11 April 2014

Walking A Tuscan Forest - Ortonovo to Castelpoggio

The Roman Legion's March

Trail sign Tuscany
Trail marker in Ortonovo.
This is a lovely walk from the rural outskirts of the Ligurian town of Ortonovo in the foothills of the Apuan Alps to the Tuscan town of Castelpoggio. The larger towns nearby are Sarzana and Carrara. It takes about 90 minutes up and 60 minutes down and the trail is generally along the forested ridges of gentle hills. This is an easy walk - moderately sloped most of the way - and it's good for children and picnics. There are no services so bring water, however, there are two small grocery stores and a bakery in Castelpoggio.

Castelpoggio has been important and unimportant for a very long time. Because this frazione of Carrara has good views of the entire Luni plain, its importance was foretold.  It was part of a ring of defenses around the Roman city of Luni. These included Nicola of Ortonovo, Montemarcello, nearby Moneta (described in our article One Hundred Years A Minute),  and others of disputed location. The original old town was once entirely walled - incastellato, but only one gate remains today. It was mentioned in an early deed called the Codice Pelavicino of 997 AD, attesting to its singularity.

Castelpoggio Tuscany bakery
Castelpoggio Bakery
The town has been a waypoint since prehistoric times since it's on the route to a pass leading to the Aulella valley which leads to the city of Aulla. From Castelpoggio it's less than 5 miles to Vinca as the magpie flies. The Ligurians were here as early as 1100 BC. In the middle ages there was an inn for pilgrims here (hospitale) since Castelpoggio was on one of several paths which are, collectively, the Via Francigena or Via Pedemontana. Unimportant now it may be, but it makes an excellent place to wander and wonder, and look through a window back in time.

Tuscan flower blooming
A flower blooming in the forest understory.

Park along the road where a driveway leads to the Ristorante Mauro. (see Getting There below). The driveway is the beginning of the trail - on your left is Liguria and on the right is Tuscany. After the parking lot, the trail enters the woods and climbs a hill where there has been some erosion in the last few years. Soon the trail normalizes, and it begins to feel like a woodsy stroll. The trail is obvious all the way, and there are few blazes. This is probably the path a platoon of Roman Legionaries would have marched between the strongholds at Nicola and Castelpoggio. The Romans placed their camps near each other on high ground so they could use signal mirrors and signal fires to communicate between emplacements as they watched for enemies. We recommend you bring along someone who can whistle the theme from 'Bridge On the River Kwai' as you hike.

Tuscan chestnut leaves in sun
Under the spreading chestnut leaves.
As you walk along, there are places where there are openings in the trees and you can glimpse distant scenes of other forested hills, the coastal plain, marble quarries, or views of Castelnuovo and its showy tower. You'll notice chestnut trees, either from the long leaf or from the shells underfoot. Chestnut flour was a staple food in the mountains of Italy, but because it was lacking in protein, many of the poor peasants were short of stature. Because it was sometimes the only food for long periods, many people learned to hate it. We were surprised to learn that the chestnut tree was not native to this area, but was introduced to Italy from Greece beginning in the Roman era. In the history of nearby Varese Ligure, they even recorded that a certain Menaloche of Lavagna introduced chestnut there in the 1200's, and they supplanted oak in the following centuries.

Flowering Black Locust
Flowering Black Locust* 

Last spring we were lucky enough to hike when a large grove of black locust trees were in bloom along the trail.  The sweet-smelling white flowers were more powerful than a Dior sales counter. The North American native definitely deserves a better nickname than false acacia  We literally heard the trees before we saw them, as there were so many bees flying high around the buds. ( there was no threat to humans). The trail was white with fallen petals. In 2013, this occurred on June 4 which was late due to a cool spring. 

Soon enough you'll notice a fence, then an overgrown field, and suddenly a pack of penned hunting hounds will howl in loud welcome. The trail fillips up to Castelpoggio and the exploring begins. After a string of houses, you'll reach the parish church which has a nice terrace with a view and a bench - picnic perfect. The church portal is 17th century, and if you're lucky the door will be unlocked so you can see the 16th century marble pulpit and the admirable high relief of the Madonna & Bambino behind the altar.

Castelpoggio parish church
Parish Church, Castelpoggio, Tuscany.

The oldest part of town is the higher part near the church clock tower, and it's not fancy - several betterment efforts have seen better days. The little warren of lanes suggests by its shape that the area was indeed formerly fortified, and if you look hard you can see remnants of fortifications incorporated into some houses. There's an old gate but no other sign of a castle.

The relatively newer part of town and the stores are along the road from Carrara. There's a tree-shaded piazza, a fountain, and an information board. Groups of old men talk and eat sandwiches with their backs to the wonderful 50 mile view. Folks are friendly and they smile easily - they don't get many visitors here - but only the dogs will be maleducato enough to stare.

Getting There

Here's a Google Map Castelpoggio Hike to help you.

Ristorante Mauro sign
The Trailhead.
From Sarzana exit of the A12 Autostrada (Genoa-Livorno) drive south on the SS1 - the Variante Aurelia and Via Aurelia for about 9 km and turn left at a sign for Ortonovo on Via Larga or Via Dogana. Follow that road as best you can as it looks increasingly unsuitable. The road will turn sharply and cross a little stream and start uphill. Drive through Ortonovo - past a real narrow spot in the center of town. (If you want to look around, you can park just after the narrow section). Continue about 1.2 km. to the sign for Ristorante Mauro.

Turn to Castelpoggio hike
Turn from V. 20 Settembre

From the Carrara exit of the A12 Autostrada (Genoa-Livorno) follow signs in the direction of Carrara. This will lead to the large Viale XX Settembre, which you'll join at a large roundabout where SS1 Aurelia and Viale 20 Settembre intersect.  Drive about 2 kilometers inland after the circle, turn left onto Via Silicani in direction Fossola - see the photo.

Follow Via Silicani (which becomes Via Agricola and then Via Nuova di Fontia) about 4.5 Km, as it becomes progressively narrower and curves and climbs climbs climbs. After the little community of Fontia, continue about 1.5 km. to the sign for Ristorante Mauro.

More Info

Panorama. At the nearby frazione of Fontia, toward Carrara from the start of our hike, a very sharp turn to the Santa Lucia Church leads to a stupendous panorama of the Versilia / Lunigiana coastal plain.

* Robina Pseudoacacia. Photo by Pollinator / Wikimedia Commons.

31 March 2014

The Extracomunitari: Ligurian Pesto and Pizza Margherita

Travels With the Basil Worshipers

Selfie in an autorickshaw
Jaipur, India. Selfie in the rear view mirror of Mr. Lala's autorickshaw.

As Italian icons go, they don't get much more sacred than Pesto Genovese and Pizza Margherita. These foods are so very revered that there's a World Championship of Pesto ("Pronti, al Pesto, Via!") and the famous Neapolitan pizza is legally protected with an STG designation (Traditional Specialties Guaranteed) enforced by the ominous-sounding Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Now perhaps you can understand the courage needed for us to announce: Basil Is Not Italian.

It gets worse, it's not from neighboring Greece or even France, it's from India. The Romans would have nothing to do with basil because they thought it evil. In the Middle Ages, it was only used medicinally. Basil doesn't appear in the kitchen until the 1800's, and pesto is a real new-comer with the first written mention only in 1863.

Unsurprisingly, we learned this on a recent trip to India. A food trip devoted to eating wonderful Indian food of every type, except basil, all day, every day.  Italians may be comforted by knowing, however, that Indians don't eat basil so much as they worship it or use it as medicine. How wide is the world!

Hindu deities
Hindu deities in their many forms.    The 120 foot high Gopuram of Kapaleeshwarar Temple (7th Century)     Chennai
Hindus consider basil (tulsi/tulasi) an important part of the worship of Vishnu, and his Avatars. It is considered to be one of the Avatars of the Goddess Lakshmi, and most Hindus will say a prayer to that Avatar, Tulsi Devi, every morning and evening. Many will have a tulsi plant in front of their house.

Holy Basil - Tulsi
Holy Basil ( Tulsi)
As one Hindi site (www.krishna.com - naturally) explains: "One of Krishna’s most intimate servants comes in a special form to bless us with extraordinary fortune. Devotees of Krishna worship a little tree. But she’s not an ordinary tree. She’s Tulasi Devi, Krishna’s favorite plant. Tulasi has delicate purple and green leaves, flower tassels like miniature temple spires, and an arresting, sweet fragrance famous for attracting the minds of yogis to Krishna’s service. Tulasi’s wood is carved into the japa beads on which devotees chant Krishna’s name. Devotees wear strands of Tulasi beads around their necks. Her leaves and flowers decorate the Deity of Krishna in the temple and are placed on food offered to Him. She has taken the form of a tree so that everyone, even the poorest person, can offer something wonderful to Krishna." Maybe now you'll think twice before you mash those basil leaves with your pestle!

Amber Palace basil sign
Amber Palace basil info sign.
If you're a suspicious type, we need to assure you that this belief was not made up in response to the invention of pesto - it goes way back. There's a special basil room in the Amber Fort (palace) in Jaipur from before 1600. The many Royal wives would offer water to the basil plant as part of their bathing ritual, and sing hymns to it after sunset.

Just to be totally forthright (or nerdy), the Hindus worship the variety of Ocimum tenuiflorum (Holy Basil) called Rama Tulsi and they use a variety called Shyama Tulsi for medicinal use. Cooking basil is Ocimum basilicum or sweet basil.

Grandmother and child at Amber Palace
The timeless look. Amber Fort, Jaipur.

Have a look at our Selects Slide Show of 75 India pictures. We had great fun photographing as Indians are invariably relaxed, lively, and personable - although getting candid photos of Indians is nearly impossible since they are so alert. When we'd ask to take a photo we were never once turned down, and never asked for money.

In case you're interested, our tour was with Julie Sahni, a wonderful cookbook author, teacher, and tour guide. See her website: Julie Sahni.com.  In rough terms, Julie knows absolutely everything about Indian cooking and Indian ingredients and shares her knowledge generously. She operates two Indian tours in most years.

Our tour focused on spices and Southern India, and now we can never buy cheap spices again. More accessibly, look for Julie's books, such as her landmark Classic Indian Cooking (click for info).

06 March 2014

Year 449 - La Fiera di San Giuseppe - La Spezia

The Saint Joseph Fair
La Spezia 2014

Saint JosephThis year's edition of the Fiera di San Giuseppe in La Spezia is coming up. This is one of the largest fairs in Italy and the biggest in the region. This year there are more than 600 vendors coming from all over Italy, over 150 will offer clothing, but more importantly about 60 will offer porchetta! There will be exotic fruit at lots of stands, but only a few will offer wrought iron - go figure. Many other activities are available, especially for kids, but not well publicized. In past years, one very popular feature has been the opening of the Arsenale Militare Marittimo (Naval Arsenale) for one day, as it is the home port of the Italian tall ship Amerigo Vespucci. We were again unable to confirm this year's opening, but it did happen in 2011, and presumably it would happen on Sunday this year.

The San Giuseppe fair for 2014 is on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, March 16th, 17th, and 18th. The hours are usually 8AM to 8PM, and this year the Notte Bianca will be on the prior Saturday evening with an probable 11PM closing. This year the bancarelle will be centered on Piazza Verde, Via Chiodi, Viale Mazzini, and Passeggiata Morin but not Piazza Europa as it is under construction (for a needed parking garage).

Since the fair is expected to bring 100,000 to 150,000 visitors, municipal authorities are asking fair-goers to use public transport, and there will be free navettes available from satellite parking locations, such as the Palasport location on the east side of La Spezia, Piazza D'Armi on the west, as well as Viale Fiechi, Via del Cappelletto, and the Terrazze shopping center (some links below).

More General Information (2014) (IT)
Cittadellaspezia Article

For general La Spezia transportation details, see our post: Getting Around La Spezia

Bus, Navette Info (2012) (IT): Giornale Citta Della Spezia Schedules

Blog with photos (2012 Fair): Living Liguria

Program of 2014, published just before the fair.
La Spezia -  Come ogni anno l’Istituzione per i Servizi Culturali del Comune della Spezia ha organizzato un ricco programma di eventi.
Sabato 15 marzo ore 11.00
Piazza Sant’Agostino
Presentazione della nuova Guida Turistica della Città della Spezia ore 11.30 · Itinerari alla scoperta della città visite guidate gratuite: L'Arsenale - il Centro
Partenza: Piazza Sant'Agostino. Info e prenotazioni: 0187 731100
E alla sera in centro città, apertura gratuita dei musei, apertura straordinaria di bar, ristoranti e negozi.
Teatro di Strada
Performance in giro per il centro città dalle ore 19.00 in poi con la compagnia “Teatro Scalzo” di Genova
Piazza Mentana
dalle ore 19.00 alle ore 03.00
DJ set nei bar della piazza e musica dal vivo con le cover dei NEGRITA
Piazzetta del Bastione
dalle ore 19.00 alle ore 03.00
DJ set nei bar della piazza e musica dal vivo con il concerto della cantante e compositrice
Sara Grimaldi che si esibisce con brani jazz e pop
(in caso di pioggia il concerto si terrà presso il Teatro Civico – ingresso libero)
Piazza Garibaldi
DJ set dalle ore 21.00 fino alle 3
Museo Etnografico “Giovanni Podenzana” e Museo Diocesano Via del Prione, 156
dalle ore 21.00 alle ore 24.00
Viaggio nella tradizione.
Letture di brani da componimenti carnevaleschi spezzini con accompagnamento musicale.
Letture di Luigi Camilli, Enrico Colombo
Chitarra di Paolo Bertini
Il vecchio carnevale spezzino, così come si festeggiava nell’Ottocento, con canzoni riprese dai “fogli volanti”, testi satirici e dialettali originali, esposti nel museo per l’occasione
Museo “Amedeo Lia” Via del Prione, 234
dalle 21 alle 24
Prêt-à manger.
Arte e cibo inizio ore 21
In collaborazione con il Ristorante “Come Te”
Prendendo spunto da alcuni dipinti della Collezione in cui sono rappresentati cibi e pietanze, saranno ricostruiti gli aspetti ‘alimentari’ raffigurati, dando l'opportunità al pubblico presente di assaggiare ed avere l'antica ricetta per l’effettiva realizzazione.
CAMeC Centro Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Piazza Cesare Battisti, 1
Dalle 21 alle 23: prove aperte con il Four Step Choir, grande formazione a voci miste diretta dalla trascinante Gloria Clemente. Anche il pubblico è chiamato a partecipare, senza impegno, ai preparativi del nuovo repertorio dedicato a Thelonious Monk.
Dalle 23 alle 2: Saint Joseph Symphony DJ set: MissQlee, Keynote, Manu-b, Keires. Sperimentazione musicale di quattro DJ locali, stimati tra il pubblico giovane e non più giovane della città.
Museo del Sigillo Palazzina della arti Via del Prione, 236
dalle 21alle 24
Impronte d’arte Laboratorio dimostrativo di stampa d’arte
In occasione della mostra “L’urlo dell’immagine. La grafica dell’Espressionismo italiano” i visitatori possono seguire la creazione della stampa di un’opera presente in mostra che potrà essere acquistata al termine del laboratorio.
Durante la serata sarà disponibile uno speciale annullo postale dedicato alla manifestazione.
Urban Center (Via Carpenino)
dalle 21 alle 24
Mostra “Teatri Storici della Liguria, un viaggio spettacolare tra arte e paesaggio”. I visitatori potranno conoscere da vicino alcuni dei principali teatri della nostra regione tramite pannelli completi di immagini e spiegazioni storiche.               

25 February 2014

The Most Beautiful Villages in Liguria - Part 7

The Towns that Make Italians Proud
  • Pignone    
  • Vernazza    
  • Tellaro  
  • Montemarcello  
  • Castelnuovo Magra
Borghi Piu Belli d'ItaliaThis is Part 7 of a seven part series presenting 28 fascinating and beautiful Ligurian villages of every type - hill towns and castle towns, walled towns and fishing villages.  Each of these small towns has qualified for membership in one of two nifty Italian organizations: The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy  I Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia  -  and The Orange Flags Bandiere Arancioni. Read about these initiatives below in More Info.

You can see all 28 towns on this Google map: Beautiful Villages in Liguria Map and they are listed below as well. They are described from the French border toward La Spezia so you can easily integrate these beautiful towns with visits to San Remo, Portofino, Genoa, or the Cinque Terre.

Each town has a story to tell and some friendly people ready to tell it.  While you can't tour them all, just visiting a few will add an authentic Italian flavor to your trip to Liguria.  If you want to get off the beaten path in Italy, these villages will do it. Please subscribe on the right to receive future installments of The Most Beautiful Villages in Liguria. For information about visiting Liguria in spring, see our story Spring Weather in Liguria.


Pignone overview
Pignone with the steeple of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta.
What hiker in Cinque Terre hasn't wished that they could 'get off the beaten track'? What tourist, hemmed in by the crowds drawn to beautiful Vernazza, wouldn't love to explore an uncrowded and pretty Italian town?  Little do they realize  undiscovered, proud Pignone is just 6 kilometers away as the magpie flies.* An evocative, historic town - Vernazza and Monterosso were once suburbs - where the residents greet a visitor with a smile and a bit of surprise, and the history is deep and all surrounding. A town recently awarded the Bandiera Arancione by the Touring Club Italiano.

The history of Pignone is all about its location. Since ancient times, the town has been on trade routes between larger towns. To the Romans, it was on the route between the coast and the cities of Luni to the south and Velleia to the east. In Medieval times, it was on the route between Sestri Levante and Sarzana or the Emilia plain via Varese Ligure. These trade opportunities, combined with its fertile farmland and a location away from the dangers of the coast, allowed the little city a modest prosperity for centuries.

Modest prosperity only, for Pignone doesn't flaunt a wealthy past. The unadorned buildings suggest an economic struggle in the last few centuries, but that has also provided preservation. Walking the stone covered streets past grey and ancient stone buildings will make you imagine your ancestor's lives.

Dominating the skyline of the town is the steeple of the parochial Church of Santa Maria Assunta. The origins were a paleo-Romanesque church from 1,000 and it was rebuilt in 1339 and then it was re-rebuilt in the 1700's.  As you explore, imagine the stir created by the biggest event in town history. In 1312, the Holy Roman Emperor  Enrico VII of Luxembourg visited with a retinue that included homeboy Cardinal Fieschi and 1500 soldiers - well more than the town's population. At the time there was a Fieschi Castello near the medieval entry gate, but little remains now.

Ponte della Madonnina Pignone
Ponte della Madonnina                  Destroyed Oct. 11, 2011

The open center of the town is beautiful. It dates from the 1500's when the surrounding signorial palazzi were built, along with new passageways and defensive works. In the 1700's the Loggia you see was constructed, we imagine as a nod to the communal stirrings of the era. If we wrote this 3 years ago, we'd direct you to the Bridge of the Madonnina. Instead we found a photo - the bridge was destroyed in the flood of Oct. 2011. Ironically the town cherished the bridge because the Madonna had miraculously survived a flood a couple of centuries before.

Up on a hill nearby is the hamlet of Casale where there are two restaurants and the Church of San Martino and an old neighborhood has been nicely restored as vacation housing. There are remains of a castle made into a park which seemed picnic friendly.

In Pignone is the restaurant and small hotel 'Locanda da Marco' on Via del Campanile, 139. Tel. 0187-887950. Website: Locanda da Marco. The place seemed clean and friendly when we stopped by.

There are several hiking trails available between the Cinque Terre, Pignone, and Casale covered by the better Cinque Terre hiking maps. The town website has some tourist information, including Italian descriptions of some trails. Comune Pignone.

* Vernazza to Pignone is 14 helical and hilly kilometers by car, taking 25 minutes!


Vernazza painting
Vernazza                          'My Third Oil Painting'                     Go Matt Olson
Since the whole world agrees with us that Vernazza is beautiful, there is no need for us to write about it. We will just urge you to learn about Vernazza and the Cinque Terre from several realistic sources before you go. The popularity of these villages can create disappointment for the unprepared.

Go to Vernazza because it uniquely offers the sights and experiences that suit your preferences, not because it's on a bucket list, or because yet another travel writer wrote it up.  Italy and Liguria offer many other wonderful choices, it just takes some research.

And here we are finally to Tellaro, “a nirvana between sea and sky, between the rocks and the green mountain.” Mario Soldati

Octopus door knob
A Tellaro Door
Tellaro is simply magical. Even its history has elements of amazing, unknowable, astonishing magic. The most famous historical tale is that of a dark and stormy night in 1660, when a fleet of six pirate ships crept through the fog to attack the village. The watchman, Marco Arzellino, had tied the bell rope to his foot, and at just the moment the pirates came close enough to land, the bells rang out, alerting the townspeople and saving everyone. Some at the time thought that Marco had luckily twitched in his sleep, others swore that a giant octopus had emerged from the sea and rung the bell for Marco. They still eat a lot of octopus in the area. On the second Sunday in August Tellaro holds the Sagra di Polpo (octopus festival) with their favorite two dishes, octopus "Tellaro-style" (boiled and then chopped and mixed with cooked potatoes, olives, tomatoes, onions, parsley and oil) or octopus "Inferno-style" (stewed with bay leaves, marjoram, chilies, tomatoes and some white wine.)

Tellaro in sunset
Tellaro in evening light. People sunbathe on those rocks!            fotosciac
Today Tellaro is magical in its ambiance, in its ancient and colorful houses facing the sea in layers, in the shaded Ligurian lanes called caruggi. The village is actually part of Lerici, but has its own very unique character. For one thing, getting there can be an adventure in itself. It’s on a peninsula, reached by a narrow and curvy dead-end road, with insufficient parking in summer. You can drive in to a certain point, park, and walk; you can park in Lerici and take a cab (about 15 E); or you can take a bus from Lerici. Walking the road would be fine, but there are no sidewalks or direct trails, so it could definitely scare the imaginative. You can also park & hike: drive along the road circling the Caprione peninsula from Lerici towards Montemarcello, park at Zanego (a/k/a Four Corners) and walk down the marked trail. It’s a beautiful walk with fabulous views, but you do have to climb back up! (The walk is described in the last part of our story The Bride's Walk - Ameglia to Tellaro)

Tellaro in twilight
Tellaro                                      amalaspezia.eu

When you’re in the town, you can’t go wrong, head down to the sea. The passageways are far too narrow for cars, you just follow the brick walks and very soon you’re at the ocean. There’s a ramp where the fishing boats are pulled up at night, with a shallow splash area for kids to enjoy and pick up the little bits of colored tile smoothed by the tides. Boats are stored here and there. Opposite are rocks where waves make a spectacle during a mareggiata (sea storm) and walkways where ladies inspire bloggers on sunny days (Topless in Tellaro).

There are fabulous views of the sea, the coast, the islands, and the Portovenere Promontory. Walking just a little farther, you round the end of the town, and there are shady places to sit and watch the waves and the rocks and the sunset. As you explore more, you’ll find an old square, and a tiny old 500-year San Giorgio church, and before you know it, you recognize the way you came in.

Tellaro's literary links are explored in the town's page on Borghi Piu Belli.

There is a wonderful gastronomia - Leandro - with groceries, fruit, wine, bread and some of the best pesto you’ll ever taste – artisanal of course - where the stairs approach the piazza. There are a few well-regarded restaurants in Tellaro, mostly on the road into town. Here's our annotated Restaurants and Overview Map of the Caprione Promontory with some restaurant ideas.


We are not unbiased when it comes to Montemarcello, just so you know. Let's start where the light hits the water, at the punto panoramico. Across the street from the Il Giordino bar/cafe on the sea side of town, follow the brick sidewalk - the only turn is a left at the fork. The path will end at a cliff-top overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia. The view is immense and before you is the island of Palmaria and the Portovenere promontory. Below you are the dark sands of the famous beach at Punta Corvo. Big ships wait for berths, sailboats and fishing boats meander, and if you're lucky, the island of Gorgona lurks in the distance. It's a good place to talk or think or smooch or watch for the enemy. True. Before it was a paradise, Montemarcello was a military post.
Montemarcello watchtower
The Watchtower.

The village began as a Roman castra (military camp) to protect the nearby city of Luni which was then the frontier. The layout of Montemarcello – long parallel streets, smaller cross lanes, streets leading to the commander's praetorium, a surrounding wall – all were prescribed by Roman military tradition. The town's name is Roman too, named after Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the Consul who defeated the Apuani in 155 BC. The views of the Apuan Alps were the chief military advantage – from here you can see Luni and a ring of least five other Roman military sites. The military use of the area continued after the Romans, an ancient watchtower survives probably from medieval times, cannon emplacements were added in the Napoleonic era, and that use continued through WWII.*

Trattoria Pironcello Montemarcello
Trattoria dai Pironcello in an ancient olive mill.     Montemarcello, Liguria.

It's the feel and the charm of the place that is incomparable. We often enter the town from the Ameglia side near the excellent Trattoria dai Pironcello, a former olive mill. Passing the gate nearby, the quiet shaded streets will calm you like an armchair. You'll find yourself walking slowly and softly - the diffused light and the Ligurian colors lending themselves to your photos.

Vinzoni map Montemarcello
Montemarcello, c.1770.

There's a changeless feeling, and for good reason – it hasn't. The old part looks just like it did in the adjacent map by Vinzoni circa 1770 - except for one sad difference. At the center of the village there is now Piazza XIII Dicembre, occupied by buildings on Vinzoni's map. In this place on Dec. 13 1944, an allied bomb landed during an attack on a anti-aircraft emplacement 400 meters away. It killed 35 residents - the remains of four were never recovered.** Seventy years later, still there are fresh flowers placed here often.

The only monument in town is the parochial Church of San Pietro from around 1474. It's large for a town this small, and the pleasant Ligurian pink exterior has been recently renewed. Inside the art works of note are a 1529 marble alterpiece on the left wall by Gar, and in the first chapel on the left, a scary three panel 14th century painting of the Virgin between Peter and John the Baptist by a painter named Talata.

Montemarcello street
Montemarcello                                                                              @Girovagate

This entire area is in the large Parco di Montemarcello Magra, with numerous well-marked hiking trails - some along cliffs, some through olive groves and Mediterranean landscapes – all free of fee and people. The trails are the very much the equal of the more famous and more crowded trails nearby favored by lazy travel writers. The website Parco Magra has some descriptions in Italian but does not have useful hiking maps. However they have erected large signs with trail schematics at key points around the peninsula.

We recommend a map sold in local kiosks Bassa Magra Map 141 by 4Land (click to see) - it is recent and has all the CAI trails.

Gardeners and fellow plant lovers please note, the Park also has an interesting Botanical Garden nearby with an English website Orto Botanico which can help you appreciate the unique Mediterranean environment of this area. There are guided tours on some weekends and holidays.

Here's an easy one hour walk we like. Leave Montemarcello on the downhill paved road toward Ameglia. Walk pass the cemetery to enjoy the views of the Alps. Backtrack and across from the cemetery, follow the marked trail down into the forest opposite. After less than a kilometer you'll reach the paved road, turn left and follow it uphill back to Montemarcello.

Montemarcello is well located but accommodations are limited**. The Trattoria dai Pironcello operates a three unit Bed & Breakfast reachable at pironcelli@alice.it. In the village center, the Bed and Breakfast Sotto Le Mura has one unit - contact 331-5246802 or pietro pelizzi@yahoo.it.  A larger facility with 27 rooms, restaurant, and spa has opened recently near the punto panoramico: Golfo dei Poeti Relais & Spa.

We have an annotated Restaurants and Overview Map of the Caprione Promontory with some attractions and restaurant ideas.

* In 1944-45, the batteries of large cannon on this promontory stopped the Allied advance, led by the 92nd African-American infantry division with attached units of Japanese-American soldiers. Read about these heroes: Liberation Day and the Liberation of America.

** Thanks to Laura Rigo at the local website Montemarcello for help with information on the December 1944 bombing and available accommodations.

Castelnuovo Magra

Castelnuovo Magra is a gem. The town is stretched out on the top of Monte Bastione, one of the lovely foothills of the Apuan Alps, with the picturesquely ruined castle, Palazzo Vescovile, on one end to a lovely church, L’Oratorio dei Bianchi on the other. You can see the town in its majestic setting from everywhere along the coast, often catching the sunset light on its crenelated tower.

 Palazzo Vescovile at Castelnuovo Magra
The ruins of the Palazzo Vescovile at Castelnuovo Magra.  amalaspezia.eu
The main street runs the length of town, narrow and cobbled of course, and not open to traffic. Along the street are mansions from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the home of Ingolotti Cornelius, Tonarelli palace and palace Ferrari-Natolini. The parish church is really remarkable, especially for a small town. St. Mary Magdalene dates from the late Renaissance, and was built in the seventeenth century on the foundations of a much earlier building. The church has three naves, divided by twelve columns of white Carrara marble. In the first chapel on the left, there's a scene of Calvary attributed to Peter Bruegel the Younger. In the second altar on the left is an 18th century painting dedicated to the patron saint of Castelnuovo Magra , San Fedele, the background of which shows a view of eighteenth-century Castelnuovo Magra. For good measure, there’s a Madonna by Fiasella Domenico (1589-1669) and a Crucifixion attributed to Van Dyck.

Dante & the Bishop of Luni
Dante & the Bishop of Luni signing. Fosdinovo Castle.

The Palazzo Vescovile is no slouch either. It was built in the 12th century to control and protect the Via Francigena. And it was here, on October 6, 1306, that Dante Alighieri, in his capacity as attorney of the Marquis Malaspina Franceschino Mulazzo, signed a peace treaty with the Bishop/Count of Luni, Anthony of Camilla, which put an end (sort of) to the struggle between the bishops and the Malaspina family. Imposing ruins remain: a very large battlemented tower, a smaller circular tower, and a crenelated wall loom over a little playground for children.

Since this is Italy, Castelnuovo Magra is known for local specialty food products. Easiest to find are the DOC wines Colli di Luni - the white Vermentino is excellent. There's also olive oil and, best of all, Prosciutta castelnovese.  This is a form of ham that’s very delicate, both in smell and taste, and is produced by Mirco Bertini from a traditional recipe. The meat is boned, and the leanest section is used. It is salted, carefully seasoned by massaging it with a secret herb mixture, then aged at least 7 months. You can buy it at Antica Salumeria Elena & Mirco in via Canale 52, in the flat part of town where they also sell other specialty meats such as spiced pancetta and lardo sausage. The website: Antica Salumeria.

Castelnuovo Magra is also home to the well respected Trattoria Armanda, a tiny restaurant serving terrific traditional Ligurian food. Reservations are necessary, there are sample menu items and contact info on their website: Trattoria Armanda Phone: 0187-674410.

Information in Italian about the town with excellent photos are in a fantastic online brochure Comune Castelnuovo Magra. It includes a map and lists of local winemakers, lodging, etc.

More Info.

Itinerary Map
 - Create your Ligurian itinerary: Beautiful Villages in Liguria Map

I Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia - The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy - is an independent association of 206 Italian towns that meet criteria of architectural integrity, quality of life, as well as artistic and historical heritage. The borghi have joint promotions, joint festivals, and a guide book.  The website Borghi Piu Belli d'Italia has nice English descriptions of each of the localities making it a useful tool for planning travel to other parts of Italy. Eighteen of the villages wait for you in Liguria.

Bandiera Arancione

Bandiere Arancioni  - The Orange Flags - is an initiative of Touring Club Italiano to identify localities of excellence in Italy. These Italian towns must pass numerous tourist-oriented criteria related to welcome, attractions, services, structure, and environment.   The website Best Small Towns Italy provides information about each town and the process in English, and in Italian Bandiere Arancioni tells all. Thirteen towns in Liguria have been awarded the Bandiera Arancione.

Index to The Most Beautiful Villages in Liguria - Towns listed in the seven parts.

Part 1: Ventimiglia / San Remo area:
                          Airole   Dolceacqua   Apricale   Pigna   Seborga

Part 2:  Imperia / Alassio area:
                           Triora    Lingueglietta    Cervo    Laigueglia

Part 3: Albenga area:
              Colletta di Castelbianco    Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena   Zuccarello    Toirano

Part 4:  Finale Ligure area:
                           Borgio Verezzi    Finalborgo    Noli

Part 5:  Savona / Genoa area:
                           Millesimo    Sassello    Campo Ligure

Part 6:  Rapallo / Levanto area:
                           Santo Stefano d'Aveto     Moneglia    Varese Ligure     Brugnato

Part 7:  Cinque Terre / La Spezia area:
                           Pignone    Vernazza    Tellaro    Montemarcello    Castelnuovo Magra