Impressions: The Other Tuscany

Lunigiana

The narrow, twisty path that ascends to Zeri, the beautiful valley tucked within the peaks of the Lunigiana – that corner of northern Tuscany tucked between Liguria and Emilia, between the appendix of the Apuane Alps and the cervical rings of the Apennines – is quite the scenic route. As the van climbed up the mountain, the road opened up to forested grounds and lush green pastures and minuscule villages dotting the otherwise untouched landscape. From the distance, a glimpse to the tallest peaks revealed a dusting of snow. Autumn and its colours suited this place very much. Yet even on a brilliantly sunny day as the one we found, the cold can be biting; it encourages you to find a cosy place indoors, by a fireplace, and to tuck into some local delights for sustenance and comfort: slices of infamously unsalted bread, chunks of salty pecorino, bits of cured lonzino, a bottle of red. Lunch.

Afterwards, a digestive stroll through the sheep-punctuated pastures was welcomed with high spirits. We walked and stayed until the sun – now a fiery ball flaring and painting everything gold – took a dive behind the mountains, never to reemerge. The contrast between the barren slopes and the emerald green valley intensified in the warm sunset light, the deep, invigorating silence interrupted by a bleating in the distance. We breathed in the clean air. A scent of musk and hay reached my nostril, wood smoke. A tingly breeze. Then, it got dark.

We spent the night in Licciarda Nardi, a tiny hamlet made of stone houses as old as history itself. For dinner, a procession of chestnut dishes – chestnuts being a local delicacy – revived our spent spirits: castagnaccio, piattona, ravioli. Then, lamb – quaffed with a bottle of local white, braised on a cast iron pan (testo) over an open fire, succulent, smokey, hearty. We were in awe.

We fell into a heavy sleep right before midnight, no lights around us, no people, no noise – a wolf, perhaps; they inhabit these mountains. Millions of stars against a pitch black sky.

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Garfagnana + Pescia

The Lunigiana and the Garfagnana share the same mountainous backbone. They also share a similarly quaint, natural beauty that explodes in Autumn, when colours turn faded and warm and the sky a shade of steel. Tiny hamlets dot the tops of the hills — many established as a road-stop along to the old via francigena, the pilgrim’s path that connects Rome to Canterbury. Ancient stone houses give these places a sense of transience, yet they have been there for so long it’s hard to wrap your head around it.

Late November, and chestnut season was in full swing here, too. And really, to say that we had our good share of chestnuts is an understatement – no meal went by without a chestnut dish or three. Which, in turn, was a way to really grasp the importance this fruit plays in the culinary and cultural heritage of the area.

San Romano in Garfagnana was our pick for the night. A visit to the ancient Verrucole fortress was a must, and the climbing path that led us to its gate proved a perfect way to process our many bowls of spelt soup – spelt being another local culinary gem. From the peak and all along the fortress’ walls, the view of the mountains was unencumbered. A house here, another there. For the most part, though, we saw trees. Trees dressed in their rusts and yellows and dark greens, ready for the gloom of winter.

We left the Garfagnana early the next day on a brilliantly sunny morning, passed by the creepily beautiful Devil’s bridge, and headed to Pescia. Only there did we have a glimpse of the first olive trees. It seemed odd to me — in my postcard-like-stereotype-fuelled mind, the whole region was an olive grove after the other — but it made so much sense after I actually saw the landscape for myself. Olives need warmth and gentle slopes. They sure had both in the beautiful Valleriana.

From Pescia we climbed up to Aramo, where we geared up for a hike through a valley that has been borderland for centuries. To date, the place remains largely untouched by tourism. At the very start of the path, we could catch a glimpse of the town of Sorana in front of us, perched on the mountain and in full sun, with its old pieve at the heart of it. The rest of the hike would take us through the towns Castelvecchio and San Quirico – all tiny, picturesque stone villages with not one soul in sight.

We walked and walked through forests of chestnuts and bramble. On a good day like the one we found – almost too clear and warm for being December – the sunlight filters through the barren branches and spotlights the path of brown fallen leaves and thorny chestnut shells left on the ground. In the heart of the woods, the carpet of foliage thickens, so that the only sound you hear is that of your steps stomping on top of the crunchy dry leaves. The path gets adventurous at times – a bit steep, a bit slippery – but nothing unachievable. By the end of it, it felt like a pleasant stroll. We were warm and yet thoroughly refreshed in body and mind.

Lunch came as a reward. Sitting at the wide table of a local olive oil producer, we ate as if we hadn’t seen food for days. New olive oil season meant that everything – from ribollita to bruschetta and from cheese to vegetable – was drizzled with much of the freshly-pressed nectar whose green energy was so fleeting one had to make the most of it right then. Peppery, bright green, unfiltered and with that intense scent and flavour of grass and tomato leaves and artichokes, I could hardly have enough. And as I poured some more on yet another piece of bread, I thought there was hardly a better place I could be than that slice of Eden in the heart of Tuscany – the other Tuscany. The quiet part. The wild part. The Tuscany most have yet to see.

[Special thanks to Visit Tuscany for organising this brilliant trip.]