We’re in the South Tyrol region of Italy – two hours north of Venice progressing towards the Austrian border – and the little Fiat rental is beginning to voice some struggle. Corkscrew inclines, as if spliced from a James Bond movie, have me shifting in my seat and grasping for secure handholds. They’ll be no sleeping on the remainder of this car ride.
The Adriatic coast feels far away, distanced first by a wide highway and shallow sea plain, and now slipping further below the horizon with each narrow switchback along the ridgeline. This is the terrain we’re here for – dramatic rock pinnacles, towers and table mountains overwhelming our windshield view.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 due to their global uniqueness, “The Dolomites” are sometimes referred to as the “pale mountains” – regal formations of limestone that were once a giant coral reef in a prehistoric sea. Today, the region is perhaps the most engaging component of the famous European Alps. Ski enthusiasts from all over the world flock to this region each year to attend the world cup of giant slalom on the Gran Risa in La Villa or to make their own lines on the soft powder snow of the spectacular downhill slopes. I’m an “in the moment” kind of guy, but I have to admit that this place makes me long for winter. The evidence is all around me.
The Tyrol region is the ancestral home of every ski-lodge you have seen or imagined. Heavy timber frame peeks through thick walls of local stone built to withstand the deep snowfalls that bury the ground floor during winter – steeply pitched roofs to shed heavy snows with broad eaves shelter wooden porches and balconies grayed from harsh exposure – windows set deep enough in the walls that their frames cast cool shadows across planting boxes exploding with the colors of summer flowers. It could be a hotel, guest house, restaurant, bakery, bank, or shoe store – you have to intentionally pay attention to the small signage adorning the exterior walls to tell. This means taking your time and slowing as you pass – which, as it turns out, is not all that difficult given the winding roads.
A few dozen more kilometers into the countryside (and perhaps another 1000 feet in elevation) we arrived at our AirBnB – a charming, 100+ year old, 3 story chalet in the midst of a working dairy farm. This place is no disappointment – a cozy round living room fireplace, hand-made built-in cabinets, wide plank floors, and a timber beamed ceiling alongside all the necessary conveniences for modern living including wifi Internet, bidets, steamy showers, and remote electric skylights. Our site tour was conducted in full German, which had little impact on my non-German-speaking companions – wide eyes and slacked jaws indicating their delight.
Afterwards, I rather sheepishly asked our host for directions to the local(ish) grocery market. It’s slightly ironic to ask for grocery shopping advice while on a farm – but after a shared laugh she admitted to making a market run herself on occasion and recommended a small store in the neighboring village of San Martino about 12 km away. So, after a brief bit of unpacking, we hiked back up the hill to our car and headed into town.
The market was everything promised; a one room store with a circular isle, meat and bread counter. Curiously, we found some foreign branded pasta, but left on the shelf and opted for only locally sourced foods and more than a few bottles of regional wine… which, given the length of the drive back to the farm, inspired us to store the groceries in the car and wander into the town pub for some more immediate refreshment.
I’d been looking forward to some Alpine taps – christening our official Tyrolean arrival with a Peroni brown ale – ordering in my tourist German. Yes, German.
Part of Austria for centuries, this Alps region was forfeited to Italy in the aftermath of World War I (and clearly without the local’s consent). Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister and leader of the National Fascist Party, attempted to “Italianize” the region – giving everything (even some families) a new Italian name, forbidding the German language in public places, and discriminating against German speaking workers. But the folks here weren’t having it and things got ugly. Underground schools were created, monuments were defaced, and violence erupted. Although the South Tyrol was given the power to self-rule in 1972, broader in many ways than other areas of Italy, the bitterness remains.
Today, roughly 65% of Tyroleans speak German, 25% speak Italian, and 5% speak Ladin. The bartender here however, appeared happy to be speaking English; peppering us with questions about our presence. So, we did what any respectable ethnocentric American would do and asked her where we can get the best pizza.
We’re Also Here to Eat
The bartender recommended a pizzeria just across the square (which could be more appropriately described as a “lawn”) next to the town church. So off we went…
Now I’m not what you would call a “big pizza eater” in the U.S., but pizza in Italy is remarkably different – much more flavor from fewer, fresher ingredients baked in a wood-fired oven. Still, pizza is generally a cheap food fare in Italy. It’s a made to order, an individual dish that is easily shared, making Pizza a social food – meant for evening eating with friends at casual joints – and a far cry from Mama’s home cooked pasta. Eating pizza alone in Italy is just sad. Thankfully, that was not our experience.
I had no sooner finished my last bite of pizza when a pick-up truck pulled into the small parking area right in front of our table, repetitively honking the horn. Two young men in ill-fitting suits jumped out (beers in hand) and launched some cheers.
As if on call, a second SUV approached (this one included a few girls as well) and repeated the performance. Soon people began arriving on foot from all directions; dresses, suits, lederhosen, etc. crowding the one room restaurant and patio. Whether we wanted to or not – and we certainly had no objection – we found ourselves in the midst of some type of party. Exactly what kind of party wasn’t evident until the bride and groom arrived.
We pulled our table aside and ordered another round as an impromptu band took over – a pair of accordions, an acoustic guitar, and a bumbass (I swear I’m not making this up… go ahead, click the link).
The Morning After
I awoke early. The house remains still and dark, but I am very much awake.
Slowly descending the wooden stairs, willing each footstep to forgive my weight and keep the stairs from groaning as I made my way to the narrow kitchen.
I’ve managed to locate an electric kettle – heating water and soaking coffee grinds in a French press as I stand under a lone yellow light, watching through a small casement window as the neighbors begin their chores in the darkness.
“Morgen,” I whisper with a slight wave when noticed.
He responds with a quiet nod.
Gingerly I make my way across the living room to the uneven timber porch, careful not to disturb the dreams of others in the farmhouse. The halo of dawn is breaking on the rocky ridgeline peak high above me. Wispy clouds drift down the valley, ghostly gray mist floating through forest shadows and grassland slopes. Wrapping both hands around my coffee cup to soak in its warmth, I reflect on a remarkable day.
Had we not said yes to my brother-in-laws invitation – not been willing to ask a farmer for advice on groceries – not chosen a village market over a franchise town store – not laughed along with the market owner’s observation of our wine purchase – not been willing to enter the local pub, talk to the bartender, ask about pizza, and follow her advice – we would never have shared in a village wedding.
I haven’t yet seen a trailhead, but this morning and yesterday’s memories will be with me forever.
I don’t know what worries and challenges you might be facing today – I don’t know what this day will bring me – but chances are, it’s someone’s wedding day.