A Summer Place in Tuscany - 1508.

The Alpeggio of Formentara
It didn't seem like a time machine, this little Fiat Punto, but we couldn't ignore the changes. We left coastal Liguria where the purple iris were past and and the flowering wisteria was a memory, but when we reached Pontremoli 30 minutes later they had magically rebloomed. Climbing from there on a winding road up the Zeri valley in Tuscan Lunigiana, the fragrant white blossoms of false acacia reached across the road - refreshing a weeks old memory of their Ligurian show. Rising more toward Zum Zeri, we parked at an altitude of 1,100 meters, and the clock had been turned back a full four weeks. New violets hid in the grass, and tree leaves were no bigger than a child's ear.
Stone houses of the Alpeggio of Formentara, Tuscany
The seasonal mountain village of Formentara, high above Pontremoli in Lunigiana, Tuscany.

Stone house in the Alpeggio of Formentara, Tuscany
Home with dry laid stone walls, 'pietra a secca'. Formentara.
After a pleasant 15 minute walk, we reached the high mountain village of Formentara, and now the clock had been turned back again - by centuries. This abandoned villaggio alpestre was once used during the alpeggio - the seasonal agricultural/pastoral activities in high terrain. Formentara was established and utilized by people from the villages of Patigno and Noce, which are located about a 2 hour walk downhill and 400 meters lower. It was established at least 500 years ago, since the first mention is in 1508, and it's probably much older since use of the high mountains for grazing has been documented in Italy as early as 3,000 B.C. Although this village has been deserted for over one hundred years, it's relatively well preserved - considering. It has about thirty very evocative buildings located on both sides of a small mountain stream, as well as the Oratorio of San Bartolomeo from 1776.  The habitation is on a south facing slope, but below the summit and away from the north wind, and seemingly near the tree line - that is the altitude where weather conditions inhibit tree growth.
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Stone house of the Alpeggio of Formentara, Tuscany
House at Formentara used during the Alpeggio.
The walls are constructed 'pietra a secco' or 'muratura a secco' known similarly in English as 'dry laid' walls. Stones are laid on one another without mortar or clay to bind them together. This takes advantage of the flat stone available here (more below), but it is more vulnerable to foundation settlement, earthquakes, and it allows air passage - for better or worse. Many of the buildings share common walls, both for economy and structural integrity. The roofs are constructed of heavy beams topped with large flat stones overlapping one another - and that's all! This is known as 'in piagne' and this was the predominant roofing material in Lunigiana until railroads arrived*. Curiously, although we looked in quite a number of buildings, we didn't see any fireplaces or chimneys.

Stone roof called 'tetto in piagne'
Roof of overlapped rock, 'tetto in piagne'. Formentara village.
Imagine - there was enough value derived from these slopes in just 5 or 6 months to make a whole village worthwhile! Starting in late spring and lasting until mid-autumn, the village houses would be occupied with extended families. The biggest attraction of the higher slopes was pasture for sheep and goats. This was the base for the predominent activity - milking the herd and making cheese for use in winter and for trading. Many types of cereals and vegetables were also cultivated, but only those that could be raised within the shorter seasons of higher altitudes. Late in the season, chestnuts were hugely important. Gathered and roasted and shelled and ground to a flour, they provided a vital staple. While chestnuts were deficient in protein, resulting in stunted growth, they nonetheless provided sustenance.

The village was abandoned in the 2nd half of the nineteenth century as social and technological change altered the economy and thus the way of life in the mountains of Italy. The same trains that brought tegole (roof tiles) to replace the flat stone brought competition and opportunity, but manifestly not in equal measure.  The alpeggio -based on cattle - is still practiced further north in the Italian Alps, and hikers can visit seasonal refuges in a program called ERSAF Lombardia, and similar programs in Piedmont and the Trentino.  It's remarkable that Formentara has lasted as well as it has, for the building methods are inherently fragile, and surely it is unlikely to be restored. We're grateful that we could walk among these vestiges of a poor but knowledgeable people and be reminded that mankind forgets roughly as fast as it learns.

'This public oratorio was built Anno Domini 1776.'
Oratorio of San Bartolomeo,  Formentara (Lunigiana) Tuscany
After looking around the village - prudently we hope - we recommend following the marked trail uphill about a further 200 meters. Here's a world class picnic spot, at the summit of the hill there are views for more than 270 degrees. To the south you can see the highest peaks of the Alpi Apuane that are Carrara and Aulla's backdrop, as well as the convoluted folded hills that form the Zeri Valley. The mountain breezes are welcome, even if they steal your napkin. Nearby, there's a large old quarry which you can recognize by the steep, smooth, tilted rock wall.

Old Pietra Arenaria quarry (sandstone) Tuscany
Pietra Arenaria, grey sandstone, quarry in Zeri, Lunigiana.
This was a quarry for Pietra Arenaria, gray sandstone, used for centuries by local sculptors for ancient stele,  decorative doorways, and statues, including the mysterious local figures called facion. However, this rock outcrop would have been used for building stone since it would only yield relatively thin pieces, and it probably provided much of the rock you saw in Formentara. Here's a bit of geology: the sand of this future sandstone was deposited via water, and sometimes, when the water was low and brackish, mud was deposited as well. When the whole mass was squished into rock, the sand made a solid part and the mud made a crumbly part. If you look at the exposed cross section, you can see a 2 inch solid layer, a thin weak layer, a 6 inch solid layer, a thin weak layer, etc. Medieval stone workers would have taken advantage of this to break out sizes convenient for building, such as the thin but large roof pieces in the village. Our guess is that this quarry was also worked in modern times as well, since the waste stone has been moved aside. This quarry was worked a lot: the hill here has been moved back a good 50 meters.

Getting There
Exit the A15 Autostrada (Parma-La Spezia) at the Pontremoli exit, and turn right. Follow signs toward Pontremoli through several roundabouts and as you near Pontremoli, you'll see a sign to Zeri (via SP37). From there, it will take you about 30 minutes on a small, curvy, hilly road. Follow signs to Zeri, then to Zum Zeri (a ski area) and the Passo dei Due Santi and Formentara. We parked at the turn from the Zum Zeri road toward Formentara, but you can go by car about a kilometer further to another sign and another turn where the road becomes impassable to a car.

More Info (in Italian)
Formentara article Turismo In Lunigiana
Blog Zeri  Storia Sulla Formentara
Ruralpini A site with history, types of cheese, types of animal - everything about the alpeggio.
*Piagne information: Pietra di Lunigiana, Impresa di Costruzioni.

Written by Martha