It’s easy to miss the ancient Tuscan town of Sommocolonia. Perched on the spine of a high ridge amid a wild expanse of canyons, ravines and chestnut forests 38 miles north of Pisa, there are no restaurants, inns or cafes there. Nor are there any banks, grocery stores, pharmacies or things that really make a town a town. The stone settlement isn’t included on most local maps, and from a distance, it looks as if it might tumble down the mountainside and vanish into the misty Serchio Valley below.
Wandering through the pint-sized village is a surreal experience. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Sommocolonia’s three cobblestone streets were completely deserted, but flowering bougainvillea burst out of clay pots and freshly lit candles flickered in its empty Gothic church. Evidence of modern life is hard to find, yet traces of Sommocolonia’s proud past are everywhere. A crumbling castle crowns the hill, medieval walls top earlier Roman fortifications, and a 12th-century bell tower faces the snowcapped peaks of the Apennine mountains.
For the last thousand years, this picture-perfect paese has seemingly defied time and gravity. Nearly 400 people lived within its 16th-century walls in the 1930s, but as villagers slowly left in search of work, Sommocolonia’s school and shops left with them. Today, only 22 residents remain, and Sommocolonia, like so many medieval villages in this enchanting corner of northwest Tuscany, quietly clings to life on the mountainside.
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For every Siena or San Gimignano that lures busloads of tourists up its crests, there are scores of Sommocolonias. Tucked between the folds of the Apennines and the Apuan Alps in an area known as the Garfagnana, these tiny medieval jewels are nestled in spectacular hilltop settings, surrounded by award-winning organic wineries, and brimming with seasonal specialties like handmade chestnut-flour pasta and porcini mushrooms.
And while they may not boast the Renaissance paintings or cosmopolitan finesse of their more famous neighbors, they’re also free from the suffocating crowds and selfie sticks that come with them. This is a pocket of Italy’s most popular region where very few people live and even fewer visit – a remote idyll of sun-drenched slopes unsullied by Frances Mayes’ Tuscan sun.
“These forgotten villages represent the rustic soul of Tuscany,” said local chef Alessandro Manfredini, as we hiked past the clanging of free-range goats to his home in Sommocolonia from the medieval town of Barga – one of Italy’s Slow Food capitals. “But we Italians are losing our rural roots, our identity. When these small towns disappear, so do the traditions that make Italy special.”
According to a 2016 study by Italy’s Ministry of Environment, there are 5,627 towns which now have fewer than 5,000 residents. Of those, a staggering 2,430 are unlikely to survive the next 25 years, as young people move away and old people pass away. In an effort to cheat death, many Italian towns have scrambled to come up with solutions that keep their communities from falling into oblivion.
In 2015, the mayor of a town in Calabria signed a cheeky decree forbidding the town’s 537 residents from getting sick and dying. Another, Riace, has welcomed some 450 migrants from more than 20 countries to revive the town and raise its dwindling population of 800. And in the past decade, dozens of rural towns from Patrica, Lazio (population: 3,176) to Salemi, Sicily (population: 11,250) have been giving away abandoned homes for €1 to anyone willing to make the structures inhabitable again.
But yet, these endangered enclaves dwarf the gorgeous ghost towns of the Garfagnana, where dozens of dying hilltop towns now have fewer than 100 people.
The day after I visited Sommocolonia, I crossed cascading mountain streams and thickly forested acacia woods to the medieval town of Treppignana (population: 28). The village’s narrow stone lanes and terracotta roofs gaze out over two nearby slopes – one whose castle walls protect Perpoli’s 23 residents, the other whose studded lookout towers guard Palleroso’s 74 inhabitants.
“Before roads and phones came in the 1950s, we used to communicate with other villages in the area by smoke signal,” a lone shepherd told me as I crunched back through the forest.
Today, a footpath still connects the region’s two main towns, Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, with trails branching off to link many of the region’s teeny treasures, like Volcascio (population: 27) where an 14th-century sandstone bridge arches across a gorge; Lupinaia (population: 67) whose soaring, turreted bell tower and annual chestnut harvest draw thousands of culinary pilgrims each November; and Riana (population: 64) which swells each October during its annual wine festival and Race of the Barrels.
But come any other time, and it feels like you’re discovering a secret slice of Tuscany very few know about.
“It’s beautiful, it’s tranquil, and I’m optimistic for our future,” said third-generation Sommocolonian Massimo Nardini, who runs a nonprofit and small museum promoting the town.
Nardini’s two daughters, aged 14 and 9, were the last children born in Sommocolonia. The school closed in 1975; the market closed in the 1980s; and, in a bitter dose of irony, many of the town’s elderly residents buy their groceries from a converted ambulance that chugs up the hill. But Nardini recently secured funding from Barga’s mayor to build a cultural center and the town’s first bar in more than 30 years, which he hopes will open in 2019.
“Ten years ago, there weren’t visitors,” he said. “Now, we have hikers, English and American families have bought old houses, and the world is starting to find us. I think we can still be here in 25 years.”
If you go
Sleep: Set in the heart of a 1,500-acre park, the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco offers sweeping views of the Serchio Valley and medieval town of Barga from its 180 rooms and suites. Zen-like spa treatments, an indoor and outdoor pool, excellent restaurant serving locally sourced meals, and hiking trails connecting nearby villages make it an ideal base for exploring the area.
Eat: Hunt for porcini mushrooms, DOP chestnut flour, porcini mushrooms and more at Barga’s weekly Saturday market, or Castelnuovo di Garfagnana’s Thursday market. Then, book at table at Trattoria L’Altana in Barga, where the homemade tagliatelle pasta with pumpkin, pecorino and pancetta is delightful.
Drink: Of the Garfagnana’s many biodynamic wineries, Podere Còncori is our favorite. Owner Gabriele de Prato uses an astrological calendar to dictate his harvest and his small-batch Melograno was recently named Italy’s top biodynamic wine.
Do: Well-marked hiking trails criss-cross the Garfagnana and connect to dozens of small villages. You can also descend into an underground labyrinth of lakes and caverns at the Grotta del Vento. The 11th-century Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge) spans the Serchio Valley at the town of Borgo a Mozzano and shouldn’t be missed.
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