The Church of St. Jakob offers one of the most awe-inspiring vistas in the Dolomites. Discover how to hike to the oldest and highest church in Val Gardena.
It is rather fitting that a church reachable by foot alone is consecrated to the patron saint of pilgrims and hikers. The Church of St. Jakob (also known as St. Jacob, Chiesa di San Giacoma and Dlieja da Sacun in Ladin) shines as a lantern hung above the steep evergreen slopes of Val Gardena.
The oldest and highest church in the valley, the Church of St. Jakob is a late-Gothic style beauty brandishing a bell tower emblazoned with brilliant white stone. It sits at an elevation of more than 5,000 ft. — clearly once a guiding light to weary pilgrims from afar.
The church was built along an ancient road called “Troi Paian” or “Pagan’s Pathway”. This trade route dates to the Bronze Age and once connected Venetia with South Tyrol’s Valle Isarco.
The exact date of the church’s founding is as knowable as a mountain lost in the clouds. Some historians believe it dates to the year 1181 due to a carving in the bell tower. However, the first mention of the Church of St. Jakob in an official document was in 1283.
Yet according to local legend, the church was built by the Counts of Stetteneck, who reigned in the late 13th century. The legend itself is quite entertaining.
Legend of the Golden Cup
Count Gebhard von Stetteneck of Val Gardena once went with his son Jakob (not the actual Saint Jakob) in search of a relative who allegedly lived with another noble in Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain. This Spanish Count it is said had a beautiful daughter who immediately fell in love with the younger Count of Val Gardena. Jakob, however, took no notice of her affection much to the daughter’s dismay.
In revenge for the young Count’s disinterest in her, she secretly hid her father’s golden cup in Jakob’s luggage prior to his travel back to Val Gardena. When her father noticed the precious cup missing the following day he immediately sent his servants after Gebhard and Jakob at the urging of his daughter.
Upon catching up with the counts, the servants searched Jakob’s luggage and indeed found the missing cup. The servants demanded Jakob return to face their lord.
Jakob well aware of his innocence did not hesitate to go with the servants. He told his father: “You know that I did not steal the cup, so help me God; go home, I will come soon.”
But when Jakob never returned, Gebhard became concerned and went back to the city of the Spanish count. How terrified he was when he saw his son hanging from the gallows in front of the city walls! The count had sentenced Jakob to death for the alleged theft of the cup.
When Gebhard came closer to the gallows, he saw his son was not dead at all, but alive! He rushed to the city judge demanding permission to take Jakob off the gallows. But the judge, who had just sat down at a table with his wife to enjoy a roasted chicken, said mockingly: “Your son is a thief and belongs on the gallows and, moreover, is already as dead as this chicken here in my pan!”
But then the roasted chicken rose and suddenly flew away! This miracle prompted the judge to rush to the gallows where he found the young Count of Val Gardena alive. He immediately proclaimed Jakob’s innocence allowing him to be lowered and returned to an overjoyed Gebhard.
In gratitude for this wonderful salvation, the Count, upon returning to Val Gardena, immediately set out to build the Church of St. Jakob with his son. It soon became a much-visited place of pilgrimage. So much so the church grew in great wealth and the people of Val Gardena used to say: “If you want to have a rich husband or wife, you must go to St. Jakob’s Church!”
The Artwork of St. Jakob
Despite its relatively small stature, the Church of St. Jakob offers a number of wonders worth appreciating. First and foremost is its famous mountainside setting.
If you arrive at the church by descending the trail from Seceda, you will be rewarded with the sight of the church’s spire seemingly soaring over the crags of Mt. Sassolungo. A bench rests on the hilltop right above the church.
We recommend taking a seat to let the jaw-dropping scene steep your soul. And if you are single this is a good perch to spot any wealthy church patrons worth courting. May the legend of the golden cup be forever in your favor!
While the exterior of St. Jakob is late-Gothic, its interior showcases a variety of architectural stylings from Romanesque to Baroque. On its walls, you can admire, as well as attempt to decipher, several frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries, some hopelessly faded and others remarkably vivid.
Passing through the church’s nave you will come to a fresco near the pulpit. This artwork depicts the legend of St. Jakob, who is perhaps better known as St. James the Great, one of the first apostles of Jesus.
His remains are reportedly buried beneath the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain — giving some credence to the Counts of Stetteneck being the founders of the church per the above legend. It’s interesting to note that the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is one of only three churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus, the other two being St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in India.
St. Jakob was also the first apostle to be martyred. In 44 A.D. Herod Agrippa, king of Judea, ordered him to be beheaded.
Also, next to the pulpit are oil paintings of the Virgin Mary from the 18th century. As you walk into the church’s sanctuary, you will pass beneath an arch filled with frescoes of five female saints including St. Mary Magdelene and St. Catherine of Alexandria.
The altar is classic Baroque. It beams with sky-blue columns surrounded by gold-gilded woodcarvings from Val Gardena. The altar oil painting depicts a unique nativity scene with a knight and an infant Jesus holding a globus cruciger (an orb surmounted by a cross) — symbolizing dominion over the world.
The St. Jakob Cemetery
Outside the church, enclosed by a stone wall, is a small cemetery. You should walk through this graveyard to admire the great care South Tyroleans take to beautify and honor those at rest.
A weathered yet gorgeous wood-carved wayside shrine greets you near the entrance. Throughout the cemetery, you will see additional woodcarvings and wrought iron crucifixes exemplifying the expert craftsmanship of the locals.
Also worth admiring are the late Gothic frescoes from 1450 on the south-facing wall of the church. They still possess remarkable color and detail. The most celebrated depicts St. Christopher with Jesus as a child perched on his shoulder.
Before departing the cemetery, duck into a tiny stone shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. On the wall to the left, you will see a painting of a fallen soldier along with a list of names, presumably of residents who gave their lives in battle.
How to Visit St. Jakob
We think the most rewarding way to visit the Church of St. Jakob is to hike down from the ridgeline of Seceda through the forest of Mt. Balest. See our guide to hiking Seceda for step-by-step directions.
If that sounds too challenging or time-consuming you can also reach the church by walking the Legend of St. Jakob Trail. This forested trail begins behind the parish church of S. Cristina — a charming town less than 20 minutes from Ortisei.
Plan on 2+ hours to walk to the church and back. If you are in South Tyrol in early October, you may want to consider timing your visit with a village festival called “Segra Sacun”.
We attended the Segra Sacun festival during our last visit to St. Jakob and had the opportunity to join an outdoor mass in front of the church. This traditional service was followed by a fun celebration offering local specialties, beer and wine. The following day the festival continues in the center of Ortisei and runs late into the evening.