There's some controversy over the origin of the word Lunigiana some people say that it derives from the crescent-shaped outline of the Magra river valley, which resembles a moon (Luna, in Italian). Others suggest that the area derives its name from the Roman city of Luni, but that doesn't explain where they got the name. In any case, the area is wild, with steep-sided wooded valleys overlooked by craggy fortresses; whereas the castles of Piemonte's Langhe call to mind Knights, Ladies and jousts from an Arthurian legend, these bring to mind much darker struggles, with heroes grimly strapping on their armor to sally forth again against something. It's as breathtaking as it is beautiful, and every turn brings forth something unexpected.
The Lunigiana area is also in many ways distinct from the rest of Tuscany. Since it is north of the Versilian Plane, which was a malaria-ridden swamp until the 18th century, and is separated inland from the rest of Tuscany impervious mountains, it actually has more in common with Liguria and Reggio Emilia, and the locals still talk of "going to Tuscany." To explore the area you will need a car; though it's a long day trip from Florence it's well worth it, especially if you've already seen Pisa and Lucca. If you're already on northern end of the Tuscan coast, on the other hand, the Lunigiana is just a short hop, and perfect if it's too windy to go sunning or you've burned. If you're coming from Florence, take the Firenze-Mare to the coastal highway, turn north towards Genova, and bear right onto the highway to Parma after you cross into Liguria. Exit the highway at Pontremoli and follow the signs for the centro.
Park in the municipal lot, exit the square to the left, past the duomo, which has an elegant late Baroque interior, and turn up a narrow alleyway with beautiful views, towards the fortress. It has been recently restored and has one of Tuscany's odder museums, a collection of Stele, prehistoric statues of people carved on rectangular slabs of rock. They're beautiful, in an strange and unworldly sort of way that brings Modigliani to mind, and quite nicely displayed. The fortress, which has been recently restored, is a ponderous piece of military architecture; looking out from the battlements one can easily understand how the town won its independence from Barbarossa in 1167 and why the Milanese made sure it was in their sway of influence from 1339 to 1647, when it passed to the Spaniards who ceded it to Tuscany in 1650. Once you've finished admiring the view, retrace your steps towards town, noting the high arched stone bridges that cross the river into the town and the rampart built into the corner of one of the houses next to the nearer bridge. You should also stop to admire Sant'Ilario, a small chapel below the ramparts.
When you leave Pontremoli follow the signs for La Spezia and the coast. After about 10 kilometers you will see, on your left, the 11th century Pieve di Santo Stefano, one of Tuscany's most beautiful Romanesque churches. It almost looks too good to be true, and to a certain degree is it's in the midst of a cemetery, with headstones crowding the walls. It turns out there are actually two layers of graves around the church, the lower oriented parallel to the foundations and without coffins, the bodies being laid in simple stone-lined holes, and the upper oriented perpendicular to the walls, with coffins and the bodies with their heads towards the church. Santo Stefano is also being reroofed, because the local traditions call for slate (like the roofing of the apse) rather than the red Tuscan tiles placed above the nave at some point. Once the work is done the church will be magnificent; as it stands now it's certainly worth a trip.
The road continues down the valley towards Villafranca in Lunigiana, a small town built at the confluence between two streams. Its medieval heart was badly bombed during the war, but some survived, including the mill built into the walls by one of the bridges, which now houses a fascinating ethnographical museum. To reach the museum turn right at the first light in town, then left, and park by the town hall; the odd monument by the river is dedicated to Flavio Baracchini, an aviator who was awarded a gold medal for honor in battle in 1917, after he engaged 35 Austrian pilots in the space of 39 days, shooting down 9 of them. The museum is immediately to the left after the footbridge.
Exit the lot and turn right onto the main road, then left after the bridge, towards Licciana Nardi. The road winds up a mountain valley, and is quite pretty; you will drive through Monti, and once you reach Licciana, follow the signs for Fivizzano. It's about a 15 km drive, skirting the flank of the mountain, and quite beautiful; at one point you will round a bend and see Bastia, an imposing fortress. When you reach Fivizzano, bear left, following the signs for Reggio Emilia, which is on the far side of the pass. After a couple of kilometers a breathtaking medieval fortress, the Castello di Verrùcola, will appear from around a bend. It is now a private residence, but the town below the ramparts is pretty and still thoroughly medieval in appearance and flavor, with chickens pecking in the dirt (since you will be coming by here again you may want to see it then).
About 7 km beyond Fivizzano there is, to the left, a restaurant with a simple dirt lot. Park, and look across the street to admire San Paolo in Vendano, another 10th century Romanesque church, which Pope Eugene III mentioned in a bull he published in November 1149. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1920, but has been restored and has a wonderful feeling of peace. You will especially enjoy the columns, which have delightful capitals with floral elements, wild beasts and representations of Eve. It will at this point likely be time for lunch the restaurant across the street has simple, tasty food, and the house white, a Vermentino, is quite pleasant. On your way beck down the valley enter Fivizzano and turn right to reach the Piazza Medicea, a pretty square with a fountain that has 4 sea serpents similar to those adorning several Florentine fountains. La Beata Vergine dell' Adorazione, the church with the Medici coat of arms on the façade, is extremely sumptuous, with a painted wooden ceiling, painted decorations over the columns, and an elegant altar with quite a bit of silver. Though it is more heavily decorated than many Florentine churches it does have a Florentine feel to it, as do many of the other palaces on the square a legacy from the days that this was a Florentine outpost in the territory ruled by the Malaspina family. Fivizzano was also home to one of the earliest printing presses in Central Italy, established in 1472 by the Onorati (a religious order), who had learned the art in Venice.
From Fivizzano go towards Aulla, turn left onto the road for Equi Terme, and bear left when you reach a fork, towards Codiponte. The drive is again quite pretty, and at the far end of the town you will discover another charmingly simple Romanesque pieve, with a nice bifora (double window) in the façade over the door, a broad nave with two aisles, fancifully carved columns, and an impressive painted ceiling. Don't forget to circle around behind the church once you have finished admiring the interior; the apse somehow looks oversized for the rest of the structure.
Backtrack, and follow the signs for Equi Terme, which is famed for its thermal waters, and also boasts a major cave network with 4.5 km of tunnels, halls, and passageways. A bit more than a kilometer is open to the public throughout the summer, with 40-minute guided tours departing on the half hour, on weekdays between 3 and 6 from July 1 to July 13 and September 15 to October 5; Monday-Saturday from 10-12 and 2:30-5:30 from July 14 to Sep 14, and Sundays 10-12 and 2-6:30 throughout the season. To reach the caves cross the stream from the parking lot and follow the signs for the Buca di Equi. The trail winds up into the gorge above the town, which looks remarkably alpine, then follows down to the mouth of the network. The caves, unlike those of the Buca del Vento, are almost all above the water table and are consequently relatively dry; you'll see stalactites, stalagmites, strange shadowy rock formations, and a breathtaking view of the valley from a vent that opens at the top of a cliff.
By the time you have finished seeing the caves it will likely be late in the afternoon. Backtrack from Equi, and turn left towards Ternano and Carrara. The road winds up and down through chestnut groves, and eventually leads into an intersection. Bear right for Fosdinovo, one of the Malaspina fortresses, and you will enjoy a magnificent view, with the Magra valley stretching out below you, and, in the distance, the sea. Drive through the town, pausing to admire the fortress silhouetted against the setting sun, and on down to the valley floor; it's a short drive to the entrance to the Autostrada for your trip home.
If you can time your trip right, the Lizzatura, the reenactment of how they used to bring the marble blocks down the mountainsides would be a perfect next day.
Have a great
Text & Photos © Kyle Phillips.