South Tyrol - Part One: Bolzano & Books, Nature & Food...

Ok, I hope you're sitting comfortably. If not, now's the time to boil the kettle, get a cup of coffee or tea and find a comfy place to sit for a while. Because this post is pretty epic in terms of images. I had wondered how many posts I should do and settled on two, each very heavy with imagery since I had to whittle down nearly 800 to get to what you're seeing here. This then is part one of my recent trip to South Tyrol in Northern Italy. The part of Italy where alpine landscapes meet mediterranean vegetation. Where you're in Italy, but a large part of the population speaks German. Where you can get amazing pizza as well as a hearty harvest feast in the mountains. I never realised how beautifully all these seeming contradictions could work together...until now. But I'll start at the beginning... 

On a Thursday morning at the end of October I left grey London to board my flight to Verona. We (that'd be me and a wonderful and hilarious group of journalists) had been invited on this photography trip by Wanderer South Tyrol in order to explore the area, sample the food (when I say "sample" I mean "I cannot recall the last time I ate so much"!) and wine, and meet some amazing people like Nicoló Degiorgis and Brigitte Niedermair, two top photographers. Oh, and of course to take photos! 

We landed in Verona late morning and were transferred to our hotel, the Hidalgo Suites and Restaurant in Burgstall, not far from Bolzano. Since, by the time we got there, it was lunchtime, we were straight away led to our table in the restaurant where we started our culinary adventure with a truly fantastic (yeah, you'll read this description more than once since every meal we had was just incredible!) three-course meal accompanied by some wonderful white wine. Wined and dined, we then went to find our rooms which were actually mini-apartments complete with kitchen, dining and living area and separate bedroom as well as a view right onto the mountains. I just sunk onto a chair and took in the view for a while. Blue skies, mountains, huge views...yes, everything that is pretty much non-existent in London.

We had the afternoon to relax with the option of visiting the hotel's spa, but I opted instead to go for a long walk in the close-by forest. I needed to move after that lunch and I wanted to explore and take in as much nature as I possibly could, breathe in as much air as my lungs would take and feel some of the warm sunshine on my face. I wandered for an hour and a half through the forest and past an apple orchard and got my first glimpse of the strange combination of snow-capped mountains and palm trees. Eventually I made my way back to the hotel to freshen up for our evening meal... 

Our first dinner was at Miil, a restaurant between Bolzano and Merano and one of those places that feel welcoming and friendly whilst serving a highly innovative and extremely tasty take on traditional food. Ok, example: after ordering a dessert of "apple strudel" (you know, a proper classic so-to-speak), I thought they'd brought out the wrong plate as it looked nothing like the pastry roll filled with apple chunks and raisins and dusted with icing sugar that I had expected. Turns out, it was the right dish, but a "deconstructed" version of it which was more delicious than any actual apple strudel could have been. Each plate was of a good size, not ridiculously huge or "nouvelle cuisine" tiny, just perfect really, and accompanied by some wonderful wine. And yet, as we left, I felt quite full (I guess the three course lunch might have had something to do with it!) and ready to go back to the hotel, kick off my boots and go straight to bed giving in to heavy tiredness. Maybe it was a food-induced coma I succumbed to, but for the sake of saving my last shred of self-respect I'll put it down to getting up very early to catch my flight that morning... 

The next day we made our way to Bolzano for a day that would combine literature, culture, photography, wandering the streets and of course food. Our first stop was creative printer Longo where we received a guided tour and were talked through the printing process. Taking a little time to look through some of the beautiful books they had not only printed but also published in (relatively) small numbers was not only interesting, but it reinforced my belief in being selective with regards to projects we take on. 

Our next stop was Museion, the museum of modern and contemporary art in Bolzano, where we were expertly talked through the history as well as current exhibitions. As if the building itself wasn't impressive enough (a huge glass and metal structure in the midst of classical buildings, cobbled streets and mountains, designed in a way that you can see right through to the outdoor scenery on the other side), the exhibitions were really interesting and different. However, I had one big problem with the museum: the huge glass windows. Whilst locals visiting will probably be used to the views and quite jaded about it (I don't stare at Tower Bridge in awe either), I struggled to concentrate on the exhibitions alone. Nature was literally competing with art and I found myself staring out of the windows right past the brilliant art on more occasions than one. I'm half-certain that's not what the architects and curators had in mind...is it?

Fortified by a fabulous pasta lunch at Tinello (the kind of restaurant where the locals go and therefore the kind of restaurant where the food is unpretentious but amazing), we made our way to a place where I felt more able to concentrate on the actual subject: the independent publishing house Rorhof where we also met with Nicoló Degiorgis, the editor and creative director as well as author and photographer. Located in an old farmhouse dating back to the 15th century, the house was originally used for the production of wine and grappa (this is Italy, after all), but this ceased in the 70s. After that it became the home of an avid book collector who passed away in 2013 leaving the house to become Rorhof Publishing in 2014. Nicoló talked us through the history of the house and the company as well as some of the books they have worked on and published with the kind of enthusiasm, warmth, humour and pride found in people who genuinely love what they do. The books cover unusual photography projects as well as social issues, often combining the two into some truly outstanding works. One book stands out in particular for its commercial success and is now on its third edition: Hidden Islam. A photographic exploration of the "hidden mosques" around Italy where, according to constitution, the right to worship without discrimination should be part of everybody's life. However, with only eight mosques in the whole of Italy, 1.35m muslims and an ever stronger right-leaning voice growing especially in the north of the country, many have to resort to makeshift mosques for their daily worship. The book explores these places in a quiet and observatory way without giving any views or opinions. The photos simply state what is there which makes it quite a powerful documentary... 

                                   Nicoló Degiorgis

                                   Nicoló Degiorgis

Of course no visit to Bolzano would be complete without actually wandering the streets of this beautiful capital city of South Tyrol (also known as Alto Adige). Bolzano is the largest city in the area and is surrounded by mountains (it is the gateway to the Dolomites), crammed full of beautiful architecture and pastel-coloured houses, and breathtaking views at every turn. Whilst German is spoken throughout most of South Tyrol, Bolzano is somewhat different with Italian being the predominant language. This is where it probably "hit" me most that I am in actual fact in Italy: I had struggled a little with flying to Italy yet speaking German in most places...

Camera in hand, we aimlessly walked the streets for a while, stopping to buy chocolates and roasted chestnuts, have our first mulled wine of the season and soak up some of the beauty surrounding us. I tried hard to take in everything I could - places, views, people - and to photograph as much of what I saw. I tried to capture what I took as the essence of this beautiful city, but knew that I would ultimately only manage to see and document a minuscule part of it. A couple of hours will never be enough to get to the core of a place, but it sparked the desire to come back to this place and might just be enough to inspire the next person to visit, explore and capture their own take on it... 

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We ended our day with (yay, more food!) a Törggelen Dinner nearly 800 meters in the mountains above Bolzano at family-owned Gasthaus Noafer. It felt like I stepped from Italy right back into Austrian "Gemütlichkeit" - a german term that means something on the lines of "homeliness, warmth, cosiness" - and the rustic eating culture that goes with it. We were served a huge harvest feast of meats and sausages, sauerkraut and sautéed potatoes, dumplings, homemade wine and apple juice, roasted chestnuts, pastries and more. We feasted until our belts were close to bursting and we felt too full to move. We drank wine until we were merry. We laughed and talked and enjoyed this truly fantastic evening as if we'd all known each other for years before driving back to our hotel for a well deserved night's sleep. 

Gasthaus Noafer 2.jpg
Gasthaus Noafer 3.JPG

Our next stop was Merano and a day spent with mega-photographer Brigitte Niedermair, but more of that in my next post...