Males and females comprised our group almost equally. Most of us were writers of one genre or another, and several were actors. Because all but two of the group were students at St Andrews, we had at least a passing friendship already. Professor Ron Bayes, a poet of note, had organized the trip. As a Pound scholar, he had known Mary for years. The apartment for the visiting students was on the bottom floor of the main building with an exit onto a two level courtyard hemmed by a stone rampart. From there we could have leapt to the base of the gorge. It was precipitously straight below. Still, we too enjoyed a view of the valleys, Merano and the Alps beyond. Most puzzling, however, was the source of a cuckoo calling in bold resonant echoes from the top of the gorge. Tirolo di Merano, the village on the hill, and Merano, the city below, were both tourist destinations patronized mostly by Germans who came for “the cure”, a process of consuming the local wine until one’s system was thoroughly flushed. As we later watched the parade of “fat pink German tourists” (the local perjorative) stream up the side of the mountain, we imagined that at the top there must be an oversized Mickey Mouse-ish Bavarian style cuckoo clock that they all visited. As a matter of tourism excess, it made perfect sense. But we could not verify its existence.
The courtyards were open and grassy, an ideal place to eat lunch and dinner al fresco. Someone had discovered the local wine, a very young red that cost 1100 lira (about $1.10 at the time) per magnum (1.5 liters). The only negative, if you can call it that, is that the wine had to be consumed entirely within eight hours of opening or it turned to vinegar, which we also used in an oil and vinegar dressing on salad. Our group of ten drank two bottles at lunch (classes continued in the afternoon) and uncounted bottles with dinner and beyond. One day, soon after analyzing the possible sources of the echoing cuckoo calls that came at all times of the hour, not just on the hour, some of us were sitting at the dining table talking and taking in the sun when a couple of ungainly birds hurled down the gorge past the castle chasing their own echo. Their bodies appeared plumper than a pigeon’s and the wings short to keep them aloft. Cuckoos. The source of the resounding calls that sounded like a cuckoo was a flock of cuckoos that inhabited the area. There was no tourist clock. Not even the Italians would stoop so low to attract fat pink Germans with medallion-clustered walking sticks tipped with glacier points that pricked only asphalt.
As American tourists, the idea of real cuckoos, not just Bavarian cuckoo clocks, thrilled us all. Their calls repeatedly brought smiles as there was something otherworldly, even silly, about their presence. Once we resolved that mystery, we felt better about trailing the Germans up the mountainside roadway to the 13th century church across the gorge from the castle. In a separate building on the church grounds, a locked grilled doorway allowed us to peer into the shadows of a room piled with bones, the ossuary of older graves that had been excavated to make room for the more recently deceased.
Our apartment was self-catering, so we shared cooking and cleaning duties. The only fresh market was down in Merano on Saturdays, so a few of us planned to venture there without any Italian speakers among us. We learned that there was a door in the outer wall on our level of the castle that opened to a pathway that led off the mountain to the town, so we followed it and planned to catch a taxi back up with our supplies. The locals were accommodating and allowed us to stumble through any form of Italian we conjured, pointing to purchase the foods we wanted. Two fingers meant two of whatever measure the vendor was selling; we were not necessarily sure whether we were getting two ounces of beans or two kilos until the veggies were bagged. It was a sunny and colorful day for the market, so we looked forward to returning the next weekend.
After someone volunteered to take our milk pail to the dairy just up the driveway from the castle entrance (leaving a 1000 lira note under the pail on a window sill at ground level), we started our mornings most often with several coffees in Tirolo, often accompanied by local pastries, where we could sit outside in the warm Alpen sun and commit endless macaronic gaffs. The staff did not seem to mind as they served us with a smile no matter how we ordered our coffee, kaffe, or café mit schlag [sic]. We ordered pastries with the point and finger count method we found effective at the market.
Tirolo had the atmosphere of a Bavarian mountain village with low pitch roof lines and carved figures perched on the balconies. The business closest to the castle behind a small door opening off a narrow side street was a bar reminiscent of a British pub. Cozy, friendly, comfortable. The beer was outstanding, Pilsner Urquell, the original pale lager or pilsner created in the Czech Republic in 1842. We did not know at the time that it was the “Mother Lager”, but we knew we liked the flavor. We sampled some Italian beers, but they were less than memorable. (Fast Forward: Back in the US years later, I will take a Moretti any day and was pleasantly surprised that the local strip center pizza parlor in the tiny Town of Tarboro served it when I lived there.)