If dead men could tell tales perhaps the oldest whisper we’d hear is South Tyrol. Thanks to the discovery of Ötzi the iceman, a 5,000+ year-old mummified corpse found frozen in a glacier high in the Italian Alps in 1991, South Tyrol’s alluring landscape has drawn travelers since at least the Stone Age.
But before we dip our toes a bit deeper into South Tyrolean history you may be wondering…
Where the Heck is South Tyrol?
South Tyrol sits at the top of Italy and is enviably located in one of the few places in the world where Alpine wonders collide with lush Mediterranean beauty. The area uniquely intertwines Italian flair with Alpine charm to offer a truly unforgettable experience.
Getting to South Tyrol may seem a bit daunting at first, but trust us it is not. You can be in this corner of paradise with a simple 2-3 hour drive or train ride from one of several nearby major cities such as Venice, Milan and Munich.
Once in South Tyrol you’ll have numerous regions to explore. Each with its own fascinating sights, micro-climates and ample opportunities to lose yourself in wilderness or blend in with the locals and experience true Alpine living.
From Icemen to Ancient Romans to Templar Knights & Beyond
The ancient Romans conquered South Tyrol in 59 B.C. and ruled until the Early Middle Ages. Like much of Europe, Ancient Rome’s penetrating influence can still be seen today in the area’s ruins and culture. Ladin, a language still spoken in the deep valleys of South Tyrol’s Dolomite mountains, is born from ancient Latin.
In the Middle Ages, South Tyrol fell under rule by various kingdoms leading to the rise of castle after castle across the mountainsides. Along with these fortresses came fantastical medieval myths and legends still told and celebrated today.
Nearly 800 castles continue to watch over the countryside including the area’s most influential, Castle Tirol, which eventually cast its name over the entire region. In fact, South Tyrol boasts more castles than any other part of Europe. No doubt the result of it being the key travel route between the North and South for more than 1,000 years.
In more recent times, South Tyrol was a part of Austria. The region was annexed to Italy after the end of World War I. The outcome? German, Austrian and Italian culture weave throughout cities and villages and both German and Italian are spoken and featured on public signs and menus.
A Land of Many Tongues
Which language should you dabble in before you visit? In truth, you don’t need to know much German or Italian to visit South Tyrol as there are enough tools today to help a person get by comfortably; however, your trip will be much more rewarding if you take the time to learn a bit of German or Italian. The majority of residents speak German as their first language and refer to the land as Südtirol.
Italians on the other hand refer to South Tyrol as Alto Adige. If you already know a touch of Italian, then stick with brushing up on it as many people are bilingual and able to converse in both. Many younger South Tyroleans are even trilingual with the ability to also speak English. Ladin is spoken by a small minority.
A Celebration in Culinary Collisions
With the fusion of so many cultures South Tyrol offers the best of all worlds when it comes to food and drink. You can enjoy traditional Italian pasta dishes and desserts such as gelato and tiramisu while also indulging in hearty Alpine culinary delights like smoked speck and South Tyrolean dumplings, called canederli or knödel. Combined they make a savory dish known as speckknödel, which promises to satisfy any hunger after a lengthy hike.
Speck is one of South Tyrol’s most revered foods and is integral to countless Alpine recipes not to mention a favorite companion to a traditional Italian pizza. Speck is a smoked, cured ham that is born from blending traditional Northern European smoking methods with the outdoor curing practices of the Mediterranean.
A decidedly rural region, South Tyrol cuisine is strongly rooted in a farm-to-table mindset that is much more a way of life than a movement. The area also produces a host of fruits, berries and world-renowned apples. South Tyrolean apple strudel is a must for every visitor.
Discover Divinely Alpine Wine
The bountiful valleys of South Tyrol create an ideal climate for dazzling vineyards to thrive across vast fields and cascade up sun-drenched mountainsides — producing some of the world’s most celebrated wines not to mention some of the most enjoyable walks, hikes and bike rides in Europe as miles of trails wind through terraced slopes. With 3,000+ years of wine making history, South Tyrol is truly an Eden for wine lovers.
As you meander through these centuries-old vineyards, be sure to stop and enjoy a glass of wine or juice at one of several vine-sheltered huts scattered along the paths.
White grape varietals make up nearly 60% of the vineyards and yield remarkable Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines, as well as several other boutique wines such as Kerner. Red wines, while not as abundant, belong just as much on your radar. Lagrein, Schiava, Cabernet Franc and more make a perfect pairing with several South Tyrolean meat dishes.
Wine plays a vital role in the lives of many South Tyroleans. Celebrations surround the seasonal harvest each year with several festivals and events across the region.
If wine isn’t your go-to beverage when you’re dining or unwinding, do not fret. South Tyrol’s craft brewing tradition goes back more than 1,000 years. Alpine water fresh from mountain springs serves as the foundation for producing beers with distinct character and flavor, making them an ideal companion to any meal or thirst-induced adventure.
Beer lovers can enjoy a variety of beers spanning from light to dark along with unique herb and spice beers that harken back to the flavors of medieval times. Several cozy taverns and lively biergartens populate the region offering travelers a great place to relax with a cold one or four.
Styles Centuries in the Making
South Tyrol’s vast history and cultural blending has produced a myriad of architectural styles. The region’s medieval structures exhibit styles from Romanesque to Gothic and notably express the importance of Catholicism in their design. Renaissance and Baroque buildings project both the area’s Italian and Germanic influence.
Rural dwellings dot the rich green hills and mountainsides across South Tyrol and exude Alpine charm that embraces a distinct Tyrolean style. These homes harmonize with their surroundings and often showcase balconies flush with colorful geraniums from end to end.
Mediterranean Oasis or Alpine Paradise?
It is rare to find a land packing as much striking diversity as South Tyrol. However, South Tyrol’s uniqueness isn’t reflected in its people, history, culture and cuisine alone.
Thanks to the region’s position south of the Alps, South Tyrol enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year. The collision of Alpine and Mediterranean climates ― creates huge areas of natural wonder and perfect settings for both cosmopolitan cities and quaint villages.
Immersing yourself in stunning Alpine scenery and adventures and in the same day basking under sun-drenched Mediterranean palms is an unforgettable experience.
Regardless of the season, you can create the vacation of a lifetime in South Tyrol. The medley of climates and cultures produces an endless amount of activities…and the ideal environment for discarding activity all together if you’re looking to just unwind.