The Pass of the Mysterious Cross


The Passo Della Croce Arcana was my gateway into the enchanted world of the Val di Lima when I first came here in 1997 on my Honda Transalp all the way from Woolwich, London. I’d been trying to escape the torrid heat of Florence and decided the best way to do it was to go up, which I did on most days.

I returned to the pass in 2005 and again in subsequent years. In 2005 we met up with a party of hang-gliding enthusiast who had locked their car door by mistake and left the key inside. My wife suggested that they try our scooter key, which I thought an absurd suggestion. The hang-gliderists, however, took the key and found, much to everyone’s surprise, that it fitted!

That says a lot about vehicle security… It also says something about hospitality as we were immediately invited by them to a picnic lunch of panini and vino which had been stored inside the car.

The views from the pass are extraordinary and what is even more extraordinary is the way the whole mountain acts as a drum if you beat upon the peaty turf. The ground under you is actually hollow and echoes when you hit it.

There are many wonderful walks you can do from here – to Monte Cimone, to Hannibal’s pass but we were just happy to be there and soak in the panorama.

But exactly where is the Passo Della Croce Arcana? It’s in the Tuscan- Emilian Apennines, at an altitude of 1669 m (5476 feet) above sea level, in the Province of Pistoia and in the municipality of Cutigliano. The pass is crossed by an unpaved road that goes through Cutigliano and Doganaccia and leads to Fanano, in the Regional Park of the High Apennines of Modena.

The Passo Della Croce Arcana (which means “The pass of the mysterious cross”) is characterized by high-altitude moorland very similar in some ways to that encountered in Snowdonia, rocky outcrops, and has magnificent 360-degree views on fine days extending not only to the Apuans but to the Alps themselves!

Where does the pass get its name from? It was a pilgrims’ route until the late Middle Ages and used to cross the Apennines from the Po valley to Tuscany and, beyond, to Rome itself, although it was always less popular than the Via Francigena, which crossed the Northern Apennines further west and which I mentioned in my post on San Pellegrino (see my post at

The oldest documents mentioning the pass date back to the Lombard era, when Pistoia had become a royal city and the Byzantines had gradually withdrawn to the east.

After 1000 A.D. with the emergence of free communes, pilgrims and armies were joined by merchants and their wares: long trains of mules carried wool stuffs, silks, tapestries, lace and fine fabrics between Florence, Prato, Lucca, Pistoia and other Tuscan towns on the one side and Milan, Venice, Paris, Flanders and London in Northern Europe on the other .

The intense traffic explains the presence of hospices run by religious orders to shelter and protect the travellers crossing the Passo Della Croce Arcana. On the Emilian side in 749 AD, St. Anselm, before moving to Nonantola to found the famous abbey, had obtained from the Astolfo, King of the Lombards in Val di Lamola, near Fanano, Emilia, to build a hospice for pilgrims.

On the Tuscan side, too, the Knights Templars built a hospice for pilgrims at the Croce Brandegliana (hence the arcane cross), at the spot where the village church of Prunetta now stands.

Because of climate change (it actually became colder- the so-called mini-ice-age) the Passo Della Croce Arcana, in later centuries became less, used as snow lay on it for over six months of the year.

Furthermore, in 1781, by order of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Duchy of Modena, the Giardini- Ximenes road through Abetone (now renamed the strada statale no 12 and known as il “il Brennero” as it eventually crossed into Austria via that pass) was constructed – a true engineering feat and work of art for those times that quickly eclipsed the Croce Arcana road since it was less likely to be closed by snow.

The whole area is a great ski-ing resort and it attracts many skiers (including us) to Cutigliano where accommodation can be found in the delightful mediaeval town below it and which boasts a mini-version of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.


Cable cars and ski-lifts can take one up to a height of 1720 metres and one has an embarrassment of choices between different grades of pistes besides Nordic skiing.

There is also a war memorial with an old gun at the top of the pass since on the night of the shooting stars (San Lorenzo – the 10th of August) regiments of the Alpini meet here to commemorate those who did not return from the battlefields.

What a great place to be at whether on a motorbike, scooter, foot, skis or snowboard!


2 thoughts on “The Pass of the Mysterious Cross

  1. Pingback: A Wet Big Top | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and beyond)

  2. Pingback: Cutigliano in the Snow – From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Three

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