Via Vandelli - The 1752 Autostrada

Hiking Mountains of Marble

The Via Vandelli was the height of progress when it was completed across the Apennines and the Apuan Alps of today's Emilia Romagna and Tuscany in 1752. Imagine a wide, smooth road network totaling 360 kilometers (225 miles) that allowed a horse drawn carriage to travel from the coast at Massa to the plains at Modena and points between! Travel records were smashed! A trip of a month now took just ten days! It was Italy's first managed road in the mountains, and to build it required the genius of an polymath abbot who first utilized contour lines to provide the dimension of altitude to maps, which makes every hiker grateful.

Via Vandelli rising toward the Pass of Tambura.
No less astonishing is that this historic road is still there and a long section is in good condition, thanks to the efforts of Italian volunteers and the Parco Alpi Apuane. This tract extends from above the city of Massa in Tuscany to the Passo della Tambura at 1634 meters (5,300 feet) above sea level. We highly recommend hiking a good part of this trail - not for speed, not for height, but for sheer beauty. You'll walk the slopes of mountains of marble with scenic vistas all about. The air is fresh and often the clouds will swirl, disappear, and appear again as the rising air from the lowlands contends with the change in altitude. The road is fairly even with a decidedly steep pitch, but it's not torture if taken at your own pace. The total vertical rise from the start at Resceto to the Pass is substantial - 1150 meters (3,900 feet), but this hike is quite enjoyable even if you just go part way (as we did in early November). The surface is rock so you'll need good shoes, and arrive with food and water and a hat as there are no facilities and little shade. It is suitable for trustworthy older children and for prudent mountain bikers. Plan your hike using the online interactive map at (see below) and bring a paper map if you plan more than a simple hike up and back.

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
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Via Vandelli in this area is CAI-35.
The trail head is just beyond the tiny town of Resceto which is reached from Massa by travelling up the Via Bassa Tambura, which is between the River Frigido and downtown Massa. The road follows the increasingly narrow gorge of the Frigido, past old marble finishing works and humble little settlements. The way is signed except at one fork where you should branch right (if you arrive at the town of Forno, you missed the fork). Travel past the little towns of Guadine and Gronda as you begin to rise dramatically and ignore the side road into tiny Resceto. Shortly after, there's a parking lot where the road ends. The Via Vandelli is not marked as such, but it's obvious and, in this area, the trail is called CAI-35. There's also a sign to the Rifugio Nello Conti.

Autumn here is often perfect hiking weather.
As an endpoint for your hike there are several possibilities. For a 1 hour round trip, hike to the second turn beyond a boarded-up utility building (Ca' del Fondo). Here, there's a sign reading 'Secondo Serettino.' This provides a good sampling of the road and nice views up and down. For a 2 1/2 hour round trip, hike part way up the slope of Monte Tambura to the location Le Teste (the heads) where there's a marble plaque. Here the heads of executed brigands were displayed to discourage the malviventi. Along the way, you'll cross an iron bridge and experience some of the many switchbacks that Vandelli engineered, along with even wider views. For a 5 hour round trip (6.5 hours with options), rising about 1,000 meters, hike to the small flat area that Vandelli had carved into the mountain to accommodate a rest area near the summit. This is known as 'Vandelli's Window' (Finestra Vandelli) because of the marvelous views. From here, you can add a short side trip to the Conti Refuge for a beer or lunch in season, or a short hike to the Pass of Tambura. Whatever you choose, for safety be sure to start back down while you still have plenty of energy and light (3 hours up will take 2 hours down). There are many other possible hikes in the area, including a ring hike that has Via Vandelli as one leg. See More Information below.

Posts set in stone served
to anchor the sled's ropes.
Marble. Of course there's evidence of the marble industry to see while hiking - these mountains are made of Carrara marble. For the first kilometer of the hike you'll be walking on marble stones ranging in size from golf balls to softballs. These were added on top of the Via Vandelli to create a lizza, which is the base upon which marble blocks would be moved. This process, called the lizzatura, was quite dangerous and involved specialized workers and techniques, as you can imagine, since a 20 ton block of stone would be placed on a wooden sled and lowered down hillsides with ropes! Where the lizza ends, there are the remains of a medium size quarry. Rusting pulleys remain which once carried the steel wire used 35 to 130 years ago to facilitate cutting the rock with a sand abrasive.

Visible elsewhere along the trail are several small, old quarries. In the pre-industrial age, a quarry might be as small as a two man operation with the marble quarried by hand chisel and opportunistic splitting with wedges. If you see a rock face changing height along a fairly straight line several meters long, that 'bench' was probably a tiny quarry. The stone will weather back to gray in less than a century, so they're camouflaged on the sloping hillsides.

Vandelli's switchbacks visible on the slopes of the Alpi Apuane. The white on the peaks is from marble. Click to enlarge.
History. The Via Vandelli was built at the behest of Francesco III d'Este, Duke of Modena and Reggio. It was started in 1738 when  his son Ercole became engaged to Maria Teresa Cybo-Malaspina - heiress to the Duchy of Massa and Carrara - and finished about 1752. Francesco wanted the road not only as an outlet to the Tyrrhenian Sea, but also as a means of geographically uniting the territories of these new allies and strengthened them for commercial, military, and political purposes. The road design was made all the more difficult by the requirement that it be entirely within the realms of the two Duchies, that populous centers be avoided, that it be capable of handling heavy loads, and that there be minimal maintenance required. Whew!

The project was entrusted to Domenico Vandelli, an abbot, engineer, geographer, cartographer, naturalist, and mathematician. The building of the road was a significant challenge in that era and required both technical and cartographic innovation. Vandelli invented the use of contour lines (isoipsae Vandelis) to show altitude - finally giving maps three dimensions of information. His map of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio from 1746 is still considered the finest map of the 18th centruy. This invention brought map making out of the realm of the artist, and into the world of mathematics and science. Now, with accurate maps, trigonometry could be used to calculate accurate distances in three planes and enable the engineering of a road with a predictable slope.

Via Vandelli. Carriage-ready.

An unimaginable amount of rock was moved to create an even path - cutting there and filling here in terrain of extreme challenge. This was accomplished entirely with hammers, chisels, gun powder, a lot of humans, and not a few draft animals. If it wasn't effort enough to build the road, a support system was also required in these remote, inaccessible areas. Maintenance stations were built, rest stops for changing and feeding horses, inns for travellers, storage yards for merchandise, barracks for the military, housing for toll-takers. Wait -there's more - they also built branches of the road to connect remote villages, quarries, iron mines, and factories.

The Via Vandelli had a limited useful lifetime. From the start, winter weather in the Italian mountains limited travel for a good part of the year, and the section on Mount Tambura was so steep it was a difficult passage for a carriage in any weather. In 1814, the Italian political landscape changed with the Congress of Vienna, and travel by easier routes became more competitive. Political stability diminished the need for the military along the road, and the resulting lack of security led to brigandism, further inhibiting travel. By the end of the Duchy of Modena in 1859, and the final unification of Italy in 1870, the road was effectively abandoned.

'The mountains are calling, and I must go.'  John Muir. 
The Development Threat. Now this wonderful historic road is threatened by an massive scheme proposed by the marble industry and backed by Italian legislation. At a cost of 542 million Euro, privately financed by projections of future marble production, a tunnel has been proposed that would facilitate exploitation of this part of the Parco Alpi Apuane. As happens worldwide, 'economic development' is being used as the magic phrase to undermine the very patrimony our  ancestors rightly judged worthy of protection. Story in Italian on 'Salviamo Il Paesaggio'

More Information
Trail Summary (IT) The excellent Italian site Esursioni Apuane (Apuan Hikes) has a succinct description of the trail with altitudes under the section "Sentiero 35". Under that, there're several longer hikes using the Via Vandelli, referenced as: "Itinerari Relativi Alla Via Vandelli".

Round Trip (EN) A description by Tuscany Villa of an advanced 6 1/2 hour walk using the Via Lizza and Via Vandelli to create a loop from Resceto.

Rifugio Nello Conti (IT) Located high on Monte Tambura, this refuge offers refreshment and accommodation from mid-June to mid-September and on weekends and holidays throughout the year. Why hike down when you can meet new friends and see the mountains at sunset and sunrise? You'll need a sleep sack. They are also on Facebook and - can be reached at See comments below for one reader/hiker's experience. Last but not least, use the interactive online map to plan and enhance your experience. We have a small Slow Maps Article.

Written by Martha