Vendemmia is Italian for harvest or, more specifically, grape harvest. Hearing that word, smells, sensations, visuals and memories vividly resurface. I might be partial, but there is no better time to visit the Alps than during the vendemmia between late September and mid-October.
Before I explain why, a clarification. The Alps are a large geological and geographical area which includes many different environments, from temperate, sub-alpine forests to glaciers. Here I only refer to the Süd Tyrol region, a magical land nestled at the border between Italy and Austria. Süd Tyrol is part of Italy, but culturally, architecturally and politically, it stands on its own. Driving up the river Adige valley from Trento to Meran, one crosses an imaginary border where homes look suddenly Austrian, street signs and town names are suddenly bilingual (German and Italian) and Germanic, not Italian, features prevail.
Late September in Meran is harvest time for grapes and apples. Meran is the last largest town before the Austrian border, cuddled in an amphitheater below Alpine peaks growing progressively larger and colder. After Meran, there are only small towns, ski resorts and snowy peaks. Because of its position and geography, Meran is protected from much of the polar mountain winds. Its climate is very temperate, even in winter, which makes it ideal to grow its most profitable crops: apples and wine grapes, exported and coveted all over Italy and the world.
Meran is where my family is from and where my grandma, born in 1919, still lives. In a way, Meran, the town and the surrounding mountains, are for me family itself. As my parents and many others have passed, the mountains are unchanged, embracing and unfazed at the same time. I can return to visit them as I would people now gone.
Running the trails surrounding Meran is one of my favorite things. I lose track of time, enthralled by the views, scent of ripe apples and grapes, sounds of cowbells and the taste of the glacial water from the plentiful fountains. Summers can be hot, but in early fall the air is temperate and sweet, warm enough to make long runs easy but cool enough not to make them brutal.
Above town for about 500 vertical meters, the slopes are filled with cultivated fields, mostly bearing apples, grapes and hay, as milk is another prized fruit of this region. Each field is well organized with large crates ready to receive the crops. The vendemmia is a social event, where numerous fields are filled with workers chitchatting. The air teems with the scent of grapes or over-ripe apples laying on the ground. Above the fields, the cows still graze, enjoying the last few days outside before winter rolls down from the summits.
The first leaves crackle under my feet as I head straight up one of the many single-track trails. I don’t know this trail specifically, but I know where it’s going thanks to manicured wooden trail signs. I head up to the Ifingerhütte, the hut right below the Ifinger summit. From there, I come back down to Meran from the ski resort, where I take a break at the store at the top of the gondola to buy some sweet tea.
On my way down from the ski resort, I say hello to a few cows, their funny hairpieces perched between their horns. Words or pictures can never do justice to the place. Quickly losing altitude, I plot my next excuse to come back or, perhaps, grow some roots and stay longer than a week. I love this land like a person and anyone visiting can quickly see why.