Capo di Ponte
Mountains of History - Italy
Two historical wonders of great significance lie in the region of the Alps, north of Verona, both within day trip distance. Have a pre-train Campari Spritz and doze your to Capo di Ponte and Bolzano:
The Bedolina Map, Capo di Ponte.
The Bedolina map, carved into the rocks between the Bronze and Early Iron Age, is one of the oldest representations of territory in the world and wasn’t used to direct from A to B but to seek reassurance from the gods during the unsettling transition between food supplies being hunted and gathered and the waiting game of crop planting.
The twin rock sites of Seradina and Bedolina are above the tiny station of Capo di Ponte. From Verona, I switched trains at Brescia onto something more tram-like that took an hour and a half to crawl to Capo di Ponte leaving the lakes of Brescia behind as the little railway carved its way though the Alps passing between villages and Stone Masons’ yards. Climbing down, I was alarmed by how much the church looked like it was hanging from the edge of the mountain ready to drop on the village at any moment.
I puffed my way across a footbridge and then up the road to the site’s ticket office to find that a mud slide meant that I could only visit Seradina from this entrance. To visit the map, I would have to be entrusted with the gate key and snake another half an hour up the mountain. The ticket office lady seemed anxious about the additional work that the opening of the gate would cause me and finally said “why don’t you just climb over the fence?” This was an exciting development – the world’s oldest map and an act of illegal entry all in one day.
The engravings at Seradina are transfixing once the figures, that include people ploughing and also in battle, start to emerge (it’s a bit like one of those optical illusion posters – there’s a certain way of looking at the rocks) and 'Rock Twelve' has over one hundred carvings. After two hours, one fence clamber and a couple of yelps from encountering a very territorial dog later, I was in front of the Bedolina Map.
It was spectacular – boundaries, fields and paths were clearly inscribed in the now smooth rock surface. Taking my shoes off so that I could climb onto the map , I sat in the sunshine marveling at how this was the Great, Great, Great …. Grandmother of the map app on my phone.
Later, descending back to the top of the village, I rejected the museum of pre-historic life for pasta dripping with gorgonzola and a carafe of terrible wine at a pizzeria that had a similar atmosphere to a petrol station.
South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Bolzano.
Bolzano is part of the anomalous German speaking but Italian controlled alpine region of South Tyrol, set up as the victorious states re-carved Europe following the First World War. Menus and road signs are meticulously translated into both German and Italian but it feels a thousand miles away from Verona rather than of course the actual one hundred and eighty kilometres – the atmosphere and architecture is very Tyrolean, there’s no hollering of “Ciao Bella” from the Saxon looking inhabitants and the cuisine is unique.
Bolzano is also the home of Otzi the Iceman. Otzi’s body was found by two walkers on the three thousand two hundred metre high Otz pass in 1991 and he’s an absolute phenomenon. He lived between five thousand three hundred and fifty and five thousand five hundred years ago which, if like me you need context to unboggle big numbers, is before both the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge were built. It’s a miracle of circumstance that he was so well preserved by the ice – his death by blood loss and the dry atmosphere below the snow effectively freeze dried him meaning that he is of huge significance to Scientists and Historians: parts of his bear skin cap were found; his charcoal tattoos are amongst the oldest discovered and some of his last meals were still in his digestive system (einkorn porridge, red deer and ibix).
You can visit Otzi who is kept in a glacial chamber and become engrossed in his story at Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Being particuarly macabre, I was obsessed by finding out exactly how he died. He wasn’t a well man (at forty five he was relatively old; he had whip worm eggs causing stomach problems; his right knee was almost completely worn down and he had pronounced atherosclerosis probably from eating too much animal fat) but he was killed by bleeding to death from an arrow wound into his left arm pit. There’s always been speculation about his death – my favourite rumour is that he saw a comet and was so startled that he fell backwards onto his own sheaf of arrows – but the officially accepted version is that he sustained the fatal injury during a fight. The museum also documents the mania for Otzi: from Brad Pitt’s Otzi tattoo to the disturbing number of people that claim to be his descendent, his reincarnation or willing to mother his children.
It’s worth staying overnight in Hansel and Gretelesque Bolzano and indulging in the famous cuisine (South Tyrol is the most Michelin starred area of Italy).Gigantic white asparagus, when in season, are the local specialty and are as tasty as their size. I ate Fried Brains with salsa followed by asparagus with a pinch of parmesan, really good ham and a tiny pot of egg mayonnaise with Lagrein wine at the Restaurant Vogele. It was deliciously simple after the excess of Verona. Bread with aniseed popped up as an accompaniment to most meals and was the breakfast staple. After browsing the market stalls which were heaving with yet more parmesan and asparagus, I lunched outside the Restaurant Franziskaner Stuben eating risotto bursting with prawns and courgettes and watching the mountains peep through the rooftops. Full on history and food, I headed to one of the cafes lining the town’s many squares for the last Campari Spritz of the adventure.
- British Airways fly from London Gatwick to Verona and onward train tickets can be reserved at Verona Station. TrenItalia has timetable information.
- I stayed at the basic but comfortable Hotel Figl in Bolzano.
- Restaurant Vogele (Via Goethe 3, Bolzano) and Restaurant Franziskaner Stuben (Via dei Francescani 7, Bolzano)