We had crossed from Austria into Italy earlier that day. Now, several hours later, a spectacular drive through the Alps was nearing its end. On both sides of us green rugged hills jutted upwards towards the blue sky. Perfectly lined up vineyards covered their steep slopes. A fast stream was flowing in the gorge below.
All the while our little red car kept advancing carefully on the narrow road, following its many turns and curves. At the end of it lay Bolzano – the capital city of the Northern Italian province of South Tyrol and our stop for that night.
Right before Bolzano a majestic castle suddenly came into view. Perched atop of a tall rock, the defensive walls seemed to grow out of it. I wasn’t even sure where the rock stopped and the castle began, it blended so well with its surroundings.
A second later and our little red car drove into one of the many tunnels dotting the mountainous road and the vision of the castle disappeared as quickly as it had manifested itself only a moment before.
We spent the night in Bolzano – the last night of our month and a half long trip which had taken us by car from Italy via France to England, then by plane from there to Bulgaria and once again back to England from where we had left by car to cross Belgium, Germany and Austria over eight days in order to return to our current hometown of Vicenza at the start of August.
The day after we went to explore Bolzano’s city centre. We were eager for one last adventure. We wanted a memorable experience to round off our first big family road trip before driving back to Vicenza later that afternoon.
Bolzano was lit up by the hot summer sun and after a visit to its cathedral and the adjacent Cathedral Treasure museum we stood undecided in the middle of the square unsure what to do next.
The colourful roof of the cathedral glistened under the blue sky.
Lovely pink and green buildings surrounded the central square. The tables of the many charming cafes spilled all over the nearby pavements offering you a chance to enjoy the fabulous weather over a cup of coffee and something sweet.
And just then we spotted it. A shuttle bus covered with images of the castle we had glimpsed from the road the day before. We made a snap decision and before we knew it, the shuttle was hurtling through the streets of Bolzano and ten minutes later it had delivered us at the bottom of a steep hill.
A wide cobbled path started from there and wound its way up. Scaling it in the oppressive summer heat was a strenuous exercise.
It was all worth it though. As at the end of the path, the castle was waiting for us.
Its name is Runkelstein or Roncolo. It depends on which language you prefer to speak – German or Italian – as in the bilingual South Tyrol both are official languages and even the province itself has two names – respectively Sudtirol and Alto Adige.
Built in 1237 and with a tumultuous history of sieges, destruction and rebuilding behind its back, we found the castle peacefully enjoying its old age.
The medieval buildings stood guard around a sunny courtyard. Steep irregular steps led from one floor to the next and then a parapet walkway along the crenelated defensive wall connected the Western Palace with the Summer House.
It was a quiet, yet a lively place, with several visitors wandering around the various rooms or having lunch in the courtyard cafe.
Tickets in hand we started our self-guided tour of the castle. The most amazing thing about is that in 1385 it was bought by two wealthy merchants – the brothers Niklaus and Franz Vintler. For its time, this was quite unheard of, as only members of the aristocracy could own and reside in castles.
The two brothers restored and enlarged the castle, which had been abandoned after a siege a century before, and, most importantly, commissioned painters to cover the walls of its rooms with sumptuous frescoes, which can still be seen today.
The frescoes follow three main themes:
- depictions of the Vintner family with its (self-invented) coat of arms to elevate the merchant brothers’ otherwise commoner status;
- representations of court life in the Middle Ages with hunting, fishing and dancing scenes.
- myths and legends, more specifically the tragic story of Tristan and Isolde and of the Arthurian knight Garel.