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“All the good ones are gone,” Rolando Galli said, furrowing his brow.
Moments before, he had paused to take a closer look at what he thought was the coveted porcini mushroom, whose spongy reddish-brown top provides a powerful camouflage against the forest grounds.
No such luck: The mushroom — a hot commodity that grows mostly in summer and lends itself to rich, nutty flavors — had already been picked clean by visitors to Riserva Naturale Abetone in Abetone, a mountain town in the Pistoia province of Tuscany, Italy. Instead, only toxic mushrooms remained, such as the psychoactive red-and-white amanita muscaria mushroom (the inspiration behind a certain Super Mario Bros. character named Toad).
But October in Abetone brims with other signs of life. That day, our group had set off from the piazza del comune (city hall square) on the Lago Nero trail to its eponymic lake, with Galli in the lead. A keen outdoorsman, as well as president of the Abetone and Pistoia Mountain tourism board and the Societa Abetone Funivie ski lift, he knows the natural reserve inside out.
Galli pointed out the golden-tipped leaves of soaring white birch trees, as well as the telltale patches of darkened soil where locals once turned those same trees into charcoal. He also explained which blueberry bushes bore the sweetest and juiciest fruit (“avoid the ones with ridged leaves,” he told us), and grinned widely when he unearthed a few tiny, lingering raspberries, the very last of the season’s bounty.
He didn’t need to say a word, though, when we trekked uphill to step out of the dense, coniferous forest and onto a sun-drenched meadow, where the terrain swelled with foliage in shades of red, green and brown. A hush fell over our group, as if we didn’t dare disturb the peaceful moorland and hulking central Apennine summits in view. A tasty handful of foraged berries later, we continued our hike, traipsing toward the crystal-clear glacial waters of Lago Nero, which sits at 5,675 feet in elevation.
The handsome, shifting scenes that surrounded us on our roundtrip 10-mile hike usually resemble a snow globe during winter, which is when Abetone’s modest hotels reach their peak occupancy. Armed with skis and ski poles, locals from nearby Pisa and Florence hit the slopes here in droves. U.S. travelers, however, don’t give Abetone much thought; only those in the know are aware of the ski resort town’s fantastic possibilities. That exclusive group includes Aspen residents: The Colorado municipality added Abetone as its seventh Sister City in 2015 as part of an initiative promoting cross-cultural experiences and exchanges between middle-school students.
But for those who, like me, prefer wide-open, quiet spaces and a high probability of never crossing paths with a single soul, Abetone in the fall is the most bewitching. And there are plenty of other activities to pass the time, such as sportfishing, rock climbing, paragliding and more. Mountain biking is the most popular; abundant birch- and fir-lined trails crisscross the region, and cyclists can utilize the Societa Abetone Funivie ski lift for the thrill of downhill biking.
Once again led by Galli, who spends most of his free time on a mountain bike, we began our adventure at Abetone Gravity Park, one of the largest bike parks in Italy. Here, we were outfitted with mountain bikes with electric-assist functionality — a necessary feature due to Abetone’s forested, rocky slopes with vertiginous ascents and descents.
E-bikes or not, mountain biking here is a challenge, especially for novices — something I immediately grasped as soon as I, with guns blazing, crashed into Galli himself while whizzing down a particularly narrow and rock-strewn trail. (I also realized my false assumption that downhill biking on the paved roads of Santa Barbara, Calif., would be enough training.)
A couple more falls and one bruised ego later, I retired from mountain biking in favor of a much more familiar Italian sport: diving into a comforting bowl of hand-rolled pasta, with the elusive — and downright delicious — handpicked porcini mushrooms to boot.
The DetailsAbetone and Pistoia Mountain www.abetoneovovia.it
Adventure Travel Trade Associationwww.adventuretravel.biz