If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the medieval town of Barga in the Garfagnana is a lovely location. While there are several historic sites, churches and monuments, none are as compelling as the vistas of the countryside and mountains, so it is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing and spend a restorative day or two ‘smelling the roses’. If you’re after a little more action, Barga is also a great base for some serious mountain biking and hiking.
The Garfagnana is the area that encompasses the valley and hills trailing the Serchio River between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines towards Lucca. It is probably the most undiscovered part of Tuscany and is prized for its wide skies and mountain vistas. Mostly consisting of small, hillside hamlets scattered among oak and chestnut forests, Barga is one of the larger settlements in the Garfagnana and is billed as the most Scottish town in Italy (a nod to the Scottish Highlands).
Barga is approximately 35km from Lucca and is an easy, 45-minute drive. From Pisa, it’s about an hour. There are regular trains from Lucca to Barga-Gallicano station on the Lucca – Aulla line (€9.00 return trip). From Barga-Gallicano station, Barga is about 4km uphill. If you’re fit, take a bike with you (additional €3.00 return trip on the train), but the climb from the station is quite steep and would challenge a novice rider. Buses run from across the road from the station, but may not connect with all trains, so it is best to check at the time of booking. It is also possible to travel direct from Lucca by bus.
If you don’t have a car, you will almost definitely want to arrange accommodation in Barga. For those with a car, the range of accommodation extends to luxury spa hotels and agriturismos in the surrounding hamlets.
We travelled by train (with bikes) and stayed in Barga at 3-star Villa Moorings Hotel, which was a 5-minute walk to the old city and to a range of restaurants and osterie. Villa Moorings Hotel is a Liberty style villa-turned-hotel and is packed to the gunnels with history and charm. Our room and bathroom were vast and full of period furniture and fittings. Beatrice, the owner/manager, was as charming as her hotel. She has done a wonderful job of repurposing the villa, once owned by her grandparents – think frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and ornately tiled floors. The effect of stately charm extends to the outdoors where there is a large pool alongside a grassed lawn and orchard. We travelled to Barga in June and booked through a booking website, however you can contact Beatrice direct on +39 583-710915 or +39 583-711538. We paid €101 for the night plus €10pp for a breakfast that was delicious and way more substantial than we needed.
There is a range of trattorie and osterie in the old city and several options outside the old city walls, including bars and pizzarie. Like other Tuscan cuisine, the Garfagnese take pride in preparing traditionally simple food, using local, seasonal produce. We had dinner in the old city at L’Osteria, which included an antipasto of cheese, nuts and honey, followed by macaroni (no resemblance to what we are used to in NZ) with truffle, then by lamb and potatoes – all delicious and relatively inexpensive at €39 plus drinks. We skipped dessert and were treated to a glass of local limoncello ‘on the house’ before we left.
What to do
Duomo di Barga
A walk up to Barga’s Duomo (Church of San Cristoforo) through the old town is a must. Walking through the town, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat of an intruder – the cobbled lanes and stepped passages are very narrow and steep; even the piazze are tiny. Follow your nose uphill and you will eventually arrive at the terrace of the Duomo where you can take in the majesty of the views of the Serchio river valley, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps. From behind the Duomo, looking down towards the valley floor, you can see steeply terraced plantings of grapevines, olive trees, citrus and vegetables that are typical of the area. The Duomo itself is well worth a look and will provide welcome relief from the heat if you are there in the summer.
Looking out of our hotel window, I was intrigued by the tiny village sitting atop a not too distant hill to the north of Barga. Beatrice was quick to provide us with directions that included a hike up to Sommocolonia by way of an ancient mule track (mulatiettiera). The mule track can be joined about 2km from Barga at Catagnana; keep an eye out for the red and white ‘signs’ (which may just be paint marks on the road, and may almost be worn away). We lost our way a couple of times and needed guidance from a helpful local, the owner of two mules which we had the pleasure of encountering along the way. The climb up to Sommocolonia is not difficult, but it is a steep walk and requires a reasonable level of fitness (approx. 1.5 hours). At the top, from the tiny village (population about 35), the views are sublime. Originally an important fortified Roman outpost, Sommocolonia was partially destroyed by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. At the village’s highest point, a monument to the partisans who died fighting alongside US forces seems incongruous with what now appears to be a peaceful and sleepy village. It’s a good idea to take plenty of water and a snack with you. When we visited, the only people we encountered were also hikers and although it was very hot and made sense for locals to be indoors, the chance of happening upon a bar or any other eatery seemed very remote.
Another big thanks to guest blogger Niki McNeilage of Wellington who is currently spending a few months living and touring in Italy, France and Spain.