Hiking trails in Val di Vara, the Bio Valley
To rise and shine after the lockdown
The trails in Val di Vara are an excellent alternative for those who, like me, love the total contact with nature. Last spring, when after almost 2 months of lockdown it was finally possible to leave our houses, I found it very pleasant to go into the woods, walk along waterways, climb the mountains in the heart of this amazing valley. I fell in love with this area so much that in a few months I moved there.
During Summer 2020 in Val di Vara there has been a growth in tourist influxes: many travelers have opted for the calm and green of the hinterland as an alternative to the crowded villages in the coast. Thanks to the social distancing imposed by the pandemic, many people have found here the way to escape from the chaos and overcrowding.
There are many experiences that can be lived in this area
Val di Vara is an underrated destination but it is able to meet the tastes of most travelers. In addition to excursions and hiking trails more active ones will be able to try their hand at adrenaline-pumping experiences such as rafting and the adventure park (which also includes the longest zip line from one tree to another in Italy), horse riding walks and mountain biking. Furthermore there are many roads in the area that are very well suited for motorcycles. The ones that love the enogastronomy, on the other hand, can for example visit the Varese cheese factory, which produces bio cheese and dairy products. They can even go to one of the many farm or farmhouses for a degustation of typical products. There is also the possibility to taste wine but also craft beers.
Those who love culture and architecture can explore the characteristic villages of Val di Vara: Varese Ligure, the round village symbol of the Bio Valley; Brugnato, Pignone, Carro, Carrodano, Calice al Cornoviglio, Follo, Maissana, Borghetto, Zignago, Suvero. Each of the villages in the area has unique historical characteristics, ancient origins, cultural elements to discover. There are also museums, such as the archaeological one in Zignago, the diocesan one in Brugnato, the mineralogical one in Carro and well preserved castles, such as the one in Calice al Cornoviglio or the one inMadrignano. Finally, shopping lovers will find the 5 Terre Outlet Village in Brugnato with shops of renowned Italian and foreign brands.
A little bit of historical background
The first inhabitants in this area date back to the Palaeolithic, even if in the Metal Age there was a more intense population. This is demonstrated by the archeological finds found inside the karst caves of Val di Vara, which unfortunately cannot be visited at the moment.
Later the territory was the home of the Ligurian tribes, mainly dedicated to pastoralism, agriculture and the exploitation of mineral resources. Subsequently the area became part of the Roman Empire. But the conquest process was not easy at all: in fact, the Ligurians used to ambush the Roman militias that traveled the roads of the valley, usually downstream along the waterways. The local peoples, hiding among the vegetation, in an elevated position, were used to attack the Romans by throwing rocks and tree trunks at them, thus putting the enemies to flight.
Togeter with the Roman Empire, the territory of Val di Vara suffered the conquest of the Byzantine and Lombard populations. These ones imposed Christianity by building churches and monasteries and the Val di Vara start to be part of the diocese of Luni. From the 20th century then the area became part of the diocese of Brugnato.
During the Middle Ages the territory was disputed between different families such as Malaspina, Fieschi, Da Passano. In the mid-1500s the Val di Vara became the territory of the Republic of Genoa, until the conquest by Napoleon Bonaparte of the Département Du Vara, which included the territory of the Val di Vara and also Levanto which for the occasion had become the capital.
After the Congress of Vienna the area became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia that later became the Kingdom of Italy.
In 1923 Val di Vara start to be part of the newly established province of La Spezia. During the Second World War, the area will also give refuge to people displaced from the cities and then become a battleground between Nazis and partisans.
More recently Val di Vara has been the scene of a tragic natural event: the flood of 2011 that also hit Lunigiana and part of the Cinque Terre. Borghetto di Vara was among the most flooded villages: it was here that I collected testimonies of people who experienced the flood. Suddently the water of the torrents invaded the street and the village center, causing numerous damages and 7 victims. Following the tragic event, all the inhabitants of the village worked together to reconstruct their everyday life that had been carried away by the mud: those who cooked in the camp tents, those who shoveled the dirt and debris, those who rebuilt part of the destroyed buildings, those who distributed the packages of aid arrived from all over Italy. The entire community of the village worked together to face this tragic event.
Even more recently, Val di Vara has experienced an increase in tourism thanks to its advantageous position. It has earned the title of Bio Valley, due to its uncontaminated rural landscape and its millenary cultural traditions and has become a much loved destination by tourists especially from central and northern Europe and the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy.
A wide choice of routes to experience with the face mask in your pocket
The area has a dense hiking network, probably because of to the presence of ancient roads and mule tracks that connected the villages, now replaced by driveways. The trails in Val di Vara, which were abandoned before, are experiencing a period of rediscovery. Many municipalities, such as the one of Carro, have cleaned up most of the routes by renewing their signage in collaboration with the associations that take care of the maintenance of local hiking networks: CAI and Mangia Trekking.
Since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, the trails in Val di Vara have become a valid alternative for walks for adults and children in total safety and with a very low risk of contagion, given the huge area available.
Here are some links to Val di Vara hiking trails:
Vegetation and animals of Val di Vara
I remember that the first day of reopening after the lockdown I took an hike near Borghetto Vara and my first thought was: “how did I survive almost 2 months away from all this ?!”. The green trees, the scents of the forest, the rustle of some animals, the sun filtering through the top of the trees, the birds chirping … I felt as if I had come across an enchanted landscape.
The vegetation of Val di Vara is very diversified, even because of the altitude difference of the area: it varies from the rugged mountains and pastures of the upper part, on the border with Emilia Romagna, to the dense woods crossed by streams in the middle part , to take on some Mediterranean stretch in the lower part, on the border with Cinque Terre. The most common trees that can be encountered are: walnut, beech, pine, acacias, conifers. But it is the chestnut that has assumed a fundamental role in the history of the territory: due to its large presence it has always been exploited to obtain firewood and chestnut flour, which can be found in most of the traditional dishes. In most of the towns in this area, all chestnut-themed sagr fairs are held in autumn. Autumn is also the ideal season for picking mushrooms, which are present in huge quantities in the woods.
The Val di Vara hosts a very rich fauna system. Often, during my excursions, I have come across animals: wild horses grazing in the mountains above Varese, peregrine falcons flying over the Vara bed, the yellow-bellied toad, fawns and ibex, the spectacled salamander, the ancient river lamprey, squirrels, porcupines, foxes, hedgehogs, wild boars. The uncontaminated nature of the area offers an ideal habitat for an innumerable variety of species.
Amazing walks in a rural area full of history
Another peculiarity of the trails in Val di Vara is their historicity, most of them date back to Roman times. Often, along the paths of this area, I came across ruins of ancient mills, menhirs, old farmhouses, deconsecrated churches.
Once upon a time indeed, in addition to connecting the villages to each other, they reconnected them to the coastal villages and the sea and were mostly traveled on foot and by mules. The inhabitants of the Val di Vara used to exchange meat for slaughter, agricultural products, chestnuts and its derivatives with those who populated the Cinque Terre and the coast in exchange for fish, salt and seafood.
Some hiking trails were also traced in order to cross villages, such as Borghetto or Mattarana, which under the ancient Romans served as a mansio, or rather represented a sort of stop for the officers of the legions on the move. Over the years the mansio hosted real inns not only for the military but also for traders and travelers.
An astonishing meal after a hiking trail
One thing I love about Val di Vara is the cuisine. In fact, the area has several restaurants, farmhouses, trattorias but also festivals and country feasts rich of tradition, seasonal products and good food.
My favorite time to enjoy local delicacies is undoubtedly autumn, full of mushrooms cooked in different ways: fried, sautéed, baked, with homemade tagliatelle, with polenta. Not to mention the roasted, boiled, processed chestnuts in the form of flour for the production of pasta, frittelle and chestnuts cake. All the rest of the year you can enjoy delicious ravioli, pansotti and homemade pasta and a great variety of meats (the Ligurian rabbit is cooked here in a delicious way) and game meet. Furthermore, the Val di Vara is not only famous for its typical traditional dishes but also the land of real native products such as the Pignone potato, the black pea of L’ago, the shrimp of Calice al Cornoviglio, the herb pies etc. Interesting are the methods of making, growing and producing these products that have made bio-organic labeling possible.
A choice that pleases everyone
The ones who love peace and tranquility, those who prefer adventure and adrenaline or those who simply want to enjoy nature away from the masses, will find in the Val di Vara an excellent destination to meet everyone’s needs.
Another point in its favor is the proximity to Cinque Terre, with La Spezia and Gulf of Poets but also with Gulf of Tigullio. The La Spezia hinterland is a valid alternative to the crowds of coastal areas, especially in this period of greater concern and attention. Those like me who love outdoor sports, hiking and relax in total tranquility, away from the crowds, will find in the Val di Vara the opportunity to spend a day, a weekend or a regenerating holiday, without the thought and fear of the pandemic. A destination suitable for young people, adults, children, seniors, groups of friends and families, a perfect combination of nature, good food, open air, sport, culture, relax.
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