South Tyrol

  • Words and photography  Rachel Speed

“a German word that denotes the relationship of a human being
toward a certain spatial social unit”

It was whilst listening to a French conversation on an Austrian radio station when driving around the German-speaking region of Italy that I truly appreciated the wonderful diversity and homogeny of the European continent. South Tyrol is the northern-most region in Italy with a diverse culture and history, and visiting the region this autumn was an eye-opening experience to values of togetherness, collaboration, and the pure joy of different cultures merging. It’s something I cherish; no (wo)man is an island after all.
Whilst in South Tyrol, I was constantly in awe of the breath-taking scenery. Everywhere you look the beauty of the mountains, the Dolomites, pull you up short. The mountain air just feels healthy as your lungs recover from their usual diet of London smog. But what is most staggering is the people: their history, their heritage, and their open attitude towards each other and the future.

South Tyrol was previously part of Austria-Hungary, and was given to Italy by the Allies during the break-up of the great powers after World War One. As such, the region is predominately German-speaking, and always has been. When Mussolini came to power in 1922 he brought fascism to Italy, and a strong desire to change South Tyrol. He moved Italian families into the region and prohibited German from being taught in schools; the locals were forced to hide their heritage. In an area with such a fraught and disruptive past, today, there is a wonderful harmony in the region.

Most people in the region speak German first, and Italian is taught from age five in schools. Or vice versa in Italian heritage households. Children then learn English from age eleven, so by the time they leave school, most South Tyrolians speak three languages fluently. (A frightening realisation about the state of language facilities in UK schools.)

Speaking with Brigitte Niedermair, a fashion photographer from the area, about refugees at her show in Tyrol Castle, she explained the similarities between the people of the region and the refugees across Europe currently. South Tyrolian’s had to become ‘Italian’ after hundreds of years of Austro-Hungarian rule, yet still wanted to retain their heritage – much like the refugees moving to Europe are expected to incorporate themselves into their new country, all the while preserving their heritage. Brigitte therefore welcomes the refugees in today’s crisis to South Tyrol with open arms.
The differences between people is a subject close to Nicolò Degiorgis’ heart too. As he shows me around his photo-book publishers, Rorhof, we talk through his own most famous photo book, Hidden Islam. This book explores the Muslim communities in Italy and their places of prayer. The building of mosques in Italy has been a struggle, and is often blocked by local governments, as such, Muslims have had to be creative in finding spaces to pray, including disused shops and garages. Nicolò’s passion and enthusiasm for photo books that tell stories of people is beautifully inspiring, he remarks, “If you’re arrogant enough to think that the last fifteen years can replace books you’re wrong. Books are the only way we know to preserve humanity over the last thousand years.”
What both Brigitte and Nicolò have in common is the inspiration they take from their home; they have a special connection to South Tyrol. Both travel far and wide for their work, but always return home to South Tyrol. The Wanderer Collective was started by Brigitte Niedermair, Jasmine Deporta (also a photographer), and Stefan Siegel (founder of Not Just A Label), to create a community from the creatives of the area to collaborate, preserve, and inspire their work. Each year, the Collective hold a brunch to reunite and “create a piece of ‘Heimat’”. Yet, this way of thinking is not unique to the Collective, but something felt within the region; it is not just art bringing people together, but the region itself. From the South Tyrolian’s I spoke to, they are incredibly proud of their region and the diversity it brings to northern Italy; it is a place they celebrate fondly.
In recent months and weeks, the divides between sections of society have seemed more stark. Brexit and the US election have brought out some of the most vitriolic rhetoric I’ve ever witnessed; it makes me ashamed, and very sad. As the rights and lives of immigrants are thrown around by leaders as if they are not real people, as walls are threatened to keep people in as well as out, I only see our collective outlook becoming much narrower; a truly distressing proposition. We risk losing the benefit of co-operation, and learning, and experiencing new cultures and new people. But not in South Tyrol. Walking into one shop and being greeted with ‘guten morgan’, and ‘ciao’ in the next, only shows their incredible attitudes towards people. It’s a beautiful place with a beautiful outlook; I think we can learn a lot from South Tyrol.

To learn more about South Tyrol, visit Flights were provided by British Airways and accommodation was provided by Hidalgo Suites. @visitsouthtyrol