Start at our base
After breakfast, we embark on our walk through wonderful beech forests of the lower Apennines, where we are rewarded with great views from the fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana.
In the morning we drive the short distance into the beautiful nearby town of Barga. The Duomo (Cathedral) of Barga, a superb Romanesque Church, has excellent examples of sculptures and lavish carvings, and is set on the fortified hilltop which is the town's focal point; from here there are superb views of the surrounding area, the Serchio Valley and the Apuane Alps. Despite its small size Barga is in fact a city, a title bestowed on it by Benito Mussolini when he became a Freeman there before the war. The cities mediaeval affluence, still visible in the architecture, was due to the success of the town's traders who controlled several important trade routes. In the afternoon we explore the Apuane Alps and visit one of Europe's most complete cave systems, the Grotta del Vento, or 'Wind Cave'. Inside the cave are easy footpaths revealing the underground world of stalactites and stalagmites, waterfalls, crystal lakes and deep emerald-green pools - a huge subterranean network of passages and caverns created over 20 million years. After our visit we return to the lodge and the rest of the day is free to relax by the pool or take a stroll to the nearby village.
A one-hour drive brings us to the graceful walled city of Lucca, the quiet provincial capital, which is the perfect place to explore using bicycles rather than cars, as the locals do for getting around the city centre. Historically, Lucca has always been a wealthy city at the heart of a rich agricultural area; a fact that is reflected in its numerous palaces, beautiful churches and fine public buildings. The huge ramparts of the city walls date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are complete, allowing a four-kilometre circuit by foot or bicycle.
A free day to relax by the pool or enjoy a self-guided walk. It is possible to travel by train (approx. 2½ hours) for a day visit to Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance with an enormous wealth of historical sites, museums, galleries, churches and architectural delights. Most of the great artists, thinkers and builders from Renaissance history passed through or lived in Florence when it was under the rule of the Medici family, the most famous patrons of the 16th century. But Florence is not just a Renaissance showpiece: once you have had your fill of the historical trail there are many other things to see and do. The city has not ceased to be a centre of learning, and there is a university, many art and language schools and a large student population to liven up the cafe-bars, restaurants and nightclubs. There are some good flea markets and chic boutiques. From April to July, Florence also holds one of Europe's major cultural events, a festival of opera and classical music called the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
This morning we visit the renowned Castelnuovo market, in the heart of the Garfagnana Valley. The town of Castelnuovo dates back to the 8th century and its vibrant market has played a very important social and economic role in the region since the Middle Ages. In fact no arrests were allowed on market day, for fear of disrupting trade. We then enjoy a walk up to Monte Alfonzo where we will be rewarded with a birdseye view of Castelnuovo and the surrounding mountains before heading down to the small thermal town of Turrite. Back in Castelnuovo we can enjoy an ice cream from one of the many excellent gelaterias.
We travel to Riomaggiore and the beautiful stretch of coastline called the Cinque Terre. We spend the day on this spectacular coastline, which was brought to fame by Byron and Shelley in the last century. The hills above the villages are criss-crossed by a network of panoramic footpaths linking the villages and little dry-stone-walled vineyards; even in the steepest hamlets there are steps cut into the rock to allow access to the sea. We will walk some of these paths to experience the slow pace of life in these old fishing villages, where there are some excellent trattorias serving local dishes and the dry white and sciacchetra wines for which this area is famous.
Our trip finishes at Braccicorti after breakfast.