Valley and Hill Towns in Northern Tuscany

Most visitors to Tuscany focus on Florence and some famous (and crowded) towns in the central rolling hills, such as Siena. We decided to leave Florence until later in our trip, in hopes of arranging a host there. Instead, because we love quiet, out-of-the-way places, we opted to explore the mountainous northwestern corner of Tuscany. Our wonderful host, Marco, lives in the little town of Fornoli in the Serchio River valley north of Lucca. With his hand-drawn maps and train timetable to guide us, we saw some wonderful villages.

The tiny hamlet of Equi Terme nestles next to a white cliff

Marco’s hometown of Fornoli is the nearest train stop to Bagni di Lucca, an old thermal spa town that was a popular spot for high society in the late 18th and 19th centuries. That proximity gives Fornoli some unusual features, such as one of the world’s first suspension bridges, built over the little river near Marco’s house.

One sunny morning we ambled 2 kilometers up the road to Bagni di Lucca, where you can feel warm water (almost 60 degrees C) coming straight from underground at a little tap by the side of the road. Besides some pretty villas and old hotels, Bagni di Lucca possesses what was supposedly the first purpose-built casino in Europe. It opened in 1857 and was run by a Frenchman, who left a few years later to build casinos in Monte Carlo. Today, the casino is a tourist information office. An older Italian woman who works there, and who speaks impeccable English, was thrilled to have two visitors wander in. She gave us a tour of the grand building, which was beautifully restored and repainted a few years ago.

The recently restored casino of Bagni di Lucca, the oldest in Europe (now a tourist office)

She was a bit surprised to learn that we didn’t have a car (apparently, few people visit Bagni without one), but she dutifully pulled out maps and showed us all of the wonderful villages and mountain passes we could visit in the area if we did have a car. She was so thorough and earnest that we had a hard time getting away to take a stroll and be back in time for Marco’s mother’s homemade gnocchi.

According to the tourist maps, one of the prettiest towns in the region is Barga, but it can’t be reached by train. Luckily, Marco’s parents decided to take a Sunday outing there and gave us a lift. Barga is a wonderful old town perched high in the hills. Steep narrow streets wind between tall houses, shops, and churches. The church at the top of the town offers 360-degree views of snowcapped mountains and pretty green foothills, dotted with tiny hamlets.

The church also contains some wonderfully preserved surprises from the 12th century: a painted wooden statue of St. Christopher in primitive style, a carved marble pulpit standing on columns, and a black and white marble wall (inlaid with figures of leopards and other animals) separating the clergy and lay sections of the church.

Barga is definitely someplace we’d like to come back and explore, maybe with a car to visit some of the surrounding countryside.

The little Tuscan hill town of Barga is full of beauty, like this carving from a 12th century marble pulpit

After buying picnic supplies in Barga, we were dropped at the nearest train station and rode the train almost as far up into the mountains as you can go. Our destination was Equi Terme, a tiny medieval village of gray stone, nestled under a great white cliff by a racing stream. There’s not much to Equi Terme: a train station, a bar, a big spa hotel that looked closed for the off-season, a handful of old houses, and a church. There are caves under the hill that you can tour, but we opted not to since we had seen a similar cave in Spain a few weeks earlier. Instead, we rambled through the steep little streets and along the river, had a picnic, and sketched (Melissa) and dozed (Chris).

Perhaps the most striking thing about Equi Terme, besides its picturesque setting, is the church. It’s small and dark, and the little art that it has is fairly rudimentary. But this tiny building contains more marble than many rich churches we’ve see elsewhere. Not surprising since it’s in the diocese of Carrera, a town just on the other side of the mountains that has been famous for its marble quarries since Roman times. Funny how a little village can be poor in some things but rich in others.

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