(CNN) — Wandering the Saturday market in the tiny hill town of Barga, you would be forgiven for thinking you had time-traveled to the Tuscany of 30 years ago.
Shawl-clad grandmothers gesticulate wildly over pungent wheels of cheese. Spiky heads of romanesco and palm-sized porcini mushrooms spill from crates. And everywhere floats the aroma of chestnuts milled into the area’s characteristic pasta flour.
Garfagnana is a rugged srea of densely forested hills and deep river canyons. You’ll find it between the rocky Apuan Alps to the west and the Apennines to the east.
Located in northwestern Tuscany, Barga is the historic heart of the region known as the Garfagnana, a rugged swath of densely forested hills and deep river canyons sheltered between the rocky Apuan Alps to the west and the Apennines to the east.
Instead, you’ll find the tumbling waters of the River Serchio and its tributaries, slopes steeply terraced in vineyards and olive orchards, and behind it all the shadow of snowcapped peaks.
Life in the ancient hill towns that cling to these craggy slopes still feels profoundly local, a place where it’s possible to raise your camera in a medieval piazza without a single other tourist stepping into your shot. (Though you may want to put down your camera, and simply enjoy blending into the lively scene.)
BARGA: Basking in history
The popularity of Barga’s outdoor market is a testament to the region’s focus on food, a notable blend of the passionate and blasé.
Fresh ingredients and slow cooking are taken for granted here. This you see the minute you step into Alimentari Caproni, a century-old delicatessen presided over by the voluble Caproni brothers, Rico and Agostino, who trade jests while dishing out razor-thin slices of prosciutto and slivers of the local pecorino.
Other regional specialties on the well-stocked shelves include honey and the delicate biscotti called befanini, slices of buttery goodness in the shapes of stars and moons.
From there, it’s on to explore Barga Vecchia, the walled old town. It’s a cobweb of narrow streets where small shops and cafes alternate with the occasional palazzo and modest family homes where laundry still flaps between walls of golden stone.
At the top of the hill, the imposing Romanesque Duomo di San Cristoforo is noted for its frescoes and lintel carving of St. Nicholas and affords a vast view of the valley from its doorstep.
The vast view of Barga’s valley is inviting.
Barga also has one highly unusual characteristic — strong ties to Scotland, which you’ll hear in locals’ burred English and see in the form of a bright red British phone booth on one of Barga’s main streets.
Why Scotland? At the turn of the 20th century, impoverished families from Barga emigrated to Glasgow and Edinburgh in search of work, drawn first by logging jobs and then by restaurants.
(The Italians, native good cooks, turned their talents to fish and chips and essentially took over the business.)
Returning when the economy recovered, they built homes and opened businesses with money saved. Barga continues to celebrate the connection with a series of events including Scottish Week in September, a Robbie Burns Day Dinner on January 25 and a three-week Fish & Chip festival in mid-summer.
Hills and valleys
Just outside Barga, the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco feels like an upscale version of the hunting lodge it once was, the lobby anchored by a cavernous stone fireplace and hiking trails heading straight out the back door.
Stair-stepping down the mountainside, the valley-side rooms look straight across to the spires of Barga rising from the mist. The hotel’s restaurant, La Veranda, is one of the most refined in the area, serving up specialties such as grilled local trout, artichoke salad and house-made gnocchi in a glass-walled room with a sunny terrace.
While you’re there, make sure to try Scacciaguai, a homey bistro in one of Barga’s oldest buildings with a reputation for the best truffle pasta in town. Note the slightly creepy stone face on the restaurant’s outer wall from which it takes its name and place three fingers in the eyes and mouth — legend says that doing so will banish troubles and bring good fortune.
GARFAGNANA: Rugged land of castles
Fought over by warring clans for much of its history, Garfagnana features numerous hill towns named for the fortress-like castles that defined their existence.
The most impressive of these is Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the region’s commercial center, which is dominated by the iron-gray walls of the Rocca Ariostesca fortress.
Walk across the Ponte Giorgio Colzi for the best view of town and its spectacular setting overlooking the River Serchio.
Barga’s early morning light is worth waking up for.
A little further up the valley is the walled city of Castiglione di Garfagnana, so little changed from the 14th century that it feels like a living museum.
Just five minutes from Barga, Castelvecchio di Garfagnana welcomes visitors to the final home of poet Giovanni Pascoli, considered a key figure in the modernization of Italian literature for his poetry celebrating the beauty of the everyday. Now a museum, library and national landmark, the estate also features a chapel and gardens sometimes used for concerts and other events.
Possibly the most photographed landmark in the Garfagnana is the 11th-century Ponte della Maddalena, also known as Ponte del Diavolo or Devil’s Bridge. Once a key crossing point for pilgrims on their way to Rome, it seems to defy gravity with its stone arch rising some 15 meters (50 feet) above the water against a backdrop of ice-capped peaks.
Sampling Garfagnana wine
A visit to Podere Concori is by turns an education in biodynamic wine production, an intimate tasting experience and a chance to meet the winery’s highly personable donkey, Pietro.
When Gabrielle da Prato arrived in the Garfagnana in 1999, he had a vision: Resurrect the region’s long dormant viticulture while introducing the techniques of biodynamic farming.
Pioneered by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner — best known today as the founder of the Waldorf Schools – biodynamic farming takes organic to the next level with a set of esoteric practices that include planting according to the astrological calendar and fertilizing the vines with the manure of resident farm animals.
Da Prato’s mission earned him such national respect that he was awarded Italy’s version of a knighthood. Today his winery, Podere Concori, is rated among Tuscany’s best.
A visit to Podere Concori is by turns an education in biodynamic wine production, an intimate tasting experience and a chance to meet the winery’s highly personable donkey, Pietro. Book in advance and you can also enjoy a farm-to-table lunch paired perfectly with Podere Concori’s simply monikered Bianco, a refreshing, slightly acidic blend of old-vine pinot blanc and chenin blanc.
Complete your wine tour with visits to Poderi di Garfagnana, which also offers a wine pairing lunch, and the Alessandro Bravi winery, both in the nearby town of Camporgiano.
Exploring the marble mountains
Visitors can go hiking, discover thermal springs or find a spot for an Italian picnic — without the influx of tourists found in other parts of Tuscany.
Nicknamed the Marble Mountains for the stone most famously mined in nearby Carrara, the Apuan Alps regional park is popular with off-the-path adventurers seeking solitude along its criss-crossing network of trekking routes.
One of the most popular hikes is the climb to the rock arch of Monte Forato (which translates as pierced mountain) from the riverside hamlet of Fornovolasco.
Less ambitious and more easily accessible is the Ariosto trail from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a 40-minute zigzag up to the Mont’Alfonso Fortress perched above.
On the other side of the valley, the thermal springs of Bagni de Lucca and Ponte a Serraglio form the gateway to the Apennines, an equally popular outdoor wonderland. In the area known as Val di Lima, outfitters lead rafting and kayaking trips down the Lima River, its waters so clear that it’s also popular with scuba divers.
Guides also lead more ambitious treks into the Orrido di Botri, a gorge cut so deep into the limestone by the Pelago River that the sheer walls rise as high as 183 meters (600 feet) above the water.
And no one leaves without visiting the Grotta del Vento (wind cave), one of Europe’s best preserved living caverns. Water seeps through porous limestone, continuing to shape calcium carbonate into fang-like stalactites and gleaming alabaster draperies while feeding a crystalline underground stream.
LUCCA: The many-walled city
Less than an hour’s drive from Barga, Lucca is characterized by its massive Renaissance-era rampart. Thanks to the city’s freedom from siege, it has been preserved in its entirety.
So broad that it once hosted car races, the wall is now a verdant promenade and park, planted on all four sides with different species of trees.
Rent a bike and ride the nearly three-mile-long perimeter, making plenty of stops to enjoy views of the city nestled within from every direction. Inside are scattered remnants of three earlier sets of walls, most visible as gateways such as the 12th century Porta dei Borghi.
Lucca’s skyline was once spiky with more than 200 fortified tower houses, some rising 30 meters (100 feet) or more above the street and topped with rooftop gardens. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries by the city’s merchant families, the towers helped citizens defend themselves against raiding mercenaries.
Today, visitors can climb a narrow iron staircase to the top of 125-foot Guinigi Tower, emerging to find a grove of shady oaks waving their branches over the red tiled roofs far below. The city’s clock tower, the Torre delle Oro, is also open for exploring.
Your first stop in Lucca, however, must be the Basilica of San Michele in Foro, a layered wedding cake concoction of white marble that rivals Florence’s Duomo in its ability to lock your gaze skyward. Nearby, the Cathedral of St. Martin also boasts an ornately columned marble façade alongside sterner Romanesque construction, and houses the touching tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, carved with her feet resting on her loyal dog.
Its most precious holding, though, is an eight-foot-tall wooden crucifix called the Volto Santo (Holy Face). Legend says it was carved by Nicodemus and hidden for centuries before being brought to Lucca in 742 AD. The Volto Santo is honored with its own procession, the Luminara di Santa Croce, celebrated every September 13 when the city streets are illuminated by thousands of candles.
But there’s more; the Basilica of St. Frediano, built in 685, glows with a Byzantine mosaic façade of golden tilework. And from there it’s just a few steps to enter the Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro, notable for its unusual elliptical shape and remarkable spaciousness. The clue comes in its name — what today is an expanse of flagstones surrounded by chic cafes was originally a 2nd-century Roman amphitheater, the vaults and arches still visible between the walls.
A stop in one of Lucca’s bakeries is a must for travelers with a sweet tooth.
Lucca was the home and birthplace of the composer Giacomo Puccini, a fact you won’t forget for a minute during your visit as his music and life story are among the city’s prime attractions. Concerts are held nightly from April through October in the Church of Saints Giovanni and Reparata. The city’s many piazzas often feature live music, which you can enjoy from the comfort of a shaded café table.
Lucca can be done as a day trip, but spend a night or two to see how this bastion of Old World elegance comes alive at night. Hotel Palazzo Alexander, located in a stylishly restored mansion, is just minutes away from Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro and lively Via Filungo, a shopping promenade excellent for people watching.
Don’t leave without trying the city’s signature dish, tortelli lucchese, which features crimped pockets of rich, egg-laden dough stuffed with savory ground meat. One of the best versions is at Gli Orti on the Via Elisa, where you might start your meal with Lucca’s other favorite dish, a hearty soup of farro and beans, and finish it with the house-made gelato.
Want to know more?
Here’s where to learn more about the attractions mentioned in the article:
Duomo di San Cristoforo, Via del Duomo 1, 55051 Barga LU, Italy
Ponte della Maddalena, 55023 Borgo a Mozzano, Province of Lucca, Italy
Porta dei Borghi, Via Santa Gemma Galgani 1, 55100 Lucca LU, Italy