Garfagnana, a holiday between nature, sport and history
Garfagnana is a historic region of Tuscany that is now entirely included in the province of Lucca. The Garfagnana territory develops along the course of the Serchio river and is enclosed between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines. This area is characterized by a variety of landscapes ranging from the hills of the valley floor, with an altitude of 300 meters, to the tops of the mountains that exceed 1800 meters in height.
Inhabited since the time of the Ligurians, the Etruscans and then the Romans, the Garfagnana has been for centuries a borderland between the territories of Lucca, Florence and Ferrara which with the Este dynasty controlled a large part of the area for a long period.
There are many reasons to visit Garfagnana: a very beautiful and luxuriant nature, hamlets and castles to see, good food and many opportunities for outdoor sports. This region is perfect for a holiday especially in the summer, when there are an infinite number of things to do outdoors, including excursions, hiking, trekking, rafting, bike or motorbike tours and many activities to do with children.
Things to do and things to see in Garfagnana
- Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
- Castiglione di Garfagnana
- Eremo di Calomini
- Grotta del Vento
- Isola Santa
- Pieve Fosciana
- Lago di Vagli
- Fortezza delle Verrucole
- Piazza al Serchio
- Parco dell’Orecchiella
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
The first place I want to talk about is Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, one of the main hamlets in the area and the capital of the local mountain community. The Garfagnana is a land of castles and fortresses and in Castelnuovo there are two of them, one in the center and one just outside the city. The first of the two is the so-called Fortezza Ariostesca, which owes its name to the poet Ludovico Ariosto who stayed there for a few years when he held the position of commissioner for the Garfagnana. The other, the Fortezza di Mont’Alfonso, is located on the top of a knoll dominating the inhabited area and was built by Alfonso II d’Este to protect the borders of his Duchy. Do not miss the sixteenth-century Duomo with its pleasant Renaissance forms.
Castiglione di Garfagnana
Castiglione di Garfagnana is a remarkable fortified village which still retains most of its military structures. The complex of the fortifications of Castiglione consists of the walls, interspersed with mighty towers such as the Torrione di San Michele and the Torrione San Pietro, and the rocca that constitutes the original core of the hamlet. In the center there are also to visit the Chiesa di San Michele, the Chiesa di San Pietro and also a small museum of sacred art. Finally, a short distance from the village, about a kilometer, I point out the picturesque medieval bridge of the Molini with its peculiar humpback shape.
Eremo di Calomini
The Eremo di Calomini is one of the most suggestive places in the whole Garfagnana. With its white facade it gives the impression of coming out directly from the overhanging rock and in fact the complex was built by digging the mountain stone. According to tradition, the hermitage stands to protect the place where, around the year 1000, the Madonna appeared to a young shepherdess. The sanctuary, dedicated to Santa Maria ad Martyres, is located on the road that runs alongside the Turrite di Gallicano stream and can be visited especially in summer, while in winter it is open only for Sunday mass.
Grotta del Vento
Continuing west, past the Hermitage of Calomini, you reach the majestic Apuan Alps where the spectacular Grotta del Vento (cave of wind) is located. As you can easily imagine, the name of the cave is linked to the strong air currents that are generated due to the temperature difference between the inside (where there are 10 celsius degrees) and the outside. The cave is a spectacle of natural karst phenomena such as stalactites and stalagmites. To visit it you need the right equipment and an expert guide. Inside the cave there are three itineraries of variable length, from 1 to 3 hours, which will lead you to the discovery of galleries, waterways and underground wells.
Let’s stay in the Apuan Alps to talk about a magical place: the picturesque hamlet of Isola Santa. A small village of medieval origin built on the ruins of an ancient hospital, Isola Santa overlooks an artificial lake built in the mid-twentieth century to exploit the energy of the Turrite Secca torrent. The village is located in a fairytale setting, surrounded by chestnut woods and the Apuan peaks.
With its pretty stone houses, Isola Santa is a true oasis of relaxation, a magical place where time has stopped and where life travels at completely different rhythms. Isola Santa is the ideal place to enjoy nature, go to pick mushrooms or fish as well as hiking trails. Starting from Castelnuovo Garfagnana you can reach Isola Santa both by bus and by car, taking the SP13 for 13 kilometers towards Arni and Seravezza.
Another village in the Garfagnana that deserves to be visited is that of Pieve Fosciana which takes its name from the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista. This is one of the oldest parishes in the whole area and, according to tradition, it was founded by San Frediano, bishop of Lucca, in the 6th century. It is not known how much truth there is in this story, but the church is certainly very old since it is mentioned in documents dating back to the eighth century, in the middle of the Lombard era.
The current building dates back to the XII century, when the Romanesque style was adopted, but over the centuries it was extensively remodeled, profoundly changing both the facade and the interiors; to find traces of the Romanesque forms of the past, you will have to look at the apse. Among the other points of interest in the municipality of Pieve Fosciana there are the Chiesa di San Magno and the Ponte della Madonn in Pontecosi, the Torre di Sillico, an ancient still working water mill and the thermal basin of Prà di Lama.
Lago di Vagli
Lago di Vagli is a large artificial lake which was formed in 1947, with the barrier of the Edron torrent following a hydroelectric dam. With the completion of the dam, the waters have risen by over 90 meters submerging some villages including Fabbriche di Careggine, an ancient center of medieval origin, which returns to be visible only when the lake is emptied. The last emptying of the lake dates back to 1994, however, there is a rumor that the lake will not be emptied in 2021 and therefore it will be possible to admire the ancient submerged village again.
In addition to the unquestionable beauty of the place, Lago di Vagli has become famous with the opening of Vagli Park in 2017. With the park, Lake Vagli has become one of the main tourist destinations in the area. Among the main attractions are the suspension bridge that offers an extraordinary viewpoint over the lake and the zipline, or flight of the angel, if you like.
The angel’s flight consists of a descent from one end of the lake to the other along a steel rope. I got to try it in 2018, on the occasion of a bachelor party, and I can tell you that it was fun. The beginning, when the descent is steeper, is quite adrenaline while the rest of the flight is much more peaceful and allows you to enjoy the view from a truly unique perspective. The flight takes a couple of minutes and costs around 50 euros; it is not the cheapest thing in this world, but the costs are justified and in my opinion it’s a cool experience!
Fortezza delle Verrucole
The suggestive Fortezza delle Verrucole is located on a hill in a panoramic position a few kilometers from the center of San Romano. Remembered since the Middle Ages, when it was owned by the Gherardinghi family, the fortress was long disputed and changed hands several times until the Este conquest of Ferrara in 1446. It was the Este family who gave the complex its current forms by changing the medieval castle built by the Gherardinghi.
Over the years the fortress has also experienced periods of abandonment until 1986 when it was purchased by the Municipality of San Romano. Since then the fortress has undergone restoration and archaeological excavation campaigns and in 2013 the complex has been open to the public. Today the fortress is the heart of a project, Fortezza Verrucole Archeopark, which aims to rebuild the life of inhabited this place in the past. For more information I leave you the link to the project website.
Piazza al Serchio
Piazza al Serchio is located in a position of historic strategic importance at the crossroads between Garfagnana, Lunigiana and Emilia Romagna. The area was inhabited since pre-Roman times and stable settlements already existed in the Lombard era. The Middle Ages saw a great growth in Piazza al Serchio which took advantage of its geographical position to develop its economy. The name of the village derives from the square (piazza) which in the past was used to host the market and the Serchio river that flows in these parts.
Among the most interesting things to see there are the Pieve di San Pietro, the ancient medieval bridge of San Michele, the steam locomotive, which is considered a real symbol of the city, and the “doglioni“ which are spectacular formations volcanic rocks.
I want to close this guide leaving room for the uncontaminated nature of the Parco dell’Orecchiella which is made up of three different natural reserves: Orecchiella, Pania di Corfino and Lama Rossa. Within the vast territory of the park you can admire various species of wild animals including some birds as the golden eagle and the peregrine falcon, as well as wolves, wild boars, deer and roe deer. Obviously there is no shortage of tree species with dense forests and an infinity of even rare floral species. Inside the park there are some of the highest mountains in all of Tuscany and a beautiful variety of natural environments.
Thanks to the numerous paths in the park, you can organize excursions on foot, by mountain bike and on horseback, with the possibility of choosing between more or less demanding itineraries, some of which are also suitable for children. Finally, in the park there is a Botanical Garden, located on the Pania di Corfino at over 1300 meters high, and two museums (Museo Naturalistico and Museo dei Rapaci) which are located in the visitor center.