Pontremoli and the Via Francigena
Pontremoli is a beautiful medieval center located near the confluence of the Magra river and the Verde torrent, in the northern area of Lunigiana. It is the northernmost municipality in all of Tuscany and is part of the province of Massa Carrara. The city stands on a plateau, surrounded by high hills and mountains, at an altitude of 236 meters above sea level. The etymology of the name is uncertain but the most accredited hypothesis traces its origin to the Latin “Pontem tremula” which refers to an ancient bridge over the Magra river.
A veritable treasure trove of artistic, architectural and archaeological treasures, Pontremoli boasts a truly remarkable culinary tradition. Specifically, Pontremoli is famous for its testaroli, Borgotaro mushrooms, herbal cakes and amor cakes. To complete the picture, we must also add the naturalistic and landscape beauties of Lunigiana, a region that is also a bit wild and full of places to visit.
History of Pontremoli
The Pontremoli area has been inhabited since the first millennium BC and in all likelihood Pontremoli corresponds with Apua, the legendary capital of the Apuan Ligurians, an ancient people who lived in these areas before the advent of the Romans.
Defined as “key and gateway” between northern Italy and Tuscany by Emperor Federico II, Pontremoli is known as an obligatory stop on the Via Francigena since 990, as reported by Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury . The history of this village is closely connected with the Via Francigena and in fact when Pontremoli began to grow, it developed it along the route of this important pilgrimage road.
Because of its important strategic position, Pontremoli has long been disputed by many Italian and foreign powers. During the fourteenth century, Malaspina, Antelminelli, Scala from Verona and the Visconti of Milan alternated as its lords. In the following centuries it first entered the orbit of France and then of Spain and Genoa, until the passage to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1650; finally, from 1847 until the Unification of Italy, Pontremoli was part of the Duchy of Parma.
Guide to visit Pontremoli
The historic center of Pontremoli winds along the two banks of the river Magra, in a succession of beautiful buildings, churches and various monuments; the main ones are:
- Chiesa di San Giacomo d’Altopascio
- Oratorio di Nostra Donna
- Ponte e Torre del Casotto
- Torre del Campanone
- Duomo di Pontremoli
- Castello del Piagnaro
- Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi
- Chiesa di San Francesco
- Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata
- Villa Dosi Delfini
Chiesa di San Giacomo d’Altopascio
Arriving at Pontremoli by train, you immediately reach the southern and most recent part of the historic center; here, a stone’s throw from the station, we immediately find the Chiesa di San Giacomo d’Altopascio. Recently restored, the church presents is richly decorated and preserves some works including an Ascension by Giuseppe Bottani.
Oratorio di Nostra Donna
Walking through the main street to the end you’ll reach the pretty Oratorio di Nostra Donna, a beautiful example of Rococo architecture, dating back to the eighteenth century. The interior, full of stuccos and sculptures, preserves two altarpieces, Crucifixion and Madonna with Saints Cosma and Damiano, made by Alessandro Gherardini and Giuseppe Galeotti.
On the right, a medieval pointed arch that connects the oratory to the Torre di Castelnuovo, leads to the bridge that cross the Magra and bring to the oldest part of the historic center.
Torre e Ponte del Casotto
Pontremoli is also known as the “city of bridges” and in fact in its coat of arms we find a bridge accompanied by a tower: these are the Torre and the Ponte del Casotto which are a short distance from the confluence of the Magra and the Verde rivers. Nearby there is also a beautiful public garden where you can enjoy a particular view of the city.
Torre del Campanone
Going along the main street of Pontremoli, you reach the heart of the historic center, where we find the two central squares: Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza del Duomo. The two squares are separated by the Torre del Campanone which was once part of a defensive structure, known as the “Cacciaguerra”, which was equipped with 3 towers joined by a curtain wall. This fortification was built by Castruccio Castracani in 1332 to divide the upper part of the village (“Sommoborgo”) which was Guelph, from the lower part (“Imoborgo”) where people were Ghibelline, thus preventing clashes between the two factions.
Duomo di Pontremoli
The Concathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was built between 1636 and 1687 on a project by Alessandro Capra, in place of the previous church of Santa Maria di Piazza. The cathedral has an elegant façade in white marble, built in the late nineteenth century, and is surmounted by a dome. The interior, in Baroque style, is very rich and features decorations and paintings ranging from the 18th to the 19th century.
Castello del Piagnaro
Just beyond the Duomo, a detour on the left leads to the ascent towards the spectacular Castello del Piagnaro. Born around the tenth century, the castle was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt until the current configuration was reached with the last eighteenth-century additions. It is a beautiful fortress, very well preserved, from which you can enjoy a remarkable view of the surrounding valley and the town.
Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi
The Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi is located inside the Castello del Piagnaro; it is a very suggestive museum that tells the story of a peculiar and mysterious artistic phenomenon, that of the Stele Statues, one of the most important of European prehistory. The Stele Statues are male and female figures carved in stone between the fourth and first millennium BC. Characterized by bizarre abstract forms, these works are part of an artistic phenomenon that also extended to other European areas. Given the large number of findings made in the area, the Stele Statues are to be considered as one of the symbols of Lunigiana identity.
For all the information and opening times of the museum, I recommend you visit the official website.
Chiesa di San Francesco
The church of San Francesco, the parish church of Saints Giovanni and Colombano is located just outside the historic center, over the Verde stream. Founded, according to tradition, by St. Francis in 1219 and enlarged in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the church preserves some works such as the polychrome marble bas-relief Madonna with Child attributed to Agostino di Duccio and some paintings including St. Francis receiving the stigmata of Giambettino Cignaroli.
Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata
The church of the Santissima Annunziata is located a little further south of the center of Pontremoli, along the Cisa state road. The Santissima Annunziata of Pontremoli was built towards the end of the fifteenth century after an apparition of the Madonna that would have taken place near a sacred shrine in which an Annunciation was depicted. Inside there is a Madonna and Child with evangelists from the end of the 15th century and an Adoration of the Magi by Luca Cambiaso.
Villa Dosi Delfini
The magnificent Villa Dosi Delfini is located not far from the historic center of Pontremoli, in the I Chiosi area. A true Baroque masterpiece, the villa presents itself with its imposing size and a sober facade which is followed by a series of richly decorated rooms. In particular, the extraordinary ballroom, completely frescoed by Francesco Natali and Alessandro Gherardini, impresses with its splendor. Built between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the villa is still owned by the Dosi Delfini family but can be visited by appointment.
What to see and what to do around Pontremoli
Stretti di Giaredo
The Stretti di Giaredo (or Gole di Giaredo if you prefer), are a series of canyons that develop along the course of the Gordana stream. Over the millennia the stream has carved into the rock to create a spectacular environment with truly suggestive passages between two high stone walls. Thanks to their beauty, the Stretti di Giaredo have acquired a certain notoriety in recent years. The Gole di Giaredo are located more or less halfway between Pontremoli and the town of Zeri. You can also visit them independently but the ideal is to organize a visit with a guide, in order to be well prepared and equipped.
Hamlets near Pontremoli
Lunigiana, like every other area of the region, is full of towns and cities of varying size to visit. The main villages near Pontremoli are Aulla with the mighty Brunella Fortress, home to the Lunigiana Natural History Museum and the Abbey of San Carpasio, Bagnone, a beautiful medieval town perched around its castle, Mulazzo, Villafranca, Licciana Nardi, Fivizzano and Fosdinovo, where there is an extraordinary well-preserved medieval castle.
How to get to Pontremoli
Pontremoli can be reached both by car and by train without problems because it has a railway station. It is also possible to reach the city by bus with the service provided by the Toscana Trasporti Company – CCT Nord Massa Carrara.
By train: Pontremoli station is on the Parma – La Spezia line. The regional trains provide a regular connection with the main cities of Tuscany such as Florence, Pisa, Massa and Carrara. From Florence it takes 3 hours or less.
By car: to reach the city by car, you have to take the A15 motorway to the Pontremoli exit. The motorway exit is about three and a half kilometers away from the historic center.