Pontremoli, hidden gem of northern Tuscany
Pontremoli is one of the main villages of Lunigiana located at the bottom of Tosco Emiliano Apennines in the green and wild northern Tuscany. Out of the classic itineraries of mass tourism, it has a strategic position at the border between Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia Romagna. Pontremoli astonishes visitors for a mix of nature, history, and culinary tradition, different from the rest of the region. Even the dialect and the accent are different, closer to the Emilian and Ligurian accent than to the real Tuscan.
A step back into the history of Pontremoli
According to the Latin, the name of Pontremoli comes from the words “Pons Tremulus”. Pons refers to the ancient bridge that crossed the stream Verde (so-called because of the green color of its water). Then, Tremulus may refer to an old name of the poplar wood used to build the bridge, or to the fact that the bridge was a little trembling.
Pontremoli was one of the eighty stages of the Via Francigena, the ancient medieval route connecting Canterbury to Rome. Sigeric the Serious Archbishop of Canterbury, walked the route in 990 as a penitential pilgrimage to ask forgiveness for his sins, and to receive the pallium from the Pope.
Because of its strategic position along the Cisa Pass, the Romans under the Emperor Frederick II, called Pontremoli “the key and the gate of the Apennines”.
Strolling around, you could see Middle Ages pieces of evidence everywhere, from the many severe Case Torri (tower houses) built with Pietra Arenaria (sandstone) to the bridges and the fortifications.
During the Modern Era, the government of Pontremoli changed family many times: from the Lords of Verona to the Visconti family of Milan, from the Reign of Spain (under Emperor Charles V) to the Republic of Genoa, from the Medici of Florence to the Dukedom of Parma just before the Unification of Italy on 1870.
Moreover, Pontremoli had a significant economic development especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, as proven by the beautiful mansions designed by popular architects and artists.
The town of Pontremoli and its neighbor villages have also a fascinating and unique tradition that deserves a mention. Generations of itinerant booksellers departed from this area to sell books in the squares of northern Italy and of the countryside. Many of the libraries that you still find in those places were opened by Pontremolesi families that left the mountains of Lunigiana looking for fortune elsewhere. Nowadays, every summer, the ceremony of an Italian book award called “Bancarella” takes place in town and a jury of booksellers comes from all parts of Italy to reward the bestseller books.
A self-guided itinerary of Pontremoli in Tuscany
The oldest part of Pontremoli lies at the bottom of Piagnaro hill between the confluence of the stream Verde and the river Magra, which were the natural defenses of the town. On top of the hill the medieval castle, today converted into a museum, still dominates the burg.
Porta Parma, the Sommo Borgo, and the Castle
The northern entrance called Porta Parma (Parma’s gate), which faces the Apennines pass, can be one of the starting points of your visit.
It dates back to the 17th century, as written on the marble inscription upon the arch. It displays also an incision with the name of Philip II King of Spain.
Passing through the gate, the main Via Garibaldi departs crossing the highest borough called “Sommo Borgo” up to the Piazza del Duomo. Into the Sommo Borgo, there are the two oldest churches of the Pontremoli: the church of San Geminiano and of San Nicolò, where you can admire a precious black crucifix dated 15th – 16th century.
Walking along the street, take one of the steep lanes that lead to the Piagnaro Castle. The old fortification has been converted into the interesting Museum of Statue Stele. It houses prehistoric and proto-historic stone artworks representing stylized human figures, dated back to the III millennium B.C. and the VI century B.C. From the top of the hill, you get also a nice view of the historical center between the river and the stream.
Porta Della Cresa and the Bridge of San Francesco di Sopra
On the way down from the hill to the center, reach the old gate “Della Cresa” and the bridge of San Francesco di Sopra. This bridge of Romanesque Era has an ancient origin and once connected Pontremoli with the nearby villages. Even if it has been restored several times due to river floods, it maintains the same structure and charm of the original construction of the 14th century. Close to the bridge, there are two spacious car parks, so this could be another good point where to start the visit. From here you can easily walk in town following a tiny alley that passes under some old arches.
The Duomo and the Bell Tower
Coming back downtown, it deserves to visit the precious works inside the Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo, and the bell tower in the close Piazza Della Repubblica, which represents the administrative power. The Campanone, how they call the bell tower, was part of a defensive wall called “Cacciaguerra”. The walls, wanted by Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli on 1332, ran from the bank of the stream Verde to the river Magra. It divided the town into two parts, the upper occupied by the Guelphs, and the lower inhabited by the Ghibellines.
The Immo Borgo and the Park of the Tower
Keep walking along the lane you reach the medieval lower part, also known as “Immoborgo“.
- The most scenic things to see in the suburb are the tower called “Torre del Casotto”, dated back to the 14th century, and the ancient bridge called “Ponte dello Stemma” (bridge of the coat of arms), built in the 13th – 14th centuries.
- Underneath the bridge, there is the lovely quiet Park of the Tower where to rest under the shadow of the trees, especially during the hot summer.
From the park, you can choose to walk the “passeggiata Verde” along the stream and go back to the starting point of Porta Della Cresa. An alternative is to go back to the main street, take the Jubilee bridge on your right and go exploring the suburb on the left bank of the Magra river.
The left bank of the Magra river
On the left side of the river Magra, Pontremoli is plenty of charming places evidence of the medieval splendor.
- The Castelnuovo tower which was part of the defensive system, and once used as the entrance gate of the village.
- If you love Rococo architecture save some time for a visit to the small church of Nostra Donna (Our Lady). It was built on the ruins of the Oratory of the Madonna del Ponte destroyed by a tragic flood.
- Nearby, you also find Teatro Della Rosa (Theatre of the Rose), dated back to 1739 and considered the oldest of the province. A tour of the theatre is available on request.
- Keep walking on the left side of the river, have look inside the church of Santa Cristina to admire its paintings, or reach the mansion of the Petrucci and Damiani Families, both decorated with astonishing frescoes.
- At the far end of the hamlet, there is the garden of Porta Fiorentina (Florentine’s Gate). Once it was surrounded by walls and fortifications that are still visible.
- Look for the church of San Pietro that houses a little treasure that you cannot miss. Ask the gentle lady, who is the janitor of the church, to open the doors of the sacristy. You will discover the labyrinth carved on sandstone, a unique artwork dated back to the eleventh-twelfth century, and symbol of the spiritual journey made by pilgrims.
Insider tips about Pontremoli
Pontremoli is a little paradise for foodies. Here a few tips you won’t find in any guide.
- Visit the Antica Pasticceria degli Svizzeri, a pastry shop founded in 1842 by a Swiss family. They conquered the heart of the locals with their pastries, cakes, and spirits. The interiors of the shop are wonderful, all decorated in liberty style. They still make titbits following recipes taken from ancient books. Taste the Spongata, a cake made of puff pastry, a mixture of honey, cocoa, spices, mixed nuts, dried fruit, and candied fruit. Before going, ask for our favorite cake, the Amor. They are two wafers filled with a mouthwatering Chantilly cream. Once in your mouth, it seems like you are making love! Indeed the word Amor means exactly love.
- Another “must” for locals is the aperitif at Bar Luciano in the Piazza del Duomo. Roberto is the grouchy owner (just for the show, so do not be afraid of him) of this old-fashioned bar. Let him serve you a glass of Bianco Oro, a patented cocktail with a secret recipe that he will never reveal. And enjoy reading all the billboards warning the incautious customers asking for normal requests! But as I said, it’s only humorous sarcasm.
Keep talking about food, do not miss these other specialties from Lunigiana:
Traditional food and recipes
- Sgabei, a delicious fried dough.
- Testaroli with pesto sauce (here is our Testaroli recipe),
- The salty herb pies.
- Buy a can of local DOP Honey.
- Look for Chestnut flour to prepare nice recipes at home. Chestnut flour is really good to bake your homemade bread. It is also the main ingredient to realize two cakes of the Tuscan tradition like the Castagnaccio (which is not typical of Pontremoli but still so delicious), and necci with ricotta cheese.
The Tour Day
Every October and February, in Pontremoli there is an event called Tour Day. It will give you the opportunity to explore the town and taste the traditional food at the same time. Trust me, this is one of the funniest and craziest food tours of Italy. For more info, here is the official website of the event (in Italian only).
The nights of the bonfires
Finally, if you happen to be in Lunigiana in January you may be lucky to attend to the nights of the bonfires. These deeply-felt games take place in Pontremoli for the nights of the two Patron Saints, on 17th and 31st January. The Contrada of San Nicolò and the one of San Geminiamo face each other to build the biggest and long-lasting bonfire.
Did I intrigue you enough? What do you think about a visit to Pontremoli in Tuscany? If you need any additional information feel free to leave a comment below or send an email.