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History carved in stone

If you are planning to go on a discovery tour of South Tyrol, you may end up feeling like a time traveller. The beautiful landscapes here are embellished with around 800 castles, palaces, estates and ruins. These mystical places make it possible to get a sense of what it felt like to live in times long past… Old stories of knights, damsels, dukes and bishops still fire up everyone’s imagination and when you visit a castle, it feels as though these tales come alive again.

Numerous castles and palaces were built in South Tyrol, just as they were across the rest of Europe. Many of these have been very well preserved and are open to visitors. Especially in the Burgraviato, the region around Merano. You see, the word could be translated as “burgrave district”. Every single castle has its own history and story here. As does Tyrol Castle: its origins can be traced back to the 11th century. Today the castle, which used to be the ancestral home of the Counts of Tyrol, has been turned into a beautiful museum of local culture and history. The Roman portals made by Lombard stone masons, the medieval chapel, the great hall, the dungeon in the keep and the panelled weapon room are absolute must sees and the highlights of every visit.

Not too far from here, you will find the Trauttmansdorff Castle embedded in its gorgeous homonymous botanical gardens. It is most known for being Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s winter residence. She loved the castle’s perfect position which kept it safe from wind and yet exposed to the sun. You can still visit her old lodgings and some original exhibits today. Trauttmansdorff is also home to the South Tyrolean museum of Tourism.

The castle Hocheppan was one of the most powerful noble residences in South Tyrol

In Schluderns (in Val Venosta) you can find the Churburg Castle, one of the biggest and most well preserved castle complexes in all of South Tyrol. The armour room is world famous and holds over 50 suits of armour and harnesses that were made-to-measure. You can also find weapons such as crossbows and battle axes. Almost all of the very intricately embellished armour can be traced back to forges in Milan or Innsbruck. One suit especially stands out because of its size: at 2,10 m height Ulrich IX must have been a true giant back in 1450. His armour is both much taller and also much heavier than all the others, weighing almost 45 kg. If you take a stroll through the arcades of the Churburg you’ll feel like you’re in a fairytale. The arches are adorned with the family tree of the castle owners – the reeves von Matsch and the counts von Trapp – and embellished with philosophical slogans, mythical creatures, fantastic beings and jesters.

Juval Castle is also a must see. It is situated on top of a hill which used to be a prehistoric place for ceremonial gatherings, just at the entrance of the Val Senales. Mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner bought it back in 1983. He wrote many wonderful books and came up with countless amazing ideas in the castle’s adventure library. Legendary beings from Tibetan mythology welcome visitors at the gates and are messengers of what you can find behind the castle walls: an impressive collection of Tibetan exhibits, a photo gallery with a focus on the holy mountains and a mask collection that spans over 5 continents. If you drive through the Val Venosta you pass by many castles, palaces and ruins. One that is especially worth mentioning is the Castello del Principe in Burgusio. This gorgeous complex was built as a home for the prince-bishops von Chur, back in the 13th century (hence its German name ‘Churburg’). We especially recommend seeing the majestic castle keep and its three meter thick walls. On the inside you can still admire the princes’ rooms with its gorgeous panelled walls and ceilings.

Sigmundskron Castle, situated illustriously above where the Adige and the Isarco river meet just outside Bolzano, has a very moving history. The largest protest rally in the history of South Tyrol gathered here to protest the country’s failure to comply to the Gruber–De Gasperi Agreement back in 1957. More than 30.000 South Tyroleans came to the castle complex, stood up for their rights and demanded their country would be granted autonomy. Today the castle is home to the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian. This museum looks at the relationship between humans and mountains. Schloss Runkelstein Castle is another historical gem, especially from an art history point of view. The castle that stands at the entrance of the Val Sarentino was built by the brothers Friedrich and Beral von Wangen in 1237. The brothers Niklaus and Franz Vintler, members of a rich merchant family from Bolzano, then bought the castle in 1385. They had it painted with beautiful frescoes that illustrate tales and legends: King Arthur, the knights of the round table, Tristan and Iseult, jousting tournaments, knights and damsels. Historians deem Runkelstein Castle to enclose the largest cycle of secular frescoes dating back to the Middle Ages.

Castle Tyrol majestically dominates the Merano area

The “Eppaner Burgendreieck” (lit. ‘Appiano castle triangle’) has gained more and more popularity over the years. It is made up of Hocheppan Castle, Boymont Castle and Korb Castle. All three of them are situated at the feet of the Gantkofel mountain and you can visit them in a 3 h loop hike. Within the many well preserved castles in South Tyrol, Hocheppan Castle is counted among the most impressive, thanks to its beauty and it’s great position. It was built by count Ulrich II back in 1130. It was already thought of as one of the most majestic aristocratic estates in South Tyrol back then. The castle’s pentagonal keep, with parts of it being unchanged since the 12th century, is especially impressive. The castle’s chapel is a treasure for art history buffs: it holds a gorgeous Roman fresco cycle and is also known as “the Sistine Chapel of the Alps”.

The fortress of Franzensfeste is counted among the most interesting in the entire alpine region. If you are driving through the Valle Isarco you really cannot miss it. Due to its gigantic appearance, its labyrinth of rooms, corridors and stairs it is regarded as a masterpiece of fortress architecture. It was built by Emperor Ferdinand I. to secure the transport link between the upper Wipptal valley and the Brennero pass between 1833 and 1838. It was involved in events of war, even though it was actually never meant to be. It is assumed that during WWII the gold of the Italian national bank was hidden behind its thick walls.

The large stube of Trostburg Castle near Ponte Gardena

From war to culture: Follow the tracks of the singer and poet Oswald von Wolkenstein and visit the Trostburg Castle above Ponte Gardena. The castle complex is situated on a rock spur. Its history can be traced back to the 12th century. It belonged to the counts von Wolkenstein-Trostburg for 600 years. They were the ancestors of Oswald von Wolkenstein, a composer of the Late Middle Ages, who grew up here. In the castle you can marvel at Roman door and window arches, pompous rooms and panelling, furniture from the Renaissance and the biggest wine press in all of South Tyrol.

Taufers Castle looks so beautiful, you may almost think it’s a movie set. It was first mentioned back in the 13th century. A must see: the huge weir system with its weapon room and torture room, the tile stoves, rooms adorned with frescoes, the library, the courtroom, the jail and the chapel. Bruneck Castle was built around the same time. The bishop of Bressanone, Bruno von Kirchberg, was the one who had it constructed and used the castle complex as a place of refuge and as a stronghold. From 1899 on, the castle was mostly used as a summer residence by prince-bishops. Today it is part of the Messner Mountain Museums and tells the history of mountain tribes around the world.