Lunigiana: Tuscany’s hidden corner

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Vineyard in Lunigiana, TuscanyLunigiana, in Tuscany’s far northwest corner, is greener, wilder and at least as welcoming as the parts of Tuscany we all know. Vineyards set against a backdrop of Carrarra mountains are rough-hewn, much like the gouged mountains of marble. Both have been worked for centuries. In the Lunigiana, we found an under-the-radar gem, sandwiched between the Ligurian coastal towns of the Cinque Terre and the Tuscan hipsters of Lucca and Pisa.

The region between the northern Apennines, the Versilia plain and the Gulf of La Spezia has a rural character. It has castles, Romanesque churches and hamlets where the pace of life is quiet. Just a bump off the coastal highway, Lunigiana gets its name from Luni, an ancient Roman harbor.

“Lunigiana is rural and seldom visited, but has over 160 castles and castle ruins and food you won’t find elsewhere.”–James Martin, Lunigiana resident and Italy travel expert

If you are a fan of Tuscany, you are very likely into castles, good wine and food, and unbeatable landscapes rolling into the distance. You’ll find those things here, too, but with fewer crowds to jostle your camera. Parts of the region were bombed to smithereens in the Second World War, but since then, have been rebuilt. Some places are as they must have been a long time ago: simple, rural, and especially inviting to a visitor wanting to get a bit off the beaten travel track.

Tom and I visited the Lunigiana with Italy travel insiders James Martin and Martha Bakerjian (and include a few of their recommendations at the end of the post). Here is a sampling of what we found there.

A verdant landscape

The mountainsides in the Lunigiana are steep, with woods, natural caves and small river tributaries coursing through its three main valleys. The landscape is dotted with medieval villages, monasteries and vineyards.

Lunigiana vineyard near Aulla
Lunigiana is home to the most northerly DOC wine in Tuscany and the most southerly of the Ligurian ones. Both use predominantly Vermentino grapes.
The church of Santo Stefano in Sorano, Lunigiana
Pieve Santo Stefano in Sorano has been a sacred place since prehistoric times, and a waypoint for pilgrims following the via Francigena to Rome.
Tidy farms near Fivizzano, Lunigiana
Tidy farms near Fivizzano, Lunigiana

Tuscan towns

Lunigiana once covered a large territory that stretched east to Parma, west to La Spezia and south to Lucca. Separated from the rest of Tuscany by mountains, the region still has much in common with Reggio Emilia and coastal Liguria. Each hilltop village has its own character.

Castello di Castiglione del Terziere, Lunigiana
Castello di Castiglione del Terziere,an atmospheric hilltop village in Lunigiana
Filetto,Lunigiana
We had the streets of Filetto, Lunigiana all to ourselves on a non-market day.
Il Castello della Verrucola, Fivizzano Commune
The castle in Verrucola, a village in Fivizzano commune, is a popular destination for Italian as well as foreign tourists.
Summer street fair in Pontremoli, Lunigiana
Summer street fair in Pontremoli, Lunigiana
Pontremoli Lunigiana
A stone bridge leads into Pontremoli’s medieval center.
Bagnone, Lunigiana
View upriver en route to the market in Bagnone, Lunigiana

Rustic food traditions

Lunigiana’s food is rustic. Cheese, pork and all manner of charcuterie are staples here, and chickpeas and kamut figure in pastas and breads. Wood-burning ovens turn out fine loaves, cakes and flatbreads. We tried several local dishes, from oven-baked rabbit to a type of flatbread called panigacci. And there are the famous testaroli, thin breads baked in terracotta over glowing embers. Cooled, cut into squares, boiled and served with pesto, they become Lunigiana’s best known dish. My hands-down favorite, though, was torta d’erbe, rustic chard pie made just a bit differently by every cook.

Tom and I always enjoy marvelous Gorgonzola and other Italian cheeses, but this trip we got to try the savory, pungent mess called ricotta forte. The cheese, made by adding grappa and salt to ricotta and aging it way past its use-by date, proved to be just right when glopped over a plate of sturdy penne. The ricotta forte we tried in Lunigiana had an impact similar to this ricotta forte from Puglia, but it was brown (that is to say really, REALLY aged).

Torta d'erbe
Torta d’erbe, flaky pastries layered with bitter greens and herbs. Fabulous on the spot with a coffee, or as takeaway to enjoy later.
Making panigacci
In Aulla, a guy wearing asbestos-lined gloves makes panigacci, by ladling batter into terracotta plates called testi, then placing them into a wood-burning oven for a brief cooking period.
Panigacci, a Lunigiana specialty
Pannigacci are great with thin-sliced coppa, pancetta and prosciutto, and spread with gorgonzola or fresh white cheese and pesto, and a glass of local red.
Spoiled for (cheese) choice in Lunigiana!
Cheese in Lunigiana comes from Sardinia and farther afield, as well as from local farms
Owner and cheesemaker at Naturalmente Luniguana
Our host at Naturalmente Lunigiana described the cheeses on offer in his shop, and let us taste Riccotta Forte, formidably intense, and divine when melted over pasta.
Lunigiana liqueurs
Grappa and fruit-based liqueurs are great after dinner and make wonderful souvenirs of your trip to Lunigiana.

If you go

Lunigiana has a close affinity with nearby Liguria, whose beaches and fabulous seafood lie within easy reach for a day trip. Consider combining a ramble through the Lunigiana countryside with a stay on the Ligurian coast, or before or after a visit to Lucca or Pisa.

Lerici harbor, Liguria
Lerici, on the Ligurian coast, is just minutes from southern Lunigiana. The popular resort town has great seafood and a ferry terminal for boats to Portovenere and the villages of the Cinque Terre.

We are indebted to resident Italy experts James Martin and Martha Bakerjian for more ideas than we could possible fit into our brief stay in Lunigiana! Here are just a few of their suggestions for self-guided travel in the region:

  • You’ll need a car to get around in Lunigiana. Regional trains will get you to Pontremoli and several other villages, but without wheels, it’s just about impossible to have an in-depth travel experience here.
  • Several of the villages we visited, such as Pontromoli, would make a fine home base! Here is a useful page with a helpful map of the Lunigiana to help you know what is where.
  • Consider a visit to the marble quarries at Carrara, either on your own or on a guided tour.
  • Don’t book tickets for your next trip to Tuscany, until you’ve checked out this guide to Lunigiana from Wandering Italy! It has all the background you might wish, from micro-destinations within the region to weather conditions to recommendations for foods to try and options for car rentals.

Now, are you ready to plan your trip?

Italian road trip---be prepared for curves!
Navigating a curve near Fivizzano, Lunigiana

Lunigiana: Hidden Tuscany

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21 COMMENTS

  1. I think we would love this region for all the reasons you mention. What mouthwatering photos. The hilltop villages reminded me of Istria. I’ve been quite resigned that my dream of visiting Tuscany would have to occur in the off-off season or else I’d wind up not liking it, but now you’ve provided an alternative.
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru recently posted…Into SerbiaMy Profile

    • Tuscany–all of it—is great, but it was lovely to discover parts that offer so much to visitors, but without the massive crowds. Plus, great beaches are nearby!

  2. Thanks for the introduction to Lunigiana. The terrain reminds me a little of Priorat in Catalunya, Spain. I also love that Liguria and the coast are nearby. I’m curious where you stayed…and for how long. Did I miss that?

    • Hi Kristen, We were in Lunigiana for a week, staying with our friends in a village near Aula. Consequently, I cannot recommend a specific hotel or B&B. We could easily have stayed on longer, there is so much to see!

  3. It has been my long-time desire to spend 3 months exploring all points in Italy, but especially Tuscany. There is just something about it that calls to me. I’d like to stay in the region and taking cooking classes and learn to make authentic Italian food. One day!

  4. Hi Anita,

    What a great post. We live here and have done so for the last 2 and a half years and I count myself as one of the most fortunate people on earth.. I decided to start blogging about our experiences while relocating and living here, and the blog also features some of the foods from the area that you also cover i.e. panigacci and torta d’erbe; but my best has got to be Sgabei (a fried bread) with Parma Ham or Lardo. I look forward to some other posts on this area. If you need any sgabei, let me know!!
    Brendan recently posted…10 Things to eat in Italy right now – popular in the Lunigiana areaMy Profile

  5. I sat and read your account after spending this evening in Bagnone. Tomorrow we are off to Pontremoli (again). This is a brilliant little bit of Italy – runs at its own pace and you have caught so many of the hotspots (if you could call them that) perfectly. I never tire of Lunigiana. Each time I return I find a little something new. And the people of this region – they are the friendliest.

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