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To the Heights of Tuscany

We travel to Italian Tuscany to discover its landscapes from the heights. Welcome to the Apuan Alps: the marble mountains.
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To travel. To Discover. To savor. To explore nature and delight in its forms, rhythms, and wisdom. A premise that is well worth a trip to the heights of the region of Tuscany, Italy. Step by step to conquer the heights of its steepest and most imposing mountains: the Apuan Alps.

“UNA MATTINA MI SON SVEGLIATO
O BELLA CIAO, BELLA CIAO, BELLA CIAO, CIAO, CIAO
UNA MATTINA MI SON SVEGLIATO
E HO TROVATO L’INVASOR.“

A group of elderly French and Italian mountaineers loudly sing the popular partisan song in the dining room of the Guido Donegani refuge, located in Orto di Donna, one of the northernmost valleys of the Apuan Alps and one of the main sites of the anti-fascist resistance during World War II.

But we have not come this far to tell the many stories of war and resistance that still echo in every village, trail, mountain, and valley in the area. We’ll leave that for another time. Instead, we have come to admire the beauty of the highest peaks of the Italian Tuscany through mountaineering and – of course – one of the most recognizable “made in Italy” facilities such as the via Ferrata.

To the Heights of Tuscany

APUAN ALPS

Tuscany may seem like a small region for trail and peak seekers at a glance at the map. But don’t worry. A closer look will change your mind: there is plenty of terrain for outdoor thrills. And not only of the pastoral agricultural landscapes dotted with hills and pretty stone villages that characterize the region and of steep horizons: we are in the land of the Apennines and the Apuan Alps, with peaks, trails, walls, and ferratas to satisfy the most vigorous spirits.

The Apuan Alps can probably boast the wildest natural environment in Tuscany. A genuine decorate where both experts and beginners can find adventures and challenges to suit their level in the cathedrals of rock – and marble – overlooking the sea. But, as I said, my steps have brought me to the Guido Donegani refuge, on the border between two natural parks: the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and the Regional Park of the Apuan Alps. Mission: conquer several of its peaks with a blow of sole and metal.

Many of us who visit Tuscany do not know that the region has two mountain ranges, with mountains that rise to over two thousand meters. On one side is the famous Apennines, the backbone of the Italian peninsula.

“A genuine decorate where both experts and beginners can find adventures and challenges to suit their level in the cathedrals of rock – and marble – overlooking the sea.”

On the other hand, a small but mighty mountain range overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea: the Apuan Alps, one of the most exciting areas of Italy in terms of variety of landscapes, since in a few kilometers they rise from the shores of the sea to the almost two thousand meters of Monte Pisano (1,947 m). And the Apuans are not denoted as the Alps for nothing, but for their apparent orographic affinity: massive mountains with a morphology of steep slopes, imposing walls, sharp ridges, and deep valleys.

To the Heights of Tuscany
To the Heights of Tuscany

THE MARBLE MOUNTAINS

Since Roman times these mountains have been excavated to extract one of the most famous white marble: Carrara marble. This locality has been synonymous with quality marble since time immemorial. Its name has a Celtic origin for the word meaning “quarry.” That is why they are also known as the marble mountains.

The mountain system has been protected under the figure of a Natural Park to preserve the flora and fauna of the area and restrict marble quarrying in the area. But of course, marble has been the primary source of income in the area for centuries. And so the damage has already been done, and it is obvious. Many of the brilliant Michelangelo works were made with marble from the area, including the famous David. “There is enough here to quarry until Judgment Day,” he is said to have remarked about the quarries that were established on the face of Monte Altissimo. As early as the 19th century, a new company promoted marble quarrying, employing hundreds of workers and giving life to an economically depressed area. In many mountain huts, it is still possible today to see photographs of that era in which men and beasts of a burden shared the complex tasks of the quarries.

Up to three hundred, most of them are located in the north and west of the mountain range, and most of them are abandoned. Many still have enormous quantities of marble, but not of the quality expected from the area. Therefore, it is essential to take precautions when moving through the area. On weekdays, it can be common to hear louder noises than expected in the mountains of a Natural Park, and the trucks transporting monthly blocks of marble are a real impediment to access on small local roads. The damaged landscape is visible from many points. “It’s like a Machu Picchu of marble,” a colleague comments to me. And so it is, at least when viewed from afar: a landscape of mountains bitten into almost perfect cubist shapes, like a succession of rock-devouring terraces. Up close, the feeling between machinery and huge marble blocks is more desolate, especially when beautiful forests and mountains grow around them that do not deserve the scars of white gold.

To the Heights of Tuscany
To the Heights of Tuscany
To the Heights of Tuscany
To the Heights of Tuscany

PIZZO D’UCCELLO

“Do you have experience in via Ferrata?” our guide Cristiano asks us at the beginning of the day. We are in front of a sign that warns us of the danger of explosions in the nearby quarry. In the background is the imposing north face of Pizzo D’Uccello, a mighty limestone peak that climbers in the area call the “Pizzo,” which is known for its excellent classic climbing routes of varying difficulty. The South Face, although not as vertical, also offers amazing trails.

“Relax, we’re not going to put on our cat’s feet today,” says his partner Fabio. Both guides are seasoned in a thousand battles in the Apennines and the Dolomites. But here, in the Apuane, they are at home. “Today, we are going to progress along with a via Ferrata, and from there to the top of the Pizzo, for those who have the strength left, of course.” Although of moderate difficulty, the via Ferrata is long: a total of 600 meters of ascent along a rounded ridge with some more steep steps.

The col at the end of the route is perfect for a snack before starting the “normal” path to the top: a succession of rugged climbs of little difficulty that, however, should not allow us too many distractions if we want to return in one piece to the refuge.

“We are in front of a sign that warns us of the danger of explosions in the nearby quarry. In the background is the imposing north face of Pizzo D’Uccello”

The light of dawn illuminates our steps through a dense forest of oak, chestnut, beech, and fir dressed in their best autumn finery. A huge moraine only broke a pastoral picture of rocks caused by the proximity of a quarry. Before the sun is already enjoying a good “espresso” on the terrace of the Orto di Donna Refuge, halfway to the summit of Grondilice (1,809 m), where we direct our steps, in the final stretch, in its most alpine section, those less accustomed to the climbs may need to be careful. However, anyone with some experience will overcome the steps without any fear.

From the top, the view extends over the Apuan peaks and the beautiful valley of Val Serenata. You can see the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Tuscan archipelago, and even the Corsican mountains on clear days. If we could take a look under the rocks, we would be surprised by two of the deepest caves in Italy: the abysses of Olivier and Satanachia, both more than a thousand meters deep.

To the Heights of Tuscany
To the Heights of Tuscany

BELLA CIAO

“O partigiano, portami via; O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao; o partigiano, portami via; ché mi sento di morir…”

The history of the Apuan Alps, as the song that resounds on the walls of the refuge reminds me, is intimately linked to the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, also known as the Italian Civil War. Nearby, in the paths, villages, hills, and mountains of this landscape, fierce battles were fought between the two sides, in which the anti-fascist partisans played a decisive role in the liberation process. As in any armed conflict, these lands and people experienced the terror of war, with sadly famous massacres such as that of St. Anne of Stazzema.

“O partigiano, portami via; O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao; o partigiano, portami via; ché mi sento di morir”

Now, as I write these lines, I can only regret not having followed my first impulse to approach the table of the shelter where the mountaineers were singing to ask them about their emotionality in singing the partisan hymn, have I missed some exciting story to hear?

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