Discover The ‘Hidden’ Tuscany
A holiday in Tuscany is everyone’s dream, but if you want to experience the charm of rural Italy, without the crowds, head for Lunigiana, in the northwest. Often referred to as the ‘hidden’ Tuscany, of course it has in no way been hidden from the locals or discerning travellers. And it would be fair to say that away from the surrounds of Florence and Siena, the people are more welcoming and less jaded by visitors. Bordered by high mountains and the sea, the hills and valleys are perfect for hiking, with cascading waterfalls and streams, chestnut and European oak, and mountain crags topped with ruined fortresses.
The region is dominated by the impressive, rounded Appennine Mountains, as well as the distinctively jagged Apuan Alps that rise near the Tyrrheanian Sea and run almost parallel with the coastline, from the Appennines to the countryside around Lucca. Various kinds and qualities of marble are found in the Alps, and at the Parco Naturale delle Apuane you can see the remains of ancient marble quarries.
Medieval villages are tucked into hillsides, and over 100 castles remain as a reminder of the wealth and power that is part of the history of the region. The port of Luni, established by the Romans, in 177 BC, at the mouth of the River Magra, was so elaborately adorned with the famous local marble that the Normans mistook it for Rome and destroyed it. The remains of an amphitheatre can still be seen there. Above the town of Aulla is the Brunella fortress, dating from the 1500s, which now contains the very informative Lunigiana Museum of Natural History. Further north, at Pontremoli, on the River Magra, the renown Museo Civico Archeologico is housed in a castle.
At Filattiera, you’ll find the 14th-century Malspina castle, now a private residence. At nearby Bagnone, one of the prettiest villages in Lunigiana, a fortress that was built in the 11th century overlooks the area. The fortress has since been altered by successive conquerors, one of which built the rounded turret that still stands today. Restored to its Renaissance splendour, the castle now contains the Centre For Humanistic Studies.
The Gulf of La Spezia, is known as the Bay of Poets, due to its association with English poets Byron, Keats and Shelley, who often visited its shores, and stayed at the old fishing villages of Lerici, Tellaro, Fiascherino, San Terenzo and Portovenere. From Lerici you can take a boat across the Gulf to the Cinque Terre, five picturesque villages that hug the mountainside along the Ligurian coast north of Portovenere: Monterosso, Riomaggore, Vernazza, Manarola and Corniglia.
Accommodations in Lunigiana are many and range from simple mountain cottages to coastal resorts. Villa rental is deservedly popular due to the many natural attractions and the generally lovely weather. Shop at the markets for local produce, such as chestnuts, virgin olive oils, prosciutto (the Tuscan raw ham), pecorino (ewes’ cheese), and delicious breads. The village of Colonnata is known for its exceptional pig lard that is covered with various spices and matured for six months in special marble tanks. Of course you should sample the wines and where possible visit one of the many vineyards producing white and red wines that derive their unique taste from the mountain soils on which the grapes are grown.