Last summer, I got the opportunity to take a day trip to Bolzano, Italy, a delightful city in the the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region of Italy. Bolzano is also the capital of the province of Bolzano-Bozen, a town so named because at one time, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol. Though it was annexed by Italy at the end of World War I, Bolzano-Bozen maintains a dual identity.
When you visit Bolzano, you’re in Italy, but you might easily mistake it for a city in Germany or Austria. Indeed, German speaking people make up a significant percentage of folks living and working in Bolzano. According to Italy’s 2001 census, 71 percent of Bolzano’s residents speak Italian, while a little over 26 percent speak German. Bolzano-Bozen is a unique province, since it is an autonomous province in Italy and the German speaking minority enjoy protected rights. A little less than one percent of Bolzano’s residents claim Ladin as their first language. Ladin is a language primarily spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy. It’s very much like the Romansch language spoken in parts of Switzerland.
I went to Bolzano as part of a tour group coming out of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. As Garmisch-Partenkirchen is very close to the Austrian border and the Tyrol region of Austria is very narrow, it didn’t take very long to get to Bolzano from Germany. Though I would have liked to have stayed more than a day in Bolzano and wandered around a bit, we were going there specifically to see a mummy. It so happens that Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is the home of Ötzi the Iceman.
Who is Ötzi the Iceman?
Ötzi the Iceman is Europe’s oldest natural human mummy. Though he probably last walked the earth about 5300 years ago, Ötzi was found in the Ötztal Alps on September 19, 1991. Two German tourists from Nuremberg were hiking in the Alps and happened to stumble across Ötzi’s remains, which were frozen solid in the Alpine ice. It was initially thought that Ötzi was a modern corpse since several had been found in the area. The body was taken to an Austrian morgue in Innsbruck, where its true age was discovered. Later, it was determined that Ötzi was found 92.56 meters within Italy’s territory, so the body was returned to Italy, where it remains today.
Visiting the musem
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is a beautiful facility that was built in 1998 expressly to house Ötzi, as well as some other fascinating exhbits. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm; it’s closed on Mondays, except in July, August, and December. Tickets for adults cost 9 euros. Senior citizens, students, disabled people, and museum cardholders get a small break on the price. Children up to age six get free admission.
A visit to the museum takes about two hours and is very accessible to disabled people. Taking photographs inside the museum is strictly prohibited and if you have a large bag, you will probably have to check it. A staffer took a look in my purse, saw my digital camera, and advised me not to use it.
I enjoyed touring The South Tyrol Museum of Archeology, not just because of Ötzi, but also because the museum has free, clean restrooms. In Europe, that’s a definite plus. But in all seriousness, it was fascinating to see Ötzi. He is kept in a special refrigerated room and museum patrons can view him through a small window.
What else is there to see?
There’s Walther Square, which is a beautiful area in the center of the city that hosts a large statue of Walther von der Vogelweide. You can easily spend some time walking around the square and, perhaps stop at one of the many outdoor cafes where you can enjoy a dish of gelato or an espresso.
If you want to shop, take a walk down the Lauben, which is a bustling mile long street in the city center with medieval arcades. Browse in the many high end shops where you can find everything from fine art to fine food. Take a look at the lovely outdoor flower and produce markets in the area.
If you like cathedrals, you shouldn’t miss the Gothic Cathedral in Bolzano. Located just off Walther Square, this enormous and beautiful cathedral got its start in 1184 and was finally completed about two hundred years later. I happened to visit the Gothic Cathedral in the late afternoon and entered as peaceful music played and people came to pray.
Aside from having some interesting places to visit and good places to shop, Bolzano is in a handy location. It’s about halfway between Augsburg, Germany and Venice, Italy. Austria is very close, as is Switzerland. It might make for a less touristy base for those who would like to take day trips to some great nearby areas.
One more reason Bolzano is “special”…
As a confirmed child of the 80s, I’m a big fan of the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, especially National Lampoon’s European Vacation. It turns out the German town where the Griswold family is supposedly visiting Clark’s distant relatives was actually in Bolzano, Italy. Yes, European Vacation was a certified bomb, but I still love watching it to this day.
I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in Bolzano…
But the little taste I got of this unique city is enough to make me want to go back and do it right. I would definitely recommend Bolzano to anyone who wants a little taste of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy rolled up into one town. And if you’re into archaeology, especially mummies, Bolzano is a must see destination for you.