Saturday, April 22, 2017

Add the Fortress of Verrucole as among recommended attractions in Northern Tuscany

I have a new item to put on my list of top things to see when visiting Montecarlo and the Lucca area: the Fortress of Verruccole of San Romano in Garfagnana. The reason it’s so special is that it’s not just an imposing restored medieval fortress on a hilltop in one of the most beautiful valleys in Italy. It’s greater appeal is the knowledge, passion and personality of the docents, who have a stated goal to inform people about the middle ages and to ‟captivate the attention and convey a documented knowledge without boring or numbing tourists with dates or pompous words.”

The siege machine.
We arrived late in the day and only had time for a half-hour tour with English-speaking guide Giulia Paltrinieri, but in that short time, we learned much and were swept up in her love of history. The fortress dates back to the 10th century and is impressive both in its imposing position and large size, but the most interesting aspect is that it’s an ‟archeopark” dedicated to teaching and demonstrating with interactive displays what life was like in the 12th century.

Rosemary "Flintstone" makes sparks to get the fire going.
Often times, most of what passes as history is really the story of the changing fortunes of rich and powerful rulers. Around Lucca, we hear a lot about Matilda di Canossa, Castruccio Castracani, Paolo Guinigi, Uguccione della Faggiuola, Napoleone Bonaparte and Elisa Bacciocchi. But little is said about the everyday lives of the farmers, merchants, soldiers, traders and craftsmen. Giulia and the other docents turn that equation around, devoting their displays, demonstrations, workshops and lectures to showing how people really lived. For example, after detailing a short history of the fortress, she jumped right into showing us about 30 powders—made from plants, animals, chemicals and minerals—that were used for coloring art, clothing and other objects. We were impressed that she could explain from memory the origin, composition and use of each color. She did the same thing with a demonstration of medical tools and herbal and chemical potions, answering questions about the purpose and use of each implement or medicine.

Giulia shows us how to use an iron tool to cauterize a wound.
We were treated to explanations of sleeping conditions, food, clothing and weaponry. We watched a team load and catapult a projectile from a huge siege machine. Giulia dressed my brother in the uniform of an infantryman, explaining the use of each item and weapon. We had arrived late in the day and stayed until closing time, but we left wanting to return for more. I read that the laboratories and workshops offer activities in ancient building techniques, battles, archery, miniature art and writing using ink and quills, weaving and cooking. By request or on special occasions, visitors can also engage in a game of pallascudo, a medieval sport involving the use of a ball and shield.

That fierce looking infantryman with the
sword ready is Roger Spadoni
The panoramic views from the walls also deserve mention, as one can view the Alpi Apuane to the west, the Tosco-Emiliana Appennini to the east and the lush Garfagnana valley to the north and south. A tavern provides food and drinks that offer a glimpse of past diets combined with modern snacks and light meals.

Entrance admission is only 5 euro, with discounts for children, seniors and groups. Admission includes a tour of about an hour. Other educational activities and workshops can be organized upon request. A few words of caution: You should check the schedule online (, because the fortress is usually only open on weekends and special holidays, and its closed entirely in the winter. There is also only one English-speaking guide, so you may have to wait until she is available. Finally, the hike from the parking area to the fortress goes up a trail that takes 10 minutes to climb—or longer, if one has to stop and rest.
This cold-looking slab of rock was
once the captain's toilet. Waste went
over the outside wall.

If you’re part of an active family or group, I recommend making San Romano a full day adventure, because within only a few minutes from the fortezza, there is a popular ropes course with zip lines, the Parco Avventura Selva del Buffardello. I went through the course a few years ago and had a blast. It’s a fortunate coincidence that two of the best attractions in the valley are in the same small city. Plan two or three hours for each, with a relaxing lunch break between.

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