The most beautiful way to know Italy: hiking the Via Matildica in Emilia Romagna
Our slow journey along the Via Matildica del Volto Santo pilgrim path in Emilia Romagna - plus all the information you need to walk the trail yourself!
Our ever-knowledgeable guide, Giuliano, clutches a tall hiking stick in one brown hand (a daunting sign of what was to come?) and swept the other across the hiking path and golden valley in front of us.
It was already a searing hot day, and we were still getting used to the feel of carrying our worldly possessions in our daypacks. I tried not to think about the itinerary stashed away in one of our packs with ‘distance: 20km’ listed against two of our hiking days.
As Giuliano’s tall frame turned back to the path, I find myself praying that he’s right.
I’m Agnostic-bordering-on-atheist, and can guarantee that I’m definitely not normally not the praying type. But today’s hiking path isn’t just your regular trail; we’d just taken our first tentative steps along the “Via Matildica del Volto Santo" (Matildic Way of the Holy Face) in Emilia Romagna; a network of ancient pilgrim paths snaking across the spine of Italy through the Apennine Mountain range.
These roads were once the heart lines of the Church, bearing the feet of faithful worshippers travelling from Germany to Rome.
Our journey’s namesake, Matilda di Canossa, a Medieval Tuscan Countess and supporter of Pope Gregory VII, ruled these golden hills in Italy’s north with immense power and influence. For the next four days, we would be winding through the small hamlets and ancient forests of her Fiefdom, from the chestnut groves of Marola to the alpine town of San Pellegrino, on a smaller section of the total 256km trail.
With each step, it would be her castles, her pastures, and her history that we hoped to bring to life.
According to Giuliano, our trail takes us through some of the most typically Italian landscapes you can imagine, from the apennines to glacial lakes, pastoral lands and the calanco (badlands) where wolf populations are slowly returning again.
If there was ever a place to rediscover my faith, I figured there couldn’t be a better one than this pilgrim path to Rome.
THE REAL ITALY | HIKING EMILIA ROMAGNA’S VIA MATILDICA PILGRIM PATH
As the day wears on, it quickly becomes clear to us that this won’t be a regular trek.
For a start, lunch is eaten on the steps of an 11th-century monastery, chatting with another group of hikers. With the saltiness of the Parmesan still lingering on our tongues, Giuliano points out the Roman columns that Matilda ordered built, and the importance of the direction the church was built in.
“The sun rises over the altar and sets over the entrance of the church,” he says, “an architectural representation of the birth and death of man”
Whether it’s about architecture or landscape, culture or food; Giuliano turns out to be an encyclopaedia, bringing the stories of Matilda, her Fiefdom, and the surrounding area to life. Many a time, I find myself almost skipping alongside him, typing notes into my phone and trying to keep up as he scatters his knowledge along our walk.
Our final stretch of the day is a particularly arduous uphill scramble. Giuliano jumps from rock to rock, in search of a precious treasure he’s been spotting on this stretch since he was a young boy: 40-million-year-old fish fossils leftover from when our path was an ancient seabed.
Tracing the lines of the ancient fish scales, I think of how much history has played out along just this little stretch - and how much of it we’re yet to discover.
Finally, hours after we set off from Marola (and right when I’m sure my legs might give out) we reach our last stop for today: the glorious Castello di Carpineti.
Straddling the golden hills of the Secchia valley and river, with a panorama of a truly romantic rural Italian landscape from its defensive walls, it doesn’t take us long to work out why this castle was Matilda’s favourite.
This is also where we’ll spend our night, in the castle’s old chestnut roasting house (the Metato). As we drift off to sleep amidst the creaks and groans of the thousand year-old building, I can’t help but laugh thinking that all my childhood dreams of becoming a princess and being whisked away to my very own castle have finally been realised.
With each passing day, our group grows and dwindles depending on who joins us along the trail.
There are the three zoology students who bound up hills, scan the ground for important animal scats, and just never seem to tire. Giorgio and Marcello, the hiking guides who keep us moving (particularly when we really, really don’t want to anymore). Mia the free-spirited ‘wolf girl’ (self-confessed) tracking the return of wolf populations in the area. Francesca, calm and kind-natured from the Parco Appennino team.
In the evenings, we’re welcomed into small villages with open arms by wonderful, salt of the earth people who toast to another successful day and provide us with warmer hospitality (and tastier food!) than we could imagine.
But for the most part, our constant companion on the Via Matildica is history.
After all here we are; following an ancient pilgrim path full of fossils and medieval history, where the stones have been rubbed smooth by centuries-worth of faithful feet and now, in 2018, scratched by the hiking poles of modern trailblazers.
Whether it’s mild sunstroke caused by the burning heat of the day or a total immersion in our surroundings, there are moments that we seem to lose all sense of time and place.
The dappled light through chestnut groves becomes the dancing figures of medieval farmers, the breeze through the forest carries whispers from the past, and when we look out over castle-filled hills, it’s hard not to picture ourselves on our way to some Medieval court.
It is, in many ways, as though the world of Matilda is more alive than ever before. We’re walking through the lands of her fiefdom, sleeping in the castles of her making, admiring the churches she protected, and, passing many a grapevine so laden with fruit we can’t resist the temptation, sampling the fruits of her rich lands.
Even the infamous wolves, once a fierce natural enemy during the time of this powerful Countess and since hunted away over the centuries, are now returning to the Calanco.
It continues to blow my mind, just thinking of all those who have walked this path before me on their own pilgrimage - whether last week, 500 years, or a millennia ago - and what each of their stories may have looked like.
For all that the Via Matildica is a path for those seeking closer connection with their faith, it may as well be sacred journey in gastronomy for those who find their spirituality in food.
Emilia Romagna is Italy’s food basket; a place where the renowned produce is an expression of the rich and fertile landscape.
The best-loved of its exports is Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; hard, straw-coloured, and with just the right amount of saltiness. Giuliano tells us that a particular type of grass that grows here means that the best cheese flavours comes from this area, a sentiment shared by almost every local we encounter.
In fact, pride about food and produce seems to be at the heart of life here. I think back to our first night in the region, a balmy dinner spent under the grape vines of a local Trattoria with our trek organisers, a few too many bottles of Lambrusco, and plate after plate of Tortelli pasta.
As we shovel the delicate pumpkin and mushroom-filled parcels into our mouths, our hosts embarked on a passionate conversation about flavour and freshness. One, Monica, leans over with a smile.
“Food is family here. It’s love, sharing, and we say: “your food might be good - but my mother’s version is better!”
Even in such a quiet, non-touristy part of Italy, the little Inns and Trattorias we visit provide us with some of the best meals we’ve ever had. More-ish bread made from chestnut flour. Wild-grown mushrooms and sweet berries straight from the bush.
In the final days of our trek, we pass through a two-house village and pause for a moment by the shade of a large fig tree. The fruit hangs thick and perfectly ripe; a delectable feast for whoever will be lucky enough to devour it.
As we scatter our bags around us and search for our water bottles, a sweet voice calls over the wall beside us. It’s the old lady who owns the fig tree we’re resting under, and she’s clearly heard the fatigue in our voices.
In Italian, she asks our guides where we’re headed and tells us we must pick some of her figs for our long journey ahead. We’re more than happy to oblige, the plump fruits providing us with a burst of sweetness and flavour much needed on this hot day.
As we finally gather our things and prepare for the rest of our hot journey, we call “Senora, grazie!” to our generous new friend.
“Now you have energy for your pilgrimage!” comes the sweet reply.
I can’t help but think back to Giuliano’s comment on the first day of our trek, and I laugh at how truly prophetic his words actually were.
Sure, the landscapes of the Apennines are spectacular.
But what will remain forever etched in our memories from this slow journey through Italy will be the flavours we’ve tasted, the stories we’ve heard, and the beautiful people who have shared their culture and hospitality with us every step of the way.
It turns out that Giuliano was more than right: hiking the Via Matildica really is the most beautiful way to know Italy.
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION FOR HIKING THE VIA MATILDICA
ABOUT THE VIA MATILDICA
The Via Matildica del Volto Santo is a 284km pilgrim trail that connects three regions of Italy, including Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany (check out this excellent 2-day Florence itinerary), along the spine of the Apennine Mountain range.
The trail follows the feudal lands of Matilde di Canossa, a powerful Tuscan countess who ruled in the 11th century.
It also traces a number of ancient itineraries that connected northern Europe with Rome. Much of the trail is centred on the castles of the Great Countess, and you’ll also pass through important biodiverse landscapes, old rural villages, and Medieval ruins.
The route also holds significant religious importance, linking the city of Mantua, where the blood of Christ is said to be held, to Lucca, where the Holy Face is, via Reggio Emilia and San Pellegrino in Alpe, a medieval pilgrimage site and location of the mummified bodies of both San Pellegrino and San Bianco.
The trail we followed was a smaller section of the trail, within the Emilia Romagna territory. Our itinerary was as follows:
Stage 1: Marola to Castello di Carpineti (8.4km)
Stage 2: Carpineti to Toano (16.5km)
Stage 3: Toano to Gazzano (18km)
Stage 4: (car transfer from Gazzano to Case di Civago), Case di Civago to San Pellegrino in Alpe (13km)
ACCOMMODATION ALONG THE VIA MATILDICA
We completed the trek as part of an organised trek, and stayed in a wonderful mix of accommodation along the Via Matildica del Volto Santo, ranging from Medieval Castles and hostels through to gorgeous family-run Albergos.
If you’re planning to hike the Via Matildica del Volto Santo, we’d recommend getting in touch with the local tourism board (details here, or email: email@example.com) and discussing your options, as much of the trail’s accommodation is set away from villages and will need to be booked.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE VIA MATILDICA
While a slow walk through Italy sounds magical (and definitely was!), there are a few things to consider before you lace up those boots and set off for your own Via Matildica adventure.
DOWNLOAD THE OFFICIAL VIA MATILDICA APP
While the trail is super well-marked with red-white-red markings and SM engraved on the tip of arrows, we’d recommend downloading the official Via Matildica del Volto Santo route app, which has both the itinerary, GPS tracking (including offline), and tracks your daily data too.
You can download the app here.
WEAR STURDY HIKING SHOES
Some sections of the trail are actually pretty tough-going, and there were a few scrambles up and down steep, rubbly inclines. Coupled with some long days on your feet (nearly 20km of walking for some!), we’d highly recommend wearing a comfortable, broken-in pair of hiking boots on the trail.
PACK ONLY WHAT YOU NEED
You’ll need to carry all your gear (and food, if you’re doing the trek independently) on your back each day, and take it from these two people who didn’t plan accordingly for this: you want to keep things as light as possible. Pack the essentials only, and leave the heavy or bulky stuff at home.
PACK ENOUGH FOOD (AND PLAN AHEAD!)
During the day, you’ll often pass by small villages where you’ll be able to grab a focaccia lunch and some snacks. Evenings however, are a very different matter! For the most part, we stayed in small medieval castles or hostels set well away from nearby towns, which meant if we’d been travelling independently, we may have struggled to organise dinner on a couple of evenings.
Be sure to plan ahead, pack lots of snacks (you’ll need them!), and if you know you’re going to be staying somewhere a little more remote, be sure to pick up some extra food on your way during the day.
TAKE LOTS OF WATER
This is particularly important for those attempting the trek in warmer months (as we did!) - the days can become H O T, strenuous, and you’ll be on the trail for 6-8 hours at a time sometimes. There are a many fountains to fill up at on the way, so pack a couple of reusable bottles and make good use of them.
DON’T FORGET YOUR SUNSCREEN, HAT, + SUNGLASSES
There are sections of the trek that require you to walk for stretches along the main road, with little shade. We probably wouldn’t have survived without our wide-brimmed hats, and we definitely would have been completely roasted had we not packed some sunscreen.
MAP OF THE VIA MATILDICA
A super comprehensive route map, including hostels, interest points, refreshment stops, etc can be found at the Cammini Emilia Romagna info page here.
TRAVEL INSURANCE | STAY SAFE IN ITALY
Whatever you do, don’t travel through Italy without travel insurance, even if you’re the most experienced traveller.
Whether it be a hiking injury, car accident, theft, or lost baggage, things can go wrong in Italy, and insurance is your only way of mitigating the issues!
SOUTH TYROL TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Hiking through Emilia Romagna comes with a unique set of needs.
To help you have a comfortable, happy journey, we recommend bringing the following items with you:
Reusable water bottle | THE BEST INVESTMENT WE’VE EVER MADE! We use the Grayl water purification bottles, which allows us to fill up from any water source, anywhere in the world (including train taps!).
Biodegradable Wet Wipes | Keep clean on hikes without destroying the planet!
Hand sanitiser | not something we’d actually recommend normally, but when hiking it can be a bloody great investment
READ | check out our eco-friendly packing guide to travel through Italy consciously and comfortably
PLANNING TO VISIT ITALY?
Check our these essential posts to help you have the best trip ever:
TRE CIME DI LAVAREDO | How to visit the best short hike in the Dolomites
LAGO DI CAREZZA | Your ultimate guide to South Tyrol’s rainbow lake
DOLOMITES DREAMING | 19 incredible things to do in South Tyrol
BEST OF BOLOGNA | 12 incredibly awesome things to do in Bologna, Italy
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WAY TO KNOW ITALY | Hiking the Via Matildica in Italy’s Emilia Romagna
VENICE ON A BUDGET | The ultimate guide to visiting this iconic Italian destination on a budget
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world? Click here to view our detailed photography gear guide, as well as our top travel photography tips!
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
DISCOVER MORE OF ITALY WITH THESE TRAVEL GUIDES
Our time in Emilia Romagna was made possible by Emilia Romagna Tourismo, who sponsored our trip.
As always, all opinions, musings, and general ramblings are very much our own!
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