Trentino: the 'Green Heart' of the Italian Alps

Geography

Trentino, together with Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol), is Italy’s northernmost region, and it is almost completely mountainous. The mountain chains elevate to the altitude of 3,900 metres, which means that here are hosted some of the highest peaks within the whole Alpine range – and certainly on the Italian side.

To the south, the shores of Lake Garda (at an altitude of 70 metres) also imply that there are quite huge contrasts in store for whoever is going to visit this most enchanting region of the Alps.

Trentino is also one of the least populated regions in Italy, with a density which is far below the national average – which also promises good when it gets to Nature, signaling its prevalence over the built environment.

The whole region is extremely rich in forests – especially conifers, as may be expected, but also beech – while in several areas (especially high in altitude, but not exclusively) there is a predominance of meadows and pastures, owing the region its epithet of ‘Green Heart’: this is certainly true as far as the Italian Alps are concerned – if anything, for its central location in the middle of the range.

This also means that there is a high number of plants growing here, with an elevated ratio of endemic species, which certainly makes Trentino one of the places to visit when it gets to the Alpine flora.

The richness of grasses found here is in turn connected to the prevalence, over the centuries, of cattle farming (and therefore of animals grazing the land).

Considering the orography (shape) of the territory, and the fact that the forests cover around 70% of the region, it will soon become evident to the visitor that there is quite a huge difference between the density of population in the main valleys (notably the Adige, Sarca and Brenta valleys, but also the lower Val di Non in the west and parts of the Primiero to the east) and the side valleys, more elevated and less populated.

The same goes, of course, also for the highest grounds: these are a reign of rock and ice since time immemorial.

The valleys are generally long and narrow, and their slopes covered by forests; the only exception is the Adige valley – the main axis of the region – which is of glacial origin, and therefore much wider. This valley runs from the border with South Tyrol in the north to that with Veneto in the south; its southernmost section is also known as Vallagarina.

Trento and Rovereto (in the Adige valley) are the main cities, while Riva del Garda (on the northernmost tip of the lake), Arco (in the Sarca valley) and Pergine (in the Valsugana) are the main towns; the rest of the regional urban network is composed of a thread of smaller villages and hamlets along the valley floors, even though each of them will have at least one major centre.

Boundaries

Trentino is an utterly Alpine region; it confines to the south and east with Veneto; to the north with South Tyrol and to the west with Lombardy; the Alps contained within it comprise a section of the Central Alps (west of the Adige) but most of Trentino's mountains belong to the Oriental Alps, a sub-group of which also forms the Dolomites, which Trentino shares with South Tyrol and Veneto. To the south, the limit is less defined, as the mountains fade towards the Venetian Pre-Alps and the Sub-Mediterranean enclave of Lake Garda.

Climate

The climate of Trentino can aptly be defined as one of transition between the sub-continental and the proper Alpine. Temperatures in January are comprised between -5/-10C, but with extremes in the high valleys and in altitude up to 30C, while in summer they can easily shoot above 30C, reaching 35C in the Adige valley. Even though most of the territory lies at quite an elevated altitude (about 77% of Trentino is above 1,000 metres, while only around 20% of the region is above 2,000 m), Trentino does not display those elements of climatic rigidity which are so characteristic of other Alpine regions.

Starting with the lower altitudes, the climate of Trentino can therefore be divided into three main climatic bands:

Sub-Mediterranean band: this is proper to the area of Lake Garda and part of the Sarca valley: it is the mildest area of the region, with cool (but not cold) winters and moderately hot summers – both seasons being mitigated by the ventilation coming from the lake (in the summer) and its influence over the temperatures (in winter). The vegetation here is comprised mostly of a mixture of Sub-Mediterranean and continental species, including olives (mostly cultivated), Holm Oak and cypress, plus shrubs like Strawberry tree, Phyllirea and Cistus.

The sub-continental climate is a transitional band that mainly characterizes the lower valley floors. Winters tend to be more rigid here, with moderate snowfalls; this is the climate of the Adige, Sarca and lower Non valleys, which are particularly apt for the cultivation of apples, given the medium-low rainfall (about 700 mm yearly), the abundant presence of sunlight (250 to 300 days per year) and the strong temperature extremes between day and night, which favour the elimination of parasites. The native vegetation is composed mainly of chestnut (in the lower valleys) and beech (higher up), with some spruce; in any case, Sub-Mediterranean essences are not completely absent neither, especially in the more sheltered and sunny locations. In some valleys, vineyards make their appearance too.

The Continental band is typical of the ‘proper Alpine’ valleys, such as the Valle di Fiemme, Val di Fassa and the Primiero subregion in the east, or the Sole valley in the west, with harsh winters, usually abundant snowfalls (even though the snow pattern has been quite patchy over the last few years), shorter and rainier summers and a vegetation decidedly dominated by conifers (mostly Silver fir, Norway spruce and larch).

Above these three extends the Alpine climatic band, which only characterizes areas mostly devoid of human settlements (bar a few exceptions), running from an altitude of about 1,800 metres upwards. This area covers the highest areas of woodland, which are dominated by larch, Dwarf mountain pine, green alder and a more shrubby vegetation, such as Rhododendrons. This band extends far above the tree line up to the perennial snows.

Mountains

The highest peaks in Trentino are to be found in the west, with the groups of the Ortles-Cevedale (3,902 m), Adamello-Presanella (3,539 m) and the Brenta Dolomites (3,173 m). Most of the Dolomites, however, rise east of the Adige: these comprise the celebrated groups of the Marmolada (3,342 m), Sella (3,152 m), Latemar (2,864 m) and the Pale di San Martino (3,192 m), while to the south the mountains tend to get lower in altitude and fade into the Pre-Alps even though there are quite important groups here too, such as Monte Baldo (2,218 m), the Lagorai chain (2,754 m) and the Pasubio (2,239 m), at the boundary with Veneto.

Connecting the various mountain groups are several high mountain passes, some along very spectacular roads, amongst which are certainly to be counted the Stelvio (2,757 m), Pordoi (2,239 m), Fedaia (2,057 m), Rolle (1,984 m), Tonale (1,883 m) and Costalunga (1,753 m) passes; other passes include the Pampeago (1,983 m) and San Pellegrino (1,918 m), plus many others.

Rivers

Trentino is very rich in water courses – most notably the Adige (which has many important tributaries, such as the Noce and the Avisio), but also the Brenta to the east and the Sarca and Chiese in the west. Most of the valleys of Trentino stem out of the main Adige valley: the Noce forms the Val di Non (continuing into the Val di Sole) to the west, while the long axis of the Cembra-Fiemme-Fassa valleys to the east is watered by the Avisio, which takes you straight into the Dolomites' heartland.

Continuing on from the Sarca valley would lead you instead into the Valli Guidicarie, bordering with Lombardy, while Brenta is the river of the Valsugana in the east eventually flowing into Veneto (and the same can be said for the small subregion of Primiero, formed by the Cismon river). In all of these valleys there are plenty of sights; for instance the Segonzano earth pyramids (a curious natural phenomenon due to erosion) are in the Cembra valley, while Primiero is the area of the Paneveggio- -Pale di San Martino Regional Natural Park; close by is also the more secluded and less-frequented, but very green and pleasant, Tesino plateau.

Lakes

In Trentino extends the northernmost tip of Lake Garda, which is subdivided mainly between Lombardy to the west and Veneto to the east. Branching off at Riva del Garda is the small Valle di Ledro, which takes to the Lago di Ledro, famous for its archaeological finds. Numerous are the Alpine lakes, though, which are often of small dimensions: noteworthy are those of Caldonazzo, Levico, Fiavé (also important for its archaeologic sites), Molveno, Toblino and the Lago di Cei; among the artificial basins, the most important is Lago di Santa Giustina.

Protected Areas

Among the most notable parts of the territory one certainly has to include the different Protected Areas (mostly falling within Regional Natural Parks), which – all in all – account for about 1/5 of the region. In Trentino there are two important parks: the Adamello-Brenta, west of the Adige, and the Paneveggio - Pale di San Martino to the east, both covering a section of the Dolomites.

In addition to these, there are also many other sections of territory enjoying some degree of protection, such as small biotopes, wetlands and peat-bogs ('torbiere'), or those reserves dedicated to specific mountain groups such as the Bondone (hosting also an historical Botanic Alpine Garden), the Lagorai, the ‘Piccole Dolomiti’ and the Pasubio. Besides all this, there are also seven Eco-museums within Trentino, two of which are the Lagorai and the Vanoi.

History

Until 1918, what is now Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) belonged to the County of Tyrol, and therefore to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, thus forming a unique administrative entity. Before the Restoration of 1815, Trentino was also part of the Holy Germanic Empire – the Prince Bishops of Trento – even though this was formally controlled by the Counts of Tyrol first, and by the Hapsburg (their successors) afterwards.

This territory once comprised parts of what is now Veneto (actual province of Belluno) and Lombardy (province of Brescia); the Diocese of Trento also included the southern part of actual South Tyrol. Even the Prince Bishops of Brixen (Bressanone), who governed territories now part of Austria, survived since the beginning of the 11th century until secularization in 1802, at the hands of Napoleon. After Veneto was given to Italy in 1866, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph – despite ample local autonomy remained for administrative purposes – started a policy of progressive linguistic and cultural germanization of the region, which prompted in turn a wave of ‘irredentism’ among some of the local intellectuals (basically, this was a movement for the annexation of Trentino to Italy), while the country people, on the whole, remained faithful to the Emperor.

The waves generated by the movement for independence that agitated the region between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century eventually had as a natural outcome – with the Treaty of St. Germain – the annexation of Trentino to Italy at the end of WW1. This move caused the splitting of the ancient County of Tyrol, which had so far always represented a well-defined entity – and so it happened that Trentino (then often referred to as the ‘Italian Tyrol’) and South Tyrol both became part of the then Kingdom of Italy, while North Tyrol remained to Austria.

At the end of WW1, which had seen the Italian soldiers mostly employed on the Eastern front of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Fascist government – in fear of a mutiny against the new Italian dominance – launched an aggressive campaign that aimed at leveling the German presence within the region. Even though this happened most strongly in South Tyrol (which was – and still is – predominantly German), echoes of that movement also affected Trentino, where there were some German-speaking communities (such as those of the Mocheni valley and the Cimbri of Luserna).

It was a real terrorist repression: the use of German language was banned, and German-speaking schools were closed throughout the region. Following the armistice signed by Italy with the allied forces, the entire region was in fact annexed to the Third Reich, with a special degree of autonomy. Nonetheless, the province of Trento remained part of the Italian Social Republic; despite that fact, between 1943 and 1945 the integrity of Tyrol as a unity – which had been shattered in 1918 – was temporarily re-established.

It would be too complicated and inappropriate here to go into a detailed story of what happened during this very tense time in the region, but most likely South Tyrol is actually the area that suffered the most. At the end of WW2, the movement for turning Trentino into an independent region became much more widespread, but while in South Tyrol the claim was for separation and re-annexation to Austria, the way chosen in Trentino was that of a higher degree of autonomy within Italy, and it was at this point that the destinies of the two provinces were somehow joined together to form a newborn region – Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol within Italy, separated from its Austrian counterpart.

Originally, in fact, autonomy was meant to be a reality for South Tyrol only – which, in the meantime, had been decided would remain part of Italy – but a certain degree of autonomy was later negotiated for Trentino as well; thus, with the so-called ‘First Charter of Autonomy’ (Primo Statuto d’Autonomia), the Region ‘Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) – as we know it today – was officially born. Study of the German language was reinstated, and towns and villages were given again a bilingual denomination (even though this specific aspect concerned more South Tyrol than Trentino). The backlash of this outcome, however, was that in this way the original autonomy of South Tyrol resulted rather diluted, which prompted further problems.

Until the mid 1950s, the Italian and Austrian political forces worked together harmoniously, to which a period of tension followed, when the movement for the separation of South Tyrol reached its peak. The German-speaking community felt harassed once again by the Italian majority; it opposed the regional autonomy project and threatened separation if a provincial autonomy (for South Tyrol) was not obtained; this highly-charged situation eventually led to serious incidents. This state-of-affairs, though, prompted new negotiations between the Austrian and Italian governments, which led at last to the 'Second Charter of Autonomy' (Secondo Statuto d’Autonomia), when the people of South Tyrol finally obtained what they were asking for.

Since then, as a matter of fact, the autonomy of the two provinces is such that in most respects they can be considered two small independent regions, nowadays only formally united as ‘Trentino - Alto Adige/Südtirol’. The two provinces – plus North Tyrol (which was always part of Austria) – all together now also form the ‘Euregio Tyrol’: a multinational entity that somehow recreates the historical and cultural unity of Tyrol before its splitting.

With such a tormented history behind its back, it can now be said that South Tyrol (and perhaps the whole region) has become a real laboratory on autonomy and peaceful co-existence, providing a good example of people of different origins inhabiting the same land, in a small but real melting pot where Mediterranean and Mitteleuropa meet.

Perhaps, then, this small but finally harmonious region will serve as an example to help solving similar situations in troubled regions across Europe and the world at large.

After such complex developments, now – as a matter of fact – the role of Trento as a regional capital can be defined as purely formal, as both main cities in the region (Trento and Bolzano/Bozen) have equal importance and status from a political and administrative (as well as historical and cultural) point of view.

Monuments

The heritage of Trentino is very rich, and many are the historical monuments within the region – especially castles. Even though it is not the intent of this page to expand on the historical and artistic aspects, it is at least worth listing some of the main monuments here.

As it can be hinted from the historical outline presented above, the region Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol – over the course of its history – has passed under several dominations, and each of these passages has left its traces. Among the most important castles of Medieval origin, one certainly has to include Castel Tirolo (Schloss Tyrol – which gave its name to the entire region), Castel Roncolo (Schloss Runkelstein) and Castel Firmiano (Sigmundskron) near Bolzano – but all of these are in South Tyrol.

The goal here is to focus on Trentino; so, as far as this province is concerned, the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento is probably its most important building, which also played a vital role during the sessions of the famous Council. Other notable castles include those in Rovereto, Sabbionara and Beseno in the Adige valley, while Arco and Riva del Garda castles are in the Sarca valley – just to mention a few of the most spectacular ones. Particularly outstanding – given also the accurate work of renovation that was undertaken in recent years – is Castel Stenico, in the lower Guidicarie valleys. There are many castles in the Val di Non too.

Besides castles and fortresses, there are also several important churches, abbeys and monasteries – such as the majestic Duomo in Trento (pivotal during the Council too) and San Romedio Abbey: this is one of the most atmospheric buildings in the entire region, near Sanzeno, also in the Val di Non.

Many are also the museums, and it is impossible to list them all here. One that is particularly noteworthy, as it gathers a lot of material from all the different parts of Trentino, is the main Ethnographic Museum, with its headquarters in the ancient fortified Monastery of San Michele at San Michele all'Adige; many smaller such institutions are located in the individual valleys.

Economy

The abundance of water and the conformation of the territory favor the production of hydroelectric energy. Trentino is also one of the Italian regions at the vanguard as far as the use of renewable energies is concerned, and one of the foremost producers of wind turbines, solar panels and photovoltaic systems. As can be imagined from what you have been reading so far, great importance is also attached to tourism too.


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