Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bolzano, Termeno, and the Krampusumzüge

This Sunday I traveled to Bolzano for the city’s famed Chirstmas market and St. Nicholas Procession. I have not been to Bolzano previously, merely driving past it on my way to Munich or Innsbruck. The city is like a hidden Alpine town, with colorful Austro-Hungarian building facades surrounded by low snowed-in mountains. The cobbled streets weave in and out of the small center, leading to the Waltherplatz, next to the city cathedral and its colorful roof most likely fashioned after the one in Vienna. Although maze-like, Bolzano’s streets are world away from the cities and towns just an hour or so southit is cleaner, its paint fresher, and everything just has a feel of being more organized.

Although small, the city’s Christmas market is considered one of the best in Italywhich, for a country that doesn’t have the tradition, isn’t much competition. Bolzano’s market itself isn’t that old, celebrating its 20th iteration this year. Fairy-tale like as it already is, the city goes a step further in Christmas. Everything is lit with string lights and covered in green and red paper; mulled wine, hot cocoa, and hot apple cider is sold by carts at every turn; carolers are blasted on speakers at all hours that the market is open. It’s so jolly and festive that one’s head is liable to explode, but good thing good beer and strudel is always on hand to calm one’s nerves.

I have never been to the Christmas markets up north, but I’m sure that the shopping for hand-made stuff is much better over there than here. Most of the items come boxed and mass-manufactured from somewhere else. The hand-carve religious figures are neat, but are usually grossly overpriced. But in a sense, I came expecting that, and didn’t come for those typical trinkets. Instead, there are other things that are typically Bozner: Bozner Bier, brewed locally and very very good; Loacker has their flagship store, and a visit enlightened me to the other kinds of wafers and candies they offer; different kinds of cold cuts, especially speck; and strudel, from pretty much every corner of the city. And if you’re getting ready for your upcoming ski trip, the city is host to a three-story Sportler.

Although Santa is the centerpiece of the town’s afternoon parade, I didn’t come for him. No, he is too boring, too ubiquitous, too common. If I wanted Santa, I would have just stayed home. What I wanted instead are his companions, taking care of the bad children while Santa rewards the good ones. I am of course talking about the Krampus, evil creatures who, bypassing the coal, drag bad children to hell as punishment for being naughty. Unfortunately, Bolzano was not going to have their krampus procession until the next day, but I received a tip to visit a small town to the south called Tarmeno sulla Strada di Vino. There they say is one of the best in the region because it isn’t so organized as the big towns and the krampus are still authorized to literally drag bad kids to hell.

Tarmeno is small, and we drove for an hour or so trying to find the place amidst the darkness and snow. Once we got there, we were almost disappointed: a small group of adults huddled around a makeshift bar selling mulled wine and hot apple cider. There were no signs of krampus or any sort of preparation for a big parade. We couldn’t ask anyone because we were too afraid to offend German speakers of speaking Italian, and vice versa. However, we knew we were in the right place when we heard over-eager kids running around yellingKRAMPUUUUUUUS!!” Slowly the crowd grows and more children start running around, some pretending to be horned monsters stalking unsuspecting babies. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and reminded me when I too was as excited about Christmas. The crowd didn’t get much bigger, and I was glad to realize that it was a largely local event. As trite as it sounds, I felt like I stumbled on a traditional event held solely because it is traditional, not for tourist money.

When the clock struck eight, things became very tense. Once in a while, children would come running down the street from what I assumed was the general direction of where the krampus was traveling. Finally, a flash of red light and a loud eery moan. Next, a burning cart is dragged into the street, followed by boys and men dressed in fur wearing creepy masks and cowbells that made loud noises as they hopped closer. At first there were maybe ten, then twenty, then thirty carrying switches and harassing bystanders. By harassing, I mean literally. Girls were being carried away or their hairs pulled, bystanders were being hit with tree branches, and little kids are being chased around with firecrackers.

I was personally attacked by this guy. As I was taking pictures, he stood right in front of me, staring at me. I put the camera down and innocently smiled back. Suddenly he had his hands all over my face smearing some greasy stuff all over it. Afterwards I look around surprised for realizing why parents had already put black paint on their children's faces to spare them from the terror.
It only lasted about half an hour, after which we decided to leave. Honestly, it got too wild and creepy for us, and we were terrified of cowbells as we walked back to the car. A very weird way of celebrating Christmas, but definitely also a more exciting and exhilirating one. And I agree with Mr. Colbert: bring the krampus to America!

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