Tag Archives: Lunigiana

View of Piagnaro Fortress, Pontremoli

Discovering Pontremoli and its Museum of Mysterious Stone Statues, Italy

Piagnaro Fortress, Pontremoli, Lunigiana

Piagnaro Fortress, Pontremoli, Lunigiana

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.

Stele Group A

Stele Group A

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.

Stele Group B

Stele Group B

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.

Stele Group C

Stele Group C

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.

 

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Facade, Brunella Fortress, Aulla

Exploring the Brunella Fortress in Aulla, Lunigiana, Italy

The Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

The Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

It is a part of Italy that is somewhat off the beaten track, often overlooked by those whose travels take them to major urban centers or to the Cinque Terre on the coast below. However, if you are prepared to venture into less traveled areas and let fortune guide you to places that are mere dots on a map, you are in for a treat. Under the stern and forbidding Apuan Alps (where Michelangelo insisted on going to excavate the marble for his sculptures) is the province of Lunigiana. Tucked away in the northern part of Tuscany that links La Spezia in Liguria with Parma in Emilia Romagna, this is the land of medieval villages where over 100 ancient fortresses and castles dot the stunning landscape. One of the most prominent and striking of these is the Brunella Fortress in Aulla. Strategically located on a rocky bluff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Magra and Aulla, the fortress once controlled the access routes, linking the coast and the mountain passes through which pilgrims and traders travelled on their way south to Rome.

The access over the moat to the Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

The access over the moat to the Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Nobody can say with any degree of certainty who actually built the fortress which rose on the remains of a 13th century castle. Some believe that it was the work of Jacopo Ambrogio Malaspina, the Lord of Aulla in medieval times who is credited with construction of a string of castles throughout the area. Others are of the view that it was commissioned by a military commander, Giovanni delle Bande Nere (John of the Black Bands). What is clear is that whoever built the fortification had a keen sense of military tactics and the future of warfare. This is the first structure in the region designed to withstand cannon fire.

Takng its name from the color of the stone used to build it (“Bruna” or brown), the fortress consists of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by a deep moat. Steep, rocky cliffs protect the other two sides. Massive walls and robust bulwarks rise ominously, designed to repel cannon fire and embrasures every few feet allowed the occupants to fight off an attack using stones or boiling oil that could easily be thrown down the chutes. In olden days a drawbridge provided access to the stronghold. Today there is a solid rock walkway that leads to the long, narrow corridor that takes you into the building.

Side towers of the Brunella fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Side towers of the Brunella fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Over the centuries numerous conquerors occupied the fortress, subject to the vagaries of war — local lords, Spaniards, French, Austrians and Germans. However, possibly the most memorable occupants were the family of Aubrey Waterfield, an English painter who bought the fortress in the early 1900s. Their story is beautifully narrated in a book, “A Tuscan Childhood,” written by Waterfield’s daughter, Kinta Beevor, who provides a glimpse of life in the area over almost 70 years.

The Waterfields restored the fortress, transforming it into a mansion where they lived until the 1970s. When Waterfield found that Spanish troops had hauled tons of earth to the roof of the fortress to absorb the recoil of their cannons, he transformed it into a roof garden complete with an alley of ilex trees to provide shade, flower beds, a lawn and a sunken marble bath. You can take a steep stairway up to the roof. Regrettably, when the fortress was sold to the Italian Government in the early 1970s, some misguided bureaucrat made the decision to destroy the rooftop garden and cut down the trees so that today only a swath of grass remains. There are vague promises to have the garden restored sometime in the future. We shall see….. Today the central tower of the fortress, with its vaulted ceilings and large stone fireplaces, houses the Museum of Natural History of Lunigiana in three tiny rooms. The rest of the interior of the fortress is off limits; however, you can walk around the structure, through the moat. The Brunella is one of the best preserved of the Lunigiana castles and fortresses. It is unique in its structure and its history. It is but one of the many treasures you can find in Italy when you go off the beaten track and let serendipity be your guide.

The remains of the rooftop garden, Brunella Fortress, Aulla Lunigiana

The remains of the rooftop garden, Brunella Fortress, Aulla Lunigiana

IF YOU GO
This is an easy day trip from many points in Tuscany and Liguria. However, if you want to spend the night in the region, the Demy Hotel (3 stars) has 44 basic rooms (Via A. Salucci 9, Aulla; www.demyhotel.it; Tel 39-0187-408370). Other than the Brunella there is not much to see in Aulla itself. A better choice might be one of the hotels in la Spezia. The Brunella Fortres is open every day except Monday. In the summer the hours are 0900-1200 and 1500 to 1900. In winter the museum closes an hour earlier. Finding the Fortress can be a bit of a challenge. We used the Google Map feature on our iPad with excellent results throughout our trip to Lunigiana. If you are driving, take the Aulla exit off the A15 autostrada between La Spezia and Parma. Follow the signs for S62 SOUTH towards Betolla. Look for the SS63 which branches off the SS62 not far past the Piazza di Calvo Natale. Turn left on Viale Rimembranza and follow the road until you see a very tight, very sharp right hand turn onto an unnamed road which is marked with a signpost for Castello. Follow this road through a series of tight switchbacks up the hill until you reach the parking lot for the castle. There are some brown signposts but you have to keep a sharp eye out for them. One of the challenges of driving in Italy is that the one-way system of roads changes frequently so you need to be aware that the roads mentioned above may have been reversed!!!

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Chestnuts in their shells

Autumn in Italy — When Chestnuts Reign

Piles of chestnuts in their outer shells

Piles of chestnuts in their outer shells

The aroma of wood-burning fires in the cool air . . . hillsides covered in yellow and orange . . . the sound of voices echoing through the woods as parents and children troop through the fallen leaves, collecting chestnuts…. this is October in Italy! We are in Licciana Nardi, a tiny hamlet in the Apuan Alps in the province of Lunigiana (northern Tuscany). This is the land of a hundred castles, where stones and turrets of bygone days seem to dominate every hilltop.

Roasting chestnuts in Licciana Nardi

Roasting chestnuts in Licciana Nardi

Although the day is warm and sunny, there is a hint of chill in the air, as if to remind us that winter is not far away. It is a time for harvest. The grapes are picked and the wine made;  large, juicy porcini mushrooms, which are either eaten fresh in pasta or risotto or dried to last through the winter, fill baskets. Chestnuts are  collected from under the trees, their shiny dark brown skin peeking through the foliage. There are wine festivals and mushroom festivals. Then there are the festivals celebrating the role of the chestnut in the survival of the people through the centuries.

Walking through northern and central Italy, the “castagneti” (chestnut groves) cover the steep sides of the hills and mountains. You can see the nuts mixed in with the multicolored leaves on the forest floor — a carapace of prickly spines protecting a dark brown outer shell and a bitter inner skin; inside, a heart-shaped, soft nut. Chestnuts were cultivated in Italy as far back as Roman times; in fact, some believe that the Romans actually went out of their way to plant the trees to provide a future source of food for their soldiers. For centuries they were the main source of sustenance for the peasants during the winter months.

Making fritelle, Licciana Nardi

Making fritelle, Licciana Nardi

As we step into the village square, the aroma of roasting chestnuts fills the air. Large wood fires have been lit inside cut-out metal iron drums. Chestnuts fill the pans suspended from trestles. Men holding long poles attached to the roasting baskets sit in front of the flames and continually toss the chestnuts until they are done, the dark brown skins cracked open. Then, they are emptied into a large wicker basket and sold at the stall marked “mundina” (roasted chestnuts). You buy a paper cone with about 12-15 chestnuts that you peel and eat while they are still hot, dropping the peels in the town square which, by the end of the evening, is covered in inches of shells. Wash it all down with a glass of “vino novella” (new wine).

Other chestnuts are ground into flour and used to prepare the “Fritelle” (like a small crepe) where batter cooks over the fire between two iron plates attached to a handle.  You can buy them at the stall marked  “Cian” (Fritelle). There are different fillings but the ricotta and honey is particularly delicious.

The entire village of Licciana Nardi turns out to celebrate the chestnuts and to recreate what life was like in days gone by. After you have eaten your fill, walk down the main street. In the tiny medieval shops, inhabitants in period costumes demonstrate aspects of life as it once was. On one corner, an ironmonger hammers a piece of metal that he has just removed from a roaring fire, its tip glowing bright red as he shapes it into a clothes hook. Nearby an old woman, her face etched with deep lines, demonstrates how wool (produced by the flocks of sheep that are ubiquitous to the region) was spun and then woven into thick cloth. She invites you to try your hand at moving the shuttle in and out of the wool on the loom.

An old lady weaving cloth, Licciana Nardi

An old lady weaving cloth, Licciana Nardi

Outside one shop a cobbler, dressed in pantaloons and wearing pince-nez glasses, coats his awl with beeswax to help it slip through the leather and creates a hole for the needle and thread (also coated with beeswax) to sew together the pieces of his shoe. A basket weaver and his wife sit companionably together; she knits while he slowly and carefully weaves willow reeds into a basket to carry all sorts of goods, as in medieval times.

Before corn was introduced from the Americas in the 1600, chestnut flour provided the main staple for the preparation of polenta. In one shop a woman stands at a grindstone, patiently preparing the flour. We ask her how long it has taken her to grind a cupful of flour. “All afternoon,” she replies. At the end of the street, two matrons preside over large black cauldrons of boiling water, stirring the contents with large wooden paddles. “What food or magic potion might this be?” we ask. The question produces a roar of laughter. “This isn’t food or a potion, ” they reply. “This is how our ancestors did the laundry.”

As the sun sets over the hills, music fills the air. Soon young and old will crowd the square, dancing to traditional music as they celebrate days gone by and the food that helped their ancestors survive through hard times. It is a tradition in Italy in October!

IF YOU GO
Chestnut festivals are held across Italy during October. If you are traveling during this period, check the websites of the regions you will be visiting for exact dates of the festivals which are usually held over two  weekends. 
Licciana Nardi is a very small village in the Lunigiana Province of northern Tuscany that can easily be reached from La Spezia (Liguria) on the A15 heading towards Parma. Exit at Aulla and follow SP74 for about 10 miles.

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