The best way to combine this scenery with South Tyrol’s harvest-time hospitality is to follow the Keschtnweg or ‘Chestnut Way’, a 38-mile trail that winds along the Isarco Valley (Eisacktal) between the towns of Bressanone (Brixen) and Bolzano. It’s named after the old chestnut groves which carpet the hillsides, planted by Roman settlers 2,000 years ago, and has been tramped by shepherds, pedlars and pilgrims for centuries. Once the quickest path across the Alps, it takes around five days to complete – although during Törggelen season, the temptation of stopping for another mountain feast means it often takes considerably longer than planned.
What soon becomes apparent to Keschtnweg hikers is South Tyrol’s split personality. One minute the views appear Alpine: green fields, grazing cows, geranium-covered houses. The next, things turn Italian: saintly icons, tumbledown churches, hilltop monasteries. In one hamlet, the church might be dedicated to St Jakobus or St Georg; in the next, it might be Santa Maddalena or Sant’Angelo. Stop in at one bar and you’ll be served a shot of grappa; at the next it’s as likely to be a glass of schnapps.
Though it’s been a province of Italy since 1919, for much of its history the region was part of the Austrian empire. This is a place that still teeters between two cultures. Two-thirds of people identify German as their mother tongue; another quarter speaks Italian, while a further five per cent speak Ladin, an old Romance language believed to have its roots in the patois of Roman legionaries. Road signs are always in two languages, sometimes three. Every village has both a German and an Italian name, and this is surely the only corner of Italy where locals are equally happy to sit down for a bowl of dumplings as they are to a bowl of ravioli.
‘You could say all Südtirolers have two nationalities,’ says Maria Gall Prader, an art historian who supplements her income guiding people along the area’s hiking trails. She spreads out bread, sausage and cheese on a picnic blanket in a chestnut grove near the village of Velturno (Feldthurns), about 10 miles from the northern end of the Keschtnweg near Bressanone. ‘Sometimes we eat bread, sometimes pasta. We like wine as much as beer. Some people speak Italian at home, some people German,’ she says. ‘But when it comes to politics everyone wants something different. It’s always been that way and will surely never change.’ Around her the landscape is fiery with colour – golds, crimsons, pinks and oranges, mottled greens and tawny browns – and dry leaves snap and rustle underfoot.
After lunch, Maria makes a beeline for Radoar-Hof, one of the area’s renowned organic apple farms. Owner Norbert Blasbichler is pouring out glasses of juice and grappa for his guests at a wooden table in the garden. It’s surrounded by terraces of fruit trees, stretching away in orderly lines and laden with apples, pears, quince and berries, ripe and ready for harvest, which Norbert reckons is just a week away. He pours out an early taste of this year’s juice: it’s sweet, floral and fruity, with a rich perfume and a twist of acidity that comes from a blend of apple varieties. ‘Blending is an art, like winemaking,’ he says. ‘Every year we have different levels of sugar and acidity in the fruit, which means the juice tastes slightly different. That’s where the skill comes in,’ he says, tapping a finger to his nose.