The Apuanian Alps
The Apuanian Alps are a mountain range runnnig parallel to the northern Tyrrhenian sea coast. There are joint to the Apennine range at the Carpinelli pass, from where a ridge goes south, raising after a while into the Pizzo d’Uccello, one of the symbols of the Apuanian Alps. This range, also marking the border between Lunigiana e Garfagnana, joins the main Apuanian ridge at the knot of mount Grondilice. From there, a branch, including mount Sagro, heads west, dividing the Massa and Carrara coastal plain from the river Aulella basin (that is Lunigiana). Another branch heads south-east, dividing the Versilia plain from the river Serchio valley (Garfagnana). River Serchio turns around the Apuanian Alps, marking their south limits, even if the true mountains fade a bit before, around the Camaiore basin. This south-east branch includes most main peaks : Cavallo, Tambura, Altissimo, Corchia, Pania della Croce, with its side chains and the mounts Procinto–Nona–Matanna complex. A small side chain diverges from mount Cavallo, including however the Apuanian Alps highest peak, mount Pisanino. Another chain, from the Sella group, generates the migthy pyramid of mount Sumbra.
The Apuanian Alps cannot be passed by without being noted: for their natural features and for the way men are managing their resources. Their silhouettes are anyway different from all other mountains around. The most famous view is perhaps from the sea side: the mountains raise from the Versilia plain with all their height, approaching 2000 metres. From Lunigiana, they show at maximum level their sharp shapes and some impressively high rock walls. From the Garfagnana valley they are somewhat softer, but remaining always “Alps”, compared to the Apennine ridge, just facing them.
The Apuanian Alps are, above all, the reign of marble quarries. An activity existing since ever, that’s true. But that, during the last 40 years, started making use of formerly unavailable technologies. From one side these technologies made the work less risky and demanding, not anymore like the life-threatening activity of the past times. But, from the other side, the methods are also far faster. powerful and destructive: roaming the Apuanian Alps, you may get the feeling that all their imposing shape, their toughness, their resistance to erosion will be vain; if we decide to demolish them we will do, only a matter of time; perhaps not even so much. The result of quarry acivities are whole mountains cut into pieces and gravel discharged in enormous amounts down the slopes. This is what is still said to be a part of the “Apuanian landscape”, that is often assumed to be snow, by people who see these places the first time, without considering that there is almost never snow at such low heights, on the sea-facing mountain sides.
A clear characteristic of Apuanian Alps hikes is that you generally cannot walk along the ridges, unless you are something different from pure hikers. In the northern part, the ridge is always difficult, except around mount Tambura. In the southern part you can do something more. Besides, real road passes do not exist: the two main roads crossing the range pass through tunnels. Some roads get fairly close to some mountain tops; some quarry tracks get to the ridges and you can afford them by all-terrain vehicles; of course I do not encourage doing. So, there is no alternative but starting from some places downhill, and go up; that’s not too bad, since that is a way to appreciate the environment and, above all, the old “lizze” (old quarry stone tracks), that represented the past-time face of marble quarrying, compared to the present one. Without forgetting the great numbe of villages, all of them ancient, evocative and calling for a stay; many of them, unluckily without any accommodation possibiltiy. Then, once reached the mountain tops, great views around and on the sea are assured, if weather allows.
If you are acquainted to walk on the Apennine, the Apuanian Alps maybe somewhat intimidating. Because of the steepness of the slopes and the exposure of many tracks, but also for the environment, ofter made more dramatic by quarries. The quarries of the past, that left traces, abandoned buildings and equipments, and the present ones. Besides their visible impact, you will be impressed by the noise. You can walk for long time accompanied by the noise of the machinery cutting the rock into slices or discharging the debris down the slopes. It can also happen, especially on Saturdays, around lunch time, that a sudden silence falls; then it is followed by the sound of an alarm siren and the blowing of mines. And the first time you’ll hear all this, you will be impressed.
Walking on the Apuanian Alps, you will also realise that these were once pastoral environments, as well, from the numerous ruined stone settlements, scattered in many places. Campo Catino is the most famous example, even since it is now almost completely restored. This second nature of these mountains will be withnessed also by people who worked there some decades ago: many were quarrymen and shepherds, at the same time. But there were agricultural lands as well, for what was possible to do. Terrace agriculture, as you can see in the Vinca basin: the renowned Vinca bread was made out of the locally grown wheat, milled in the mills of the valley; nowadays this bread is still manufactured, but wheat is not grown there, anymore. A story similar to that of the Colonnata lard.
Climbing the Apuanian Alps from the inland valleys is relatively more affordable, because of the less rough morphology and the lower average steepness of the slopes. Climbing from the maritime sides is a way to experience the steepest slopes and the greatest quote differences, among the major that you can find during a single climb in all the northern Apennine.
Among the high Apuanian mountains, mount Sagro is the more easily accesible, and among the more panoramic: views on the Versilia plain, the river Magra mouth, the gulf of La Spezia; then the Maritime Alps and the Thyrrenian islands, when it is clear; and the Vinca basin, almost all the other Apuanian peaks, and stretches of the Apennine. Climbing from the Pienza pass, little further from the road access of Campocecina, takes little more than one hour, but is not trivial. But if you want to approach mount Sagro from Colonnata, or Forno, well, you will get some of the more demanding hiking itinenaries that you can find (do not afford them if you are not fit enough and aware of what you are going to find).
Pizzo d’Uccello, Pisanino, Contrario and Cavallo are not hiking targets. You can turn round them along several itineraries, starting from the valleys and the villages. You can try with mount Grondilice, but if you do not feel confortable with the final ascent, stop at the Finestra del Grondilice, the highest pass of the Apuanian Alps, after the Bocchetta della Pania.
Mount Tambura on the contrary is a typical hiking destination. It is not as accesible as Sagro, but it is not difficult to reach; besides, it is placed in the centre of the range, with views spanning everywhere, beyond the sea and the Appenine. Tambura is surrounded by several old “lizza” tracks, and by the real wonder that is via Vandelli, a 18th century stone road which track is mostly still there. Mounting to Tambura along the marble quarry track to the Focolaccia pass can be not so amazing; it is better from the Vagli basin. Climbing from the maritime side using the via Vandelli is a not to-be-missed experience (or use this to go down); climbing using one of the old “lizza” tracks is an experience that, sooner or later, you will want to try.
After Tambura, you have again to bypass the group of mount Sella. Mount Altissimo is a real balcony on the coast, but you have to approach it with great caution. Mount Sumbra may look as being un-accessible, but it is indeed; you can climb it easily, from its eastern slopes, less easily, from the west. Mount Corchia is less beaten by hikers, since it is a bit shaded by the vicinity of Pania della Croce, perhaps the more frequented destination of the Apuanian Alps, after mount Sagro.You can approach it from the Garfagnana side but, also in this case, you can try the ascent from the maritime side; you will not find as steep slopes as the Resceto and Forno “lizza” tracks, but instead a possible record quote difference.
Going further, the mountain heigths lower. Mountains often free of snow even when the higher peaks are snow capped, where you can therefore enjoy hiking also during winter. But do not forget: the Apuanians remain Apuanians: you still find rocks, walls, serious slopes and quote differences, exposed tracks. During winter time, also without snow cover, be aware of possible ice, that can transform normally affordable stretches into something to be avoided. The group of mount Procinto and the mount Forato stone arch are the most renowned attractions of this area, that however reserves you almost endless hiking opportunities and villages to be visited. And that still requires mood and breath to be approached from the maritime side.