Excerpt from Castle Country

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Since the 12th century, the lush terrain of Alto Adige, a 3,000-square-mile stretch of the Tyrol in Italy's farthest north, has been studded with a king's ransom of castles, manor houses and monasteries. There are more than 350 of them today, overhanging rocky cliffs or lying, half-concealed, in primordial pine forests. Dozens are open to daytime visitors; some are ruins while others have become museums, hotels and restaurants.

    I set out last November on a three-day tour of the region from Bolzano, the provincial capital, driving 20 miles north to the outskirts of Merano, where a battery of castles is clustered into its own unofficial duchy. As I followed the twisting contours of the Adige River a sea of grapevines poured down to the road, flooding over valleys and plains. The Dolomites rose up from the asphalt. Soon, faraway fortresses began to pop up in the countryside, their great stone facades towering above me.

    Alto Adige became part of Italy in 1919, after perennial battles with neighboring Austria. Because of the years of hegemony, everything has two names, one in Italian and another in German (for German speakers, who make up two-thirds of the population, Alto Adige is known as the Südtirol). Some street names have changed position on the signs several times: the choice of which language comes first depends on whether the street is home to more Italian or German speakers, and that count is updated after each birth and death.

    My first stop was the town of Tirolo, also known as Dorf Tirol. I took the Schlossweg footpath from the center of town, walking about five minutes past the flowered tomb and wrought iron crosses of the church of St. Johann Baptist to a small terrace overlooking the Passirio River Valley. There is a view from here of the massive Schloss Tirol and the turreted Gothic Schloss Brunnenburg, poised on hardy rock cliffs and dominating the mountains. I continued on, taking the high road where the path split off: 10 minutes later I arrived at an underpass burrowed into the hill and exited to find Schloss Tirol perched on a 2,000-foot peak.

    With parts believed to date to 1095, Schloss Tirol is among the best preserved fortresses in Central Europe, although recent digging has uncovered the remains of an eighth-century church beneath it. A grass-covered cobblestone path leads from the trail to the mammoth rock-and-brick structure. Inside, magnificent marble doorjambs have been decorated with elaborate carvings of lions, dragons and eagles, along with depictions of the devil leading man into the depths of hell.

    In the Middle Ages, this was the castle of the counts of Tirolo. In the 14th century, the poet Boccaccio visited the castle as the ambassador from Florence. Today the furnishings have long since been removed, and the main rooms are used for concerts of medieval and Baroque music and for art expositions. Of the half-dozen large rooms you can visit, the most imposing is the castle's chapel. There, stained-glass windows date to Boccaccio's time, as do frescoes of archangels and apostles on the walls of the apse. An enormous Gothic crucifix towers over the altar, and from the windows the views are wide and overwhelming.

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