It is located in the Valleriana area, north of Pescia (Pistoia province) and it’s called “Svizzera Pesciatina” (Swiss Pescia), named after the famous Swiss historian and economist Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, who was born in Geneva and lived there in the late eighteenth century. A keen traveller during his life, he found many similarities with the alpine landscapes of his native country in this area of Tuscany and soon fell in love and decided to retire here.
This area consists of ten medieval hamlets, known as “castella”, constructed in the local stone called pietra serena, which is still quarried in the area. The hamlets are Pietrabuona, Medicina, Fibbialla, Aramo, Sorana, San Quirico, Castelvecchio, Stiappa, Pontito and Vellano.
The landscape is perfect for walking, and a popular route starts from Pietrabuona, following the river Pescia and tracing all the villages of the Swiss Pesciatina along a trail of about six hours. This trail connects the ten “Castella“, each surrounded by areas of untouched nature, and the characteristic trees of oak and chestnut. The trail isn’t, of course, the only way to reach the ten castella: they can also be accessed by a paved road.
Here are short descriptions of the ten “castella”:
This first ‘castella‘ is considered the gateway of the Swiss Pescia, situated on a hill 110 metres above sea level, and its name comes from the stone quarries in the area (pietra in Italian means stone). It was once the scene of bloody battles between Florence and Lucca during the period of the Middle Ages. Here you will find an ancient church dedicated to Saints Matthew and Columbanus, inside which two wooden statues representing ancient St. Matthew and St. Michael can be seen. There is also a Paper Museum dedicated to old paper processing.
In this hamlet you can find a castle known for its ancient church dedicated to saints Sisto and Martin. Built in the fifteenth century, it crowns the high wooded hill where the town is located, and its bell tower is supposedly an ancient watch tower. Here there are also many farmyards, where people worked and harvested agricultural products.
The third hamlet on the trail is located 424 metres above sea level and is one of the most intact in the area. Inside, there are some paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an interesting fifteenth-century sculpture depicting the Virgin of the Annunciation.
Situated on a peak overlooking the valley below, this ‘castella’ was the scene of bitter fighting in the fifteenth century, looted and largely destroyed. In the highest point of the town stands the church of S. Frediano.
This old village, nestled on the slopes of Mount Petritulo, takes its name from the fortress, which was once called “sovereign” (sovrana) due to its location overlooking the valley. Today, only a few ruins of the fortress remain. The village has an elliptical shape that culminates in the square, where there is the church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Sorana is famous for the production of a particular type of bean, which has made it a destination for foodies wanting to discover culinary treats.
This village lies on the eastern slope of Mount Battifolle and is the highest castle in the whole Valleriana area, offering a panoramic view of the whole valley. It is well known for its unique urban structure that resembles the shape of a fan. The beautiful Romanesque church of SS. Andrea and Lucia overlooks the village and inside you can see the remains of its ancient structure and a beautiful fifteenth-century baptismal font. The centre of San Quirico is characterized by its crisscrossing picturesque alleys, which pass through small tunnels under the buildings.
This hamlet is known for its beautiful Romanesque church, one of seven founded by the Bishop Frediano in the sixth century. In the centre of the village of Castelvecchio there is the Oratory of SS. Rosario, entirely decorated with the Stories of the Virgin and Christ: the fresco is done by an unknown Florentine master, dating from around the sixteenth century. The medieval town retains its original structure of charming streets that climb up to the castle church of St. Ansano. Castelvecchio is also known as the village of the ice-cream makers, a tradition that came about thanks to Aurindo Ferrari, who mastered the art of ice cream and taught it to the children of the village, helping them to make a fortune from it all over Italy.
Nestled on the slopes of Mount Battifolle, 627 metres above sea level, this old town has, for centuries, marked the division between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Duchy of Lucca. The main sights include the church of Santa Maria Assunta, located in an elevated position and with an architecture that recalls Romanesque art. From Stiappa you can go down to the Mill of Fontanone on a path called “Way of the mills.”
This village is the highest in the valley (the castle is located 749 metres above sea level) and it was home of the figurinai (figurine makers), the artisans of plaster figurines: with their casts they have given life to characters mostly of religious inspiration, and sold them all over Europe. Its unique building structure in the shape of a fan is easily recognizable from any angle and makes it one of the most characteristic places of the entire valley.
The final hamlet is the capital city of the Swiss Pescia and was once a popular holiday resort. This village has a scenic location over the valley of the river Pescia. It is known for its parish church of SS. Sisto and Martin since the tenth century, once part of an ancient abbey of Benedictine monks. In Vellano there is also the only quarry of pietra serena still working in the whole province of Pistoia. There is also a “Museum of History and Ethnography of the Miner Quarryman,” where you can see the working tools used in the quarry, and a rich collection of minerals.
There is also the eleventh castella, Lignana, of which only a few ruins remain.
How to reach Svizzera Pesciatina
The easiest way to reach Svizzera Pesciatina is by car, but there is also a more environmentally friendly way, by using public transport that is easily available. You can take a train to Pescia from Lucca, Viareggio or Florence and, from the station, take a bus to one of the ten villages.
Cover image credit: Doug Urban