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 Apennines.

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 Carpineti.
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 cemetery.

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 Sentiero Matilde.
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.
Il Casante
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 buildings.

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 wooden doorways.

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 hilltop fortress.
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.
Other excursions
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 vehicles.
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.
La Lunigeana
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 locally.

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 soon!
1 Archway,Verrucola
2 Passageway, Pontremoli
3 Castello at Verrucola
4 Bridge, Pontremoli
5 Archway, Pontremoli
6 Gossip, Fivizzano
Return to Top
Along the track to Carpineti
See more of ITALY
Explore on MAPS

Contact us
Return to HOME PAGE
Emilia Romagna
See pictures of