Posts Tagged With: austria

The Movable Border

We all know that national borders can be fluid things, influenced by political events, wars in particular. But the border between Italy and Austria is the only one that I know of that has to be recalculated on a daily basis due to climate change. Yep, it’s true. The border between the two countries is agreed to be determined by a line across the watershed, but because the glaciers are retreating the watershed is moving. This actually became an issue in September of 1991 when Ice Man Ötzi was discovered very, very close to the border, and it was not clear which country actually owned him.

A careful survey revealed that as of the time of the discovery Ötzi was on the Italian side of the border, but only barely: he’s an Italian citizen by 97 meters (318 ft). (But in a masterstroke of international diplomacy, the Italians agreed that the forensic analysis on Ötzi would be done in Innsbruck, Austria.)

Today, the border is tracked by a network of sensors and GPS receivers and is recalculated essentially continuously. If you go upstairs from Ötzi’s body in the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum you can even let a computer draw you your very own map of the border du jour that you can take home as a souvenir. Here is the drawing end of the apparatus (a Google image; photos were not allowed):

border drawerThere is a pile of local topographic maps next to the table. You pick one up, lay it on the table, and as soon as the device senses that it is there it activates the drawing armature and draws that instant’s calculated border on it in a red marker, labeling it with the current date and time (which you can see at lower right).

Remember this the next time you have a property line dispute with your next door neighbor.

 

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Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Gondola Ride, and Not the Ones in Venice

Balzano-1We walked around in Merano for a bit last night, mostly in an arduous search for an open restaurant, soaking up the odd hybrid Italo-Austrian ambiance. There’s a small pedestrian area near the heart of downtown, reached by walking over a small bridge over a wide but shallow creek. And should you find yourself on that bridge you will see a phenomenon that is gradually becoming the bane of city bridge-maintainers everywhere: padlocks, like the ones you see here. There are hundreds of them, some placed by lovers looking for cheap symbolism, others as some kind of memorial. Some are attached by the dozen to engraved sheets of aluminum, which are themselves then locked to the bridge railings. It is a particular problem in Paris, I have read, where some of the smaller bridges have so many locks that they are becoming a structural risk. Here it is just an oddity.

Balzano-2And speaking of oddities, the next one that we encountered in downtown Merano was some kind of art installation, a cylindrical wedding-cake like structure about 10′-12′ in diameter and a good 8′ high, made entirely out of newspapers. And I don’t mean papier-maché or anything like that: I just mean folded-up whole newspapers. Here’s a closeup. I have no idea what this means. Nor do I know what is going to become of it after a few heavy rainstorms, other than becoming an extraordinarily dense pile of cellulose mush.

This morning dawned clear and bright, despite an ominous weather forecast of mid-day thunderstorms, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather, however temporary, to get a better view of the Dolomites. One of the best places to do this is in the nearby city of Bolzano, only about 15 miles to the southeast, a busy city of 100,000 best known for a large army base and, more interestingly, a “tram” — actually a cable car or gondola — that takes you up over the town and into the lower Tyrolean Alps.

The gondola ascends about 3,000′ starting from Bolzano’s central train station, up to a the small and appropriately-named village of Soprabolzano, i.e. “above Bolzano”. In German — and everything is in German here, about which more shortly — it is Oberbozen. The change in ambience over that 3,000′ ascent is remarkable. As you look back down the cable car path you see the urban center of Bolzano…

Balzano-12…and a few minutes later you are in Soprabolzano, where they could have filmed Heidi:

Balzano-4You can get some of the best views of the Dolomites not from Soprabolzano itself, however, but rather from the nearby village of Collalbo (Kolbenstein if you’re in a Teutonic frame of mind), which you get to by hopping on the cutest little one-car light-rail tram ever built. The tram leaves from Soprabolzano every half hour and pretty much follows the ridge line of the mountain, arriving in Collalbo about 15 minutes later. Along the way, and in Collalbo itself, you get views like these:

Balzano-9

Balzano-10

Balzano-5…which are pretty remarkable considering that we were negotiating busy city traffic about an hour earlier.

Collalbo’s big attraction, aside from the obvious views, is a multitude of hiking trails, in particular one that leads to what they call the “Erdpyramiden” (“Earth Pyramids”), a type of geological formation found throughout the world and which in the US are called “hoodoos”. They are tall pointy formations, some with rocks balanced on top, formed by alternating periods of drought and rain that erode the ground around the rocks and eventually leave them balanced precariously on an array of pointy columns that make the hillside look like some kind of surreal convention of either Ku Klux Klansmen or Spanish Inquisitors. Here’s what the hillside looks like, reachable by a rather hilly half hour hike from the Collalbo tram station:

Balzano-7…and here is a closeup that shows some of the rocks on top:

Balzano-8We admired the geological weirdness for a few minutes, then headed back towards the tram station, pausing to stop for lunch at a hotel restaurant. The weather was still beautiful so we ate outdoors, where Alice increased her Italian vocabulary the hard way: the special of the day was polpetto, which Alice ordered, knowing that since the Italian word for “octopus” is polpo, polpetto clearly means “little octopus”. Octopus is a favorite meal of hers. And unfortunately for her, polpetto actually means “meat loaf”.

We would actually have figured that out if we had looked a little more closely at the menu, since underneath the Italian name it pretty clearly said something like Fleischstück in German, which would have been a giveaway that we were not talking about octopuses. (And yes, the correct plural is “octopuses”. I don’t want any comments demanding “octopi.”)

This brings me back to the whole Austrian-Italian mishigoss. (For non-Jewish readers, that’s Yiddish for “complicated mess”.) Merano, as I mentioned, is very much a bilingual city with the local culture tending towards the Austrian. But Bolzano, despite being slightly further from the Austrian border, takes a big step closer to its Germanic roots. There is little trace of Italy either in the architecture or in the language spoken in the streets: German is clearly more prevalent.

I mentioned last time that this is a consequence of the redrawing of Europe’s borders in the wake of World War I. Italy wanted this particular chunk of the Austro-Hungary Empire, and got it. (They also wanted scenic Dalmatia, spurred on by the ubiquitous ultra-nationalistic Gabriele D’Annunzio, he of the Addams Family mansion. But they didn’t get that, and it is part of Croatia today.)

But it was a near thing. German U-boats had utterly decimated British sea traffic by mid-1915, and, though hard to imagine today, Britain was only about three months away from surrendering when the US finally shed its neutrality and entered the war. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had the US not done so, e.g. had the Germans not unwisely sunk the Lusitania the year before. Germany and Austria would have won the war in late 1916 instead of losing two years later. And that means that there would have been no onerous Treaty of Versailles, no Weimar Republic…and no rise of Hitler. In other words, World War II would not have happened or, if it did, would have been in a radically different form, e.g., Europe (including Germany) and the US allied against Stalin’s USSR.

It also means that we would have needed to get our passports stamped this week as we moved from Vicenza to Merano, and would have been a lot less confused as to whether we were still in Italy or had somehow wandered into Austria.

We headed back to Merano around 3:30, with a final stop of the day at Trauttmansdorff Castle, known for being the world’s least-pronounceable botanical garden. (It is actually one of the largest and most impressive in Europe.) We had repeated trouble keeping the name straight and eventually fell back on author Kurt Vonnegut, electing to call it Tralfamadore Castle. (If you don’t know what Tralfamadore is, you need to (a) look it up by clicking the link, and (b) reading more Kurt Vonnegut.) Jim sand Elaine toured the grounds, but Alice and I were just too tired and so just waited for them outside: she is still getting over a cold, which she has now generously shared with me.

Tomorrow we are off to our next destination: Modena, home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. Along the way we will visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to call upon Ötzi, the famous 5500-year-old mummified hunter retrieved from a glacier in the Alps several years ago. He is widely known as the “Ice Man”. We, however, refer to him more familiarly as “Frozen Dead Guy”.

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Lake, Lots of Tunnels, and the Italian Suburbs of Austria

The weather was much improved today — though unfortunately it is not expected to last — so we pulled up stakes from Gardone Riviera, en route to Merano in a more optimistic state of mind than when we arrived. Lake Garda was bathed in a watery sunlight as the sun struggled with occasional success to break through the low clouds. Our very temporary landlord, the warm and genial Fabrizio, had suggested that driving up the west side of the lake was the more scenic route, and the choice proved to be a wise one: the road hugged the narrow strip between the lake and the granite cliffs above it, beneath, above, and occasionally through one seaside village after another.  Each offered its shares of bell towers, churches, and homes nestled on to the steep hillsides, enjoying watch over the clear lake. This is a typical view from the road, looking up the hillside:

Garda & Merano-2Where there was a safe pullout off the road  and there were more than a few — we took it, soaking up the view and snapping away like lunatics. Following our instincts, we would occasionally pull off the highway (and I use the term loosely) altogether, finding a parking space and walking around the town at water’s edge.

Garda & Merano-4During one such stroll we encountered this 94 year old lady taking a walk with her grown grandson, or so we assume. She was quite emphatic about her age, repeating it a few times in Italian as she spoke no English, and we were able to puzzle out that she had lived there for a very long time.

One of these random stops found us in the town of Limone, about three-quarters up the west side of the lake, where as it happened it was open-air market day down by the waterside. It was lively with visitors and seemed like a good place to walk around and break for lunch, so we parked in a garage and waded into the market place. Leather goods seemed to be a particular specialty, and the prices were good: Alice bought a bright blue purse and wallet, and I a new and much-needed wallet.

It seemed that aside from ourselves, every tourist in Limone — and there were a lot of them — was German. We had been told about this by Fabrizio but were still taken aback by it; other than the vendors talking among themselves, we hard only German being spoken, and the restaurants by the water all offered their menus in German and Italian. (German would become even more prominent as we approached and entered Merano, but more on that shortly.)

Part of the reason for Limone’s popularity among German tourists is its proximity to the Austrian border and the fact that it offers these views at the northern end of the lake:

Garda & Merano-1

Garda & Merano-3

Garda & Merano-5You can see that that the town, like its brethren along the coast, is essentially sandwiched between the sea and the cliffs, with the foothills of the Dolomites looming in the distance.

The other common view from the highway as we drove up the side of the lake was no view at all, by which I mean the inside of a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels on the route, all impressive feats of engineering as they are up to nearly a mile in length and are bored through solid granite. There is really no choice in the matter, as the cliffs come nearly right up to the sea and there is no other place to put a road. Even so, it was surprising: we probably passed through 15 tunnels, dark and windy and narrow, with lots of trucks to keep things interesting.

As we approached Merano it became clear that, the political border notwithstanding, we were entering Austria. And indeed, had World War I gone the other way, that’s exactly where we would be. This region is the South Tyrol, 40 miles from the Austrian border; the architecture, the language, and the culture are essentially Bavarian. A-frame roofs with timbers on the outside, a distinct absence of baroque Italianate facades on the buildings, street signs in German and Italian, and wiener-schnitzel on the menus of the restaurants. It’s slightly more Italian than Salzburg, but not by much.

Oh, and the restaurants close up at about 8:30, about two hours earlier than the rest of Italy. We almost missed dinner because our stomach clock time settings were insufficiently Teutonic. We will not make this mistake again tomorrow; we have ways of making you eat.

Anyway, here is a view of the town. If you think it resembles an Alpine ski resort, you are not far off the mark.

Garda & Merano-6Our apartment here is a spacious two bedroom condo on the fifth floor of a building, only about a block from the center of town. The decor and architecture of the place could not differ more dramatically from the other places that we have stayed. Unadorned white walls, right angles everywhere, and not a scowling 16th century portrait in sight. In fact, nothing in sight: there is not a single wall hanging or piece of decoration anywhere other than a couple of very spare-looking narrow Scandinavian-style bookcases in the living room. Gabriele D’Annunzio wouldn’t have lasted five seconds in this place.

There is a hillside promenade that overlooks the town, and, about ten miles from here, a tramway that goes to the nearest mountaintop. Both of those are on our agenda for tomorrow, so with luck I’ll have some pictures to show.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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