Via del Volto Santo
From Pontremoli to Lucca, to reach the miraculous Holy Visage
152 KM
Hiking Trail

The way of the Volto Santo (Holy Visage) starts at Pontremoli, home to the famous Stele Statues, and crosses around 150 kilometres of Tuscany, touching the Lunigiana, the green Garfagnana and the mid Serchio Valley. The goal of this pilgrimage is the wooden statue of the Volto Santo, which is kept in the Duomo di San Martino in Lucca, and which has been venerated since the Middle Ages by pilgrims from all over the world. The stages from Castelnuovo di Garfagnana onwards are shared with the Via Matildica del Volto Santo.

Lunigiana and Garfagnana, which are inlaid with the Apuan Alps, make for a fascinating borderland, famous for castles and citadelled hilltowns, distinctive stone bridges, slightly haunting country churches and a natural richness that encourages walking and hiking.

The trail of the Volto Santo follows the old medieval path that linked the Lombard territories of Po Valley with those of Tuscia (the Roman name for Tuscany), and deliberately avoided the areas under Byzantine dominion. The route came into use during the centuries of conflict between Lucca and Pisa in the Middle Ages.

As noted before, the end point of the journey is the Volto Santo, a walnut statue over two metres high, which is enclosed in a little shrine of Carrara marble in Lucca’s cathedral. It presents a true likeness of Christ, and has played its part in many a miracle.

First Stage
Pontremoli to Bagnone
Pontremoli - Credit: Shutterstock / Claudio Giovanni Colombo

Pontremoli, where the journey begins, invites us to admire its nooks and crannies and immerse ourselves in the history of the Lunigiana. The castle of Piagnaro, where the Stele Statue Museum is to be found, looms over the whole city and a magnificent panorama of the valley. The museum has a collection of famous anthropomorphic sandstone statues, which are shrouded in mystery.

In the church of San Pietro you will find the labyrinth of San Pietro, which attracts hundreds of pilgrims, including those on the Via Francigena.

We climb towards the village of Arzengio, an ancient Byzantine fortress, which even today preserves a portion of its original layout. Then we come to Ceretoli, which was most likely founded by the Lombards. Soon after that we reach the church of Dobbiana, which holds images and representations of the Volto Santo.

Once past Serravalle, the road starts to climb and gifts us a beautiful panorama: the river Magra extends before us, cupped in the valley. We approach Rocca Sigillina, the sometime stronghold of the Malaspina family, dominated by the ruins of a castle; then we are at Lusignana, where a museum of peasant life preserves relics of an everyday life that is now no more. From mule tracks, gravel paths and chestnut woods, we gaze over a landscape stippled with little villages.

One of these is Bagnone, where we are welcomed by the beauty of its old centre, its churches and its civic theatre.

Second Stage
Bagnone to Fivizzano
Fivizzano - Credit: Pierluigi Pellizzer

Departure from Bagnone is something to behold, as we descend into one of the town’s oldest parts, which in the past was the gateway to the castle. The bridge, which offers another magnificent panorama, leads to a little piazza, usually thronging with artisans, merchants and wayfarers.

We pass through Panicale and arrive at Monti, whose parish church of Santa Maria di Venelia, now completely reconstructed, goes a long way back in time.

You cross the Taverone stream to reach Pontebosio, a little fief of the Malaspina family whose main feature is a large, incomplete castle. You continue along a beautiful mule track and enter a wood, but the path remains easily visible as it takes you to Olivola, a village that sits on a hill of marl.

You arrive at Fivizzano, the Florence of the Lunigiana, a longtime possession of the Medici. The Verrucola Castle, which is hard to miss from its hill in front of the town, dominates the Rosaro valley.  

Third Stage
Fivizzano to Argegna
Parish church of San Pietro, Offiano
Parish church of San Pietro, Offiano - Credit: Pierluigi Pellizzer

We depart from Fivizzano’s Piazza Medicea and its stupendous fountain of pietra serena, built by Cosimo III, and slowly leave the Lunigiana behind us, a bewitching part of the world with the strong identity of a mountain region. Head for the Ospitale di San Nicolao di Tea, which sits at the edge of the Garfagnana: the Apuan Alps will flank you majestically along the way. You should pause to have a look at the splendid parish church in Offiano, which has on its façade a marble tile in the form of a pilgrim hefting a knapsack. After a few kilometres more you will espy the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Guardia.   

Fourth Stage
Argegna to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana - Credit: Georgette Jupe

From the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Guardia you can drink in a pulse-quickening panorama. Giuncugano is surrounded by the chestnut, oak and beech trees of the Tusco-Emilian Apennine National Park. The church of Sant’Antonino, which is home to a statue of the Volto Santo, is worth a look before continuing your journey in the direction of Piazza del Serchio, via mule tracks, meadows and woods which capture the Garfagnana in its primordial beauty. The medieval bridge of San Michele, which leads into the town, is especially gorgeous. If you have time for a detour, you can visit the nearby Orecchiella Park.

Head south-east and marvel at the Verrucole fortress, an important medieval building that rises above the small dwelling of Verrucole. To reach Castelnuovo di Garfagnana you go through San Romano, Sambuca and Pontecosi, hugging the lake of the same name.

Fifth Stage
Castelnuovo to Barga
Gallicano - Credit: Daniele Saisi

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana is the crossroads where the Via del Volto Santo meets the Via del Matildica. Here you can admire the castle where the poet Ludovico Ariosto resided and from which he grudgingly governed the Garfagnana.

You go past Cascio and come to Gallicano, an important point on the Via del Volto Santo on account of its centuries-old ties to Lucca (the Volto Santo appears in the Lucchese statues of 1450) and for being the birthplace of Domenico Bertini, who commissioned the shrine that protects the Volto Santo in the Cathedral of San Martino.

Finally, we come to Barga, which suffered greatly during the Second World War. Signs of struggles on the part of the partisans can be seen here, the remains of foxholes and gravestones. Barga has been awarded the Italian Touring Club's Orange Flag in recognition of its hospitality and heritage, and its beautiful country backdrop does nothing to discredit it.

Sixth Stage
Barga to Borgo a Mozzano
Ponte della Maddalena
Ponte della Maddalena - Credit: Jo Christian Oterhals

Barga’s cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Christopher, is so imposing that it resembles a fortress. Giovanni Pascoli devoted a few of his verses to the sound of its bells. The route continues through a beautiful backdrop, and brings you to Romanesque church of Santa Maria, known as the church of Loppia.

Ghivizzano welcomes you with the tower of Castruccio Castracani, a soldier and local hero in the Lucchesia. After Ghivizzano you press on over dirt tracks, and take care in crossing the bridge over the River Serchio.

Further on, at Borgo a Mozzano, the legendary Ponte della Maddalena, known locally as the Devil’s Bridge, appears on your left.

Seventh Stage
Borgo a Mozzano to Lucca
The walls of Lucca
The walls of Lucca - Credit: C. D'Aliasi

Leave the village of Borgo a Mozzano, which is home to the Museo della Memoria, and head south-west towards Diecimo, where you will find the old parish church of Santa Maria, the work of Matilde di Canossa. You pass close to San Donato and direct your steps towards Ponte a Moriano. You leave the mountains behind you and keep to the banks of the Serchio, and that will take you to the gates of Lucca, in all its glory. The city’s historic walls girdle this city of churches – like San Frediano – and charming piazzas, such as the Amphitheatre.

You will find the Holy Statue in the Duomo di San Martino, the goal and guiding light of the journey.