San Candido: a Charming Blend of Art and Compelling Nature at the Dolomites' Doorstep

San Candido – Innichen in German – is the main centre of the Alta Val Pusteria (Hochpustertal) and it is also an historical market town, ideally located in a position which allows easy access to the Dolomites, lying just to the south.

It is situated just on the other side of the “Sella di Dobbiaco” – an important watershed located just west of town. San Candido and its basin are crossed by the Drava (Drau), a river which flows into the Danube and eventually drains into the Black Sea – a geographical peculiarity in the whole of Italy, shared only by the neighbouring municipality of Sesto/Sexten, and partly by Dobbiaco itself.

San Candido/Innichen was founded as a religious centre at the highest point of what is known today as Val Pusteria/Pustertal – a valley with two branches coming from the Italian (Rienza/Rienz) and the Austrian side (Drava/Drau; region Osttirol) at once.

The centre developed around a monastery that was wanted by Duke Tassilone III of Bavaria in 769, and then constructed by the Bishop of Frisingen to contrast the Slavs – at the time still Pagan people. In fact, for centuries the locality has remained dependent on the Diocese of Frisingen – the most ancient in Bavaria – and the links with this town have led to a twinning between the two centres (in 2007).

Around the middle of the 14th century, an attempt to turn San Candido into a market town along the important route connecting Cadore with Carinthia was contrasted by the Counts of Gorizia, as they did not wish to initiate an economic rivalry with the nearby market town of Lienz. San Candido therefore remained mainly a religious centre, gravitating around the “Chiesa Collegiata” – the Collegiate Church, which since its foundation has attracted many pilgrims over the centuries. Still today the town centre is characterized by the presence of many religious buildings (chapels and churches), as well as noble examples of houses for the local gentry, dating mainly to the 18th and 19th centuries.

At the partition of Tyrol between Austria and Italy in 1918, San Candido – given its history and geography – should in theory have remained in Austria, being situated beyond the main Alpine watershed, but for what were then purely military reasons it was assigned to Italy instead; on that occasion, two huge barrack compounds were built, and the town – given its proximity to the border – has remained an important military outpost ever since (now, with the opening of the frontiers within Europe, this aspect has been somewhat relaxed).

In proximity of the border between Austria and Italy, though, by the hamlet of Versciaco one can still see today a massive monument erected in commemoration of the many soldiers that fell during WW1 in the surrounding mountains, many of whom – unknown – found their resting place here.

The closeness of the frontier has also meant the presence of a high number of offices – this in turn causing the town to expand quite significantly, as housing was needed in order to host the increasing bureaucracy.

San Candido has also been – for many years – the Italian terminus of the railway line that comes up the Val Pusteria/Pustertal, while the six kilometers that separate the town from the national border are run by the Austrian railways; the line from Lienz also ends here, and so this is where the two branches meet.

Nowadays, both branches of the railway – as well as serving the local population – are massively used for tourism purposes, especially as the “rail & bike” combined package makes for an interesting roundtrip between San Candido and Lienz, allowing one to hop on and off the train along the 30 or so km stretch that separate the two towns.

The Origins of San Candido/Innichen

The toponym is mentioned for the first time – very interestingly – as ‘India’ in 769, then modified in ‘Intihha’ in 822 and ‘Intichingen’ in 1070. It derives perhaps from the Latin personal name ‘Indius’; this progressively evolved into the actual form Innichen – still the current German name of the town.

The Italian name, San Candido, was given instead only at a much later stage, after the town became ‘officially’ Italian, and following the renaming of all place names of South Tyrol by Ettore Tolomei – the over-zealous man who masterminded (often with ridicule results) the infamous ‘Italianization’ of the province under the Fascist regime.

Fascism exercised a cruel policy of repression towards all-things-German within South Tyrol, with an uncovered – and relentless – attempt to erase the cultural roots of the newly ‘conquered’ region. Needless to say, the name San Candido was plainly taken by the most important building in town – and perhaps of the whole valley: the “Chiesa Collegiata of San Candido and Corbiniano”.

The compound of the Collegiate Church (simply referred to as “Stiftskirche Innichen” in German) is considered to be the most important Romanesque building in the whole of South Tyrol. It was erected from 1043 on the site of the Benedictine monastery that was originally founded here in 769 by Duke Tassilone III of Bavaria in order to convert the Slavs, which were then still settled in the area.

The imposing bell tower and the atrium with a Roman font precede the grand, spacious interior divided into three naves: these contain several works of art, amongst which are frescoes from the workshop of Michael Pacher, and – most importantly – the magnificent Romanesque Crucifix in wood, hanging from above the main altar.

The coat of arms of the town reminds the fact that this area was for a long time under the rule of the Bishops of Frisingen, proprietors – from 769 to as late as 1803 – of vast areas of land in the region, and strictly connected with the presence of the church.

Religious Architecture in San Candido

Even though the Collegiate Church is unrivalled in its importance and magnificence, there are also several other notable religious buildings in San Candido.

The Convent of the Franciscan was erected at the end of the 1600s, after the arrival of friars from that order in 1691. The convent is in a very nice location, facing the Rio Sesto/Sextenbach (a small stream) at the entrance of the historical part of town, and is dedicated to St. Leopold. Respecting the vow of poverty of the Franciscan order, the church does not present an impressive bell tower, and is very simple both from an architectonic and an artistic point of view. Only few of the original objects and works of art remain in the church, and most of the altars are today in Rococo style. The convent hosted also an important historical library – but this has been relocated to Bolzano. Between 1992 and 1994, the whole structure was the object of an accurate restoration to bring it to its original state, and the project won an important award (Premio “Europa Nostra”).

The parish church of Saint Michael – just a few steps away from the Collegiate Church – dates originally from the 12th century, and displays a Romanesque exterior, but in its long history it was destroyed several times, and finally refashioned in the Baroque style in the 1700s; that is how the interior still appears today. Of the original building, only the cylindrical bell tower remains, while the exterior presents arcaded windows with niches that contain statues.

Finally, in terms of religious buildings, the “Chapel of Altötting and of the Holy Sepulchre” was erected in 1653, and now finds itself in an awkward position close to the railway line. It was conceived after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a miniature copy of the Holy Sepulchre at the Calvary in Jerusalem, with the idea of harmonizing it with a previous building that was copied after the Chapel of Grace at Altötting – so that it appears today, in fact, as two chapels built one inside the other. As a note of curiosity, in the interior of the chapel is the bone of a prehistoric Saur, which was brought by the founder as a ‘souvenir’ from the pilgrimage, and that has been hanging from a wall ever since.

Civil Architecture in San Candido

In terms of civil architecture, the developments that followed from the 1800s onwards revolved essentially around tourism, led also by the presence of old inns and hotels – such as the Grauer Bär (“Orso Grigio”), attested since 1745.

There are, around town, some interesting rock series, constituted by deep quartz veins, basic conglomerates, Val Gardena sandstone and Bellerophon Layers formations. From these, in the woods at the foothill of the Rocca dei Baranci/Haunold (2,966 m) – an imposing Dolomite mountain to the south of town – spring the sulphureous and mineral waters of the “Bagni di San Candido” (in German “Wildbad Innichen”). These waters – used for therapeutic baths – have been frequented since antiquity, and appear for the first time in documents dating from the 16th century.

The baths were later enlarged by Doctor Johann Schreiber, and a sanatorium was created; on a second occasion, a big hotel was also erected, the “Grand Hotel Wildbad”. The spa became very famous; even the German Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm II and the Austrian Emperor Karl I stayed there. After the passage of South Tyrol to Italy following WW1, though, the establishment fell into decline; it was then auctioned in the 1930s, and left to the neglect of passing time. Today only the external structure of the original baths remains, while the interior of the complex is in a bad state of conservation. The mineral water, in fact, comes out of four different springs, and each has a particular flavour – for example, one is sulphureous, another rich in iron.

Around the springs, in 1591 a chapel was also erected, and dedicated to San Salvatore (St. Saviour) – possibly as a late resurgence of worship linked to the presence of water. Contrary to the rest of the compound, this building is still in a good state of conservation: consecrated in 1594, the chapel was originally connected to a hermitage that was suppressed in 1786 by Emperor Joseph II. Even prior to that, anyway, in lieu of the chapel there was a small place of worship, originally dating to the 8th century; in all likelihood, a Pre-Christian site of devotion related to the cult of the water Goddess. This locality is reachable today with a pleasant 45 minutes’ walk from the centre of San Candido, in the direction of Sesto/Sexten.

In between the two wars, San Candido started being frequented by a tourism élite; at that time, the Duke of Acquarone – minister of the “Real Casa Savoia” (the Italian royal family) – bought here a small hunting lodge.

After WW2 the development of winter tourism began in earnest, connected mainly to the creation of ski slopes at the foot of the Baranci (see above) and Monte Elmo/Helm (2,434 m), while cross-country ski took over along the open valley corridors of the Alta Val Pusteria/Hochpustertal towards Sesto/Sexten and Dobbiaco/Toblach (from where a wide network opens up towards CortinaMonguelfo/Welsberg, the val Casies/GsiesValdaora/Olang and the valley of Anterselva/Antholz).

San Candido: a Lively Town Open to the Future

As well as by tourism, however, the local economy is complemented today by the presence of an important factory that produces Speck – the smoked ham typical of the valleys of South Tyrol.

The tradition of the ‘Wildbad’ (the water springs just mentioned above) is kept alive instead by the production of a brand of mineral water that takes its name from Emperor Franz Joseph II, who used to come here to cure himself with the properties of this water (but some other say, on the contrary, that the reference is to the presence of the other Emperor – Karl I of Austria, who also favoured San Candido for his summer retreat out of court).

But together with neighbouring Dobbiaco/Toblach, San Candido today is at the forefront also for the extensive use of renewable energies; the two towns are served by a unique district heating plant, fuelled by the combustion of remains from the wood mills and timber industry, with great advantages on an environmental level – something which has won San Candido some very important national and European awards.

In summer, as well as being the departure point for excursions to the Cime di Tre Scarperi/Dreischusterspitze (3,152 m), the highest peak of the Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextnerdolomiten, and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, San Candido has become famous for its cycle paths.

The route to Lienz – already mentioned above – descends to 600 metres above sea level without any particular effort, and is therefore easily accessible; this makes it a particularly attractive option for those wishing to ride a bike without a specific training. The possibility of returning by train (thereby avoiding the rise of the journey back) is of course a further element of attraction.

In the other direction, the cycle path network of the Val Pusteria/Pustertal virtually allows one to cycle the whole length of the valley all the way to Bressanone/Brixen, but it is a lot more “up and down” affair – especially in the first section to Monguelfo/Welsberg, after which descent is more steady.

As a note of curiosity, it could be reminded also that the territory of San Candido represents the extreme western diffusion of the so-called ‘Harpfe’ – a characteristic wooden structure used traditionally to dry out wheat and rye, and constituted by two vertical posts connected by horizontal beams.

The Legend of the Giants Huno and Hauno

The legend of the giants Huno and Hauno is probably the most popular story related to San Candido. In fact, the German name of the Rocca dei Baranci (2,966 m) – Haunold – derives in all likelihood from the surname of a Lord – Hunolt – who used to be proprietor of the woods below that mountain.

But there is an alternate version that refers this mountain's toponym to a titanic fight between giants. Here is how the story goes:

«The giant Hauno was at the head of a horde that devastated the Pustertal and – before going to raid elsewhere – left a handful of troops by the town of Sillian (now the first to be encountered after the Austrian border, where there is still a castle named Heinfels). In aid of the population of the valley, another giant appeared from the woods: his name was Huno, and he declared himself ready to help the people and conquer the castle. The fight he waged against Hauno was bitter, and he came out as a winner. The “good giant” Huno settled therefore under the mountain of the Rocca dei Baranci, and constructed the monastery of San Candido. There is no happy ending to the story, though, as after that, Huno was killed by the local people with a trick, as apparently his requests for food were excessive to them...».

Whatever the moral of this story, the legend of Huno and Hauno remains very dear to the inhabitants of San Candido – so much so that representations of the two giants can still be seen depicted on several houses.

Places of Interest Around San Candido

All in all, many events take place in San Candido, and the town displays motives of interest all year round, but the two peak seasons are of course summer and winter. Amongst these events are many exhibitions, cultural happenings and concerts, which are periodically organized by the Cultural centre Josef Resch – while at the Museum “Dolomithos” there is a permanent display of fossils and minerals that evoke the geological history of the Dolomites, the protagonists of their scientific discovery, and the local legends connected to these celebrated rocks.

For the walker, to the south of town there are particularly magnificent and extensive woods – mainly of Norway spruce and larch – with easy trails suited to all abilities.

As anticipated earlier, the town is also bordered to the south by the group of the Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextnerdolomiten, which peak at the Rocca dei Baranci/Haunold (2,966 m). There is a chairlift going part of the way, but it is also possible to climb all the way up from town. There are a few mountain huts in altitude which can be used as a base for longer walks, such as Rifugio Baranci/Haunoldhütte (1,499 m), at the arrival of the chairlift.

From the Valle Campo di Dentro/Innerfeldtal (half way towards Sesto/Sexten and some way after the Wildbad) one can access the same mountain range, but also continue further to Rifugio Cima Tre Scarperi/Dreischusterhütte (1,626 m), near the peak bearing the same name (Cima dei Tre Scarperi/Dreischusterspitze; 3,152 m).

From the head of the Valle Campo di Dentro/Innerfeldtal it is also possible to carry on towards the Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen, eventually reaching Rifugio Locatelli/Dreizinnenhütte (2,405 m), which can be used as an ideal base for the classical roundtrip around these three celebrated peaks.

On the other side of the valley, looking north, the relief looks more rounded as the geology is different; these are not Dolomites, and the soil is more crystalline in nature. There are nonetheless beautiful walks to be had in these less frequented mountains that also mark the border with Austria. The main elevation is Corno di Fana/Pfannhorn (2,669 m), but there are many minor summits along the ridge either side (for a longer and more detailed description of this walk, see Dobbiaco/Toblach).

This area can easily be reached by 'circumnavigating' the rounded hills to the north of town, Scheibeneck (1,954 m) and Bodeneck (1,983 m), then entering the Valle San Silvestro/Silvestertal and the smaller, solitary Blankental. This area is less equipped with mountain huts as they are intended in the Dolomites, but there are nonetheless several high-altitude farms (here known as MasiHoefe in German), where sometimes food and drinks are being sold in the very cosy 'Stuben' (such as at Silvesteralm, 1,800 m).


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