cascina

Grand Little Tours
of the Valleys of Piacenza

Compiled by giorgio zanetti

(New graphic platform March - 2020)

The Arda Valley is the most Eastern of the four major valleys in the province of Piacenza, not far from the boundaries with the province of Parma.

When describing the Arda valley, all of the other minor valleys surrounding it are usually included, and they are: on the Western side we find the Riglio, Vezzeno, Chero Chiavenna, and on the Eastern side the Ongina and Stirone. Just a few kilometres after its source the Stirone torrent veers North East crossing into the province of Parma.

The Arda valley includes some of the most well cultivated lowlands of the province, pleasant rolling hills, vineyards, geologically interesting clay escarpments (calanques) and a beautiful Provincial Park.

The Arda torrent has its source on Mt. Menegosa (1356 m. asl) and after a few kilometres it encounters a dam near Lugagnano, forming the artificial lake of Mignano. Continuing its course it is joined by the Ongina torrent just before flowing into the Po river after 60 Km. from its source.

Archaeological findings in the form of pre-historic Castellieri (small fortified villages) up in the mountains and of Terramare (dwellings built on palisades above ground) in the lowlands, point to ancient human establishments in the area.

The expression terramare derives from the words terra marna which in the dialect of Emilia Romagna means terra grassa or black earth type soil.

In the Arda valley there are 79 fortifications (castles, fortified towers and dwellings, etc.).

Towns Along the Tour - 107 km
  1. Cadeo
  2. Carpaneto
  3. Gropparello
  4. Veleia
  5. Vernasca
  6. Castell'Arquato
  7. Fiorenzuola d'Arda
  8. Cortemaggiore
  • Other Towns in the Lowlands - 38 km
    1. San Pietro in Cerro
    2. Sant'Agata (Villanova D'Arda) - Giuseppe Verdi's House
    3. Castelvetro Piacentino
    4. Monticelli d'Ongina
    5. Caorso
    The Nure valley, although an important valley in its own right, has nonetheless remained a "closed" valley because it lacked a direct and well defined passage over the Appennines till the early 1960's.

    The Nure river, which gives its name to the valley, has its source on the Northern slopes of Mt. Nero (1754 m. a.s.l.) and after a course of about 75 Km. - the second longest of the province - flows into the Po river 10 Km. East of Piacenza, in the vicinity of Roncaglia.

    The upper valley is somewhat influenced by the sea air keeping it free of fog and strong winds, and therefore relatively pleasant even during the winter months.

    In this valley there are 79 fortifications (castles, fortified towers and dwellings, etc.)

    One of the main attraction of the valley is the hamlet of Grazzano Visconti.
    In the upper valley we find the highest mountains in the province of Piacenza:
    • Mt. Bue, 1777 m. asl
    • Mt. Ragola, 1711 m. asl
    • Mt. Nero, 1753 m. asl
    • Mt. Maggiorasca - at the boundary with the province of Genova - 1800 m. asl
    The many trails criss-crossing these mountains will reward the hiker with vistas of high pastures, meadows and small lakes - remnants of the Würmian Glaciation.

    1. Nure Valley Tour - 190 km
    The Trebbia valley is considered to be the most important of the valleys in the province of Piacenza from a historic and geographic point of view, and combined with its beautiful natural appearance is, without a doubt, a rather fascinating valley.During the first world war the young Ernest Hemingway visited this valley and described it, in his diary, as the most beautiful in the world.

    The Trebbia river, which gives its name to the valley, has its source in the Ligurian mountains (30 Km. from Genova) and flows into the Po river, just West of Piacenza, after a tortuous 115 Km. The waters of the Trebbia are still rather pristine and in many locations along its course they offer, in the summer months, solace to numerous sunbathers and gratification to the many canoeists that come here from all over Europe.

    The Trebbia river has various tributaries but the most important one is the Aveto which joins the Trebbia in the upper section a few kilometers South of Bobbio.

    In the Trebbia valley we find 82 fortifications (castles, fortified towers and dwellings, etc.).

    1. Trebbia Valley Tour - 230 km
    The Tidone Valley is situated in the western sector of the province of Piacenza, next to the province of Pavia. The Tidone river , which gives the valley its name, has its source on Mt. Penice, in the vicinity of Canedo (760 m. asl), in the province of Pavia, and flows into the river Po after about 50 Km.

    This is a wide valley with gently sloping hills covered by extensive vineyards, protected from the winds and full of sunshine.

    In the Tidone Valley there are 49 ancient fortifications, castles, etc. and the smaller but charming a tributary on the right banks of the Tidone - has another 42.

    1. Tidone Valley Tour - 140 km
    Above background image: Castell'Arquato


    Arda Valley - Valdarda

    Some of the main attractions of the valley are the town of Castell'Arquato, the Roman ruins of Veleia (sometimes written Velleia or Veleja), the Provincial Park, the Abbey of Chiaravalle della Colomba; in addition there are many castles, old churches, charming rural hamlets and towns.
    During the summer months the "Pro loco" associations of each town, are busy organizing various festivities with cultural and artistic themes.


    Green area depicts Arda Valley's itinerary
    1

    Cadeo (65 m. asl)

    We leave Piacenza headed South/East by Piazzale Roma where a tall twin-column monument displays the statue of the infants "Romolo and Remo suckling the she-wolf", symbol of the founders of Rome, and this is where the Roman Via Emilia begins or ends if coming from Ravenna.

    In 14 Km. we are in Cadeo, whose meaning is "House of God"; a medieval hospice used by the pilgrims, was built here by Ghisulfo in 1122. The parish church has an interesting Romanesque splayed portal crowned by a carved lunette dated 1170. Continuing on the Via Emilia we arrive in Roveleto where the town hall of Cadeo's municipality is situated. In Roveleto we can visit the Baroque Sanctuary built in 1750 and dedicated to the Beata Vergine del Carmelo; it is believed that the church was built on a plan by Bibiena.

    Backtracking a short distance from the Sanctuary, We now take the road, on the left, that skirts the cemetery of Roveleto and make our way South/West towards Ciriano where, at the domed church (1600), we turn right to reach Carpaneto (10 Km. from Roveleto).

    Not far from Ciriano, crossing the road and 8 Km. further South, we can admire the interesting castle of Magnano boasting one cylindrical tower and one square, with the walls in pebble-stone and rocks, crowned by Guelph style embattlements.

    Several two arched windows and doors, which were restored between 1700 and 1800, are crowned by lancet arches.
    Magnano is famous for its exquisite cherries. The "Cherry Festival" is celebrated in June.

    Castel of Magnano
    2

    Carpaneto (112 m. asl)

    And here we are in Carpaneto where Roman tombs have been found in one of the wards and several other Roman artifacts found throughout the municipality.
    In the parish church (XV c., but with the façade rebuilt in 1951) we find interesting paintings in the central aisle depicting "The Lives of the Saint Patrons" (Saint Fermo and Rustico) attributed to the school of Bibiena (1681); in the side chapels there are older paintings such as "The Madonna and Saint Anne" (end of the XIV c. or beginning of the XV c.) and also the "Madonna with the Child", "St. Rocco and St. Sebastian" dated in the 1500's; in addition there is a very fine copy of Correggio's "Madonna with a Bowl" (1600).

    Also of great value is the chapel of the "Madonna of the Rosary" which displays a statue dated in the 1700.

    Presently the old castle, rebuilt many times, is used as the town hall but it has retained a fine portico with columns crowned with sandstone capitals; there is also the Civic Tower built in the Middle Ages.

    In the vicinity of Carpaneto we find another interesting castle in Travazzano still displaying two of the original four towers, the square plan keep, a large fireplace with the coat of arms of the Chiapponi family and a paneled ceiling.

    3

    Gropparello (550 m. asl)

    Just to the West of Carpaneto we find, on our left, the road that takes us to Gropparello which is situated in the Vezzeno Valley, a small but rather fascinating valley; so much so that in the past it has attracted many famous painters: the poet and painter De Pisis (Italian link), Cassinari (whose family was from this area) , Treccani, Armodio, Foppiani and Bertè.

    The first village we go through is Cimafava where the parish church, originally dating from 1482 but enlarged with three aisles in 1762 in the Renaissance style, has the interior decorated in the Baroque style. Ravasio, a Bibiena school painter from nearby Piacenza, decorated the choir in 1700.

    Also visible are the remains of an ancient wooden altar with carved oak leaves decorations. After Celleri and Sariano, with its interesting Romanesque church built around the year 1000 and famous for its excellent white wines, we arrive in Gropparello, 30 Km. from Piacenza, well known for its picturesque castle perched on a rocky escarpment of red gabbro, just outside the hamlet.

    Castel of Gropparello

    First built around 800, it was destroyed in 1255 and consequently rebuilt. Due to the terrain it was built with a very irregular plan. At the main entrance there is the gate with the draw bridge, the Guelph style merlons crowning the embattlements and overlooking the whole is a quadrangular keep with small windows.

    In the interior we find an interesting "Hall of Arms" in addition to furniture and tapestries of the XVII and XVIII c.

    Archaeological artifacts point to the fact that this area was inhabited since the early Iron Age.

    Also in this area there were at one time oil and gas wells, since depleted.

    Just before entering Gropparello, between Sariano and the small hamlet of Valle, we drive by one of the areas belonging to the "Regional Paleontological Reserve of the Piacenziano"

    * Piacenzian International Geologic Time Scale
    4

    Veleia (469 m. asl)

    We leave Gropparello and proceed South towards Veleia (also spelled Velleia or Veleja) where we can visit the Roman ruins.

    This site was discovered by chance when, in 1747, the "Tabula Alimentaria Traiana" the largest Roman bronze artifact ever found was brought to light; it has been housed in the Archaeological Museum of Parma since 1760.

    It appears that Veleia was originally inhabited since 500 B.C. (2500 years old cenerary artifacts were also unearthed in the vicinity) then by the Ligurians (Celtic tribes) and that by the Ist c. A. D. it had already been transformed into a thriving and prosperous Municipium by the Romans, with its own priests and magistrates.

    The visible ruins are situated on several terrace-like planimetry; in addition to various ruins of dwellings we can also admire: the "Thermae" which can be dated from the late Ist c. A.D.; the "Forum" still retaining the sandstone pavement, donated by Lucio Lucilio Prisco, and the water drainage system both almost all intact; the "Basilica" was built on a rectangular plan and only with one aisle; it was in this area that the Tabula Alimentaria Traiana and twelve marble statues of the Julis-Claudia family were found in 1761 and now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Parma with other artifacts from Veleia. There is also a circular building the identification and use of which is still being debated by the experts.

    Plinius refers in his "De varietate nascendi" book 7, paragraph 49, that at the time of Vespasianus and Titus census, in Veleia there lived six 110 year old persons, four 120 year old and one 150 year old whose name was Marcus Mutius Marci filius Galerius Felix.

    It is believed that the slow decline of the once flourishing community of Veleia was due to a landslide at the beginning of the IV c. A. D.



    HIKING: from Veleia one can hike through the Provincial Park up to the Mt. Croce dei Segni (1072 m. asl) via a mule path; the view from the top is very rewarding (about 3 hrs. return).
    5

    Vernasca (430 m. asl)

    We leave Veleia by taking the road towards Morfasso. (631 m. asl) where in the nearby hamlet of Casali, ruins of a Castelliere and a double three-pointed ring from the Iron Age and various other Roman artifacts were found.

    In the Middle Ages, and for a long period of time afterwards (VII c. to XII c.), this area was under the jurisdiction of a powerful monastery - Monastery of Tolla Valley - the precise location of which has since been lost.
    The parish church was re-built in 1757 but the bell tower, originally built in 1650, is still standing.

    From Morfasso we could join the Nure Valley at Bettola.

    HIKING: interesting hiking trail to the rocky Mt. Menegosa (1356 m. asl) and to Mt. Lama (1345 m. asl) a high plateau with vast pastures.

    We continue down to Mignano lake and towards Lugagnano, but 1.5 Km. after crossing the bridge over the Arda we turn right going up towards the hamlet of Corti and then continue North, on a rather panoramic road, for Vernasca (about 25 Km. from Morfasso).
    After the hamlet of Castelletto and before arriving in Bravi, we should take time to drive to the hilltop where the hamlet of Vezzolacca (618 m. asl) is situated and admire the excellent view over Mignano lake and the Arda alley.

    Vernasca, 42 K. from Piacenza, is a pleasant and airy town located on a ridge overlooking the Arda valley on the West side and the Ongina valley on the East. In Vernasca we find a rectangular bell tower beautified by four two-arched windows at the top and two additional on a lower level on the wider sides.

    The tower stands beside the apses of the Romanesque parish church which was dedicated to St. Columban and was built at the beginning of the XII c. with a nave and two lateral aisles in the basilica style plan; unfortunately the remains of this jewel of a church was incomprehensibly demolished at the beginning of the 1900's.

    Before leaving Vernasca one must visit the borough-castle of Vigoleno about 10 Km. East overlooking the Stirone torrent and its Natural Park (Italian link). Vigoleno, one of the most attractive hamlets of Emilia Romagna and designated as one of the most beautiful hamlets of Italy, boasts a castle originally built in the XIIth c. and within its walls the parish church, considered to be one of the major Romanesque monuments in the Province of Piacenza.
    The church, dedicated to St. George, was also built around the XIIth c. with the façade reflecting Tuscan style influences and a deep splayed portal crowned with a lunette carved with St. George slaying the dragon. The interior is divided in three aisles supported by large cylindrical columns adorned by capitals carved with flowers and leaves.

    6

    Castell'Arquato (224 m. asl)

    We now descend towards Lugagnano Val d'Arda (229 m. asl) by a road that has several switchbacks and therefore must be driven with caution. Every summer this road is used for a popular car and motorcycle race, called "Vernasca Silver Flag" , which starts from Castell'Arquato.

    In Lugagnano there is the parish church originally built in 1219 which was rebuilt in the XVIth c. and is dedicated to St. Zenone. Inside, some chapels are in the Baroque style with paintings in the style of Caravaggio.

    From Lugagnano we can take a drive up to the Provincial Park just 15 Km. South by taking the panoramic road overlooking the Chiavenna Valley on the West side and the Arda Valley on the East side. The park extends for about 10 square kilometres and includes beech groves, chestnuts groves, conifers and vast pastures; in addition, one can hike up to the Mt. Croce dei Segni (1072 m. asl) where the view from the top offers a very rewarding panorama.

    Northward, on the left just outside Lugagnano, overlooking the road, we notice the Calanques or cliffs, where back in 1934 the fossil remains of a whale more than 20 meters long were found; these remains are now in the Geological Museum of Parma.

    Continuing on the same road, on the left bank of the Arda torrent, we arrive, in 5 Km., in the famous town of Castell'Arquato.

    With its historic centre proudly situated on top of the hill and with the rest of the old medieval dwellings built on the slopes almost all the way down to the river bank, Castell' Arquato is without any doubt one of the major attractions of the region.

    It is recommended to visit the old town on foot in order to appreciate its medieval flavour.
    We start by passing under an arch which takes us into the Monteguzzo quarters with its low dwellings attached to each other and built with bricks and tufo in narrow streets paved with pebble-stones.
    On the left we notice the Farnese castle-keep built in bricks at the end of the XVIth century. Further on we pass under the archway of the romantic Stradivari castle, built in Neo-Gothic style; along this itinerary we walk by three or four old churches and the ex hospital of St. Spirit, built at the end of the XVI c., and presently housing the Geological Museum in which are displayed many fossils found in the area and belonging to the Piacenzian stratus .

    We then arrive in the beautiful piazza (described by some as one of the most beautiful medieval piazzas of Italy) crowned by the Pretorio Palace, built in 1293 and now housing the town Hall offices; at the opposite end we find the castle or Rocca, a stronghold built in 1343 with the wall and the main keep-gate still standing, and in between stands the apses of the Romanesque parish church rebuilt in 1122, after the earthquake of 1117, and renovated in 1911. In the interior, divided in three aisles, we find paintings dated 1170, a wooden cross over the main altar dated to the end of the 1300's , and a baptismal font from the VIIIth c. (some experts believe to be from the VI-VIIth c.); in the nearby presbytery we can visit the museum of the Collegiata . On the West side of the church we can admire the XIVth century addition of a raised prostyle portico.


    The apses, portico and bell tower of the Collegiate church

    Luigi Illica , "librettista", wrote the lyrics of many operas such as Puccinis' Madame Butterfly, was born in Castell' Arquato.

    An interesting detour is to Vigolo Marchese , 8 Km. West of Castell'Arquato, in order to visit two important Medieval monuments: the rather unusual circular Battistero, by some  thought to have been originally built as temple dedicated to pagan deities at the Roman Time. It subsequently became a chapel dedicated to St. Stephen and finally a baptistry; the baptistry present structure and  the adjacent parish church were built in bricks in the XI c. as part of a monastic centre.

    Check note no. 1 in "Brick in the Middle Ages".

    7

    Fiorenzuola d'Arda (80 m. asl)

    We leave Castell'Arquato by crossing over to the right bank of the Arda and, after 10 Km., arrive in Fiorenzuola d'Arda (21 Km. from Piacenza). The construction of the vast parish church, dedicated to San Fiorenzo, started in 1303 but it was terminated only between 1485 and 1493.

    The façade, with a portal in Renaissance style, is divided in three by pilasters and crowned by five pinnacles; the main nave and the two lateral aisles are divided by cylindrical brick columns supporting lancet arches. We can observe frescoes dating from the XVI c. and XVII c. and paintings by Pietro Galli from Piacenza in addition to decorations in plaster from the 1700; splendid is the main altar built on a design by Gian Paolo Pannini, and in a frame carved by Guglielmo Menegazzi (1513), we can admire a fine painting by Marco Bonifaci (XVII c.); the 47 m. high bell tower, built on a pre-roman structure, stands across the piazza, far from the church.

    Nearby we find the oratory of the Good Death with an ovoidal cupola built in the 1600; in the Baroque style we find the churches of St. Francis and the Madonna of Caravaggio.

    Chiaravalle della Colomba Abbey founded by Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux in 1135. Like others Cirstencian churches, this one was also built with three aisles divided by cross-shaped pillars supporting semicircular arches; the main marble altar dates from 1771; the visible fragments of frescoes can be dated from the XIV and XV c.

    The main attraction of the abbey is the magnificent Cloister measuring 40 meters on each side and displaying 130 small red marble columns that are twinned to form several four-arched openings; of particular interest are the angular columns tied together by a Gothic style knot. The bell tower was built in 1570. The whole structure is almost totally built with a warm red brick.

    Abbey of Chiaravalle della Colomba - cloister
    8

    Cortemaggiore (51 m. asl)

    From Chiaravalle we proceed North past Mercore and then follow the road Westward towards Cortemaggiore. The old town, an example of a fine Renaissance urban plan, was built starting in 1480 most probably on a Roman site and the subsequent location of the Carolingian Curtis Regia or Major (hence its name).

    It was the marquis Gian Ludovico Pallavicino that wanted the new town based on the designs of architect Maffeo Carretto which gives Cortemaggiore its wide and perpendicular streets bordered by porticoes.

    In the central main square we find the parish church, dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie, whose construction started in 1481 on a plan by Gilberto Manzi; the bell tower dates from the 1500 and the present façade was redone in 1881. The interior, divided in three aisles by massive pilasters supporting dashing ogival arches, reflects a tardo-gothic Lombard style in turn somewhat updated with Renaissance elements. Of great interest is the tomb on the right dated 1499, containing the remains of Gianlodovico the founder of the town and his wife Anastasia Torelli, created by a Lombard artist from the Amadeo school.

    In addition there are two polyptych, dated 1499, by Filippo Mazzola father of Parmigianino In the chapel of the Holy Sacrament we find "The Assumption" a painting (1487) by Francesco Scaramuzza thought to have inspired Giuseppe Verdi when writing the music for "La Vergine degli Angeli " in his opera "La Forza del Destino".

    Another interesting monument to visit is the monastery and church of St. Francis that once belonged to the Franciscan order. This complex was built between 1487 and 1492 on a project designed by Gilberto Manzi at the request of Rolando Pallavicino.

    The monastery boasts in having the largest cloister of the province of Piacenza. The church, with a façade alternating Gothic and proto-Renaissance elements, has the interior divided in three aisles by massive pilasters of different styles. Several frescoes by Pordenone (1483-1539) decorate the chapel of St Anne.

    Before leaving Cortemaggiore we should also visit the Baroque church of St. John, built between 1625 and 1630 with the cupola painted by Robert De Long in 1705 and the oratory of St. Joseph built between 1576 and 1593, richly decorated in Baroque style stuccoes created by Bernardo Barca and Domenico Dossa.

    "La Vergine degli Angeli " by Francesco Scaramuzza (1487)

    The Lowlands Towns of 
    Arda Valley - Valdarda

    Background photo "The other river bank" by Roberto Tonelli (Acquaforte on zinc)



    Green area depicts Arda Valley's itinerary
    1

    San Pietro in Cerro (44 m. asl)

    We leave Cortemaggiore Northbound and in 3 Km. arrive in San Pietro in Cerro where we can admire the castle, now privately owned, which was built in 1400 with cylindrical towers, and a charming courtyard surrounded by porticoes on the ground floor and balconies above it.

    2

    Sant'Agata - Villanova d'Arda (43 m. asl)

    Proceeding Eastbound we arrive in Villanova in about 6 Km.
    Just further East of town there is the renovated Verdi's Villa of Sant' Agata - now a museum - where the composer spent several summers writing many of his operas.

    Before and West of Villanova, there is the church of Cignano with frescoes painted in the XVI c. from a school of nearby Cremona.
    The painter Renato Bertoloni was born in Villanova in 1921.

    Villa Verdi
    3

    Castelvetro Piacentino  (39 m. asl)

    Continuing Northward, in 10 Km., we arrive in Castelvetro (name derived by castrum, castle and vetus, old). Very interesting is the visit to the parish church re-built in 1736 but still retaining a XVIth c. fresco.

    The Po river, offering several sandy beaches on its banks, flows just a few hundred yards from the town and across it we can admire the tall bell tower of the cathedral of Cremona.

    4

    Monticelli d'Ongina (40 m. asl)

    We now revert back Westward , with the Po river always close by, towards Piacenza and pass by Monticelli d'Ongina.
    Roman tombs were found in this area.

    The vast castle, named La Rocca Pallavicino-Casali, was built in 1413 on a rectangular plan, still displays four cylindrical towers at the corners and a square gate-keep on the front. The interiors are decorated with XV c. frescoes.
    The jewel of the castle is the Cappellina di Corte (Court's Chapel) decorated by the famous Bonifacio and Benedetto Bembo.

    Also from the XVth c. is the parish church, whose plans are attributed to Giovanni Battagio. The interiors were re-done during the Baroque period and the façade was re-done in 1877 by Arborio Mella; frescoes from the XVI c., two of which were painted by Molosso, can still be admired.

    In Monticelli we can visit the Museo Etnografico del Po.

    The castle - "Rocca Pallavicina"
    5

    Caorso (42 m. asl)

    Caorso is our next and last stop of the tour. In this area were found the so called Terramare, tombs with remains of cremations and Roman tombs. The medieval castle, called La Rocca, has been renovated and altered in the XVII c.,; it has four towers and a main-keep crowned by a small circular tower standing 5 meters high.

    The parish church, built in the XV c. with the façade renovated in the 1800, has decorations dating back to the 1480 from local artists.

    Piacenza is only 15 Km. away.


    The description used for these tours was gleaned from the following publications:
    1. Emilia Romagna (Guida d'Italia , Touring Club Italiano - 1991)
    2. Guida della Provincia di Piacenza ( T.E.P. Gallarati Editore - 1974)
    3. Guida Amministrativa e Turistica Piacenza (Azienda Promozione Turistica e Automobile Club Piacenza - 1992)
    4. Guida Antologica a cura della Camera di Commercio di Piacenza - No. 3 e 4 Valdarda e Valchero, G. Franco Scognamilio e Gino Macellari (1975).
    NOTE: Please be advised that the appearance of buildings and visual arts may appear differently from when described in the original guides.