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 perhaps two weeks 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.

Written by Martha