The Arch, Monte Forato | John Millen
Hidden on the foot of the Apuan Alps in Italy’s Tuscany is the (teaching) farm of Francesca and her family. Besides producing her own honey and olive oil, she loves to discover more of the Apuan Alps, hiking its hidden paths and admiring the same woods and hills that generations before her already have.
We asked Francesca to share some of her secrets on the Italian region and give you a bit of an insight into what an Apuan Alps hiking experience may involve.
Can you tell us who you are and your relation to the Apuane Alps?
I’m 58 and it was my father who taught me to love mountains. My family have always been living in areas surrounded by mountains, first the Appennino Tosco Emiliano and later the Alpi Apuane. I went out ‘walking’ on his shoulder first and when I got older on my own legs. Today I like going out together with my dogs, it's one of the best things to do! I really like to discover where each road or path goes (or was going in the past) and to see and feel what the generations before me were thinking and doing when they used to cross my same steps. The history of the Apuan Alps goes far, first there were pre-roman populations, followed by the Romans, medieval and renaissance people and then WWII soldiers (we are on the Gothic line) and finally us today.
What is special about the Apuane Alps National Park?
The Apuane Alps are “new mountains”, which means young geologically speaking. The alps are a kind of an island out of the sea. There are great peaks that are perfect for expert alpinists allowing spectacular views on the Versilia Coast and the Tuscan Archipelago with the biggest island of Elba. The alps can be rocky and steep with waterfalls and caves. The peculiarities of these rare mountains are that while being not so high, they do offer all what other great chains bring, but you can experience it all in one day.
For example, you can wake up in a medieval village and start walking on a path that takes you through a chestnut wood; when getting out of it, you will find yourself where trees no longer grow. After the blackberry bushes and grassy bit, here called paleo, finally you’ll hike up the rocky part that goes fast up to the sky. In as quick as 3 hours from leaving your bed you can hike up a great peak, and back!
What is your favourite spot in the Apuan Alps?
There are many, some of them for example are abandoned villages that are perfect for a picnic break sitting on an ancient ruin. One of my most favourite spots is the top of Monte Croce, which is full of white flowers in late May/early June.
What are other interesting places in the Apuan Alps and why?
There are natural caves like the Grotta del Vento and Antro del Corchia, which are well organised for a visit. But there are many other interesting caves than just these two. When walking in the Apuane Alps, travellers will also encounter castles, fortresses and walled towns. Barga, where I live, is an amazing town for example. It was first a Roman settlement, then a medieval walled town that in the time of the Renaissance developed into an even more beautiful city. The marble from here is plentiful and it is so white. It can only be found around the Apuane Alps Park and Michelangelo got the marble for his statues from one of the quarries here, imagine!
Can you tell us about the food in this part of Italy?
I’m an agrichef myself and consider myself an expert in food. I am also a guide to local food producers. I know where in the alps they make the perfect pecorino cheese, as well the best salumi, prosciutto and lardo, olive oil and wines. I’m a beekeeper and on our farm we produce our own honey, as well as extra virgin olive oil from our own olive trees.
Farro (spelt), chestnut and our Formenton 8 file (our corn) are the renowned treasures of the valley around Barga. The DNA of our Formenton 8 file shows that it is exactly equal to the maíz found in Mexico. This means that from the day that Columbus came back with the first seeds of corn, we have never changed it or mixed it with other variants. We still grow exactly the same corn!
Chestnuts, if you allow me to tell you a story, made “us” survive through the cold winter of 1944 during WWII. You can survive eating just and only chestnuts as they are rich in healthy ingredients and vitamins such as the vitamin C. It didn’t get boring to eat, as the chestnuts were prepared in the thousands of ways we know.
What are your most favourite restaurants in the Alps?
I personally know, as I mentioned earlier, most of the food producers in the region. So, I know to which restaurants their products go, and those places are exactly where I like to go for dinner, lunch or a snack. For example, I can recommend Il Vecchio Mulino, Ristorante La Buca and Theobroma, an ice-cream maker that uses my honey!
What, for you, is the best time of year to walk in the Apuane Alps?
Walking in the Apuane Alps in winter may complicate things a little due to colder temperatures, precipitation and slippery paths, but every season is different and an amazing time of year to visit for their own reasons.
What tip or advice do you have for travellers who want to do a walking holiday in the Apuane Alps?
They will love hiking the Apuane Alps for sure. Most of the time, walkers will find themselves on the paths alone, meeting other people only in the small settlements. The Apuane Alps are not a wild land, but we are an old land that evolved by marks left by pilgrims, merchants, emigrants and passers-by.
My tips for an Apuane Alps hiking trip: wear long trousers and never ask local people for directions - few of them walk themselves, but if you ask for the right path to take, they will come up with an answer anyway and it will be wrong for sure. Also, do not ask the same people about snakes: everywhere in the valley, the locals are afraid of snakes in a silly way. Each village will have their own legend or tale involving snakes, whether based on reality or not, that is up to yourself…
You can go on a hiking trip exploring the Apuane Alps yourself from the first of April until early October. On Walkers' Britain's 8-day Walking in the Apuane Alps holiday, you’ll spend one night at Francesca’s farm before you head on to discover more of the 'Parco Alpi Apuane'.