Two routes to discover the Val di Vara sanctuaries

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Two hiking trails surrounded by history, religion, and nature, discovering the Val di Vara Monasteries.

Monasteries of Val di Vara: two hiking trails surrounded by history, religion, and nature

Val di Vara has a thousand-year history during which it was inhabited by various populations over the centuries, like the ancient Ligurians, the ancient Romans, the Byzantines, and the Lombards.

The people that have passed through this area have left traces of their culture, historical artifacts, and artistic and architectural elements.

After discovering the ancient Ligurians’ findings in Val di Vara, I explored further, combining my passion for the outdoors with my interest in the area’s cultural and religious aspects.

I discovered an absolute pleasure in walking the hiking trails and the roads leading to the Val di Vara sanctuaries. 

THE HISTORY OF ROVERANO SANCTUARY IS THE MOST FASCINATING ONE IN VAL DI VARA

The Madonna dell’Olivo painting in the ROverano sancturaly

The place is on top of a hill in the Municipality of Borghetto di Vara, bordering the Carrodano one.

Nostra Signora di Roverano is, among the sanctuaries of Val di Vara, the one with the most interesting history, so fascinating even for a convinced atheist like me.

On September 7, 1350 (or maybe 1351 or 1352), two shepherdesses were resting under an olive tree when a woman dressed in blue appeared to them. The woman was the Virgin Mary, who told one of the two shepherdesses to call the parish priest of the nearby village, L’Ago. The girl, who had been mute since birth, miraculously said, “I will go,” regaining her say. So the two girls went to call the parish priest and, together with the village’s inhabitants, climbed the hill to reach the point of the apparition. Arriving at the place, they did not find the Virgin Mary again but rather a picture of her hanging from the olive tree. After being amazed and gathered for a moment in prayer, the parish priest and the inhabitants transported the representation to L’Ago, where the closest church was. The next day, however, the image had disappeared, only to be found hanging from the same olive tree. So a temporary sanctuary was built. The inhabitants of L’Ago and the neighboring villages constructed and enlarged the premises over the centuries to their current shape.

The sanctuary’s design is very plain, with a single aisle and a Latin cross-apse plan. Above the main altar is the image of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, an Italo-Byzantine school painting.

The Roverano sanctuary is located on the top of a hill. It is surrounded by olive trees with a late September floweringSeptember 7, every year, the Virgin Mary miracle is celebrated with religious ceremonies and a fair along the climb to the sanctuary.

From Nostra Signora di Roverano you can enjoy a beautiful view of Val di Vara. A few steps away, there is also a restaurant famous for its delicious traditional dishes of the local cuisine.

HIKING IN ROVERANO TO DISCOVER LOCAL RELIGION, NATURE, AND WONDERFUL VIEWS

The view of the Vara Valley from Roverano

The sanctuary can be easily reached by car but is also connected by two hiking trails, the Carrodano one (about 2 km long) and the Borghetto one (about 7 km long). My favorite variant is the one starting in Roverano and arriving in Borghetto.

Usually, I leave the car along the road near Bracchetto Vetta camping and take the opportunity to have a coffee and eat a good piece of focaccia in the “Bar” near the campsite. From there, I follow the stretch of the driveway to the sanctuary. It is fascinating because you can find all the stages of a Via Crucis from the base to the top. Once at the top, after a stop at the sanctuary, I continue with the hiking trail 546 to Borghetto. It is broad and easy to walk, especially in its first stretch.

After a slight uphill, you get to a viewpoint to enjoy a spectacular Val di Vara view. On the left side, the villages of Mangia, Cornice, and Sesta Godano, are framed by the mountains behind. At the same time, on the right, you can admire the small village of L’Ago perched on the hill together with the Borghetto di Vara surroundings. For the rest, the trail is mostly downhill with some small uphill stretches. The closer you get to Borghetto and into the woods, the narrower the path becomes. In addition to suitable shoes, I recommend walking it only in case of good weather, as in some places pools tend to form. Pay attention to the junction about 15 minutes from the top of the hill. It is easy to find because it is the only junction on the right side to reach the path from the paved road. It takes about an hour and a half to reach Borghetto di Vara. From there, you can hike back or take a bus (check the timetables in advance) to get back to Roverano.

You can also enjoy the trail by mountain bike, especially up to the junction I mentioned above, because the road is paved, but the bravest can also reach Borghetto. I recommend it for families with children, even to take a simple walk from the Roverano sanctuary to the viewpoint on the ridge and back. This first part is spotless and has a slight height difference.


You can also enjoy the trail by mountain bike, especially up to the junction I mentioned above because the road is paved, but the bravest can also reach Borghetto. I also recommend it for families with children, even to take a simple walk from the Roverano sanctuary to the viewpoint on the ridge and then go back: this first part is very clean and has a slight difference in height.

The small Santuario dell’Ulivo in Brugnato is evidence of ancient traditions that are preserved up to the present day

Santuario dell’Olivo in Brugnato

The village of Brugnato is known for its origins, which are strongly related to its religious traditions. In fact, Columban monks from Bobbio erected their abbey here in the VII century, around which the town developed. Soon the village became a bishopric, remaining such until 1820, when it was joined to the one of Luni-Sarzana and finally to the current one of La Spezia-Sarzana-Brugnato, in 1923.

The religious imprint can be seen in the leading architectural works of the village, such as the Co-Cathedral of Saint Peter, Lawrence, and Columbanus or the bishop’s palace of the Nostra Signora dell Olivo Sanctuary. The last one is not far from the old town of Brugnato and can be reached by car and on foot. Founded by the monks of the abbey of San Columbanus of Brugnato, its current structure can be dated to the XVIII century. It probably replaced a preexisting one and is formed of a single hall with a raised presbytery. Inside is a fresco depicting the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and Saints Peter and Lawrence. But the thing I like most, making the place so special, is the many olive trees, each planted on the occasion of a baby’s birth.

This love grove is very charming, from the giant olive trees with the name of children born in the last century to the more slender and shorter ones planted for the little ones born in the previous ten years. On Easter Monday, many of Brugnato’s inhabitants gather under their olive tree to picnic with their relatives and friends. And it is precisely on this day, Easter Monday, that the Madonna dell Olivo is celebrated inside and outside the sanctuary.

The children’s olive trees in Brugnato

This love grove is very charming, from the giant olive trees with the name of children born in the last century to the more slender and shorter ones planted for the little ones born in the previous ten years. On Easter Monday, many of Brugnato’s inhabitants gather under their olive tree to picnic with their relatives and friends. And it is precisely on this day, Easter Monday, that the Madonna dell Olivo is celebrated inside and outside the sanctuary.

The walk to Nostra Signora dell Olivo Sanctuary is an interesting detour for those who visit Brugnato

The view from Nostra Signora dell’Olivo

Although the sanctuary can be reached by car, I usually prefer to walk. Leaving the vehicle in the center of Brugnato, continue towards Rocchetta di Vara along the driveway. After a few minutes, the junction for Nostra Signora dell Olivo will be shown on the right side. As soon as you turn around, you will pass in front of a local cheese factory: I recommend a stop, perhaps on your way back, to buy some ricotta or a small wheel of local cheese. From there, the small road winds between the houses and continues until you get to a stream. You will need to cross through a bridge immediately, after which you will need to turn right to begin the climb after a few meters on a paved route. Once there was the possibility of walking the actual hiking trail, which, despite being steeper, was much shorter. Still, unfortunately, it is not very accessible at the moment. The Colombian monks initially used the climb to pray and, like the one to Roverano, has stations depicting the Via Crucis.

You continue to climb for about 15-20 minutes. Then you find yourself right in front of the sanctuary, surrounded by olive trees. The view is spectacular; you can marvel at the village of Brugnato with its streams and the river Vara. This picture is framed by olive trees that extend in large quantities around the sanctuary.

The more adventurous hiking lovers can also continue along the same road, which becomes an actual hiking trail. They get to Rocchetta Vara (num.144C, then 158) and up to the mountain above it, Monte Nero. (num. 144 C, then 157), where there is a big cross to enjoy a spectacular view that, on clear days, reaches the Gulf of La Spezia.

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