In ancient times, the Romans built a road
along the Po valley to connect Rimini and
Piacenza. It was known as the Via Aemilia,
named after the consul Marcus Aemilius
Lepidus. Along its route the cities now known
as Bologna, Modena, Reggio nell'Emilia and
Parma were established and it is for these
cities that the wealthy region of
Emilia-Romagna is best known.
But south of the valley and its corridor of
settlement and transport routes, the
Tuscan-Emilian Apennines rise from rolling
hills to a vast mountainous area bordering
Tuscany. At the heart of this area is the
National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian
Before heading north to the Dolomites in the
spring of 2010, we explored some of this
mountain area. The provincial cities of
Modena, Reggio nell'Emilia, Parma are all
good jumping off places and worthy of a visit
but we couldn't fit them all in so the decision
was made to spend a couple of days in
Parma, hire a car and make a base in an
agriturismo just outside the small town of
Apennines of Emilia-Romagna
Il Sentiero di Matilde
Parma is and old and elegant city. It is flat, so
everyone rides bicycles through the streets and
gracious squares of the city where stylish
facades are decorated with intricate stone or
brickwork and curious carvings.
There are churches, palaces, gardens and
theatres with strong musical connections. The
Teatro Regio di Parma is closely connected
with Giuseppe Verdi who lived in nearby
Busseto and a Verdi festival is held each year.
One night at dinner we drank a bottle of wine
called Nabucco. Arturo Toscanini was born here
and Niccolo Paganini is buried in the city's
Parma is also, of course, the home of
Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma.
In the shops are huge barrel shaped cheeses
and we were astonished to discover that the
prosciutto is priced and promoted according to
its vintage, just like wine.
In the centre of the city the Piazza Garibaldi is
a lively gathering place where the locals
congregate and drink in the many cafes looked
over by an imposing statue of Garibaldi himself.
Carpineti and Agriturismo Il Casante
Carpineti is a tiny commune set in green rolling
hills about 70 km west of Bologna and 30 km
southwest of Reggio Emilia. Towering above the
town are the ruins of a mediaeval castle, one of
those built and held as a stronghold by the
formidable Countess Matilde of Canossa.
Agriturismo Il Casante was everything an
agriturismo should be. It was located within a
group of 15th century buildings, held in the
same family for many generations and now
producing biologically certified beef. Our hosts
were a charming couple who every day arrived
with a new surprise - local ricotta and
parmigiana, a different torte every evening and
plentiful baskets of fruits. Cherry trees planted
all about were loaded with fruit.
We found also that we were located right on the
She was also something of a warrior, having been taught to ride a horse
carrying a lance or pike and fight with an axe or sword. Legend has it that
Matilde herself sometimes put on a suit of armour to lead her troops into battle
either to defend her territories or support the cause of the papacy.
These were times of fierce rivalry and conflict between the papacy and the
Holy Roman Emperor and a powerful woman like Matilde was obliged to take
sides. She came down on the side of the popes and became a close friend of
Pope Gregory VII whose imperial adversary was Henry IV.
Part of her strength in these conflicts lay in the string of castles that were
strategically located throughout the region. The most famous are Canossa and
Carpineti but others include Rossena, Sarzano and Bianella. It was at
Canossa in 1077 that the barefoot emperor Henry IV was forced to humiliate
himself at the feet of Pope Gregory VII, leading to the expression "To go to
Canossa", ie to humble oneself.
Matilde died in 1115, not of battle wounds, as might be expected, but of gout.
She was buried at San Benedetto Po near Mantua but in 1634 her remains
were removed to St Peter's in Rome by Pope Urban VIII and a fine monument
was sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Matilde di Canossa. (1046-1115)
Matilde, or Mathilda, also known as Countess of
Tuscany or, simply, la Gran Contessa, was born in
Lucca. Following the deaths of her father, siblings and
mother, she inherited extensive feudal estates in
central Italy and became one of the most powerful
women of the middle ages.
Brilliantly educated for the times, she spoke French,
Italian and German and corresponded in Latin.
Three views of Parma
The trail of 80 km begins near Canossa Castle at Vico di
Ciano d'Enza and follows a route that goes up to the
high alpine passes at S. Pellegrino in Alpe . It is
generally proposed as a walk of seven stages and is
relatively easy, using a network of mule paths, paths,
gravel roads and occasionally, roads. The route passes
the main castles owned by Matilde and many other
points of historic and architectural interest. It is clearly
marked with signposts and information boards.
Sentiero di Matilde (Matilda Way)
A number of trails have been established to encourage walking through the
beautiful country of Emilia Romagna. One of the most interesting is the
Sentiero di Matilde or Matilda Trail.
Il Casante was strategically placed on the Matilda
pathway just north of Carpineti. We walked into
Carpineti a couple of times and explored a little further
along the track in both directions.
In the southerly direction we walked across the fields to join the sentiero and then
wound down a long hill to a wooded valley where the church of San Donnino di
Tresinara was tucked away behind tall stone walls among a group of deserted
A pretty church with a solid square bell tower, St Donnino was probably built at
Matilda's direction and is mentioned in documents of 1191. Although the church
has been restored there was no way of entry and no sign of life though a car was
parked under an adjoining very interesting old building. The latticed construction in
the upper part of this building indicated that it had once been a very large dovecote.
Other abandoned and partly ruined buildings were built of solid stone with aged
Across a little creek a muddy track found its way up through the village of Riana to
arrive on the outskirts of Carpineti. Through the town and up a steep climb through
the woods was the castle. One of Matilda's strongest castles it is an imposing
fortress, high on a hill and seen from the countryside all around.
In the northerly direction the trail passes
alternatively through fields and woods, till
the rolling hills climb to a ridge from
which there is a splendid view back
down to the valley of Carpineti. From
here it is an easy walk to the town of
Casina and its castle, another imposing
From Carpineti the path continues south
towards the next castle in the chain,
Toana or it is possible to branch off to
the west on the Spallanzani trail, another
well marked itinerary named for an
eminent scientist, taking in features of
natural significance. Not far along this
route is the impressive Pietra di
Bismantova which opens up a whole lot
of new walking opportunities.
National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines
There are many walking opportunities in this park which incorporates most of the mountain area to
the south. One day we drove up to the Passo Ceretto on the route that crosses to the Tuscan side
of the mountains. This is a narrow, winding road requiring steely nerves, especially on a Sunday
when it was busy with cyclists, motor bikes and locals in small slow Fiats who seemed to be more
intimidated by the experience than us.
Passing the Pietra di Bismantova we saw that many people were setting off, either to scale the
precipitous cliffs or to walk the circuit of this imposing rocky outcrop which juts up 300m from the
surrounding plains and is sometimes described as a ship or a whale.
At the pass, storm clouds were ominously rolling up from the south but we found a track that
followed a traverse round the mountain sides to a point where we picnicked with a stunning view
down towards Bismantova.
Carpineti Castle from il Casante
Three views of St Donnino
Many picturesque villages hide away on
the tortuous mountain roads that lead
off the main road. Exploring these, we
quickly discovered the prudence of
abandoning the car well before the
village rather than plunging into
terrifying steep narrow lane ways from
which there was no exit, except by the
way you had come, which was
inevitably blocked by other cars or farm
The villages were cold and gray in the mist and it seemed that, in this mountain
environment, time had stood still. It was in these mountains that Eric Newby hid and
was protected after his escape as a prisoner-of-war during World War II. In his book
Love and War in the Apennines, he describes the difficult life in the mountains and the
landmark that Bismantova was as he moved around the area.
On the other side of the Ceretto pass is
Tuscany and the fascinating region
known as the Lunigeana. Relatively
unspoiled, it is a region of fertile valleys
and picturesque villages where there are
undiscovered Romanesque churches in
isolated hamlets and castles looming on
hilltops. Hidden away in churches and
museums are found some of the curious
stele and Bronze/Iron age stone statues
which have been adapted as the symbol
of the area.
Top: La Pietra di Bismantova
Above: Three views in a mountain village
Among the places we particularly liked were
Verrucola, a mountain village tucked beneath the
walls of its mediaeval castle;
Fivizzano, a lively small town with an attractive
circular piazza ringed with elegant buildings
containing restaurants and shops;
Aulla, the administrative centre of the region whose
Abbazia di San Caprasio proudly displays recently
discovered relics of the pilgrims who passed through
on the Via Francigena.
We also liked the agreeable town of
Pontremoli. Its narrow streets and
archways, churches and old palaces
provide a photogenic environment
where you can lose yourself for hours.
In the castle above the town there is
the museum which is home to many
of the prehistoric stele statues found
This is an area not on the major
tourist itineraries, but there are signs
changes are coming, if only in the
number of country houses offered for
sale or rent on the Internet. Go there
2 Passageway, Pontremoli
3 Castello at Verrucola
4 Bridge, Pontremoli
5 Archway, Pontremoli
6 Gossip, Fivizzano
Along the track to Carpineti
See pictures of