A loop hiking trail in Val di Vara, around Pignone

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A loop trekking in Val di Vara, following the ancient Ligurians tracks.

TECHNICAL DATA

Difficulty: easy;

Difference in altitude: about 135 meters;
Recommended period: all year, except rainy days; 
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 unique charm.

These days Italy has become a traffic light because the pandemic regions have been red, orange, or yellow zones, defining our permission to go out. The urge to go out as soon as possible is high. When allowed, my fiance and I venture into the hiking trails that wind through the heart of Val di Vara, near my village. We must escape our “smart working” activities and walk freely in the fresh air. 

The other day, away from the crowds but finally with my face mask in the backpack, we undertook a simple excursion 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. Some artifacts dating back to the ancient Ligurian populations were found on this hill.

The path is short and pleasant, so it’s suitable also if you are hiking with children as long as you are ready for some ups and downs. In some stretches, the ground is wet and covered with moss. 

How to reach Pignone

The best way to get to the village is by car. Take the tunnel towards Riccò del Golfo (Via Aurelia) starting from La Spezia. Then, after Riccò del Golfo, there will be a junction in the Pian di Barca locality. Take a left one to Pignone. The village is located about 17 km from La Spezia, and the windy road is well-signposted.

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

You can leave your car on the street; ample parking is in front of the entrance to the village center.

The town of Pignone, in the Vara Valley,

Pignone: an ancient crossroad between the coast and the hinterland

The village has very ancient origins, 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 are now in the museum of the San Giorgio Castle in La Spezia. They 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 the valley near the Piacenza Apennines. The first document in which Pignone appears dates back 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 being under the domain of the Malaspina family to that of the counts of Luni. Then the Fieschis arrived, improving the road network and rebuilding the Santa Maria Assunta church. Eventually, the Republic of Genoa dominated the area with 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 time, 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. The routes and the mule tracks were used to cart oil, salt, and fish from the coast to exchange for farming products of the valley (especially potatoes, corn and beans) and meat.

The products from this area are renowned for being genuine and tasty, especially potatoes, beans, and sausages, mainly processed according to the finest organic and traditional standards. This is one of the reasons why Pignone was the first village in the Val di Vara to obtain a Slow Food prize. Consequently, the whole Val di Vara became one of the first “Bio Districts” in Europe. 

In 2011 Pignone was the ground of the flood that hit Val di Vara, Cinque Terre, and Lunigiana. In addition to damaged homes and commercial activities, the medieval bridge collapsed due to the flooding of the stream.

The old town develops around the Loggia in Marconi Square, from which the carugi “narrow streets” unfold along the Pignone stream, from which the village takes its name. When passing by Pignone, take advantage of the old aqueduct, about ten minutes from the historic center, dating to the 16th century.

The ancient aqueduct near Pignone.

An uphill set in the green rocks.

Leaving the car in the Via Monti lot, we picked, among the various trails around Pignone, the hiking trail number 556 on the other side of the road. The first thing we came across was Mount Castellaro Cave. This cavity of karst origin, about twenty meters deep, is populated by a bat colony and some specimens of Speleomantes (European caves Salamander). Unfortunately, the cave was closed by a gate right after the entrance. Visits are probably allowed only occasionally, or the current health situation put the visits on hold. However, we appreciated the explanatory signs made available by the Town of Pignone. Continuing along the first part of the path, which winds nestled among the rocks covered with moss, we were surprised to admire the sixteenth-century dry stone walls. As in most of the Ligurian inland, the landscape in this area has been modified by man for farming. I even learned online and reading the signs along the way that this hiking trail was an ancient mule track used for trade with coastal towns.

The path covered in musk and leaves.

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

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

The mystic atmosphere of Monte Castellaro

Immediately after the junction, we found the remains of what likely was a temple or an ancient Ligurian worship site, consisting of rocks in a circle in front of a more prominent boulder.

Arriving at the top of Monte Castellaro (just about 325 meters high), the hiking trail brought us to a panoramic point from which the village of Corvara opened our eyes to a stunning view.

The Corvara Village

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, was used for religious purposes. Fragments of stoves, weaving materials, and even a silver coin dating 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.

These ancient Ligurian ruins are in a deep wood, wholly immersed in greenery, surrounded by terraces supported by dry stone walls. I found it particularly interesting because nature has become one thing with man’s artwork here. The boundary between what has been built and the land is hard to see.

The ruins of the ancient religious site, surrounded by the typical bottom on the ground of the Vara Valley tracks.

Here, I could completely relax and forget the current situation, the masks, and the worries. Some say that there are mystical and esoteric energies in this place. But, rational and suspicious as I am, what I found is an excellent opportunity to escape stress through imagination. I could see how, over the centuries, the populations have followed one another, exploiting the territory to plow, raise livestock, and trade. For a moment, I wished I had a time machine to see how this strong connection with nature, connections made of routes and work, evolved to convey our lifestyle.

A pleasant downhill surrounded by greenery

Leaving the summit of Castellaro behind us, we walked our way to the junction (556-556v). The hiking trail goes on even to Monte Cravadora and then rejoins the Alta Via delle Cinque Terre. However, this time we opted for a more peaceful and shorter route. At the crossroads, we took trail number 556v to return to Pignone and complete the loop.

Slightly longer than the climb, the way down is easier and more gradual, and there are some flat and somewhat uphill sections.

Here we found dry stone walls and terraces again; towards the second half of the trail, the path is set among rocks covered with thick moss. Finally, the last meters of the route rejoined the initial section number 556. We found ourselves near the Grotta del Castellaro, a few minutes from where we left the car.

Unfortunately, given the current health situation, we could not do more than a tour of the village. However, I highly recommend stopping for lunch or dinner based on local products in the typical Pignone restaurants.

TIPS:

– wear hiking boots, especially in the autumn and winter, as the ground can be slippery

– bring water 

– wear layered clothing 

– bring repellent for mosquitoes and ticks in summer 

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

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