Deep in the Val Gardena Valley, the enchanting town of Selva di Val Gardena nestles amongst the towering peaks of the Sella and Sassolungo mountains in the Dolomites of northern Italy. It is a place where tradition runs deep and cows are a big deal.
The spectacular scenery and my love of quirky festivals led me to pick the dual-named township of Wolkenstein/ Selva di Val Gardena for our Italian hiking adventure. I made sure our stay coincided with the regions “bring the cattle down from the mountain pasture” festival, an age-old tradition which is celebrated throughout Europe’s highest mountain villages throughout Autumn.
While cows do not achieve the holy and sacred status they do in India. In Italy (as in many parts of Europe), the beloved bovine have their very own Patron Saint. Three to be precise; Saint Perpetua, Saint Brigid and Saint (Pope) Sylvester.
As the earth shifts, summer days get shorter and the first winds of Autumn begin to blow, farmers go up to the high summer pastures and bring the cattle down to the valley before the first frosts appear.
Apart from freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures if left in the high pastures, cows are pretty accident prone and they can and do have hiking accidents. Even in the summer months, they have been known to fall off cliffs and plummet hundreds of metres to their death.
The “bring the cattle down from the mountain pasture” festival celebrates the changing seasons which dictate the daily rhythm of life in the Alps. In summer, the cows are herded to the high pastures, where the air is clear and grasses are abundant after the long winter. The festival is an endearing tradition where each Autumn, townsfolk celebrate the safe return, lack of injury and loss to the farmer’s valuable cattle and the cows are welcomed home into the valley for winter.
The festival in Selva di Val Gardena begins with a church service held outside of the St Sylvester chapel. It is a tiny, charming chapel, set in a lush green valley, surrounded by the sharp spiky peaks of Col Dla Pieres & Mont Desseura.
A Catholic service is held on the grass outside the tiny Chapel. There is a large brass band playing hymns, people sing and their voices are carried down the valley as the priest blesses the cattle, the valley and prays for good health for all in their journeys.
The service ends and Mr 77 and I are able to take a look inside at the 300-year-old frescoes which tell the story of Jesus. They are beautiful.
After the service, Mr 77 and I hike into the valley. It is perfect weather, 24 degrees, warm and sunny with a slight breeze. The views are spectacular panoramas full of mountain streams, forests and the towering stony white peaks of the Puez group all around us.
After a while, we walk back down the valley to where the markets stalls that have been set up. A band is playing a mix of country and oompah band beer hall music, a slightly disorienting combination. Stalls are selling beer, wine, roast chicken, fries, sausages and bread rolls. There are ladies selling the regions delicious doughnut called Strauben, tubular shaped dough that is a deep-fried plate of heaven. Mr 77 and I decide on some chicken, rolls, a beer and the Strauben.
We sit in the sun and enjoy the music, watch the dancing and the sing-along of the crowds as we sink our teeth into the best roast chicken I have ever tasted. Colonel Sanders secret herbs and spices cannot touch this chicken, it goes perfectly with the Forst beer.
Then it is time to taste the Strauben. Mr 77 tries to tell me it is terrible after his first bite. I see through his terrible lie and wrestle some for myself. It isa mouthful of light delicious dough, lightly fried, covered in icing sugar and heaped with a generous dollop of raspberry jam. The first bite sends me into a dessert delirium!
After our feast, we join the crowd as they begin to walk to the pasture. The cows are brought in line down the valley. The farmers who have herded them earlier from the higher pastures gather to place flower garlands, ribbons, crowned adornments and bells on their cows.
We watch in fascination as the cows are dressed and herded by their masters into line and then paraded before us. There is tension in the air as farmers yell at stubborn cows who refuse to move or who go the wrong way, there is a roar of laughter as one tries to eat the hats of people in the crowd.
There is preening and parading by the seasoned heifers and their masters. I swear the cows pose for me when I raise my camera.
The crowd oohs, ahhs and applauds as each cow passes.
The tension builds as some kind of voting system takes place. Three serious looking judges with clipboards pass and inspect each cow.
We ponder whether there is Miss Congeniality in the bovine world, whilst the judges deliberate.
A winner is decided, Mr 77 and I can’t really tell who has won given it’s all in German & Italian and there are no trophies or medals given to the winner!
We assume it’s this guy, as he smiles and poses for photos and is congratulated by the others!
The cows are stripped of their decoration and sent back into the fields.
It is all over for another year.
Mr 77 and I decide to walk back to our Gharni. On our way out of the valley, we walk past the ruins of the 13th century Wolkenstein castle (destroyed in 1533 and not rebuilt) and the wooden carved statue of Emilio Comici, a famous mountaineer and pioneer of the Dolomites who fell to his death in 1940 after over 200 first ascents of the Dolomites region.
It is a beautiful region full of stunning scenery, history and tradition.
After a hearty dinner, a full moon shines brightly above, illuminating the peaks and valleys around as the lights of the Garni’s twinkle below. Our feet ache from all the hiking and standing but we are happy. It has been a quirky, fun and wonderful day. As we walk up the hill to our Garni a cow bellows in the distance, we laugh and just hope it hasn’t fallen over the edge!
How to get there
Selva di Val Gardena is located in the province of Bolzano in the South Tyrol of Northern Italy. It lies at an altitude of 1563 m above sea level and has around 2600 inhabitants. This pretty town is surrounded by the mountains Sella and Sassolungo.
Train – You must catch the train to Bressanone or Bolzano, or Chiusa. A bus service will then transport you from Bressanone and Bolzano almost every hour to Val Gardena.
The Man in Seat 61 has the latest timetables, tips and train information in Italy.
Note that some hotels can arrange a pick-up service for you.
For other options, click on this link Ways to get to Selva di Val Gardena
Where to Stay
There are many hotels and B & B’s (known as Garni’s) to stay at in the region. Mr 77 and I stayed at a lovely B & B the Garni Aghel it was a very charming B&B that was family run. The hosts were friendly and informative. The rooms was a very comfortable double rooms that had lots of space for our bags. The gardens of the Garni were charming and breakfast was your standard European fair of pastries, juice, meat, cheese, boiled eggs and tea or coffee. They also have a spa/sauna facility that you could pay to use.
For a full list and reviews of the accommodation options in Val Gardena, click on the links below:
Where to Eat
We ate a couple of times at the Ristorante Pizzeria Sun Valley Restaurant – Strada Dantercepies 7, 39048, Selva di Val Gardena, Italy.
Val Gardena with the kids
Walking, riding, swimming, biking, skiing and snowboarding! Ride the funiculars, take the train or hike with the kids to see the spectacular scenery. It is the perfect paradise for active kids. Be sure to look for accomodation and places displaying a teddy bear sticker and ask for any family discounts.