Along the Serchio River, to discover an ancient valley

Going up along the Serchio River towards its source is like visiting a “new” Tuscany, made up of “silent”, sometimes steep itineraries, that reveal old and unexpected villages, rich in culture and traditions, set among forests and deep valleys.

Lucia Maffei

The Serchio River flows close to Lucca and then into the Tyrrhenian Sea. A road runs along it, “a beautiful road built on wide banks to contain its floods, running towards Ponte a Moriano”(1). From Ponte a Moriano the river runs up for nearly 100 km along a valley among mountains of the Garfagnana area, disclosing enchanting places and extraordinarily beautiful landscapes.

In 1580, Michel de Montaigne describes how, leaving Lucca and setting out north “on the road along the Serchio River that was valley floor and quite smooth for most of its length, one goes through many villages, crosses the aforementioned river on an uncommonly high bridge, holding almost entirely the width of the Serchio River with one of its arches”. The XVI century traveller also speaks of Borgo a Mozzano, today widely known also as a center for azaleas cultivation, but most of all renowned for the impressive Ponte della Maddalena, also called Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge). This peculiar bridge dates back to the year one thousand, the time of the Countess Matilde of Canossa. Its aspect, with the typical medieval curved-back profile, has a unique characteristic: its arches are asymmetric, with the central one being so extremely high and wide that its stability is almost a challenge to the force of gravity. This irregular shape soon gave birth to a popular legend: the builder that was working on the bridge, realising that he would not complete his work for the prefixed date and afraid of the possible consequences, asked the devil for help. The devil accepted to complete the bridge in one night in return for the soul of the first living being that crossed the bridge. The agreement was made and the bridge completed. But, as first victim for this crossing, the cunning builder chose a pig. The devil, thus tricked, vanished for good into the river’s waters.

THE NEXT SIGNIFICANT STOP ON THIS ITINERARY IS THE TOWN OF BARGA. Positioned like a fortress on the top of a hill, Barga dominates the Serchio valley, offering a beautiful view on the Alpi Apuane mountain chain. At the end of the XIX century, the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli chose this town as his home for its tranquillity. This was a culturally intense period for the inhabitants of this town, with many of the most important artists and men of culture gathering around the poet. Giacomo Puccini himself often visited the Bicocca, Pascoli’s beautiful house in nearby Castelvecchio. Today, the Museum House preserves the memory of the poet’s daily life and, most importantly, more than 60,000 manuscripts and the poet’s precious library.

Barga is also renowned for its beautiful cathedral, clear sample of Romanesque architecture, which dominates the town and the entire valley. Inside the church, the marvellous pulpit dating to the year 1100 emerges from the silent and shadowy aisles, supported by 4 red marble pillars based on pagan symbols and characters, which are thus flattened to the ground. Outside the cathedral, the silent landscape, the clear sunset atmosphere, the old church bell tolls recall one of the best known poems by Pascoli, “La Mia Sera” (My Evening), and the bell tolls become veritable words and verse. “Dong…Dong…And they tell me: sleep! They sing to me: sleep! They whisper: sleep! They murmur: sleep!”

ONCE PASSED THE TOWN OF BARGA, THE NEXT WORTHY STOP ON THE ROAD ALONG THE SERCHIO RIVER IS CASTELNUOVO GARFAGNANA. The landscape becomes rougher, the valley narrower and the town appears unexpectedly, behind a curve. Castelnuovo has ancient origins and for centuries was the center of many trade exchanges and object of political fights. The castle that today still dominates the town was the house of the poet Ludovico Ariosto, as governor of the House of Este. It is sure that the cultivated author of the “Orlando Furioso” did not like his stay in this harsh and wild place, inhabited by “rough” people, for he wrote to a friend: “I stay in the fortress or go into the open air, I always hear quarrels, accusations, outcries, I hear of thefts, homicides, hatreds, vendettas and rages!”(2).

HAVING LEFT CASTELNUOVO GARFAGNANA, one can go in search of the small village of Fabbriche di Careggine, an unusual itinerary, a travel back in time to a unique, strange, famous village. This place, indeed, can be visited only once every 10 years, as it is submerged by a lake, which is drained every decade to clean the dam blocking it.

The above mentioned lake is that of Vagli: it was created in 1941 when the electricity company Selt-Valdarno started to build the 92-meter dam, designed to contain 36,000,000 cubic metres of water, blocking the flow of the river, thus definitely submerging the small village with its ancient San Teodoro church.

At the conclusion of this journey, the verses of a poem confirm that water, calm and unrestrainable in its eternal flow, represents the roots and origins of life itself. The rivers, with their eternal flow, have always hosted people and civilisations along their banks:

“…This is the Serchio River, off of which maybe two thousand years of country people of mine have drawn, and my mother and father”.

(”I Fiumi” [The Rivers], by Giuseppe Ungaretti, 1919).•

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