The mountains and pastures may look like the set of Heidi, but South Tyrol is more a Knight’s Tale of armoured heroes, monks and damsels in distress. Each of its 400-plus castles and manors, as well as a smorgasbord of early modern cathedrals, churches and monasteries, has its own unique story linking modern South Tyrol to an animated past.

The trading town of Brixen is haunted with the ghosts of times past, a perception assisted by the fact that the ardent religiosity of the town is physically separated from its secular side. Hofburg Castle, which was a Hapsburg palace, is now a museum for religious art, housing intricate 13th century wooden carvings of Jesus. A short walk away is Brixen’s stunning cathedral, which is decorated with frescos depicting a mish-mash of scenes from the Old and New testaments – the effect is described as Medieval television” by tour guides. The strange animal depicted in some frescos resembling a horse with a coiled garden hose for a nose, which is in fact a depiction of an elephant, first seen by locals in 1551 when it crossed the Dolomites into Vienna as a gift from Portugal. It was once thought that elephants first entered Brixen when Carthaginian General Hannibal made his famous raid on Rome in 218BC, but this theory has now been disproved. Some South Tyrolese businesses today use elephants as logos, albeit rendered more conventionally.”

Not every landmark is as grand. Castle Leuchtenburg, which is owned by Count Ezenburg, is actually only half a castle – one side of it is missing and the roof is gone. Even in its 13th century glory days it was not an inhabited castle but more of a status symbol and a warning to travellers that they needed to pay a toll to pass it. Count Ezenburg says owning a castle these days is more of a liability than a money-making venture, with constant upkeep needed to make the castle comply with safety regulations. But visitors aren’t too concerned about the castle’s deterioration, and its continued existence is anything but a liability to them. After a short walk up a fairly steep summit they are met with a scene of sun-drenched families and lovers lying on picnic rugs, enjoying the spectacular mountain views over Alto Adige.

Some castles have been given a brand new life in the 21st century. The province’s hero is Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, and a museum dedicated to his feats and those of other mountaineers will open next year in a castle just outside of the capital, Bolzano. Fahlburg Castle, which is 30 minutes from Bolzano, is a grand mansion with amazing ceiling frescoes. It is commonly used today as a wedding venue with the bride usually arriving in a horse and carriage. Many of South Tyrol’s monasteries have a traditional but ever-modern function as cellars for the district’s wineries.

Visitors are welcome to find their own insights and inspirations in South Tyrol’s historical structures as long as they respect the local culture. With so much of that culture around each corner, it is not a hard task.

Italy’s most northern province

South Tyrol was part of Austria until the end of World War I when it was annexed by Italy, and despite being subject to an Italianisation programme by Mussolini in the 1920s, it enjoys relative autonomy from Italy today. Two-thirds of its population speak German. Both groups are proud of their cultural roots, although many residents describe themselves as South Tyrolese rather than Italian or Austrian. Children can attend German-or Italian-speaking schools, and the alternate language is taught. Four per cent of the population speak Laddin as a first language, which began as Latin but was heavily reworked by the mountain dwellers of the region.