Even if the Cerreto road is now the busiest and the most important one through these mountains, also because of the work done to straighten and widen it (which is still ongoing), it does not split the Apennine Mountains of Reggio Emilia exactly in half, as it actually runs to the east. On the other hand, two thirds of the entire area sits between the valleys of the Secchia and its affluent, the Dolo brook. It is an extremely rich area from the point of view of scenery and its local history, mainly taking the form of traditional old houses in small hamlets.
Details of tour:
Length of the route: 55 km The last three itineraries we are suggesting focus on this wide and very varied area of the mountains. It starts out at the capital of the Apennines: Castelnovo Monti.
The three itineraries follow the same route at the beginning, from Castelnovo to Villaminozzo and crossing the Secchia river at Gatta. There is actually an alternative route that is worth mentioning because it is quite spectacular and almost as good a drive as the other: turn south at the Pietra di Bismantova (looking at the mountain from an unusual and very attractive angle) so you join the SP 59 at Cerrè Sologno after crossing the river Secchia over the Pianella bridge in the area of the geologically renowned Triassic rocks. In this version, you cut out the main town of Villaminozzo and some other pretty little villages, but you will get the chance to have a look at them on the way back. There are various options to try if the whim takes you provided you have a road map with you. It is a route you can adapt to fit in with your plans, even adding several extra trips.
If you choose the Gatta road, you need to turn back on the SS63 at Castelnovo, going almost as far as Felina (you could take the opportunity to visit the park at Felina and the round tower that looks over the town from a copse of pine trees, the only remaining part of what was once a castle). Turn south east off the main road and onto the SP9, that takes you gently down towards the river Secchia. Now drive back up the left bank to the town of Villa (the more modern name of Villaminozzo), passing several small villages including Razzolo with its 18th century houses that may be of interest for those who like discovering lesser known treasures.
Villa suffered a great deal during the last war but the rebuilding work did not always stick to the same traditional criteria when the buildings were originally put up. Nevertheless, there are some signs of the past; the oldest are in the area north of the parish church (some even date back to the 15th century). Overall, Villaminozzo offers a good standard of shops and services for visitors, in line with its role as the main town in the largest municipality in the Province (after Reggio Emilia).
You can leave Villa on one of several roads. The one we are taking goes right (west), towards Minozzo, the other historical town that merged with Villa, resulting in the double-barrelled name. Actually, Minozzo was considered more important than Villa until 1815, as the town hall was located there. The history of Minozzo goes back a long time, in fact to before the 11th century; you can see evidence of this in the remains of the castle that once belonged to the Fogliani family.
Sologno, the next town in the itinerary, is strung out in a long line along the crest of the hill. If you have time and like challenges, you might be able to find the remains of a castle, a 17th century watchtower that controlled one of the town's gates (now filled in) and fragments here and there of old buildings used as building materials. You now have the option of either a short detour on the road that skirts around the foot of mount Carù (passing through the village of Carù) or the direct route from Sologno to Cerrè, staying on the main road; the church is the main point of interest here with a 1647 marble icon on its façade.
Continue on the road to Ligonchio, passing through the villages of Primaore, Piolo, Montecagno and Casalino before arriving at the bridge that crosses the Ozola brook. Casalino is the most interesting village of the three, under a large canopy of chestnut trees. The façade of San Rocco church shows an invocation to the Saint with a plea to rid the village of the plague. It was the same plague that Manzoni mentioned in "The Betrothed" and also affected the area of Reggio.
Ligonchio is the highest municipality in the mountains of Reggio and is worth taking some time to visit properly. Most of the interesting cultural sites are at the bottom of the town. The top (reached by taking the Pradarena road and then turning off into via della Pioppa) is interesting for its setting. There is a long list of buildings worth looking at. The most interesting of them all is probably the small chapel of San Rocco. Ligonchio is also known for its hydroelectric plant (easy to spot with its reservoir) that once provided an income for many of the local families and was defended by the Partisans when the German forces retreated.
The road to the Pradarena pass leads south through some pretty, distinctly mountainous scenery. The last town you come to is called Ospitaletto and, as its name suggests, once offered hospitality and assistance to pilgrims on their way up to the pass. The priest had the job of keeping a candle lit throughout the night and of ringing the church bell at regular intervals to help any pilgrims who had lost their way in the dark. The tradition of hospitality continues today, naturally with a more modern approach, in the hotels and restaurants linked to the small ski resort.
The scenery that opens out at the Pradarena pass (1575 metres above sea level) is simply quite spectacular: the crest of the Apuan Alps encircles the horizon. There is an excellent hotel and restaurant (the Carpe Diem) with some dorm-style rooms. Its name comes from a poem written by Horace and means "seize the day", an invitation to stop and have a rest, and perhaps take a stroll along one of the footpaths. The history of the pass goes back to ancient times and was once crossed by a Roman road linking the Garfagnana area with the Po valley. The legionaries crossed the pass and came to the aid of the Romans in 183 BC, who were under siege of the Gauls at Taneto, along the via Emilia road. Another sign of the pass's role in the distant past is the network of hospices and hospitals for pilgrims and the poor on both sides of the mountains, along the road leading up to the pass.
You can take a different way back to Castelnovo along the SP92; this turns off between Ospitaletto and Ligonchio and goes through Collagna via Casenove and Vaglie (look out for the chestnut woods near the villages and the old metato huts once used for drying out the chestnuts). Vaglie is famous as the place where the popular singer and TV host Iva Zanicchi was born. One of the most interesting buildings in the mountains is at Casenove: the Corte dei Papi, a beautiful example of rural architecture.
It may be easier to go back on the SP18: this starts out at Ligonchio and takes you to Cinquecerri and Marmoreto before you drive down to the river Secchia and back up the other side to Busana.