The Ten Castella of Svizzera Pesciatina
Located just over the small town of Pescia is a mountain area called the Valleriana, nicknamed the Svizzera Pesciatina. This zone is studded with little villages known as “The Ten Castella” (The Ten Castles), all made in pietra serena stone which was of great importance during the Middle Ages. Anyone visiting the area will surely be astonished by the great green valley whose colors and breathtaking views remind one of the alpine mountains bordering Italy on the north.
The Svizzera Pesciatina was given this curious moniker by Jean Charles Sismondi, a historian, writer and economist born in Switzerland but of Italian origin. After traveling around Europe, he fell in love with this area and retired there, a place that reminded him of his beloved homeland.
The Svizzera Pesciatina consists of ten renowned villages, or castelle: Pietrabuona, Medicina, Fibbialla, Aramo, Sorana, San Quirico, Castelvecchio, Stiappa, Pontito and Vellano. There is also an 11th village, Lignana, which today lays in ruins.
Pietrabuona is the first castella and is considered the gateway of the Svizzera Pesciatina. Its name comes from the stone quarries in the area (pietra in Italian means stone). It was once the scene of bloody battles between Florence and Lucca during the Middle Ages. Here you will find an ancient church dedicated to Saints Matthew, inside which two wooden statues representing St. Matthew and St. Michael can be found. There is also a Paper Museum dedicated to ancient paper processing, a common trade in the area to this day.
In Medicina is a castle known for its ancient church dedicated to Saints Sisto and Martin. Built in the fifteenth century, it crowns the high wooded hill where the town is located, and its bell tower is an ancient watch tower. Here there are also many farmyards, where people worked and harvested agricultural products.
The village of Fibbialla is one of the most intact in the area. Inside, there are paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries and an interesting 15th century sculpture depicting the Virgin of the Annunciation.
Situated on a peak overlooking the valley below, Aramo was the scene of bitter fighting in the 15th century, looted and largely destroyed. In the highest point of the town stands the church of S. Frediano.
The castella of Sorana, nestled on the slopes of Mount Petritulo, takes its name from the fortress, which was once called “sovereign” (sovrana) due to its location overlooking the valley. Today, only a few ruins of the fortress remain. The village has an elliptical shape that culminates in the square, which holds a church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Sorana is famous for the production of a particular type of bean, which has made it a destination for foodies wanting to discover culinary treats.
San Quirico lies on the eastern slope of Mount Battifolle and is the highest castle in the area, offering a panoramic view of the valley. The beautiful Romanesque church of SS. Andrea and Lucia overlooks the village and inside you can see the remains of its ancient structure and a beautiful 15th century baptismal font. The center of San Quirico is characterized by its crisscrossing picturesque alleys, which pass through small tunnels under the buildings.
Castelvecchio is known for its beautiful Romanesque church, one of seven founded by the Bishop Frediano in the sixth century. In the center of the village is the Oratory of SS. Rosario, entirely decorated with the Stories of the Virgin and Christ: the fresco is done by an unknown Florentine master, dating from around the 16th century. The medieval town retains its original structure of charming streets that climb up to the castle church of St. Ansano. Castelvecchio is also known as the village of the ice-cream makers, a tradition that came about thanks to Aurindo Ferrari, who mastered the art of ice cream and taught it to the children of the village, helping them make a fortune from it all over Italy.
Nestled on the slopes of Mount Battifolle, Stiappa has, for centuries, marked the division between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Duchy of Lucca. Main sights include the church of Santa Maria Assunta, located in an elevated position and with an architecture that recalls Romanesque art. From Stiappa visitors can go down to the Mill of Fontanone on a path called “Way of the Mills.”
Pontito is the highest in the valley and was home of the figurinai, the artisans of plaster figurines. With their casts they have given life to characters mostly of religious inspiration, and sold them all over Europe.
Vellano, the final hamlet, is the capital city of the Swiss Pesciatina and was once a popular holiday resort. This village has a scenic location over the valley of the river Pescia. In Vellano is the only quarry of pietra serena still working in the whole province of Pistoia. The Museum of History and Ethnography of the Miner Quarryman features the tools used in the quarry and a rich collection of minerals.
There is also the eleventh castella, Lignana, of which only a few ruins remain.
The Ten Castella represent not only a patch of Tuscany’s nature, but also the cultural essence of the ancient life and habits, where old crafts survive modern technology, protecting traditional knowledge and skills from computer revolutions.