Monday 2nd June 2008, Laives, near Bolzano
We are fast approaching the border between Italy and Austria and it is quite difficult now to remember that we are still in Italy. On the campsite here almost everyone is German (not Austrian) and it is the language of choice for the campsite management. Really, regions like the Dolomites and the Tyrol transcend borders and have a feel that is common to the whole geographical area.
This morning we came down and down and down, round twisting roads and through long, steeply sloping tunnels, until we reached the valley floor and entered the town of Trento. It was every bit as beautiful and interesting as we had hoped, with a mix of Italian renaissance buildings and Austrian style arcades and overhanging roofs to protect from the snows.
The town's chief claim to fame is that between 1545 and 1563 the Council of Trent sat in the Cathedral and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore to reform the Catholic Church in the face of the threats posed by Protestantism. Amongst its reforms was the abolition of the sale of indulgencies, which had so enraged Martin Luther. The Council marked the start of the Counter Reformation.
Today has been the Day of the Republic, a national holiday in Italy. It is rather like Armistice Day for us with marches and speeches in the town squares across the country. All the civic dignitaries were gathered in the cathedral square, there was a military band and the police, army, medical services and a group of war veterans were lined up in their uniforms for a remembrance parade. As far as we could understand the speeches they appeared to condemn the heavy yoke of fascism they had suffered in the Second World War and to look forward to continuing to play a part in a united Europe. We were in Italy last year too on their national day and had the same sense of slight discomfort as we stood amongst the crowd who were singing and clapping to the military music and the speeches of the dignitaries. Our nations had, after all, been on opposite sides at the time. At eleven o'clock everyone stood to attention and watched as the Italian flag was raised on the nearby tower.
The speeches continued all morning but we wandered off to discover, again as we had seen last year, that there was a counter demonstration taking place in a side square. Here young people were waving banners and chanting against the installation of military bases on Italian soil. Both demonstrations were equally valid. The official one was attended by the older generation looking back with regret and respect to the past; the other was the younger generation looking forward with anxiety and fear to the future.
The town is really beautiful, the streets lined with former palaces, some in the Venetian style, later ones in the more formal Renaissance style. Many of the facades still retained traces of frescoes and tempera scenes - such as the labours of Hercules. Others are built in the local stone with pink dolomite for decoration. Even the pavement slabs are of pale pink dolomite, frequently showing fossil remains of huge ammonites. Every street, every square, revealed yet more beautiful buildings and it was with difficulty that we eventually tore ourselves away and made our way up to the Castle of Good Counsel.
This is an ecclesiastical castle, the residence of the Bishops of Trent who had ruled this part of Italy from 1027 to 1803 under the protection of the Holy Roman Empire. It reminded us of the palace at Avignon where the Papacy was established in the 14th century. We did not go inside the castle – rather expensive – but explored the grounds and pretty rose-gardens surrounding it. Here we found the "martyrs' dungeon". This region has changed hands several times and between 1803 and 1918 was under the domination of Austria. In the dungeon we saw monuments to the memory of Italians who had been imprisoned, tortured and killed by the Austrians in 1916. After the First World War south Tyrol, despite its many German speakers, became part of Italy and was established as an autonomous region in 1948. Public signs are in German and Italian, often with German being given precedence.
Eventually we left the city of Trento and continued towards Bolzano. Campsites are not very frequent so we have stopped just short of the town which we hope to explore tomorrow. As usual in this area, we are surrounded by high mountains of pink dolomite. It is peaceful, there is the sound of birdsong and thunder is echoing intermittently around the hills.
Tuesday 3rd June 2008, Innbruck
We have left Italy behind and are now well into Austria, the land of feathered hats, mountain peaks, The Sound of Music, Mozartkugel, Pflaumentorte, revolving toilet seats, Tyrolean dumplings and sausages.
We had intended to stop to explore Bolzano this morning but we were swept into the city along a tunnel several kilometres in length and the traffic lanes were confusing as we arrived. The part we saw did not look very inspiring and parking would have been difficult. We gave up and continued along the route through the mountains to the Brenner Pass. Much of the day has been spent driving through very lovely scenery of thickly wooded hills, snow covered mountain tops, deep ravines of turbulent green water and picturesque, smart little towns and villages each with its own yellow-rendered baroque church.
At Brixen we decided to stop for a break and lunch. It turned out to be a delightful experience. Although still well inside the Italian border it is completely Austrian and the language spoken around us was German though all official signs are in both languages. Brixen has a stunning baroque cathedral fronting onto a beautiful cobbled square of immaculate Tyrolean buildings with large roofs, arcades and decorated facades. It is impeccably clean and tidy. There are little cafes on the squares and side streets, each with their pretty table cloths where people indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen or enjoy a lunch of Wiener Schnitzel with Knödel.
Obviously this area was once part of Austria and when it was transferred to Italy the inhabitants simply continued to use their own language and live their own lives. We were served in German in the shops and we completely forgot we were still in Italy. Even the names on the war memorial in the Cathedral cloisters were almost entirely Germanic.
The Brenner Pass is the lowest of the routes across the Alps linking Austria and Italy. The road, river and railway all follow the same route. Above it all runs the motorway. There was no room left to build it along the valley so for much of its route it passes through deep tunnels in the mountains and crosses high above the ravine on massive pillars.
As we came down the far side of the pass Innsbruck spread out beneath us. We passed through the centre of the city but the campsite was clearly signposted and we found our way with no difficulty.
We have just logged onto the campsite’s wifi in Modestine and found an aerial view of the campsite on Google maps. It even shows our pitch, though of course someone else is camped on it. As it is 11pm and dark and raining outside we have been able to see exactly how to get to the loos by the quickest route without crossing the wet grass!
Wednesday 4th June 2008, Innbruck
Goodness, the news that we are in Innsbruck seems to have struck a chord with several of you! We have now been asked to check out the details of a lithographic view of the city in the town archives, advised to visit the museum of folklore and even been invited to head up to Germany for a couple of free nights accommodation with friends! Thank you everyone, as we travel we are always very happy to receive suggestions of places of interest along the way.
It rained continuously all night and was still teaming when we woke this morning. At such times we are so happy to be dry and comfortable, if rather squashed, in Modestine rather than being in a soggy tent. It's a very pleasant sensation to stir in the night and listen to the sound of the rain on the roof and beating on the windows while lying snug in bed. Outside us here, loom the snowy peaks of the Alps, though we have seen very little of them today as the clouds have been heavy with rain and have hidden the summits for most of the day.
We took the bus into Innsbruck. Its historic centre is everything we had ever imagined. Indeed the only disappointment was Inns Bruck which is a modern bridge with no architectural merit. The river Inn was a swirling torrent through the town after last night's rains which have continued intermittently throughout the day.
As we reached the heart of the city we simply had to stop and gaze in sheer delight at the beauty of the buildings. Streets and squares of delightfully painted, carved and decorated mediaeval and baroque houses, plaques, statues, churches, civic buildings, each and every one an architectural marvel, while above it all, through breaks in the swirling clouds were the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Eventually Ian began to suffer from repetitive strain injury in his camera clicking finger so we made our way to the city archives to check out the 19th century lithographic view of Innsbruck as requested by our friend Ralph. Such a mission adds greatly to our pleasure in discovering that little bit more about a city. The staff were really helpful and even gave us a little copy of the print as well as piling us up with several art books of works by the same artist so we could attempt to date the work and locate the position it had originally been sketched from. We were also hoping to see the famed Innsbruck panorama of the 1809 battle of Bergisel, again at the request of Ralph. Unfortunately the building is currently closed so we failed on that bit of our mission.
There is an entire swathe of tourist attractions we will not have time to visit while we are here. There is the Olympic Village, the famed bobsleigh run, ski lifts and funiculars and even accompanied hang gliding! Our campsite is open throughout the year as it is a base for winter sports enthusiasts.
Throughout the city excitement is rising by the minute. Austria is co-hosting with Switzerland the European Cup. Every shop window has a display of footballs. They are strung up as street decorations and there is a huge electronic clock marking down the time to kick-off next Saturday, here in Innsbruck - 3 days, 5 hours, 12 minutes and counting…
Most of the day though has been spent exploring the many delights of the town interspersed with stops for lunch and a beer, and later in the afternoon, for coffee and apple strudel with cream! Pure indulgence but such a pleasure! Around us we watched as people tucked into huge, hearty lunches designed to keep out the cold of an Alpine winter - fried potatoes with cream and bacon served with a couple of fried eggs and tomato sauce for those on a diet, or with three different kinds of sausages and mustard for those in need of building up.
The city is really clean. No canine excrement, no graffiti and no rubbish. If we were given a euro for every piece of litter we have seen today we'd be hard pressed to have earned enough for the bus fare back to the campsite! The buses are spotless and run exactly to time – computers track their progress through the streets so you know to the second when they will arrive. We stopped off on the way back to Modestine to buy wine and something for supper. This meant three changes of bus but we only waited a couple of minutes each time. Back at the site the cloud had lifted so we sat outside while supper cooked, looking up at the traces of snow still lingering up on the peaks, and watched the occasional plane that took off from Innsbruck airport further down the valley.
Incidentally, we are considering starting a new blog – The Maxted Blog of Superlatives. Every place we visit seems to have a claim to be unique in some way. Frequently they are rather amusing - Innsbruck claims to have the oldest surviving statue of a rearing horse north of the Alps, the first free-standing(?) opera house north of the Alps and the highest zoo in Europe. Impressive as they undoubtedly are, our prize would still go Cromer which proudly boasts the largest laundrette in west Norfolk!
Thursday 5th June 2008, Innbruck
We returned to the town archives this morning to examine the full sized panorama of Innsbruck on display in the museum in an attempt to identify the location from which it was drawn. Then, during the afternoon we took full advantage of our 24 hour public transport card to explore the suburbs of the city trying to find the actual spot! This may sound nerdy but was a really enjoyable and interesting way to discover the town and its surrounding villages.
First we took the tram south to the hill of Bergisel, the scene of an important battle in 1809 when the local population rose up against the domination of the Bavarians and the French.
A young boy of about ten crossed the road in front of the tram causing the driver to brake hard and hoot. Once safe on the pavement the child turned round, stuck out his tongue and gesticulated rudely with one finger. This is Austria and such things are not tolerated in a clean, disciplined and law-abiding country. The tram was halted while the driver got out and really told the child off! Meanwhile all the passengers waited patiently, nodding in agreement with the driver. The child looked rather contrite and we noticed him waiting obediently for the little green man before crossing his next road on the way home from school!
While we waited for our connecting tram we climbed the hill with its attractive public gardens from where we could look down on the baroque Basilika Wilten and the Stiftskirche Wilten – a monastery built in the 12th century. Also on the hill were a statue to the freedom fighter of 1809 Andreas Hofer, another of Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria and the huge Olympic ski jump.
Our next tram was really a mountain railway. We shared it with a party of six year olds and their harassed male teacher as he took them up the mountain to play in the woods on the adventure trail for tots. They all wanted to sit on the floor at the point where the two sections of tram joined so that they were spun round every time the track twisted back on itself to cope with the steep incline. The teacher eyed us in despair as he tied their shoe laces and hair ribbons, sat them back on their seats and retrieved their tiny rucksacks as they finally left the tram.
Climbing slowly up the single track steep incline through the woods we caught glimpses down onto Innsbruck through the pine trees. Somewhere around here could possibly have been the location for drawing the panorama. Back around 1860 these hillsides may not have been managed woodland. Eventually we reached open meadows and the little village of Igles, where the tram turned in preparation for the descent.
We went off to explore the village of Igles, our choice as the most likely location for the drawing. High up here too everywhere was immaculate with neat flowering gardens surrounding smart new houses with holy pictures painted on their façades. It was soon clear this could not have been the location we were seeking - a higher ridge of hills hid the city down in the valley from view. Still, it didn't matter and we'd had a very enjoyable afternoon, a free tram ride up the mountain and a walk in the hills. On the way down the driver braked as a deer wandered out of the woods onto the track and just stood looking at us approaching, maybe too scared to move. Eventually it scampered off through the trees and we continued our zig-zag descent down into the city.
Back at the campsite we discovered we are still able to access the internet on the password we accidentally acquired three days ago! It's been a real luxury, enabling us to catch up on so many emails and to get the news from the BBC website. We don't get to know much about UK news as we travel. English newspapers are in short supply, out of date and very expensive abroad. We even indulged in a quick podcast of activities in Ambridge. Why is Phil Archer washing his own undies? See how all the important issues in life are passing us by?