A brief introduction to The Garfagnana Region of Tuscany.
The area of the Serchio valley, running north from Lucca to Bagni di Lucca, Barga, and on to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, is known as The Garfagnana. This picturesque valley, meandering between the Apennine and Alpi Appuane mountain ranges, was a desperately poor homeland to the villagers of its lovely stone villages, perched high on the hilltops of the surrounding mountains. For years, the major source of income from this unrelenting land was chestnut flour from the groves of chestnut trees that still cover the steep hillsides. Many of the farmers and hunters of the Garfagnana emigrated to America and Australia to seek their fortunes. But the call of this wild and lovely land remained strong, and a number of those that left kept the ownership of their fields and homes. A trip through the area, best done by car, makes the reason for this keen sense of place and ownership abundantly clear. This land is too dramatically beautiful to dismiss from one’s memory.
The view from Colletto
Borgo a Mozzano
On leaving Lucca, the first town that calls to the visitor is Borgo a Mozzano, famous for its little hogback bridge. Local legend tells us that the devil was willing to construct the bridge for the villagers of Borgo a Mozzano, if they were willing to pledge to him the soul of the first being to cross the new bridge. The bridge was built over the winding Serchio one dark night, and the wily villagers then sent a dog over it in the morning, managing to outsmart the devil. This is a captivating legend, but the real builder of the bridge was Matilda, a countess of the 11th century. Visitors can walk across the bridge as we did, and marvel at its severe and intriguing humped shape.
Bagni di Lucca
A drive along the Serchio leads visitors next to the collection of riverside hamlets that comprise the ancient spa town of Bagni di Lucca. The area once enjoyed a great deal of fashionable favor, and was extremely popular for so remote a spot in the early 1800s. Gambling was a favorite activity of visitors to Bagni di Lucca, and in 1837 the game of roulette was invented here.
The lovely villas of the prosperous patrons of the spa still stand, and there are elegant private thermal establishments catering to summer visitors. There is a lovely riverside restaurant that was once the foreign visitors club, and the town’s unusual bridge, the Ponte alle Catene is also of interest. This pretty town is best visited in the summer when all the tourist related businesses are open, but a visit here is never without its charms.
Barga to Piazza al Serchio
The Garfagnana proper does not begin until the visitor reaches Fornoli, at the point where the Lima flows into the Serchio. At Coregia Antelminelli, set high above the Serchio, there is a museum dedicated to the traditional plaster figurines of the Garfagnana. The Museo della Figurina is open daily in the summer and everyday but Sunday in the winter.
Barga, another lovely hill town, sits above its modern counterpart, Fornaci di Barga. Barga is famous for its ancient Cathedral, begun in the year 1000. The Cathedral perches on a terrace, overlooking Barga’s rooftops and the surrounding hills that are streaked with white marble. The outside of the Cathedral is lavishly decorated, and the interior is graced with an intricately carved pulpit, as well as some important medieval works of art, including a polychromed statue of St Christopher. Also worth a visit while in Barga are the Palazzo Pretorio, containing a small Museo Civico, and the Loggetta del Podesta. Barga hosts an Opera Festival in July and August. Barga is a very charming town, and its many twisting streets and staircases invite visitors to wander and explore.
From Barga it is a short but challenging drive to the town of Fornovalasco in the Alpi Apuane, where Tuscany’s most well-known cave, the Grotto del Vento, or Cave of the Winds, is located. The cave is open daily for visitors.
Further along the valley, the visitor will encounter the unofficial capital of the Garfagnana, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana . This lively town is guarded by the Rocca, a fine example of 14th century architecture, and the command post of Ludovico Ariosto, the author of the famous Renaissance epic poem, Orlando Furioso. Side roads lead to Castiglione di Garfagnana, and the romantic little town of Isola Santa, all but abandoned on the shores of its own tiny lake. Further up the Serchio valley are the twin towns of Vagli di Sopra and Vagli di Santo, with stunning views of both valley and one another from many vantage points. At Piazza al Serchio, the north bound visitor leaves both the Garfagnana and the Serchio behind.
Farro from Garfagnana
During the great emigration from the Garfagnana that we mentioned earlier, when the land and its inhabitants were desperately poor, the growth of farro was almost unknown in the region. A few elderly farmers were growing just a bit of the cereal for their personal use. As visitors began to discover the medieval walled city of Lucca, and as restaurateurs of the city prepared traditional recipes to please their visitors, a rather miraculous event occurred: the long forgotten farro came to life in the newly popular taverns and trattorias of Lucca. The keepers of these ancient taverns had been serving farro soup for generations, making the lonely trek through the mountainous Garfagnana to seek out the few producers, often returning to the city with just a tiny sack of farro. But as Lucca grew in popularity with tourists, and as visitors continued to flock to the town, the demand for farro also grew. More and more farmers of the Garfagnana began to produce this ancient grain.
Farro is indeed ancient; it is mentioned in the Bible, and in the chronicle of Herodotus. It was born in the cradle of civilization and cultivated by the Assyrians and ancient Egyptians. We know that farro reached Italy by the 5 th century BC, and that it was a staple food for the Etruscans. The Romans ground farro under stone millwheels, and used the resulting product to make puls, a precursor to polenta, which was the great empire’s basic dish. Roman soldiers were paid in farro, and it was the symbolic gift of Roman brides to their husbands on their wedding day. A flat cake made of farro was also the ritual gift of the Roman New Year.
What happened to farro? How did it change from the most popular grain in the ancient world, to the prized relic of just a few ancient farmers in a remote Tuscan valley? As new grains were discovered, farro lost its popularity. The yield of the wheat farmers was much higher than that of the farro farmers, and when it was discovered that difficult to grow farro could easily be replaced with other grains, the farro fields began to shrink. The Garfagnana became the last home of farro in Italy.
But thanks to a few tenacious farmers in the Serchio valley, the grain was kept alive. As tourists began to appreciate the dishes of Lucca, a rebirth took place in the lands of the Garfagnana. The ancient and preserved art of growing farro became the badge and symbol of the rebirth of the Garfagnana. Decimated by poverty and emigration, isolated by mountainous terrain, a new generation of landowners and citizens took strength from the phoenix qualities of their precious grain.
Farro is low in fat and rich in vitamins, proteins, fibers, and starch. The high altitudes and rich soil of the Garfagnana are perfect for growing farro. The farro grown here is special: the farro di Garfagnana should never be soaked (as some German and other varieties call for) before cooking. And this farro cooks slowly, taking an hour or more to soften; in fact, many cooks believe that our farro soup is best served the second day, after resting and reheating.
Farro from the Garfagnana is one of the first products of ‘poor cuisine’ to be awarded the European mark IGP (Indication of Protected Geography), which is awarded to guarantee a product’s geographical origin. Connoisseurs can rest assured that the farro grown here is free from chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The yield of the Garfagnana’s farro crop is very low; in fact, only about 80 farmers currently grow farro in the area. We hope that you are given the chance to enjoy this rarest of Tuscany’s specialty products.