If you think of Tuscany, you'll be thinking about green rolling hills, olive groves, cypress lanes and vineyards. Rocky mountain peaks and ski hills will probably not come to your mind, although this is also Tuscany. The splendid Garfagnana valley can be found in the northern part of Tuscany, between the Appenines and the Apuan Alps, so it's a really exciting mix of alpine and Tuscan atmosphere. It's not far from Lucca, still, most people have never heard of the Garfagnana. From Lucca a nice road takes you to the valley, following the Serchio river. You can take the bus, but it's easier if you have a car.
The area gets lot of rainfall, so the vegetation is lush and wild, with dense forests. It's a hikers' paradise, but the roads are also perfect for mountain biking. In May 2007, I was working as an Intrepid Travel group leader in Italy and I was guiding an active tour through the Cinque Terre and Tuscany. We were hiking in the Cinque Terre when we met the Giro d'Italia race, so we all ended up buying a pink Giro T-shirt. A few days later we were riding our bikes uphill for 10 kilometers in the Garfagnana area. It was tough, we were sweating, but we had so much fun as everybody was talking to us and smiling at us in our pink T-shirts. The same happenned a few days later in Lucca. While cycling around the city wall local old men were calling out: "Veloce, veloce!".
When driving to Garfagnana, you should stop and walk across the Ponte della Maddalena, which is a famous medieval bridge in Borgo a Mozzano, also called Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's bridge). The bridge and the surrounding colourful houses often have a beautiful reflection on the water.
You can find several smaller villages in the valley and two bigger towns. Castelnuovo Garfagnana has been around since the 8th century, and it's the center of the region. Unfortunately the 1920 earthquake ruined the historical center, but it was nicely renovated.
The other important town is Barga, my personal favourite. Although most of the town is modern, the medieval historical center lies on top of a hill, and with its narrow cobblestone streets, stone houses, cute cafés and relaxed vibe it's a wonderful slow travel destination. The old town is dominated by the 9th-century Duomo of San Cristoforo, which was ruined by the earthquake as well, but it was beautifully renovated. From the square you can enjoy a stunning view of the mountains.
In case of rainy weather, the Grotta del Vento (Wind Cave) is a good alternative program. We ended up here with one of the groups when hiking was impossible because of the heavy rain. Some other time, with the same three girls, we just started our hike to the peak when we were suddenly hit by a downpour. We turned back and rushed downhill, straight into the local bar. Needless to say local men were quite happy when four ladies, all soaking wet, entered the bar. I don't remember exactly what we had, it was either grappa or hot chocolate, or a mix of both. We really needed something to warm us up.
During the winter Garfagnana's ski area is waiting for the lovers of winter sports. A ski holiday in Tuscany? Why not?
To visit this wonderful region, you can do a day trip from Lucca. But if you'd like to stay longer and are looking for a nice farmhouse, send me an e-mail with the details and I will help you. With my groups we always stayed at a very cosy, family-run agriturismo, where we relaxed by the pool between hikes and bike rides, enjoying the award-winning view.