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Garfagnana, the Apuan Alps - accommodation listings, plus useful information and tips:

Within just a few miles of Lucca and the Versilian coastal resorts can be found landscapes that are so far removed from the traditional image of Tuscany as to make them seem from another country. Sheer, soaring mountain peaks, lush alpine meadows, ski-runs, vast areas of semi-wilderness where wolves are still spotted, great fortresses of mediaeval castles, submerged villages and remote settlements where people live a life, hard and self-sufficient, that seems little changed this century.

The Garfagnana territory rises up from the valley of the river Serchio (Lucca's river). It 'starts' to the north-west of Lucca and rises up to Aulla (the train journey is very scenic). The valley is flanked to the east by the start of the Appennines and to the west by the spur of the Apuan Alps.

For a cool breeze at the height of summer, some breathtaking views of precipitous marble quarries or perhaps a full week's worth of trekking, the Garfagnana is well worth a visit.

Strictly speaking, the Garfagnana and the lower Serchio valley (the Media valle del Serchio) are two distinct areas, but it is far simpler to combine the two and to say that the Garfagnana starts a few kilometres north-west of Lucca, passing through Bagni di Lucca, past Barga and on up the valley to Aulla, the main town of the Lunigiana region.

Large parts of the Garfagnana are classified as regional Nature Reserves (the Parco della Orecchiella is well worth a visit), and the whole area is one of the finest in Italy for walkers and hikers. There are enormous and ancient chestnut forests, high alpine meadows that are blanketed with flowers in springtime, caves, spectacular ridges, cascading streams and countless hilltop villages that grow from the rocks about them.

some places and things to see:

Said to be the best cave system in Tuscany, the Grotta del Vento is located near the village of Fornovolasco - you'll find out why the caves are so called when they open the main door. Guided tours run from April to September and usually last for one, two or three hours. At other times of the year the caves are open only on Sundays and public holidays. Be sure to take some warm clothing for the tours, whatever the time of year. The caves really are quite spectacular, but we wouldn't recommend the longer tours for the very young or old - the route can be quite demanding in places.

You can't see as much of the Ponte della Maddelena (or Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's bridge)) as you used to be able to, due to the dam downstream, but this narrow five arched bridge of the fourteenth century is nevertheless very impressive. Sitting on now submerged islets, there are five asymmetrical arches, the largest of which spans 37 metres. The bridge was said to have been built in one night by Old Nick himself, in exchange for the soul of the first person to cross it the next day. The locals sent a dog (or pig - take your pick) over instead, and the Devil, still falling for this one, bent the bridge into the wonderful shape it is today. The bridge is to be found a small way upstream from the village of Borgo a Mozzano.

North-west of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the main town of the area, you can take the road up to Lago (lake) di Vagli from Poggio. The construction of this large artificial lake, between 1941 and 1953, meant that the old part of Vagli di Sotto was completely submerged. The buildings are still there, under the water, and at low levels the church tower can be seen beneath the surface. Come a particularly dry summer, the whole lake can run dry and the entire village is laid bare for all to see. The area Vagli is a good starting point for several excellent walks, and it is also possible to hire boats to take out on the lake. The (16 kilometre) drive up to San Pellegrino in Alpe from Castelnuovo offers some absolutely splendid views of the mountains and slopes of the whole area, the very heart of the Appennines.

The Monastery and Sanctuary at San Pellegrino have for centuries offered refuge to wayfarers taking the old route from Lucca to Modena. Tradition has it that the Sanctuary was founded in the seventh century by the son of a Scottish (some say Irish) king, who had retired to this isolated part of Tuscany for penitence and meditation. The shrine (below left) inside is to the Saints Pellegrino and Bianco.

Part of the monastery is given over to an excellent museum dedicated to the countryside and the 'old' way of life. The museum has been lovingly laid out room by room with all settings, furniture and equipment in context. Potentially dull, actually very insightful, this is a well conceived record of rural life and culture.

The Orrido di Botri is a beautiful and dramatic natural gorge to the north of Bagni di Lucca. Extremely narrow in some places, it is nonetheless accessible and walkable, and the valley makes a perfect spot for a good days walking and picnicking. There is a large variety of flora and fauna and the lucky may spot a golden eagle. Don't go if it's raining and be warned that it can get very crowded during August as it offers a blissful release from the heat.

The Hermitage (Eremo di Calomini) is about a ten minute drive from Gallicano along the road heading for the Grotta del Vento. This sanctuary has been a holy place since the thirteenth century and the oldest parts of the building are cut directly into the rock face. The convent, visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, can be viewed in the company of the monk who lives in and looks after this unique building.

To the east of Barga is the village of Coreglia Antelminelli, an important stronghold of the powerful Castracani family during mediaeval times - traces of their defensive works can still be seen. The figurine museum houses a wide variety of plaster figurines and statues. The process and style was developed around Coreglia and Tereglio during the 16th and 17th centuries and exported all over the world courtesy of the large number of emigrant artisans from this area. The museum contains a workshop dedicated to the making of such figures.

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