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Matraia & the Pizzorne

The plain of Lucca from the Altopiano delle Pizzorne
7.30 am is the best time to reach the Altopiano delle Pizzorne in the summer, then it's downhill all the way back to Lucca for breakfast

This can either be a brutal 3,000 foot climb for hard core cyclists or a pleasant e-bike ride for everyone else. It takes you up to the cooler air of Matraia and the Pizzorne where you can enjoy the best views of the entire plain of Lucca stretching out to the sparkling blue waters of the Ligurian sea. I still choose to pedal up this mountain but every year it takes me longer before I manage to get all the way to the top; it was late May this year before my breakthrough ride.

So if you’re not an avid road cyclist with mountain climbing experience my advice would be to rent an e-bike from Paladino at Chrono Bikes and enjoy this scenic route as it meanders through olive groves and vineyards up to the village of Matraia, and then beyond to the altopiano (high plateau) of the Pizzorne.

Matraia near Lucca with Monte Serra in the background
The lower part of Matraia with Monte Serra in the background on the south side of the plain of Lucca

For American readers who are never far from air conditioning in the summer and don't quite comprehend the appeal of the mountains to Italians, let me just say that when it's 90 degrees inside an Italian apartment from June to September the only place to cool off is at 3,000 feet.

It requires a little local knowledge to find the quietest route out of the center of Lucca but it’s best to avoid the busy strada statale 12 which is the main road heading north towards the Garfagnana and Abetone. Many cyclists, including myself, will take the Porta San Jacopo exit from the centro storico and head north following Via delle Ville Prima to Via Tognetti, Via Lombarda, Via del Fanuccio and finally Via Fraga Alta.

It’s about 6 miles of mostly flat roads through largely forgettable Lucca suburbs before you reach the Apennine foothills and arrive at the unofficial start of the climb at Villa Reale. The street sign in the photograph above by the entrance gates to the famous Villa is where mileage and times are typically measured from.

This is a part of the Lucca countryside that should be on your list in any case because there are some good local wineries along the strada del vino which overlaps with this route and right at the starting point here there is also a cluster of grand old villas that date from the 17th to early 19th centuries, including Villa Oliva, Villa Grabau and Villa Reale, the last of which has undergone extensive renovations over the last 7 years and has only been open to the public since 2020.

Villa Torrigiani near Lucca
Villa Torrigiani, not on this route but nearby and worth a visit

Perhaps the villa with the most beautiful exterior if you like the 17th century baroque style is Villa Torrigiani which is not in this group of villas but is located about 3 miles south-east just past the small hamlet of Segromigno. This is further along the strada del vino as it winds its way from the Colline Lucchesi DOC zone to the nearby Montecarlo DOC.

Looking up towards Matraia and the Altopiano delle Pizzorne
An intimidating look up at Matraia and the altopiano from about one mile into the climb. A long way still to go.

It’s exactly 6 miles from Villa Reale to the altopiano with 2,800 feet remaining to climb which works out to an average gradient of 8.7%, so either bring your best cycling legs or make sure your e-bike rental has sufficient power to get you to the top without having to pedal too much.

For those who don’t easily relate to gradients, 8.7% is very similar to both the iconic Tour de France climb up Alpe d’Huez and the equally legendary Passo Fedaia (known as the ‘Marmolada’) in the Dolomites that is feared and respected by the Giro d’Italia riders. Having climbed both of these classic mountains several times, I would say that the middle section of le Pizzorne, though shorter, seems to me a bit harder than Alpe d’Huez, but not as steep and intimidating as the last few miles of the Marmolada.

Matraia with the plain of Lucca behind it
After leaving Matraia behind the Ligurian sea starts to come into view

The Pizzorne climb however beats both of them for views and you only have to go half way up to the village of Matraia to find them. The upper section of the village is at about 1,400 feet and the land falls away almost vertically here so you get sweeping views all along the valley as well as to the Pisa mountains directly opposite where a similar climb up Monte Serra awaits.

The centro storico of Lucca is discernible from here too if you look for the green 'moat' around the town and the towers within it. You also get a good view of La Badiola winery, whose entrance you will have already passed on the way up to Matraia.

La Badiola winery near Lucca
La Badiola winery

To reach Matraia from the start of the climb you follow the blue road signs to Matraia and then after about 1.5 miles when you come to a T-junction that has Matraia signposted in both directions you take the left one towards Matraia Colle, which you will reach more or less exactly at the half way point of the climb.

The plain of Lucca from the Altopiano delle Pizzorne
Views like these are the reason to cycle up mountains in Italy

After the solitary traffic light in Matraia, where you turn left to continue the climb, there is a small flat section where residents park their cars and a water fountain on the left hand side by the bus shelter. If a coffee rather than water is your preference there is also a bar in town that can be found by going straight on at the lights for a short distance instead of turning left.

Upper Matraia is the start of the really tough 2.2 mile section where the road ascends 1,300 feet at an average gradient of 11.2%. The first part is a one way system because of the narrowness of the roads, at the end of which you will climb above the town leaving behind the olive trees and grapevines to enter quite a dense forest.

The 'Pizzorne' sign at the top of the Altopiano delle Pizzorne
No grand finish after all that effort, just a few houses and a crappy sign

From this point until the summit the road is mostly submerged in the trees which provide welcome shade if you choose to do this ride in the afternoon. And if anyone whizzes past you on this section without power assistance it will probably be a professional cyclist on a training ride from one of the cycling teams that are based in this part of Tuscany and you’ll be amazed just how quickly they can go up this mountain.

Apuan Alps from le Pizzorne
The morning sun on the Apuan Alps on the descent

The ride profile below starts in Marlia, about 2-3 kilometers before Villa Reale, which is why it appears to be a longer climb with a shallower initial gradient than I have described here. And though the rest of the profile looks reasonably accurate to me, over the last 10 summers that I've been doing this ride my Garmin altimeter has never shown less than 3,300 feet for the cumulative amount of climbing from Lucca and back.


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