Our tour of the northern Tuscan coastal portion of Italy continues from Part-1 in last month’s issue of Baggers (July 2012). We headed out from Pisa and Lucca north on the Autostrada A12 with a stop at Forte dei Marmi.
This part of the Tuscan coast, known as Versilia and Costa Apuana, is where Michelangelo not only fell in love with the gentle hills full of olive trees leading to the sparkling blue Mediterranean—but the towering Apuan Alps is where he quarried his white marble for his masterpieces such as David, which resides in the Accademia Gallery in Firenze (Florence).
Continuing north on either the coastal road or the Autostrada toward Genova (remember, Autostrada direction signs show the larger cities), we make a quick stop in Marina di Massa. A monument consisting of 14 massive carved blocks of marmi bianchi (white marble) artfully arranged like a haphazard set of books on a bookshelf, and the nearby pier, make this a nice place to let the CVO cruiser cool off and check out the spiaggia (beach).
The beaches and towns are typically crowded in the Estate (Summer), and the shoreline looks like an endless flow of umbrellas, organized in groups of colors for each beach club. The free public beach areas are usually found near piers and other openings between the private beach clubs, which lease the land from the government. You can inquire with a beach club (called bagno, which is slang since the full Italian term is too long) for a guest space for a nominal fee. This will include a changing closet, in which you can lock your effects, and enjoy provided lounge chairs and umbrella on the beach.
Most beach clubs feature a full service restaurant or snack bar, so you can relax in one location the entire day.
(Note: August is when most Europeans take vacation and hotels may be full. Italians also take the month off, so many non tourist-based businesses might be closed or dormant for this summer period).
There are many hotels to choose from and even campgrounds along this coastal section. Being tourist friendly, chances are good that they will speak some English. When visiting another country though, it’s always a good idea to learn a few basic terms in the native language, and parli Inglese? (do you speak English?) is certainly one of the best to know.
Being based in this region allows you to explore the northern Tuscan territory in easy day-trips in any direction. From Marina di Massa or neighboring Marina di Carrara, where my base of operations and family nerve-center is located, you can head 5 kilometers inland and up the hill to either of the twin cities of Massa and Carrara at the base of the Apuan Alps. Collectively known for the extraction and production of gleaming white Carrara marble, their economies have relied upon this milky-gold for centuries.
Quarries and Castles
Exploring the marble quarries, various medieval hilltop villages and castles in this northernmost Tuscan province of Massa-Carrara, offers many awe-inspiring options.
Arriving at the quarries is a simple matter of exiting the Autostrada and following the initial sign to Carrara and the “cave di marmo” (marble caves) signs. You’ll head up the hill and go through Carrara then start to climb the slopes of the majestic Apuan Alps. Along the way you will find several souvenir shops selling all manner of carved marble objects, even the smallest of these can be quite heavy.
In Roman times, quarrymen cut the marble by hand with hammers, chisels, and iron pegs at the rate of about an inch a day. Today, even diamond-edged wire blades can only cut 20cm (8 inches) per hour, but ultimately slice 15,000 tons daily from these mountains and is hauled off in hulking blocks by huge flatbed trucks.
Following the signs for Colonatta, you will see options for marble tours and cave di marmo — including the Fantiscritti marble quarry — where some of Michelangelo’s marble was sourced. Guided tours into the mountain unveil cavernous 100-foot high marble-walled rooms that could double as an evil-underworld lair - if only James Bond were here. Actually, 007 was here, getting chased in his shredded Aston Martin around these quarry roads in the opening scene of Quantum of Solace.
It’s pertinent to point out that once you get up into the mountains, you’re sharing these small roads and tunnels with large marble-moving machinery, less-so on weekends. It’s not dangerous if you’re paying attention, (and not blazing the hairpins like Bond) but also be cognizant of the narrow turns and presence of gravel and pulverized marble. Incidentally, a bi-product of marble production is calcium carbonate powder and used in everything from antacids to toothpaste.
Just a few kilometers beyond the Fantiscritti quarry is the marble town of Colonnata, where the famous Lardo di Colonnata is made. Although it sounds unpleasant, the pork fatback is cured in marble vats with salt, rosemary and other spices and is considered a delicacy. (For you foodies, it’s included in the Ark of Taste and part of the Slow Food movement.) Served thinly sliced, it’s enjoyed as an antipasto with some pane Toscano (Tuscan bread), vino (wine) or birra (beer). Lardo played an important part in providing sustenance to the hard working miners and slaves dating back to Roman times. Today, Colonnata is a remote tourist destination prized for its views and restaurants featuring lardo. Many restaurants will offer more than just lardo, and a menu of other options is commonly posted outside for those not ready for the cherished local dish.
Heading back down the hill toward Carrara, there is a yellow house with attractive grounds and tables located on a bluff. This outpost is another producer of lardo — which you can purchase along with other salumi (Italian cured meat) at the on-site shop — and enjoy with a spectacular view.
If the higher-altitude food isn’t appealing, Carrara and its old cobblestone streets offer many eating options. Strolling the enchanting main square, Piazza Alberica, the prominent statue atop a flowing mountain-spring fountain commands your attention - but you never know what sculpted marble art installations might be on display.
The next destination is just over the hill in Massa, which is conveniently connected to Carrara by an inland road. The Castello Malaspina di Massa, is an imposing castle that overlooks the underlying city of Massa, the lower plains and Tyrrhenian Sea coastline. The current name is derived from the marquises Malaspina— the noble family of Fosdinovo, who controlled the land further north where their namesake castle is located— but took control of the Massa castle in the 15th century. The castle’s fortified location is said to date as far back as 882 AD, and its strategic position served to fight pirates from the coast and the sea. The castle is open to the public for a fee and brochures describing its rich history are available in English.
Further north near Sarzana, the Castello di Fosdinovo is also worth a visit. It also features a bed and breakfast, which most certainly is separated from the living quarters still used by family descendents. This hilltop fortress is said to be indestructible, having survived the ravages of time, earthquakes, and the turbulent middle-ages. The walls all around are befitted with open gun loops for cannons and other firearms. And what castle with such a tumultuous history wouldn’t be complete without a torture chamber?
On the road up to the Fosdinovo castle, I spotted a peculiar place I had to check out on the way back. Pizzeria il Selvatico, has numerous motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles, all mounted atop pedestals of church bells and torpedoes leading toward the entrance and parking area of the restaurant. Not being sure if it was a scrap-yard or kooky monument like Carhenge, my curiosity was piqued so I had to check if it was really an eating establishment. It was indeed a pizzeria and focacceria, and to my surprise, it had a vintage motorcycle museum inside!
I lost count of the many motorized two-wheelers, such as a 1916 Terrot, several 1920-1940 Moto Guzzis, some with sidecars, 1930’s Benelli and Gilera, old MV Agusta, Parilla, BMW, and numerous Vespas and Lambrettas. I was truly blown-away at the depth of this vintage collection upstairs from the restaurant, and free to visit!
The delightful restaurant serves wood-fired thin-crust pizzas, bakes its own buns, and has a large rustic veranda that accommodates busy Saturday nights and many special events, including moto d’epoca (vintage motorcycle) gatherings. (via Fravizzola 3- Caniparola –Fosdinovo)
I couldn’t get it out of my head, and was curious-as-a-kid about the prospect of staying overnight in an ancient medieval castle. I pestered my wife about leaving the kids with my in-laws so the two of us could have some medieval-time together. She checked with a family friend who operates Domani Tours (DomaniTours.com). The owner, Loriana, suggested another castle with such accommodations a few miles inland in the Lunigiana region. Castello dell’Aquila, (Aquila meaning Eagle) is one of many castles in the Lunigiana region, known as the land of a hundred castles.
Loriana, who organizes customized tours of Tuscany and has a U.S. based agent, made the required phone call to the private gated castle. The short notice and busy summer season weren’t working in our favor for a room that night, but she arranged a tour and we set off for a ride into Lunigiana.
This region, which takes its name from the moon, is where prehistoric carved stone idols were discovered, witnesses to an ancient civilization dating back two thousand years before Christ.
Getting here requires a brief departure from the Autostrada A12 onto the A15 to Parma, and exiting at Aulla puts you at the gateway to the Lunigiana region. Winding through picturesque country roads, we make a left turn in the town of Gragnola, and up the concrete-and-gravel switchback road to the gated castle. It’s prominent watch-tower in view, we ring the bell at the automatic gate and are invited in. My excitement was building at this point, what a thrill it was to ride up to a private castle on a Harley!
We’re soon greeted by the owner, who tells the story of her renovation from near rubble when she acquired the property, into the splendor and historically significant structure we see before us. Historians postulate that its location initially controlled ancient trade routes from Rome to Central Europe. Historians and scholars were thrilled when the renovation uncovered the grave of a mysterious 14th century knight, who was murdered by a crossbow arrow through the mouth.
Today, there are nine large rooms in the Great Tower (or “keep”) that start at 200 euro per night. There is a library and two living rooms that guests can use to gather or relax. The inspiring tour has definitely placed this on my list of places to return to, and explore the medieval hamlets and romantic country churches of the Lunigiana region.
WWII and the Gothic Line
The idyllic and picturesque Tuscan countryside faced further momentous historical events during the Second World War. Many hilltop villages were used by German troops for the obvious advantage, and there are often memorials or tributes to their liberation by Allied troops, as well as denouncements of Nazi fascism.
One of the most noteworthy, and sobering memorials in this region is in Sant’Anna di Stazzema, high in the Tuscan hills near Pietrasanta. In 1944, Nazi SS soldiers were searching for Partisans (Italian resistance movement opposing Mussolini and fascism) who were attacking German troops. In their scorched-earth retreat from the advancing Allies, the 300-strong SS division rounded up and massacred 560 villagers, including children and pregnant women. The horrific events inspired Miracle at St. Anna, a novel by James McBride and epic war film by Spike Lee, chronicling the 92nd (Buffalo Soldiers) Division’s contribution here during the Italian campaign.
The Gothic Line, was the last German defensive line that ran across northern Italy from the Adriatic Sea on the east, through northern Tuscany on the west. Remnants of the fortified concrete tank barrier bordering Tuscany and Liguria, are still visible on the plains running from the foothills to the sea, near the ancient ruins of Luni. Interestingly, when Hitler realized the Allies’ rapid advancement would soon breach this barrier, he changed the name to the more timid Green Line, to lessen the impact of the negative propaganda that loomed.
With only a day left to utilize my borrowed E-Glide heat machine, I wanted to stay rather close to the water. I headed north from Marina di Carrara at the northern border of Tuscany and into Liguria, which has many tranquil seaside locales to visit.
The most well-known tourist destination is the Cinque Terre (Five Lands). Over centuries, residents of these five villages have built terraces on the rugged cliffs overlooking the sea, and is part of the Cinque Terre National Park. Part of the charm is that they’re connected by walking trail and not accessible by car, only reachable by boats and trains from La Spezia.
Instead of parking the bike and boarding a train or vessel, I opted to pass through La Spezia to the headlands where the postcard-worthy seaside fishing village of Porto Venere is located.
The quaint streets and bay front views offer many options to relax, enjoy an aperitivo (drink and light appetizer) or local seafood like polpo (octopus) and take in the ancient port dating back to the first century BC. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Porto Venere was the base of the Byzantine fleet, but was destroyed by the Lombards in 643 AD. It’s intriguing to me to sit here and ponder what life was like in these various periods of human history.
Before heading back south to Tuscany, I stopped in Lerici, another idyllic seaside village with origins dating back to Etruscan times. The famous Lerici castle, founded in 1152, sits on a promontory and helped control the entrance to the Gulf of La Spezia. More recently, Lerici has been knick-named as the Bay of Poets, as English poet Shelley resided here in the early 1800’s.
The relaxing day in these quaint seaside villages was the perfect primer for the beach party that Marco Cinquini had invited us to that evening. It was time to return the CVO Electra-Glide he so graciously loaned us, so mia moglie (my wife) and I headed south to Viarregio. Marco invited all of his friends and Garage 65 riding buddies for an authentic pig roast on the beach. The festive meal included trimmings such as salsiccia cruda (raw sausage). The term “When in Rome” couldn’t be more apropos, so I chewed a few bites and washed it down with plenty of birra Moretti.
The evening included much conversation about dreams of riding a Harley across the USA, and inquisitive questions about rallies like Sturgis and biker life in America. Making new friends like Federico, who speaks excellent English— and enjoying the camaraderie between these like-minded folk— didn’t always require knowing the same language. The non-verbal brotherhood of bikers around this planet, is a united bond that crosses boundaries. And never has it been more apparent to me, that bikers are iron-clad souls, the true knights in this modern day.
My two-wheeled touring of northern Tuscany certainly gave me a new perspective, and reminder, that we should ‘work to live’ like Italians do, not ‘live to work’ as most Americans do.
La bella vita. Arrivederci Italia.
Flights to Florence or Pisa with connections in Europe
- Smart phone for GPS & Google Translate
- Avoid August
H-D Rentals: Harley-Davidson Firenze (HDSpeedshop.com)
Itinerary and accommodations (DomaniTours.com)
Vowing to return someday for an Italian bike rally, I came back to Italy in January 2012 to visit the Motor Bike Expo in Verona. Although this is an indoor expo and not a rally during riding season, I was impressed at the scale of the show, which attracts 130,000 attendees over a weekend! The large presence of American customs, Italian builders, and celebrities like The Ness’s and Jesse James, made this the most popular area of the show. The appreciation for H-D and American-style customs is not only alive and well in Italy, but thriving.