Italian leaf-peeping excursions are a favorite for me when I vacation in the autumn. Since my birthday falls on September 29, I usually try to book a getaway early in October. While every season promises some one-of-a-kind treat for the traveler, I am partial to autumn’s bountiful gifts—cool temperatures, seasonal festivals, and pumpkin-flavored beverages. And the leaves change to Bordeaux, tangerine, and yellow.
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne opined that he could not “endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.” I concur. On a fall vacation, I want to spend every moment outdoors, whether hiking up steep mountain trails at a national park or walking down tree-lined lanes in a rustic village.
Some of my best vacation memories can be traced to vacations spent in Italy in October. In northern Tuscany, the chill winds coming down from the Apennine Mountains required a winter jacket during early morning strolls. I kept a rain slicker packed in my backpack to defeat the rainy morning hiking in the woods. And a hot cafe latte to warm my fingers was the perfect reward after an afternoon traipsing around a medieval village.
“Days decrease / And autumn grows, autumn in everything,” wrote poet Robert Browning. When I chased fall’s path in northern Tuscany, I discovered the peculiar pleasure of shorter days and longer evenings spent in front of a roaring fire.
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I booked my first solo hiking trip in Europe in Garfagnana (“a secret corner of Tuscany“) in October 2017. Since I love Italy and autumn, I decided that spending six days exploring different national parks would delight me. I was not disappointed.
“Another fall, another turned page . . . “Wallace Stegner
The first day of our group hike in Northern Tuscany began with a 40-minute drive to Casone, a small ski area in this region. Since we were walking through beech woods, we saw brilliant shades of autumn colors. Initially, we were climbing the Crinali Ridge. This is located along the Apennine Ridge in the national park. The wraparound views of the mountain ranges touched the horizon.
My guide was “Elvis,” a high-energy Dalmatian dog that sprinted up the mountain like a goat. He would look back down at his frail humans who took so long to reach him at the top.
Below we saw the Italian woods’ autumnal glory, a rainbow of yellow, gold, orange, red and maroon flourishes with a brush. If I slanted my eyes, it looked like an impressionist painting. This forest stretches between the ridge line of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna.
I walked through a carpet of grass and vines that turned golden as the temperatures dipped in October. We followed the undulating ridge toward the peak of Monte Prado (2,054 m). Reaching this summit was a pure victory for me.
But I hadn’t counted on my lousy knee causing me a lot of pain after my first day of hiking 11 miles. After reaching the summit and eating lunch, we began the hard part—climbing down the steep rocky path. By the end, my knee made a popping sound, and my ankles ached inside my boots.
Naturally, a glass of Italian beer at the bar near the parking lot temporarily made me forget my pain. But I stiffened up during the trip back to our hotel. The only solution was to wrap up my leg in tape and pop Ibuprofen because I wouldn’t miss even one day recuperating in my bed.
Apuane National Park
Best Leaf-Peeping Expedition
The next day, I witnessed the most vivid colors hiking in Alpi Apuane National Park. Initially, we hiked along a wide forest track in a beech forest. The thud of our hiking boots crushed the carpet of crinkling orange leaves.
When we ascended to the ridge, we faced Pania della Croce and the Omo Morto range. Some hikers chose to climb the footpath ascending to a limestone plateau. I, however, didn’t like looking down a steep mountain if there was no railing, so I stayed behind. Two follow hikers joined me.
Soaking in the rays of the late October sunshine, my friends and I stretched out on the grass and relaxed. While we chatted, I studied the uninterrupted views of the Alpi Apuane range and the spine of the Apennines.
On day three, we didn’t need to get in the van for our sightseeing. We hiked up a steep hill outside our farmhouse in Pontecosi. Hiking poles aided our ascent. Looking back down, we could see tiny homes with terracotta roofs.
We dressed warmly as the morning air was nippy. But the landscape tricked me. Unlike the woodland paths covered in leaves, the hill was verdant lime green.
We were headed to Villa Collemandina, a little town where we would stop for espresso and an Italian pastry. The owners provided picnic tables outside for visitors and hikers to rest. I cradled the white cup in my hands to warm up. A cloud of hot milk froth rose on the surface.
Italians love to hang out their laundry, so I admired the brightly-colored striped shirts waving in the breeze. A bush of skinny red peppers continued to produce fruit despite the change in seasons.
Our next stop was the old village church, nestled in the green foothills. Since it was a morning during a weekday, there was no one inside the church. We roamed around the building, admiring the statue of two angels, sculptures, and paintings.
Then we headed back outside to traipse down skinny lanes and footpaths. Brilliant red vines covered the sides of old stone houses.
Castiglione di Garfagnana
We were headed to see Castiglione di Garfagnana. The town’s slogan is “a walled village that holds its thousand-year history intact.” The town dates to Roman times. But its history is linked to its role as a military camp.
We roamed around the medieval fortress that loomed on the hill. Its stone foundation was seasoned salt and pepper. I viewed sweeping views of the villages and mountain ranges.
“It’s a rarity to find instances of fortified villages this complete, plus a fortress that still stands strong in its centuries-old splendor–not to mention the towers, which are amazing in their majesty.”Visit Tuscany
This medieval town is the home of the region’s annual chestnut festival. Visitors and residents celebrate the harvest from the chestnut trees that produce the brown, edible chestnut. In addition to roasting chestnuts on the fire in the autumn, Italians bake bread and cakes with chestnut flour.
Visiting Italy during the shoulder season (autumn) can be a gamble if the weather turns cold and rainy. But my Tuscan trip delivered bright skies, although I needed a fleece jacket in the early morning and after nightfall when outdoors. (Several wool blankets heaped on my bed were also necessary for the chilly mountain nights.)
I went in search of trees preparing for winter. Fiery orange and red leaves clung to tree branches. To recall Virginia Woolf, may “ . . . all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves . . .”