The Lunigiana is a part of Tuscany that is loaded with history and traditions, and it’s also criss-crossed with spiritual roads including the famous Via Francigena that went from Canterbury to Rome. In our region, the first part of this path, known in the Middle Ages as the “Door to Tuscany”, begins here and ends at Aulla, covering 33km along unpaved roads and paths through the woods.
Let’s look in greater detail at the part of this road that runs from Pontremoli to Villafranca. This itinerary thus starts at the town of Pontremoli which is known as the “citta dei campanili” or bell towers. The city centre was developed specifically to welcome travellers and pilgrims. It is dominated by the imposing Castello del Piagnaro, a 10th-century defensive structure. Now the castle is home to an important museum worth visiting, the Museum of Lunigianesi Statues, these mysterious sculptures in stone that are some of the earliest records of human artistic expression.
Pontremoli was for many years religiously independent, and thus has numerous ecclesiastical structures like the Cappucin convent (which offers hospitality to pilgrims walking the Via Francigena, Via degli Abati and Via del Volto Santo), the Diocesan Museum, the oratory of the Madonna del Ponte, a little church called Santa Cristina, and the city’s Duomo, the cathedral di Santa Maria del Popolo.
In the central piazza, where the town hall is located, check out a landmark of Tuscan gastronomy, the Antica Pasticceria degli Svizzeri. This pastry shop was founded in the second half of the 19th century and offers delicious desserts prepared according to historic recipes. You must try the spongata. Another item one can purchase in Pontremoli is the Pilgrim's Notebook, a leather book that is perfect for taking notes during one’s long walk.
Continuing on foot along the marked path you will pass through the small medieval town of Ponticello, built with stones recovered from the river Magra. This is one of the best examples of Lunigiana’s Romanesque art and architecture.
We’ll continue along over the Monia river and the area of Filetto, a small town known for the finding of numerous stele, or ancient stone sculptures, in the area nearby.
One reaches finally Villafranca, noted by Filippo Auguro, King of France, because of its lack of taxes. This territory was thus favoured by those in commerce and trade. The town also developed pilgrim hospices. Now it houses the Ethnographic Museum of the Lunigiana, a good way to discover the culture of past generations in this area.
What to eat
After a long day walking, pilgrims need excellent food and peace to regain energy. The Lunigiana provides this easily, with an interesting tradition of “cucina povera,” literally poor cooking, that are filling and delicious dishes based on locally available ingredients. Of these, don’t miss testaroli, gnocchi, meat stew, herb quiche and stuffed mushrooms. The desserts are equally good, including “Amor alla crema” (a cream bomb) and Spongata. Wash it down with local wine and a spoonful of Lunigiana PDO honey.