These Ancient Italian Towns Have All the Tuscan Beauty and None of the Crowds
“Every day I walk the vines,” says Gabriele da Prato, gesturing to the lush foliage surrounding us. “All of my senses are involved. I’m looking, smelling, touching, listening, tasting. I’m having a conversation with nature. I’m in harmony with the earth.”
Walking the vines isn’t the only way the esoteric winemaker harmonizes with the earth. From time to time he serenades them with a few bars from his jazz trombone, too.
We’re standing on a hillside at Podere Còncori, a small, biodynamic vineyard nestled into a corner of Tuscany not much known for its wine. In fact, the area is hardly known at all. But producers like Gabriele may change that, attracting travelers looking to escape Chianti’s crowds and forge a fresh path into the popular region.
Deep in Tuscany’s northwestern reaches lies a hidden valley that remains one of Italy’s most untapped locales. Absent are the classic, calendar page vistas — no vast sunflower fields or undulating rows of grape in sight. Instead, steeply forested ridges and verdant countryside framed on one side by the Apuan Alps — whose marble Michalangelo honed into masterpieces — and the Apennines on the other defines the wild Serchio Valley.
Throughout the region known as the Garfagnana, pocket-sized medieval villages tucked into rugged hillsides await exploration. Weekly markets spill with porcini mushrooms, acacia honey, cured biroldo salami, and pasta made with flour milled from the region’s plump chestnuts. Biodynamic winemakers like Gabriele tend their vines in conjunction with the phases of the moon.
The taxi winds up a long driveway lined with olive trees and lush lavender hedges and delivers me to the Renaissance Tuscany Resort and Spa. Perched on a hill within the historic Il Ciocco Estate, the hotel’s sweeping terrace and bright, salmon-pink walls dripping with heady wisteria clusters makes it feel like an elegant Italian villa.
From my balcony I can see the ancient town of Barga, its Tuscan-hued buildings — cream, ochre, rust — glowing in the afternoon sunlight, mountains in the background cloaked in cloud cover. I’d been traveling for close to 17 hours but the tiny town’s terracotta rooftops and cobbled alleyways beckon, a call I can’t refuse.
Which is how I find myself hitching a ride with Georges Midleje, gregarious manager of the Renaissance, who zips me down from Il Ciocco in his daughter’s Mini Cooper and deposits me beside the entrance to Barga’s medieval hub with a wave of his cigar and a promise to return after he runs a few errands.
Georges may just be the region’s biggest fan. In an era when the word ‘authentic’ has become cliché, the description still holds true in the Serchio Valley. “This is the real Tuscany,” Georges tells me, slinging the little car around blind curves while simultaneously gesturing at the scenery and beeping the horn in warning to oncoming drivers. “These mountains, the flavors, the ancient borghi villages. It’s a rare, authentic corner. The Garfagnana people live the old way.”
The sky opens moments after I pass through Porta Reale, one of two remaining gates leading through the town’s ancient fortifications. I dart along Via Mezzo to a small piazza and wait out the cloudburst beneath a stone and wood-beamed arcade at Caffé Capretz, sipping Campari and soda while the rain pours down inches from my table and an Italian flag flaps in the breeze. Across the way at Da Aristo, a small group sings along to a guitar strumming an American classic rock tune. I have no map and no plan — neither is required to wander Barga’s medieval warren of alleyways.
The dampness left behind by the rain intensifies the chalky scent of the medieval cobblestones and I breath deeply of the centuries as I follow deserted viccoli ever upward to the Duomo San Cristoforo, Barga’s Romanesque cathedral. Standing beside the castle-like church, with its lush lawn and piazza overlooking the Apennines’ verdant ridges, feels more like being in the Scottish Highlands than the Tuscan hills. A fact that is perhaps apropos given that Barga, with more than half of its residents claiming familial ties to Scotland, is considered the most Scottish town in Italy.
Though the town springs to life a couple of times each year when it hosts its summer jazz and opera festivals, today I have Barga — its streets, its cathedral, its views — all to myself, a degree of solitude visitors to Tuscany’s more trodden hilltowns rarely, if ever, experience.
On our way back to Il Ciocco, I mention to Georges that I forgot to buy Parmesan cheese. Seconds later, he swings the car to the curb and cuts the ignition, calling “this is where you get the best parmigiana in all of Italy!” as he disappears into a shop across the street. I enter on his heels and find him already in animated conversation with the two smiling, gray-haired men behind the counter.
For over 100 years, Alimentari Caproni has been provisioning Barga family kitchens and today, brothers Agostino and Rico preside over the quintessential Italian market. While Georges sings their praises, the brothers busy themselves with the parmigiana. Rico saws two wedges from a dense Tuscan loaf and drapes each with paper thin slices of rosy prosciutto — a snack for Georges and I to enjoy while I browse the wares. I select a large sack of the territory’s prized farro, an ancient grain considered the main staple of the Roman diet, and Agostino fiddles with the vacuum sealer to preserve my kilo of cheese for its trip back to New York.
Early the next morning I set out to explore the Garfagnana’s rugged side. In recent years the region has made a name for itself within Italy’s adventure travel market, offering everything from white-water rafting on the Serchio and Lima rivers to trekking vertiginous via ferrata — iron way — through the Apuan Alps. I opt to take a gentler path into the region’s wilderness, hiking the Cinque Borghi, a 10-kilometer jaunt that links five ancient hamlets amidst deep chestnut forest and verdant alpine meadows.
I meet Alice Bonini, my guide for the morning, at Agriturismo Pian di Fiume, a family-run farm stay that marks the first of the five villages. We follow the Sentieri della Controneria — a twisting loop of mountain pathways once blazed by Garfagnina goats and the farmers who tended them — trekking beside streams and up a rocky trail. Emerging from the forest, we enter Guzzano, the second medieval enclave, whose origins date back to 777. I fill my water bottle at a stone fountain tucked into a wall on Guzzano’s single street and we adopt a canine companion named Jack who trots beside us for the remainder of our woodland walk.
Aside from the dog we encounter very few others, although each tiny hamlet bears signs of life. Bright red geraniums and sunny calendula spill from terracotta pots lining stairways, doors leading into stone houses wear shiny coats of paint, moss covered cobbled streets appear freshly swept. In Gombereto, I step inside to peek at the town’s little church, spotless as a grandmother’s house, wooden benches and potted plants adorning the adjacent piazza.
Off the trail en route to San Gemignano, not to be confused with the famed Tuscan town of towers, San Gimignano, I spot a stone structure nestled in the forest. “It’s a metato,” Alice tells me when I ask. “A chestnut drying hut. There used to be many around here. A fire is lit inside and must burn at the same temperature for 40 days to prepare the chestnuts for to be ground into flour.” Just past Pieve di Controni, the largest and last of the five borghi, a collection of beehives sits among acacia trees and wildflowers, evidence of another of the region’s gastronomical staples.
Appetite piqued by a morning of exercise and mountain air, I head back toward Barga for lunch with Gabriele at Podere Còncori. Smiling and tanned, he offers a warm greeting and introduces Matteo, who leads a handful of visitors into the rows of vines to share the principles behind the farm’s biodynamic winemaking practices.
Based on the ideology of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, biodynamic agriculture seeks to function in harmony with the earth. Steiner’s ideas emerged in the early 1900s, as industrialized farming began gaining popularity. Twenty years ago, in response to the environmental damage he was seeing and as an alternative to the mass production of wines throughout Tuscany, Gabriele decided it was time to bring winemaking in the Serchio Valley back to its roots. He took a swath of family land once used to grow vegetables for an erstwhile osteria and transformed it, planting vines and restoring its vitality following years of environmental strain.
These days, Podere Còncori produces several varieties, including their crisp Bianco, a sumptuous pino nero, and two ruby red syrahs, each hailing from a unique microclimate among the vines. In the end, the vineyard’s terroir, and the farmer who tends it, infuses every bottle.
Inside the tasting room, several small tables are laid simply and elegantly for lunch, sparkling wine glasses at each place, pots of fresh herbs in their centers. Michela, Gabriele’s wife, tall and slender with a shock of bright red hair and a spunk to match, has prepared a delicious lunch — pasta with fresh tomato sauce followed by cured meats and a selection of cheeses from nearby Caseficio Marovelli. Third generation cheesemaker Romina Marovelli tells us about each one while Gabriele circles the tables offering generous pours of Podere Còncori’s award-winning Melograno.
I wake early on my last morning in the Garfagnana thinking about the ways this place I hadn’t known existed until a few months ago bursts with life, past and present, animating its ancient towns, its rugged mountains, its flowing rivers. The people of the Serchio Valley were committed to carrying their rich culture into the future, ensuring that the traditions of this unspoiled Tuscan corner would continue to flourish. I look outside and see a thick blanket of fog draped over the valley, shrouding Barga in a specter of mist, hidden once again.
Where to Stay
The best part about the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort and Spa may just be its deep connection to the surrounding territory and local producers. Guests are encouraged to explore the Serchio Valley’s ancient towns, sampling regional specialties and delving into the Garfagnana’s abundant natural beauty. The menu at La Veranda, the resort’s restaurant, features several dishes typical to the region as well as ingredients and products made nearby. Those products come to life during a cooking class with chef Andrea Manfredini, which begins with a stroll through Barga to shop for ingredients and ends with a delicious Tuscan meal you’ve prepared yourself.
Where to Eat and Drink
Down a narrow street in Barga, a small face peeks out from a niche in the wall. Called a scacciaguai and translated as “throw away troubles,” the primitive talisman is said to bring luck to those who tuck their fingers into its eyes and mouth. Beside it, the traditional Garfagnana fare served at the trattoria bearing its name will also help you abandon your troubles.
Romina Marovelli’s grandfather started making cheese for sustenance during World War II. Along with her mother and her aunt, Romina follows in his footsteps, producing a variety of fresh and seasoned cheeses in the family’s factory in San Romana di Vibbiana. Visit the factory for a fascinating tour of their cheesmaking operations — nestled on a hilltop with sweeping mountain views, the Caseficio feels like being in a scene from the Sound of Music.
On Friday evenings at the Renaissance Tuscancy, guests can rendezvous in the Nour Lounge with winemaker Gabriele da Prato for tastings of Podere Còncori’s varietals. For a deeper dive into the philosophies behind biodynamic winemaking, arrange to walk the vines followed by lunch and wine tasting at the nearby vineyard, which will likely be a highlight of a trip to the Garfagnana.
Osteria Il Vecchio Molino
Visitors to chef Andrea Bertucci’s cozy wine bar-meets-market-meets-restaurant in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana never see a menu, but also never leave hungry. Credited with founding the Slow Food movement in the Garfagnan, which works to preserve and promote traditional foodways, Bertucci delivers diners a unique culinary experience showcasing local flavors in his rustic Tuscan osteria.
Things to Do
The Serchio Valley is working to become known as the adventure hub of Tuscany. Outdoor enthusiasts can find everything from climbing in the Apuan Alps to whitewater rafting, ziplining, and mountain biking. E20 Avventures leads visitors into the region’s ancient history on stroll through five medieval hamlets on the hike of the Cinque Borghi.