Long live Tirol! Which Tirol?

Oct 162008

The alpine region was carved up in the aftermath of World War I. The two halves have grown more distinct in those 90 years.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Austria. It has also been 90 years since the map of Europe was redrawn in the wake of World War I. Germany was whittled down a bit. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were carved right up. Numerous border regions, most of which had become ethnically mixed over the centuries, suddenly found themselves pasted onto neighboring countries.

A new border split Austria’s alpine Tirol region. The northern half remained part of Austria. Most of the southern half became part of Italy, even though speakers of Italian, Ladeinish and other Rhaeto-Romantic languages made up less than 10 percent of the population.

I can tell you that it is a very decisive split for a touring cyclist who drinks three beers in Innsbruck (elevation: 1,890 feet) with an Austrian friend on Friday evening, wakes up late on Saturday morning, and wants to get to Brixen, 60 miles south on the Italian side, before dusk: The border runs along one of the highest ridges in the Alps, and the only pass, Brenner, is at 4,530 feet.

Südtirolers’ complaints go far beyond sore legs, of course. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Italian government hauled Sicilians and other Italians up to administer the new province, which it calls Alte Adige, Upper Adiggio. It wasn’t exactly ethnic cleansing, but the Südtirolers didn’t like being unable to speak German with the folks at city hall or the fact that their kids were having to go to school in Italian. And we’re not talking about a few thousand people. The provincial population is nearly 500,000 today. (The population of the Austrian state Tirol, which includes Innsbruck, is about 600,000.)

Südtiroler separatists pulled off several acts of sabotage in Italy back in the ‘60s, or maybe the ‘70s or ‘50s or some other time before I was born. Things calmed down after Italy granted the province partial autonomy, and began allowing most official business there to be conducted mainly in German.

But I was wrong to assume that all would be pianissimo. A lot of Südtirolers are still fortissimo upset at the division of their region. Just north of Brenner, one graffiti artist had spray-painted “EIN TIROL” – one Tirol – in red block letters on the Autobahn overpass. Another proclaimed Italy to be a “Banana Republik” -- in neon yellow. In Südtirol's Dolomiten newspaper Sunday morning, one reader’s letter complained of waning use of traditional Tirolean architecture in new buildings.

The Alto Adigeani have their side, too, of course. I rode by several city-limits signs with the German versions of the names crossed out, leaving only the Italian.

In most cases, it’s pretty apparent that the German names were the originals. The village of Niederrasen, for example, translates as “Lower Grass.” This kind of construction is very common for German-language place names. Two German states, for example, are Sachsen and Niedersachsen – “Saxony” and “Lower Saxony.” Two of Austria’s nine states are Oberösterreich and Niederösterreich – “Upper Austria” and “Lower Austria. I think “Rasun di Sotto,” which is “Niederrasen” partially translated into Italian, is of a less common construction in Italian.

In any case, most of the 100,000 Italian-speaking residents are concentrated in the three main cities – Bozen (Bolzano), Brixen (Bressanone) and Meran (Merano). On my first visit to Südtirol, in December 1996, my German host family and I stayed in Sankt Leonhard, one of several small villages uphill from Brixen. Everyone up there spoke German, and I always noticed the first time each morning on the slopes when I heard a skier speaking Italian. It was also strange to order a glass of Glühwein in German and then pay 5,000 lira for it.

Geopolitics aside, Südtirol is gorgeous in a way that’s distinct from Tirol, the Austrian state. For one thing, its reputation as sunnier held up in my two days on each side of the ridge. As I gritted my way out of Brixen and up toward the cool, clear Sunday morning sky, I even passed a couple of vineyards. Full bunches of red and green grapes and green leaves hung on the vines. Red and brown leaves, still damp with dew, carpeted the slope.

And the castles! I must have passed five of six of them north and east of Brixen. With their large stones and round turrets, they looked older and more Romanesque than the castles I saw north of the ridge earlier in the week.

But for me, Südtirol will always be a sort of extension of Germany and the German language. My first memory of it was crossing Brenner in a warm bus with the Schürmanns, snowflakes flittering by us at the edge of the darkness. We passed through Sankt Andrä every morning on the way to the slopes. On New Year’s Eve, several of us trudged down the dark, snowy hillside toward the narrow rectangular stone steeple that marked the village church.

And the rhyming ditty that Horst Schürmann wrote and had us sing one night at the end of the week. Each verse was about a different member of our group from Lübbecke. I only remember one in full, but it has gone through my head hundreds of times in the last 12 years:

Gerlachs Dieter steht im Wald
Ihm ist dabei ziemlich kalt.
Manchmal hört man ihn laut fluchen:
“Wer hilft mir mein Schi zu suchen?”

Dieter Gerlach’s out in the woods
It’s pretty cold out there
If you listen, you can hear him curse:
"Will somebody help me find my ski?"