Leg 3: Aulla to Avenza

Back in time in Lunigiana

The third leg of the Via Francigena runs from Aulla to Avenza. It is a journey that rediscovers the via Francigena, through castles and fortresses in the hills of Lunigiana. Medieval villages with long lasting traditions and fortresses rich in history, surrounded by nature.

The first part of the leg runs along trails, which are demanding and beautiful, providing initial views of the sea. Drink in the atmosphere of age-old villages along the route, visit the ruins of Brina castle and the town of Sarzana. The second part of the leg is on the level. You reach Luni, the ancient Roman port where marble was shipped to Rome. The port of S. Maurizio was not far away, where pilgrims boarded to travel to Santiago de Compostela.

In Luni it is worth visiting the Archaeological Museum and the remains of the Roman city: the forums, the home of the frescoes and the amphitheater.

Continuing you return to Tuscany and reach Avenza, near Carrara.

Start: Aulla, Abbey of S. Caprasio
Avenza, Torre di Castruccio

Total length (km): 32.4
Accessibility: on foot or with mountain bike
Time on foot (h: min): 8.00
Climb in ascent (m): 718
Climb in descent (m): 768
Maximum altitude (m): 539
Difficulty: very challenging
Paved roads: 63%
Unpaved roads and driveways: 15%
Mule-tracks and trails: 22%
Cyclability: 90%
How to get to the departure point: Parma-La Spezia railway line, Aulla station

Aulla -
This narrow strip of land, at the junction of Magra and Aulella, contains one of the most significant cathedral chapter houses of religious life before the year 1000. In those years, Aulla was a small village defended by bridges and streets that helped the area prosper, thanks to its connections to major trade and pilgrimage routes.

A must-see stop in town is the Abbey and Museum of San Caprasio (9th to 12th century, where recent excavations confirmed the longstanding importance of the Via Francigena. Founded in 884 and entrusted to monks connected to the Malaspina family, it was modified circa 1070 to its current plan with three naves. It underwent additional renovations in the 14th century and during the Baroque period.

Also worth a visit is the Museum of Natural History, which was established with the objective of using the natural sciences to give a comprehensive and innovative overview of the Lunigianese panorama. It is housed in the Fortezza della Brunella, which takes its name from the hills on which it was built in the mid-16th century. It is a typical example of Renaissance military architecture, adequately prepared for attacks. Not far from Aulla you can visit Pallerone, a small medieval town where the ancient castle tower and the Malaspina chapel, the parochial church dedicated to Saint Anthony (but originally dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury), filled with plaster and canvas decorations and a grand 18th-century door.

The nearby village of Caprigliola, which in 1100 was already a fortified village, is enclosed by walls and served as the summer residence of the Bishops of Luni. Traces of the walls still remain, along with an elegant cylindrical tower. The complex where the bishops stayed is at the highest point on the hills and is now powerfully juxtaposed with the imposing 18th century church of San Nicolò.

The area of Il Gaggio in Podenzana houses the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Snow, a sacred building built in the late seventeenth century. It was in ruins as early as 1702, but due to the fact that it attracted many pilgrims, it was restored. The sanctuary is surrounded by a deep forest, and a popular tale claims that the Madonna herself appeared around a centuries-old chestnut tree, or perhaps a revelatory image of some kind. What remains of the sacred chestnut tree is still preserved in the Sanctuary.

Fosdinovo is an ancient land dominating the plains of Val di Magra and Luni, where you can breathe in fresh air. Fosdinovo is home to the Audiovisual Museum of the Resistance, built in 1949 by a group of former Nazi Resistance activists and volunteers and designed as a memorial for those who witnessed or were subject to Nazi massacres and deportation. You should also visit Malaspina Castle, which has considerable historical and architectural importance. At the foot of the slope leading to Fosdinovo, you find Villa Malaspina in Caniparola, built in 1724 by the marquise Gabriele Malaspina. At the villa, there once stood an ancient tower erected at the time of the Bishops of Luni.

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta: situated on the left bank of the river Magra, this is the point where the two split branches of the Via Francigena in Pontremoli briefly rejoin together, only to divide again shortly toward Aulla and the Apuan coast. The Groppofosco Hospital once stood not far from the church.

Sarzana: In the historical center, check out the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle and Martyr, the oldest building in the city. Housed inside are marble sculptures dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, depicting Sarzana’s patron saint, St. Andrew, St. Peter and St. Paul. Among the paintings on display are The Calling of Saints James and John to Fiasella and a fresco of the Madonna and Child by an unknown artist. On the left side of the altar, on the wall beside the monastery of San Domenico, is a miraculous image of Madonna of Graces, which in 1480 seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if painted by a divine hand on the wall beside the ancient convent of San Domenico. Also worth seeing is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, known as ‘Santa Maria,’ right in what was once the true heart of the city. There were countless pilgrims  who made their way to the Cathedral to appreciate the relics transported there from Luni, particularly a small container of Precious Blood.

Luni: Here you’ll find the remains of the Roman city of Luna. Founded in 177 BC, it was an important hub and trade port for the marble of the Apuan Alps. Not far away was the port of St. Mauritius, where pilgrims departed for Santiago di Campostela. The archaeological museum and the remains of the Roman city, including the forum, a house of frescoes, and an amphitheater.

Avenza: The Church of Saint Peter is a must-see; a sacred wooden crucifix is housed there. Also worth visiting is the fortress, an important stopover spot along the via Francigena in the medieval period. The building is attributed to Castruccio Castracani. Not far from Avenza Carrara is Carrara, were you can admire Malaspina Castle built by Alberico Cybo Malaspina in the 16th century. It now houses the Accademia di Belle Arti. Don’t miss the Duomo of Carrara, constructed in the Roman Gothic style in the 9th century and restored with Carrara marble.

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