HIKING IN TUSCANY: THE VIA DEL VOLTO SANTO PATH
Tuscany boasts several historic paths and ancient pilgrimage routes, a nice way to travel slowly, discovering remote villages and hidden gems.
In Lunigiana, where I live, three of these historic routes meet: the Abbot’s Way, connecting Bobbio to Lucca, the popular Via Francigena stretching from Canterbury to Rome, and the Via del Volto Santo, an alternative route to the Francigena that crosses the Apennines and ends in Lucca.
The Volto Santo (Holy Face) is a wooden relic dating back to the 9th century housed in the St. Martin’s Cathedral in Lucca. The Holy Face is one of the most mystic and worshipped symbols of Christianity in Italy and has contributed to creating its own alternative pilgrimage route called “Via del Volto Santo”, stretching for almost 200 km from Pontremoli in Lunigiana (Northern Tuscany) to Lucca.
More info on the Via del Volto Santo.
Staycations in Tuscany
Since I returned to live in Lunigiana, Tuscany, I have started to travel close to Home to discover all the beauty that has always been at my doorsteps but that I have never really paid much attention to (Read 5 reasons why you should choose a staycation).
Thanks also to my job promoting my Region, I have learnt a lot about the place where I was born, including the pilgrimage route Via Francigena that winds across Tuscany for 380 km.
Only in recent years, the alternative route called Via del Volto Santo has started to become popular too but I had never had the opportunity to explore any of it.
That’s why this year I have decided to offer my best friend Juliana (aka Culi) a girls’ hiking weekend for her birthday.
Culi has been dreaming of walking the Camino de Santiago route in Spain for years now but she hasn’t had the chance to yet, so I thought this could have been a small taste of what a pilgrimage route feels like.
We decide to hike two legs very close to where we live from Fivizzano to Piazza al Serchio, in Garfagnana.
We spend Friday night at Fivizzano so that on Saturday morning we are ready to kick off early. We leave my car here and Miles is coming to pick us up at Piazza al Serchio but if you want you can also travel by train (be aware that the train station is not at Fivizzano centre but few kilometres far in Rometta).
Fivizzano: where to eat and sleep
Fivizzano is a quaint small town in Lunigiana surrounded by 1500s walls and a characteristic square boasting a marble fountain built by the Medici family who ruled here in the 1500-1600s.
Fivizzano is also known for its important role in the history of printing. Indeed, here in 1474 Jacopo da Fivizzano used the first typographic characters in Italy and in 1802 Agostino Fantoni invented the first writing machine.
Unfortunately, the Museum of Printing is currently closed but a visit to the Civic Library housed in the Augustinian Convent is recommended for any book lover.
I particularly love to visit Fivizzano in July during the “Disfida degli Arcieri di Terra e Corte”, a historic replica of an archery challenge that used to take place in the 1500s.
If you are staying in Fivizzano I recommend:
* B&B Alla porta di sotto, located in the historic centre in a lovely Liberty style building. Alessandro is just the perfect host, paying attention to any detail and comfort in your room. He has spoiled us with a lovely welcome drink and a delicious breakfast including tea and coffee, fresh fruit and yoghurt, freshly-baked muffins, and cake.
* Agriturismo Di Là dall’Acqua located 10-minute walk from the historic centre in a peaceful oasis on the other side of the river. Giovanna is an amazing host passionate about local products that she uses to prepare genuine recipes with farm-to-table ingredients such as spelt, cheese, organic wine, as well as her own production of honey and chestnut flour!
You can reach the agriturismo walking over a quaint romanesque bridge and at night you will be accompanied by crickets and fireflies. Such a full immersion in nature.
You can find more info on this region and services on Visit Lunigiana.
Via del Volto Santo: from Fivizzano to Argegna
Our first day hiking starts at 8:45. We carry a 7/8 kg backpack with just a few things for the night and a picnic lunch. We don’t have any map and decide to follow the blue road marks, which are not really clear until you exit the historic centre on its north-east side.
The path winds uphill across olive groves and woods. We walk past the Convento del Carmine and reach the small hamlet of Turlago, where the Santi Felice and Adauto’s Church features an unusual hexagonal absis.
Back into the woods where we meet a white horse and we immediately feel as if we were in a fairy tale.
Be aware that sometimes the vegetation is overgrown and may cover the signs, but generally the path is quite easy to find. When we have doubts we check it on the Viewranger App.
We meet hardly anybody on the trail, only a grandpa with his nephew. I congratulate to the grandfather, who is part of the Italian Alpine Club, when he tells us that he takes his grandson to hike to pass him over his passion for the mountains, which I find very sweet.
We continue to Reusa, where you can stop for lunch at the lovely Agriturismo Spino Fiorito. I know this place pretty well, but for today we skip the restaurant and enjoy a picnic lunch, finding some rest on a bench in front of a house close to the path. As soon as we finish and we are getting ready to leave again, the owner of the house comes out and offers us a coffee. I don’t drink coffee but Culi’s face brights up so we accept. This is the type of moment that makes this sort of experience so special.
We are halfway through, it’s super hot and the path is constantly uphill. I am worried because Culi had a sprained ankle a couple of months ago but she seems fine.
We were supposed to stop at the Canoara bakery in Regnano where my friend Fabio produces a special bread called “Marocca di Casola”, a Slow Food presidium made of chestnut flour, a true delicacy, but unfortunately we miss the crossroads and notice only when we are way too far to come back 🙁
When I see a small stream I drop my backpack, take off my hiking boots, and rest my feet in the cold water. We are doing well so we allow ourselves some rest while we eat two chocolate muffins leftover from today’s breakfast.
We are approximately a 2-hour hike from our final destination. We walk uphill across chestnut woods as far as Passo Tea where the ruins of an ancient pilgrims’ hospital dot an overgrown field. The sun is getting low and the wood is painted by the warm lights of sunset.
We finally reach the campsite where we have booked a wooden tent for the night at Camping Argegna.
Only a few meters from here there is a lovely restaurant where we savour local dishes such as mushroom fresh pasta, ravioli and wild boar.
We are proud of ourselves: 17 km, 10-hour hike with an 800+ elevation gain!
I write down on my notebook today’s thoughts.
Walking in the woods and spending time in nature has always been regenerating for me. Hiking this path close to Home, admiring familiar landscapes with new eyes, and travelling slowly gives me a nice feeling.
Walking a pilgrimage path means slowing down, activating your senses smelling the wild flowers, savouring the wild berries, meeting people who share a smile and few curious questions. You meet donkeys, cows, and other endemic animals.
Nature feeds my soul and I am grateful to share this experience with my best friend who has trusted me to join this adventure.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Via del Volto Santo: from Argegna to Piazza al Serchio
I wake up and I can’t understand what time it is. I go to the toilet and see a beautiful light irradiating the nearby garden. It’s 06:15.
I walk to the other side of the campsite where you can enjoy an amazing view over the Apuan Alps. I post some stories on my Instagram but then turn off my phone and enjoy the awakening of nature.
I sit on some gorgeous roots and let myself be embraced by this majestic tree while I meditate. I breathe, open my eyes, and see an explosion of light painting the landscape around me. I am happy!
I come back to our tent to wake up Culi, we have breakfast and then leave towards Piazza al Serchio, today it is an “easy” stage, “only” 11 km 🙂
The first part of the path is downhill towards the village of Giuncugnano.
Sometimes we need to clear the path with our wooden sticks that we found yesterday in the woods and have been very useful for the hike.
We find ourselves in front of a stone bridge and I wrongly think we are at Ponte San Michele. I am attracted by the lovely garden and stone building on the left, that we discover being an ancient mill.
Walking around the mill I find a beautiful spot in the river. In a few minutes I take my clothes off and I am in, while Culi looks at me puzzled.
I insist until she gives up, takes off her shoes, and joins me on the riverbank where we sit for about half an hour refreshing our feet in the water stream.
Nice and fresh we set off again until we really get at Ponte San Michele 🙂
We continue along the path following the river up to another beautiful bridge that reminds me of the Devil’s Bridge close to Lucca.
Uphill for the last 15-20 minutes before we reach Piazza al Serchio. We take a rest in front of St. Peter’s Church waiting for Miles to come and pick us up. He arrives only a few minutes later laying a lovely picnic lunch on the stone wall next to the Church 🙂
That’s the end of our girls’ weekend on the Via del Volto Santo path. Short but enough to understand what walking a pilgrimage route feels like.
I have learnt that when you walk time doesn’t exist. You are completely immersed in your thoughts, you meditate, reflect, until no more thoughts come up and you realize that you are fully present.
You breathe, observe, feel with all your senses.
No worries nor fear of the animals, of getting lost, of being too tired to keep walking. Step after step, following your breath until you feel at peace from within.
I have understood that the true destination is to have no real destination, no expectations nor limiting beliefs, to welcome anything that comes to you.
Living this experience with such a close friend has been even more exciting. I must admit I felt a bit responsible not only because I was in charge of finding the path but also to support her mentally in this new challenge for her.
In the end, what was supposed to be a birthday gift for Culi has turned out to be a gift for me too. Watching her giving up her fear for snakes, fearless crossing the river, her eyes brightening up looking at the fireflies at night, has made me feel very proud and grateful.
Thank you my dear friend for sharing this unforgettable experience with me.