Fall Foliage: On The Chestnut Trail in South Tyrol

| Fri, 09/08/2017 - 01:35

I have a passion for hiking and Italy spoils me with enchanting  mountain trails around the Apennines and the Alps. When I heard about the chance of hiking the Chestnut Trail of the Isarco Valley in South Tyrol, I knew that the combination of my favorite season, the fall, with hiking and chestnuts was going to be a winner!

Nothing had prepared me though for the warm reds, yellows, oranges and browns of autumn that turn the area into “foliage heaven”.

For centuries, the Isarco Valley has been covered in majestic chestnut trees, hence the name Sentiero del Castagno, which begins at the Novacella Abbey near Bressanone and ends at Castel Roncolo near Bolzano. I had just a couple of days, so I hiked the most impressive section of the trail, which is the one that goes from Velturno, a small village perched on a hill, to Barbiano, about 15-km.

The trail winds through woods, meadows, vineyards, old huts (masi), and farms where you can buy local produce. It is particularly popular during the season of the so-called Torggelen, between October and November, an old tradition which coincides with the pressing of the grapes and involves tasting the new wine accompanied by typical South Tyrol fare, such as canederli, sausage, speck, Schlutzkrapfen (spinach and ricotta ravioli), Schuttelbrot (thin and crunchy rye bread), barley soup, apple juice and, of course, chestnuts. Clearly not the lightest of food, but well deserved after a hike along the trail. 

The Sentiero del Castagno begins at one of the most important abbeys in South Tyrol, the Novacella Abbey, and I strongly recommend you stop for a visit before heading on the trail.

Founded in 1142 when Bishop Hartmann made it the seat of the Augustinian Order, it acted since the beginning as a rest stop for pilgrims on their way to Rome or the Holy Land, and soon became a major cultural and spiritual center famous all over Europe. Make sure you visit the library, which features an impressive collection of precious ancient manuscripts, the Baroque-style church, the gardens, and, last but not least, the vineyards.

The Novacella Abbey is in fact renowned for the excellent wines it produces, such as Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Traminer, Kerner and Pinot Grigio, the typical white wines made in this area. Do not miss the chance to purchase some at the abbey’s own shop, which also sells honey, lotions, juices and many other products. 

I was in Velturno on the day of the official inauguration of the Torggelen season; I had read about the special celebration, but nothing had prepared me for the crowd, as possibly the entire town and vicinity had gathered in the courtyard of the 16th century castle, which used to be the summer residence of the prince-bishops of Bressanone. Food stands offering local produce (apples and chestnuts above all) and a typical South Tyrolean dance made the event quite festive. After leaving the festa, I headed toward the trail.

Now that I had visited the abbey and shopped for wine and honey, it was time for more food before the hike. I wasn’t too far ahead on my path when a small open air restaurant right by the side of the trail caught my attention. It was the Radoar farm, one of the many farms along the trail offering a rest place with food, tables and chairs. It was the perfect lunch spot, where I enjoyed a platter of assorted cheese with Schuttelbrot and apple juice, and bought a bag of chestnuts to munch on along the trail, as is the tradition this time of the year - and just in case I hadn't had enough food already!

Now it was finally time to burn those calories in style. It was one of those perfect crisp autumn days, with blue skies and the sun shining. The views were absolutely gorgeous. On my left were the spectacular Odle mountains. My final destination for the day was Chiusa, but not before getting to the Sabiona Monastery, which I had caught a glimpse of earlier that morning on the way to Velturno. It would have been impossible not to: the complex dominates the landscape from a high cliff and looks quite imposing, if not a bit somber.

As I was getting closer to Chiusa, there it was again, following me! I proceeded on the really steep climb, and finally reached the monastery, founded by the pastor and canon of Chiusa, Matthias Jenner. The first nuns came to Sabiona in 1685 and, apart from short interruptions during the Napoleonic Wars, the monastery has continued operating up to the present day. The cloistered part of the monastery is not open to the public, while there are three churches and a chapel that can be visited. 

On the way down, I took a different path, a small road which was used for the Via Crucis (Station of The Cross) by the nuns and, finally, reached Chiusa, a romantic, medieval village flanked by a river, with picturesque houses of crenellated facades and good shopping.

On day two, I visited Villandro, one of the many quaint little villages you will find along the sentiero, and my departure point for the stretch of the trail that would take me to Barbiano. Tiny Villandro features a pretty historic center, narrow alleys, a church and two Gothic towers. It is also famous for its old mine, first mentioned in 1140 AD. A variety of minerals were extracted until 1943. Today, the Elizabeth Tunnel inside the mine can be visited from May to November, providing a view of removal methods, production and processing, as well as the working conditions of the miners, who had a life expectancy of only 35 to 40 years.

This part of the trail is more demanding as at some point it gets thick into the woods, passes a waterfall, and then requires a climb up – but the reward makes it worth it, with amazing views over the valley and the mountains, and a beautiful, solitary chestnut tree that almost seems to stand guard to the trail.  

I was finally in Barbiano, whose claim to fame is the bell tower of its parish church, which, with a height of 37 meters and an incline of 1,57 meters from the top to the base, figures among Italy’s most leaning towers. For me though, its claim to fame may very well be the fantastic pastry with a sweet chestnut filling I enjoyed at a local cafè, named Rosslwirt. Chestnuts are great for use in the kitchen, from pasta dishes to desserts

During a local festival, the “Settimane delle castagne della Val Isarco” (Chestnuts Weeks of the Isarco Valley), many local restaurants offer special menus whose signature ingredient is, you guessed it, castagne!

I enjoyed my pastry sitting outside, basking in the sun. There was no hurry. An excursion on the Sentiero del Castagno requires a slow pace of travel, to appreciate the small treasures it offers. And this unhurried attitude was such a welcome break from the hectic pace of everyday life.  

For detailed information on year-round activities in the Valle Isarco, visit the official website