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Val di Vara

 

“Potesse l’arte mia, da Val di Serchio a Val di Magra e per le Pàine al Vara e al Golfo, tutta stringerti in un cerchio con l’alpe a gara”
(Gabriele D’Annunzio, Laudii, Libro III – Il Commiato)

Val di Vara
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Looking for unspoilt landscapes, driven by the desire to explore dream places where the anthropic footprint is at a  minimum, you will be instinctively drawn to the Vara Valley (commonly called Val). The Vara is a large sparkling river and the etymon is indicative of the connection with woods and forests that, in many cases, look exactly as they looked two hundred years before the coming of the train. We are talking about the vastest territory within the province of La Spezia, as well as, see above, the least populated – the reason for this is the low population density.

The Vara Valley is also the largest territory in the whole Liguria; the Apennine ridge separates it from Tuscany.
If we were to mark the real boundaries from an administrative point of view, we must consider the one represented by the valley and the river: the river originates from Mount Zatta and ends its course flowing into the basin of the Magra river, in the locality of Fornola, past Vezzano Ligure. The river shapes the valley with its course. An unusual feature that distinguishes it from the varied Ligurian, Tuscan (and Emilian) landscapes, although it is only typical of the hinterland, is the alternation, which does not hinder the abundance of lush landscapes at all, of vast grassy pastures and – depending on latitude and presence of natural elements and/or proximity to the seaMediterranean scrub with thick undergrowths of vegetation, aquatic environments and river habitats. These are populated by water lilies, migratory birds and thick tangles of piedmont vegetation. Fruit trees are a steady presence.

Land of witches and werewolves,  two thirds of its surface embrace the region’s capital without altering its splendour and history. It also stands out for the dignity of the tiny villages that animate it – not surprisingly, the Vara Valley is mainly known by its unconventional  name: Valle dei Borghi Rotondi (“Valley of Round Villages”). As a matter of fact, many of them maintain the typical concentric structure which had specific defensive purposes during the Middle Ages.The streets and houses develop around the centre of the village. The mountainous elevations, which abound with holm oak woods, chestnut trees and  fragrant bushes of mixed garrigue, separate the Vara Valley from the neighbouring Taro and Graveglia Valleys in the North, from Lunigiana in the East.

Near the Riviera of La Spezia, the area becomes mitigated. It shines and gets  oxygen thanks to the proximity of the river waters. Finally, it slightly touches the cliffs of the Cinque Terre in the West. It is rightfully under the protection of the Authority of the Magra river Basin, of the Regional Natural Park of Montemarcello-Magra-Vara and, last but not least, of the associations active in Historical Lunigiana. It is not uncommon to mistake the upper Magra valley with the area of the Vara river, the High Route of Ligurian Mountains. Going uphill from the valley floor, if you like to rely on your sixth sense, you will come across fifteen villages. Bolano, Follo and Riccò del Golfo start the dances (Lower Vara Valley); these charming villages, which can be easily reached, are immersed in the wild and often uncontaminated nature. You will see by yourselves that the urban plant is studded with narrow alleys and sandstone gates. On some parts of the hills, it’s possible to stop by the remains of towers and ancient walkways, strategic points that enabled communications.

Bolano, a crucial centre, lies on the slopes of a promontory and it invests itself with that same importance that it had during the episcopal era, when it was the world of  noblemen and glamorous ladies; it’s full of staircases and tapered bell towers. Pignone, Beverino, Calice al Cornoviglio, Borghetto Vara and Brugnato are located further uphill (Middle Vara Valley). We urge you to visit Pignone to take a look at the Archaeological Site of Monte Castellaro, and Corvara, a hamlet of Beverino, to understand where the word “fortified” comes from. In the mountainous area you will discover Carrodano, Carro, Zignago, Rocchetta Vara, Sesta Godano, Maissana and Varese Ligure (Upper Vara Valley). These last villages are lovely places to get to know, even for a short visit or directly from your car, once you drive past the passes of Tresana and Podenzana.

Carrodano shines of the reflected light coming from the famous Levanto, located nearby. Pignone, which keeps strong thanks to agriculture, has grown wise over the years: in the past, it was a temporary camp for carts, hence its name. La Piana and Ferriere also have great merit. These small satellite villages are standout destinations if you are looking for a comfortable alternative  near the sea and the mountains at the same time. For this very reason, people from La Spezia (and from elsewhere) are regular visitors. Another great protagonist is Maissana which, over time, has undergone a rapid depopulation as people looking for work fled to Sestri Levante… but this phenomenon has made Maissana, on the plateau of the Vara Valley, even more evocative: among the many scattered villages there is Ossegna, in Valle Lagorara; this is the place where prehistoric men extracted stones. Apart from the epitaphs characterising houses and attics, which in the past people decorated with bobbin lace and demijohns, there is the additional imprint of a real lithic industry from the Copper Age, recognised at European level.

The rural traditions, the clear sky and the fresh air of the mountains are typical qualities of all the remaining villages and slopes, with Carro and Sesta Godano on top of the list. You will definitely have to dedicate a whole day to the hamlets of Sesta Godano; in Groppo, which is a splendid example of town-fortress, some apotropaic heads on the walls of the oldest houses of the historic centre are intended to cast out evil spirits; in Rio, the Fieschi are still a dominating presence in the rooms of the castle. You’ll surely come back again, and again, to discover its secrets. The motorway of reference that allows you to quietly travel on this side of the valley is the toll booth of Brugnato, one of the exits along the A12. For lovers of the genre, Brugnato, a former bishopric, is home to the diocese and to a significant number of parish churches and newly discovered archaeological finds that can be admired up to the nearby Pontremoli.

The oldest villages in Val di Vara are Pignone, Zignago, which inspire a certain respect with their mountainous silhouettes and the spires and domes that survived the Byzantine domination.  And let’s not forget the verdant Suvero, below Rocchetta Vara, and Torza, within the municipality of Maissana. Vara Valley. Valley of Diversity. Home to ecotourism: it almost exclusively relies on organic farms. The phenomenon of ecotourism goes hand in hand with hiking activities. Valley of Wishes. A land of farmhouses and health trails; a wild orchid is worth a thousand medicines (but be careful: protected species must not be touched). Valley of Truth. Small shops that, generations after generations, carry on the commercial network. In addition to this, properties that have become wholesale butcher shops, modern farms, avant-garde dairy farms.

What else is there to add?

Looking for unspoilt landscapes, driven by the desire to explore dream places where the anthropic footprint is at a  minimum, you will be instinctively drawn to the Vara Valley (commonly called Val). The Vara is a large sparkling river and the etymon is indicative of the connection with woods and forests that, in many cases, look exactly as they looked two hundred years before the coming of the train. We are talking about the vastest territory within the province of La Spezia, as well as, see above, the least populated – the reason for this is the low population density.

The Vara Valley is also the largest territory in the whole Liguria; the Apennine ridge separates it from Tuscany.

La Val di Vara

If we were to mark the real boundaries from an administrative point of view, we must consider the one represented by the valley and the river: the river originates from Mount Zatta and ends its course flowing into the basin of the Magra river, in the locality of Fornola, past Vezzano Ligure. The river shapes the valley with its course. An unusual feature that distinguishes it from the varied Ligurian, Tuscan (and Emilian) landscapes, although it is only typical of the hinterland, is the alternation, which does not hinder the abundance of lush landscapes at all, of vast grassy pastures and – depending on latitude and presence of natural elements and/or proximity to the seaMediterranean scrub with thick undergrowths of vegetation, aquatic environments and river habitats. These are populated by water lilies, migratory birds and thick tangles of piedmont vegetation. Fruit trees are a steady presence.

Land of witches and werewolves,  two thirds of its surface embrace the region’s capital without altering its splendour and history. It also stands out for the dignity of the tiny villages that animate it – not surprisingly, the Vara Valley is mainly known by its unconventional  name: Valle dei Borghi Rotondi (“Valley of Round Villages”). As a matter of fact, many of them maintain the typical concentric structure which had specific defensive purposes during the Middle Ages.The streets and houses develop around the centre of the village. The mountainous elevations, which abound with holm oak woods, chestnut trees and  fragrant bushes of mixed garrigue, separate the Vara Valley from the neighbouring Taro and Graveglia Valleys in the North, from Lunigiana in the East.

Near the Riviera of La Spezia, the area becomes mitigated. It shines and gets  oxygen thanks to the proximity of the river waters. Finally, it slightly touches the cliffs of the Cinque Terre in the West. It is rightfully under the protection of the Authority of the Magra river Basin, of the Regional Natural Park of Montemarcello-Magra-Vara and, last but not least, of the associations active in Historical Lunigiana. It is not uncommon to mistake the upper Magra valley with the area of the Vara river, the High Route of Ligurian Mountains. Going uphill from the valley floor, if you like to rely on your sixth sense, you will come across fifteen villages. Bolano, Follo and Riccò del Golfo start the dances (Lower Vara Valley); these charming villages, which can be easily reached, are immersed in the wild and often uncontaminated nature. You will see by yourselves that the urban plant is studded with narrow alleys and sandstone gates. On some parts of the hills, it’s possible to stop by the remains of towers and ancient walkways, strategic points that enabled communications.

Bolano, a crucial centre, lies on the slopes of a promontory and it invests itself with that same importance that it had during the episcopal era, when it was the world of  noblemen and glamorous ladies; it’s full of staircases and tapered bell towers. Pignone, Beverino, Calice al Cornoviglio, Borghetto Vara and Brugnato are located further uphill (Middle Vara Valley). We urge you to visit Pignone to take a look at the Archaeological Site of Monte Castellaro, and Corvara, a hamlet of Beverino, to understand where the word “fortified” comes from. In the mountainous area you will discover Carrodano, Carro, Zignago, Rocchetta Vara, Sesta Godano, Maissana and Varese Ligure (Upper Vara Valley). These last villages are lovely places to get to know, even for a short visit or directly from your car, once you drive past the passes of Tresana and Podenzana.

Carrodano shines of the reflected light coming from the famous Levanto, located nearby. Pignone, which keeps strong thanks to agriculture, has grown wise over the years: in the past, it was a temporary camp for carts, hence its name. La Piana and Ferriere also have great merit. These small satellite villages are standout destinations if you are looking for a comfortable alternative  near the sea and the mountains at the same time. For this very reason, people from La Spezia (and from elsewhere) are regular visitors. Another great protagonist is Maissana which, over time, has undergone a rapid depopulation as people looking for work fled to Sestri Levante… but this phenomenon has made Maissana, on the plateau of the Vara Valley, even more evocative: among the many scattered villages there is Ossegna, in Valle Lagorara; this is the place where prehistoric men extracted stones. Apart from the epitaphs characterising houses and attics, which in the past people decorated with bobbin lace and demijohns, there is the additional imprint of a real lithic industry from the Copper Age, recognised at European level.

The rural traditions, the clear sky and the fresh air of the mountains are typical qualities of all the remaining villages and slopes, with Carro and Sesta Godano on top of the list. You will definitely have to dedicate a whole day to the hamlets of Sesta Godano; in Groppo, which is a splendid example of town-fortress, some apotropaic heads on the walls of the oldest houses of the historic centre are intended to cast out evil spirits; in Rio, the Fieschi are still a dominating presence in the rooms of the castle. You’ll surely come back again, and again, to discover its secrets. The motorway of reference that allows you to quietly travel on this side of the valley is the toll booth of Brugnato, one of the exits along the A12. For lovers of the genre, Brugnato, a former bishopric, is home to the diocese and to a significant number of parish churches and newly discovered archaeological finds that can be admired up to the nearby Pontremoli.

The oldest villages in Val di Vara are Pignone, Zignago, which inspire a certain respect with their mountainous silhouettes and the spires and domes that survived the Byzantine domination.  And let’s not forget the verdant Suvero, below Rocchetta Vara, and Torza, within the municipality of Maissana. Vara Valley. Valley of Diversity. Home to ecotourism: it almost exclusively relies on organic farms. The phenomenon of ecotourism goes hand in hand with hiking activities. Valley of Wishes. A land of farmhouses and health trails; a wild orchid is worth a thousand medicines (but be careful: protected species must not be touched). Valley of Truth. Small shops that, generations after generations, carry on the commercial network. In addition to this, properties that have become wholesale butcher shops, modern farms, avant-garde dairy farms.

What else is there to add?

Food & Wine

The Vara Valley, just like it enchants visitors with its woods, will win you over with its excellent culinary products, all ready to be discovered. Its cuisine should be indeed considered as the new version, the fine-tuning of products that come from an intense agricultural production. It’s no wonder that the raw ingredients are of high quality and with zero impact: they encapsulate the typical characteristics of the territory. Hence, the allegorical and pretty clear expression of “Valle del Biologico” (“Organic Valley”). Going back to its exemplary and ideal type of cuisine, for some aspects, it can be defined as Ligurian.

Based on the early produce of the vegetable garden, the culinary tradition includes “herb” delicacies or “prebuggiun” soups; these ingredients, which give a new life to savoury cakes and to the fillings for ravioli – a unique dish typical of Polverara, especially good if filled with nettle cream (you won’t be disappointed!) – are the foundations of a concept that is very dear to the local people: there are eleven Food Communities that originated in Val di Vara with the aim of safeguarding history, biodiversity and traditions, all of which refer to the idea of Slow Food. They safeguard history because they aim at protecting the customs, the skills, the work tools used by our grandparents, which are still being employed in the fields; biodiversity because they love and cultivate what the land has to offer; traditions because the people in charge of the food production definitely play the role of guardians of these same ancient customs. And since good things come in threes, in Val di Vara the CAI Section of La Spezia has worked hard to approach the philosophy of Slow Food. In this regard, we are witnessing the growth of an affiliation aimed at bringing the members of the Italian Alpine Club in the direction of initiatives of communal interest, encouraging as many members as possible to collaborate with the agricultural world and with the high-quality local production.

The cuisine of the valley can be said to be Ligurian for the rich offer of dairy products, often characterised by the rusticity of raw milk cheese, accompanied by the first fruits of the forest. What makes the cuisine even more amazing is the presence of the chestnut flour, which we find in the dough of tagliatelle, pancakes and in the chestnut cake. The chestnut typical of Brodasca is smaller and of a darker brown colour. Given these premises, it’s above all a Tuscan cuisine, thanks to the ancient techniques of cooking in terracotta pots, the rich and tasty condiments, the beans (the cannellini of Sesta Godano, the borlotti of Mangia). Moreover, each dish will often be accompanied by wines from small local productions, organic beers, olive oil from the Levante Riviera. Here, the tonic liquors are obtained through the processing of wild herbs. Similarly, the Tuscan rusticity can be seen in the wise use of game, including wild boar (rigorously served with polenta) and rabbit (rigorously prepared in a pot), and in the skillful preparation of the pork leg, or of the female turkey, which tastes even more delicious if accompanied by the ORGANIC chestnut honey – Calice al Cornoviglio is its main supplier.

From the pastures, sheep’s meat and beef are the main products. Still on the subject of meat, slaughter can be defined as sustainable since animals are left to roam freely. The constant presence of a certain type of dish is a synonym for freshness of ingredients, and it is therefore proof of seasonality, to the delight of the tablemates. Figs, cherries, apples, the ever-present chestnuts enrich many and many dishes. Mushrooms, and among them the exceptionally good porcini mushrooms, abound in autumn and they are on top of the list of the ingredients in many traditional dishes such as polenta, which exists in a thousand different variants. The ultimate symbol, the icon that transcends every classification is the panigaccio of the Vara Valley; you won’t find anything like it elsewhere, at least not accompanied by PDO-classified cold cuts or Genoese pesto, or by a unique walnut sauce. If the Vara Valley is usually seen as the result of the division into macro-areas, the same applies to the cuisine, which follows the rhythms and principles of these three specific areas.

The Lower Vara Valley focuses on the products coming from vegetable gardens and terraces: some examples are the rice cake and the vegetable cake; the latter is a must and it’s always a joy to see it on the food stalls every 3rd of May, on the occasion of Santa Croce. Riccò del Golfo is a well-established authority when it comes to sausages, retail meat and a particular type of black pudding. Still on the topic of “made in Tuscany”, do not miss the testaroli, cooked inside testi of terracotta (as it’s easy to expect), and the bread of Polverara, which is the result of ancient peasant recipes that have survived throughout the years. Middle Vara Valley, here we come. And we can be sure to be here  when we smell the pungent scent of pepper and spices coming from the delicatessen, or the balsamic scent of jars inoil, which can be sour and even tangy.

Pignone puts on display “local” cured meats and mortadelle – note that in 2003 the sausages of Pignone were included in the Regional Atlas of Traditional Ligurian Products –, in addition to giving us Her Majesty the Onion – with capital letter – of Pignone, one of the vegetables that, together with beans, fed entire generations before being given the status of delicacy. The type of potatoes called Quarantine, white and delicious, and preferably crispy or baked, garnish the tasty cuts of beef. Brugnato never goes out of fashion as a flourishing area where  desserts and cheese are produced: there’s the aniseed doughnut of Brugnato, which is very soft, spongy, and its colour and flavour are those of freshly poured honey; the cavagnetto of Brugnato, a sort of basket enriched by the flavours of lemon peel and, again, of aniseed; the caciotta of Brugnato, a short-aging soft cheese; the mozzarella of Brugnato, fresh and stringy … we could go on forever.

In the Upper Vara Valley, the undisputed master of sizzling pans and padded centrepieces is the village of Varese Ligure, which gives us the farinata (or fainà), a kind of thin batter which is similar to its counterpart eaten in Tuscany, with the difference that it lies on moistened chestnut tree leaves and is seasoned with little salt. Varese Ligure also offers us a real treat, the seasoned cheese with the Sciacchetrà of the Cinque Terre National Park, a round cheese obtained from certified raw milk, directly from the pastures of Val di Vara. A third type of native bean, called Cenerino, can be enjoyed in all the villages of the Upper Valley: you can taste it raw, with extra virgin olive oil, or seared. In Varese Ligure you will be grateful for having the chance to eat the characteristic sweets made of almond paste, in the shape of a red, pink and yellow flower; these were once the pride and joy of the cloistered nuns of the Monastery of the Augustinian Order of San Filippo Neri.

Carro and Carrodano roll up their sleeves as if they were a dynamic duo of expert tavern keepers and tempt the tastebuds of travellers with the stewed stockfish, the sautéed borage pancakes, baking pans full of zucchini and gratin tomatoes with homemade fillings. Finally, in Maissana, a detox moment in those places where the classic fagiolana of Torza, the star of festivals, is grown.

Nature

Abundance is a typical quality of the woods of the Vara Valley. Broadleaved trees, tall trees and evergreen shrubs alternate depending on the temperature and quality of the substratum. They are very telling about the optimal conditions of the ecosystem. Chestnut tree and downy oak woods dominate the scene and where the water is stagnant we have ash trees and hornbeams. These landscapes include at least seven different categories of habitat, and they are record holders on a national level as far as their woodiness index is concerned. As we have seen, grazing areas are especially common near farmhouses, waterfalls, both in the valley floor and in the mountains that delimit the meadows towards Emilia.

In particular, along the road to Cento Croci, these grazing lands look almost like alpine pastures. Unlike elsewhere, the agricultural crops, particularly thanks to the terraces of  Bassa and the small lakes above Sesta Godano, support environmental diversity and facilitate, also thanks to the active cooperation of men taking care of farming animals and respecting the seasonality of animals and crops, the existence and maintenance of riparian zones. Above all, we must mention non-intensive livestock farming and the avoidance of pesticides or processed products. If we go through the list of genuine products, the onions and beans of Pignone are proverbial. There’s even a type of potato which can only be found in Calice del Cornoviglio.

We’ll talk later about the pecorino cheese produced in shepherd’s cottages and cheese factories. The weather is cool in summer and, albeit humid, it’s not excessively cold in the autumn months, while rainfalls tend to mainly affect the northern slopes. As a consequence of that, we can assume that the area of Val di Vara is not very windy, except in the presence of sirocco or tramontane. One of the highest peaks in Liguria di Levante, Monte Gottero, with its multitude of flowers, colours and dripping ravines, represents a garden to be enjoyed by everybody as well as an exceptional wildlife oasis – in the quarry in Carpile, for example, a small Speleous Bear was found, meaning that, after the last ice age, this area might have been covered with majestic forests. Within a short distance, the alpine flora suddenly blossoms with many different undertones, the habitat of rare species and other well-known ones, such as euphorbia, crocuses and numerous yellow or violet Asteraceae.

Carro and Carrodano, in particular, blend well with such unusual florescences and, at the same time, they look like wild places that is better to avoid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Monte Gottero, perhaps the most isolated, together with Monte Zuccone and the panoramic points of Civolaro – mark down the “Dragnone”–, act as guardians of a formidable collection of panoramic views, thanks to which, on a beautiful day, we can catch sight of the Apuan Alps and the Gulf of Poets. Belonging to this same landscape, the High Route of the Ligurian Mountains combines trekking routes that reach the Nervia Valley and link to the regional parks from Ceparana to Ventimiglia.

Here, the legs have an average length of 10-15 km, and the alternation of springs and mule tracks lends travellers a hand. These paths will never lack the most common accommodation facilities. At an altitude of 1640 metres, we find ourselves in front of Monte Galero, one of the most powerful mountains in Val di Vara and in Liguria di Levante.  However, we should refer to that homogeneous group of sandstone reliefs, which form deep valleys up to the Cisa Pass, with the proper name of Appennino Spezzino. Through this apennine, with the help of a network of paths sponsored by the CAI, past the Lagastrello Pass, we reach an altitude of over 1800 metres and meet the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. But we’re already past Pontremoli, so let’s stop for a moment. The best elements of these two regions  are combined together around the Calzavitello and Rastrello passes, and down the slopes of Monte Cornoviglio.

Having reached villages that literally hug the slopes and the sides of the mountains, from the Lower to the Upper Vara Valley, it’s equally possible to run into endemisms and rare species (both botanical and faunal). The yellow-bellied toad (Bombina Variegata) is proof of this. We can follow the tracks of a distant cousin of this amphibian, in the karstic area between Pignone and Riccò del Golfo: disguised as a small salamander, the speleomantes lives and reproduces here. Each species of this ecosystem is controlled and monitored thanks to the Sites of Community Importance (SCI) of the Natura 2000 Network. In Ziona, within the municipality of Carro, you can see the elusive Eurasia hoopoe, a species that is considered rare in the rest of Europe as well as here.

Events and places of interest

The Giustiniani Castle, once a defensive structure, underwent several renovations and is now a splendid tall and square palace that shows all its worth as a noble residence of the past. Next to it, the family chapel. This privately owned castle, which is registered within the municipality of Ceparana, is one of the best subjects to photograph while in Bolano. The Oratory of Saints Anthony and Rocco is certainly interesting. With a single nave, this white building made stoic by the “hut” façade (with double sloping roof), which was the preferred method of construction in the Vara Valley, lies on a foundation made of local stones. It houses the recently restored works by Simone Barabino and Stefano Lemmi. Probably of ancient origin, the Parish Church dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta houses numerous paintings by local artists. It towers above the hills in the old village of Bolano; the style is Baroque.

In December, on the occasion of the most popular holiday, there are the “Christmas Markets”, a commercial and extremely “delicious” event. In August, the “Sagra di San Bartolomeo”, is dedicated to food and wine, music and entertainment. Going up along the road to Follo Alto, we find the Church of San Martino di Durasca, built according to the tradition of the French pilgrims and following medieval standards; it’s surrounded by meadows and uncultivated green fields. A previous structure provides the perimeter walls, a part of the two ancient naves, the facade with the architrave portal and the massive square bell tower. Completely opposite, the very colourful – so much so that it looks like a toy – Church of San Lorenzo di Tivegna, located exactly at the centre of the neighbourhoods in the homonymous hamlet of Follo, distances itself from the panoramic streets and houses an important painting from 1665, attributed to Casoni. In Tivegna, we find the Oratory of Madonna del Carmine and the Church of Madonna dell’Orto. The celebrations of the patron saint are those of Santa Maria Maddalena (Mary Magdalene), on July 22nd, and Saint Leonard, on November 6th. During the first week of September, the annual “Wine Festival”, organised by the Pro Loco of Tivegna, includes dances, art exhibitions and the inevitable tastings.

In Riccò del Golfo, history and religiousness regain strength among the baroque vaults of the parish church dedicated to Santa Croce. Built during the second half of the 1400s, on the foundations of a pre-existing building, it houses works of great value, the most important of which are some bas-reliefs in polychrome marble representing the Souls of Purgatory. In the agricultural area in the hamlet of Carpena, dating back to the establishment of the jurisdiction of the podestà of La Spezia in 1343,  and where some bloody events took place around that period, the ruins of a tumbledown castle are waiting to be photographed. Today, the very few ruins resulting from a complete destruction can be seen; a small part of the ring of walls and the base of the tower have survived to this day. The remains of the ancient structure underwent works along the perimeter area; moreover, recent archaeological excavations have brought to light materials and jewels that belong to an even earlier period, suggesting the presence of a more ancient pre-existing castle. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Agostina, not far from Valpidino and Casella, is a valuable piece of work: it owes its name to Madame Agostina Mazaschi, a local woman who was lucky enough to inherit, together with the nearby chestnut grove, the land where this isolated structure now stands. At first, Agostina ordered to build a small oratory dedicated to Madonna di Loreto, because in the chestnut wood a miraculous icon depicting the Virgin Mary was found; it is said that this icon was capable of moving. Blessed by the presence of pilgrims, this location grew more and more beautiful after the arrival of the confraternity of St. Michael. Thanks to the work of the friars it was expanded up to its current dimensions. On the jambs, looking at the sandstone portal, we can see the symbol of a plant that can precisely be identified with the chestnut tree, in memory of the Marian apparition. In May, the celebrations in honour of Santa Croce, an authentic exaltation of the flavours of the past, include tastings of typical products and stalls displaying goods and animals from the farm.

In one of the extreme points of Pignone, there is the church and bell tower of the Pieve di Santa Maria Assunta. In Gothic style, with a stone facade, a “hut” (with double sloping roofs) façade and a beautiful central rose window, the building preserves an almost essential look. Ideally, it is a 17th century building; however, this low and square church, which took the place of a pre-existing Paleoromanesque church, preserves that same architectural simplicity. Located in a marginal position but still very dear to the community, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel, shaded by a lush chestnut grove, awaits believers and visitors for the usual procession taking place in May. With a single nave, the structure has a colonnade supported by round arches. It’s also known as Pieve della Madonna del Ponte because the construction works began near a (now destroyed) bridge, presumably of Roman origin. This bridge allowed to cross the Pignone stream, which is close to the church. Let’s now look at the events.

The record of attendance is held by a market exhibition called “Gli Orti di Pignone” (“Vegetable gardens of Pignone”), which celebrates the culture of peasants and the products coming from the area of Pignone and beyond. It exhibits (and lets visitors taste) culinary delicacies and raw ingredients certified by the Association of Agricultural Producers of the Pignone Valleys. You can hoard potatoes, beans, “dry” maize, as well as tasty sausages. Our Lady of the Assumption, patron saint of Pignone, is celebrated on August 15th.

In Beverino, in the area of Castello, the beautiful white protoromanic churches of Santa Croce and San Cipriano are absolutely worth visiting; they were built on an ancient pre-existing temple and later merged with the districts of the characteristic historic centre. In the hamlet of Corvara, the Sanctuary of Madonna del Trezzo, from the 16th century, and the Loggia, 14th century, which was built as a rest station for pilgrims and travellers. Saint Lawrence the martyr, celebrated on August 10th, is the patron saint of Beverino.

Calice, whose fortified structure is still clearly evident, crosses the landscape of the valley and is perched on a hill overlooking Mount Cornoviglio. You can recognise it at first glance because it developed under the protection of an imposing noble residence, a mixture of the original elements belonging to the stronghold, which is still perfectly preserved today, and more recent alterations.  It earned the name of Castello of Doria-Malaspina – the defensive purposes are still evident – and in its central part it houses the municipal headquarters, a centre for environmental education, as well as the Pietro Rosa museum and the permanent exhibition dedicated to Davide Beghé, a painter who was born here. The Doria-Malaspina stands on a vast lawn, with a rectangular shape and two immense towers at the corners.

Going down to the oldb warehouses, you will find an interesting educational itinerary: we are therefore in the Museum of Beekeeping, which collects vintage prints, farmers’ beehives, and a vast range of photographic material. In Piazza del Leone, towering the manor houses, the Church of Our Lady of Loreto is an imposing architectural example of the typical style of Lunigiana, with a richly decorated facade. Equally interesting, the Church of Santa Maria, the Church of Madonna del Carmine and the Church of Saints Sebastiano and Fabiano.

In December, there is the celebration of the patron saint, Saint Augustine. “Agrimiele” takes place in August, sometimes in September, in the main square and it consists in the tasting of fresh honey, walking among food stalls. This event also includes the entertaining “Miss Drop of Honey” contest. Calice al Cornoviglio dedicates the month of October to chestnuts, and for the occasion a huge amount of recipes and tastings centre around this fruit. In Borghetto di Vara, you can feel a peaceful and solemn atmosphere when you reach the monastic complex of Madonna dell’Accola. Located in the cemetery area, the courtyard and the abbey are certainly among the oldest religious “relics” of the Vara Valley. Of Carolingian origin, with the Lombard cross – the coat of arms of the bishops of Brugnato – included in the rose window of the facade, and the portal made of bare sandstone, the structure of this church is reminiscent of the Romanesque stoicism that characterised some types of churches long before the Middle Ages.

During the Second World War, as a result of the bombings that devastated La Spezia, Madonna dell’Accola was occupied and used as a dormitory for soldiers. In the hamlet of Pogliasca, you can visit the church of San Rocco – where, as per tradition, the statue of the saint is covered with grapes and, after the benediction, it is carried among the believers – and, on a hill above the village, our attention is drawn to the Church of Our Lady of Poggiolo.

In L’Ago you can admire the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Roverano, built on a pre-existing building and expanded, thanks to the usual and constant pilgrimages, in the 19th century. It’s surrounded by olive trees, which misteriously bloom on the eve of Mary’s birth. A few days before Christmas, the streets and cellars of Pogliasca are animated by voices, lights and the typical costumes of the itinerant nativity scene. This event was established by the Pro Loco, and for the occasion, the menus of many restaurants are accurately revisited. L’Ago celebrates the autumn period through a chestnut festival that is attended by merchants and tablemates alike, all dressed in ancient costumes. Apart from roasted chestnuts, you can enjoy the delicious chestnut cake, cooked in the testi.

In the village of Brugnato, the Co-Cathedral of Saints Peter, Lawrence and Colombanus stands in the middle of the narrow alleys, paying homage to the place where the original abbey was built by the monks of Bobbio Abbey. With two naves, a major central one and a minor lateral one, it is characterised by an imposing central structure that follows the medieval standards that were popular in the area of Luni. It reaches perfection with the reliable quadrangular bell tower; the façade belongs to a later period, as it’s the result of a reconstruction in Baroque style. Over the years, the diocese of Luni was moved to La Spezia, leaving to the large building that dominates the cool streets of Brugnato the role of co-cathedral. The Oratory of San Bernardo is a baroque-style building that houses a beautiful canvas by Gian Lorenzo Bertolotto. The Bishop’s Palace, which is now the “Diocesan Museum”, houses several religious artworks of the Vara valley and of the ancient diocese of Brugnato. A three-floor building with archaeological excavations on ground floor, displaying the ruins of the ancient abbey. On the first floor, there is the bishop’s dwelling, with the study and the pieces of furniture; on the second floor, there are the rooms of the exhibition, displaying clothes, manuscripts and prints.

The amazing Convent of the Passionist Fathers, a place dedicated to a zealous Christian life, includes the small church of St. Francis and a large cloister. It dates back to the 18th century. The Sanctuary of Madonna dell’Ulivo, in a secluded position, was precisely built upon request of the churchgoers. Among the main events, we have to mention the “Infiorata del Corpus Domini”. Brugnato is really attached to this anniversary, an event taking its name from the icon of the Corpus which brings together the inhabitants, reawakening their artistic spirit. On this very occasion, we rejoice at the sight of a colourful carpet of flowers, almost a kilometre long and entirely made of polychromatic petals. The polychromies are often the result of improvisation. The themes, centred around religion, celebrate the Eucharist of Jesus.

July is the right time for “A Village in Festa” (“A Celebrating Village”) , which is basically Brugnato’s way to cheer tourists during the summer. Moreover, there are the events related to the patron saints: Celebration of St. Paschal on May 17th, St. Peter on June 29th and the celebrations in honour of St. Bernard the Abbot on August 20th.

In April, the celebration of Saint Lazarus does the honours with a lot of street food and handicraft stalls. Recently, Brugnato inaugurated the first large outlet village in Liguria, called “ShopInn”, with over 70 shops. In Carrodano Inferiore, our attention is reawankened when we arrive at the Church of Santa Felicita. Once we’ve entered, a precious wooden statue, Felicita herself, greets us, surrounded by her seven children, a body of work from the school of Maragliano – the statue, during the patron saint’s celebration in August, is carried by arms (despite weighing a few quintals) along the streets of the different neighbourhoods.

Carrodano Superiore is home to the church of San Bartolomeo, a touch of pink among the avenues and the small and narrow balconies. Taking the road to Monte San Nicolao, you reach the interesting traces of Carrodano’s distant past: the remains of an ancient medieval hospital, where the pilgrims who were headed for the sanctuaries and for the Via Francigena once stayed .The Church of Mattarana, in Romanesque style and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, cannot be missed. On June 24th, the celebrations and the traditional bonfire take place at night. In Carro, the queen of religious buildings is the Church of San Lorenzo, in Baroque style and located right in the middle of an equally sumptuous historic centre. It approximately dates back to the 15th century, when it was built on an ancient chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine. It houses the so-called Madonna del Carmine, a painting attributed to Domenico Piola, and a canvas of Saint Lawrence by the Flemish painter Giuseppe Dorffmeister. 

A few kilometres away, in Cerreta di Carro, a quick stop for a picnic in the homonymous sanctuary. The “Mineralogical Museum” is a must-see, with finds discovered in the countryside. A visit to the house of Giovanni Battista Paganini, paternal grandfather of the famous violinist Nicolò Paganini, is also mandatory. The San Lorenzo fair, with its stalls displaying handcrafted and organic products, takes place in August. In Ziona, towards July, the “Sagra dei Testaroli”, where the side dishes and local culinary specialities will be your guilty pleasure. The Church of St. Peter the Apostle, of a delicate pink colour and with the “hut” (double sloping roofs) façade and the square bell tower next to it, was formerly known as the Church of St. Peter the Apostle of Cornia, which was actually the original name of Zignago. In order of importance, the next one is the more discreet “sister” church dedicated to Saint Martin. Here, where the activities of the Salt Route were particularly intense, there was a manor house, of which only ruins remain today, that belonged to the Vezzano Lords. A similar fate fell on the Castle of Serra Maggiore, but the vegetation has not altered the luxurious look of this castle, although today it’s little more than a pile of rubble.

Walking along the trails that climb up to the peaks of Dragnone, you can reach the enchanting Sanctuary of the Nativity dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The beauty and the prosperous fauna, animals live freely in the woods on the top, made this area a sacred place during the Iron Age. The traditional event featuring the typical products of the Upper Vara Valley is the  “Festival of Peasant Culture”, with farm animals, working tools and workers as the main protagonists. It takes place in August.

Zignago is protected by Our Lady of Dragnone, celebrated on September 8th.  If you are looking for an oasis of peace and for old ruins, Rocchetta di Vara is the right place for you. Towers and fortified towers dominate the town of Cassana from the homonymous mountain above. Then, there’s the “Ossiferous  Cave”, which is actually made of limestone but note that its name refers to the finds themselves: it’s a suitable candidate to win the record as one of the Italian sites of greatest paleontological importance. It’s the same location where a prehistoric bear was found. The Church of Michele Arcangelo, in Cassana, with its former Romanesque tower adapted to a bell tower, and the Church of Santa Maria della Foce, which houses a statue of the Immaculate Conception donated by the Lomellini family and, according to tradition, originally the figurehead of a Genoese ship. Painted in a range of colours that vary from gold to cream, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Roverano represents, in the area of Rocchetta, the oasis of peace par excellence. It has a spacious staircase and it is surrounded by a fragrant, and always appreciated, scent coming from the blooming olive trees.

Cultural exhibitions and events are held in Palazzo Vinciguerra. Suvero, a hamlet where the castle, which was first a defensive post and then the residence of the Malaspina, touches the sky, becomes cheerful and irreverent during the carnival: boys usually dress up in a deliberately unbecoming way, for the festival “Dei Belli e dei Brutti” (“Beautiful and Ugly”), which is a fixture in the entire Province. In Stadomelli, it’s incredible how it seems to be catapulted into Scotland, and this kind of atmosphere, complete with haggis and other culinary specialities aimed at bringing the British culture to the table, says a lot about the depopulation of the Vara Valley at the beginning of the 20th century. There was a constant flow of emigrants who, from Stadomelli,  travelled to explore  the Scottish tip of the United Kingdom to seek work. Even today, it’s common practice to meet families who speak with an impeccable accent, or have relationships with people from overseas. Every summer, at the end of August, Stadomelli organises a magnificent “Scottish Festival”.

The rural centres of Sesta Godano, which are like a flower bouquet of fortress-towns and are home to the “Community of Sweet Onions”, preserve their historical heritage. In this regard, the Church of Sesta, an ancient parish church of Santa Maria Assunta, the Romanesque bridge over the Gottero stream, and the Via Vecchia, adorned with sandstone arcades, are important symbols.  You can visit the remains of the Fortress of Godano, which between 1200 and 1300, among conflicts and vicissitudes, fell first under the control of the Fieschi and later under that of the Malaspina. You can plan a visit and enter through what was once its highest point, where the ring of walls still remains, as well as several internal structures, and a remnant of the tower. In July, the “Sagra del Raviolo”.

The Pro Loco of Sesta Godano is involved in this event, where you can feast and enjoy unforgettable moments,  with the help of ballroom dances and tonic liquors. During the last weekend of October, why not use the Sandro Pertini’s parks for the “Raduno Nazionale Fiume Vara” (“Vara River National Meeting”): here we are at an event that finally gathers together the very best of sport activities, preferably water sports, and the passionate canoeists of Val di Vara. In September, “Sesta Godano Cavalli”, with country music and horse races. Fair and markets on Saint Martin’s day in November.

In feudal times, Maissana, imbued with the feats of the Apuan Ligurians, passed under the Fieschi family and, later, it had to abide by the rigid rules established by the Doria.  Some of these vicissitudes can be explored in the archaeological site of Valle Lagorara, home of the “Archaeology Laboratory” in Ossegna – here, there are documents and illustrative material showing the location and the territory of Maissana, as well as an interactive room –, the “Casoni della Pietra”, very characteristic temporary shelters for shepherds and animals, the building-fort called “Fieschi’s Prison”, dating back to 1200, and the Oratory of Santa Maria Maddalena.

In August, in Tavarone, a hamlet of the municipality, the much desired “Sagra della Trebbiatura” (“Threshing Festival”), made up of dances and peasant traditions. At the end of August, the “Sagra del Fungo” (“Mushroom Festival”), in the same location, and, in October, the “Sagra della Fagiolana di Torza” in the homonymous hamlet, followed by the “Sagra della Polenta con Cinghiale” (“Festival of Polenta with Wild Boar”) in December. Varese Ligure, the pearl that completes our treasure chest of gems, has apparently managed, all by itself, to enhance agricultural production and sustainable livestock, so much so that it became the philosophical capital of the famous “Biodistretto Val di Vara” (“Biodistrict of the Vara Valley”) as well as the first European certified centre for sustainable food and energy. The Fortress of the Fieschi family, dating back to the 15th century, summarises the steps taken by this self-sufficient village: as the emblem of the historical village, Borgo Rotondo creates a delightful contrast with the clean cobblestones of Piazza Marconi. There is something mysterious about the tall weaponised tower, a successful representation of the 15th century systems. A second defensive cylindrical tower was built next to it a few decades later. Restored after the war, under the direction of the Superintendence of the Monuments of Liguria, this colossus is now owned by the municipality and is a venue for exhibitions, conferences and events.

In Varese Ligure, there are too many churches and parishes to list; we are going to point out one that well sums up the sense of sacredness that has established itself in an area that is not that far from the Cento Croci pass. In front of the castle, we can discover the treasures of the church and convent of Saints Filippo Neri and Teresa of Avila, with two bell towers and obvious Baroque references; as soon as you enter, you will immediately find yourself looking at a precious 17th century representation by Gregorio de Ferrari. The natural heritage that runs along springs and sanctuaries knows no boundaries, but the “Museo Contadino” (“Farmers Museum”) in Cassego can give you a taste. We conclude on a high note with the “Festival Nazionale del Biologico e delle Buone Energie” (“National Festival of Organic Products and Good Energy”) in Varese Ligure.

Liguria and the most famous consortia of Made in Italy are the main customers. Furthermore, the event is dedicated to institutions and families and, always in the context of an enchanting atmosphere, it aims at reaching as many people as possible through exhibitions, meetings and discussions. The themes are fair lifestyle, healthy food and future precautions that can lead towards clean energies and zero-impact construction methods. Alternative and appealing futures in the Organic Valley.

Lifestyle

It being understood that the proximity to the Cinque Terre is undeniable, the vocation of this valley is, again, completely mountainous. At most, you can feel the “taste of salt” between a cork oak wood or a scrub of chestnut trees. It’s a place that attracts brave souls, trekking enthusiasts and lovers of outdoor activities, as well as lovers of the siesta and good food.

Val di Vara will always mean conviviality, a meeting place of different cultures. The range of sport activities is vast: specifically, the Vara repesents a great opportunity for expert canoeists. Its mild descents are ideal to practice rafting or to venture into hydrospeed and canyoning. In the “clever” Vara Valley you’ll find educational farms, culinary itineraries – in this sense, the Mangia Trekking association has always flashes of genius – and themed farmhouses – the most futuristic once have even become self-service markets –, as well as an ingenious portfolio of excellent accommodation options.

The tourists who are drawn to Val di Vara are motivated by a spirit of adventure, since the whole lot of woods, streams and plots of land is characterised by an extreme variety. These varied landscapes, even though they are influenced by the activities of men, are alien to environmental degradation. When visiting these places, tourists must understand the reality of shepherds, farmers, villages that are often only inhabited during the high season, river banks and uninhabited ridges. Let’s discover them. Bolano, one of the oldest municipalities near Tuscany, builds its economy around agriculture and livestock. The historic centre provides us with a faithful testament of the importance of the “statio”. Its dusty peak can still be seen in one of the three first gates built in the town, called (not coincidentally) “Stazòn”, and which marked one of the access points to the village of Bolano.

According to historical sources, despite the fact that the Apuan Ligurians were the leaders of the colonisation process – as evidence of this, see paragraph two, a “box” was found, you can see it at the Ubaldo Formentini archaeological civic museum of La Spezia -, the structure of the streets and small houses suggests that Bolano was a centre of great importance in Roman times, acting as a guard outpost. In addition to the characteristic historic centre, in Bolano we can admire a number of churches and parishes surrounded by the indulgent and uncontaminated nature. Layer after layer, Follo clings to the slopes of the hills that dominate the river: it’s better to visit it by car. It’s formed by nine hamlets, namely Bastremoli, Carnea, Follo Alto, Piana Battolla, Piano di Follo, Sorbolo, Tivegna, Val Durasca and Via Romana. To make things easier, local people tend to abbreviate with Follo Alto, Piano di Follo, which is the most developed town, located on the main road axis (the Provincial Road 10), and Piana Batolla.

All the surrounding areas are part of the Montemarcello-Magra Regional Natural Park. In Piano di Follo, it should be remembered how that part of the Via Francigena coming from Caprigliola and Santo Stefano Magra connected with the Via Romea towards the less frequented paths for Beverino, and towards the coast, through the Bracco Pass.  It’s interesting that to this day, the villages preserve those rural activities and flavours that would otherwise get lost, such as parades of tractors and livestock fairs. The hamlet of Follo Alto is in turn formed by several inhabited localities, La Villa, Bondano, Fossotano and Castello. The suggestive parish church of San Leonardo Abate, located on an elevated point, seems to invite you in.

Riccò del Golfo is easy to spot, located on the Via Aurelia just outside the “tunnels” of La Spezia. It’s the typical village on the hills and it has something in common with the CinqueTerre, perhaps because of the painted slates that were sold by the merchants – and which can now be seen on the gates of the houses, if they haven’t been replaced by the so popular sandstone. Among the orchards and shady gardens of Riccò, which was a point of contention among the first feudal lords of Superba, there is a triumph of crops, pastures and farms, rural lanbdscapes, old mills and farms on the road; these are the crumbs that indicate the road to Pignone, which during the Middle Ages shared commercial interests with this village. The tranquility and peace of Riccò will be your excuse to enjoy lovely walks in the nature; from the hamlet of Casella and the Sella della Cigoletta, a path connects with Vernazza and, consequently, with the Cinque Terre. Once we are past the vegetable gardens and terraces, we have to go to the heart of Val di Vara, Pignone.

The borders of the Regional Natural Park of Montemarcello Magra become full of forests and prairies under the authority of another important green lung in Val di Vara, the Aveto Regional Natural Park. The Passo dei Due Santi is just a stone’s throw away, and so, having greeted the sea, you are ready to practice skiing. Despite everything, Pignone is famous for its well-established horticultural tradition. We come across corn crops, in the middle of a lovely walk in the nature or during a tasting tour of the local products. The business of tastings has made it possible to recover many uncultivated lands. Appearance matters too: the medieval village of Casale, an ancient possession of the Diocese of Brugnato, has maintained its original structure, with beautiful sandstone buildings and two bridges of medieval origin. The territory under the authority of Valli di Pignone is further enriched by the presence of karstic phenomena (the Grotta grande of Pignone is a must-see) and by the localities of Villa, Faggiona and Caturnia which, according to the legend, are places of ghosts and fears, surely because of the presence of abandoned manganese and copper mines.

Likesmall jewel between the villages of Pignone and Calice al Cornoviglio, the sunny municipality of Beverino is waiting for us, guarded in Bracbelli by the ruins of an old fortified manor house. It’s entirely crossed by streams that, between leaping frogs and foxholes, flow into the Vara. Padivarma is at the confluence, the other hamlets, all immersed in the usual wild atmosphere, are Bracelli, Castiglione Vara, Cavanella Vara, Corvara and, obviously, Beverino. It also stands out thanks to the multitude of trekking routes that connect the valley to the Cinque Terre and to the High Route of Ligurian Mountains. Beverino shines as a small branch of viticulture in Val di Vara: many of the vineyards are used for the production of the “Colli di LuniDOC wines.

From Calice al Cornoviglio, the view refreshes any spirit; a luxuriant village that has remained almost unchanged over the centuries, it rises in the middle of hills, meadows and springs. It’s located in the hinterland, on the homonymous mountain and at the foot of a majestic castle also known as the Doria-Malaspina, which can be considered as an extension of Calice Castello. There are many rural landscapes that offer you a glimpse of the mule tracks and paths which, as if by magic, lead to large plots of oak trees inhabited by gnomes: according to magical legends, the tree is the symbol of the village.

In the hamlet of Villagrossa you can visit a company specialised in the processing of medicinal herbs, a factory that has been active for more than thirty years and which aims at creating eco-friendly products. Bordering with the municipalities of Brugnato, Pignone and Carrodano, Borghetto di Vara is the so-called village at the bottom of the valley. It was once an important crossroads for travellers and pilgrims. The nearby Cassana is a hamlet of rural houses and abandoned mills, next to the Pogliaschina stream – it is the ideal place for a fishing holiday.

Close to the Apennines, the village of Brugnato owes a lot to the Benedictine monks of Saint Colombanus, who were the very first settlers to help with the development of this rural area with mountainous qualities, despite being located in a flat area. A land full of mysteries and a former bishop’s citadel. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the main attraction of the village is the cathedral of Saints Pietro, Lorenzo and Colombano. As for the mountains, you will enjoy walking along the health trails, or practice a sport of your choice between rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding or camping… if it can be considered a sport. We said that Brugnato became well-known as the bishop’s seat, in the 12th century: the findings belonging to this period are housed in the Diocesan Museum, inside the bishop’s palace of Brugnato, which is adjacent to the cathedral. To many people, the entire village truly represents an open-air museum.

To sum up, Brugnato originally had a defensive purpose and since it’s still fortified like it was in the past – the moat has now been earthed up – it can be entered only through two gates, Porta Sottana, to the east, near which the ruins of the chapel of Saints Rocco and Caterina sunbathe in the full sun, and Porta Soprana or Maestra, to the west. The historic centre, protector of religious buildings, has a lot of noble buildings and buildings with the typical sandstone facades, arcades and rows of houses painted with bright colors, showing a clear Genoese influence.

Bozzolo, the only hamlet and seat of the ancient castle of the abbey of Brugnato, which basically doesn’t exist anymore, dominates from above the plains. Brugnato is classified as Orange Flag of the Italian Touring Club. In Carrodano we find ourselves in a lovely village with a bell tower right at the centre. Committed to agriculture and located next to Carro and Sesta Godano, it’s divided into two parts: Carrodano Inferiore and Superiore. Its districts are Mattarana, Canegreca, Costa-Pereto, Piana, Ferriere, Termine and Arsina. The toponym probably indicates the very ancient origin of this place; it was a sort of temporary camp during the invasion of the Gauls in the 4th century BC.

In addition to the wonderful historic centre, you can admire the parish church and the oratory of San Bartolomeo, which we will talk about later. Carrodano, due to its happy geographical position, is also one of the preferred places where to buy second homes, provided that you’re keen on mountains. The same goes for Carro. We have reached another typical medieval village, an ideal site for campers. The scent of the embers invites us to discover the treats of an economy based on pasturearomatic plants, chanterelle and porcini mushrooms are guaranteed all year round. Forests and shepherd’s cottages surround the satellite villages of Castello, Ponte Santa Margherita and Ziona. The municipality is further divided into four historic hamlets: Agnola, Cerreta, Pavareto and Pera. Zignago, a former property of the lords of Vezzano, is located in a large basin full of streams and dominated by Dragnone and Castellaro. It’s one of the villages that are best linked to the concept of Slow Food and rural traditions; it’s ancient enough to have given birth to a stele statue, found along the riverbed of the Gravegnola – and currently preserved in the archaeological museum of Pegli.

Sasseta and Torpiana are the most important hamlets. Once belonging to the pretty hands of the Malaspina, Rocchetta Vara assembles a handful of houses made of rough stones. The first settlements were of monastic origin. It was only later that the current urban conformation took shape and the building materials were changed. From above, it seems to fly over a fief, which can be reached through a very popular bridge in the proximity of the manor house. Going up to Beverone, at an altitude of 700 metres, we meet the blue clear sky and we get a glimpse of the Apuan Alps. In the nearby Suvero, the domination of the family is kept alive through the artworks, passions and intrigues that still permeate the silent, and certainly haunted, castle, which is now a private dwelling. Next to it, the church of San Giovanni. Also in Suvero, along the road that leads to Passo dei Casoni, you cannot miss the magnificent pine forest that runs along the Apennines. Like many other villages, Sesta Godano, unaffected by the march of time, recalls the splendours and misfortunes of the pilgrims who were headed for Genoa. Its name results from the union of two toponyms (Sesto and Godano).

In Levante, we know its qualities as a piedmont agricultural centre that connects the Tuscan part of  Lunigiana with Emilia. Getting a tan under the full sun is definitely possible on the right bank of the Gottero stream, which shares its name with the homonymous mountain. The neighbouring villages are Airola, Antessio, Bergassana, Chiusola, Cornice, Groppo, Mangia, Oradoro, Orneto, Pignona, Rio, Santa Maria, Scogna and Vizzà. Located nearby, there’s Rio, a fortified village, characterised by massive vaults, tower houses and tall buildings that form a continuous wall structure. Similarly, in Maissana, the uphill configuration is not suitable for the construction of houses – but it still gives way to the rustic and wild side of Val di Vara, and to a small part of Val Petronio –: the relatively small village tightly develops around the parish church of San Bartolombeo. The municipality, as it’s densely surrounded by tall trees, has become the indispensable scenery of the Val di Vara Adventure Park, built in total respect of the environment and of the current European safety standards. Varese Ligure ends this itinerary among ridges in bloom, fords at high altitudes, pasture areas, ruins (the nucleus of Porciorasco is waiting to be renovated), fortifications and medieval glimpses, and it actively contributes to this atmosphere: from the typical hooped structure of the historic centre – ipse dixit, it’s a Round Village – adjacent to the noble residence and to the market square, and embraced by the arcades, we identify a rapid succession of houses that, having forgotten the bare stones of the castle, are characterised by lively facades and blend well with an often uncontaminated nature.

In the 13th century, the lordship of the Fieschi, also thanks to the links with the areas beyond the Apennines, chose a noble fate for Varese Ligure, indicating it as the elite village of the Vara Valley, “capital” of their Duchy. It’s just as good as Brugnato; it was awarded the Orange Flag classification and was defined as the Most Beautiful Village in Italy.

Monumental Lunigiana in the presence of the witnesses of time

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