Celebration of the Eve of St Bartholomew’s Day in Fiumalbo, Italy. Photo by Roberto Leoni. 

Explore Italy: just above Tuscany


Above Tuscany, just into the neighbouring region of Emilia-Romagna, lies a belt of green mountains dotted with tiny glacial lakes and rural villages. While the Apennine mountains that form the spine of Italy don’t have the fame of the Alps they have been described as ‘Italy’s best-kept secret.’

Sometimes, when hiking in the highest ridges, I’m reminded of our South Island – except that in summer the slopes here are covered with wild blueberries and, at regular stages along the hike, you find a rifugio (mountain hut) serving freshly made tagliatelle with porcini, or tortelloni filled with ricotta and spinach, and wild berry desserts. The region is rich not only in cuisine but in motoring – Ferrari test their cars on these mountain roads – and outdoor pursuits from skiing to cycling.

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Hiking on Mount Cimone, the highest mountain of the Northern Apennines. Photo by Roberto Leoni.

Settlements retain a charm enriched by centuries of local history: fortresses, Romanesque churches, stone bridges and rustic villages with narrow streets and thick-walled houses. Here is where many Tuscans come on holiday. Less than two hours’ drive from Florence, and even closer from Lucca, they leave behind the summer heat and get themselves into restaurants, hotels and rental houses that are considerably cheaper than other more famous areas.

This is authentic Italy, and I speak from the heart. I grew up here, in the village of Sestola, the highest settlement, at 1,020m below Mount Cimone.

My Italian home has a population of just over 2,400, when including the surrounding five hamlets and farms.

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The village of Sestola at night, overlooked by its fortress. Photo by Roberto Leoni.

The province of Modena includes over 15,000 hectares of regional park. Across these peaks and valleys, farming and foraging are still a way of life, testified by the numerous village fairs and festivals.

It’s quite common to happen across a Patron Saint’s Day in even the smallest village. These are celebrated in true rural style: don’t expect the religious fervour of Southern Italy, but something more in line with the surroundings. On 23 August, the eve of St Bartholomew, for example, the medieval streets of Fiumalbo are illuminated by torches and candles, and others float along the river that encircles the village. The whole community gets involved in for months of work; visitors are always welcomed and well fed.

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May Day in Riolunato, one of the hidden gems of the Apennines. Photo by Roberto Leoni.

Even Poggioraso, our little hamlet below Sestola, has a peasant fair celebrated in early September for two days. Honouring the local Madonna, the fair brings people together to share simple yet wonderful food made on camp kitchens, accompanied by generous servings of Lambrusco wine or beer. There are brass bands straight out of a Fellini movie; locals ballroom-dance the night away.

During the high seasons of summer and winter most hotels offer a mezza pensione (breakfast and dinner) or pensione completa (add lunch to the above) at very reasonable prices. In true Emilian tradition, it is the mum or grandmother and perhaps a few aunties who work in the kitchens, while the men and young people serve in the dining room and deal with the public.

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A tour of one of the local Parmigiano Reggiano dairies. Photo by Roberto Leoni.

These women, often referred in dialect as rezdora, are the pillars of a quite matriarchal society – proud cooks trained by previous generations of rezdore and immensely attentive to what they put on the table. Each makes her own fresh pasta, and everything else, from scratch. They would use only their favourite local dairy to get their ricotta and Parmigiano; meat and sausages come from their own butcher, and mushrooms and berries from local foragers.

Recipes are mostly faithful to tradition: a rich Emilian fare at heart but with mountain variations developed over centuries.

Wild mushrooms, chestnuts, homemade cured meats, and special breads like gnocco fritto (fried pillow bread), crescentine (panini cooked on an open fire between hot clay or iron plates) feature and, present in all street fairs, borlenghi, very thin flatbreads filled with pork fat, garlic, rosemary and grated Parmigiano that always have people queueing for more.

Fancy culinary innovations are presented only after careful trials, since the villagers themselves regularly eat in these premises, and don’t hold back from offering criticism. As a result, anywhere from the simplest place where the décor dates from the 1960s, to the fancy restaurant with a five-star wine cellar, the food will invariably be excellent.

Acquaria is a tiny village in the municipality of Montecreto, which is home to less than 200 people and seems to have more restaurants than houses. The village is so famous for its cuisine that people drive up from Modena (about 60km away) or Bologna (about 75km) just for a meal. Ca’ Cerfogli, the most renowned and expensive of Acquaria’s restaurants, specialises in truffle and mushroom dishes and is always booked months in advance.

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The Lion Bridge near Montecreto, 117m long and built in 1715. Photo by Roberto Leoni.

Somehow food seems less fattening in the mountains, since you are always walking, always strolling; it’s always up and down.

My favourite walk is a panoramic short hike up to Sestola’s castle, and then down to the village centre for a coffee and pastry, or an aperitif, before walking home. When I feel more energetic, I head towards the pristine mountain ridges and lakes in the municipality of Fanano, where the views are spectacular, and on a clear day you can see as far as the Apuan Alps in Tuscany.


Story by Alessandra Zecchini for the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Alessandra Zecchini is a freelance writer who contributes to AA Directions magazine. 

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