Squeezed between the inaccessible peaks of the Apuan Alps and the Appenine ridge, Garfagnana is a corner of Tuscany that deserves to be discovered, a wide and forested valley that managed to preserve its traditional cuisine together with a still untouched natural environment.
The thick beech and chestnut woods covering the area's steep slopes are interrupted by large farmed clearings, moors and prairies that frame pleasant little villages offering a comfortable stay far from the frantic city pace.
A true hiker's paradise hosting priceless protected flora and fauna sanctuaries, such as the Orecchiella nature sanctuary and the Apuan Alps park, Garfagnana also guards important relics from its past, including the many small rural churches that dot the landscape, monasteries perched on rocky outcrops, as well as fortresses and castles watching over ancient borders, and medieval bridges spanning over waterways.
Natural beauty and architectural treasures are complemented by an interesting cuisine that successfully ranges from mountain flavours (mushrooms, chestnuts, wild berries, honey and game) to farmers' dishes (spelt and vegetable soups, corn "polenta") and fish specialties (mountain trout), nobly accompanied by white and red Colline Lucchesi and Montecarlo Doc wines. Spelt and farina di neccio (chestnut flour) are the two products that best represent this land's identity. As a result of obtaining European Union protection these products, which for many centuries played a fundamental role in the rural economy of Garfagnana, have now been elevated to symbols of the area's image.
Castelnuovo, the capital city and neural centre of Garfagnana, is the starting point for a number of tourist itineraries leading to the Serchio Valley's most interesting destinations. Here Ludovico Ariosto, appointed governor by the Estense ruling family from February 1522 to March 1525, established his headquarters and wrote his famous Epistles. The historical district is dominated by two prestigious monuments that bear evidence of a glorious past and of the great artistic fervour that still animates this small city: the Rocca (fortress) and its walls, preserved in their Renaissance-era version, and the Duomo (cathedral), dedicated to the Saints Peter and Paul and located within the walls. A cultural capital, as well as a gastronomic one, Castelnuovo welcomes visitors to its many "osterie" (taverns), an obligatory gustatory destination for those who love the frugal, albeit delicious, cuisine of Garfagnana.
From here the visitor would be well advised to leave the main road and take side trips to discover eremo dei Calomini (hermitage of the Calomini monks), a fascinating and mystical place almost completely carved into the rock next to a deep ravine, and Grotta del vento (cave of the wind), an underground masterpiece of bizarre shapes and phenomena, with lively and brilliant stalactites and stalagmites, polychrome flows, alabaster drapery, crystal-encrusted pools and subterranean waterways.
Back in Castelnuovo, the close-by villages of Pieve Fosciana, with its narrow streets flanked by stone houses surrounding the Sixteenth-Century Pieve (parish church), and Castiglione, merit the visitor's attention. Still surrounded by its well-preserved walls and keeps with the ancient city gate, Castiglione, is the site two interesting churches. S. Michele, built in the early fifteenth century, hosts a marvellous Madonna with Child painted by Giuliano di Simone at the end of the previous century, while S. Pietro's main feature is its fine thirteenth century fašade.
The last obligatory destination, before leaving Garfagnana, is the Fortezza delle Verrucole, one of the area's most important medieval structures, an imposing and impregnable fortress on a hill overlooking the town of San Romano Garfagnana, near the entrance to the Orecchiella nature park.
The fortress served as prison for the most infamous bandits and adventurers who, at the service of local potentates, infested Garfagnana in the sixteenth century, pillaging and slaughtering the local population in an era when the borders of the valley were hotly contested.