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13 July 2022

In northern Italy, the sound of the swirling river suffuses even my hotel room

The strangely musical waterway tells a story of South Tyrol's troubled history.

By John Burnside

In the deeply wooded hills of South Tyrol, Italy, a quick, silvery river tumbles wildly over long, tawny spills of fallen rock. By the time it reaches distant Verona, it is wide and slow, but here it still remembers its origins as a mountain stream, a watercourse that the old Celts called “Yt-ese” – that is, quite simply, “the water”. In Italian this became the Adige, while for German speakers it is the Etsch.

That this clear, strangely musical waterway has two names is one consequence of Tyrol’s troubled history, a sorry tale of annexation, forced migration and the “Italianisation” programme imposed by Mussolini when the fascists came to power. For many of the predominantly German-speaking locals, this is still Austria – and some of the older folk refuse to speak Italian to this day.

Oblivious to all of this, the water wends its way through mixed woodland and rocky outcrops, purling between fallen boulders, or pooling suddenly in the deeper shade. Here and there, a thin tributary cascades over a rock face, a haunting grace-note to the music of the main current. Butterflies flicker in and out of the shade around these miniature waterfalls; wildflowers dot the damp undergrowth and the banks of the river are lined with hop-hornbeam, bird cherry and manna ash.

Meanwhile, under it all, the geology is formed from a rare mix of granite, quartz-porphyry and gneiss. Go walking in the little Gaul Canyon nature reserve, where the swift and occasionally unpredictable Valsura river (German: Falschauer) meets the Adige, and you can read an entire geological history in the rippling, varicoloured layers of rock along the narrow track that leads to the upper meadow.

Directly adjacent to Gaul Canyon lies the town of Lana, famed in this region and beyond for its apple orchards. It is a pretty place, packed with remarkable buildings and, in early June, when I was passing through, full of the heady scent of star jasmine. On street after street, in the specially designed park for the elderly and around the fine public buildings – once the homes of rich merchants and churchmen – this sweetly perfumed shrub is grown as a hedge plant. From early summer onwards, it lends an air of sensual festivity to this neat, somewhat reserved market town.

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Meanwhile, off the main thoroughfares, Yt-ese reappears in altered form, diverted from its scrambling run to fair Verona by generations of apple-growers, who carefully guided it through the back lanes, between tall monastery walls and neat, well-managed orchards, via narrow irrigation canals, or Waale – not only to keep the apples and vines well-watered in summer, but also to protect them from winter frosts. This system of waterways, which local people say dates back to the 13th century, demonstrates the effectiveness of an appropriate technology that, as simple as it is, works very well; on top of that, however, it adds a real, if unquantifiable, richness to the fabric of daily life.

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I became aware of this on the night I first arrived in the town. Having travelled some distance through an impressive thunderstorm (which one local dismissed as a “little night-time rain”) I was aware of nothing, at first, save the steady downpour hammering at the windows of my Gasthaus and filling the air with a sweet ozone-y richness.

The next morning, however, long after the storm had abated, I could still hear water from my second-storey room. I went out on to the balcony and looked out over the street: it was still, empty, touched with the gold of the morning sun – but the sound of running water continued, gentle, constant, yet infinitely variable. Though I did not know it then, I was near a Waale – and the purl of running water haunted my visit, over several days of scorching sun, so I always knew that, hot as this particular summer might be, a river ran through it.

[See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for the planet]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant