So you´re thinking of travelling to Italy and getting to know the country? If you like shock treatment, fly straight to the South, to Naples or Palermo, and throw yourself into the street life there, if you prefer things to move more slowly, though, it may be a good idea to start exploring the country from the town of Trento, 140 km south of the Austrian/Italian border.
It is the first ‘real’ Italian town, the area north of it, South Tyrol, is more Austrian due to its history, it only became part of Italy after WW 1. Many people there are bilingual, if they want to become civil servants, they must know Italian and German.
The valley of the river Adige on whose banks Trento is situated has been inhabited since prehistoric times it having been one of the main branches of the amber route. The Romans built streets there (The Romans built streets everywhere!) so that their legions could march north more comfortably to conquer the transalpine regions; in the first century BC they founded Tridentum.
The town reached its greatest splendour in the 16th century, up to then Gothic architecture prevailed, later Renaissance buildings were added and in the 18th century the baroque ones, nowadays you can find a mixture of all these styles together with modern buildings which are rarely as impressive and beautiful as the old ones. Trento has 106 000 inhabitants and is the capital of the northernmost Italian region Trentino-Alto Adige.
Let’s begin our tour at the train station, you can leave your baggage there, and walk out following the sign ‘I’ to the tourist information in Via Manci (about 150 m) where you can get a very good town guide in English free of charge. The map shows the location of 19 palaces in the town proper four of which you can see stepping out of the office on the opposite side of the street. They are not single buildings but integrated into the row of houses, each has a signpost beside the entrance with information in Italian, German and English.
Everything is orderly and clean in Trento, according to other Italians a heritage of the region’s Austrian past. In a recent survey asking how the inhabitants of a town rate its infrastructure and services for the public Trento came out tops, nowhere were the people more content with their hometown.
Most of the streets have cobblestones, the pavements are covered with grey and pink slabs of granite; watch your steps, when wet they can be quite slippery. Let’s turn right and go through the Galleria dei Partigiani onto the Piazza Cesare Battisti and there into the Caffè Marchiodi (closed on Sundays), one of my two fave coffee bars in Trento. The cappuccino, the cakes, the pastry (called brioche) are not to die for, but worth going to Trento for. Refreshed we go through the Via del Simonino and peep into the shop Frizzi e Lazzi on the left side offering wax candles in the bizarrest shapes; nobody will be astonished about flowers and fruits, but have you seen sweets and slices of parmesan or gorgonzola cheese? Name it, they’ve made it into a candle!
We’re now in the heart of the pedestrian precinct, elegant and expensive shops show that Trento is not a poor town. Now to the right, please, into Via Oriola passing my other fave café, the pasticceria Bertelli (closed on Mondays). Contrary to what is customary in the rest of Italy you can first eat and drink here and then pay instead of buying your scontrino (receipt) at the till first.
Turning slightly to the left and then to the right at the end of the street we finally reach the Cathedral Square which invariably makes the tourists from north of the Alps utter shouts of delight; when I was there the last time I walked behind a group of German tourists and was reminded of my reaction when I saw it for the first time many years ago, it looks so southern, so Italian! After getting to know the whole country I now know that it looks very northern to people from the South, more Austrian/German than Italian, another proof that everything is relative.
East of the Cathedral is the Palazzo Pretorio, once the archbishop’s residence and now home of the Diocesan Museum displaying the treasures of the Cathedral (worth a visit if you enjoy the fine work of gold and silver smiths). The other two sides of the Square are flanked by houses with richly frescoed façades, three cafés invite the tourists to take a seat and look at the baroque Neptune fountain in the middle , if you’ve already consumed enough, you can simply sit on its steps and enjoy the Square and life on it.
The Cathedral Square is the ‘living-room’ of the town, important open-air events take place there. Once I heard and saw a brass band in South Tyrolese costumes play a medley of Beatles songs, a very special experience as you can imagine! I don’t like the Cathedral, though, its interior is Gothic , the altar baroque, it’s very gloomy and uninviting, one of those churches you’ve forgotten the moment you’ve left them.
Let’s now go back to Via Manci where we began our tour (without coffee stops it’s a walk of about five minutes) and walk straight up the street, after another five minutes we’ve reached the Castello di Buonconsiglio (literally: Castle of Good Advice). It’s open from 9-13 and 14-17.30 (closed on Mondays), on permanent display are a rich collection of Gothic religious art (wonderful wooden Madonnas with child), silverware, porcelain, coins, tiled stoves, carved wooden chests formerly used as wardrobes and an assortment of paintings from various epochs.
Especially recommendable is a visit of the Torre Aquila (Eagle Tower) which contains a small room on whose walls frescoes from the Gothic period show the twelve months, each about 1m x 1.50m. Wonderful, a definite must-see! How did one live in feudal times? The noble classes used to enjoy themselves dressing-up in the most elegant clothes, playing flirtatious games in beautiful gardens or hunting game with their falcons while the peasants were toiling for their well-being. Painting in perspective wasn’t invented yet, the size of the figures depends on their importance.
What makes the frescoes so fascinating are the details, a dog chasing a hare in the woods, the maids milking the cows and making cheese, the men raking the hey or harvesting the grapes, young noble lords and ladies throwing coquettishly snowballs at each other. I’m not a great buyer of souvenirs, but I bought two posters (the months April and September) for 2.50 Euro each, unfortunately I haven’t got room for all the months on my walls at home. When you visit the Torre Aquila you get a very good audio-guide, available also in English.
Wherever you raise your eyes in Trento you see the surrounding mountains, the town lies at the bottom of a bowl so-to-speak, nice in spring when the peaks are still covered with snow and the flowers in the parks and gardens are already in full bloom, stifling hot and sultry in summer.
We need about 10 minutes back to the train station, the whole tour through Trento has lasted only some hours, you can see it as a starter, an appetizer for the rest of Italy; Verona and the Lake of Garda are one hour away by train, Venice three, there you can begin the main course . . .