My first trip in 2007 was to Bolzano / Bozen in Southern Tyrol in the north of Italy. Bolzano is a surprisingly pleasant place, which makes it quite hard to actually like it. Everything is just too easy, which just makes me immediately suspicious.
It's probably a bit like someone from the US visiting Canada. Everyone speaks the language, so there's no effort evolved, but you are always aware that they speak at least one other language and quite likely more. In Bolzano and the surrounding area, about half of the population speaks Italian as the first language and the other half German. But in almost all cases, they know the other language as well. Add that most speak English as well and quite a lot of them another 'foreign' language. So it is very easy to get along in German and you don't even feel odd about it, since it is a local language and not just something learned to talk to tourists.
As I said, it's just too easy...
And Bolzano is a reasonably large place (about 100,000 people), so it does not have to rely on tourism as the primary income. So it gives the impression of a 'living' city and the shops and restaurants are primarily for the people that live in the city and not just stuff set up for tourist. And the city is modern. There is an old part of the town, but it's not 'stuffy'. The place is not promoting its past glories and living (or pretending to be living) in the past and it's also not a 'cater to rich tourists - one fashion shop next to the other' kind of place.
Add a generally relaxed, friendly attitude with an tendency to try to live up to German stereotypes (like being punctual and well prepared, something that isn't really true for Germans anymore, who often try to be 'more Italian') and you end up with a place that I was prepared to be indifferent to, but was impressed by.
The fact that I stayed in a hotel, with individual art designs in every room, right at the main city square with a nice room looking out at the center of it, also helped a lot.
There are also some quirky things and oddities in the area, which I happen to like. A couple of miles outside of Bolzano, there is a little street through a small patch of wood, where you suddenly encounter a large metal dragon. It belongs to a group of sculptures, which are made by some artist or group of artists living above it. The nice thing about it is not the statue itself, but that it just happens to be next to a small street in the woods with no sign pointing to it. So it is not handled as some kind of tourist attraction, but just as some sort of random thing, which you just happen to pass if you go that way.
You also get some nice views in that area.
The next day, it was time for a bit of walking. While Bolzano is in the valley, there is a higher plateau right next to it and a gondola cable car goes up there directly from the center. Since quite a few people live in Upper Bolzano and work in Bolzano, the cable car is part of the normal public transport system, which also means that it's affordable and not 'tourist priced' (the place is just too likeable...)
From the top of the cable car, there's a small train taking you a couple of miles to the western end of the plateau, which has some interesting earth formations, the 'earth pyramids', which look a bit like Bryce Canyon in miniature, even though the geological effects that led to the creation of the formation are slightly different. While in Bryce Canyon the original top rock layer protects the underlying sandstone from erosion effects, in Renon (Ritten) some big lump of rock fell onto the softer sandstone and then protected the stone below from the rain. So most of the 'pyramids' have a big rock balanced on top of it.
There's something quite obviously missing in the pictures, taken on a mountain in early January in Southern Tyrol: snow.
Bad for the area of Renon (Ritten), since up there the area is strongly depending on tourism and the summer tourists had long gone and no winter tourists were coming (they were heading to the higher mountains in the Dolomites). Good for me. The Renon plateau has a good system of walking paths and nobody was using them, so for most of the time, I had the feeling I had the whole scenery for myself. (Yes, from time to time the paths pass restaurants and guest houses, where you see people, but on the paths itself I didn't meet anyone for 15 miles. Only when getting close to the cable car again, there were other walkers.) It's always interesting to get to places 'between seasons'.
But I also wanted to see some snow and after two hours of walking uphill, I got to a smaller cable car going up to Cima Lago Nero (Schwarzseespitze), which had snow. And sun. Blue skies. And great views. And a panoramic walk through the snow. A very nice place for walk around, writing postcards and enjoying the day.
Then it was time to head down again and walk to Upper Bolzano for the cable car back down to Bolzano. On the way, I passed two llama farms (presumeably they adapt better to higher altitudes than sheep).
After spending the day on the plateau, the next day I headed for some real mountains and drove to the Dolomites.
That area was much more touristy and the number of ski tourists increased by the mile. I stopped at Alba and took the cable car up to the Ciampac skiing area to enjoy the view.
An endeavor that seems to be a bit unusual there. The gondola was quite crowded (about 40 people or so) on the way up, but I was the only one taking the gondola down. Everyone else took the gondola up to ski down.
But even just for viewing, the trip was worth it.
A view from the valley.
I started to drive back to Bolzano / Bozen, but stopped at the next place that had a cable going up the mountain. This time it led to Campitello de Fassa, which also had quite impressive views.
Along the way back, I noticed that almost all villages had some kind of ice column somewhere in the local river. I'm not sure whether they are there for artistic reasons, for ice climbing or because the other villages do it...
Passing some smaller mountains along the way.
Then I got to Lago di Carezza (Karer See), which, judging from the amount of parking space provided, is a big tourist attraction in summer, but lies almost deserted in winter.
I had to fly home the next day. The weather was great and I got a window seat, so I had the chance to take some nice pictures of the Alps from above.
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