Scattered amongst soaring mountainous terrain; pulsating snow covered cliffs, surrounded by climbing forests in multiple shades of green, lies a small bilingual community, whom have found common ground in their complicated history, and pride themselves in both their language and heritage.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bozen/Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, a state in the very north of Italy, where history, geography and language have created division for nearly a century. You won’t sense the tension that scathed the land following the annex of the region from Austria post World War One. On the most part; it seems a thing of the past. What you may see though is an identity-crisis struck from living between two nations and two languages as the population attempt to identify their true mother country.
I was lucky enough to get the local experience as I was staying with some Südtiroler’s. What I found interesting was that although they were all bilingual, and we were in Italy, Deutsch seemed to be the language of choice between them – though, from what I heard, it certainly wasn’t German *tongue in cheek*. To me it’s the equivalent of an English speaker hearing someone from very Northern Scotland, perhaps even speaking Glaswegian. Although my German is still in the works, I was told that indeed many native German speakers struggle when understanding Südtiroler’s, which made me glad I wasn’t alone.
From the conversations we had, most locals seemed to be quite proudly Italian, yet preferred to speak German, which I found fascinating. I have to say though; this conversation came about when discussing football. They didn’t seem too keen on the Austrians. Funny that. But either way, they do of course speak Italian, most of them natively, and this caused a cultural experience I had seldom come across, whereby my limited Italian and decent German were at war with one another. Depending on the bar, cafe or restaurant we went to, the greeting and conversation would be mixed, so one really had to be alert. In fact the venue was wüscht (doesn’t make a difference) as they would say, rather each individual had their own preferences of language.
Quick side bar: anyone from Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, or many other countries I am sure of, this experience is probably quite normal. But coming from a country (Australia) isolated from the rest of the world, surrounded by English, this is really an experience.
So there I was sitting in an Irish bar. Of course an Irish bar. The ambience was yellow; the lights were dim, the temperature was warm, the music was soft and mellow, I felt quite gemütlich [cozy]. Having driven for over 7 hours, my stomach was running on empty, so being in Italy – pizza was the fuel of choice. Your man came over – this is an Irish place after all – and gave me a good ole, “Bitteschön” i.e what are ya after. He’s speaking German I thought, beautiful! I ordered in my best German accent, he walked away with a face full of comprehension and I thought ‘hey this isn’t so hard’. Next thing I know, your man, well another man this time, comes over holding a pizza and starts ranting away in Italian. It was „Bolognase“ this and „Berlusconi“ that…at least that’s how it sounded to me. I stared at him for a few seconds, mouthed a „waaaaas“ to my friends, before he switched to German and I was back on it. I even gave him a cheeky „Grazie“ to finish the job.
Language aside, the mountains were gorgeous and I was lucky enough to be taken on a hikking tour with one of the locals the following morning. The winding drive up the mountain was not one to miss, with a new view of the mountainous countryside after every bend. The friendliness of the locals was definitely not lost on me, with motorists passing by all smiling and waving their hands. The best was when a tractor steaming along at full throttle, attempted to overtake us up the steep climb. That’s when you know you’re really in the country.
After reaching the near top, we disembarked from our car and began the apparent ‘leisurely’ two hour hike to the summit. The incline was steep, and after the first fifteen minutes, ‘leisurely’ started seeming strenuous, causing me to rethink my fitness. An hour and a half in we wandered passed a group of elderly Nordic walkers. You know those dorky walkers with the ski-pole-style sticks. To be honest though, at that point I kind of wish I had a set too. Seeing my slightly struggling they mouthed off a cheeky, “don’t give up you’re almost there” in Südtirolien German, which I was amazed I actually understood. This definitely gave me some motivation. If these old geezers can do it, why can‘t I!?
I was surprised as well at the amount of snow towards the top, it being the end of April and all. I was informed that had we attempted the hike a few weeks early it would have been a lot tougher, so I took grace in the fact that I got the advantage of seeing the snow, but not needing to trudge a few miles in it.
After a couple of hours we finally made it to the summit, with a brilliant view of the mountainside. At the top lay a perfectly placed lodge, calling our name as we were dying for some nourishment to heal ourselves from the journey. We sat outside and admired the view whilst ordering some Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious Austrian delicacy, some bacon and eggs, and of course Weißbier. Content barely gives the experience justice
Südtirol really is Italy’s little Austria. Whilst both Austria and Italy share the Alps, Bolzano definitely screams more Austrian, with German the language of choice and Austria culture highly noticeable.
Where else can you get real Austrian Kaiserschmarrn and real Italian pasta in the same place? I will be coming back!
Many people claim traveling alone can be an arduous task. Who do you dine with? Who do you talk to on those long train rides? Who watches your bags when nature calls? And if you get lost, who do you blame but yourself? Aside from this, there are many upsides to traveling alone which helps bridge your confidence, turning you from shy into a social butterfly as well as the little self-wins along the way which makes doing it solo all the more fun.
In my latest Eurotrip last year, I found myself with a few days of solo traveling. Although a little anxious at first, having relied so heavily on the company of many others throughout my trip, it took an adrenalin fueled event to get the heart fluctuating and ready to embark on a solo journey.
I had just waved my girlfriend Simone off and left myself all but 15 minutes to grab my bag from the locker storage at München Hauptbahnhof and venture onto the EuroStar train towards Liechtenstein. Somewhere between grabbing some bratwurst for the train ride and walking toward the locker area, I realized that Simone had taken the key to the locker with her… No time to waste.
I ran towards the locker office, rambled out some broken German until I could convince the man to open my locker. 9 minutes..
Then I had to prove that it was actually my bag. No tags. Stupid. Oh wait there was a tag there from my flight from New York, it read, ‘Josh Thompson’ (a friend I had traveled with). Shit, this doesn’t look good. 7 minutes..
What to do…I noticed my combination lock was still on the bag so I unlocked it. That convinced him, phew! Back to the office, passport out, filling in paper work, pay fine (25 euro – eh!). Get out. 2 minutes.
Side steps and a few scraped shoulders later – don’t people understand that these German trains are never late – and then I remembered this particular train was Swiss. Even more punctual! Luckily, I already knew the platform. The whistle was blowing just as I threw my bags in and the train departed.
And so it was my first win traveling solo. The heart was racing, the anxiety was over. I could do this.
One thing I should mention about the tardiness of Swiss trains, is you have to be Usain Bolt during the connections. Many Swiss people will daily make connections of trains 2 minutes apart – a far cry from the 30+ minute connections in Sydney – so you better know which platform you’re going to.
After a 4 hour journey, I got off the train at Buchs in Switzerland, just a few kilometers west of Liechtenstein, and searched for the bus to take me into Schaan where my hostel was (the only hostel in Liechtenstein). Once I found the bus stop I went to the ATM to withdraw some Swiss Francs – the true monopoly money. It’s the most colorful money I’ve every seen, and the Swiss seem to love it so much, the ATM only gave me 100’s! So after getting some change from the nearby store I got the bus, paying with a 5 Franc coin (really, a CHF5 coin!) into Schaan.
One would think from here it would be simple with only one hostel in the whole country (OK I know it’s a pretty small country but still). Thus began another venture, with a photo of the map at my side, as I had no internet connection, I began walking left and right, around in circles, following street signs, until I ended up in a field of crops and what appeared to be some kind of bike track. It was getting dark and I had to check-in in the next 10 minutes or no one would be waiting for me… So, thinking I had gone the wrong way, I ran through the crops, jumped over a small creek, rolled under a fence and found myself back on the main road.
Then, I just asked someone. First in German, then in English. She responded in English pointing about 50m north. Sure enough there it was, just north of the field that I had ran through. Although I had to ask for directions, I made it. Unscathed, well other than a small scrape from the fence. Again the solo traveler prevailed!
THE NEXT DAY I woke and hired a bike, challenging myself to ride through 3 whole countries in one day! One thing I love about Switzerland and Liechtenstein is the cities are built for bikes. There seems to be more signage for bikes then there does for cars. In fact, they even have signs and different routes for rollerbladers, and Nordic walkers.
In such a tiny country there are lots of open fields for farming, bike tracks and not much else. The mountains are pretty beautiful though and I did manage to snap a picture of the main castle, though I was too lazy to go to the top.
I then proceeded to complete my challenge by riding to Feldkirch, Austria, back through Liechtenstein then into Switzerland. There was a really beautiful river running between the latter two countries which I crossed back and forth several times. I don’t know what it is, but being an Australian I think we have a fascination at the ease of moving between countries in Europe.
In all honesty, had I been with a group of mates, we probably would have cycled for an hour, then spent the rest of the day at the pub. I love travelling alone as it forces me to be active.
I spent the whole day cycling, taking in the fresh air, seeing the changing gradients of the mountains, and generally just enjoying the different cultures of people I witnessed throughout the day. Liechtenstein is a country you really can see in a day.
Travelling alone is not for everyone, I don’t like it all the time, but it’s definitely worth trying. It makes you do things you’d never normally do.
I didn’t meet anyone on this particular trip, the hostel was fairly empty and the town quiet. But these days with technology, there’s always something to keep you interested. In the end, my iPod was my music to talk to and my iPad was my companion for lunch. And with that, Liechtenstein was just another country ticked off my list.