Times are hard, holidays are becoming shorter. The need then to find a place which, in a short space, will offer rest, relaxation, food for the body and for the spirit is pressing. We all hope for a special place that will furnish the balance of rest and stimulation, fun and interest to see us through the working year.
Of course everyone has different aspirations. Perhaps you’d like to see new places, enjoy blue skies and clear seas, would hope to eat healthy, tasty food and still find something more, something that will nourish the inner essence; away from the sameness of crowded resorts with their ubiquitous ‘global village’ approach?
One place that can furnish all of these is the area on the northernmost tip of Tuscany known as Lunigiana – land of the moon.
The hilled area that forms the thumb-point of modern Tuscany is an ancient land, full of layered cultures that meld and entwine and live into the present. It is a place which holds a concentration of pre-historic cultures. There was a very strong and lasting druidic cult; some even say that many who left Britain during the Roman domination came here. There is also a wealth of sites that have been identified as healing places. It is perhaps this feeling that, somehow, being here makes you feel better that lingers on and makes this area so special for today’s holiday seeker.
An authentic place to restore weary spirits
It’s said that Marija Gimbutas believed Lunigiana to be a must for anyone interested in the old earth cultures. Interested in the real thing, that is, not the modern re-creations which are just money-making ventures speculating on the need people have to find something they can relate to in the chaos of modern living. Here there is no tourism linked to the old cultures, the old ways are a part of the place, they are not paraded or exploited. True; there is the society of Ligurian Archaeoastronomy, and a few books by experts on the area, such as Enrico Calzolari, but no other obvious manifestations and little, outside a few small museums, dealing with the area’s prehistoric culture. In one way this is an advantage as you will find no fake druids, no contrived ceremonies, but on the other hand it means that the old secret places are well hidden and all the more worth visiting as a result.
Another quote I can’t attribute directly to Marija Gimbutas was passed on by Dr Di Nevi, a local expert: “Here the culture has deep roots; like all strong roots they are hidden and quiet. Here cultures have piled up, one on another, right in to modern times.” It is, Dr. Gimbutas believed, the feeling of permanence in a shifting, changing, slippery world that quietens the spirit in this place.
Where to start?
The easiest way to get a feel for the extent and depth and value of the old cultures is to see the moon-headed, anthropomorphic statues, known here as Statue Stele, which are still being unearthed in this magical area. The first to be recorded as an ancient statue was found in the village of Zignago in the hills behind La Spezia, in 1867; the latest registered find was in 2005. There are now several collections. Two of the best are the Museo delle Statue Stele in Pontremoli’s Castle of Piagnaro, which has strong links to the Templars (Tel 39 0187 831439 for opening hours) and the fortress Castello San Giorgio Museum in La Spezia, both are definitely worthwhile.
Another little gem is the unpretentious but fascinating Museum of the Origins of Man in Genova and Ligurian Archaeology (Tel 39 010 6984). The oldest statue in the collection is again a moon-headed mother figure (the Earth Mother?) believed to date from about 30,000 BCE. The essential beauty of these depictions of womanhood could inspire any artist, as they have done in the past, and they are well worth the visit.
After that all you have to do is walk around and look around you. The whole area is full of prehistoric sites and many of the buildings in the old borghi, or fortified villages such as Verrucola, with its imposing castle; Sorano, Filattiera, which have pieces of ancient statuary and carving incorporated into their portals and architraves. In the hills there are also a number of cromlechs and other traces of what experts believe could be a culture dating back to 20,000-15,000 BCE.
Grotta S. Caterina, Fivizzano
One such, linked with healing and fertility across the centuries, is to be found in an internal Lunigiana valley close to Fivizzano – a town well visited by tourists for the excellent and diverse summer music festival, held the last two weeks of July. The ancient sculpture, now linked for its healing to a saint, was known as the Vulva of Mother Earth and is certainly the site of fertility rituals. It was said that a woman who lay within its niche would become fertile within a year. It has been dated variously from 9,000 to 3,000 BCE, and is a clear representation of female genitalia. This monument, about the height of a man, is deep in the woods on the hills and a pleasant walk from the town. On the way look out for stones marked with a V = the sign of water and fertility, or fertility in pregnancy, the vulva. Other carvings seen frequently are Ц and υ or ω which represent the cow, the Fertility Goddess’ totem.
You will find villages containing stones like these used to build houses in the old villages, like Caprigliola, (from Cupra the bringer of fecundity) which straddles the old pilgrim and silk route on the southern border of Lunigiana. This pretty, ship-shaped village, with its round, Moorish church tower, has a very decent restaurant and makes an interesting stop-over on the road.
The Golden Butterfly
One ancient manifestation that could be tagged ‘must see’ is the Golden Butterfly of San Lorenzo. A symbol of passing over, of moving from the care of Mother Earth to the Spirit Kingdom, the butterfly is a symbol found in the Runes.
|Eowaz = constellation of Cassiopeia|
|Dagaz = the butterfly|
|Manuz = the community|
Above are three derivations and meanings which are generally accepted to be associated with the Mother Goddess. Others link the butterfly to Hypnos, God of dreams. The Druids, too, believed that the spirits who were moving on, passing over, could be seen as butterflies – beautiful, transient and difficult to hold onto, while Marija Gimbutas notes that for the Greeks psyche or spirit and butterfly share the same word. She is a firm believer in the links between the butterfly and the cult of the Earth Mother.
Be that as it may, the Golden Butterfly is no casual, natural spectacle. It is a carefully contrived projection created by a quadrolithic structure which projects a clear image visible on a large flat rock. During June and certainly the days of the summer solstice – that is six days from 21st June - anyone visiting the area can stand at sunset and watch as the light of the setting sun is focused and channelled into a bright golden butterfly on the rocks of the hill. Local superstition says that those who visit the sight and see the butterfly will have a peaceful passing over.
A most pleasant lifestyle
Well-being in Lunigiana is not limited to centuries past. Anyone interested in skin care must visit the natural sulphur-rich spa pool at Equi Terme. This place, nearly 1,000m up into the mountains, has been a spa since before the Romans sent their Legionaries there to recoup from the stresses of war tours. Let the water dry on your skin for maximum effect; the sulphur cleans and softens. The spa closes in September but anyone around at Christmas will enjoy the Nativity enacted in the caves.
Lunigiana is not industrialised so, as well as pleasant hill walks, it produces excellent food, including some ancient specialities. “Must trys” include pasta made from spelt (as it was in Roman times) and from sweet chestnut flour. Both these varieties are grown and made by micro-industries in the hills above Casola. Try the pasta dressed with cherry tomatoes, tossed in the pan with oil, garlic and basil, and goats’ milk ricotta. While in the hills, take time to visit the village in the lake. On a windy day you can hear the bell toll underwater.
With some of the best beaches in Italy within easy reach, it is a simple matter to bask like a beach lizard in the sun and clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea by day and still enjoy the fresh air and simple pleasures of the inner villages in the evening. A good way of doing this, sampling local food, music and the customs is to look out for signs stuck on walls announcing a festa or sagra.
Podenzana’s Sagra dei panigacci in July is one such. Panigacci - unleavened flour disks cooked in terracotta plates, served with cheese and cold meats - have been cooked in Lunigiana since time immemorial. The villagers all participate in this outdoor festa to raise funds for the church and village clubs.
The medieval festival in Filetto is, of course, more contrived, but also offers an occasion to hear music and taste specialities of times gone by.
A little further on and very much of today is Fivizzano’s two-week music festival. Music for every taste and in fabulous settings. While there take the opportunity to buy a bottle of the famous medicinal liqueur, Elixir China, in the Farmacia Clementi.
Small, but fascinating, is the festa in the ‘bookseller’s village’, Montereggio. This pretty hill village is said to be the starting point for many of Europe’s editorial dynasties. Although the book prize has moved to Pontremoli, Montereggio has a special feel about it.. If you happen to go to Pontremoli for one of the many concerts or for the Premio Bancarella, be sure to sample the Amor pastries made to a closely guarded secret recipe by the generations of bakers who run the bar on the main piazza – well worth a look, too, by anyone interested in design as a perfectly preserved example of Art Nouveau.
More worldly activities
An easy, 15 minute drive towards the coast, and just 5 minutes from the beach at Marinella, is Sarzana, the unofficial capital of Lunigiana. Thursday is market day and a great way to pick up a fashion bargain. During all of August the streets are taken over by the antiques and bric-a-brac market, open till midnight. At the same time the local restaurants and producers take over the main square to allow everyone the best opportunity to sample local food and wine. Farinata, (far-ee-nahtah) a thin chickpea-flour pancake, is another must-try ancient recipe. You’ll find it in the traditional pizzerias, cooked in giant copper trays in wood-burning ovens. Try it with fresh ricotta (a soft cream cheese) from locally sourced sheep’s milk. Also in the pizzerias you’ll find Castagnaccio, (Cah-sta-nya-cho)a chestnut-flour cake, that saved many from malnutrition in the old days and has now become a real delicacy.
One last suggestion – wines: in Lunigiana the dry white Vermentino is fruity with a hint of salt carried in from the sea. There are a selection of lighter reds: Levada and Crova Nera (black crow), to be found at the organic winery Cantine Boriassi on the Fosdinovo road and made from revived autochthonous grapes, are rather special. A great place to see the winemaking process and taste a selection of the best local wines and fruit liqueurs are the Cantine Lunae, just off the main Sarzana-Carrara road. The Bosoni family have restructured the old farmhouse especially for tastings.
How to get to the Land of the Moon and where to stay
Lunigiana is served by both Genova and Pisa airports (approx 1hr). Sarzana, Aulla and main line La Spezia all have good train links, but few of the internal villages do. For train times check www.trenitalia.it. It is very difficult to book with a card on the site, but you can phone (0) 39 892021 and book through an operator.
Lunigiana is served by a great number of B&Bs, Agriturismi and rental properties. For those who are driving, Fosdinovo village (generally accepted as the gateway to Lunigiana) offers a selection of accommodation at reasonable prices: La Maestà (39 0187 68217) has self-catering apartments, a pool and a small restaurant offering first class home-cooking. The village restaurant is famous for the local speciality sgabei (sgah-beh-ee) – puffs of leavened pasta. On the other side of the village the hotel and conference centre La Castellana offers more up-market facilities. Other centres worth checking out are Fivizzano, especially during the music festival and Licciana Nardi - stay at English speaking B&B La Vecchia Loggia (0187 471249).
For those depending of public transport Sarzana is a good choice. There are hotels and B&Bs of all price levels, La Villetta (39 0187620195) is smack in the centre, within walking distance of the bus depot and the train station, it is basic, no meals included, but very clean. There is no lift, so it is difficult for the less mobile. Also in the centre is the Hotel Stella. A little less central (but still walking distance) is the Hotel Luna which has a pool.
Lunigiana is an ancient land, 'new' towns can be a thousand years old, yet there is a timeless feel about the place that puts modern angst, the rush, the acquisitions, the worries about 'getting there' into perspective. Take your time, it seems to say, life goes on. Take your time. Breathe my clean air. Eat my wonderful food. Feel life is worthwhile. Tomorrow will come at its own pace and yesterday is not lost.