“Contribuì generosamente alla guerra di liberazione con la partecipazione di molti suoi giovani ai primi nuclei partigiani, offrendo splendido esempio di spirito di sacrificio ed elette virtù civiche.” (1940 – 1945)
Aulla is a small town in Tuscan, in the historic area known as Lunigiana, in the province of Massa-Carrara, just a few kilometres from the border of the region Liguria.
We bump into this natural crossroad going along the paths that lead to Passo Cisa and Passo del Cerreto, where the river Magra meets the stream Aulella at the bottom of its valley, that strinks between the untouched high hills.
Being in a strategic position, not far from Lagastrello, and the road that leads to Casola and Garfagnana, and from the famous path Via Francigena, that was once a commercial road, and still is a popular pilgrimage path, represents one of the most important parts of the history of Lunigiana before year 1000.
Part of its municipality are the villages of Albiano Magra, Bibola, Bigliolo, Canova, Caprigliola, Gorasco, Olivola, Pallerone, Quercia, Serricciolo, and Vecchietto, all in the province of Massa-Carrara.
Aulla is overlooked by its castle called Castello di Podenza (Podenzana is the name of a nearby municipality), the castle of Bibola and the imposing Brunella fortress, that dominates its historic centre, it was built by Giovanni dalle bande nere.
Not far from the town there are many interesting and attracting places, such as Caprigliola with its Medicean city walls, this ancient hamlet is located on the top of a sandstone hill, surrounded by woods; the villages of Bibola and Bigliolo with the remains of the fortresses, and the Middle Age villages of Albiano and Pallerone, where it is possible to admire an ancient castle and a chapel of the Malaspina family, at present it is a parish church devoted to Saint Antonio, but it was built to worship Saint Thomas from Canterbury; the old bridge above the stream Aulella, on the Cisa road that once hosted the railway track Pontremolese.
The territory of Aulla is included in a food and wine tasting itinerary, called Strada del vino dei Colli di Candia e di Lunigiana.
A bit of history...
We find evidence of the town of Aulla, mentioned as Aguilla, in the oldest travel reports of the Via Francigena, written by the Archibishop of Canterbury, the origin of its name is controversial, according to some people it probably comes from the latin word lacus or lacuna, which means lake, more reliable theories state that the name comes from “aula” (palace or court), or from the dialect Ligurian word “ula” meaning forest.
The original part of the residential area of Aulla, was built well before the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Caprasio, which was built in 884 by the Marquis Adalberto di Toscana, this abbey was one of the most important monk centres of Lunigiana in Middle Ages, and is probably the abbey mentioned in one of Boccaccio’s novels.
During Middle Ages, there were great fights between abbots and counts-bishops, for the dominion of Lunigiana, the struggles between the Malaspina family and the army from Luni, but the town decided to support the Malaspina family.
In 1217 pope Onorio III, ended these struggles and included the abbey of Aulla as part of the episcopate of Luni, known by the villages of Albiano Magra and Caprigliola.
During the second half of the thirteenth century and the following century, the town suffered political instability, the Marquis Malaspina and the bishops lost their power, and the town was disputed between Florence, Genoa and Milan, as they all wanted the dominion of this area located on the important via Francigena.
The town was under the rule of the Genoese family Campofregoso, while Caprigliola and Albiano Magra went under the Republic of Florence in 1404.
The feud of Olivola became an alley of the viscounts of Milan.
Aulla was at the time a lively trading hamlet, populated by clever craftsmen, farmers and conveyors.
Between 1522 and 1525, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere dè Medici, bought the town and tried to impose his dominion in Lunigiana, he wanted to creat his own state on the northen part of Tuscany. He probably conceived and planned the fortress Brunella, the opposition of the Malaspina family, of Genoa and Milan forced Giovanni to sell the feud, with great relief of the population of the nearby villages, who had suffered destruction and reprisals.
In 1543 Aulla was purchased by the Genoese banker Adamo Centurione, who belonged to a rich family, he built the fortress, provided artillery, and also renovated the abbey in baroque style, then he donated the relics of Saint Severo martire and built the palace called Il Centurione.
In 1706 the town was once more under the rule of the Malaspina di Podenzana, then it became property of the Estensi family till the unification of Italy.
The town of Aulla suffered a great deal during WWII, and for this reason the town received the Gold Medal for Civil Values; during the war, part of the ancient hamlet was destroyed, only part of the abbey of Saint Caprasio was left (the apse, the hall capitolare, the middle age baptismal font, and the remains of two churches of the eighth and ninth century) and “Palazzo Centurione”.
At present the municipality of Aulla is the result of three separate areas: Aulla with its abbey, Oliva and Pallerone, once feud of the Malaspina family, and the villages of Albiano and Caprigliola.
The territory of Aulla spreads from the Natural Regional Park of the Apuan Alps, established in 1985 with legal premises in the Municipality of Stazzema and offices in Castelnuovo Garfagnana, Massa and Serravezza.
The park includes a great variety of different landscapes, mountains, hills and the famous white marble quarries in Carrara. Its territory is of about 20000 hectares with chalky areas, rich in water and landscapes similar to the moorlands.
On the slopes overlooking the sea, we find the typical mediterranean vegetation, holm oak trees, myrtle bushes, olive groves and wide areas of maritime pines in the middle hills. Going inland, up the hills we find oaks and hornbeans towards the Tyrrhenian side of the Apuan Alps, going up and down the slopes, from 400 metres above the sea level, we can reach 1400 metres.
The river Magra as well as the river Vara have unique fluvial ecosystems, and hosts rare species. From Aulla it is easy to reach these two areas, and follow the flow of the river Vara from Ponte Santa Margherita. Sesta Godano, Brugnato, Rocchetta Vara, Santo Stefano Magra, Sarzana and Ameglia are some historic and cultural towns at a short distance.
Going along the river Magra, we can find impressive rural landscapes, that can be crossed on foot, mountain bike or riding a horse, especially near the area of La Spezia, its mild climate in spring and the plains as suitable for bird-watching. The river Magra, as well as the river Vara have a unique and wonderful ecosystem, and host a rather amazing fauna heritage. If you want to reach Liguria from Aulla, you have to pass through the charming villages of Bibola and Vecchietto.
Bibola can be seen from a distance, thanks to the magnificent remains of its castle, that overlooks the town of Aulla; it was built to defend the port of Luni. Bibola also achieved importance thanks to the via Francigena, as well as the other nearby outposts.
Well worth seeing are the alleys that wind along the rustic stone houses of the village.
Vecchietto is located between Bibola and the territory of Fosdinovo, on a main road of Via Francigena, it is in this place that a sort of link with the town of Sarzana can be perceived, passing through Middle Age hamlets like Ponzanello, we reach the hamlets of Quattro Strade, Fosdinovo and then the region Liguria and Sarzana.
In Garfagnana there is an interesting grotto worth to visit, it is called Grotta del Vento (Wind Grotto), it is a wide underground area, known for the great variety of rocks and minerals. Majestic natural sculptures, small lakes and streams, muddy areas and even vertical wills.
Not far from here, we find the karstic area of Antro del Corchia, recently equipped for visits and opened to the public, it is the biggest Italian grotto, located right on top of Mount Corchia, in the mountains of Upper Versilia, inside the Park of the Apuan Alps, near the villages of Levigliani and Terrinca (in the municipality of Stazzema), this is a perfect place for hikers thanks to the well equipped and lit path, it is a kilometer long and it will take a couple of hours to reach the end of it.
If you want to feel the atmosphere of the old Lunigiana, walk along the path that starts in Pontremoli, in Piazza della Repubblica, thirty kilometres will separate you from the abbey in Aulla, your final destination. You can complete this path in about eight hours, with no particular difficulties, enjoy your walk among the woods, but don’t forget to wear sensible shoes!
Once you have passed the ancient village of Filattiera, the path goes down towards the valley of the stream Monia, and the village of Filetto, cross the stream Bagnone and go up again towards Virgoletta, and then Terrarossa, in the municipality of Licciana Nardi, a charming hamlet overlooked by the Malaspina castle, your trip ends up near the abbey of Saint Caprasio in Aulla.
Places of interest
Aulla has a special bond with its fortress La Brunella, a majestic military building, with a quadrangular structure, built around mid sixteenth century, it overlookes the valley from a strategic position, as it is located on top of a rocky spur, the rocks have also been used as material to build the fortress.
The slope and the classic bridge over a moat, helped to protect the town from its enemies.
Fom the garden of the fortress you can enjoy an amazing view of the Valley of Magra, with the historic town centre of Aulla that lies at the confluence of the rivers.
At the beginning of the ninenteenth century the fortress was bought by an English family, the Waterfields, and it became a luxory residence, then in the seventies the property was purchased by the municipality.
At present the fortress is the premises of the Museum of Natural History of Lunigiana. There are faunistic finds, many examples of embalmed birds, reptiles and amphibians, in addition there is an osteologic and entomologic collection, a great treasure for local natural researches.
The castle in Bibola is in very poor conditions, its ruins are surrounded by tall grass and crickets,but still maintains a sort of Middle Age allure, typical of Lunigiana.
It is located right on top of a hill, overlooking the Valley of Magra, closed in a wonderful hollow, it is the result of different constructions. It has a square plan, with some long circular towers, there are also the ruins of a chimney and other parts damaged by time, that can be admired from the roofs of the houses of the hamlet, and there is a thick vegetation in the background.
The abbey of Saint Caprasio is located in the town centre, it is one of the oldest religious buildings in Aulla and in the whole area of Via Francigena. It was built thanks to Adalberto I, marquis of Tuscany, and the help of the benedectine monks, it is placed inside a structure that was used to protect the confluence of the rivers. The monks were linked to the Malaspina family, and often had disputes with the bishops of Luni.
In 1070 the abbey was renovated in Romanesque style, with the three aisles that can still be admired.
In the fourtheenth century other renovations took place, the coat of arms of Aulla was placed inside and the bell tower was built up.
At present the historic complex of Saint Caprasio is the premises of a museum dedicated to monastery life, there are also some archeologic finds that have been recently descovered, and an exhibitions of dresses, tools and objects used in the abbey, providing evidence of the passage of the pilgrims from Santiago de Compostela.
From Aulla going towards Lucca in the Apuan Alps, you cross an area called Garfagnana, it has many little hamlets spread on its mountains, in a couple of days you will become accustomed to these peculiar places, like Casola in Lunigiana, Castelnuovo Garfagnana and Fornaci di Barga, just to mention a few.
If you are mad about peculiar hamlets, then Caprigliola is the right place for you, it is one of the most evocative hamlets of this area. It is so charming at night, with the small houses lit and the pointed roofs, a unique location and shape, perched on a hill, built to defend the area in the past, it can easily be noticed, and it is placed on the border of two regions.
You can still admire the Medicean city walls ,that surround the whole village.
The exact origin of the village is unknown, but the dusty alleys are full of Middle Age crests and portals, proudly kept to remember its history.
Its cylindrical tower stands up high, making the village look like a ship, and when the village is lit at night, the resemblance is even more evident.
To finish our trip, let’s talk about the nice village of Pallerone, it is located in the valley, on the left hand side of the river Aulella, just a few kilometres from Serricciolo.
The village is famous for its mechanic nativity, built in December 1935, to celebrate Chistmas, with recycled material, it has a rather complicated electromecanic-hydraulic system, it has improved in time, thanks to the help and passion of the citizens, it it located in a room, inside the marquis palace.
This little hamlets still bears a fifteenth century door, and a particular alignment of the houses due to the fac that one of the members of the Malaspina family, decided to place the stables far from the inhabited area for hyginic purposes.
Accommodation, tourism and events
The town of Aulla encourages an unusual and discreet tourism, but with nothing to envy to that of some popular places. The town has good means of transport, and it is easy to reach by car, as well as by train, it is the right place for visiting the nearby countryside hamlets; the territory is rich in cultural, natural and gourmet paths loved by couples and families. You can stay in a convenient agritourism or have dinner in a posh restaurant.
Let’s talk about the events: we can certainly start from Lunezia Story International Pop Prize, an addition to the literary-musical prize, then not less important is another type of event, the Grapes fair, that has been on for over thirty years, and in the summer there are many typical village fairs in each hamlet.
At Christmas don’t miss the living cribs in Vecchietto and Albiano Magra, where there is another interesting fair in June, a sort of medioeval re enactment with falconers, archers, jesters and warriors performed by the local group “Compagnia della Spada” from Aulla.
The patron saint of Aulla is Saint Caprasio, and is celebrated every year in June, there are religious celebrations and a fair with hundreds of stalls, where you can buy agricultural tools, local food and wine products, clothing and furnishings, the stalls are all along the main streets of the town. You must remember that at the end of July, beginning of August there is the traditional fair of the focaccetta, it takes place in Vaccareccia, Focaccia is of course the top dish, the food stalls will be open at lunch time and at dinner time. You may also taste many other local dishes, and be entertained by live music.
In August in the village of Podenzana, pay a visit to the well known Sagra del Panigaccio, a popular fair usually held near the Sanctuary Madonna del Gaggio, there are many food stalls with traditional excellent products, and live music. Finally, since 1993, Aulla gathers underage boys and girls to be chosen as young mayor; traditional elections and a proper ceremony take place, the elected young mayor will be asked to wear the mayoral sash.
The cuisine in Aulla is a happy bond of Ligurian and Tuscan flavours: we find a rich local production, savoury and full bodied ingredients, the majority of the recipes are prepared with the products of the territory of Lunigiana, other dishes remind us the Ligurian rural traditions, the generosity of the woods, and the sea. There are many restaurants where you can discover these different flavours, wisely combined, served with wines and old local recipes.
Let’s start with cured meats and cheeses, they are usually served with the famous Panigacci, a kind of round bread, made of flour, water and salt, and baked in a wood burning oven: pecorino cheese, mortadella and caciotta cheese from Lunigiana, cooked shoulder from Filattiera, “biroldo” from Garfagnana, lard from Colonnata and seasoned bacon, the inimitable Bazzone ham. Panigacci could not exist without its usual cheese and salami, the best place to eat them is in Podenzana, another famous dish to try “Testaroli”, sliced, boiled and served with pesto sauce, or olive oil and parmigiano cheese, or try “focaccette”, very common in Aulla, they are made with wheat or maize flour, baked in clay plates called “testi”, often confused with Panigacci.
Chestnut flour, is used in many local dishes, for example to prepare the so called bastard lasagna, gnocchi mesci, or bread from Fivizzano and the popular ”marocca bread” from Casola, this homemade bread has become a Slow Food product, it is really tasty, eaten with good honey from Lunigiana, the only PDO brand, or with excellent goat cheese. Vegetable pies are one of the symbols of the culinary tradition of Lunigiana: these savoury pies are prepared with local wild herbs, you will find different types of pies according to the tradition of the village. There is a great variety of pies, so you will never eat the same veggy pie in Lunigiana.
Farinata is another yummy dish to try, it is made with chickpeas flour, olive oil, salt and pepper , as well as the so called typical “frittini”, with beans and black cabbage, the batter is slightly cooked, then fried in hot olive oil.
There is a great variety of main courses, homemade stuffed pasta, tortelli, pappardelle with hare sauce, lasagna, all served with different sauces such as walnut sauce, mushrooms and butter, just to mention a couple; try a “sgabeo”, it is a bread dough, fried in olive oil, salted, it can also be eaten as a starter, or why not taste the delicious soups like the hulled wheat soup, there are many sauces such as walnut sauce, porcini mushroom sauce or just butter or olive oil and cheese.
As regards second courses, we can surely suggest roasted lamb from Zeri and baked potatoes, a must cacciatora goat, stewed rabbit, that can also be served with polenta, a typical dish of the area is called “chiodo” (nail) pork, a sort of tasty sausage, served cut in half.
When autumn arrives, get ready to taste the many dishes prepared with the local porcini mushrooms.
When we talk about agricultural cultivations of Lunigiana, the onions from Treschietto stand out, they are cultivated near the Malaspina Castle, they can be eaten, stuffed with beef, eggs and parmesan cheese, as well as porcini mushrooms, or cooked in a pan, some recipes include the use of Bigliolo beans.
Fish comes from the nearby sea areas, the most commonly used are codfish and stockfish, because they can be preserved better, they are cooked with garlic “in agliata”, cod is really excellent stewed, while stockfish is better served with polenta. You may also find typical dishes of La Spezia and Massa, such as tuna or sword fish carpaccio, or the rich fried fish dishes.
As regards desserts you won’t know what to choose, you can try the almond cake or buccellato, spongata from Pontremoli or Sarzana, or the soft and creamy “amor” biscuits made in Pontremoli, they are delicious waffles with a creamy lemon filling, slightly alchoolic to tickle your troat. Castagnaccio made with chestnut flour, is a must, it is often stuffed with orange zest and pine nuts, try “vinata” a sort of sweet polenta, cooked in wine, in the past people ate it to get warm during the long winter months.
We can’t forget to mention some wines produced near Aulla, you must try “Colli di Luni” red and white wines and “ Candia dei Colli Apuani” wine, produced in Carrara and Massa, or “Val di Magra” IGT and the well known dessert wine “Perseghin”.