It is a strange sensation to travel from the Veneto to the ‘Italian’ region of Trentino-Alto Adige. Although only 3 hours in the car, you feel as though you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and popped up in the heart of Austria. Even as you drive through Trentino a strange transformation occurs. Signs become dual lingual, Italian and German, wooden chalets with pretty carved balconies nestle into the hillside, and taverns proclaiming artisan brewed beer bear names like ‘Golden Lamb’ (Goldenes Lamm). This area is also known, or better known for most of the inhabitants, as South Tyrol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian country of Tyrol. Its history is complex and troubled, and unresolved political, linguistic and cultural disputes bubble under the surface today.
In 1918 South Tyrol was annexed by Italy, drawing a frontier along the Brenner Pass. Like a scythe this cut violently through an area of collective culture and nationality. Mayors of South Tyrol protested, drawing attention to US President Woodrow Wilson’s advice that “A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality” (Fourteen Points presented to a joint session of Congress on January 8 1918). But to no avail. For a few years, however, the new Italian nationality of this German-speaking population was not evidentially enforced, and their cultural traditions and system of education continued on peacefully. But the rise of Fascism was about to plunge their South Tyrolean identity into chaos.
With Benito Mussolini in power, South Tyrol was subject to ‘Italianisation’ by force. Mussolini was in no mood to be gentle, as he announced; “If the Germans on both sides of the Brenner don’t toe the line, then the fascists will teach them a thing or two about obedience.” German schools were closed and Italian superseded German as the official language in public offices. For the next 60 years this region would be subject to continual identity flux, including a choice for inhabitants to emigrate to Germany in 1939 or remain as true Italian citizens, being annexed to Nazi Germany in 1943, and then returning to Italian hands after the war. This crisis culminated in the late 1960s with the South Tyrolean Liberation Committee committing fatal acts of terrorism in protest against the lack of autonomy in the region’s government.
In the late 1960s an agreement was reached for greater self-government of the South Tyrol province, and it has since grown into one of the wealthiest and highest rated places to live in Italy. With an idyllic Sound of Music backdrop and quaint peaceful villages to charm the tourist, all issues of identity seem historical. But even a brief conversation with local residents betrays a dormant resentment, not just because for most German is their first language and Italian is spoken with a heavy accent. After a couple of days experiencing the food and lifestyle it is clear the label of ‘Italian’ does not sit well with many who live here. The fat, opera-singing, moustache twirling old man, the fussy family orientated Mamma, the casually winking tanned youth, all these Italian stereotypes are useless here. Indeed, a scene in a winebar in Vipiteno on our last evening served as a neat comparison of two distinct characters. With gentle classical music playing, sleek wooden surroundings and the quiet murmur of German-speaking locals, the Italians seemed like zoo animals. Their drunken laughter rang out too loud, their glasses banged on the table and two children had abandoned their seats and decided the floor was a much comfier place to sprawl.
In terms of food and culture it is also very distinct from the rest of Italy. While visiting a couple of small borghi we discovered artisan breweries, specialist speck producers and the ‘Casa dello strudel’ (house of strudel). The most notable eaterie was in the town of Chiusa, just north of Bolzano. The restaurant was formed from an old mill, still functioning though not in use, and the interior was filled with old machinery and instruments from the mill. In the dark wooden surroundings we ate by candle-light, and were one of the lucky few groups to be given a table inside a beer barrel transformed into a kind of booth. We feasted on typical South Tyrolean fare – canederli, crispy pork and lashings of local beer / wine.
It is easy and amusing to make stereotypical comparisons of nationalities and cultures but there is real political strength behind the South Tyroleans’ feeling of displacement. There are many who wish to renounce the label of ‘Italian’ that defines them on passports and identity cards. On the other hand, Trentino-Alto Adige is called regione a statuto speciale, which means it is an Italian region but with more autonomy for self-government than other regions. It also means they pay less tax, one of the reasons for their disproportionate wealth compared to the rest of the country. From an economic point of view, therefore, many consider it more sensible to remain in their privileged position in Italy. Perhaps, even, the attractiveness of this region derives precisely from its controversial geographical definition, and the distinct ‘patriotism’ of its people would be lost if it renounced its ‘Italian’ status.
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