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The Garfagnana & the Lunigiana

The Garfagnana region north of Lucca along the Serchio River is heavily wooded and mountainous, peppered with Romanesque churches, medieval Alpine villages, and good hiking trails. It's home to the eastern slopes of the Parco Regionale delle Alpi Apuane, now a natural park protecting the wildlife of the massive Apuan Alps. Over one-quarter of the plants known in Italy grow here; it's also a good bird-watching region, with more than 165 species wheeling in the skies above the mountains, including peregrine falcons and golden eagles. The Lunigiana to the northwest, a Ligurian land that's part of Tuscany in name only, preserves some remarkable prehistoric carvings in a museum at Pontrémoli.

Getting There by Bus & Train -- VaiBus (www.vaibus.it) services most of the Garfagnana and the major towns north of Lucca, including Bagni di Lucca (trip time from Lucca: 50 min.), Barga (70 min.), and Castelnuovo (80 min.). In Lucca, buy tickets and hop aboard at Piazzale Verdi. A slow scenic railway line ducks in and out of tunnels alongside the Serchio River -- you ride under an arch of the Devil's Bridge -- and goes out onto the Lunigiana plain to Aulla (7 direct runs daily from Lucca, plus a couple with changes at Piazza al Serchio), where you can change for a train to Pontrémoli.

A Drive up the Garfagnana

The main SS12 road north toward Barga and Castelnuovo splits to go up either side of the steep-valleyed Serchio just south of Ponte a Moriano. You want to stay on the east (right) branch because there's no parking on the other side of the river when you get to Borgo a Mozzano (20km/12 miles) and just beyond it, the Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's Bridge), also called the Ponte della Maddalena. This impossibly narrow humpbacked 11th-century bridge of fitted stone was built under the auspices of the area's iron-fisted ruler, Countess Matilda. Much more fun to believe, however, is the legend that Satan agreed to build the span for the townspeople if they'd grant him the first soul to cross it. The morning after the bridge was completed -- diabolical work crews move fast -- the villagers outwitted Lucifer by sending a hapless dog trotting over.

Two and a half kilometers (1 1/2 miles) farther along, the SS12 diverges east up the Lima valley for Bagni di Lucca. This was one of Europe's most famous spas in the 19th century. It hosted nobles and moneyed princes from the 17th century onward and a veritable stampede of British Romantics at the height of its popularity. Napoleon's sister Elisa Baciocchi, whom he made the princess of Lucca, helped its heyday along by turning it into her summer residence. As you enter the lower part of town, known as Ponte a Serraglio, take the lower road to the left along the tree-shaded river to see the neoclassical, riverside Casino, Europe's first licensed gaming house and the birthplace of roulette. For information on the town, see www.prolocobagnidilucca.it. Up the hill behind the Casino, past the ruined shells of once popular terme, is the town's last remaining thermal spa, the Terme Bagni di Lucca, Piazza San Martino (tel. 0583-87-221; www.termebagnidilucca.it). A vast range of treatments includes several kinds of massage and beauty therapy, soaks in thermal mud, a natural steam cave (20€ for 20 min.), a thermal swimming pool (admission 12€-15€), and more. Day spa packages, with a selection of treatments, cost 120€.

Back in the Serchio valley, the main road now becomes the SS445 and runs another 18km (11 miles) to the turnoff to Barga set high on the mountainside; the tourist office is at Via di Mezzo 47 (at Piazza Garibaldi; tel. 0583-724-743), open Monday through Saturday 9am to 1pm, Saturday also 3 to 5:30pm, and Sunday 10:30am to 12:30pm and 3 to 5:30pm. Bilingual hyperlocal site www.barganews.com is another excellent source of information (the same folks run an English-language book exchange at Via di Mezzo 37). Barga is home to a gaggle of della Robbian terra-cottas: On the inside of the Porta Mancianella, in the 15th-century Conservatorio di Sant'Elisabetta, at Via del Pretorio 22 (an Assumption), and in the Collegiata. The facade of the 9th- to 14th-century Collegiata is made from local white stone called albarese and covered with medieval and Romanesque low reliefs. The interior houses a reddish-toned 13th-century pulpit by the quirky Lombard carver Guido Bigarelli da Como, full of medieval symbolism. The red marble columns are supported by a pug-nosed dwarf (evil) and the Lion of Judea (representing Jesus), who under one pillar conquers a dragon (evil) and under another is simultaneously killed and stroked worshipfully by a man (supposedly representing the fact that man, who once crucified Christ, later came to love him). Don't miss the 12th-century painted wooden St. Christopher in an apse niche, the della Robbian terra-cottas in a right-hand chapel, and the view from the terrace outside. If you're feeling hungry, there are plenty of dining choices along Via di Mezzo, which snakes through the town. Our favorite spot is cheery, funky bar-trattoria Scacciaguai, Via di Mezzo 23 (tel. 0583-711-368; www.scacciaguai.it), where local and seasonal dishes go for between 9€ and 14€. It's closed Monday. Our favorite accommodations in these parts are the rustic apartments at Agriturismo Al Benefizio, Loc. Ronchi 4 (www.albenefizio.it; tel. 0583-722-201), just north of town. All three comfortable units on this working olive oil farm are bookable per night, plus there's an outdoor pool with fine views. Prices range from 70€ to 110€ (cash only) for an apartment sleeping four.

From Barga take the road heading directly back down to the Serchio, cross under the railroad tracks, cross over the river and under the main road on the other side, proceed through the hamlet of Gallicano, and climb alongside the Turrite stream into the Parco Naturale delle Alpi Apuane. After about 9km (5 1/2 miles) up the slopes of the 1,800m (5,906-ft.) "Queen of the Apuan Alps," Pania della Croce, you'll come to Fornovolasco and the Grotta del Vento (Cave of the Wind) (tel. 0583-722-024; www.grottadelvento.com). It's one of the best and most easily visited caverns of a system that honeycombs these mountains, a grotto network offering some of the best caving in Italy. The Grotta is a fascinating subterranean landscape of tunnels, stalactites, bottomless pits, eerie pools of water, and polychromatic rivers of rock that seem to flow in sheets and cascade down stony shoots. April through October, it's open daily with 1-hour guided tours (9€ adults, 7€ children 10 and under) on the hour from 10am to noon and 2 to 6pm; 2-hour visits (14€ adults, 11€ children) at 11am, 3, 4, and 5pm; and 3-hour explorations (20€ adults, 16€ children) leaving at 10am and 2pm. November through March, only the shortest itinerary is available Monday through Saturday, with a regular service on Sunday. Go as early as possible to miss the crowds in high season.

The stony capital of the Garfagnana, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, lies about 11km (7 3/4 miles) north of Barga. For information on nearby outdoor activities or to book accommodation, visit the Centro Visite Parco Apuane, Piazza delle Erbe (tel. 0583-644-242); Castelnuovo itself is covered by the Pro-Loco tourist office opposite the Centro Visite office (tel. 0583-641-007; www.castelnuovogarfagnana.org). Both are open daily. There's not much to see other than the 14th-century Rocca castle, a stronghold of the Este dukes of Ferrara, so the best Castelnuovo is good for are views of the mountains and valley, and as an information office for wilderness hikes, climbs, or via ferrata (a mountain route equipped with fixed cables and bridges). Just north of town, you can branch off into the Parco Naturale dell'Orecchiella (Orecchiella Natural Park) on the east (Apennine) side of the valley by heading up one of the most scenic winding roads in this part of Tuscany, toward Villa, San Pellegrino in Alpe, and the Emilia-Romagna border. Fit walkers of most abilities will be able to tackle the marked 10km (6-mile) hike around the nearby Pania di Corfino, which takes in an alpine botanic garden and fine mountain views. The jumping-off point is the village of Corfino, 13km (8 miles) north of Castelnuovo. Park on the right as you enter and follow the signs that begin by the Albergo La Baita. Take a map.

Into the Lunigiana

Following the main Garfagnana road for another 58km (36 miles), or the more direct A12-A15 autostrada route from Lucca via Carrara, brings you to Aulla, lorded over by the 16th-century Brunella fort. You're now in the Lunigiana, a northern spur of Tuscany wedged between Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. The main interest here is the sleepy, partly medieval town of Pontrémoli on the Magra River 22km (14 miles) north of Aulla; the tourist office is at Piazza della Repubblica (tel. 0187-832-000). Tuscany's northernmost sizable habitation has the baroque church of San Francesco, the rare Tuscan rococo church of Nostra Donna, and a baroque Duomo hitched up to the Torre del Campanone, the only remnant of the fortress Castruccio Castracani built in 1322 to keep two feuding factions from ripping each other to shreds.

The town's most important attraction, though, almost worth the whole trip up here, is the Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianesi, Castello del Piagnaro (tel. 0187-831-439; www.statuestele.org), housed in a 14th-century castle and created to show off some 20-odd prehistoric statue-stele and casts of 30 or so others whose originals are elsewhere. The stylized menhirs look sort of like tombstones carved to resemble humans and were created by a long-lived Lunigiana cult that existed from about 3000 to 200 B.C. The earliest (3000-2000 B.C.) have just a "U" for a head and the mere suggestion of arms and a torso; the next group (2000-800 B.C.) has more features and realism; and the most recent (700-200 B.C.) are developed to the point where many of them carry weapons in both hands. That so many have been decapitated is a sure sign the Catholic Church got here before the archaeologists. The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 12:30pm and 3 to 6pm (October to April afternoon hours are 2:30 to 5:30pm). Admission is 4€ for adults, 2€ for children ages 6 to 16. Pontremoli's warren of ancient streets is also home to one of northern Tuscany's best trattorie, Da Bussè, Piazza del Duomo 31 (tel. 0187-831-371). This restaurant's dishes, served in an informal country-kitchen style dining room, have more than a whiff of Liguria about them -- don't miss the testaroli (pasta discs) with basil pesto, if it's on. Main courses cost around 10€, but pasta dishes run less. It's open for lunch only Monday through Thursday; lunch and dinner are served on weekends.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.