The village of Villafranca in Lunigiana is a perfect model of small-town life in this historic area of Tuscany. Villafranca is located along the Via Francigena and it’s in both the heart of the town and in its many hamlets that visitors can admire numerous traces of the important medieval past of this territory.
Boasting a strategic and picturesque position close to the ford of the River Magra, the historic centre of Villafranca is home to the remnants of the Malnido Castle, built by the Malaspina family in 1100. The fortress, a stronghold on the Francigena for the Ghibelline branch of the Malaspina, was nearly intact before the Second World War, when bombings reduced it to ruins. What remains is nonetheless fascinating and could possibly be excellently restored. Other notable medieval traces are the defense walls and the fortifications seen on the opposite side of the town, next to the Church of San Giovanni.
The territory around Villafranca in Lunigiana is dotted with several hamlets, all with their own distinct character. The most well-known is probably Filetto, a walled village with a unique quadrilateral urban plan at the base of the valley, a characteristic of planned communities. Probably of Byzantine origin, the original centre is made up of an enclosure with four corner towers. The hamlet underwent important transformations in the 15th and 16th centuries, like the expansion of the village to the east and the introduction of a road axis inside the new city walls, which included two new monumental gates. Known today for its summer festivals, Filetto has experienced a certain success thanks to its medieval celebrations and antiques markets, as well as exhibitions and conferences on contemporary art held inside the historic Palazzo Cavalli.
The Ethnographical Museum of Lunigiana is surely of interest: visitors can admire farming and shepherding equipment, artisan tools and objects of everyday, personal, domestic and devotional use, as well as objects that were considered magical and protective, all coming from throughout the Lunigiana. The setting of the museum is particularly important, which are a series of 14th-century mills used by the community in Villafranca.
The territory surrounding Villafranca is particularly suitable for nature and hiking enthusiasts. The hamlet of Malgrate, for example, is one of the oldest villages in this area of Tuscany, dominating the entrance to the valley of the Bagnone stream, which is dotted with a number of watermills, some of which are open to visitors and still in operation. The trails and mule tracks – which criss-cross the entire landscape – were historically used for seasonal livestock rearing and by lumberjacks, coalmen and traders of all kinds of goods. The trails were also used by pilgrims and all the wayfarers travelling along the via Francigena.
Something worth exploring, just as in the rest of the Lunigiana, is the local cuisine. In addition to all the typical foods found in this area of Tuscany, this is where visitors can find dishes made from chestnut flour, like the pattona, a cake cooked over a testo – a portable cast iron or terracotta surface – and served with soft cheese made from cow’s milk, or lasagne bastarde, or “bastard lasagne,” a puff pastry made with chestnut and wheat flour that is cut into fours, cooked in water and seasoned with oil and cheese or leek sauce.