No 39 isn’t just the number of the London bus whose route starts at Clapham Common and terminates at Putney Bridge. It’s also the number of one of the most amazing footpaths you’ll walk on in the Apuan Alps.
Originally a mule-track between down-valley Aiola (alt: 90 metres) to Vinca (alt: 900 metres) the path traverses alp-like pastures, birch forests, exposed rocky outcrops, and chestnut woods to finally enter the cultivated areas of the Lucido valley villages. In addition, along the path you can meet with a sanctuary, several Maestà (little shrines), the ruins of an ancient church, a remote hermitage and a mysterious castle watch tower buried deep in the forest. This truly is a path to experience, although it requires some fitness, a good sense of balance, keenness and perseverance.
I originally did this exceptional walk some years back with a lovely person (who sadly is no longer with us) and was very keen to repeat that unforgettable experience in the company of two dear friends who had worked out the train and bus timetables so that we could reach Vinca without a hitch (in theory).
The Lucca-Aulla line must be immediately put on the list of the great train journeys of the world if it hasn’t already. The line (begun in the 19th century but only completed in the 1950’s) traverses the gentle hills around Lucca, winds up the gorges of the Serchio River, slips under Borgo a Mozzano’s Devil’s Bridge, gushes out into the main Garfagnana valley, wends past another set of gorges before reaching Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.
Thence it crosses the Serchio River on a spectacular viaduct (which can also be walked across by those not vertically challenged) before reaching Piazza al Serchio, the uppermost town of the Serchio valley. From there it traverses the main watershed leading into Lunigiana through two immensely long (and noisy) tunnels, between which is the town of Minucciano with its unique hexagonal church tower, before emerging into the Lucido valley and Monzone, where we alighted.
Forget your list of train journeys to do next – this one should come first!
The bus to Vinca apparently did not come, or rather it had come and gone, a full twenty-five minutes before the hour appointed by the timetable and we were not at the bus stop while it paid its visit but eating our sandwiches nearby! The same bus which had so slighted us, then returned from Vinca and, with one of my friends’ waving a print-out of the official timetable to the non-plussed bus-driver and the vocal support of the local barman, who had realised our miserable plight (no more buses until the next day) and who had a “couple of words” with the bus driver, we were given an extraordinary journey all to ourselves to Vinca by the driver who admitted it was all his fault that we missed the bus!
I felt this summed up this wonderful country of Italy to a T. Things never quite run on time (pace Mussolini’s trains), usually they run late. In exceptional circumstances, like this bus, they run early but everything turns out well in the end. I doubt if bus drivers in other parts of the globe would lay on an extra journey just for the benefit of three dejected hiking brits!
After several hair-raising hairpin bends we arrived at the remote village of Vinca which is of a severe appearance but which is highly attractively sited with its dolomitic-like backdrop of the Garnerone ridge. We visited the little narrow and steep streets of the place and I bought some bread which I found delicious and which I subsequently discovered Vinca is famous for.
Regrettably I also found out later that this lovely and peaceful location was the site of one of the greatest atrocities by Nazi-fascists in this part of Italy during the last days of WWII. In August 1944, as a reprisal for the killing of a Nazi officer, soldiers from the 16th SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Reichsführer SS” commanded by Major Walter Reder killed over 170 civilians in Vinca, mainly old men and women. The description of the atrocities could not possibly find a place in this blog – so horrible it was. War spares no place and no-one– my thoughts are now with those poor civilians living in Syria.
Fortunately, I had not found out about this terrible page of history until the day after the walk – indeed, providentially, we did not even visit the cemetery, even though we passed it on our walk down, where we would have found out about the hideous massacre through its memorial.
Nature reclaims everything, even the victims of unendurable horrors, and the ex-mule track footpath we were now following through a luscious birch and holm-oak forest became very overgrown and narrowed down by landslides. Occasionally, this made for a little difficult going but it was all so much worth it that we did not mind the occasional tiredness of the knees and the heat outside the wooded areas hitting us from the weirdly-shaped exposed rocks. What wonders were around us: the wild crags of the Northern Apuans, the lushest of woodland, the extensiveness of views over the Lucido valley, the timelessness of it all…
It’s interesting, however, how one forgets certain details of walks one has previously done: the metal gangplank across one stretch which had fallen down due to a landslide completely slipped my mind. Anyway, it was still solidly in place and, holding on for dear life to an iron chord against the rock face, we negotiated it without difficult (just didn’t look down!)
The ruined chapel of The Madonna Vecchia Di Vinca still had traces of its decoration on the wall and, under the shadow of a projecting rock, made a welcome stop and shelter from the now quite intense heat.
If we had started earlier, or even if the temperature had been lower, we would have made a detour to the ruins of the Eremo di San Giorgio. I’d given St George’s hermitage a miss on my previous occasion on this walk as well. Third time lucky? Perhaps a separate trip is due to the hermitage, which was founded in the seventeenth century by Matteo Filippo Caldani. (Caldani was a rich Veronese who gave up his worldly wealth to withdraw from the world here in 1604 dedicating himself to a life of contemplation and renunciation. Others joined him in this wild and lonely part of the world and they subsequently became part of the order of the servants of Maria of Monte Senario near Florence – which place I’ve mentioned in a previous post).
Re-entering the woods after this perpendicular track of the mulattieria and stopping at a fountain with the most delicious water we’d tasted (but water is always delicious when you’re parched!) we approached the delightful village of Aiola with its proud sculpture of Saint George and his dragon on the church façade.
From thence it was a short walk to the Christmas crib town of Equi Terme, its wild-west like train station and the train home which, in contrast to the 25 minutes-early bus, was 25 minutes late!
Of such walks are our sweetest memories made and we shall always think of these enchanted moments until the very last days of our lives upon this earth.