A Collective "Wow" Moment
What is this life for, if not to sit on the top of a mountain and marvel at the setting sun?
An appropriate way perhaps to start the second and final post from our recent trip to Italy and, more specifically, our visit to the Tuscan mountains. Wikipedia describes the Apennine mountain range as “smaller chains...of mountains...extending 750 miles along the length of peninsular Italy...topographically only the valley of the River Serchio...separates the Apennines from the Apuan Alps.” Which, after some rather confused calculations, means that our hotel was in the Apennines, on one side of the Serchio valley, and that we travelled to the Apuan Alps on the other side every time we crossed the bridge over the river....I think.
However you chose to look at it though, this is another stunningly beautiful part of Tuscany and one of the most breathtaking places I have visited in a long time.
I visited with my wife and we met up with her sister and husband for the majority of our stay and all of us were of the same opinion. Our first view of this place was definitely a collective “wow” moment.
The place is as rural as one might expect, with a very small population despite being only 60 kilometres from Pisa. There is some industry, much of it related to the fast flowing rivers and densely populated forests that cover the valleys, but thankfully not overly visible or intrusive enough to hide the countryside and the towns and villages that populate the hillsides. And it is these things that visitors come to see.
In some ways there are almost too many beautiful villages and towns in the region. Everywhere you go there is yet another stunning view of an old church, a medieval castle or fortified town, and pastel coloured walls of villas, farms and ancient houses on yet more winding and, quite frankly, terrifying, roads. If you can't get enough of stunning scenery in an historic setting then head for the Serchio valley and take your fill, there really is plenty to go around.
Before I detail my highlights of this wonderful area, and it will be a challenge to keep such a list down to reasonable proportions, I want to share a few tips for anyone thinking of visiting.
You will need a car to get around.
Whilst no-one in their right mind would be surprised about this, some of the feedback and comments on the Trip Advisor page for the hotel we used suggest that some really don't have a clue what to expect in the mountains. There are taxis available and you can use them to travel between villages and towns, but it is a mountainous area, the roads are often as “alpine” as you might expect and journey times are not quick. And you will need a significant budget.
So common sense says that a car is a must if you want some control over where you go and how much you spend.
I also strongly suggest that you take notice in advance of what time it gets dark. This may seem a little obvious, but you seriously do not want to be driving on mountain roads in the dark, especially if you have just arrived at the airport and it’s raining, unless you really have no other option.
So, where to visit and what to do once you are safely tucked away in your mountain idyll?
Bearing in mind the age and ability levels of our group, and we sadly have plenty of one but were a little limited in the other, our activities mostly centred around visiting the local towns and landmarks. There are plenty more physical and exciting pastimes in the area which are perhaps less “white marble” and more “white knuckle”, but we did not explore them on our trip. Just visiting some of the mountain villages was exercise enough at times.
(And for anyone wondering where such an obscure comparison came from, we were not far away from the white marble quarries that provided the stone for a certain Michelangelo just a few hundred years ago.)
When it came to visiting, Barga was a big favourite for me and is a charming, hilltop town in north west Tuscany. Small and compact, a large part of this old medieval town is set on the side of a very steep hill with meandering streets and footpaths gradually leading to the top. The Church of San Cristoforo (the Duomo of Barga) is found right at the peak and, if you can make it that far, is a wonderful place with spectacular views of the mountains and along the valley. Be warned though, the climb is tough and not for everybody. Whilst there, take time to learn about the slightly strange and fascinating phenomenon of the Barga double sunset, which is supposedly best viewed from outside the church. Unfortunately our timings didn't quite work out but in mid-November and late January every year there is the novelty of seeing the sun set behind the mountains and, at the same time, seeing it also set through a conveniently placed large natural arch in the rock.
Perhaps my overriding memory of Barga though is of seeing a flyer on the wall, halfway up one of the steepest parts of the old town, advertising Scottish country dancing lessons from someone called Hamish. Strangely, it appears that almost 40% of modern day inhabitants of Barga have Scottish relatives and it has the unofficial name of “the most Scottish town in Italy”.
Lucca is probably the best known city in this part of Tuscany, and it is clear why. Like many others it is walled and fortified, but it is filled with wonderful old buildings and the sort of history that makes it stand out from the pack. It dates back to Roman times in terms of settlement, with the wonderful Piazza del Amphiteatro in the same location and bearing the same shape as the original amphitheatre. The town has a mostly medieval feel to it these days and it reflects the strong religious backbone of Italy in that there are apparently 100 churches within the city walls. Try the Church of San Michele in Foro should you want to see the mummified remains of a local saint (Saint Zita, allegedly 700 years old, and on view in a glass walled coffin by the altar) or hire a bike if you want to do what thousands of locals do in order to get around. The walls of Lucca are massive and very impressive, 30 metres wide at the base and 12 metres high, and still completely intact. Incredible bearing in mind they were built between 1544 – 1645. They are wide and beautifully landscaped at the top and offer a very pleasant walk around the town should you, very wisely, decide to avoid the tourists and the persistent and slightly irritating cyclists.
Castiglioni di Garfagnana, confusingly bearing a very similar name to it’s neighbour Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, was quite possibly my favourite place on our short visit to the mountains. It was, once again, a walled and fortified town, but this time very small with less than 2,000 inhabitants. Like Lucca it is also of Roman origin although what we visited is mostly of medieval construction. This place was simply stunning, feeling almost like a perfectly preserved museum stuck way up on the side of a mountain. We were lucky enough to visit on a Sunday morning when it was empty and had the most perfect hour of two wondering around deserted streets and fortifications. And of course we ended up in the rather inevitable local bar, right next door to where the old portcullis used to be, admiring the most beautiful of landscapes over a bottle or two of Italian beer.
If you get the opportunity, take the walk down to see the isolated and rather wonderful medieval bridge, a good couple of kilometres away from the town but so worth the hike. Just don’t believe the signage that suggests it is only a 10 minute walk!
The Hermitage of Calomini is spectacular to say the least. It is a stunning, white building set high on an exposed cliff face and, as seems to be the case in this part of Tuscany, is only accessed by a long and very narrow, mountain road. It is in effect a church, or perhaps even two churches if you take into account the smaller chapel, carved into the rock and hidden away from all but the most dedicated of visitors. Peaceful and beautiful, especially on a clear and sunny day, it is undoubtedly the place for solitude and quiet contemplation. Sadly, not a speciality of our particular group of tourists.
We visited the Grotto del Vento caves on a slightly wet and miserable day, thinking that somewhere undercover or even underground might be a sensible decision. And we were correct, they are magnificent and well worth the time and effort required to find them. Located way up in the mountains, we really pushed our boundaries on what turned out to be a memorable and interesting drive. No more than about 15 km's from the main road, it was stunning, spectacular and more than a little scary as we worked our way higher and higher up into the mountains. No doubt the locals will say it’s an easy drive but we were all extremely thankful that we made the trip in the off season, especially when we heard about the volume of coaches and lorries (and even a scheduled bus) making the trip during the summer months.
A great choice if you have nerves of steel and an excellent driver (we had only one of the two, but an excellent driver is the one to have)
Finally, and most definitely the most important recommendation of the lot, is to spend as much time as you can just doing nothing.
This is an area perfect for being outdoors and engaging in a little of the quiet contemplation that I mentioned before. Switch off your phone, walk out of your hotel or guest house or even your mountain hut, and just relax. See the views, breath in the fresh air and watch the sun set over the most stunning of vistas and the most majestic of landscapes.
This place is just too good not to enjoy every last drop.