Discover Castles, Medieval Bridges & Ghost Stories
in a land that boasts lofty peaks & green valleys
The entire area of Garfagnana is marked by the never ending rivalry between the local ruling powers; establishing borders, governments and cities only to tear them all down again and start a new. But perhaps it is this very history that leaves us with a large number of small towns to visit, each with castles or fortresses and a rich history that translates in culinary specialties and warm hospitality.
Starting from the south of Garfagnana, just outside of Lucca, this itinerary works its way up to the border of the Lunigiana area. The selected points of interest on this itinerary highlight towns that you visit, find a restaurant and take some stunning photos. It’s not necessary to stop in all or any of these places to appreciate the beauty of the Garfagnana, you can just drive by, picking out the one that intrigues you the most. The stunning landscape and the towns set the stage for an that can easily been seen as you cover the miles by car.
Driving time: 3 hours and 25 minutes
this time includes no stops and the variation indicated below
When to Visit: All year. Roads are well maintained
Start at Lucca
Highlights include: Borgo Mozzano, Gallicano, (optional detour: Grotta del Vento, Eremo di Calomini, Vergemoli [1 hour &10 min]), Castelnuovo Garfagnana, Piazza del Serchio, Castello della Verrucola
Ponte della Maddalena, or perhaps better known with the name "Ponte al Diavolo", is a stunning example of medieval architecture. This stone bridge spans the river Serchio and served as fundamental crossing for pilgrims on the via Francigena leaving from Pontremoli down to Rome.
Believed to have been built around 1080-1100, the central arch reaches 18 meters above and seems to tease gravity. The original bridge had only three arches, the fourth arch that we see today spanning the new roadway, may take away from the aesthetic beauty but it was necessary for the stability of the bridge while adding more effective transit routes.
Coming up from Lucca you will want to follow the SP12 which will take you straight to the bridge, where you will find plenty of free parking while you walk around and take photos.
Documented in the archives of the arch-bishop in 771, this little town with its castle may even be a remnant of a Roman fortress, named after a Roman soldier "Cornelio Gallicano". However what we see today, with the defensive walls and the ROmanesque styled church, is definitely from the feudal era. It was later transformed into a fortress and it appears that it was surrounded with a second protective wall which boasted 11 towers.
If you are in the area around the 25th of July, then make plans to stop and participate in the traditional Palio di San Jacopo, in honor of the Patron Saint. Don’t miss the parade of papier-mâché floats. If you are looking for a snack or even a full meal, Mercato Contadino, (Localita Zinepri 1, 55027 Gallicano, on the road from Borgo a Mozzano) offers a selection of local cold cuts, cheeses and other flavors.
From Small Town to Natural Beauty
Variation on the theme
The road to up towards these towns is not really for the faint of heart since it is a narrow and a very curvy road both up and back. However, if you appreciate the wonders of Mother Nature, you will probably find this to be the highlight of your trip. Or you can skip these small towns and proceed with the northward trek.
Grotta del Vento
Winding back into the hills that to the left of the river Serchio, will bring you to a rather recent discovery that you can explore with the help of by expert speleological guides. Over 500 meters above sea level, you will find the "Grotta del Vento", translated to the Windy Cave. Though long remembered by the locals as a cool and refreshing place to store food it was only a game of truth or dare that encouraged anyone to explore further into the mouth of the cave. Created from rainwater and snowfall that penetrated the mountain as it trickled down into the valley. Since the world is rich in carbon dioxide and thus acidic, it slowly melted the calcareous rock, giving birth to a large number of small tunnels that eventually gradually created the wonderland of stalactites and stalagmites, alabaster draperies, crystal-brimmed lakes, underground water rivers and bizarre forms of erosion.
Read more about the Grotta del Vento at our link.
Eremo di Calomini
The church Sancta Maria and Martyrs was first mentioned in the early 1300's and it is well known even today as a site for the Marian cult. But it is not for this that we suggest a stop, but rather for the evocative architecture of the hermitage is carved directly out of live stone, which was intended to protect the very spot where the virgin Mary appeared to a young shepherd girl in the mountains. During the summer the hermitage is open every day, meanwhile in other months only on Sundays, during the Mass’s opening. There is no exact time for the visit, to be sure of visiting it inside too, you should make arrangements with the pastor.
In Vergemoli the Saints Quirico and Giuditta Church, dating back to the 10th century. This small town is well protected between the rocky walls of Pania della Croce (1,858 m.), Pania Secca (1709 m.) and Croce Mountain (1314 m.).
II Monte Forato
This is a day trip all on its own. It is formed by two peaks of similar altitude, connected by a natural arch which has given the group its name (meaning "Holed Mountain" in Italian). The hole, nearly circular in shape, has a height of c. 12 m, while the arch itself is some 8 m thick. The arch can be seen from both Versilia and Garfagnana valleys at the two sides of the Monte Forato.
Read how to plan your hike to Monte Forato
The city grew as a castle surrounded by a line of walls, of which only two gates have survived (Porta Reale and Porta Macchiaia). The town was well known during the Middle Ages for the manufacture of silk threads which were exported to major centres such as Florence, its mills powered by the hydraulic power of the nearby creeks. In the Middle Ages, Lucca and Pisa battled frequently to conquer the wealthy town and the surrounding territory.
Take a walk in the old city center and you’ll bump into old historical palaces - Palazzo Balduini, Palazzo Angeli Palazzo Pancrazi and Palazzo Podestà just to mention a few - and churches like the Chiesa del Santissimo Crocifisso and Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata, home to prestigious art paintings.This town has a rich calendar of events, and you are sure to find something to tempt you to stay a bit longer.
Read more about the quaint little town of Barga at our article.
Curious note: Barga is also the home to European sanctuary for Gnomes (MALAG)
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
The Rocca Ariosteca, or the fortress, dominates the main square called "Piazza Umberto I." It's name comes from Ludovico Ariosto, a poet, who governed in the provinces within the Garfagnana from 1522-1525. Another site to visit is one the hillside above the city, which can be reached by following the Path of Ariosto or “la passeggiata degli innamorati”.
Duke Alfonso II d'Este is responsible for the building of the “La Fortezza di Mont’Alfonso," which covers an area of about 60,000 square meters making it one of the largest historic sites in the valley. Using his skills in military strategy, it was built to be impregnable and inaccessible by the enemy. Legend tells us that the fortress is connected via a secret passage that led to the Rocca Ariostesca in Castelnuovo.
There are many good restaurants to check out at Castelnuovo and this is a perfect place to enjoy a lunch based on local specialties. Vecchio Mulino (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 12, 55032) is nestled in an almost forgotten little corner of town but promises abundant portions and genuine flavors.
Piazza al Serchio
The first traces of man reflect the possibility that this area was inhabited before the Romans, however the first concrete evidence is from the Longboard times. This town is a natural point connecting the Garfagnana area with Emilia Romagna and the Lunigiana. There is a lovely humpbacked bridge (called "ponte a sella d’asino" in Italian) called Ponte di San Michele, which is the only access to the antique borough.
Noteworthy are the naturally occurring stone peaks, many of which emerge out of the river Soraggio and S.Michele, called "doglioni," which are made of rocks that have a volcanic origin. As you enter the town from the direction of Lucca, there is a steam engine (gruppo 940), specifically built to enter into the Apennine mountains in central Italy. It stands ready to protect the small town and appears to explode out of a tunnel with the land formation doglioni behind it.
This last stop is a bridge between the two regions: Gafagnana and Lunigiana.
This marvelous castle dates between the X and XIII century, when the Gherardinghi family built the first "rocca" or fortress together with a public office building in order to keep tight control of the land. There is an entrance fee, which gives you access to the "Archeodromo", and enchanting and insightful recreation of life in the medieval times. This is designed to be of interest for all ages, showing the tools used in everyday life, battle and times of siege.
Though abandoned and left unused for many years, the local government bought the structure and totally restored it to provide a unique learning experience for all ages. A romantic mix of legend and history tell of many ghosts that still reside within the walls, one of which is the Capt. Francesco Accorsini, who was the commanding officer of the Fortress in the 1600's and was accused by the Modena Inquisition of practicing magic and wizardry.
The Castello has its own bar and restaurant, so you can end your travels here or take a well deserved rest before heading over to Massa e Carrara (20 min), Cinque Terre (1 hr) or following an itinerary into the enchanting landscape of Lunigiana.