Val di Magra
“..se novella vera di Val di Magra, o di parte vicina, sai, dillo a me, che già grande là era. Chiamato fui Corrado Malaspina; non son l’Antico, ma di lui discesi.”
(Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, VIII 115-18, La Divina Commedia)
An unusual river basin, with river bends and postcards from the moon, the sand gently descends and gains the charm of a plain, then it changes into sandy coasts, where lazy herons fly. A plain where once were marshy plots that look at the mountains, this lush area is sprinkled by puddles and lakes and protected by mountains.
Reeds and historical artifacts, this is the daily life of the inhabitants of the valley.
The basin, and thus the course of the river Magra, our protagonist, achieves unique and rare challenges in terms of landscape, providing (a short distance from very populated centres such as Sarzana) a “high” and “low” version ”of the valley landscape, both easy to reach, and backstage of the historical region of Lunigiana, the port and the bay of the town of La Spezia, as well as the successful quintet of themagnificent Cinque Terre overlooking the sea.
We must point out that the valley of the river Magra should be conventionally included in the territory of the province of La Spezia – not so much for its landscapes, but for administrative reasons – therefore we find its territories together with Val di Vara and the Gulf of Poets (which is the sheltered area of the coast), protected by the Regional Natural Park of Montemarcello – Magra. Nevertheless the origin of the river Magra can be found on the foothill of Mount Borgognone, at the border between Tuscany and Emilia, by convention the rest is identified by the cultural offer of Lunigiana and La Spezia, although this part represents only the last kilometres of the river flow.
We include the entire extension of Val di Magra in the provinces of La Spezia and Massa-Carrara for a good reason: it begins where the river springs rise, in the surroundings of the Apuan Alps, close to Tuscany, and in the Lunense inland, then it ends by the sea, we should not forget to mention the lord of the seasons, the river, which is one of the best routes identified by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela with caravans in the past and today.
In any case, in recent times the connections to and from Passo della Cisa have replaced the access roads to the plain Padana, proposing foot paths and signs instead of the lost paths … yet,the villages perched on the mountains, the parish churches and the mule tracks added to Via Francigena, which is one of the main roads that crossed Europe, still suit the area well.
We were saying that rivers and luxuriance find their slow, but not monotonous flow in a sweet and salty continuation, that ends in the alluvial plain, near the tourist destinations of Marinella di Sarzana, as well as in Fiumaretta and Bocca di Magra, these villages are part of the municipality of Ameglia, the latter has been a popular tourist destination for intellectuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Italo Calvino, Mario Soldati, Giovanni Giudici and Eugenio Montale.
In Liguria, close to Santo Stefano di Magra there is the confluence of the river Vara, this river is longer than his “brother” and is accustomed to steep mountain slopes.
The place has acquired fame in history, since the time of the Apuan Ligurians, people who worked more as shepherds than as fishermen, unsurprisingly the proximity to the sea attracted many people in this area, well before the Romans and finally the Republic of Genoa. During the Middle Ages, the struggles that involved feudal lords and ecclesiastical families were turbulent, the Malaspina family was be able to stand out in those struggles.
Sarzana is in fact its capital city of the area, even if it is not its administrative centre, at present it is the cultural centre of Lunigiana and its valley, that emerged after the year 1000, after geographical changes, the growth of lake basins, the arrival of plagues and political reasons, that provided asylum to artists, forts and wealthy business
In this editorial we will focus on the Ligurian side of the Magra valley, looking at its hamlets, its historic territories and less known areas, and the endless Made in Italy beauties, going down towards Pontremoli, that have an urgent need to interfere between the sky and sunny view of the Tyrrehnian sea, the border between Liguria and Tuscany.
Sarzana, Arcola and Ameglia thrive in close contact with a damp, marshy environment, it has been chosen as home by a series of unique migratory species, this area also hosts luxury boats moored in quiet and safe ravines, it is a fertile area, a sort of precursor of the terraces that are in Lerici and San Terenzo (Montemarcello is included in the list of the most beautiful villages in Italy and the coastal arch of Punta Corvo and Punta Bianca).
The villages of Ortonovo, today Luni, was the ancient Roman colony of Lunae, Vezzano Ligure, Castelnuovo Magra, Santo Stefano di Magra, represent the bumps and hill climbs and dominate from the heights of the territory.
The coasts and beaches of the Gulf of Poets, with their colorful fishing villages, leave ample space to Val di Magra and its lush inland forests. In addition to the river route, the Magra valley includes the promontory of Caprione, a perfect place for starting an excursion.
There are pebbled paths that once were river banks, bits and pieces of sandstone, fabulous pine groves and forests, limestone rocks, the pride of Punta Bianca, that were used according to Reinassance tendencies as decorative material for the buildings of the ancient town of Luni.
Karstification can be spotted towards the western part of Val di Magra, looking at the area of La Spezia. In the protected area of Montemarcello, in particular, the many sinkholes highlight the particularity of the place.
The river environment of Val di Magra was helped by the local administration, that has allowed the coexistance of a place with valuable historic importance and its landscape, without changing the territory, at the same time it has encouraged tourism and sustainable development of its villages and hamlets, including different kind of historical, culinary and community realities.
The flow of the river Magra does not hurry, in fact it is quite slow, the river bed has wide meanders that enrich the soil with silt, the flow gets a little bit more impetuous towards Santo Stefano, however this does not disturb the quiet landscape, instead it helps its vegetation to become lush, full of riparian bushes, the small lakes and the swamps are important places for migratory and permanent birds, such as kingfishers, egrets, a great number of sea gulls, terns and grebes, then we find mergansers, eiders and cormorant especially near Bocca di Magra, in the stretch of sea in front of the river mouth. Sea lampreys have been spotted in the area, where they can find a safe site for reproduction.
Birdwatchers can rely on the presence of cattle egrets near the plain in Marinella. In a sheltered and distant environment, crossed by minor water ways, water plants and marsh plants dimish and lead us to shady woods full of oak trees and small quercus ilex.
We find plenty elms, cottonwood, willow trees, viceversa coming down from the slopes along the coast there are many pine groves. There is the typical environment with agricultural activities, Mediterranean maquis and winding steps between houses, from which we can see the sparkling Ligurian sea.
The ecosystem changes and the fauna shows different types of animals, such as badgers, foxes, weasels, dormice that live in the undergrowth, hunted by nocturnal birds of prey, birdwatchers might come across scops owls and barn owls.
The richness of the avifauna makes Val di Magra synonymous of clean air and peaceful walks, plus it also provides shelter to vaious reptiles and amphibians. A joy for the eyes is the Apennine yellow-bellied toad, the spotted salamanders and the Apuan newt. In the lower course of the river Magra we find the park that includes the promontory of Montemarcello, the lower and middle course of the river Vara and eighteen Ligurian municipalities. The Botanical Garden is worth a visit, this is the real operating unit of the Centre for Environmental Education (CEA), it is divided into sections, with laboratories and plant collections, dedicated paths typical of the area. Montemarcello Botanical Garden is included in the “Network of botanical gardens, and nurseries” of the Protected Areas of the Liguria Region”.
The park of the monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo is still part of Montemarcello, then a stone’s throw away we find the “wooded kingdom” of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine National Park.
We focus especially on two valid naturalistic alternatives, since they provide the best conditions for practicing different types of sports: trekking, mountain bike and horse riding seem to be the favourite activities of sports lovers, and there are also particual dedicated circuits.
Sportsmen enjoy the 15 steps of the route called “Trekking Lunigiana”, we have to mention the green areas of STEL, the Tourist Excursion System of Lunigiana, where there are paths that cross the territory, you can admire pleasant architectural structures of the area, such as castles and historic passes of Lunigiana, all well marked.
That’s not all. The fact that Val di Magra has heterogeneous features means that it can provide good quality tourism on its coasts, where flat, sandy beaches have become in years long stretches of coast, with easy and accessible landings in Fiumaretta di Ameglia, you can enjoy quiet and sheltered areas, well equipped with facilities and attractions, for adults and children; they very clean places that have received the Blue Flag.
The stretch of coast towards Marinella di Sarzana is very wide and equipped with good bathing establishments, the area has a unique coastline with marsh areas and dense woods, at the opposite end, we find the coast of Lerici, Tellaro and Fiascherino, we continue our journey in Val di Magra, then we head towards the Apuan Riviera and Versilia, homeland of a long shore able to satisfy the generous Tuscan customers.
Between the mouth of the river Magra, the hills plunged into gloomy banks and the Apuan Alps, near the town of Sarzana, the landscape of Val di Magra is characterized by an incredible number of suggestive medieval villages located mainly in a dominant position, on hills, their urban plans make them look like stone islands above plains; they are like chests with treasure, suggestive observation points, belvedere developed in isolation, with breathtaking views and landscapes, we are talking about Castelnuovo Magra, Vezzano Ligure, Ortonovo, Arcola and, to a lesser extent, Ameglia, they all respect stylistic canons typical of the small villages situated close to the Magra valley bottom.
Taking advantage of its favourable position on the ancient Via Francigena, with a strong and long term commercial vocation, still present nowadays, thanks to many temporary stores and art exhibitions, a cultural binder and a crossroad of political interests, Sarzana is by right the most flourishing tourist centre of Val di Magra.
You reach the historic centre of the town through Porta Romana or Porta Parma. From the central piazza del Comune (piazza Matteotti, formerly known as piazza della Calcandola), the alleys and houses shaded by terraces and arcades unfold – the usual ones, made of slate, of which Liguria is full of – you can easily move on foot, in fact it is better to wander undisturbed among boutiques, small shops, antique dealers, bistros and bars that often offer the usual successfull wine-bar formula, in step with the best time for an Italian aperitif before lunch or in the late afternoon.
The evening hours attract people in town, that becomes a unique, sparkling place just like the one you can find in large cities ,but with the advantage of being in a protected and “respectful” environment, that cares of its common spaces … when you visit the historic centre, in one of the bars near the Town Hall, order a sweet pastry at the historic Caffè Costituzionale or at Caffè Pini in via Gramsci. Pasticceria Gemmi is along via Mazzini, this is the official place where you can buy the original Spongata Sarzanese, a must to see.
Young people love Marinella di Sarzana, every moment is fine to enjoy a good swim in its clean sea, in one of the many free, equipped beaches, you can spend a day swimming under the sun without being too far from town, or why not book in one of the many family run agritourisms, charming renovated farmhouses that welcome its customers with courtesy and character, they are usually located in the woods or among olive groves, some are situated in the deep inlets of Ameglia, Lerici and in Eastern Liguria.
There are many sanctuaries, ancient mills, farmhouses, farms set among the hills behind the village of Arcola, you can spend a lovely afternoon with expert winemakers who have lived in the area for generations. Stop and see the tiny village of Trebiano and photograph the bishop’s castle, or visit the other charming villages of Baccano, Cerri, each of these places seems to have forgotten the passage of time, instead it is the home of people who know a lot about how to promote some of the best wines on the market, that probably have too many degrees compared to wines that you can find in the supermarkets, thanks to their patented homemade method.
On foot, wearing sensible shoes, you can visit the stretch of park that crosses Montemarcello Botanical Garden, the sunny coast of Bocca di Magra and Massa-Carrara and the skyline of the Gulf of Poets will show you an unforgettable landscape, you can have a delicious picnic with your friends, and you can end the day visiting the village of La Serra, or going through the arcades of the ever-changing tower-houses, in Lerici. The whole Montemarcello Magra Park is suitable for excursions, its paths are easy and well marked.
The amazing “Path of the Poets” is one of the many possibilities, to enjoy a good trip in the area (it starts in Portovenere and ends in Bocca di Magra) it will surely remind you of some Fauvist paintings, a good comparison that makes us understand why important writer such as Lord Byrod or Duras, artistis and intellectuals chose this place in the past. The surroundings in Ameglia are rich in woods and streams, the perfect destination for horseback riding or mountain biking, or even experiment slow-trekking.
There are many charming villages which all part of the beautiful protected natural area. Enjoy the views while driving on the provincial road 28 that goes from Ameglia to Lerici
You will have the opportunity to come down from Mount Caprione in the direction of Montemarcello, pass La Serra, then the village of Tellaro, and cross over the area near Lerici and San Terenzo. While driving, you can breathe the bitter fragrance of rosemary bushes and iodine breeze, this makes us feel how intense the presence the Gulf of La Spezia is.
Bocca di Magra boasts a stoic beauty, it is an outpost and a centre for pleasure boats, frequented by wealthy businessmen-The village had to adapt to modern docks suitable for pleasure boats and yacht charter services; the marina is fine if you plan to moor annually, the occasional passage will be without great difficulties while steering. Almost all of its inhabited area is in a restricted traffic area, there are two beaches, one is equipped and the second one is free, you don’t have to go tumbling down steep slopes, it is a real pleasure to swim in the sea, at the same time enjoy the view of the Apuan Alps.
For people who love nature Vezzano Ligure is the right place, there is a geological path that bears the name of the abbot Antonio Stoppani, an esteemed scholar and scientist. The hike takes place in particular natural conformations due to the passage of a glacier, it starts from the centre of the village, on the north-western slopes of the hill. It continues dotted with ten calcareous wells, called “potholes of the giants”, a sort of steep concave sections, the effects of karstification, very common in Liguria.
The gathering place in Castelnuovo is via Dante, so called because the poet came to Castelnuovo Magra, as prosecutor of the Malaspina family, to conclude a peace treaty that ended years of bloody struggles.
Via Dante is entirely paved with sandstone, it connects two landmarks of the community, the church of Santa Maria Maddalena and the castle, there is a large number of splendid noble period buildings in via Dante, each building has magnificent marble inserts, contrary to the use of gray stones used in that period
Next to the church there is a porch that leads to the small square of the eighteenth-century Amati-Ingolotti-Cornelio palace, seat of the Town Hall and the Regional Enoteca of Liguria: from its garden you can enjoy a lovely view of the Apuan Alps and Versilia. The municipality has been awarded the Orange Flag by the Italian Touring Club and the national Green Flag award for agriculture and environmental protection policies.
The town of Luni is outlined by a structure of concentric rings, the exterior ring represents the city walls that also have gates. This arrangement is typical of the villages in Lunigiana. In the square there is the tower “Di Guinigi”, it is the bell tower of the parish church, a tribute to San Lorenzo. The circular tower was part of a castle that stood in the place of the church, that takes inspiration for size and structure from other Lunigiana towers of Comano, Malgrate, Bagnone and Filattiera.
Finally, Santo Stefano di Magra allows us to reach the lush Taverone Valley, the junction with Lunigiana and small mule tracks, dirt roads and trekking paths, that pass through ancient roads dominated by castles and walkways, the magnificent imposing Fortress Brunella, an impressive building that overlooks the town of Aulla. The bends of the Gulf of Poets and the series of mansions are left behind, until we outline the mountain pass Lagastrello and the Apennine buttresses.
Events and places of interest
When you are staying in Val di Magra, Sarzana, itself, is worth a visit, a practical trip that combines splendour and virtue… If you love fortresses, castles and you frequently go to libraries – we suggest the civic libray Corrado Martinetti, “L’Archivio Capitolare” in Sarzana – and some museums such as the MUdeF, which offers a very up-to-date service for people who love the history of this region, if you like crafts, do not miss a visit to the homonymous exhibition, that takes place every year in the summer.
You can reach Sarzana, from the state road 63 Cisa, leaving the fork with Via Aurelia, which welcomes the visitors with a tangle of streets and pedestrian areas: just think of Piazza San Giorgio and Via Mazzini – at the end of the same we find sunny gardens and the complex of Villa Olladini -, or the geometric shapes of Piazza De Andrè, you will surely understand how this location is able to feed the mind, and earn the best place and favours in the imaginary, according to typical historical, cultural canons of Tuscany and Lunigiana, it boasts origins in common with the ancient Roman colony of Lunae – Luni, towards which it has an important debt, the town replaced Luni and gained religious importance, then it became the new bishopric, during the XIII century.
Sarzana is partially surrounded by city walls, of the five original gateways, only two are left: Porta Romana, also known as Porta Nuova, Pisana or di San Bartolomeo, and Porta Parma – the town takes great care of its buildings (that draw a constant and profitable flow of visitors) and its artistic and architectural heritage. In fact we find oratories, cloisters and several churches, villas and noble buildings of baroque and neoclassical style To complete the list of important places we must include the Fortress Firmafede, of Pisan origins, and that of Sarzanello, formerly a bishop’s residence.
The historic centre of Sarzana develops along via Bertoloni and via Mazzini, on which different period buildings stand out, such as Palazzo Remedi, Palazzo Podestà Lucciardi and the Town Hall building, which fits perfectly here. Palazzo Podestà-Licciardi is a three-storey building that has nothing to envy to the period buildings of Central Europe, it is supported by a series of saffron Doric columns, made by Carlo Barabino, who created something splendid just like an immortal favour.
Piazza Matteotti represents an evening gathering place for young people, who liven up with their voices and new blood a maze made up of portals and craft shops, that otherwise would look like a hundred years ago. Sarzana remains in our mind for its magnificent Cc-Cathedral, dedicated to Maria Assunta, it is equipped with an imposing portal and an unmistakable crenellated bell tower, built with exposed stone.
Santa Maria Assunta has an amazing scenic look, moreover it was decorated according to the canons of three different styles. We must also mention the parish church of Sant’Andrea, that hosts some characteristic paintings, including a “Vocation of Saints James and John the Baptist” by Domenico Fiasella.
The Medicean citadel is impressive, it is also called Fortezza Firmafede, it is overlooked by Fortezza di Sarzanello. Fortezza Firmafede can be visited all year round, it often hosts cultural events, exhibitions and conferences.
Without leaving the amenities of the town centre, you may visit the village of Falcinello or go towards the sea in Marinella di Sarzana, or visit the archeological ruins of Luni (formerly called Ortonovo).
At the beginning of September there is an important festival called “Festival della Mente” where writers, artists, photographers, scientists, architects perfom on stage, the town has to juggle with a creative European workshop that follows a particular topic every year. In the same period there is another artistic event called “Acmè”, it is open to young people and it takes places in the halls of Firmafede.
Of major importance is a street market called “Soffitta nella Strada” an exhibition, a sort of treasure hunt for antiques in progress and much more, with hundreds of stalls from Italy and abroad, which has brightened
enthusiasts for over half a century, it is set in the historic centre in August. The first Sunday of each month there is a small market for people who love vintage, you will find rich collections in via Fiasella and via Mascardi. Finally there is a traditional appointment, the Hazelnut Fair in March and San Venanzio Fair in mid-October.
Arcola was built together with Ameglia and Castelnuovo Magra to allow the inhabitants to avoid malaria infections, a real plague of the past. The town was an ancient deposit when the Ligurians and the Romans fought against each other, it was a sort of well known fortress in Lunigiana. Dominated by Obertenga family, the town still remembers the raids by pirat and maraunders, as well as the dispute between Luni and the Malaspina family, later the town was under the dominion of the Doria family and then under the Republic of Genoa.
The Obertenghi pentagonal tower is representative, despite the human losses and the entanglements of the past. It has remained the same in time, keeping the grandeur of what it meant to coexist with Germanic people. Along the administrative border placed to separate Arcola and Lerici, leaving the village of Pitelli behind us, we meet the defensive building that bears the name of Forte di Canarbino, do not forgett to check the Gulf of Poets and its views, covered with climbing plants, occasional photo shooting equipment and a generous brush of Mediterranean maquis.
November holds up the name of chestnuts in Arcola, where a great binge takes place together with the Alpine troops.
In summer there is The Craft Beer Festival and the Ligurian Raviolo Festival liven up the evenings, while masked procession for “Carnevale in Fabula”, attracts adults and especially children, the first weeks in February.
Ameglia is nestled on the top of a hill, it is the ideal continuation of Bocca di Magra – or viceversa, it depends where you start your journey from -, is a twofold reality, which has gradually managed to expand within the limits of a territory that is rocky and flat, which includes river areas and coastal areas. The ancient village is located on the upper part of a hill, its origins date back to the Iron Age, there is evidence of its past, in the wide Ligurian necropolis of the 4th century BC; if you want to take a look, follow the signs for Cafaggio, one of the four hamlets of the village.
Walking halfway up the coast, like invaders of the peaceful kingdom of Ameglia, of probably Etruscan origins, you will be under the supervision of the imposing Medieval Tower, under which the stratified plan of the village unfolds: then it goes down following the shape that interests the ground, and is tightening at the tip, surrounded by a ring of terraced houses; the village ends near the last circle placed on the castle.
We must say a couple of words about its religious buildings, since they are all concentrated towards the mouth of the river Magra: in Ameglia we can visit the parish church of Saints Vincenzo and Pasquale, built in the 15th century over the original remains of an earlier building, and the oratory of Our Lady of the Assumption of the eighteenth century, choosing from a list of places rich in historical value.
The traveller’s attention is focused on Bocca di Magra, this location gained populary at the end of the Renaissance, for the richness of its sea, as an important river junction to transport marble from the quarries to the towns of the North of Italy. At present the place still represents the fortune of Val di Magra. The offer can boast revenues equal to the Cinque Terre, thanks to the infrastructure of the marina and, perhaps to the fishermen’s nets full of fresh fish that we can already see at dawn, from the pier.
A simple and peaceful island, a spiritual retreat, a gathering place, a conference centre, a place for your holidays or a cell where you can pray, something halfway between a hotel and a scenary immagined by the writer Umberto Eco, this is Monastero Santa Croce del Corvo in Bocca di Magra, it is open to people who do not disdain to keep their promises. The Monastery overlooks an untouched stretch of sea and an oak forest, stairways and avenues enrich this wonderful canvas.
The monastery belongs to the order of the Discalced Carmelite Fathers, it is an ancient medieval monastery built in Gothic style that welcomes its visitors, there are self managed small houses, and a superb care of the hosts, plus a heavenly landscape.
Beyond Montemarcello, that is listed in the Most Beautiful Hamlets of Italia, there are places worth a visit such as the small centre of Portesone, a tiny group of rough stone houses, or Fiumaretta, located by the sea, and of course Bocca di Magra. In May there is a feast for the patron saint of Ameglia, San Pasquale. In Fiumaretta the feast that celebrates Sant’Isidoro is in the same period. Sant’Andrea, the patron saint of fishermen, is celebrated in the hamlet of Bocca di Magra in November.
The village of Ameglia transforms itself for carnival on the last sunday of celebrations, it follows an ancient tradition that dates back to the fifteenth-century, there are masks and historical figures, there is an open air performance in the streets of the village, that involves the whole population.
’”Omo ar Bozo” from the cronicles to nowadays, this even has become a feast that takes ideas from other festivals, “good” people arrest the first foreigner that passes by Ameglia, then they free hi if he pays duty fees, or the good people of the village make the poor stranger bathe in the freezing waters of a “bozo” . Over the years, the common thread has been to raise public awareness, therefore masking changes from one event to another.
The municipality of Luni obtained its new name in April 2017, we are talking about a scattered municipality gathered at the foot of the Apuan Alps, at a short distance from the border with Tuscany; the old part is one of the most beautiful hills that thin out towards the plain of the river Magra. We point out the National Archaeological Museum of Luni, that hosts finds discovered over the years, as well as the wide excavation area, managed by the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Liguria. The museum exhibition has different paths, separated in proper locations, but always part of the archaeological area; you may visit the Roman colony and part of the amphitheater.
In Casano there is the picturesque Ethnographic Museum located inside a renovated oil mill, which has the task of collecting old tools, materials and machinery that farmworkers used, to press the olives. An essential gem for those who are curious to discover the authentic remains, the real craftsmen of the territory.
In the calendar of events of Luni, we suggest the Christmas markets on 8, 10 and 11 December and the living nativity from 26 December to 8 January. In mid July “Muscolata”, an evening with music and conviviality thanks to A.N.S.P.I., you can eat spaghetti with mussels and taste other local good food. The feast to celebrate San Rocco takes place in August, it is full of food stalls, music, dances and during the day there is a real feast in the village the blessing of the cattle.
Vezzano Ligure is another village set on agriculture, located close to Santo Stefano di Magra and Sarzana, it is divided into two separate areas: Vezzano Inferiore and Superiore, with Bolano, Follo and Prati di Vezzano slightly separated.
Its position between the confluence of the two rivers has always made it a defensive outpost. It is therefore believed that the construction of Vezzano anticipated the arrival of the Romans. The village had a castle, not much of it is left, but it is possible to take a look at the remains of the bastions and the pentagonal tower, a symbol of the ancient history of Vezzano,it was built in the twelfth century as defense and sighting point of the surrounding valley .
The picturesque Church of Sant’Antonio Abate has a beautiful bell tower decorated with Romanesque mullioned windows, and a particular pyramidal spire; the Romanesque church Santa Maria Assunta in Vezzano Inferiore, acts as counterpoint, the church was rich in events, it overlooks Piazza del Popolo. Directed towards the foothills of Vezzano, the villages of Valeriano, Fornola, Bottagna and Corongiola make their way, the latter houses an ancient parish church dedicated to San Prospero.
Valeriano, is a medieval village perched on a hill, where it is possible to visit the church of Sant’Apollinare, that dates back to the 18th century. In Prati di Vezzano there is the Sanctuary of Molinello, built after a Marian apparition of a local girl, more or less in 1500.
The main festival in Vezzano Ligure is in September, during the harvest period, we are talking about the “Grape Festival”, a tempting opportunity to declare which is the best district. Competitors challenge each other in various tests, the folkloristic pressing of the grapes, and a dialect contest in front of a jury of experts. There is plenty of food, good wine produced in the cellars, and, as usual good entertainment. While waiting for July to come, preparations are underway for the feast dedicated to “Threshing ”.
Castelnuovo Magra was born humble, a simple camp located in the last stretch of the alluvial plain, then it became important with Sarzana as a bishopric, a walled village with lofty towers, a church and a late Renaissance style castle, Castelnuovo experienced events similar to those of other towns located near a border.
The period building located in Castelnuovo, known as Castle-Palazzo dei Vescovi di Luni, became the symbol of the town, however it is the magnificent,large circular tower that better represents Castelnuovo Magra, it is well preserved, and shows the early developments of this village, before it was populated, becoming a place full of life and colours. Mount Bastione, on which the foundations of Castelnuovo were built, thrives thanks to streams, canals and small hamlets all accessible (Molicciara, Colombiera, Marciano), in the past it was a defensive position that served as a citadel.
Here we find the church Santa Maria Maddalena, built in late Reinassance style, you cannot be mistaken, the church has a bell tower, a beautiful baby pink facade – in Baroque style, and a bas-relief depicting the Penitent Madonna, who watches over us as we enter a place of extreme taste and sacredness – the frescoes were painted by Luigi Agretti.
In Castelnuovo Magra a must see is the event “Benvenuto Vermentino” : a tour of the cellars of the wine Colli di Luni, the major promoters of this type of grapes, there are wine tastings, guided tours of the territory and initiatives together with local operators of the sector.
In June, ample space is given to other precious products of the territory such as olive oil and quality products all produced locally, experts from the whole Region come to Castelnuovo Magra for this event. At the end of June, beginning of July there is “Arteinfiera”, an event that highlights local handicraft products, it attracts a lot of people, the town and the shops are decorated with the creations of craftsmen.
Don’t miss “La pace di Dante”, another beautiful historical re-enactment that takes place on the anniversary of the power of attorney given to the poet, the partecpants of the procession wear a rigorous costume dress code. There is a Middle Age style dinner with actors, jugglers and much more.
At the end of our tour, we reach the plains of Santo Stefano di Magra, it has features in common with the mountain village and speaks, believe it or not, the most authentic Lunense dialect.
Santo Stefano di Magra descends towards the plain, sheltered by the hills and merges with the neighbouring municipalities of La Spezia, with which it also shares the motorway exit and the railway line. The urban structure of Santo Stefano di Magra can be defined as a place rich in naturalistic beauties and, although it does benefit of the same fame as its neighbours, it preserves perfectly the character of medieval origin in its architecture, especially the narrow paved alleys of the historic centre, as well the rigorous and tireless spirit of its inhabitants.
The parish church dedicated to Santo Stefano Protomartire, is unique with its Genoese Baroque structure, that stands out from the shadows of the alleys full of porticos and slate roofs, it has the typical style of the medieval churches of Lunigiana, and is perhaps one of the most characteristic parish complexes of Val di Magra, for the size of the apse and its imposing structure.
A good thing is that the village is affected by the beneficial influence of the local cuisine, for example the knowledge of how to make the typical panigacci from Podenzana, it seems a shame not to share it; there are intense trades – also thanks to the small agricultural centre of Caprigliola, that once was part of the municipality of Aulla, there are many building material plants, just around the corner in Aulla and Massa Carrara.
The hamlets near Santo Stefano di Magra are Ponzano Magra and Ponzano Superiore, we recommend to visit Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo, inside you can admire an organ by Filippo Tronci dated 1825.
In summer, one of the most important and peculiar events in Santo Stefano di Magra is “Antico mercato sulla Via Francigena”, it recalls the “ handover of the keys ”, in the Middle Ages by Piero de ‘Medici, who ceded the Fortress of Sarzana to the French king Charles VIII; there are actors, flag wavers and jugglers, the whole village is decorated for this special event, the most exciting moment is the historic procession in the streets of the village.
Another event that takes place in summer is “Cusina d’Sa’Steu”, a culinary event with typical products and traditional local specialities. In October there is another interesting event, the livestock market “Fiera di San Felice”, it lasts three days, there are food stalls and other particular items to buy.
Do you like sought after cuisine, made with complex ingredients and what a joy if it is mainstream? You are completely off track. The valley of the river Magra is indeed a borderland, whose recipe book ranges between humble legacies and the latest trends of starred chefs, yet it divides regions that have a menu based on a poor, simple cuisine, very rich in flavour with ingredients chosen according to its strong seasonality. Nearby we find the region Liguria where you can find dishes garnished with pesto sauce, focaccia, and delicious blue fish, a skilful mixture of sun and fresh air of the coast of the Gulf that holds excellences such as extra vergin olive oil, very tasty if you add it to prebbogion, a vegetable soup, or minestrone if you prefer to call it so, a tasty dish with wild herbs, organic potatoes and asparagus, sweet onions, the undisputed queen of the local onions is the red onion from Treschietto.
From the cuisine of La Spezia we find light, hearty dishes such as savoury pies, the tasty scarpazza from Sarzana, made with wild herbs, or stuffed pasta with lean meat, game is also common, however as there are few cattle and pig farms, rabbits and poultry are often more popular as second courses.
Thanks to sustainable agriculture, which uses terraced hills cultivated in the old fashioned way, the terraces are held by beautiful, classic dry stone walls, where famers grow Bigliolo beans, durona cherries in Sarzana, and make chestnut flour, from chestnut trees that are exclusively in the local plains, DOP certified acacia honey, a must because it is sweet, with a quite light aftertaste.
Bakery products and stone-ground flours allow, on the other hand, to continue certain traditions, so dear to the each hamlet: time passes but some habits never go out of fashion, for example people keep on buying bread in Vinca, or Marocca in Càsola, hot focaccine in Aulla, the dough is surprisingly tasty thanks to the use of maize, they are excellent when you stuff them with goat cheese or lard from Colonnata, or prosciutta from Castelnuovo, an excellent type of ham, probably the “right match” for small size focaccia.
Among the starters you must not forget to order panigacci, traditionally made in Podenzana, pay attention because this majesty must not be confused with testaroli, cooked pancakes sprinkled with little seasoned Parmigiano cheese and a spoonful of the aforementioned pesto sauce. Panigaccio is a sort of pancake baked in wood burning ovens, the dough is poured in clay dishes called testi.
Another good starter Sgabei, made with bread dough fried in hot olive oil, this is a traditional dish from Lunigiana, but you can find them also in Emilia, as well as many savoury pies that represent the typical heritage of this land. A timeless dish is lasagne bastarde, bastard lasagne, so called because half of the flour used is chestnut flour.
Directly from the fishy mouths we obtain the local fish, called paranza, or fried cod in Val di Magra that temps the most refined palats, it is also excellent if stewed in tomato sauce, you can find meat is cooked in a pan called “all’uccelletto”, blended with white table wine, or in case you order more than a dish you might choose stuffed meat such as Genoese cima, a veal pocket stuffed with chard, borage and other ingredients chosen by wise housewives, bread dipped in milk, mortadella and plenty Parmigiano cheese.
Fish is good no matter if it is caught in the sea or in a river, croakers, anchovies, shellfish shelled on the spot, parboiled baby cuttlefish , there are dishes that know a lot about tuna tartare, raw shrimps abound on the tables of the local restaurants.
Another local dish is Cappon Magro, the recipe changes according to customs and traditions of the moment, it is a combination of land and sea, dressed with a green sauce.
Then to complete our list we must mention fried fish, spaghetti, rabbit cooked in a pan and served with polenta or poccia, a particular sauce obtained with tomato and broth.
Zeri, located on the upper hills of the Magra valley, close to Val di Vara, supplies excellent quality meat, that can be roasted, fried or slightly fried, according to your tastes.
When we talk about local gastronomy, we can’t finish our meal without a good dessert, Spongata represents the perfect type of traditional cakes of the territory, it is made with jam, pine nuts, almonds, this spongy cake can be found in the bakeries in Sarzana, especially at Christmas, another good dessert is castagnaccio, made especially in autunm and winter. The silly rice cake is different from the one made in Monterosso al Mare, it has vanilla flavour, and caramel topping that enhances the dough, as long as it is eaten cold.
Among the typical wines of the area, DOP Colli di Luni stands out, we suggeat to ask for Luni Bianco, it is ideal with starters and main courses, as well as Vermentino wine, which goes well with fish dishes, and finally DOC Rosso, Val di Magra IGT, white, red and rosé.