Italy’s German Accent: Sud Tyrol

blog.st.10Signs advertising “Speck” everywhere we looked: along the roads, in shop windows, at street stands. ”Speck” is German for bacon, but we had just come down the mountains from Switzerland into Italy, not Germany.blog.st.6

This was northern Italy, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian. The majority of the population speaks German – and obviously eats plenty of Speck. Ordinary bacon this regional specialty is not, nor should it be confused with Italian prosciutto (ham). Speck is rubbed with herbs, spices and berries, smoked for different lengths of time with different hardwoods, and air dried in the area’s mountain climate.   This makes it distinct, unique – the echt expression of the region.

Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck -- yummy)
Speckmantel gebratener Ziegenkase auf gedunsten Feldsalt (Goat cheese enveloped in Speck — yummy)

I was on my annual trip to research articles for the magazine German Life, with BB as my chauffeur, Sherpa and trusty companion. After a few days in Leukerbad, a Swiss spa town in the Alps, followed by a visit to Davos, we proceeded to this intriguing part of Italy.

Since German predominates here, I’ll call it Sud Tyrol. Our travels took us to Merano, Bolzano, Brixen, and lovely spots in between. We found it all enticing and enjoyed two fascinating museums, picturesque hikes, the charming towns, blogst.1some excellent meals and a wonderful hotel. BB, who sadly does not do much biking these days but is passionate about wine, was thrilled with the local vintages. I may have to change his name from Bicycle Bob (BB) to Vino Roberto (VR).   Which shall it be?

Merano (Meran) is a marvel, a beauty of a town on the banks of the frisky Passirio River with fanciful flower beds, an arcaded shopping street and a spa center, all surrounded by mountains. The riverside summer and winter blog.st.2promenades  (passeggiate d’Inverno and passeggiate d’Estate) – paths through woods, past flowers and tropical plants, with the sounds of the rambunctious river tumbling over rocks, are glorious. We stopped to watch a kayaker practice on surging rapids.blog.st.13

“North and south meet here. It’s the best of two worlds,” said our Bolzano city guide, Luciano Rech, who filled us in on the region’s history. Sud Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until World War I during which Italy initially remained neutral. In 1915, as an incentive to enter on their side, the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria and Hungary) offered Italy a chunk of land, all territories south of the Alpine water divide regardless of the ethnic makeup of the regions. At the time, 92.2 per cent of the population was said to be ethnic Germans. In 1919 the territory was annexed by Italy, and has been Italian ever since,  with the exception of the years 1943-1945 when it was de facto annexed to the German Reich until the fall of Germany. Both German and Italian are considered official languages.blog.st.18

It has not always been a peaceful co-existence, marred at times by repression and terrorism. During the 1930s and again in the 1950s Italians were forcibly resettled to the region. According to the 2011 census, German speakers make up 61.5 percent of the population, Italian speakers, 23.1 percent, and 4 percent  speak Ladin, an ancient language derived from Latin. All seems peaceful, and the region has a significant degree of autonomy. However, there are still some who resent being under the yoke of Rome and argue for independence.blog.st.15

“I’m Tyrolean” announces Rech. “I don’t feel we are the same as people from Naples, Rome.”   Many others I spoke too echoed his sentiments.Bolzano (Bozen), a bustling city and the capital of Sud Tyrol, is the home of Ötzi, the mummy of an Iceman discovered in

Recreation of Otzi
Recreation of Otzi

1991 in the mountains at the edge of a melting glacier. The museum where he is preserved behind glass is a must with enlightening exhibits of garb and objects that were found with him. And, extensive documentation, including videos, on the sensational find and what has been learned from and about Ötzi. He died 5,300 years ago after having been shot by an arrow, presumably murdered.

Famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner (first solo ascent of Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen) has created the Messner Mountain Museum outside of town on the slopes of a mountain and in the ruins of a castle. It’s blog.st.20a genuine mountain experience, with lots of steps (I felt we were back in Myanmar), skinny walkways, metal ladders and fabulous views.   Follow the itinerary in and out of buildings, up slopes and towers, across bridges, past exhibits on his climbs, mountain terrain, Himalayan artifacts and more. Messner, who is a native of Brixen in Sud Tyrol, has established four other mountain museums in the province.blog.st.19

En route to Bolzano we stopped for an overnight so we could take a hike in the hills and soak in the scenery. We trekked amongst grape vines and apple blog.st.11orchards, and stumbled upon some sexy snakes. We had a wonderful lunch at an eatery under an arbor of grape vines with gorgeous views. The food, especially the apple strudel, was definitely more Germanic than Italian. The proprietors also sell wine, so of course we tasted and bought.blog.st.12

Unfortunately we did not make it to the mighty Dolomites which are part of the province for some real mountain hiking. After Bolzano we spent two nights at an inn, the Ansitz Zehentner, in the town of Lajen (Laion) where a rollicking fest was underway when we arrived. Women in dirndls. Men in trachten (traditional costume). Plenty of beer. And, blasen music (wind instruments). We could have been back in Germany.blog.st.22

Frau Schenk, proprietor of the inn which dates back to 1358, suggested a hike through fields and forests to a well-known hotel and restaurant , Gasthof Ansitz Fonteklaus. Sitting outside under mammoth trees amidst the mountain scenery was perfect — and so was the food.blog.st.21

Our travels ended in Brixen (Bressanone), another gem of a town, where we splurged and spent a night at the classy Elephant Hotel with an excellent dinner in the hotel’s noted restaurant. The 450-year old hotel has been run by the same family since 1773. It was named after the pachyderm which was sent by blog.st.24Suleiman I to Archduke Maximilan as a gift in 1551. The elephant had a long journey from India, to Portugal, then Genoa and onto the Alps where it rested at the inn in Brixen, causing a sensation among the locals who had never seen such a beast, en route to Vienna. The elephant fresco on the hotel’s façade was painted many, many years later by someone who had never seen an elephant but based his rendering on descriptions.   What happened to the well-traveled elephant?   I learned that after the epic journey it only survived another two years.blog.st.17

Before heading back to France I stopped at a butcher shop and loaded up on some very savory sausage — and Speck.

For more information:

Bolzano: www.bolzano-bozen.it

Ötzi : www.iceman.itblog.st.26

Messner Mountain Museum: www.messner-mountain-museum.it

Excellent central hotel in Bolzano (Stadt Hotel Citta): www.hotelcitta.info

Ansitz Zehentner: www.zehentnerhof.com

Hotel Elephant: www.hotelelephant.com

 

Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Rhubarb Streusel Pie.  If you like rhubarb, you’ll love this.  See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While  you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.

blog.st.23

Trip finale -- dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.
Trip finale — dinner in the romantic Hotel Elephant dining room.

Wild and Wonderful Corsica

Bonifacio ,
Bonifacio
,

According to the sign posted at the beginning of the hiking trail in the Corsican mountains, it was a one-hour trek to Lac de Melu.  Piece of cake, I figured, and a good test for my new knee.corsica.55,

Two hours later we were still huffing and puffing, scrambling over rocks —   even a few times on all fours for me.  No lake in sight. We had conquered the challenging, extra steep sections of chains and ladders.  But, the trail of all rocks went on and on, up and up.  At times it was frustrating to figure out which way to proceed over this stony sea.  The trail was marked by yellow slashes on the rocks, but often they were hard to spot.

Find the yellow slash -- the trail marker.
Find the yellow slash — the trail marker.

I was about to give up when we encountered a group on their way down.  “How much farther?” I asked.  “It’s not that far.  Will you make it?  If you want I can accompany you,” answered the mountain guide who was leading the others.   I must have looked near death, which is about the way I felt, but there was no way I would ask for assistance.  Now I was more determined than ever to conquer this trail.

After two hours and 10 minutes we reached the lovely lake.  How could anyone make it here in one hour?   We are old, but not decrepit. That sign was meant for Himalayan sherpas.corsica.36b

Getting down was no easy task.  The rocks, all sizes, were demanding.  You had to keep your eyes on the trial below at all times to figure out where to put your foot next, on top of which boulder, into which crevice.  I was petrified of falling, of breaking a leg, screwing up my knee.  How would I be rescued?  No helicopters could land anywhere near this surface of rugged rocks. I did fall once, but fortunately I had given my camera to BB (husband Bicycle Bob) who was more steady a foot.  I ended up with a badly bruised leg, but nothing broken, including my precious camera.

Refilling the water bottles.
Refilling the water bottles.

In our younger days, BB and I did some long and tough mountain hikes in the Swiss Alps – several days on the trail with backpacks.  We loved it.  This was different.  “Most hikes are strenuous, but enjoyable,” he remarked. “This was work, labor intensive.”

What a relief to get the work over with, to reach the hut at the bottom – and to enjoy that satisfying sense of accomplishment after conquering a mountain.  O.K.  This was just a lake, not a mountain, and we were slow.  But, we did it.  My knee passed the test.corsica.14b

Rocks abound in Corsica—not just on mountain trails.  Along the coast.  On the beaches.  In the sea.  Rocks in the shape of animals, human faces, surrealistic

Natural rock.
Natural rock.

sculptures.

Not long after we disembarked from our all-night ferry ride to this island in the Med (Toulon to Ajaccio); we stopped to visit the archeological site, Filitosa, on our way south.  Incredible rocks there. We followed the path through the site where artifacts dating to as early as 3,300 have been found.  Ancient civilizations lived in caves here.  During the megalithic period they erected menhir statues, granite monoliths, carved to represent human faces or entire figures.  They are intriguing, as are the natural rock formations in the area.

Menhir
Menhir

Onward to the coast and the tiny town of Tizzano for five nights at the Hotel du Golfe, which advertises that it has its feet in the sea. The Mediterranean waters were right below the balcony of our room.  Awake to the soothing sounds of the sea gently slapping the rocks. The hotel beach is just a miniscule patch of sand surrounded by those rocks. Getting in and out of the sea was a bit tricky maneuvering over the hurdles, but the water was perfect. I swam and swam and swam with no one in sight.

Mini beach on a windy day --too dangerous to swim
Mini beach on a windy day –too dangerous to swim

During our October visit to this island utopia we enjoyed still warm weather and mostly blue skies – and tranquility.  The tourist season was over.  On the plus side, no crowds anywhere and the highways to ourselves.  On the down side, many shops, hotels and restaurants had already closed for the season.  All four of the restaurants in Tizzano were boarded shut.

There is just one winding road down the mountain from the inland town of Sartène leading to our mini burg and the sea. Winter Tizzano population:

Chopinette, my favorite Corsican,
Chopinette, my favorite Corsican,

30 humans and lots of felines.   In the summer:  3,000 tourists.  In October:  us, the locals, a few other tourists and the friendly cats.  I was in heaven.

Since BB is not a swimmer and we wanted to see more than Tizzano, we set out on excursions every day, to Ponte Vecchio on the eastern coast, to Bonifacio in the far southwestern corner of the island, and on foot one day for a hike along corsica.15bthe shore.  No leisurely stroll along a sandy beach was this, but a demanding trek through coastal bush –and yet more boulders.  The scenery was splendid with more fantastic rock formations to photograph.

Ponte Vecchio is basically a resort town with lots of sailboats in the harbor, narrow streets with cute boutiques (most closed) and restaurants (also most closed).  Not too exciting.  Bonifacio is different, a two-level, lively town.  The haute ville, an amazing sight, perches precariously atop a cliff on a thin peninsula.  Skinny streets twist past ancient buildings, including numerous churches.   We followed the advice of the woman in the tourist office and set off to the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon – 187 steps from a corner of the town’s citadel plunging to the sea.  Scary, steep steps. Descending them is an exhilarating adventure.  They plummet straight down and at times involve big jumps – one step where there should be two.corsica.20b

The winds were ferocious on the day of our Bonifacio visit. Mammoth waves roared and crashed into the rocks. We had been told the best view of the city is from the water, but due to the wind velocity, tourist boats were not running.

So, let’s splurge on lunch. Food is always a highlight of our travels.  Since so many restaurants were closed, our choices were limited.  We had few memorable meals in Corsica, including one we’d like to forget — the $98 (72 euro) fish at a harbor restaurant in Bonifacio.  We like fish and craved a fresh Mediterranean corsica.26catch.  The waiter brought out a tray of specimens and recommended a “Sar.”  We had never heard of this fish, but were game to try, not bothering to ask the price.  Bad move. The astronomical bill  –the fish had been priced at nine euros per 100 grams –was a  shock.   Our Sar was a big fellow, tasty, perhaps not that tasty, but it did come with some veggies and potatoes.

Corte's citadel
Corte’s citadel

Cap Corse, the island finger at the northern tip, was our destination for three days before boarding the ferry in Bastia for the trip back to Toulon.  En route we spent a night at the interior town of Corte so we could do the lake hike.  Hiking is just one of numerous outdoor activities offered in Corsica – all kinds of water sports plus mountain adventures:  canyoning, rock climbing, zip line etc.corsica.3

The drive through the interior is spectacular – miles and miles of rugged nature over excellent roads.   Although Corsica is a vacation paradise, it has not been scarred by mass tourism.  There are vast pristine sections in both the interior and along the coast — no towns, no hotels, no commerce.

Erbalunga
Erbalunga

Our hotel in the coastal town of Erbalunga was not on the beach, but it did have a large heated pool — my private pool – no other swimmers.

We drove along the Cap coast with many photo stops.  We drove through the middle of the peninsula over roads that averaged more than a dozen curves per kilometer.  Along the route:  stops for wine tasting and buying.  Wine is the island’s principal export.  According to my guidebook bible, Lonely Planet corsica.38bCorsica, the wines “are not necessarily the most distinguished of wines.”   Some of the grape varieties (Niellucciu for one) are unique to Corsica.  As BB seems to like wine more than bicycles these days, we bought a supply.

corsica.47Bastia, a town of crumbling splendor, is fun to explore: a busy harbor, imposing citadel, intriguing hillside park, ancient churches – and shops that were open.  Throughout the trip I had been searching for stores where I could purchase Corsican delicacies – cheese, sausage, honey, jams.  No luck. In Bastia’s thriving shopping district, I found my treasures at last.corsica.48b

I hope to return to Corsica, but in late September before so much shuts down for winter.  And, I’d go back to Tizzano and the Hotel du Golfe.  Gil Chopin, the hotel proprietor, told me he was born in the town but moved on to work in Paris and other cities.  “I missed nature, the sea.”  He came back.  “We live in harmony with nature here.  Each day is different.  Each day I am astonished.  For me, this is paradise.”  It was paradise for me, too.

Hotel du Golfe,Tizzano.  A perfect coastal retreat. The simple but comfortable rooms all have balconies above the Med.  Idyllic location. http://www.hoteldugolfetizzano.com

On the terrace at Hotel du Golfe
On the terrace at Hotel du Golfe

Hotel Castel Brando, Erbalunga, Cap Corse. Spacious accommodations including rooms with private terraces, lovely garden for breakfast  (ample, including do-it-yourself eggs and pancakes) and a super heated pool.  http://www.castelbrando.com

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New Zealand’s Extraordinary Fiordland

It’s all about scenery: dramatic, magnificent, mystical. We awoke on board a ship in Doubtful Sound, the largest of the area’s 14 fiords, to watch the sun creep over the towering cliffs which surrounded us, casting mirror images of the mountains on the sparkling water.  The only sound was a raging waterfall plunging from high above into the deep inlet. Waterfowl flew above.

We were in awe, mesmerized by the splendor of nature, the beauty all around in this desolate paradise.  Every day during our five-day visit to the region last November was filled with more overwhelming, spectacular sights.

On New Zealand’s South Island, Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage area and the country’s largest national park. The fiords, narrow inlets with steep sides carved by glacial activity, indent Fiordland’s West Coast.  In addition to exploring the fiords by boat, you can hike legendary trails in the mountains, trek through primeval forests and enjoy thrilling views from a seaplane.

Husband Bob and I did a bit of all.  We also enjoyed an exciting boat adventure in a Glowworm Cave through eerie darkness to a grotto where thousands of tiny glowworms glimmered on the walls. It was hard to believe this was a natural phenomenon and not an amusement park attraction.

Our Fiordland base was the town of Te Anau from where we set off for our first fiord excursion to Milford Sound. Early European settlers who were not familiar with fiords called them “sounds” which are actually river valleys flooded due to land sinking below sea level.

A bus trip on the Milford Road through the National Park leads to the Sound. There’s grandiose mountain scenery en route, with stops for photos.   And, once on board the ship sailing through the fiord’s National Geographic scenery, it’s hard to put the camera down.

On the way back to Te Anau, we stopped for a hike led by a guide to a summit.  We crawled under fallen logs en route, jumped over streams, through woods to open spaces above the tree line with superb views in every direction. By the time we reached the top it was raining. Our guide pulled out a thermos from his backpack and served us tea and cookies in the drizzle.

More hiking, but at a lower elevation, was on the next day’s agenda, a nature walk along Lake Te Anu through a dense beech forest.  The guide provided fascinating commentary on the flora and fauna, including the illusive kiwi, the country’s flightless nocturnal bird and national symbol.

Moss thrives in this dark green paradise and can be a meter deep. Step off trail and onto the lush carpet which is like a sponge, squishy strange to sink into.  Along the trail all sizes and varieties of forest ferns grow in abundance.  Kiwis (the people) are passionate about the environment and especially their bird population.  Our guide pointed out many species, including ducks which nest in tree tops.

Fiordland, we learned, has 200 rain days per year, dumping between six to eight meters of water each year. During our Doubtful Sound cruise, we experienced some of that rain. But it not dampen the spirits of those on board who wanted to try sea kayaking.  After our miserable failure with this sport which plunged us into the icy sea (see previous post: Misadventures in New Zealand), we stayed safe and dry on board.

During our cruise through this remote and romantic fiord, we saw penguins, seals and dolphins.  We marveled at haunting dark skies and fantastic cloud formations.

A different but exciting boat ride ended our Fiordland visit. We boarded a speedy jet boat on the Upper Waiau River to Lake Manapouri.  From our craft we boarded a float plane – tricky to get on this plane which was bobbing in the water – for a thrilling aerial view of the stunning countryside.

Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound “the eighth wonder of the world” I think the same could be said for all of Fiordland.

For more on Fiordland, see http://www.fiordland.org.nz

Watch the slide show below for more outstanding scenery.  For summer grilling, try my old standby: Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Mustard Cream Sauce.  See the Recipe list on the right.

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