Apuan Queen

La Pania Della Croce (alt 1858 metres – or 6096 feet if you prefer) is rightfully called La Regina delle Apuane (Queen of the Apuan Alps). Although not the highest peak (the Monte Pisanino is that) it is the most dominating and certainly the most beautiful. Like all mountains it looks quite different from different locations.

From Barga what one thinks is the Pania della Croce overlording the valley is, in fact, the Pania Secca, an offshoot of the main ridge – the Pania Della Croce can just be discerned behind it. From the sea it looks lower than the Monte Altissimo but is, in fact, much higher. From Castelnuovo di Garfagnana it spreads itself out like a gigantic lying human figure so that it is nicknamed “L’uomo morto” (the dead man). You can quite clearly pick out the features of the giant’s nose, eyebrows, chest and feet.

From San Pellegrinetto it can be viewed in all its magnificence, especially the steep descending,  quite bare slope called la costa pulita.

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We’ve climbed the Pania Della Croce twice. The first time was in 1989 (with Sandra) when we set out from the coast, arrived at Seravezza by bus which then continued to Levigliani. The following morning we set out on a slightly misty morning which soon cleared up on path number nine and reached the top by midday. We then decided to descend on the other side of the mountain through the canal dell ‘inferno (Hell’s gulley) down that costa pulita to almost reach Fornovolasco. I say” almost” because night descended and we sought shelter in an abandoned shepherd’s hut. As it was summer it wasn’t exactly cold but when we got to Fornovolasco the next morning (which was actually only a stone’s throw away from the hut!) we greatly appreciated that hot cappuccino at the local bar before catching the bus for Castelnuovo and the train for Lucca and Florence.

Little did I know then that this lovely mountain would have become a regular feature of my morning panorama in this somewhat remote part of Tuscany. The second time I climbed up the Pania Della Croce was from the Serchio valley side. The road took me as far as Piglionico where a memorial chapel is dedicated to partisan victims shot or thrown over the cliffs of an adjoining mountain in the last war. From thence it was an often steep but steady climb on footpath number seven through woodland before emerging into the upper pastures leading to the Rifugio Rossi.

From here the path took a rockier character with ample scree slopes, charging up a channel which eventually leads to the summit of the Pania Della Croce. That day there were a few others who’d done the mountain – enough to keep one company but happily nothing like the Piccadilly Circus that the top of Snowdon (and so many other UK “mountains”) usually greets one.

A visitor’s book was there to receive climbers’ comments and also the cross itself – clearly a second attempt to brave the elements since the remains of a previous one stood near it. The views again were quite spectacular stretching from the Apennines on one side right down to the Mediterranean Sea and the Tuscan archipelago.

We have since been on the mountain (though not to the top) on various occasions. In the summer, as part of the Serchio delle Muse festival there is a concert by the rifugio Rossi. One year I heard a concert given by the brass section of the Maggio Musicale (Florence) orchestra (they must have been fit to have carried their often heavy instrument up there) with the participation of two young and very athletic sopranos.

It was lovely to hear this music merge with the stratospheric landscape enflamed by the sunset.

It was warm enough to sleep outside (in a sleeping bag, of course) the rifugio and next morning I decided I’d climb the slightly more difficult Pania Secca before returning to the rifugio and then descending via one of the wildest parts of the Apuan alps, the canyon known as the Borra di Canala.

There is no doubt one has to have a decent level of fitness to do all this, not have any problems with vertigo and also have a reliable pair of trekking boots, good weather (in winter it can be treacherous and some years ago six experienced climbers lost their lives) and a love of nature in its wildest and sublimest form.

If you haven’t climbed  to the top of the Pania della Croce then your Apuan understanding will always be lacking its crowning experience.

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