes and a bearskin hat), a flint dagger, a copper ax, and a quiver with flint-tipped arrows he was in the process of making. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm, daily in December, July, and August. Admission is 9€ adults, 7€ students under 28 and seniors over 65. The audio guides, which I highly recommend, are an extra 2.50€.

A walk across the River Talvera (follow Via Museo west across the Ponte Talvera) brings you into the newer "Italian" section of Bolzano, constructed in the 1920s when the Mussolini government encouraged workers from other parts of Italy to settle here in the newly won territory. Those who bid the call were either inspired or intimidated by the imposing Fascist-era structures put up along Corso Libert (including the Monumento della Vittoria, a triumphal arch that is frequently the target of attacks by German-speaking groups that want the region to revert to Austrian rule).


In a few blocks, though, the Corso brings you into the pleasant confines of Gries, once an outlying village and now a quaint, leafy neighborhood built around the Abbazia dei Benedettini di Gries, a Benedictine abbey (not usually open to the public) prettily surrounded by vineyards and gardens. Just beyond is the Vecchia Parrochiale di Gries, the village's parish church, whose treasures include a 12th-century crucifix and an elaborately carved 15th-century altar (tel. 0471-283-089; Mon-Fri 10:30am-noon and 2:30-4pm; closed Nov-Mar).

If you wish to continue walking or biking, Gries contains one end of the Passeggiata del Guncina, a beautifully maintained 8km-long (5-mile) trail that leads through parklike forests planted with many botanical specimens to a belvedere and a waterfall before dumping you back into town. You wind up at the northerly end of the park stretched along the north bank of the Talvera River.

Castles -- Of the many castles that surround Bolzano, the closest to the center is the Castel Mareccio, just a short walk along the River Talvera (from the Piazza delle Erbe, follow the Via Museo west to the Ponte Talvera and, from there, the Lungo Talvera Bozen north for less than .5km/ 1/4 mile). Though it is now used as a convention center and its five towers rise from a residential neighborhood of recent vintage, this 13th-century fortress is a stunning sight, all the more so because it is surrounded by a generous swath of vineyards that have been saved from urban encroachment and backed by forested hills. You can step inside for a glimpse at the stone-walled medieval interior and enjoy a beverage at the bar; the castle is open to the public Wednesday through Monday 9am to 6pm (hours vary when conferences are in session; tel. 0471-976-615).


A longer walk of about 2km (1 1/4 mile, or take the free bus from Piazza Walther, which goes back and forth only between the piazza and the castle) leads out of town north to the Castel Roncolo (tel. 800-210-003 or 0471-329-808; www.roncolo.info), beautifully ensconced high above the town and beneath a massive, foreboding cliff face. The interior of this 13th-century castle is decorated with faded but fascinating frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries that depict secular scenes from the story of Tristan and Isolde and other tales of romantic love and chivalry. These painted scenes are remarkably moving in their almost primitive craftsmanship that nonetheless reveals a certain worldliness. Admission is 8€ adults, 5.50€ students and seniors over 60; hour-long guided tours in English cost an extra 3€ per person (minimum six people). The castle is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm (July-Sept to 8pm). To get here, follow the Via Castel Roncolo north from the Chiesa dei Francescani; you will pass one side of the Castel Mareccio, at which point signposts will lead you along Via Beatro Arrigo and Via San Antonio for a gradual uphill climb to Castel Roncolo.

Cable Cars -- Several cable cars will whisk you right from the center of Bolzano into the surrounding mountains. The most dramatic ride takes you from a terminal near the train station 900m (2,952 ft.) up to the Altopiano del Renon (www.renon.com), a pasture-covered plateau that provides dizzying views down to Bolzano and up to higher Dolomite peaks. The ride deposits you in SopraBolzano (aka Oberbozen), where you can sip a beer, enjoy the view, and then venture farther by footpath or an electric tram into a bizarre landscape of spindly rock spires -- worn needle-thin by erosion, each seeming to balance a boulder on the top -- that surrounds the village of Collabo. The cable car (tel. 0471-978-479) makes the ascent in 15 minutes and operates daily from a terminus about 450m (1,476 ft.) east of the train station on Via Renon; it operates hourly from 7am to 8pm. Costs are 2.50€ from Bolzano to Soprabolzano and 2.50€ for the tram between SopraBozen and Collabo.

The Funivia di San Genesio takes you up a forested hillside to the pretty village of San Genesio Atesino, surrounded by woods and mountain peaks. Cable cars (tel. 0471-978-436) leave hourly from 7am to 7pm (from 8am on Sun) from a terminus on Via Sarentino on the northern outskirts of Bolzano (take bus no. 12 or 14). The trip takes 15 minutes, and the round-trip fare is 3.20€. San Genesio's little tourist office (tel. 0471-354-196; fax 0471-354-085; www.jenesien.net), at Schrann 7, is open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm (July-Oct also 4-6pm). It can set you up with one of the horseback rising schools that offer rides across the high Alpine meadows for about 20€; call ahead.


Festivals & Markets 

Bolzano celebrates spring with weekend concerts throughout April and May in Piazza Walther, and adds a flower show, with more music, around the first of May. The city's most serious musical event is the Concorso Internazionale Piantistico F. Busoni, an international piano competition held the last 2 weeks of August. The Festival del Teatro di Strada draws wandering musicians, mimes, puppeteers, and other performers to the streets of the Old City in October. One of the more colorful events in the region is the Bartolomeo Horse Fair, which brings together the region's most beautiful equines on the Renon plateau, which can be reached by funicular.

One of the most enjoyable walks in the Old City takes you through the stalls of the fruit-and-vegetable market in Piazza delle Erbe, which operates Monday through Saturday from 8am to 7pm. From November 28 to December 23, the city hosts a much-attended Mercatino di Natale (Christkindlmarkt), in which handmade ornaments, wooden toys, and other seasonal crafts, along with Christmas pastries and mulled wine, are sold from booths in a festively decorated Piazza Walther.


A flea market fills the Passeggiata del Talvera along the River Talvera (follow Via Museo from the center of town) the first Saturday of the month (except July-Aug), opening at 8am and closing at 5pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.