The Garfagnana is nobody’s idea of Tuscany. There are none of those pretty Val d’Orcia views that capture popular imagination with cypresses framed against sun-ripened wheat fields and immaculate stone farmhouses. Nor does it bear the slightest resemblance to the vine covered Chianti hills. This is the extreme northern part of Tuscany with high mountains, rugged terrain and a harsher climate. For good reason it was chosen as the western part of Kesselring’s Gothic Line in 1944, his last major line of defense stretching from the port of La Spezia on the Tuscany/Liguria border all along the northern Apennine Mountains east to Rimini.
You reach the Garfagnana quickly after leaving Lucca, following the Serchio river north up the valley. After about 14 miles at Borgo a Mozzano you notice the scenery has changed. You’ve already left behind the vineyards and olive groves facing south across the plain of Lucca, replaced instead by mountains rising steeply up from the river on either side. The Serchio valley is less than thirty miles long and the Apuan Alps dominate the western flank. They present a formidable barrier with peaks rising up over 6,000 feet and just one road through the middle of them if you want leave the the Garfagnana at Castelnuovo and go directly to the Ligurian sea.
That road is easier on a bike than it is in a car because the twisty descent to the sea at Forte dei Marmi takes a long time and you don’t really want to take your eyes off the road. As you exit the tunnel at the top and start the descent there is a good view of the famous Carrara marble quarries high up in the mountains, and down along the coast you’ll see stacks of huge oblong pieces of white marble being prepared for export strung out along the road from Forte dei Marmi to the nearby town of Cararra.
These are the same mountains that Michelangelo climbed in 1517 looking for the finest marble for his sculptures, in particular he was looking for pure white marble to make a façade for the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, having been commissioned by the Medici Pope Leo X.
He eventually found the perfect marble high up in an undeveloped area on Monte Altissimo. He even worked out a route to get it down and enlisted the help of the Pope but it proved too difficult and three centuries were to pass before this particular seam of marble could finally be exploited. His façade for the Basilica remained unbuilt. The Cararra marble of this area has been quarried since Roman times and there are over 650 quarries either still in use or now exhausted and many famous structures all over the world are clad with material sourced right here, including Marble Arch in London.
The eastern flank of the Garfagnana is also dominated by mountains, the other side of which is Emilia Romagna and eventually the flat land of Bologna and Modena and the entire Po Valley. Nor is the head of the Serchio valley much easier with just an endless stretch of yet more mountains. As a result of being hemmed in on three sides, the Garfagnana through history has mostly looked south to Lucca for its commerce and the entire region is part of the province of Lucca.
Leaving Lucca, our suggestion would be to drive for 40 minutes straight through to the town of Barga. Or you could choose to stop first in Bagni di Lucca, (photos above and below) which we always hear mentioned favorably by the Lucchesi.
The town and its thermal baths reached their peak of popularity during the 19th century and many famous writers, poets and composers passed through at one time or another including Byron, Shelley, Dumas, Strauss and of course Puccini, being a local.
It was popular with Napoleon’s sister Elisa and then became a favorite place for the English, so much so that many stayed and there is even an English cemetery here as well as an old casino built in 1837.
But frankly neither of us see very much about the small town of Bagni di Lucca today that would warrant a stop if you have limited time and we’ve been there twice because we convinced ourselves that we must have missed something, but no.
However if you’re a cyclist you can rent a bike here, including e-bikes, and explore quieter roads all the way east along the Val di Lima to the Passo dell’Abetone at 4,500 feet, or for hikers there are the Sentieri della Controneria trails nearby which follow old goat paths around a cluster of five medieval villages. The whole of the Garfagnana has become a haven for mountain bikers of all levels and the e-bike revolution, now with higher-powered bikes, has opened up this recreational sport to many more people.
However, as a town, Barga is much more interesting but it is also something of a surprise. It’s as though you took a wrong turning and suddenly found yourself in the middle of the Cairngorms in the Scottish highlands, and not just because of the mountains. By one of those strange quirks of history Barga is something of a Scottish town with saltires, bagpipes, Burns night and who knows what else.
It all started in the middle of the 19th century when the decline of the centuries old silk industry in Lucca and Florence hit Barga hard, being a well-known manufacturer of silk thread since the Middle Ages. Many of Tuscany’s impoverished youth were then forced to emigrate. Most went to the Americas of course but many of those from Barga ended up in Scotland. Being Italian they eventually found success opening cafes, restaurants, fish & chip shops and selling gelato.
This encouraged others to follow and it continued intermittently over the next hundred years until today when 60% of the 10,000 residents of Barga can claim Scottish relatives. In recent years this trend has reversed and many Scots with Italian last names moved back to Barga where their parents or grandparents were born. The Scottish singer Paolo Nutini is perhaps the most famous Scottish son of Barga and visits quite regularly and sometimes puts on a concert in Lucca when he’s there.
On a cold deserted morning in January we started chatting to Giuseppe, the owner of Caffè Capretz, and as we were his only customers he was happy to engage in conversation. He told us about the Scots he knows in town that frequent his bar. And they are not just retirees that come back here, there’s a baker and others who manage tourist accommodation, all sorts of people. There’s clearly a lot to like about Barga in terms of housing prices, cost of living, climate, culture and quality of life if the alternative is Scotland. As more evidence of where Barga’s loyalties lie, the town is twinned with Prestonpans, Cockenzie, Port Seton and Longniddry, so half of East Lothian basically.
Like a lot of small towns in Italy, Barga comes alive in the summer months and there are plenty of Italians from Lucca and other nearby cities that will drive here to spend time in the cooler Garfagnana. When the temperature soars in the middle of Italy, Italians have to get away and they choose either the seaside or the mountains and often allocate time to both. In July and August the Lucchesi and Florentines will happily abandon their cities to foreign tourists and go to their own favorite places and this pattern is repeated all over Italy.
Barga in January may look a bit sad though the views of the mountains from the Duomo di San Cristofero compensate. But it is not a town down on its luck and in the summer it thrives. It has enough restaurants, a long-standing jazz festival, an opera festival and even a fish & chip festival as a nod to its Scottish diaspora. The Opera Barga festival was launched in 1967 largely due to the efforts of a resident English couple. Its performances take place in the late 18th century theatre Teatro dei Differenti and the performers are young musicians taking part in the festival's summer school. There’s also a resort hotel nearby called Il Ciocco, owned by a wealthy Lucchese family and managed by Marriott. This is a town making a real effort to stay relevant and attractive to visitors and it does a good job.
As you would expect there is no shortage of agriturismo accommodation both here and in the Garfagnana generally, which we tend to prefer. There is even a twenty year old biodynamic winery just outside town called Poderi Còncori, probably the only vineyard in the entire Garfagnana, that produces wine from the more suitable cool climate grape varieties of Pinot Noir, Traminer and Pinot Blanc.
Barga has long attracted artists and literary types and in the 1970s the famous English author of espionage novels, Len Deighton, was also a visitor here and wrote his novel SS-GB in a rented hut just outside Barga on a manual typewriter he bought in town. He gave the surname Barga to one of the characters.
And there's one other odd fact about Barga. It has an interesting double sunset which occurs only a couple of times a year.
West of town (obviously) the mountain Monte Forato has two peaks with a large natural arch joining them. Initially the sun disappears behind the top of the mountain and then reappears as if there are two suns setting.
Continuing north along the river for another 15 minutes you arrive at the capital town of the region, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, and it's here that you can choose to take the one road to the sea over the Apuan Alps that was described earlier.
Castelnuovo is attractively situated right on the river and it’s clearly a busier commercial center than Barga. It actually seems a much bigger town but in fact has a smaller population. Of the two I prefer Barga because it’s less industrial and its medieval center has more character and is set apart from the rest of the town, which makes it less frenetic.
Elena prefers Castelnuovo because its commerce is still authentically connected to its historical roots and it feels more like a normal town, but of course she’s Italian and I’m still a bit of a tourist.
There is a plaque on the wall in the center of Castelnuovo commemorating the 19 months of struggle from September 8 1943 when Italy formally changed sides (after having arrested Mussolini six weeks earlier) to April 20 1945 when Castelnuovo was finally liberated.
The plaque lauds the youth of the Garfagnana who became partigiani and towards the bottom also mentions the heroic role of the 370th US Regiment of Buffalo soldiers. These were the black soldiers who were made to fight in segregated regiments in the US army. They were part of the 92nd Infantry Division, the only black division that saw infantry combat in Europe, and they retained the arm patch with the symbolic image of the American buffalo from its origin in the late 1860s. A history and name that Bob Marley sang about in his famous song “Buffalo Soldiers”.
After a three month slog north from Rome the 370th attacked Lucca in early September 1944 and then it got considerably more difficult. Kesselring had by this time had plenty of time to get dug in on his Gothic Line laying minefields and building bunkers and they had possession of all the high ground.
Facing the 370th were crack German panzergrenadier divisions with years of warfare experience. By late November the harsh Garfagnana winter was setting in with the heavy rains that are typical in Italy in early winter and the 370th made slow progress up the Serchio river valley.
Resupplying them became a logistical nightmare. No vehicles could get through and despite all of America’s industrial and military might, the 370th found themselves dependent on pack animals, the same mode of transport employed by Hannibal 2,100 years earlier. They procured 372 mules and 173 horses and for the next five months it was a dogged advance through mud, snow and mountains for a gain of less than 20 miles in total.
In late December 1944 the Battle of Garfagnana took place, precipitated by a German counteroffensive operation in similar fashion to the Battle of the Bulge (happening at the same time in the Ardennes) but on a much smaller scale. The Germans and Italian fascists recaptured Barga and everything south as far as Bagni di Lucca, which the Allies held. The territory was regained slowly by the 370th and by February the fiercest fighting was to be found on the mountains overlooking Castelnuovo, particularly Della Stella and Lama Ridge which were taken, lost and retaken numerous times.* With the capture of Castelnuovo only days before the end of the war the 370th had finally managed to break through the Gothic Line and it is gratifying to see their sacrifice remembered here, because I see that all too infrequently around Italy.
The food from the Garfagnana is everything you would expect from a region of mountains and forests and Lucca gets all it wants. The flavors tend to be stronger and more rustic which in their pecorino cheese we like, but less so the heavy salami and meat products. There’s plenty of funghi porcini and truffles in season and the Garfagnana is famous for its cultivated chestnuts.
There is a tradition of making farina (flour) from chestnuts. The chestnuts are laid out in special huts and slowly dried for 40 days set high above a low flameless fire then milled and used for bread, polenta and cakes.
On the way back to Lucca all that remained was to make a quick stop at the Ponte della Maddalena near Borgo a Mozzano as we’d only ever seen it before from the road.
The bridge is almost 1,000 years old and was a vital river crossing on the Via Francigena, the early medieval pilgrim pathway from Canterbury to Rome that connected abbeys rather than towns.
There are several variations of the Via Francigena as it goes through Italy and this path through the Garfagnana was to avoid the coastal route which, though easier, carried the risk of malaria. With the increased popularity today of walking sections of the Via Francigena, considerable improvements have been made to the path and the signage all the way to Rome, and of course it goes through Lucca.
(* this description of the wartime activities of the 370th Regiment is a small summary of an article written by the historian Robert Hodges Jr. for the Military Times)