Villanders is a thousand-year-old mountain village blessed with heavenly views of the Dolomites and the vast beauty of Valle Isarco (Eisack Valley). Discover why the golden light of autumn is the idyllic time to explore its cobbled streets and chestnut-ragged trails.
The first signs of Villanders (also known as Villandro) emerged on the sun-seduced slopes of Villanderer Berg mountain more than 6,000 years ago. Archaeological findings indicate an ancient community thrived on the mountainside.
The hunters and gatherers of our Neolithic past must have found the fertile Villanderer Berg a steady feast for their flint-tipped spears and grass-woven foraging baskets. Or perhaps they simply stayed for the view.
It is utterly breathtaking after all. The Dolomites roar beyond the valley on the southern horizon.
When searching for autumn hikes in South Tyrol, we came across Villanders and like our Stone Age ancestors were smitten by what the mountain offers. History lovers will find the area richly rewarding and nature addicts will be thrilled by the bounty of the landscape. Plus, the centuries-old chestnut trees dotting the mountain make this corner of Valle Isarco ideal for gourmet enthusiasts partaking in South Tyrol’s 5th season: Törggelen.
Villanders offers a multitude of hiking trails to choose from. We opted for a hike that would carry us over alpine meadows and through forests to the historic Dreikirchen (Three Churches) near Barbian (Barbiano). These three small wood-steepled churches date to the 12th and 15th centuries. They are located next to Gasthof Messnerhof, making this an idyllic adventure for those seeking an easy hike paired with delicious food and drink.
Through the Famous church alley
Our hike began in the old-world heart of Villanders. The early morning sun bathed the village’s patios and balconies in a warm yet crisp golden light that only October can kindle.
We followed a cobblestone road through a narrow alley known as Kirchgasse (church alley). It led us past the historic Steinbock Manor & Restaurant (Ansitz Steinbock), a castle once home to the Lords of Villanders. The castle sits in the village center wearing centuries of utter romantic ruin. So much so that it inspired the renowned Tyrolean painter, Franz Defregger, to portray the Steinbock residence in his masterpiece: “The Last Call to Arms”.
On the other end of the alley, two church bell towers gilded by the sun greeted us with spires piercing the blue sky. The towers belong to the Church of St. Stephan and the Church of St. Michael. The Church of St. Michael is the noticeably older of the two having first been documented in 1234. It possesses a remarkable cemetery unlike any other in South Tyrol. The tombs and wrought-iron crosses lie in such a way the dead always face the rising sun.
The parish church of St. Stephan was built from 1517 to 1521. Inside are striking works of art including the Madonna del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary), a cherished baroque piece from 1700 that is carved from wood and holds 15 round oil paintings of the Madonna. Another valued oil painting in the church, also from the 1700s, depicts the stoning of St. Stephan. It was painted by Franz Sebald Unterberger, a famous artist from nearby Brixen.
However, the most unique work of art in St. Stephan is a stained glass window dating to the early 1500s. Next to the Madonna, it portrays the patron saints of miners, Daniel and Barbara. Beneath the saints are miners busy at work on the Villanderer Berg.
Villanders is home to the oldest mine in Europe. Silver and copper among other minerals were harvested from the mountain as far back as the 12th century.
Hiking the Dreikirchenweg
Behind the Church of St. Stephan, we ascended stone steps up a slope to the Three Churches Trail (Dreikirchenweg). Following the path, marked as no. 4 on signage, we floated above Villanders past quaint farmhouses into a stretch of undulating meadows dappled with giant chestnut and apple trees.
We found their swooping canopies and massive trunks weathered by centuries of Alpine wind and sun especially enchanting. Sitting beneath their leafy cover with the sun’s rays sprinkling through was next to divine. The idyllic setting to read a book or simply study the peaks of the Dolomites far across the valley before nodding off into a gentle slumber.
Moving on we encountered a pasture hidden by a forest. Within cows and South Tyrol’s celebrated Haflinger horses grazed together. Upon spotting us the horses galloped abruptly to our feet.
Whether they were anticipating a handout of apples or chestnuts, we did not know. But we were not about to share such delectable treats as they were not ours to give. Disappointed by such stingy hikers they quickly moved on.
After an hour or so of hiking, the path descended into a hardwood forest. When we emerged from the shady cover we came to a paved road. A sign pointed us to continue along the pavement as it curved through the side valley until reaching another road snaking up through a stand of larches.
On the other side, we found the Dreikirchen perched in Gothic form atop a grassy hill just above the valley bottom. The churches reside in the hamlet of Bad Dreikirchen, which sits almost due north of the village of Barbian.
Visiting the Three Churches
Mystery still shrouds the Three Churches. No one knows why the builders huddled them together. Nor who the builders were or why they chose such an isolated location.
The oldest, St. Gertrude, was built in 1237. Well-preserved Gothic frescoes and Baroque shrines adorn its interior — leading you to an altar where a statue of St. Gertrude stands between candles below a scene of the Crucifixion.
The second church, St. Nicholas, came shortly after the first was built while the third church, St. Magdalene was erected in 1470. Some believe the churches were established as shrines as they lie near pre-Roman healing springs. Perhaps medieval Christian worshipers sought to replace an ancient pagan sanctuary dedicated to the three goddesses of springs.
A Delicious Stop at Gasthof Messnerhof
The Three Churches are not left open, but you are welcome to retrieve the keys kept by the owners of the neighboring Gasthof Messnerhof. This rustic farm inn offers three rooms for guests interested in an agriturismo experience.
In addition, they have a restaurant available to hikers that offers traditional South Tyrolean fare whipped up from their organic farm. Virtually every dish on the menu is rooted in Gasthof Messnerhof’s backyard. From the beef to the speck to the vegetables, jams and juices.
As we were making sure to leave room for a Törggelen feast later in the evening, we only ordered a plate of Kaiserschmarrn, a powder-sugared pastry dish served with a homemade blackberry jam. We devoured this tasty treat with a couple of glasses of Kerner, one of our favorite white wines from South Tyrol.
Rambling Back to Villanders
After relaxing at Gasthof Messnerhof, we hopped back on the trail and began our return to Villanders. Like all hikes in South Tyrol, when you trod the same trail in the opposite direction you are rewarded with an entirely new perspective of the landscape and mountains.
While we were enamored with the massive chestnut trees on the way to the Dreikirchen, the Villanderer Berg’s apple trees stole the show on the return. The golden light of autumn made them shimmer as ornaments hung at Christmas.
Whether simply admiring them dangling from a tree branch or letting one delight our mouths with its juiciness, South Tyrol’s apples never fail to make our hiking adventures more enjoyable. Even if the mountains suddenly vanished, we would still visit the region to savor the fruited orbs.
Where to Stay in Villanders
Villanders offers several accommodation options perched across the mountainside. If you like the idea of staying in the village itself, then we recommend Ansitz Steinbock. As mentioned earlier, this historic building is situated in the heart of Villanders. In addition to its wonderful gourmet restaurant tucked in centuries-old Stubem, the hotel features 12 luxury suites.
If you would prefer to stay somewhere that is more pastoral than medieval, then consider the Schweiggerhof. We loved this family-owned alpine farm. It is ideally located within walking distance of Villanders. Its holiday apartments offer sweeping views of the Dolomites and are tastefully designed with a rustic modern vibe.