Around Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

We were due back in Rome in a few days after returning from Grado, and other than the roads, we hadn’t seen much of the Garfagnana region. The next  morning, we headed down the main road of the region, along the river, heading south toward Lucca. Along the way, we came across this cool old medieval bridge, the Ponte della Maddelena (or sometimes called the Ponte del Diavolo – the Devil’s Bridge).

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It was very steep in the middle and more than 900 years old, but as amazing as that is, I found it more strange that the hundreds of motorcycles moving on the roads on either side of the river didn’t want to cruise up and over the bridge. After all, there were no stairs to block them. I guess the few tourists taking pictures at the top of the bridge really put them off of that idea.

We wandered through several of the larger and smaller towns of the region, including Castiglione di Garfagnana, where Katherine took a quick rest in a very beautiful spot.

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One of the wonderful things about the Garfagnana region is that you can really get far, far away from the major roads and enjoy nature with Italians doing the same thing. During one of our loops off of the main road, we drove beside the Lago di Vagli, which features a picturesque town toward the middle of the lake, which was formed by a dam and has an abandoned village at the bottom of it that you can actually visit every few years, when they drain the lake.

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All along the way,  I made sure to keep myself caffinated. But all of those uppers required some downers for, well, you know, equilibrium, so you have to balance it out with a beer or a glass of wine. The risk, though, of course, is that you can look like this at the end of the day.

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Rather than zooming directly back to Rome via the autostradas, we headed west over the mountains and were able to see many of the famous mountains that contain some of the world’s finest marble. And the scenery wasn’t half-bad either…

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We emerged from the mountains near the sea and headed south to a very crowded Pisa. The leaning tower was the major draw, as you might expect, but the tourists were almost a sight to see by themselves, disgourging from buses and bumbling through ramshackle street shops, wandering into the light and expressing their wonder at the sights in front of them by acting like they were holding up the tower for hundreds of photos taken per minute. I mean, there was literally a line of people waiting to get the correct perspective to make the same optical illusion joke as the person directly in front of them.

Oh well, the duomo and the tower are very beautiful and worth experiencing close up.

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And that lean is very real. I really didn’t expect to really worry about the structural integrity of the tower, but even with the actions they’ve recently taken to preserve the tower – like taking out the marble columns on the downward side and replacing them with lighter materials – I’m not sure I would want to go up there. And the waiting line of tourists and high admission price settled it.

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Before the Romans dominated the peninsula, Etruscans ruled the roost. We swung into the Tuscan southern highlands and explored a few ancient towns founded by Etruscans among an area of hot springs. We also explored a small island connected to the mainland by a small spit of sand and a bridge. Porto Ercole really looked like an interesting place, but we were running out of light.

We didn’t actually make it Rome that night, but we did find a decent pension 30k north of Rome, along the sea.

Click here to see all of our northern Tuscany photos

Going to Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

After leaving Montepulciano and heading north, we crossed through central Tuscany, scooting below Siena and Florence and taking in a few sights in San Gimignano and Vinci before ending up at Petrognano, deep in the Garfagnano region, where we had a room booked for the next three nights.

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San Gimignano caught our eye in the guidebook due to the large number of towers in the town. Apparently, towers were a way during medieval times for merchants and others with money and power to show it off and provide a better defensive position for their household. This kind of tower building happened throughout Italy and in other places, but what makes San Gimignano unique is the sheer number that were built and the number that survived until today. While Florence probably had more than 100 of these towers, San Gimignano, a much smaller town, had 76. Most town during that time had only 1 or 2. While these towers were taken down (or fell down) throughout the region over the years – in San Gimignano, towers were occasionally purposefully torn down by order of the commune if a family became too powerful or if punishment warranted it – San Gimignano is the only town in the area that still provides a view of the towers grouped close enough together to give a decent perspective for how things used to look 800 years ago.

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Vinci is the birthplace of the genius Leonardo di Vinci, and while he didn’t spend a lot of time in the town after growing up there as the illegitimate son of a notary (and we didn’t either), the town has thought enough of him to reconstruct his birth site to what it approximately looked like when he was born. We ate lunch up there, above the town, in a parched olive grove, hanging out with a couple of unicyclists. Seriously. They rode up the hill and down. The sad thing about unicycles is that you can’t coast. The good thing about them is, if you are good, you can just have a chair that roll you around with little effort. Anyway, if you end up visiting Vinci, definitely skip the Leonardo museum in the town, which must be one of the worst museums I’ve ever seen. The exhibits are childish, and the emphasis on the pop culture interest in Leonardo is over the top.

To get up to Petrognano, we headed on the backroads through Pistoia, though the mountains, which ended up being beautiful but requiring much more time that I had expected. (However, randomly, we did come around a corner and happen upon preparations being made for a big party for the Communist Party of Italy.)

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We didn’t get to Petrognano until dusk, and we couldn’t find where we were supposed to stay. Thankfully, when we did locate the apartment and couldn’t find the woman that rented it to us, the kind elderly couple downstairs took us in and even called the woman’s cell phone to let her know that we were here. It was here that I started to realize that we were in a very different place than in southern Tuscany. It wasn’t the kindness of the older couple – almost everyone had been kind to us since we landed in Rome. Rather, no one here spoke any English. At all, really. Even the woman who we rented the apartment, someone who supposedly meets quite a few foreigners, couldn’t speak much English. (But, obviously, she spoke more English than we did Italian.)

We were starting to realize what a special place the whole Garfagnana region is for travelers like us, folks that like seeing more of the country and meeting people outside of the larger “tourist industry,” which is endemic through most of Italy. In Garfagnana, nobody really gave us a second look or tried to sell us anything, you could drive 30 minutes on a back road before seeing another car, and some restaurants didn’t even have menus (you ate what they were cooking). It was a great introduction to the third very different area we had experienced in Italy. However, before we could really dive in a see the sites, we had an appointment to see some friends.

See all of our photos of traveling to northern Tuscany