We recently had several guests who wanted to hike during their stay with us. I was thrilled to share with them what little I know. The mountains around us are covered with trails and we’ve spotted many well-marked trails during our (too few) outings. To the east, the Apennines separate Toscana from Emiglia-Romagna and many of the trails cross between the two regions. The mountains to our west, the Alpi Apuane, are similarly a web of trails, some leading over the passes to the Mare Tirreno (Mediterranean Sea).
The Serchio Valley has always been an important trade route between the various countries that make up our area, including Lucca, Modena, and Firenze. The inhabitants of the valley since prehistoric times have traveled between villages following ‘mulettiere’ (mule trails). As a result, there is a wealth of possibilities for the hiker, whether beginner or mountain climber.
When we have free time and good weather,I try to explore new trails. But Casa La Pace keeps us busy, so I haven’t had many opportunities to hike. When the various guests asked about hiking possibilities, I directed them first to an information office in Castelnuovo. Friends had raved about a great hike to Monte Forato and so I recommended it heartily (and crossing my fingers that I wasn’t leading them astray).
A sunny Sunday in October provided the perfect opportunity for me to ‘put my money where my mouth is': to hike up to Monte Forato to see if it really is worth the effort.
My friend Giuseppe and I arrived in the beautiful village of Fornovolasco around noon. Fornovolasco is at the base of the Alpi Apuane and the start of the trail up to the summit. The trail was well marked out of the village. Right away, we encountered a group of 20 or 30 Italians preparing to climb the mountain, too. (Italians love clothes and always dress for the occasion. You’ll rarely see an Italian on a bicycle who is not wearing the appropriate outfit, expensive glasses, and helmet. These folks were wearing climbing shirts and pants, as well as specialized boots. I, on the other hand, had on a long-sleeve t-shirt, denim shorts, and hiking boots.
The hike began on a gradual incline, passing through lush green forests. In places, the trail consisted of stones, cut and placed in precise patterns. This a sure sign that this trail was once an important via, not simply a pasttime trail. The weather was perfect for our entire hike. It was slightly chilly in the shade and beneath the dense canopy of chestnuts, oaks, and other deciduous trees. As we climbed and exerted ourselves more, we stayed cool and hardly sweated.
We continued hiking and the path turned gradually steeper. We occasionally encountered hikers descending, but the trail was mostly empty. Giuseppe is well-read and we talked politics, the Italian economy, feminism, and other subjects arcane and profound. Before I knew it, we reach tree line. Quickly the climb became difficult and I was glad to be wearing the hiking boots. The path cut deeply into the mountain, exposing the white granite (or marble?) and many loose rocks. Our conversation petered out and we began to breathe deeply.
I was beginning to wonder if this was such a great climb to recommend to our guests. Until now it hadn’t been difficult, but I wasn’t sure what lie ahead and perhaps the casual hiker would not be able to reach the summit. At that moment, two children, about 4 and 7 years old, came scampering down the trail toward us. They barely paused to let us struggle past; I was determined not to allow mere toddlers show me up! After a 5-minute pause to catch our breath, I looked above us and was relieved to realize that the arch was close. The final 20 minutes are most difficult part of the climb.
The arch, which gives the mountain its name (‘forato’ means pierced in Italian), is a unique feature in the Alpi Apuane. It is clearly visible from Barga, though not as large as it seems from far away. It is still impressive, especially when I look through it to the other side of the mountain chain. The eastern slope, which we ascended, is the more gentle climb. The western side, facing the Mediterranean, seems almost a sheer drop hundreds of meters to the villages in the valley below.
A short climb past the arch brought us to the summit. There is no marker indicating the altitude, but wikipedia informs me that we were at 1,230 meters above sea level. The views in all directions were breathtaking. East you can see the Serchio Valley, then Barga, and the Apennines beyond. To the west is the Tirreanean Sea. To the south, Lago Masaciuccoli glistens.
Giuseppe and I picnicked on the summit. As always, the cheese, bread, and beer tasted much more delicious in the open air. It was sunny and breezy, a perfect October day to be ‘on top of the world’. There were perhaps 50 other people during the half hour we lazed up there. Giuseppe took a short nap. But I was attentive to the time – it was already 3:30 p.m. or so – and was concerned that we not end our hike in the dark.
We took a different path for the descent. This one traveled longer along the mountain ridge, so we had a series of stupendous views for at least 30 minutes before we dropped down into the woods towards Fornovolasco. Along the way, we saw absolutely no one. But there were many signs of human activity. There are petroglyphs throughout the Alpe Apuane, signs that these mountains have been inhabited for thousands of years.
We were not fortunate enough to stumble upon any petroglyphs, but we did pass an ancient ruin of a church. Giuseppe explained that these trails were also pilgrimage routes and religious hostels were scattered throughout the area. Later, we past an old sluice and a mill; man has been harnessing water as a power source for a very long time.
We arrived in Fornovolasco at dusk, tired but satisfied. How delightful to spot a bar, its bright light beaconing us to enter. We each had a hot tea (Giuseppe lived several years in the U.K.) and a chat with the proprietor, a kind old man with a gentle smile. On one wall was a photo of a drawing of Fornovolasco in 1498. It shows a mill, smelting furnace, and chimney, the most advanced factory complex for producing iron of the territory of the Este family.
Our entire journey lasted about 6 hours. I can now wholeheartedly recount my first-hand experience of the hike to Monte Forato for the next intrepid guests of Casa La Pace.