Pontremoli is the idyllic medieval town — the largest castle in the region is perched high on a hill, a bridge dating to Roman times spans the Verde River, another crosses the Magra River on the other side; cobblestone streets wend their way from north to south; tiny alleys take you through the city gate and up narrow, steep staircases carved out beneath the houses. Several churches and a bell tower punctuate the skyline. And then there is a unique museum, hidden away in the upper reaches of Piagnaro Castle, The Museum of Stele Statues of Lunigiana, where mysterious, enigmatic statues or ‘steles’ that have been found across the province, peer up at you.
The castle sits above the town, dominating the northern approach to the city. The original fortress, built between the IX and X centuries, was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Most of the present structure dates to the 14th century. The oldest part of the castle is the semicircular north tower built in 1400. Below the tower are buildings and rooms that were probably used as barracks to house troops A large courtyard with an old well has a ramped set of steps leading up to the ramparts. Climb up for spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and picturesque town which is the gateway to the Lunigiana.
Inside the museum, stylized stones (photo courtesy of the museum) stand upright, gazing vacantly at you. There are three distinct groupings of these steles, dating to the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages respectively (6 BCE to 3 BCE). Group A is the oldest group of statues. The human features are very rudimentary and minimally stylized with a head that is incorporated into the main body. The male statues have daggers, drawn in profile, with a triangular blade, short handle and semicircular pommel. The main feature on the female statues is their prominent breasts. Group B statues have more detail. The heads are separated from the body by a cylindrical neck, topped by a “space man” head. The weapons have longer handles and appear to be more “advanced.” The women sometimes have jewelry around their neck. Group C consists of male statues only. The head is round with a well-defined neck and features on both the face and body. The weapons are more detailed.
All these steles represent people. Once they stood on the hills and in the valleys across the region. Who or what were they? Real people? Celestial deities? There are no clues and no archeological evidence was found with them to explain their origins or meaning. Until more research is done and further discoveries made, only your imagination will fill the gaps.
After you have visited the castle and museum, wander back down into the ancient town to the main square where you can find a local trattoria to dine on “torta d’erba” ( a pie made with Swiss chard, eggs, ricotta and parmesan) or pasta with pesto or, if you are lucky enough to be in Lunigiana in the fall, fresh porcini mushrooms.
Pontremoli is one of the most beautiful medieval towns in the Lunigiana. As you wander its streets, you are walking in the footsteps of very ancient, enigmatic and mysterious people who once inhabited this region.
IF YOU GO
Pontremoli is located between La Spezia and Parma, off the A15. Exit onto the SS62 North (The Strada Statale della Cisa) to Pontremoli. Turn left onto Via Roma and cross the Bridge of Statues which will take you across the old section of town to the newer section where there is a large parking lot on the right, almost beneath the Roman Bridge. From here you can explore the town, working your way up to the castle on the top of the hill
The Museum of the Stele Statues of Lunigiana is located on the upper floor of the Piagnaro Castle in Pontremoli, Lunigiana. The Museum is closed on Mondays. On other days it is open from 0900 to 100 and 1500 to 1800 in the summer. Different hours apply in the winter (www.statuestele.org). One room of the museum has originals of Groups A and B while another Contains Group c statues. Other rooms have display boards describing where these and other similar statues from across Europe have been found.
The Osteria della Bietola is a great place for lunch or dinner (Osteria della Bietola, Via della Bietola 4; Tel 39-0187-831949). Follow the road to the right of the bell tower for about 20 feet and look for signs on the left side of the alley pointing to the Osteria.