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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, the Lombards.
The peoples that have passed through this area have left traces of their culture, historical artifacts, artistic and architectural elements.
Certainly the history of this territory, in parallel to that of the whole Italian peninsula, has been marked by the strong presence of the Catholic religion which, collaborating with the political system, has become one of the bases of what is today the Italian state.

After discovering the finds of the ancient Ligurians, their pagan temples, and their territory, I moved to explore the religious art of the Val di Vara, combining my passions (trekking and outdoor walks) with the will to discover the cultural-religious side of the area.
Personally, I had the pleasure of walking the hiking trails and the roads that lead to the sanctuaries of the Val di Vara even if, for those who cannot or do not want to walk, they can be easily reached by car. 

The history of Roverano Sanctuary is the most fascinating one in Val di Vara

The place is located on top of a hill, in the territory of the Municipality of Borghetto di Vara, on the border with the one of the Municipality of Carrodano.
Nostra Signora di Roverano is among the sanctuaries of Val di Vara the one with such an interesting history that it has managed to fascinate even a convinced atheist like me.

On September 7, 1350 (or 1351 or 1352, it is not very clear) two shepherdesses were resting under an olive tree when a woman dressed in blue appeared to them. The woman, who was actually the Virgin Mary, told one of the two shepherdesses to call the parish priest of the nearby village, L’Ago. The girl, who had been mute since her birth, replied “I will go”, miraculously regaining her voice. The two girls went to call the parish priest and, together with the inhabitants of the village, they climbed the hill to reach the point of the apparition. Arriving at the place they did not find the Virgin Mary but rather a picture of her hanging from the olive tree under which the shepherdesses were resting before the event. 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 located. The next day, however, the image had disappeared only to be found hanging from the same olive tree. From there it was decided to build first a temporary sanctuary, later a real one. Thanks to the help of the inhabitants of L’Ago and the other neighboring villages, the structure was built and enlarged over the centuries until it assumed the shape it has today from the 19th century on.

The design of the sanctuary is very simple, it has a single nave with a Latin cross apse plan. Above the main altar is located the image of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus , a Italo-Byzantine school painting.
The Roverano sanctuary is located on the top of a hill and is surrounded by olive trees, characterized by a late September flowering. In fact, on 7 September the apparition of the Virgin Mary is celebrated, with religious ceremonies and a fair that develops along the climb to the sanctuary.
From Nostra Signora di Roverano you can enjoy a very suggestive 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 sanctuary can be easily reached by car but is also connected by two hiking trails: the one of Carrodano (about 2 km long) or the one of Borghetto (about 7 km long). My favorite variant is the one that starts from Roverano and arrives 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 very interesting because from the base to the top you can find the stages of a Via Crucis. Once at the top, after a stop at the sanctuary, I continue with the hiking trail 546 to Borghetto. It is very wide and easily accessible, especially in its first stretch.

After a slight uphill you get to a view point from to enjoy a spectacular view of Val di Vara: on the left side the villages of Mangia, Cornice and Sesta Godano, very suggestive villages framed by the mountains behind, while 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, the narrower the path becomes and goes into the woods: 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 at about 15 minutes going down from the top of the hill. It is easy to find because it is the only junction on the right side and, from the paved road, you will pass to the actual path. From there 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 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

The village of Brugnato is known for its origins, strongly related to its religious traditions. In fact, Colombianus monks from Bobbio erected their abbey here in the VII century, around which the town developed. Soon the village became the place of a bishopric and remained 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 main architectural works of the village such as the Co-Cathedral of Saint Peter, Lawrence and Colombanus or the bishop’s palace of the Nostra Signora dell’Ulivo Sanctuary. The last one is located not far from the old town of Brugnato and can be reached both by car and walking. Founded by the monks of the abbey of San Colombanus of Brugnato, its current structure can be dated to the XVIII century, probably replacing or modifying the existing one, and is composed of a single hall with a raised presbytery. Inside there is a fresco depicting the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and Saints Peter and Lawrence. But the thing I like most and makes the place so special is the presence of olive trees, each one of them planted on the occasion of the birth of a baby.

From the most massive olive trees that bear the name of children born in the last century to the more slender and shorter ones that were planted for the little ones born in the last decade, this love grove is a very charming place. On Easter Monday many of Brugnato’s inhabitants gather under their olive tree to have a picnic with their relatives and friends. And it is precisely on this day, Easter Monday, that the Madonna dell’Ulivo is celebrated inside and outside the sanctuary.

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

Although the sanctuary can be reached by car, I usually prefer to walk. Leaving the car in the center of Brugnato, continue towards Rocchetta di Vara along the driveway. After a few minutes, the junction for Nostra Signora dell’Ulivo will be indicated 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 then continues untill the stream which 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. The route is cemented and then asphalted. Once there was the possibility to walk the real hiking trail which, despite being steeper, was much shorter but unfortunately it is not very accessible at the moment. The climb was originally used by Colombanian monks to pray and like the one to Roverano has stations depicting the Via Crucis.
You continue to climb for about 15-20 minutes and then you find yourself right in front of the sanctuary, surrounded by olive trees. The view is spectacular, you can admire the village of Brugnato with its streams and the river Vara. This picture is framed by the olive trees that extend in large quantities around the sanctuary.
The ones who are more adventurous and hiking lovers can also continue along the same road, which then becomes a real hiking trail and get to Rocchetta Vara (num.144C, then 158) and even up to the mountain above it, Monte Nero. (num. 144 C, then 157), where there is a big christian cross and you can enjoy a spectacular view that on clear days reaches the Gulf of La Spezia.

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