Our tour begins in Pontremoli, the northernmost town in Tuscany and the historic capital of the Upper Lunigiana. With the Verde stream and the Magra river both running through it, Pontremoli is also known as the “city of bridges”.
History books call the period from the mid-600s to the mid-nineteenth century the city’s Golden Age. Behind the facades of its palaces and churches, Pontremoli hides important Baroque masterpieces. To get an idea of these, just visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta with a Neoclassical marble-lined façade and the unusual Nostra Donna Church, a fine example of Rococo architecture.
Walk through the stone streets of the Piagnaro district and climb up to the Castle. Standing on a hilltop, it was built in the 11th century for defensive purposes. Today, it hosts the Statue Stele Museum, home to a collection of about 25 megalithic mysterious statues engraved in sandstone by peoples who lived in the area between the IV and the I millennium b.C.
In the afternoon, stop in at the Caffè degli Svizzeri to get your sweets fix. Founded in 1842, it has evolved into a Pontremoli icon and is the ideal place to taste some local specialties, such as Amor, a traditional pastry of custard and wafers. End the day with a testaroli-based dinner (local pasta cooked in special cast-iron pots) and chestnut fritters topped with fresh ricotta.
A local legend: the dark and narrow streets of the Piagnaro district have inspired lore about that the werewolf or Lupo mannaro. Werewolf sightings are said to have taken place right here. Legend has it that to stay safe you must climb three steps and never, ever look into his eyes. There’s just one problem: finding a house or building in the area with three steps to climb is a bit of a challenge. Most just have two. Moral of the story? Try not to let local superstition sway you into spotting him, or you’ll be up a creek without a paddle. And certainly not up any stairs.
Walking the first leg of the Via Francigena
It's time to explore the Apennines. About 22 km long, the first stage of the Via Francigena crosses dense woods and stone villages from the 1100 m of the Passo della Cisa to Pontremoli. This is a challenging route (560 m ascent and 1294 descent), so if you decide to travel the entire way, one option could be to stay at Ostello della Cisa, 2 km before the pass. Here you can visit the church of Nostra Signora della Guardia, patron saint of sportsmen and famous for its impressive staircase. From the top, you can take in a magnificent view of the whole valley and the surrounding mountains.
If you have something less strenuous in mind, you could stay in Previdè (halfway), a small town with a cozy, comfortable bed and breakfast. Walking down towards Pontremoli, after about a 3 km walk, you’ll reach the striking 16th-century stone bridge of Groppodalosio. About sixteen meters high, it connects the villages of Groppodalosio and Casalina, which are divided by the Magra river.
Trip to Versilia: the charm of Camaiore
Leave the Lunigiana and head to the Versilia, the part of Tuscany between the Alps and the coast. Along the way, take a brief detour to Pallerone to visit its famous mechanical nativity scene. Made in 1935 with scrap materials, it didn’t take long for this wonder to become one of Italy’s most iconic nativity sets. In fact, it’s become so famous that it is open year-round, not just during the Christmas period.
After about an hour's trip, you’ll reach Camaiore, a village at the foot of the Apuan Alps.Take a walk in the historic center and stop in the shops to taste local specialties such as the pepper pie (a savoury cake made with spicy rice and vegetables) and cured meats from the village of Gombitelli. On the Via IV Novembre, part of the ancient Via Francigena pilgrimage route, you can visit the 12th century church dedicated to San Michele.
If you are traveling with children, do not leave without visiting the Archaeological Museum of Camaiore. Divided into 13 rooms, it takes visitors on a journey through the centuries, making use of tactile, sound and olfactory stations to get information across.
If you are in the mood, opt for a stay at Ostello del Pellegrino. Housed in the rooms of the Abbey of San Pietro, this welcoming and well-kept hospitality center has about 20 beds in multiple rooms and has become a hub for outdoor cultural and recreational events. It is also a fantastic resource for information on excursions and guided tours in the Apuan Alps.
From San Miniato to Gambassi Terme
Next, explore the hills around Pisa and Florence, following the footsteps of the archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious. Captivated by the beauty of the place, he stopped here twice: at Pieve di Coiano and in Santa Maria in Chianni. Set off from San Miniato to Gambassi Terme: this is a less challenging but lengthy stage that crosses a territory with a strong agricultural vocation. Whether you choose to travel the entire path or only a stretch of it, you’ll be struck by the landscape: an ocean of plowed hills, fading into the horizon.
At sunset, explore the village of San Miniato. Set on the ridge of three hills overlooking the valley of the Arno, its castle was built in 962 by Emperor Otto I, and hosted Federico Barbarossa and Pope Gregorio V. Do not miss the climb to the tower of Frederick II, where you can enjoy views of the Arno valley and the Apuan Alps.
Tempted by truffles? The best time to visit San Miniato is November, high season for the coveted white truffle and the month of the famous International Truffle Show. It’s a time packed with activities for the whole family: excursions, events, and special menus around town are to be expected, and kiosks line the streets of the historic centre, selling the best of locally produced truffles
Get deep into Val d’Orcia magic
The journey continues in the Val d'Orcia Cultural Art Park in San Quirico d'Orcia, a village in the heart of a landscape that’s beloved all over the world. The Vitaleta chapel, the cypress trees and the Belvedere farm are some of the best-known images of the Tuscan countryside.
Take a few hours to explore the village and its main attractions, such as the Collegiata church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, built between the 12th and 13th centuries in travertine and sandstone. Once in Piazza Chigi, don’t miss the Palazzo Chigi Zondari and its beautiful frescoed rooms and corridors. This impressive palace erected by Carlo Fontana in the seventeenth century on behalf of Cardinal Flavio Chigi is now the town hall and the location of countless temporary exhibitions.
Before leaving, take a tour of the Horti Leonini: carried out by Diomede Leoni in 1580, it’s a superb example of the typical Italian garden, conceived as a public space. It became property of the municipality of San Quirico d'Orcia in 1975 and today is open to the public.
A few minutes from San Quirico d'Orcia, you can visit the hamlet of Vignoni Alto, a tiny village of medieval atmosphere with its small church dedicated to San Biagio.
In the afternoon, indulge in a relaxing break at the thermal baths of Bagno Vignoni, a spa village with three hotels where you can stay and enjoy the benefits of the healing waters.
Radicofani: a place of passage and important stops
Located on top of a mountain about 900 meters above sea level on the ancient road that leads to Rome, Radicofani has always been a place of passage and important stops. In fact, in 1584 Granduca Ferdinando I dei Medici built what might be called the first hotel in Italy: a large building with stalls, kitchen, halls and rooms for distinguished as well as lesser-known guests. Designed by the grand-ducal architect Bernardo Buontalenti and known for centuries as "Osteria Grossa" or Poste Medicee, it hosted many important people including Grand Duke Ferdinand I, Cosimo II (and his entire court) in 1612, Mozart, who was traveling to Rome with his father, the Popes Pius VI and VII, the Marquis De Sade, Stendhal, and Charles Dickens.
If Pontremoli is the northern entrance of the Francigena in Tuscany, Radicofani is the southern gate. For centuries, its Fortress was a strategic location at the boundary between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal State. From the terrace atop the tower, you can admire a vast panorama. It was here that Ghino di Tacco, Tuscany’s best-known bandit, took refuge and made his ambushes. He always left his victims with something to survive on, however. He was generous with the poor and students and is often remembered as the Italian Robin Hood.
From Bagno Vignoni you can reach Radicofani after about a 30 km walk . Although the climb to the village is very challenging, you’ll be rewarded by the beautiful view along the way. Whether you decide to walk the whole leg or just a portion of it, dedicate a day to this village in the clouds.
Follow its narrow stone streets and visit the Jewish quarter, the small Piazza della Giudecca and the Pieve di S. Pietro. Construction on it began during the the X - XI century, and it houses a very valuable collection of masterpieces by Andrea della Robbia. Explore the Isabella Wood: this Romantic - Esoteric Garden was built between 1844 and 1906 and is about 2.5 hectares. Finally, finish off the day right over a dish of Pici pasta and a glass of Tuscan red wine.