By Patrick Benard, 9th in the weekly Fuori Tutti series
A few weeks ago, I completed what had to be one of the best hikes of my life — a perfect balance of physical exertion, natural beauty, history, a little mysticism, and if timed right: a rewarding meal in a delightful setting. I encourage you to consider this hike, as today’s recommendation is just “outside the walls.”
Before detailing the route, it’s worth mentioning that this walk has a 2km climb to a height of 400 meters. As they say in Viagra commercials: “consult your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough for vigorous physical activity”.
One stop on the Lucca to Pisa train line takes you to the town of Ripafratta, which is the starting point for our 11km hike to Lucca. Ripafratta is a fascinating little village and worthy of its own article, which I will write at a later date. For our purposes, the town’s only church — in the shadow of the 11th century fortress (La Rocca de San Paulino) — is the starting point of our ascent to the mystical hermitage of Rupecava. Signage in town is ubiquitous.
The first hour of the walk is a climb, but you’re rewarded with impressive views of the Serchio valley and stopping points for the fortress’ impressive watchtowers. Take heart (and lungs) that the rest of today’s walk will mostly be downhill. For map references, this portion of the route is numbered #00.
The hermitage infrastructure has a long and strange history with claims of healing water droplets in its grotta along with miraculous occurrences as recently as 1944. You’ll encounter the first hints of the complex once the path plateaus after the initial climb. It’s necessary to point out that the hermitage is officially condemned and posted as pericoloso, and while I would personally never disobey clear signage, many, many hikers do.
Rupecava has been used by hermits for over 1000 years. It’s small church where mass was conducted well into the 1970s, and during WWII, citizens of the region hid from the retreating Nazis within its walls. To this day an annual procession takes place to give thanks for the Madonna of Rupecava’s protection during the war. Most interesting to me is the grotta around which the hermitage is set. Droplets of water falling onto your forehead are said to give health; this belief may have predated the consecration of the hermitage (1214) by several hundred years and lives on today. I visited on a day when an older gentleman was making the trek just ahead of me, with the express purpose of receiving a droplet. We did not leave disappointed, and may now be immortal.
Leaving Rupecava behind, our walk follows the #00 for another 1km before we encounter our first course change at “La Romagna.” Several paths converge at this overlook which also serves as a memorial to the fallen of the last war. Look for the #106 to Meati, which will take you back down in the general direction of Lucca. The descent is gentle and leisurely. I encountered very few walkers on a Saturday morning, but do be vigilant for fast riding (though infrequent) mountain bike traffic. The paths are very well marked and maintained, and despite how close you are to Lucca and its suburbs, it’s a quiet and meditative stroll. Keep an eye out for a few of the dilapidated watchtowers (at least four) along the path, they’re a reminder of medieval border conflicts.
Water is available at your start point in Ripafratta as well as at the conclusion of the trail in Meati, but not in between. I gave myself three hours, including stops, but four would be more accommodating. Timing is important, because our final destination is the Antica Osteria di Meati. The Osteria is located at the end point of the trail and is only open on weekends for lunch. As you may know, lunch is not served after 3pm in many locales, so too much dilly or dallying and you will miss out. In my opinion, the Osteria is just above average, but made spectacular by its location and setting. There is nothing more satisfying than a full course meal with wine, dessert and coffee after truly earning it on a hike. In North America, one is lucky to find a Dunkin Donuts at the base of a trail. Here, gnocchi, cacio e pepe, and a perfectly selected house red. Talk about your holy droplet!
Oh… after your meal, you can choose to walk the 40 minutes back to Lucca along the not very pleasant Via Pisano (SS12), or take the bus to Porta Santa Anna. It runs every hour and I would highly recommend it over a walk on a busy and narrow road. In any case, if you did the meal right, you’ll need the bus.
Enjoy exploring our beloved territory, and please share your impressions.
Fatte a Modo.