Who would have thought that there are still relatively unknown parts of Tuscany to explore? The northern region of Garfagnana is perfect for a short road trip, away from the touristic bustle of Pisa and the Chianti region. Starting from the atmospheric walled city of Lucca, this itinerary will take you into the forest-covered mountains of Garfagnana, between the Apuan Alps and the Northern Appenines. Here, narrow winding roads lead over medieval stone bridges to centuries-old villages, churches and fortresses perched on hilltops. And best of all, you will probably have them all to yourself!
day 1: Lucca
Lucca is not as famous as neighbouring Florence and Pisa, but it may well be my favorite city in Tuscany. Delimited by its original renaissance-era wall and moat, Lucca’s historical center is perfectly preserved and traffic-free, it is very cosy and at the same time still very much a lively town.
The best thing to do in Lucca, like in so many Italian cities, is wander around and take a chance on any church, palazzo, shop or bar that looks interesting. If you don’t happen upon them by accident, make sure to take a look at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, built atop a Roman amphitheatre, and climb the Torre Giunigi with its rooftop oak trees. Of the many churches, try not to miss San Martino cathedral and San Michele in Foro. Another must do in Lucca is a walk (or bike ride) along the city walls.
There is no lack of good restaurants, but for a special gastronomic experience I can highly recommend L’imbuto, which has recently relocated to the beautiful Palazzo Pfanner. Coincidentally, this is also where the best room in town is. If you stay in Palazzo Pfanner’s simply furnished but grandly set up principe Federico suite you have access to the baroque palazzo and its magical garden after opening hours. (You can also find the suite on Airbnb.) Even if you’re not staying there it’s well worth a visit.
There aren’t many other worthwhile hotels in the city center of Lucca, but if you plan on following this itinerary you can also opt to sleep on the outskirts of town, for example at the charming Fattoria di Fubbiano. This pretty estate consists of a country villa surrounded by former farm buildings and servants quarters, now converted into rustic but cute apartments surrounded by gardens, olive groves and vineyards.
Day 2: Grotta del Vento
Leave Lucca after a leisurely breakfast and head towards Bagni di Lucca. This summer resort with its thermal springs was something of a glamorous destination in the 19th century, when it served as the summer residence of the court of Napoleon, but is now rather desolate. Make sure to stop to admire the Ponte del Diavolo (officially Ponte della Maddalena) along the way. Built around 1100, it’s hard to do this remarkable bridge justice with a picture!
Continue past Ponte dei Ferri and through Ponte a Seraglio. Arriving in Garfagnana proper it starts to be wilder and emptier around. Stop for lunch at Osteria al Ritrovo del Platano, for simple but very tasty traditional fare in a stuck-in-time setting. Garfagnana specialties include chestnuts, mushrooms, spelt and trout.
In the afternoon, take a tour of the Grotta del Vento. You can book 1, 2 or 3 hour walking tours exploring these beautiful karst caves, so there is something for every fitness level. The caves are at a constant temperature of about 10°C, make sure to dress accordingly. Don’t forget to make a stop at the lovely cliff-hugging Hermitage of Calomini on your way there or back. The little village of Vergemoli is also worth a quick visit.
Garfagnana unfortunately doesn’t have much in the way of upscale hotels. Your best bet might be Villa Bertagni, near Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. The town of Castelnuovo itself is cute enough but there is not much to see here besides the Rocca Ariotesca. You could try to visit the pretty 19th-centry Teatro Alfieri, or even check if there is anything showing. For dinner head to simple but tasty Trattoria Bonini just out of town.
Day 3: Vagli lake, historical Garfagnana & Barga
Pack a picnic lunch and head to Lago di Vagli, a manmade resevoir lake. At its bottom lies the abandoned old town of Fabbriche di Carregine, the ruins occasionally become visible when the lake is drained (pictures show this to be eerily beautiful, but the last time was in 1994 so don’t count on it for your trip). There is a suspension bridge over the lake and zip line for those that are looking for a bit of adrenaline, in the rather incongruous Vagli Park. Better to take a stroll in the charming lakeside town of Vagli Sotto, according to me.
From here, drive on to Minucciano. Make a quick stop at the Beata Vergine del Soccorso hermitage just outside the village to admire (the copies of) the ancient steles that were found here in their front yard. The originals are in the Museo delle Statue Stele in Pontremoli, but it’s nice to see the site and ponder the fact that Garfagnana’s hard to reach hilltops were already inhabited thousands of years ago.
Return via Piazza al Serchio, stopping to admire the medieval Ponte di San Michele at the entrance to town. Real history buffs should next head to Verrucole Castle, a restored medieval fortress and museum with great views.
You can spend a second night at Villa Bertagni if you want, but you definitely need to visit Barga, a very pretty hillside town and the region’s cultural capital. If you’d prefer to stay in town I can recommend Villa Moorings, a nice mansion from the 1920s that has been converted into a hotel, although the (bath)rooms could do with a little update.
Spend the remainder of the day exploring the historic center of Barga. Don’t miss the spectacular sunset views from the Romanesque Duomo of San Cristoforo, built on the highest point of town. Have dinner at Elisa for original dishes made with carefully selected local ingredients on a cute little square, or try Schiacciaguai for something slightly more traditional.
Day 4: Castiglione di Garfagnana
You still haven’t had enough of hilltop villages, right? Start the day with a scenic drive to the tiny hamlets of Fosciandora and Lupinaia. Stop by Rocca di Ceserana, a small medieval fortress with great views.
Finally, head to Castiglione di Garfagnana, a perfectly preserved fortified medieval village with fortress and towers. Have a look at the churches of San Pietro and San Michele. You can also take the short stroll down to the cute Chiesa della Corba or walk or drive to the medieval bridge in next-door Molino.
Time to leave Garfagnana! You can head back to Lucca and from there on to the rest of Tuscany, but it’s also easy to drive to Bologna or Genoa.