The sound of a hundred voices rose above the flowers, trees, plants and water in a fond farewell. Neigen sich die Stunden (Now it’s time for leaving) sang the choirs of South Tyrol. Dressed in traditional Tyrolean costume these singers had been serenading a very appreciative audience at the Day of the Choirs in the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle.
Suddenly the rain pelted down in a late summer shower but nothing could dampen our spirits as we listened to this glorious singing reverberating around the encircling mountains. I had been exploring the extensive grounds with one of the very informative and engaging guides and learnt it had been a complex engineering, landscape and design project to create such a unique botanical paradise in this part of northern Italy.
The Bolzano /Bozen area has a benign climate (with occasional showers!) and the diversity of plant life has drawn visitors here for over 100 years. The steep hillsides that surround the gardens were perfect to grow a vast array of different plants from around the globe and there are stunning views in every direction. In June 2001 the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle opened to the public and since then they have been extended and developed to become the world-class attraction they are today. In 2005 they were voted ‘Italy’s Most Beautiful Garden’ and in 2013 they were awarded the Garden Tourism ‘International Garden of the Year’.
With only a couple of hours to explore I had to whizz round. If you go, take at least half and better still, a whole day. There’s so much to see. In 12 hectares there are wide variety of landscapes. Where else can you can travel from the lemon and olive groves of southern Italy through the deciduous forests and desert succulents of North America, past Asian rice paddy terraces and bamboo-fringed streams into a fruit tree grove from the Near East to the chestnut woods and vineyards of South Tyrol?
On our way through this botanical odyssey we also stopped off in the humid Orchid House and lingered briefly to take in the heady scent of the traditional English Rose Garden.
You may find the weirdness of The Forbidden Garden designed by South Tyrolean artist Karl Heinz Steiner very strange. Bizarre sculptures with names like ‘Wooden Man Swallowed into the Earth Screaming’ and ‘Rostolph the Iron Raven’ hide amongst poisonous plants intertwined with gnarled old trees. According to Karin Ortler’s excellent Guide to the Gardens, “In the olden days, people believed that witches lived inside overgrown gardens where poisonous and magical plants grow like weeds.” Spooky …
During our tour we’d seen people dressed in traditional costume enjoying the scenery (and ice cream) or relaxing in the cafe. We joined them gathered together opposite the Lotus Pond, singing their hearts out to a very appreciative audience. I was invited to sit with the VIPs on the stage in the middle of the lake and enjoy the concert in comfort. What a treat.
After their final song I was introduced to Klaus Platter, one of the original team and a driving force behind the construction of the botanical gardens. “This is a place where botany can be experienced hands-on. A place where there is an interplay of modern and old architecture: for example the powerful juxtaposition between historical castle and modern museum.”
His daughter, Dr Heike Platter very kindly gave me a whirlwind tour of said castle and quirky Tourism Museum. The Austrian Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), wife of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, stayed at Trauttmansdorff Castle when she visited nearby Merano / Meren for health treatment 1870-71 and after the death of her son Crown Prince Rudolph at Mayerling, in 1889. There’s a statue of her beside the white marble Sissi Throne.
The Imperial living quarters have a fascinating display commemorating her visits, giving a glimpse into her life and times. There’s a statue of Sissi gazing out of a window across the now fertile gardens towards the mountains and surrounding vineyards.
Also included within the castle is The Touriseum, the only Museum of Tourism in the Alps. It takes a light-hearted look at the history of tourism in this region from the first post coach connection over the Brenner Pass in 1765. There’s a charming collection of quirky artefacts and delightful memorabilia including yodelling pedlars, old Baedeker guide books, luxury trains, plus examples of 19th century travel clothes and luggage.
Into the 20th century Art Deco posters decorate the walls of a 1920s bar. There’s a poignant display of suitcases belonging to Jews escaping Hitler’s regime, designs for contemporary hotels, the tiny German ‘Isetta’ and the ultimate symbol of Italian travel, the Vespa scooter.
We had a quick play with the whimsical ‘South Tyrol Game’, a giant pinball creation made from pinewood . “The player steers a ball with levers through the holiday paradise, past lively scenes and comic details. Go from the ski slopes to a hospital full of legs in plaster, or would you prefer an Après Ski party?” Touriseum Guide Book.
Finally, on my way out, I had a look at ‘The Birds and The Bees’ display. There are different exhibitions all year round, covering a wide range of botanical-related themes. This one took a close look at how flowers ‘seduce, deceive and work together as a team with fauna.’ By the time I left I was completely seduced by the very impressive and fascinating Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle and hope very much to return another day to take more time to explore its splendours.