A circular and fascinating hiking trail on the Ancient Ligurians area in Pignone

February 8, 2021

Technical data

Difficulty: simple
Difference in altitude: about 135 meters
Trail number: 556, then 556v (it’s called Anello del Benessere too. It means Wellness Circuit)
Recommended period: all year round as long as it’s good weather
Duration: 1 hour and a half
Suggestions: the hiking trail is very suitable for mountain biking too

Among the many hiking trails in Pignone, the one of Monte Castellaro has a millennial charm

These days Italy has become a traffic light: beacuse of the pandemic we have becomed red, orange or yellow zones. In the days when in Liguria there was a partial lockdown, accompanied by my fiance, I ventured into the hiking trails that wind through the heart of the Val di Vara, near the village where I live. To get away from smart working for a little while and breathe some fresh air, away from the crowds and with my face mask in the backpack, I decided to undertake a simple excursion but in close contact with nature and full of history. The route, marked with the number 556 (then 556v), starts from Pignone and reaches Monte Castellaro, the hill where some artifacts dating back to the ancient Ligurian populations were found.
The path is short and pleasant, so it’s suitable also if you are hiking with children as long as you pay attention to go up and then down: the ground is in fact wet and covered in sections by moss. A walk for adults and children to discover the origins of the population of our territory.

How to reach Pignone

The best way to get to the village is by car. Starting from La Spezia, take the tunnel towards Riccò del Golfo (Via Aurelia). Then, after Riccò del Golfo, at Pian di Barca there will be a junction. You need to take the left for Pignone. The village is located about 17 km from La Spezia and the road, despite being full of curves, is well signposted.

Starting from Levanto or Monterosso, go up the Colle di Gritta and then follow the signs. From these 2 villages Pignone is about 15 kilometers away.

You can leave your car on the street, there is a large spot to park the car front of the entrance to the historic center.

Pignone: an ancient crossroad between the coast and the hinterland

The village has very ancient origins, in fact the first residential settlement, found right on Mount Castellaro above Pignone, dates back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Because of these findings, the area has become a site of community interest since 2000. Other finds now in the museum of the San Giorgio Castle in La Spezia date back to the ancient Ligurian population.

Later, under the Romans, Pignone represented an excellent stopping point on the road that connected the current Sestri Levante with Velleia, near the Piacenza Apennines. The first document in which Pignone appears dates back to shortly after the year 1000 and connects it to the still existing church of Santa Maria Assunta. In 1149, however, in a papal bull of Pope Eugene III, the rural village first dedicated to pagan worship, which later became Christian, is widely described.

The village passed from the domain of  Malaspina family to that of the counts of Luni, to that of Fieschi (who made improvements in the road network and rebuilt the church of Santa Maria Assunta) and then ended up under the Republic of Genoa, precisely in the Capitaneato di Levanto.

Pignone hosted King Henry VII of Luxembourg in 1312, escorted by Cardinal Luca Fieschi and 1500 soldiers, during his journey to be crowned emperor in Rome.

During the Napoleonic period the city hall was moved to Casale, and then returned to Pignone during the Savoy reign.

More recently the village, as well as other ones in Val di Vara, was an important place of trade. In fact, the paths and the ancient mule tracks were used to transport products to and from the coast: oil, salt and fish products were exchanged for agricultural products (especially potatoes, corn and beans) and meat.

Pignone was the first village in the Val di Vara to obtain the flag for slow food. The products that come from the territories of this municipality are very famous, especially potatoes, beans and sausages, all treated and processed according to traditional methods.
In 2011 Pignone was the ground of the flood that hit Val di Vara, Cinque Terre and Lunigiana. In this village, in addition to damage to homes and commercial activities, the medieval bridge collapsed due to the flooding of the stream.

The historic center of the town develops around the municipal loggia in Marconi Square from where a series of carugi ( in local dialect: narrow village roads) with typical colored houses winds, close by Pignone stream, from which the village takes its name. Do not miss the ancient aqueduct of the ‘500 about ten minutes walk from the historic center.

A uphill set in the green rocks

Leaving the car in the lot on the Via Monti state road, we took, among the various hiking trails around Pignone, the hiking trail number 556 on the other side of the road. The firtst thing you come across is Mount Castellaro Cave. This cavity of karst origin, about twenty meters deep, is populated by a colony of bats and some specimens of newt. Except of the front atrium we found the cave closed by a gate, visits are probably possible only on certain occasions or the current health situation has put the visits on stand-by. However, we appreciated the explanatory signs made available by the Municipality of Pignone. Continuing along the first part of the path, which winds nestled among the rocks covered with moss, we had the surprise of admiring the dry stone walls that were built from the sixteenth century. In fact, the landscape in this area, as in most of the Ligurian areas, has been modified by man in order to be exploited from an agricultural point of view. I also learned, documenting on the internet and from the signs made available by the municipality of Pignone, that this hiking trail was an ancient mule track and was used for trade with coastal towns.

After about half an hour of climbing, we left behind for a moment the junctionto return to Pignone and we continued to reach the top of Monte Castellaro of Pignone, thus lengthening the path by half an hour.

This detour has been the most beautiful part of the trail for me.

The mystical and millenary atmosphere of Monte Castellaro

Going on, immediately after the junction, we were able to find the remains of what was probably a temple or a place of worship of the ancient Ligurians, consisting of rocks in a circle in front of a larger boulder.

Arriving to the top of Monte Castellaro (which is actually a hill about 325 meters high) the hiking trail has carried us to a panoramic point from which the village of Corvara opened to our eyes with a wonderful view.

Going further we found an explanatory sign and ruins dating back to ancient times. We have learned that the structure, of which only the plant and a hint of walls remain, about 10 meters long, once was used for religious ceremonies. Fragments of stoves, weaving materials and even a silver coin dating back to the 1st century BC were also found inside. These finds are now kept in the Ubaldo Formentini Archaeological Civic Museum at the San Giorgio Castle in La Spezia.

This ruin of the ancient Ligurians is located in a suggestive wood, completely immersed in greenery and surrounded by terraces supported by dry stone walls, which I found unique and interesting because in this case nature has become one with the work of man to the point that it is difficult to find the boundary between what has been built and what already existed.

Here you can breathe the history of a thousand-year-old people and it is here that I was able to completely relax to the point of forgetting for a moment the current situation, the mask and the worry. There are those who say that there are mystical and esoteric energies in this place. Personally I (a rational and suspicious person) found an excellent opportunity to escape stress by imagining how over the centuries the populations have followed one another, exploiting the territory to cultivate, raise livestock and trade and for a moment I wanted to have a time machine to experience this reality.

A pleasant downhill surrounded by greenery

Leaving the summit of Castellaro behind us, we have backed off and retraced our steps until we returned to the junction (556-556v). Actually the hiking trail goes on even to Monte Cravadora and then rejoin the Alta Via delle Cinque Terre, but this time we opted for a more peaceful and accessible route. At the crossroads we took the trail number 556v to return to Pignone, completing the loop.
Along this route, slightly longer than the climb, the descent is easier and more gradual, there are some flat and slightly uphill sections.
Here we found dry stone walls and terraces too and, towards the second half of the descent, the path is set among rocks covered with thick moss. The last meters of the route rejoined the initial section number 556 and we found ourselves near the Grotta del Castellaro, a few minutes from where we left the car.

Unfortunately, we could not do more than a tour of the village, given the current health situation. However, I highly recommend taking the opportunity, when possible, for a stop for a lunch or dinner based on native products in the historic restaurant in Pignone.

Tips:

hiking boots, especially in the autumn and winter the ground can become slippery

water flask

layered thermal clothing 

repellent for mosquitoes and ticks in the summer months

– be well informed about hunting days in the autumn and winter months

Dascia Demma

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