At Bolzano's Christmas market Italian and mitteleuropean cultures combine in a cosmopolitan mix
The irresistible aroma of fresh bread and the peal of church bells accompanied our early morning stroll around the cobbled streets of central Bolzano. Although set in a wide valley at the meeting of two rivers, the town is surrounded by the Dolomites and there’s an unmistakable mountain fizz in the air.
We'd arrived late the previous evening and made straight for our hotel – Hotel Figl, a friendly, family-run place tucked into a corner of the central Piazza del Grano in a historic palazzo with a striking deep-red façade and a wood-panelled bar area with sunny terrace - ask for room 10 for similarly traditional décor. In the dark we hadn’t grasped just how close the mountains were it came as a surprise to turn a corner and see the towering snowy peaks sparkling in the morning light.
Always busy and bustling, Bolzano gets even more so in the run-up to Christmas with market stalls filling the piazzas and winding streets of the traffic-free centre. Under red and white striped awnings, they sell hand-made Tyrolean woodcrafts, felt hats and wooden tree decorations and local delicacies such as the strong formaggio grigio – ‘grey cheese’ – speck, smoked sausages and bottles of elderflower cordial. Side initiatives include organ recitals and traditional music in the cathedral and colourful Alpine bands in the main square, Piazza Walther.
As capital of the border region of South Tyrol – Alto Adige in Italian – Bolzano only joined Italy at the end of WWI. Previously Austrian, the region is still officially bilingual and the way of life combines the best of both Italian and mitteleuropean cultures. The Germanic institution of the Christmas market takes pride of place on the local calendar but it’s thanks to a characteristically Italian flair for food and knack of having a good time that Bolzano’s event distinguishes itself from its better known counterparts further north.
Food is an important aspect of life wherever you go in Italy and no less so in Bolzano. Throughout the year it’s the 700 year-old daily fruit and veg market (not Sundays) in the elongated Piazza delle Erbe that is the real heart of town. In the middle of it is the micro-brewery Hopfen & Co (Piazza Erbe 17, +39 0471 300788, www.boznerbier.it, meal for 2 about €25) - we stopped to enjoy a beer with brezen from the rack on the bar. The huge woven pretzels are soft and light and go perfectly with a glass of the house dunkel beer, a darkish, spicy brew. Although only 11.30am, the tables were full of clients already tucking into lunch. Sausages are served in the pan and various dishes, such as gulasch alla birra, are cooked with the house beer; they even do a beer sorbet. As well as brewing three types of beer on the premises - the copper vats dominate the bar area – Hopfen has its own bakery. Many of the delicious local breads, including the thin and crunchy schüttelbrot, are made with rye flour and seasoned with fennel and caraway seeds – you can buy them from the stall outside the bar.
Continuing our stroll through the town we resisted the mulled wine, which comes served in celebratory cups, and the tempting aromas of street food – chestnuts and apple fritters, spicy lebkuchen biscuits and fruity zelten cake.
Instead, we made our way to Batzenhäusl (Via Andrea Hofer 30, +39 0471 050950, www.batzen.it, meal for 2 about €35). It's the town's oldest restaurant, dating back 600 years, and is housed in one of Bolzano's typically tall and narrow Tyrolean-style buildings. Downstairs, the décor is contemporary but we went up to the cosy wood-panelled dining room on the first floor and ordered a lunch of local specialities: canederli - large bread dumplings made with speck and served in broth – and spinach-filled pasta crescents called schlutzkrapfen. A bottle of the full-bodied yet elegant local Lagrein made a perfect accompaniment.
Vineyards and castles
A third of Bolzano’s territory is covered with vines and two other native varieties are made as well as Lagrein: the aromatic white Gewürztraminer and the lighter red St. Magdalener. We went for a late afternoon walk along the Talvera riverside path to see Mareccio Castle and one of the most impressive views in town: the 12th century castle surrounded by acres of vineyard with the craggy Catinaccio group of the Dolomites in the background - especially lovely at sunset when they take on a glorious rosy hue. Carrying on along the riverbank you eventually reach Roncolo Castle, famous for its medieval frescoes which include stories of King Arthur and the Round Table; otherwise you can strike off along the Sant'Osvaldo footpath that leads through vineyards to the St. Magdalena church, which gives the wine its name. As it was dark by this time we did neither, crossing the river instead to reach the family-run Rastbichler restaurant (Via Cadorna 1, +39 0471 261131, meal for 2 about €40). In a room hung with old farm implements and cowbells - the more formal dining room features a decorated wooden ceiling that once adorned a castle - we dug into another feast, this time with venison ham, mushrooms and polenta followed by a sweet, plum-filled variety of canederli.
There are around 400 castles altogether in South Tyrol and most are open to visitors. One that we were keen not to miss was Flavon Castle which nowadays houses the Haselburg bar and restaurant (Via Castel Flavon 48, +39 0471 402130, www.haselburg.it, meal for 2 about €45). It dates from the 12th century and has been transformed with style – thick stone walls and luscious fabrics blending well with the contemporary bar furniture and futuristic lighting fixtures.
The importance given to all aspects of the local heritage from the artistic and architectural to the gastronomic is very evident in and around Bolzano and this juxtaposition of ancient and modern, Germanic and Italian is certainly alluring. Perhaps that’s why in the few decades since it began, the town’s annual Christmas market has become the highlight of the year, rivalling the longer established mitteleuropean markets and drawing visitors from both sides of the border.
Bolzano’s Christmas market is held each year between late November & late December