On the Road…
Recently, we hit the road to scout out sustainable tourism options for our latest European Holiday Package. We had previously visited Florence and the Cinque Terre but were put off by the impact of mass tourism. Looking for sustainable travel alternatives, we headed into the mountainous northern region of Italy – Tuscany without the crowds.
Situated in the foot hills of the Apennine mountains, the Lunigiana region is less-touristy area of Tuscany. Here you’ll find the remains of many “Malaspina” castles, picturesque medieval villages, and nature areas with good hiking trails.
Some of the best preserved forest and mountain grasslands in Europe can be found here. The national parks maintain an amazing diversity of flora and fauna and are the last refuge of the Italian Wolf and Marsican black bear.
Travel is easy, the roads are in good shape and there are plenty of route options. Stunning vistas of the coast and mountainous interior being your reward!
First stop was Camporaghena, a small hilltop village in the North. The historic stone village is almost deserted, a legacy of the depopulation of rural Italy. Our B&B accommodation (Viandanti, Artisti e Sognatori – rough translate “Wayfarers, Artists and Dreamers”) was a beautifully restored stone cottage with amazing hosts (click here for details). The people of this region were known for their stone masonry skills. A short walk will reward the visitor with a some amazing stonework and sculptures.
This whole area is immersed in green landscapes with a spider’s web of trails and mule tracks leading in all directions. We took a path to the small village of Sassalbo. At 3000m elevation the air was noticeably thin but the trail was in great condition. The path winds upwards through an ancient forest, past a stunning waterfall and some old ruins before emerging on an alpine pasture. The view was amazing!
Arriving back at our accommodation we were warmly greeted with a platter of local snacks and some great wine from the region.
Next stop, the Castello Malaspina in the small village of Fosdinovo. The castle is still owned by the descendants of the Malaspina line who ruled Lunigiana from the 13th to the 14th century. The name means “bad thorn” in Italian, which is represented on the family coat of arms. Legend tells that a noble ancestor called Accino Marzio killed Theudebert I, King of the Franks (revenge for the murder of his father), by cutting his throat with a thorn as he slept. Thus, the enemy king’s last words “Ah! Mala spina!”
Stories of ghosts and heroic figures from the past abound. Remarkably well preserved (probably because the owners still reside there), the castle is full of period furniture and artifacts. There are several rooms plus a common area that can be rented for overnight (or longer) stays and the prices are very reasonable!
Another hidden gem we found was the medieval town of Pontremoli. Nestled on a peninsula between the convergence of two rivers, you enter the old town via one of two stone pedestrian bridges that separate it from the modern town.
The first thing we noticed was the near total lack of tourists. There were a few small groups and some locals going about their business but other than that nobody. As it was getting close to 5pm, we decided to grab a drink at a local cafe on the main square. We grabbed an empty table (two of the four were free) and settled in. In no time we were enjoying a glass of local wine and beer in the gorgeous afternoon light. This is Tuscany without the crowds, and at a very affordable price!
Strolling around some of the local shops (pictured) it was the same story – empty. With good local produce and great service, they are a picture of old world charm. Our recommendation is to do yourself (and the storekeepers) a favour next time you are in the area. Support these places before they disappear!