Fairytale of Bolzano
A popular fairytale from the area around Bolzano explains the natural beauty of the mountains and illustrates the local character and the ambiguities of the autonomous province.
Driving from Copenhagen to Italy, we cheer loudly every time we cross the Brenner See bridge and head for the tunnel, but we don’t stop for the first hundred km on Italian ground, if we can avoid it. The extreme north is stunningly beautiful with high, snow-clad mountains and deep forests, but it feels like Germany in extension.
Once, after a day stuck in traffic, we didn’t reach the border till 8 pm and decided to stop in Bolzano for the night. Coming into a new town after nightfall is never easy, and it took time to find parking and hotel. When we finally managed, it was half past ten, and we went out to look for a place to eat. Eating late isn’t normally a problem in Italy, but in Bolzano the restaurants kept fixed hours, and the only place open was a take-away pizza joint. After some persuasion, a waiter allowed us to bring the food into a posh wine bar on Piazza Walter, and we sat down with our cardboard pizza tray among umbrella cocktails, Gucci bags and pointed stilettos feeling very out of place. Fortunately, the locals had the good sense to ignore us.
Back in the hotel room, there were solid, soft, and oversized German beds surrounded by minimalistic Italian decor. Two-thirds of the population in Bolzano are German, and in order to protect minority rights there is proportionality for public jobs, housing and other benefits which seems to affect other aspects of life as well.
Questions of Nationality
Bolzano is basically an opulent modern town, but it has a Gothic kind of beauty with arcaded streets, garbled houses and lots of towers, steeples and spires. There’s a nostalgic fondness for local traditions and food like beer steins, knödle or canederli and pretzel. The signs for museums and public institutions are invariably bi-lingual.
The history of Bolzano is marred by the voluntary expatriation of German-speakers in the 1930s. The people of the city were given the choice between nazi Germany or Italian fascism, and those who remained were forced to change their names and their language. Later, in compensation, the province was granted autonomy, but only in a regional partnership with the poorer and predominantly Italian Trento province, which meant that the Germans remained a minority.
Still, the economy grew, thanks to the production of hydroelectricity. Alto Adige became a strong energy producing region and managed to attract industrial development. Bolzano grew from 19.000 inhabitants after WWII to 80.000 in 1953 and 106.000 in 2017.
In 1953 the Italian travel writer Giudo Piovene visited Bolzano and described the people as “comfortable, dull, closed, stubborn and sentimental with a limited capacity for passion”. An orderly, autonomous region made up by hundreds of small kingdoms setting up their own rules and regulations.
He explained the character with reference to perpetual contentiousness and the “maso chiuso” law, which means that land cannot be split up but must pass in its entirety to the eldest son. In this way Alto Adige has been able to prevent population drift and generate a certain kind of affluence and aristocracy based on large family-run farms.
People remained close around the commune and the family, faithful to tradition, the natural beauty of the landscape and the teachings of the church. Every commune had its own small King, who served as an honest and independent administrator. They stuck to their own ideas, fought against diversity and were rewarded with public order and low crime rates. Alto Adige was the first region in Italy to abolish illiteracy, and Bolzano continually tops the list of the city offering the best quality of life in Italy.
The dichotomy between us and them, passion and order, beauty and brutality, magic and common sense – and perhaps Italy and Germany – is reflected in a local fairytale designed to explain the optical phenomenon of Alpenglow.
The Legend of King Laurin
Legend has it that once upon a time, King Laurin had a rose garden on the Catanaccio mountain. King Laurin ruled over a population of dwarfs, who lived in a palace of crystals, silver and gold dug into the mountain. Apart from these riches, the King had a magic belt that gave him the strength of 12 men and a cloak that rendered him invisible.
One day a king from a neighbouring kingdom, decided to give away his daugther Similde’s hand in marriage, and he invited all the eligible noblemen, apart from King Laurin, to a party. King Laurin, however, decided to participate anyway, and wearing his magic cloak he crashed the festivities and fell head over heels in love with the beautiful Similde. Instinctively, King Laurin took the girl and fled with her on his horse.
All the other knights went in pursuit of the abductor, and they managed to reach the rose garden before King Laurin and block the entrance. Wearing the belt that gave him the strength of 12 men, King Laurin tried to fight his way through, but the opposition was too strong. Instead of accepting defeat, King Laurin took on his invisibility cape and tried to sneak in, confident that no one could see him. Unfortunately, his opponents noticed the sway of the roses under which the King tried to hide. He was caught, stripped of his magic belt and brought to prison.
In a rage, the King Laurin turned against the Catinaccio mountain that he felt had betrayed him, and he said: “Neither by day nor by night should anyone again admire this lovely sight”. In his curse, he forgot to mention the twilight time between night and day, and so the Catinaccio, which is called Rosengarten in German, glows in fascinating shades of pink, red and purple every day at dawn and dusk.
The phenomenon can be observed from Bolzano, where there’s a clear view of the summit of the Catinaccio/Rosengarten mountain along with a fountain commemorating the defeat of King Laurin.