Castles and Trails – hiking in Tuscany’s Garfagnana

Becoming a full time traveler has meant finding ways to afford it. Blessed with a pension at the ripe old age of 58 we have been at this for the last 4 years and hope to keep going for many more. When we were working and raising our kids we fit in the hikes or runs at places we knew so that we could afford the time. The added time that retirement brings has brought us to many new-to-us locations in our home town and abroad. Just putting one foot in front of the other everyday on a new route brings thoughts of ancient travelers, hunters, gatherers, families, workers, conquerors, kids, dogs, horses and wild animals. Trailways around the globe, near and far, are beaten paths of history and memories that may or may not be revealed through our own steps but they definitely conjure up thoughtful possibilities of stories and imaginations of happy or tragic ends to a day or a life.

Tuscany is often in our minds as the area of Italy that has cyprus tree lined roads on rolling hills with sienna and burnt ochre colours, zucchini flowers, Michealangelo, artichokes, the Medicis, pesto, Pecorino cheese and Chianti. Traveling south of Florence on other trips, we learned that the soil in the now famous Val d’Orchia was so bad that only sheep and goats could be nourished on the land. Artichokes = thistle. Sheep = Pecorino cheese. North of Tuscany is the Emilia Romana region that boasts Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, “The Ham” – Prosciutto di Parma and the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Cattle flourish here and the cheese is used as a bankable commodity. The Po river snakes through the valley between the Dolomites and the Apennine mountains and through the namesake towns of Parma, Reggio and Modena. But between Lucca and the Po valley is the Serchio river that is the main watershed of the Garfagnana area of northern Tuscany.

The Serchio Valley looking towards Villetta and Castelnuovo in the distance dividing the Apennine and Apuan Mountains. Pontecosi lake in the distance. The river has many hydro dams and pulp mills along it. No smell, remarkably.

The Serchio valley and the Garfagnana were part of many important north-south routes. The mountains have vast forests of castagne or chestnut trees, flat lands grow corn for polenta and faro, and the river’s tributaries were tapped to grind these commodities for the sharecroppers, travelers and traders who passed. Olives and citrus grow in the lowlands, while castagne and walnuts are at higher altitudes. Grapevines, wild and domestically cultivated, tie it all together. Crepes, cakes and pastas made with the castagne flour were traditional alternatives to polenta and faro when the harvests were poor. During our late autumn visit we encountered the bountiful dislodged castagne pods along the paths we hiked and collected them to roast after our adventures. Consumed warm fresh from the oven, the firm, flesh at the center of the spiky pod was delicious and nutty with a subtle coconut complexity that paired well with our cold beer happy hour ritual.

The mountains and surrounding hillsides boast ancient chestnut trees and vineyards that have been harvested for centuries. When hiking below the cover of leaves, we realized that many of these slopes were actually terraced from bygone days with now crumbling or reinforced rock walls. Along the trails were red dots painted at a junction or the tell tail red/white stripes that identified an ancient route or a community trail-way. Our hikes in the Garfagnana were incentivized by our canine companion and ward, Kyra. She was super keen on showing us around. A quick review of our fitness trackers later showed, our overall distance for the stay was in excess of 200 Km. The terrain is mostly challenging with some sections travelled having elevation gains and losses of eight to twelve percent. Our hill climbing ability improved two fold and the local sights never failed to inspire statements like “I can’t believe that around every corner there is a new spectacle of some kind to take in” or “Look. At. This. View!”

One particularly outstanding example that checked more than all the boxes of hiking enjoyment was the trek to the Hermitage of Saint Viviano. The above picture has it hidden behind some of the scenery but we didnt know it until we went there.

Our “Pack” led by the always enthusiastic husky – Kyra set out the morning of Dec. 7th with the goal of finding the high mountain village of Campocatino. We had explored the lower area around Lago (lake) Vagli including the villages Vagli Sotto (lower) and Vagli Sopra (upper) but were directed by our hosts to search out Campocatino even further uphill. At about 1000 m this ancient sheep herding village is nestled in an Apuan alpine valley accessed by a narrow and precariously constructed road that in some places barely allowed for two vehicles to pass. About 3/4 of the way up we encountered a construction road block that nearly derailed our plans for the day. But after about a 15 minute wait we were signaled to proceed over a makeshift road that had been assembled while the previously washed out route was repaired. The vertical drop from the driver seat window was a mind numbing distance best not over thought with an excavator cliffside toiling away.

Just another day in the life of road travel on the shear-sided byways of the Garf. After parking we meandered the ancient cobbled path-like streets through rustic stone houses past the underground store and visitor center (closed for winter and pictured below). Later we discovered some of the refurbished huts were available to rent and imagined the heat of summer would be tolerable in these higher altitude stone protected accommodations and a novel way to get away from it all.

Apparently, after a movie shoot, David Bowie returned several times to do just that. While poking around we happened on a marble statue of the Pop idol (the metaphor of “Rock” Icon not lost on us). The town was busy with the hanging of Christmas decorations in preparation for their big celebration.

We walked through with a few pleasant “buongiorno(s)” and found the trail without much difficulty. Our quick google inquiry earlier, described a legend involving a hermit who made the cliffs in the area his home of choice to serve some penance around the mid-1500’s. Tall tales handed down through centuries tell of miracles dispensed to locals who searched him out. He lived on wild cabbage and castagne nuts (the legend says) both abundant around his mountain home of choice. When out of water he reached into the rock and found a spring.

A makeshift chapel is accessible to venerate the hermit who achieved sainthood in the time after his death. In recent years some digging close by the chapel uncovered some bones that have been dated to the time he purportedly lived. No one really knows if the bones are his but they now are enshrined in the mountainside chapel which was our reason for visiting that day. The fairly strenuous trail takes you up and down a couple flanks of Mount Tambura with a distance of about 6.5 Km. Our fitness aps reported elevation gain of 398 m (not bad for a couple of sixty+ year old’s led by an on leash exuberant husky).

But what was most impressive were the views as we hiked along the steep grades of these marble mountains. Spectacular! We reached the chapel and were awestruck by how it was literally carved into the side of the mountain from what must have been an obscure cave. A bit of masonry to access, extend and seal it and voila! it was all there. An alter, pews, choir seating, church regalia and a sky blue wall. We peaked through the well locked doors as is the case everywhere, vandalism being a serious consideration for the parish that constructed it. We sat on the church steps eating leftover pizza and quietly admired the heavenly view. Wow, didn’t see that coming when we set out in the morning!

Our return to the car took us through town via a different route. This time we passed by the modest controversially modern church used by the townsfolk that was constructed in a A-frame design perfect for the mountain environment it was set in. The boar (cinghiale)-tilled field surrounding the church had various white marble animal sculptures, carved from rock extracted locally. As the sun set, we noticed the townsfolk had been busy with their decorations and a cheerful seasonal atmosphere was taking shape.

Mount Tambura towers over the modern church in the boar tilled field

Another day we set out to a hike recommended by AllTrails. Perhaps the hike was fantastic, but the road to the trailhead was too narrow to pass through the village comfortably without damaging the van (we measured!!). We backed down the narrow precipitous road until we could find a turn around and went for lunch in the lowlands.

This brought us to a divine medieval bridge named Devils bridge. Our host told us they used to hang bad guys from the top. But we found out that while it was being built, the builder was not going to make the deadline. So he made a deal with the devil that the first life to cross over would be sacrificed to Hades himself. The bridge construction finished immediately and the bridgebuilder sent a pig over first. The Devil was furious, but they both got their wishes…

On another occasion, we hiked 2-3 km around the village of Poggio which is near to our locale of Camporgiano. The town is build above the confluence of the Serchio and Edron rivers. From an outstanding rock promontory called Colle della Capriola we spied our next destination.

The view towards the Apennine mountains revealed another hilltop town a few valleys away. We had to go. We figured out that it was a town called Sassorosso. Red Stone. We arrived at nearby Massasassarosso (Red Stone Mass) and parked as we were worried the road would involve backing down another narrow clifftop lane. We walked into Massasassorosso and found out that the locals secured funding to create a tourist destination and interpretive walk through their tiny borough. When the 1870-1960 migration of Italians sent a local boy to Argentina, he met his Luccan bride, their grandson, Astor Piazzolla, who became famous for inventing the Argentine Tango. Who knew!!

We wandered through the interpretive path, took in the gorgeous little chapel, the Apuan view, and headed up the wide beautifully paved road to Sassorosso. We could have driven. It always amazes us how people can cling to a steep hill and live there for centuries. Sassorosso may have had mining, hunting and castagne as part of their livelihood but now it was mostly closed until summer when the influx of hikers, mountain-bikers and mountaineers show up. We were eventually chased out by the local dogs who made Kyra ready for combat.

These places all have a fascinating mosaic of human history but the geology of the place deserves a bit of recognition here. The topographical “bookmarks” of the Apuan and Apennine mountains frame your experience in this part of Tuscany. They have given the Garfagnana a distinctive appeal that makes it unique and perhaps, to some extent, less appealing for a wider audience of tourist. But, for us, made it that much more fascinating and enjoyable. The proximity to marble is an example of this. Many of our adventures were highlighted by the encounters with mining (the Apuana Vagli Marble Cooperative), sculptures (David Bowie in Campocatino, naughty Putin and Trump on the Honour/Dishonour walk around Lake Vagli and of course all the cathedrals around the world), building components (Carrara gravel roads, Cathedral facades, counter tops) and the ancient cultures that had stood where we stood admiring it.

The accidental discovery of a graffiti gallery at an abandoned Henraux marble mine was full of “Wow” factor. We had set out to see, up close, a marble site and ended up strolling around and quietly marveling at the brazen results of urban street art gone wild in the rural mountains. The walls of the quarry provided a perfect canvas of smooth white marble with black mouldy lichen stains. This site just was a half hour from our nearby town of Castelnuovo and a half hour from our destination that day on the coast at the charming seaside city of Massa.

On the way past this abandoned mine and at the highest highway elevation is a viewpoint that provides birds eye views of the continued marble mining industry in these mountains. Slope-side towns dot the mountains all around and most owe their existence to the ancient and modern exploitation of marble for domestic and international markets. One of these towns is called Carrara, you might have heard of it. Recently we settled in for some movie enjoyment and watched the latest 007 – No Time to Die and were thrilled with the opening scenes set in this high elevation roadway area. However the section that had recently been subject to a washout, deemed “closed”, was not mentioned. When we came upon it we nearly turned around because of the massive marble blocks impeding our progress forward. But “When in Rome…” the local driver behind us pulled out to pass and gingerly wove his way through the giant slabs and disappeared pronto.

No problem, just don’t get too close to that cliff edge that falls off to nothingness! And we were on our way to Massa. If you go, consider the marble mining tours. Sadly, they seldom run in the off season. Also, a castle fortress, contructed and inhabited by the posh Malaspina family, was one we missed (closed for lunch) as we arrived at Massa. The intrigue was real as a grad of Malaspina College in Nanaimo. We must come back…

This, and every other hike/walk through a crumbling or refurbished town, enriched our stay. There are too many adventures like the ones mentioned here to relate but suffice to say that with each one we came away gob-smacked with the need to return. Our phones are full of too many memories of the trailways we experienced. So keep it in mind if an active, deep breathing, different, Tuscany visit ever comes into the crosshairs of your destination travel plans.

Alas, our pet owners returned, kindly dropped us off at the Camporgiano train station next day for an early departure to Pisa airport. We were on our way back to Portugal to create the next chapter of our foodwinetravelrepeat journal. Stay tuned…